Introduction to the fourth-century Arian Controversy

SUMMARY

The fourth-century Arian Controversy is very important because it gave birth to the Trinity doctrine. This article discusses some introductory thoughts.

The fundamental problem in understanding that Controversy is that we have a limited number of ancient documents; mostly from those who later were regarded as orthodox. On that basis, the traditional account of that Controversy was developed. However, after much further research during the 20th century, that traditional account is now described as a ‘complete travesty’. (Hanson Lecture)

Firstly, the name ‘Arian’ is a misnomer. It was derived from Arius’ name, implying that he developed a new heresy in contrast to an existing orthodoxy and was able to convince many Christians of his views. In reality:

      • Arius was an insignificant writer. He did not say anything new.
      • He did not leave behind a school of disciples. He was part of a wider theological trajectory.
      • Many in this trajectory opposed his views.
      • Arius did not cause the Controversy. The Controversy was a continuation of a controversy that has been raging for centuries.

The name ‘Arian’ was invented by Athanasius to insult his opponents by tarring them as followers of a discredited theology. But Athanasius’ opponents were not followers of Arius.

Secondly, the term Controversy is also a misnomer. For most of that period, there was no controversy. After Nicaea, the term homoousios disappeared from the debate. The real controversy began in the 350s when Athanasius began to use the Nicene Creed and homoousios to defend his theology.

Thirdly, Athanasius is often acclaimed as the main defender of the Nicene Creed, but a study of his theology shows that, in his view, the trinity is one single rational faculty (one single mind), which is Sabellianism.

Fourthly, in the traditional account, the Trinity doctrine was ‘orthodoxy’ when the Controversy began. But the opposite is true. The orthodoxy was that the Son is subordinate to the Father.

Lastly, the main issue was not whether Jesus is God. All sides described Him as God. But the words all used (theos and deus) mean ‘divine being’ and they described both Father and Son as such. The real issue in the Controversy was whether the Son is a real ‘Person’ with a distinct rational faculty.

– END OF SUMMARY –


INTRODUCTION

Authors Cited

Published in 1988, RPC Hanson wrote perhaps the most influential book on the Arian Controversy. 1Hanson RPC, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381. 1988 This was followed (2004) by another influential book by Lewis Ayres. 2Ayres, Lewis, Nicaea and its Legacy, An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology, 2004 As confirmation of the importance of Hanson’s book, Ayres says:

“Richard Hanson’s The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God (1988) and Manlio Simonetti’s La Crisi Ariana nel IV secolo (1975) remain essential points of reference.” (LA, 12)

Ayres says that his book is based on those surveys and “in some measure advances on their texts.” (LA, 5)

I am sometimes challenged with respect to my sources. But those who are familiar with the Arian Controversy will recognize these as two of the most influential books on that subject.

The fourth century is not what it used to be.

It never was.

“The fundamental problem in understanding … these controversies … (is that) the documentary evidence from this period is … fragmentary.” (LA, 2) The views discussed in these two books oppose the traditional account of the Arian Controversy in several ways. The reason is that many ancient documents have become accessible during the 20th century and recent research has put that Controversy in a new light:

“Since the time of Gwatkin and Harnack (at the beginning of the 20th century) … much important work upon the period has been done.” (RH, xx)

“A vast amount of scholarship over the past thirty years [before 2004] has offered revisionist accounts of themes and figures from the fourth century” (LA, 2).

Hanson gave some examples, including:

“Schwartz has established much of the chronology of the period more securely. Bell has published the papyrus which throws such a lurid light on the behaviour of Athanasius in his see. … so important for our estimation of Athanasius’ character. … The existence of the Synod of Antioch of 325 has now been brought to light. … A store of Arian literature hitherto unknown or little known has been made available by Turner, Gryson and others.” (RH, xx)

Hanson says that his book exists because of this new perspective on the Arian Controversy:

“It is because this manner of presenting the ‘Arian Controversy’ has not hitherto been found in textbooks that this work should be thought to have its raison d’2tre.” (RH, xx)

Purpose of this article

This article is a summary and discussion of the introductions in these two books, which highlights some main features of that Controversy.

The fourth-century controversy “produced … the most important creed in the history of Christianity.” (LA, 1)

THE NAME ‘ARIAN CONTROVERSY’

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

The term ‘Arian’ is a misnomer.

Arius was an insignificant writer.

The term ‘Arian’ is a misnomer because it was derived from Arius’s name and implies that Arius was an important person; the leader of those who opposed the Nicene Creed and a person who developed a new heresy. In reality, Arius was a relatively insignificant writer. He did not say anything new and he did not leave behind a school of disciples:

“The people of his (Arius’) day, whether they agreed with him or not, did not regard him as a particularly significant writer. … Neither his supporters nor his opponents thought them (his writings) worth preserving. … He virtually disappears from the controversy at an early stage in its course.” (RH, xvii)

“Arius was part of a wider theological trajectory; many of his ideas were opposed by others in this trajectory: he neither originated the trajectory nor uniquely exemplified it.” (LA, 2)

Arius had no followers.

To call somebody an Arian implies that that person is a follower of Arius, but Arius had no followers:

“At the Council of Serdica in 343 one half of the Church (the Western bishops) accused the other half of being’ Arian’ … But these were wild unsubstantiated pieces of propaganda.” (RH, xvii)

“Most famously some participants in the debate [i.e., Athanasius] described loosely related but clearly distinct thinkers as Arians. In fact, it is virtually impossible to identify a school of thought dependent on Arius’ specific theology, and certainly impossible to show that even a bare majority of Arians had any extensive knowledge of Arius’ writing.” (LA, 2)

Arius did not cause the Controversy.

To call it the ‘Arian’ Controversy implies that Arius caused the Controversy by creating a new heresy that opposed the existing orthodoxy. But that is also false. Arius did not say anything that was not already said before him.

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

I’m not sure it is right to say that the Controversy was not caused by Athanasius. It was Athanasius who inspired the West to oppose the East and it was he who introduced the Nicene Creed and homoousios into the Controversy in the 350s. (See – Athanasius introduced Homoousios.)

Nevertheless, the Controversy was the continuation of a controversy about the nature of Christ that has been raging for centuries:

“The views of Arius were such as in a peculiar manner 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-xviii)

What has changed in the fourth century is not that Arius introduced a new heresy but that the emperor had legalized Christianity, intended to use Christianity to help keep the empire united, and was determined to end the controversy because it put the unity of the empire at risk.

There were not just two sides.

The anti-Nicenes were divided into various groups with very different views but some pro-Nicene writers, such as Athanasius, labeled them all as ‘Arians’, implying that they were a coherent group. However:

“Scholars continue to talk as if there were a clear continuity among non-Nicene theologians by deploying such labels as Arians, semi-Arians, and neo-Arians. Such presentations are misleading.” (LA, 13)

The name Arian was invented to insult.

The reason that the Controversy is named after him is that Athanasius accused his opponents of being followers of Arius, and, therefore, followers of a theology that was already condemned:

“Heresiological labels enabled early theologians and ecclesiastical historians to portray theologians to whom they were opposed as distinct and coherent groups and they enabled writers to tar enemies with the name of a figure already in disrepute.” (LA, 2)

But Athanasius’ opponents were not followers of Arius. Unfortunately, the church has traditionally believed Athanasius. For further reading, see – Athanasius invented Arianism.

‘Controversy’ is also a misnomer.

Next, Hanson explains that the term “Controversy” is also a misnomer:

“At some times there was almost no controversy at all. If there was any controversy from 330 to 341, it was a controversy about the behaviour of Athanasius in his see of Alexandria. … There was a long period of confusion and uncertainty from 341 to 357 when it was far from clear what the controversy was about, if there was a controversy.” (RH, xviii)

“Should this state of affairs be called a controversy, or a search in a fog, a situation when ‘ignorant armies clash by night’?” (RH, xviii)

Homoousios disappeared after Nicaea.

One indication of the lack of ‘controversy’ is that the key term from the Nicene Creed (homoousios) was not mentioned for several decades after Nicaea. The emperor Constantine, by supporting the Sabellian faction in the Nicene Council, forced that council to include the term homoousios in the Creed. (See – Nicene Council)

In the years after that council, however, the church removed the main supporters of the term, namely the Sabellians Eustathius and Marcellus, from their positions. (Alexander died soon after the Council.) Thereafter, homoousios was not mentioned for decades. There was no controversy around the Nicene Creed. (See, Homoousios after Nicaea)

The real Controversy began in the 350s when Athanasius began to use the term to defend his own Sabellian theology. Athanasius was extremely powerful, both religiously and politically. He was the “paragon” of the West (RH, 304), and, following him, the ‘West’ also began to defend homoousios.

ORTHODOXY

At first, there was no Orthodoxy.

In the traditional account, the Trinity doctrine was established orthodoxy when the Controversy began and is reflected in the Nicene Creed of 325 but that is another piece of fiction. Our authors explain:

The “Arian Controversy” “was not a history of the defence of an agreed and settled orthodoxy against the assaults of open heresy. … There was not as yet any orthodox doctrine. 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. The supporters of this view wanted their readers to think that orthodoxy on the subject under discussion had always existed and that the period was simply a story of the defence of that orthodoxy against heresy and error.” (RH, xviii-xix)

“This is not the story of a defence of orthodoxy, but of a search for orthodoxy.” (RH, xix-xx)

That is why Hanson named his book, ‘The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God’. ‘Pro-Nicene’, namely, what we today understand as Nicene theology, has only been developed in the years 360-380 and is not the same as the theology of the Nicene Creed of AD 325:

The century must be understood as “one of evolution in doctrine.”  (LA, 13)

“The conflict that resulted eventually led to the emergence of a series of what I will term pro-Nicene theologies interpreting the Council of Nicaea in ways that provided a persuasive solution to the conflicts of the century.” (RH, 12)

‘Pro-Nicene’ refers to “those theologies, appearing from the 360s to the 380s … of how the Nicene creed should be understood. … All of these theologies build closely on and adapt themes found earlier in the century, but none is identical with any original ‘Nicene’ theology apparent in the 320s or 330s.” (LA, 6)

Subordination was ‘orthodoxy’.

But this is also not the full story. There was an ‘orthodoxy’ when the Controversy began. What later became ‘orthodox’ was not ‘orthodox’ when the Controversy began. While the Nicene Creed presents the Son as equal to the Father, the ‘orthodoxy’, when the Controversy began, was that the Son is subordinate to the Father. Hanson says:

“Almost all the Eastern theologians believed that the Son was in some sense subordinated to the Father before the Incarnation.” (RH, xix)

“With the exception of Athanasius virtually every theologian, East and West, accepted some form of subordinationism at least up to the year 355; subordinationism might indeed, until the denouement (end) of the controversy, have been described as accepted orthodoxy.” (RH, xix)

In the first quote, Hanson refers to “the Eastern theologians.” We must remember that at Nicaea, the delegates were “drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire” (LA, 19). So, if almost all the Eastern theologians believed that the Son was subordinated to the Father, then almost all delegates at Nicaea believed the same.

SABELLIANISM

The Defenders of Nicaea were Sabellians.

The great controversy in the century before the fourth was over Sabellianism. That theology teaches that the trinity is one single ‘Person’ with one single rational faculty or mind. This was declared as a heresy in the third century. The ‘West’ is often regarded today as the great defender of the Nicene Creed. However, what is less well known is that both Athanasius and the Western Church were Sabellians:

“The Westerners had at Serdica in 343 produced a theological statement which appeared to have the most alarmingly Sabellian complexion, and ‘Athanasius had certainly supported this statement, though he later denied its existence.. … Marcellus of Ancyra had produced a theology … which could quite properly be called Sabellian; and for many years Athanasius and the Pope refused to disown Marcellus.” (RH, xix)

“Damasus (a later bishop of Rome) supports the near Sabellian Paulinus of Antioch” (RH, xix)

In fact, the ‘pope’ vindicated Marcellus after he had already been deposed by the Eastern Church for Sabellianism. Since Athanasius supported both the Sabellian creed and Marcellus:

“Nobody, not even Athanasius, had a wholly unblemished record of orthodoxy in the course of events.”

See also – Athanasius was a Sabellian and The Meaning of Homoousios.

MISTAKES AND FAULTS

All sides made mistakes.

It is traditionally stated that the so-called ‘Arians’ proposed a defective theology. BUT Hanson says that all sides made mistakes. With respect to the pro-Nicene, for example, Hanson wrote:

“Hilary in order to defend his Trinitarian theology plunges wildly into Docetism. Pope Liberius signs a doctrinal formula which was widely believed in the West to be rankly Arian and certainly was not in accordance with pro-Nicene orthodoxy. Ambrose supports the Apollinarian Vitalian for some time after his unorthodoxy has been evident to Eastern theologians, and Damasus supports the near Sabellian Paulinus of Antioch.” (RH, xix)

PHILOSOPHY

All sides used philosophy.

In the past, Arius and the ‘Arians’ were often accused of using philosophy. The fact is that all sides used philosophy:

“It would of course be absurd to deny that discussion and dispute between 318 and 381 were conducted largely in terms of Greek philosophy. … The theologians of the Christian Church were slowly driven to 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 MAIN ISSUE

Not whether Jesus is God.

In the traditional account of the ‘Arian’ Controversy, the core issue was “whether or not Christ was divine.” (LA, 3) But the core issue was not “whether to place the Son on either side of a clear God/creation boundary.” The ancients did not have such a clear boundary. “Many fourth-century theologians (including some who were in no way anti-Nicene) made distinctions between being ‘God’ and being ‘true God’ that belie any simple account of the controversy in these terms.” (LA, 4) They described the Son as “God” and the Father as “true God’.” Therefore, both were on the “God” side of the boundary but were not seen as equal. (See – Did the church fathers describe Jesus as God?)

It was the “late fourth-century theologians” who, by removing the distinction between ‘true God’ and ‘God’, and by admitting “no degrees” created “a clear distinction between God and creation.” (LA, 4)

Not whether the Son shared the Father’s being.

The core issue was also not whether the Son shared the Father’s being:

“Many participants supposedly on different sides … (insisted) that one must speak of the Son’s incomprehensible generation from the Father as a sharing of the Father’s very being.” (LA, 4-5) “For some the position entailed recognizing the coeternity of the Son, for many it did not.” (LA, 5)

The Number of Rational Faculties

After studying the Arian Controversy for some years now, it is my view that the core issue was the number of rational faculties (minds, centers of consciousness) there in the trinity:

In second-century Monarchianism, third-century Sabellianism, Alexander, Athanasius, and in some fourth-century Western theologians, Father, Son, and Spirit are one single Being with one single rational faculty.

In contrast, the second and third-century Logos-theologians, the fourth-century Eusebians, and some pro-Nicene, such as Basil of Caesarea taught three distinct rational faculties.

See:


OTHER ARTICLES

In this Series

Church Fathers

Arian Controversy

Arius

The Nicene Creed

Arianism

    • The Dedication Creed 22This Creed shows how the Nicene Creed would have read if emperor Constantine had not manipulated the Nicene Council.
    • Athanasius invented Arianism. 23The only reason we today refer to ‘Arians’ is that Athanasius invented the term to falsely label his opponents with a theology that was already formally rejected by the church.
    • Did Arians describe the Son as a creature? 24‘Arians’ described Christ as originating from beyond our universe, the only being ever brought forth directly by the Father, and as the only being able to endure direct contact with God.
    • Homoian theology 25In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
    • Homoi-ousian theology 26This was one of the ‘strands’ of ‘Arianism’. It proposed that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s, but not the same.
    • How did Arians interpret Colossians 2:9? 27Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.

The Pro-Nicenes

Authors on the Arian Controversy

Extracts from the writings of scholars who have studied the ancient documents for themselves:

Trinity Doctrine – General

    • Elohim 34Elohim (often translated as God) is plural in form. Does this mean that the Old Testament writers thought of God as a multi-personal Being?
    • The Eternal Generation of the Son 35The Son has been begotten by the Father, meaning that the Son is dependent on the Father. Eternal Generation explains “begotten” in such a way that the Son is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.

Other Articles

All articles on this Site

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
  • 2
    Ayres, Lewis, Nicaea and its Legacy, An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology, 2004
  • 3
    The pre-Nicene fathers described the Son as “our God” but the Father as “the only true God,” implying that the Son is not “true” God. This confusion is caused by the translations.
  • 4
    Sabellius taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are three portions of one single Being.
  • 5
    If we define Sabellianism as that only one hypostasis – only one distinct existence – exists in the Godhead, was Tertullian a Sabellian?
  • 6
    The Controversy gave us the Trinity doctrine but the traditional account of the Controversy is a complete traversy.
  • 7
    RPC Hanson states that no ‘orthodoxy’ existed but that is not entirely true. This article shows that subordination was indeed ‘orthodox’ at that time.
  • 8
    The term “Arianism” implies that Arius’ theology dominated the fourth-century church. But Arius was not regarded in his time as a significant writer. He left no school of disciples.
  • 9
    Over the centuries, Arius was always accused of this. This article explains why that is a false accusation.
  • 10
    There are significant differences between Origen and Arius.
  • 11
    Arius wrote that the Son was begotten timelessly by the Father before everything. But Arius also said that the Son did not always exist. Did Arius contradict himself?
  • 12
    New research has shown that Arius is a thinker and exegete of resourcefulness, sharpness, and originality.
  • 13
    The word theos, which is translated as “God” in John 1:1 is not equivalent to the modern English word “God.”
  • 14
    Constantine took part in the Council of Nicaea and ensured that it reached the kind of conclusion which he thought best.
  • 15
    Eusebius of Caesarea, the most respected theologian at the Council, immediately afterward wrote to his church in Caesarea to explain why he accepted the Creed and how he understood the controversial phrases.
  • 16
    The Creed not only uses non-Biblical words; the concept of homoousios (that the Son is of the same substance as the Father) is not in the Bible.
  • 17
    Does it mean that Father and Son are one single Being, as the Trinity doctrine claims? How was it understood before, at, and after Nicaea? – Summary of the next article
  • 18
    The Nicene Creed describes the Son as homoousios (same substance) as the Father. But how was the term used before, during, and after Nicaea?
  • 19
    The term homoousios was not mentioned by anybody during the first 30 years after Nicaea. It only became part of that controversy in the 350s.
  • 20
    The word is not found in the Bible or in any orthodox Christian confession before Nicaea.
  • 21
    The Creed seems to say that the Father and Son are the same hupostasis. This is Sabellianism.
  • 22
    This Creed shows how the Nicene Creed would have read if emperor Constantine had not manipulated the Nicene Council.
  • 23
    The only reason we today refer to ‘Arians’ is that Athanasius invented the term to falsely label his opponents with a theology that was already formally rejected by the church.
  • 24
    ‘Arians’ described Christ as originating from beyond our universe, the only being ever brought forth directly by the Father, and as the only being able to endure direct contact with God.
  • 25
    In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
  • 26
    This was one of the ‘strands’ of ‘Arianism’. It proposed that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s, but not the same.
  • 27
    Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.
  • 28
    Eustathius and Marcellus played a major role in the formulation of the Creed but were soon deposed for Sabellianism.
  • 29
    Athanasius presents himself as the preserver of Biblical orthodoxy but this article argues that he was a Sabellian.
  • 30
    In the Trinity doctrine, Father, Son, and Spirit are one substance or Being. This article shows that Basil taught three distinct substances.
  • 31
    This council reveals the state of Western theology at that time.
  • 32
    A summary of this book, which provides an overview of the fourth-century Arian Controversy. Lewis Ayres is a Catholic theologian and Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology.
  • 33
    A very informative lecture on the Arian Controversy by RPC Hanson, a famous fourth-century scholar
  • 34
    Elohim (often translated as God) is plural in form. Does this mean that the Old Testament writers thought of God as a multi-personal Being?
  • 35
    The Son has been begotten by the Father, meaning that the Son is dependent on the Father. Eternal Generation explains “begotten” in such a way that the Son is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.
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