‘Heresy of the Week: Arianism’, by Murray and Morris

St Nicholas catechising Arius

From the Editor: The first instalment of a forthcoming series to keep your theological noggins ticking over the vac -Heresy of the Week! Courtesy of Peter and Will, here’s the story – and the rebuttal – of Arianism!

Arianism was perhaps the first great heresy to threaten the orthodox Church and the legacy of the Arian controversy lingers within the Church to this very day. The recitation of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed at every Sunday mass, the practice of settling theological disputes via ecumenical council, and the writings of countless Church Fathers remain for Catholics reminders of Arian heresy. And yet Arianism for many remains poorly understood. 

At the root of the initial controversy was Arius himself, a presbyter in the Patriarchate of Alexandria. He seemed to be of a disobedient temperament and found himself quarrelling over the nature of the godhead with the Pope of Alexandria, St Alexander. These facts are well enough known. But the confusion over the matter lies in large part with exactly what Arius believed. 

Arius did not believe, as is often misunderstood, that Jesus Christ was “just a man” and he certainly never denied that He possessed some kind of divinity. What Arius actually believed was something far less extreme although still radically heretical. Central to Arius’ theology was the oneness of God and His ultimate transcendence, specifically God the Father who alone is unbegotten. As such, he maintained the subordination of God the Son to God the Father, a position which is in the post-Nicene world is highly unorthodox but was nevertheless held, to a certain degree, by virtually all notable ante-Nicene theologians. However, Arius emphasized this subordination in all the wrong ways and to an extreme degree by maintaining that the Son was not coeternal to God the Father and therefore a creature. The Son was still the divine Word and Wisdom of the Father, the Firstborn of all Creation, our Saviour and Lord, et cetera, et cetera, but Arius was adamant that before the Son was “begotten or created or defined or established, He was not … He is from nothing” (from Arius’ Letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia). Christ was God, but not true God in the fullest sense. 

To Arius, this position was obvious and necessary to maintain the distinction between the Father and the Son. However, St Alexander knew that accepting Arius’ position presented the Catholic Church with a range of wholly unacceptable implications. For one thing, Arius seems to plainly contradict the Gospel According to St John, which begins by establishing that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God” (John 1:1-2). If the Word is in the beginning, with and as God, then surely Christ must be eternally present with the Father. Furthermore, it is written that “All things came into being through Him, and without Him not one thing came into being” (John 1:3). If the Son is a creature, how could it be that “all things” came into being through Him? And if He is not fully God then why did the Father use Him to create everything else in the first place? 

St Alexander and his successor and sometime assistant St Athanasius were also aware of the implications Arius’ thought had for soteriology and the Incarnation. If Christ was a creature and ultimately not fully God, then He ultimately had more in common with a man or an angel than the truly transcendent and uncreated Father. And if this is the case, how could the Son properly bring about the reconciliation of mankind to the Father? According to St John the Evangelist, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart [or bosom], who has made him known” (John 1:18); yet if Christ is a creature it would seem to complicate both his closeness to the Father and his capability to reveal the Father to creation as His image. 

This division between Father and Son ultimately leads to an unacceptable opinion of the nature of the Father: that He was not always Father. To St Alexander it was unconscionable that the Father could ever be without His Son (Word, and Wisdom). If this was the case, then God’s nature must have changed, and Christ’s revelation that “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30) must be false. St Alexander could accept that the Father was “greater” than the Son (c.f. John 14:28) in the sense that the Son was begotten but the Father unbegotten, but in the light of the Scriptures it must be affirmed that the Son eternally existed alongside the Father. 

These objections were raised by St Alexander to the Church in Alexandria and Arius was anathematized, but this failed to stop him. Arius maintained a sizeable minority backing among the people and clergy in the region, and he began to seek allies across the imperial east. St Alexander, for his part would have none of this and began to raise the alarm about Arius to his fellow bishops. He warned that the Arians were schismatics and heretics, slanderers of the Lord, and generally disposed to criminal behaviour. The controversy began to reach a boiling point, and imperial authorities took notice. To resolve this matter it was recommended to Emperor Constantine, who wished to unite the Christendom he promoted, that a great synod be held to bring about an end to this strife once and for all. The venue chosen was Nicaea, a city directly south of Byzantium. 

Months prior to the Council of Nicaea in 325 a more regional synod was held at the metropolis of Antioch, likely chaired by St Hosius of Cordoba and attended by over 50 bishops, 56 of which condemned Arius and excommunicated the famed Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea (not to be confused with Eusebius of Nicomedia) for his support of Arius. This synod additionally published a creed which declared the Son as having existed “always,” being “immutable and unchangeable,” and anathematizing those who would teach contrary. Although the circumstances surrounding this council are largely unknown, it may well have successfully helped to determine Nicaea’s orthodoxy before its outcome. 

By the time the first ecumenical council had assembled at Nicaea, about 300 bishops were in attendance, a number unparalleled in the history of the Church but still far fewer than the 1,800 bishops Constantine invited. Chairing the council was St Hosius, the trusted friend and confessor of Constantine, and one of the few western bishops. St Alexander and a young St Athanasius were in attendance too, the bishops of other great sees such as Antioch, Jerusalem, Byzantium, Carthage, Armenia, Thebes, various Caesareas, and many other smaller sees of the eastern half of the Empire. Also present were the legates of the Bishop of Rome, but aside from themselves and St Hosius, the Western Church remained largely absent although it would watch and confirm the proceedings.  

As for the proceedings themselves, all we have to go by are a handful of unreliable traditions and often contradictory traditions as well the canons and creed of the council. What we do know is that nearly the entire assembly of roughly three hundred clergy affirmed a creed which affirmed Christ as “begotten, not made,” eternal, “true God from true God,” and “from the substance” and “of the same substance” (homoousious, consubstantialis) as the Father. Apart from Arius and two others, all the attendees signed the creed, with Arius’ two key supporters, Eusebius of Caesarea and Eusebius of Nicomedia, reluctantly conceding. The proceedings were endorsed by all the great sees of Christendom and Constantine took his victory as the unifier of Christendom. 

Peculiarly, Arianism began as a theology which virtually nobody was willing to associate with but soon became a prominent force in Christendom. Although the creed defined Christ as homoousious to the Father, being of the same divine substance and therefore unquestionably equal in divinity to the Father, this word made some bishops uncomfortable given its prior association with Monarchian heresy, the heresy which asserts the Trinity is just the different forms which the one God takes on at various times. Those who questioned or avoided the Nicene formula and who sympathized with Arian theology became prominent in the Eastern Church and are often referred to as “semi-Arians.” Arius’ advocate Eusebius of Nicomedia managed to become highly influential in Constantine’s court and began to paint St Alexander and especially his successor St Athanasius as hardliners disrupting the Church by their insistence on not readmitting Arius to communion. Arius himself died spectacularly before this could happen either by divine retribution or poisoning in 336. Eusebius soon after managed to become Archbishop of Constantinople and sent a missionaries to convert the Goths; as a result the Vandals, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, and Lombards who overran the West would all profess Arian creeds.  

So unfortunately for Christendom, Arianism was not conquered at the Council of Nicaea. In the Eastern Roman Empire, many bishops including the see of Constantinople could regularly be counted as semi-Arian. The Arian Goths controlled the remains of the Roman West. Yet as providence would have it, the imperial authorities remained in large part committed to the defence of the Nicene faith (with the exceptions of Constantius and Julian), as did the Bishops of Rome. St Athanasius and the Nicene Church would defeat their rivals and slanderers in Alexandria. God did not abandon His Church, and in 381 Emperor Theodosius convoked another great synod. The Council of Constantinople reissued the Nicene Creed, this time affirming the consubstantiality of not only the Son but the Holy Spirit, and in the imperial territories Arian bishops soon vanished. The Goths gradually yielded to the theological brilliance of the Catholic Church and by the 7th century orthodoxy had triumphed totally in Western Europe. 

For centuries Arianism remained a heresy confined to the dustbin of history. For centuries the whole of Christendom proclaimed the orthodox faith. Unfortunately, the example of Arianism demonstrates well that heresies are doomed to repeat themselves. Denials of the Trinity could be found among the radical Unitarians, Anabaptists, and Socinians of the Reformation and the Enlightenment deists who claim Jesus as a mere ethical teacher. Worse still, many Christians today are so poorly catechized that they do not realize the divinity of their own Saviour. Unfortunately, many of the early church heresies today are fobbed off as points of minor dispute, yet it is this very matter, and others, which are so important because of the centrality of the incarnation. Dare we think about the implications of a world where St. Alexander and St. Athanasius did not so fiercely oppose Arius? Let us therefore give thanks for St Alexander and St Athanasius who fiercely defended the faith and let us continue to declare Arianism anathema!  

Peter E. Murray, Theology, Oriel with William Morris, Theology, Regent’s – formerly of Benet’s RIP