Did Arius mix theology with pagan philosophy?

Arius is accused of using philosophy.

Scholars have often accused Arius of combining Christian theology with philosophy. For example:

Up to the 1830s, “it had been customary to associate the Arian system primarily with Neoplatonism” (RW, 3).

Gwatkin (1900) described Arianism as the result of “irreverent philosophical speculation” and “almost as much a philosophy as a religion.” (RW, 9)

“Harnack’s … sees Aristotelian Rationalism as the background of Arius’ system.” (RW, 6)

Even modern writers sometimes say, for example: “The heretics typically took pre-existing Christian or Jewish tradition (and) combined it with certain philosophical rhetoric.” (Wedgeworth)

The purpose of this article is to determine whether Arius and/or his opponents were primarily philosophers.


Over the centuries, Arius was always accused of mixing philosophy with theology. This article shows that that is not true. There are two ways in which Greek philosophy could have influenced the debate in the fourth century:


Firstly, Logos-theology was an implementation of ancient Greek philosophy but that theology was introduced in the church in the centuries before Arius and was the orthodox view when the Arian Controversy began. It was an inherited view that Arius shared with his opponents. In fact, Arius was not comfortable with Logos-theology.

Classical Theism

Secondly, Classical Theism, including principles such as that God is immaterial, immutable, outside time, and impassible, was also derived from Greek philosophy and was also accepted by Christian theologians in the centuries before Arius. Furthermore, all theologians of the fourth century accepted these principles and even to this day theologians accept these principles from Greek philosophy.

Arius was not a philosopher

So, both Classical Theism and Logos-theology entered the Christian debate during the second and third centuries and all fourth-century theologians adopted these philosophical principles. But their main focus remained the Bible.

This includes Arius. “He is not a philosopher, and it would be a mistake to accuse him of distorting theology to serve the ends of philosophical tidiness. On the contrary: the strictly philosophical issues are of small concern to Arius.” (RW, 230)

The Cappadocian fathers were deeply influenced by philosophy.

However, while Arius was traditionally accused of using philosophy, according to R.P.C. Hanson, it was the Cappadocian fathers who were deeply influenced by philosophy. “The Cappadocians … were all in a sense Christian Platonists.” (RH, 863) They are the people who, in the years 360-380, developed what we know today as pro-Nicene theology as a way to explain “how the Nicene creed should be understood.” (LA, 6) They also developed the Trinity doctrine as included in emperor Theodosius‘ Edict of Thessalonica.



This article series is largely based on three books:

RH = Bishop RPC Hanson
The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God –

The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

RW = Archbishop Rowan Williams
Arius: Heresy and Tradition, 2002/1987

LA = Lewis Ayres
Nicaea and its legacy, 2004
Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology

These are world-class scholars and Trinitarians who have made in-depth studies of the Arian Controversy of the fourth century and are regarded as specialists in this field.


Logos-theology is based on Classical Theism.

The influence of philosophy on the Arian Controversy may be divided between:

      • The general principles of Classical Theism and
      • The more specific application of such principles in the traditional Christian Logos-theology.

This section discusses Arius’ view of Logos-theology. The next section deals with Classical Theism.

The Logos was part of Greek philosophy.

In Greek philosophy:

The Supreme Being is immutable, abstract, and immaterial.

For that reason, He is unable to communicate directly with our world of change, decay, transitoriness, and matter.

Therefore, He brought forth the divine Logos or nous as His agent for creating the world and for revealing Himself in the world. (Hanson)

The Apologists identified the Son as the Greek Logos.

These concepts were generally accepted in the intellectual world of the Roman Empire. The Christian Apologists (the pre-Nicene fathers), therefore, found it effective to identify the Biblical Son of God with the divine Logos of Greek philosophy; both before and after He ‘became a man’. (Hanson) For example:

“Ever since the work of Justin Martyr, Christian theologians had tended to use the identification of the pre-existent Son with some similar concept in contemporary Middle Platonism as a convenient philosophical device” (RH, 22-23).

The Apologists’ Logos-theology, therefore, was strongly based on Greek philosophy.

Logos-theology was orthodoxy when the Arian Controversy began.

Logos-theology was the standard explanation of the Son when the Arian Controversy began. Both Arius and his opponents inherited and accepted Logos-theology. For example:

“Our mistake is to try to interpret him (Arius) in terms of a theology with which he was not at home, the Logos-theology he shares with his opponents.” (RW, 12)

Most delegates to Nicaea accepted Logos-theology.

The West was poorly represented at Nicaea (Erickson) and “the great majority of the Eastern clergy (at Nicaea) … were simply concerned with maintaining the traditional Logos-theology.”1Frend, W.H.C.: The Rise of Christianity

Hanson uses the term “Logos-doctrine” for “the theological structure provided by the Apologists” and confirms that it was “the basic picture of God with which the great majority of those who were first involved in the Arian Controversy were familiar and which they accepted.” (Hanson’s article)

Arius did not bring Logos-theology into the church.

While writers have often accused Arius of attempting to bring pagan philosophy into the church, the above shows that pagan philosophy, in the form of Logos-theology, had entered the church during the centuries before Arius. It was something that both Arius and his enemies inherited and accepted. Arius did not attempt to bring it into the church.

Arius did not promote Logos-theology.

On the contrary, as Williams stated, Arius was not “at home” with Logos-theology (RW, 12-13). It was not part of his language.

Classical Theism

What is Classical Theism?

“‘Classical theism’ is the name given to the model of God we find in Platonic, neo-Platonic, and Aristotelian philosophy.” (Springer) In this model, God is, amongst others:

      • “Unqualifiedly perfect,”
      • Immutable, meaning unable to change or do evil,
      • Impassible, meaning incapable of suffering or feeling pain,
      • An “absolute unity,” meaning that He does not consist of parts,
      • Fully self-sufficient, including that He exists without cause,
      • “Atemporal,” meaning that He exists outside time and is not subject to time,
      • Immaterial, meaning that He is free from all limitations of space and matter.

The pre-Nicene fathers accepted Classical Theism.

Arius inherited these concepts from the church fathers. For example:

“The Christian theologians of the second and third centuries” used “this particular type of Platonism … for explaining the relation of the Father to the Son.” (RH, 85-86)

Arius received “this type of Platonism … through Clement and Origen.” (RH, 87) (Clement and Origen are famous Alexandrians from the third century.)

Arius’ opponents accepted Classical Theism.

Arius did use such principles from Classical Theism in his arguments but if we judge Arius to be a philosopher for that reason, then all theologians in the fourth century were philosophers for they all accepted these principles. For example:

“For all the writers of the early Church, that freedom from time, matter, fate and chance expressed in the classical philosophical attribution of negative predicates to God (immateriality, immutability, and so on) was self-evidently the only way to make sense of scriptural data … Athanasius is at one with Arius here.” (RW, 111)

“All Greek-speaking writers in the fourth century were to a greater or lesser degree indebted to Greek philosophy.” (RH, 858-9)

The Arian Controversy debate used the language of Greek philosophy.

“It would … be absurd to deny that discussion and dispute between 318 and 381 were conducted largely in terms of Greek philosophy.

The reason for this was … a realization that the deepest questions which face Christianity cannot be answered in purely biblical language, because the questions are about the meaning of biblical language itself.” (RH, xxi)

“The fourth-century Fathers thought almost wholly in the vocabulary and thought-forms of Greek philosophy.” (Hanson’s Article)

The Alexandrians have accepted Philo.

“His (Arius’) forebears (the Alexandrian theologians of the previous centuries) … have taken Philo (a first-century Alexandrian philosopher) for granted.” (RW, 124)

Arius was not a philosopher.

For these reasons, in contrast to the accusations listed above, our authors conclude that Arius was not a philosopher:

“We misunderstand him completely … if we see him as primarily a self-conscious philosophical speculator. … Arius was by profession an interpreter of the Scriptures.” (RW, 107-108)

“He is not a philosopher, and it would be a mistake to accuse him of distorting theology to serve the ends of philosophical tidiness. On the contrary: the strictly philosophical issues are of small concern to Arius.” (RW, 230)

“It is not just to dismiss him as one wholly preoccupied with philosophy. … His chief source was necessarily not the ideas of Plato or Aristotle or Zeno, but the Bible.” (RH, 98)

The Cappadocians were philosophers.

While Arianism is often accused of combining philosophy with the Bible, the converse is true. Pro-Nicene theology was developed in the period 360-380 by essentially the three Cappadocian fathers, and they were, according to R.P.C. Hanson, deeply influenced by philosophy:

Before the Cappadocians, theologians were not philosophers.

“Before the advent of the Cappadocian theologians there are two clear examples only of Christian theologians being deeply influenced by Greek philosophy.” (RH, 862) However, they did not have much influence:

“One is … Marius Victorinus … [who] had no influence that can be ascertained on his contemporaries.” (RH, 862)

“The other … is the Neo-Arian theologians Aetius and Eunomius … [who were] repudiated by almost all other Christian parties, pro-Nicene or antiiNicene.” (RH, 862-3)

The Cappadocians were Christian Platonists.

“The Cappadocians, however, present us with a rather different picture. … They were all in a sense Christian Platonists.” (RH, 863)

Basil of Caesarea used Plotinus.

“The debt of Basil of Caesarea to philosophy is undeniable” (RH, 863). “He … uses arguments drawn from several different philosophical traditions … along with arguments drawn from Scripture and tradition” (RH, 864). “Basil knew something of the work of Plotinus and consciously employed both his ideas and his vocabulary when he thought them applicable.” (RH, 866)

Gregory of Nazianzus – deeply influenced by Platonism.

“Gregory of Nazianzus … certainly was deeply influenced by Platonism” (RH, 867). “In Trinitarian contexts, Gregory parallels Plotinus’ nous (mind) to the Father, and the Logos to the Son, and his thought of God as simple as ‘first ousia’, ‘first nature’ (Physis), the ‘first cause’ … all resemble doctrines of Plotinus.” (RH, 867)

Gregory of Nyssa – influenced by Plotinus.

“Gregory of Nyssa … was more concerned than they (the other two Cappadocians) to build a consistent philosophical account of Christianity. He had therefore much more need of philosophy than they. … It is impossible to deny that he was influenced by the work of Plotinus.” RH, 868

Arius’ Philosophy

Both RPC Hanson and Rowan Williams discuss the type of philosophy which Arius preferred, but they come to different conclusions:

Hanson proposes that “Middle Platonist philosophy” was a strong “candidate for the philosophical source of Arius’ thought.” (RH, 85-86)

But Williams thinks that “Arius’ metaphysics and cosmology … is of a markedly different kind from … ‘Middle Platonism'” (RW, 230) and that Arius “stands close to Plotinus and his successors.” (RW, 230)

Parallels between Arius and Middle Platonism

The following are some of the parallels which Hanson sees:

In both Arius and Middle Platonism, God and things exist ‘beyond’ time. “Arius … held that the Son was produced before all ages but yet there was a time when he did not exist.” (RH, 86)

Both Arius and Middle Platonism have a “drastic subordination of the Son to the Father.” (RH, 87)

In philosophy, Arius is ahead of his time.

Williams, therefore, concludes as follows:

“In philosophy, he is ahead of his time; he … presses the logic of God’s transcendence and ineffability to a consistent conclusion.” (RW, 233)

“And here is a still stranger paradox – his apophaticism (knowledge of God) foreshadows the concerns of Nicene theology later in the fourth century, the insights of the Cappadocians, or even Augustine.” (RW, 233)

Other Articles

  • 1
    Frend, W.H.C.: The Rise of Christianity

Why the Arian Controversy is named after Arius


The Fourth-Century Arian Controversy

The “crisis of the fourth century was the most dramatic internal struggle the Christian Church had so far experienced.” (RW, 1)

‘Arianism’ “has often been regarded as … aimed at the very heart of the Christian confession.” (RW, 1)

‘Arianism’ is named after Arius, who was in charge of one of the churches in Alexandria, and whose dispute with his bishop Alexander began the Arian Controversy. (See – Who was Arius?) Arius himself became regarded by the church “as a kind of Antichrist … a man whose superficial austerity and spirituality cloaked a diabolical malice, a deliberate enmity to revealed faith.” (RW, 1)

The term ‘Arian’ implies that Arius was important.

Since the terms “Arian,” “Arianism” and “Arian Controversy” were derived from the name Arius, it is implied that Arius was the cause of the Controversy and the leader of the ‘Arians’. And if we remember that ‘Arianism’ dominated the church during most of the fourth century, that would mean that Arius was a very important person during the fourth century.

Purpose of this article

However, the purpose of this article is to explain that Arius really was unimportant in the context of the Arian Controversy. He did not write much, his writings were not known outside Egypt, and not even his supporters regarded him as a great theologian. Hanson adds:

“Arius was only the spark that started the explosion. He himself was of no great significance.” (RH, xvii-xviii)

Authors / Sources

This article series is based largely on the books of three world-class scholars who are regarded as specialists in the fourth-century Arian Controversy, namely:

RH = Bishop RPC Hanson
The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God –

The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

RW = Archbishop Rowan Williams
Arius: Heresy and Tradition, 2002/1987

LA = Lewis Ayres
Nicaea and its legacy, 2004

Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology

Little of Arius’ writings survived.

Arius’ Own Writings

“As far as his own writings go, we have no more than three letters, (and) a few fragments of another” (RH, 5-6). The three are:

      1. The confession of faith Arius presented to Alexander of Alexandria,
      2. His letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia, and
      3. The confession he submitted to the emperor. (RH, 5-6; RW, 95)

The Thalia

“The Thalia is Arius’ only known theological work” (RH, 10) but “we do not possess a single complete and continuous text.” (RW, 62) We only have extracts from it in the writings of Arius’ enemies, “mostly from the pen of Athanasius of Alexandria, his bitterest and most prejudiced enemy.” (RH, 6)

Why did so little survive?

If Arius was such an important person that the whole Fourth Century Controversy was named after him, why did so few of his writings survive?

Constantine destroyed Arius’ writings.

The usual explanation is that, a few years after the Nicene Council in 325, when Emperor Constantine thought that Arius threatened to split the church, he gave orders that all copies of the Thalia be burned so that “nothing will be left even to remind anyone of him.” He even commanded that those who do not immediately destroy Arius’ writings must be put to death (Constantine’s Edict)1Fourthcentury.com. 23 January 2010.

But that is not the real reason. The church remained ‘Arian’ for about 55 years after the Nicene Council. If Arius had that much support that his teachings would continue to dominate the church for another 55 years, then his supporters would have kept copies of his writings despite Constantine’s severe warnings.

Arius was not a great theologian.

The real reason is that Arius was not a great theologian and not even his supporters regarded his writings as worth preserving. For example:

“It may be doubted … whether Arius ever wrote any but the most ephemeral works.” (RH, 6)

“The people of his day, whether they agreed with him or not, did not regard him (Arius) as a particularly significant writer.” (RH, xvii)

“He did not write anything worth preserving.” (RH, xvii-xviii)

The Arian Controversy had two phases.

To explain Arius’ relevance in the Arian Controversy, we must realize that the events of the Nicene Council divided the Arian Controversy into two parts:

Arius was central in the first phase.

The first part began with the dispute between Alexander and Arius in the year 318 and came to an end in the year 325 at the Council of Nicaea, where Arius’ theology was presented, discussed, and very soon rejected.

“It became evident very early on (during the council meeting) that the condemnation of Arius was practically inevitable.” (RW, 68)

The second phase was about the “radical words” in the Nicene Creed; not about Arius.

But then the Nicene Council, by inserting words from pagan philosophy (ousia, homoousios, and hypostasis) into the Nicene Creed, created a new and different problem and caused the second and main phase of the Arian Controversy:

The radical words of Nicaea became in turn a new set of formulae to be defended” (RW, 236).

These words were heard in debates before Nicaea but very infrequently. They were not part of the standard Christian language or confession and they were never before used in any Christian profession of faith. However, they were key words in Greek philosophy. Hanson describes them as “new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day.” (RH, 846)

Williams, as a good Trinitarian, wants to accept these words but he admits that these words were not used before Nicaea and are an untraditional innovation:

“It was … impossible … to pretend that the lost innocence of pre-Nicene trinitarian language could be restored. … to reject all innovation was simply not a real option; and thus the rejection of homoousios purely and simply as unscriptural or untraditional could no longer be sustained.” (RW, 234-5)

So, the controversy continued to rage after Nicaea, but now the focus was on these new words; no longer on Arius.

The Branches of Christianity

To show further that Arius was irrelevant in the second and main phase of the Arian Controversy, we need to understand that, in the 50+ years of the second phase of the Arian Controversy, there was no single Arian movement. The church was divided into a number of factions. The homo-ousians were the pro-Nicenes. They accepted the statement in the Nicene Creed that the Son is homoousios (of the same substance) as the Father. The anti-Nicenes were divided as follows:

The homo-i-ousians claimed that the Son’s substance is similar to the substance of the Father but not the same.

The hetero-ousians said that the substance of the Son is different from the Father’s.

The homo-eans banned all uses of the word substance, including homoousios and homoiousios because these words are not Scriptural. For example:

The Homoeans made “attempts in the credal statements of conservative synods in the 350s’ to bracket the whole Nicene discussion by refusing to allow ousia-terms of any kind into professions of faith” (RW, 234).

Arius’ theology approximated that of the hetero-ousians. But the homo-i-ousians and the homo-ians dominated in the years after Nicaea. Several councils were held in which homo-i-ousian or homo-ian creeds were accepted to replace the Nicene Creed. See, for example, the Long Lines Creed.

Our authors, therefore, conclude as follows:

There was no single ‘Arian’ party.

“There was no single ‘Arian’ agenda, no tradition of loyalty to a single authoritative teacher. Theologians who criticized the Creed of Nicaea had very diverse attitudes to Arius himself.” (RW, 247)

“There was no such thing in the fourth century as a single, coherent ‘Arian’ party.” (RW, 233)

“’Arianism’ as a coherent system, founded by a single great figure and sustained by his disciples, is a fantasy.” (RW, 82)

Arius was not the leader of the ‘Arians’.

“We are not to think of Arius as dominating and directing a single school of thought to which all his allies belonged.” (RW, 171)

“Those who suspected or openly repudiated the decisions of Nicaea had little in common but this hostility … certainly not a loyalty to the teaching of Arius as an individual theologian.” (RW, 233)

“The bishops at Antioch in 341 declare … that they were not ‘followers of Arius … they … did not look on him as a factional leader, or ascribe any individual authority to him.” (RW, 82-83)

“Arius … was not an obvious hero for the enemies of Nicaea.” (RW, 166)

Arius was an academic; not a leader.

“Arius, like his great Alexandrian predecessors, is essentially an ‘academic’.” (RW, 87)

“He (Arius) is not a theologian of consensus, but a notably individual intellect.” (RW, 178)

In the second phase, Arius’ theology was irrelevant.

“Arius’ own theology is of little importance in understanding the major debates of the rest of the century.” (LA, 56-57)

The ‘Arians’ never quoted Arius.

“We have no knowledge of later Arian use of the Thalia … which suggests that it was not to the fore in the debates of the mid-century, and represented a theological style no longer acceptable in Arian circles.” (RW, 65)

“Those who follow his theological tradition seldom or never quote him.” (RH, xvii)

“We also even have only sporadic evidence of his texts being used by later ‘Arians’.” (LA, 56-57)

Arius did not leave a school of disciples.

“Arius evidently made converts to his views … but he left no school of disciples.” (RW, 233)

“Arius’ role in ‘Arianism’ was not that of the founder of a sect. It was not his individual teaching that dominated the mid-century eastern Church.” (RW, 165)

“Arius was not accepted as leader of a new movement.” (RH, xvii-xviii)

Arius was only the spark that ignited the Controversy.

“Arius was only the spark that started the explosion. He himself was of no great significance.” (RH, xvii-xviii)

The Controversy had been smoldering before Arius.

If Arius was only the spark, the fuel for the fire of the Controversy already existed when the Controversy began:

“In the fourth century there came to a head a crisis … which was not created by … Arius.” (RH, XX)

“Many of the issues raised by the controversy were under lively discussion before Arius and Alexander publicly clashed” (RH, 52).

The dispute between Alexander and Arius spread quickly because of “existing theological trajectories and tensions present in the early years of the fourth century.” (LA, 41, cf. LA, 85)

“The views of Arius were such as … to bring into unavoidable prominence a doctrinal crisis which had gradually been gathering. … He was the spark that started the explosion. But in himself he was of no great significance.” (RH, xvii)

The fuel for the Controversy has been gathering over the previous centuries as writers expressed conflicting views about how the Son relates to the Father. Before Christianity was legalized, Christians were simply too busy just trying to stay alive to do much wrestling on this topic. But, as soon as the persecution came to an end, this explosion was inevitable. And Arius, as Hanson stated, was only the spark that ignited the fire.

Why, then, the name ‘Arian’?

If the word “Arian” is derived from Arius’ name, and if Arius “in himself … was of no great significance” (RH, xvii) during the second and main phase of the ‘Arian Controversy’, why is it called the ‘Arian Controversy’?

Athanasius created this term.

The reason we use the terms “Arian” and “Arianism” today is that Athanasius created the term and applied it to his opponents:

Arianism’ is the polemical creation of Athanasius above all.” (RW, 247)

“The textbook picture of an Arian system … inspired by the teachings of the Alexandrian presbyter, is the invention of Athanasius’ polemic.” (RW, 234)

“’Arianism’ as a coherent system, founded by a single great figure and sustained by his disciples, is a fantasy … based on the polemic of Nicene writers, above all Athanasius.” (RW, 82)

But the Anti-Nicenes were not ‘Arians’.

But Athanasius’ enemies (the anti-Nicenes) were not ‘Arians’ in the strict sense of the term because they did not support Arius’ theology. Athanasius lived a generation later than Arius. He wrote during the second phase of the Arian Controversy when Arius’ theology was irrelevant.

Athanasius used the term to counter accusations of Sabellianism.

After Nicaea, the anti-Nicenes described Alexander, Athanasius, and the Nicene Creed as submitting to Sabellianism, which was already formally rejected during the previous century. For example:

“The so-called Semi-Arians in particular objected to this Greek term homoousios on the grounds that it has a Sabellian tendency.”2St. Athanasius (1911), “In Controversy With the Arians”, Select Treatises, Newman, John Henry Cardinal trans, Longmans, Green, & Co, p. 124, footn.

It was to counter this accusation, and to tar his opponents with the name of another theology that was already rejected, that Athanasius called his opponents ‘Arians’.

Athanasius used the term as an abusive name.

“Athanasius … was determined to show that any proposed alternative to the Nicene formula collapsed back into some version of Arius’ teaching, with all the incoherence and inadequacy that teaching displayed.” (RW, 247)

Athanasius “relies on such texts being a positive embarrassment to most of his opponents.” (RW, 234)

Athanasius’ purpose was to insult his opponents: “’The Arians’, (and a variety of abusive names whereby he [Athanasius] distinguishes them.” (RH, 19)

“The anti-Nicene coalition did not see themselves as constituting a single ‘Arian’ body: it is the aim of works like Athanasius’ de synodis to persuade them that this is effectively what they are, all tarred with the same brush.” (RW, 166)

The church accepted Athanasius’ version.

Unfortunately, after emperor Theodosius himself accepted the Trinity doctrine and, in the year 380, promulgated the Trinity doctrine as the Roman law and outlawed all other forms of Christianity, the victorious party, being Athanasius’ spiritual children, continued to refer to any opponent of the Trinity doctrine as ‘Arians’:

“The accounts of what happened which have come down to us were mostly written by those who belonged to the school of thought which eventually prevailed and have been deeply coloured by that fact.” (RH, xviii-xix).

‘Arianism’ is a serious misnomer.

Since Arius was a relatively unimportant person in the ‘Arian’ Controversy, our authors concluded that:

“The expression ‘the Arian Controversy’ is a serious misnomer.” (RH, xvii-xviii)

“There is the growing sense that ‘Arianism’ is a very unhelpful term to use in relation to fourth-century controversy.” (RW, 247)

Other Articles

  • 1
    Fourthcentury.com. 23 January 2010.
  • 2
    St. Athanasius (1911), “In Controversy With the Arians”, Select Treatises, Newman, John Henry Cardinal trans, Longmans, Green, & Co, p. 124, footn.