Introduction to the fourth-century Arian Controversy

I AM CURRENTLY REWRITING THIS ARTICLE

Reading only the green blocks should provide an adequate overview of this article.

INTRODUCTION

Purpose

The fourth-century Arian Controversy is important because it produced the Trinity doctrine. By way of introduction to this series, this article discusses several aspects of the Controversy.

The entire period of 62 years, from 318 to 380, is known as “the Arian Controversy.” It was “the most dramatic internal struggle the Christian Church had so far experienced.” (Williams, p. 1) This article summarizes the conclusions of several other articles and provides links to such articles.

Authors Quoted

This article series is based on the latest available books on this subject, all by world-class Catholic scholars.

Following the last full-scale book on the Arian Controversy, written in English by Gwatkin at the beginning of the 20th century,1“Gwatkin nearly a century ago in the last full-scale book written in English on the Arian Controversy” (Hanson Lecture) R.P.C. Hanson in 1988 published perhaps the most influential modern book on the Arian Controversy.2Hanson RPC, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381. 1988 This was followed in 2004 by a book by Lewis Ayres.3Ayres, Lewis, Nicaea and its Legacy, An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology, 2004 Ayres confirmed the importance of Hanson’s book.4“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.” (Ayres, p. 12) Ayres’ book is based on those surveys and “in some measure advances on their texts.” (Ayres, p. 5) I also quote from another important book by Rowan Williams, focusing specifically on Arius.5Williams, Rowan (24 January 2002) [1987]. Arius: Heresy and Tradition (Revised ed.). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. ISBN 978-0-8028-4969-4.

Documents Discovered

The fundamental problem in understanding the Controversy is the limited number of extant ancient documents. However, over the last 100 years, a store of ancient documents has become available.

“The fundamental problem in understanding the course of these controversies stems from the nature of our sources. … The documentary evidence from this period is, in many cases, fragmentary.” (Ayres, p. 2)

Particularly very little of the writings of the anti-Nicenes survived. The church copied mainly documents written by pro-Nicene writers. However:

“In the first few decades of the present (20th) century … seminally important work was … done in the sorting-out of the chronology of the controversy, and in the isolation of a hard core of reliable primary documents.” (Williams, p. 11-12)

“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.” (Hanson, p. xx)

A Complete Travesty 

Based on the documents discovered and substantial progress in research, some scholars now describe that traditional account of the Controversy as a ‘complete travesty’. (Hanson Lecture) In many respects, the true history is the opposite of the traditional account.

The traditional account of the Controversy presents history from the winner’s perspective and is fundamentally flawed. Hanson says:

“The study of the Arian problem over the last hundred years has been like a long-distance gun trying to hit a target. The first sighting shots are very wide of the mark, but gradually the shells fall nearer and nearer. The diatribes of Gwatkin and of Harnack, can today be completely ignored.” (Hanson, p. 95-96) (These books were written around the year 1900 and many still accept the explanation of the Controversy provided by these books

Ayres refers to “revisionary scholarship” by which he means that the explanation of the Controversy has changed: 

“The four decades since 1960 have produced much revisionary scholarship on the Trinitarian and Christological disputes of the fourth century.” (Ayres, p. 2)

“A vast amount of scholarship over the past thirty years (written in 2004) has offered revisionist accounts of themes and figures from the fourth century” (Ayres, p. 2).

The Traditional Account

In the traditional account, the Controversy was a dispute over whether Christ was divine, initially provoked by a priest called Arius, who developed a novel heresy to oppose the established Trinity doctrine. Supported by tyrannical emperors, he convinced the majority of his views. But Athanasius defended the Trinitarian orthodoxy, sometimes alone, until the Council of Constantinople in 381 eventually confirmed the truth.

Ayres describes the Traditional Account as follows:

“Many summary accounts present the Arian controversy as a dispute over whether or not Christ was divine, initially provoked by a priest called Arius whose teaching angered his bishop, Alexander of Alexandria. Eventually, this traditional account tells us, the controversy extended throughout the century—even after the decisive statements of the Council of Nicaea—because a conspiracy of Arians against the Nicene tradition (represented particularly by Athanasius) perpetuated Arius’ views.” (Ayres, p. 13)

In this account, these disputes are “understood as … the Church’s struggle against a heretic and his followers grounded in a clear Nicene doctrine established in the controversy’s earliest stages.” (Ayres, p. 11-12)

Below, this article discusses the traditional account under the following headings:

Beginning of the Controversy

1. The Trinity doctrine was established orthodoxy when the Controversy began.

2. Arius was a deliberate radical, teaching a radical new heresy.

3. He had great influence and caused the Controversy.

Nicene Council

4. Homoousios was an orthodox term when the Controversy began.

5. Homoousios meant that the Father and Son are a single Being.

6. The Nicene Creed reflects the orthodox Trinity doctrine.

7. Homoousios was regarded as very important at Nicaea.

Athanasius

8. Athanasius defended Trinitarian Orthodoxy.

9. Athanasius was ostensibly deposed for violence but it really was for his opposition to Arianism.

11. Controversy raged the entire period.

Arianism

12. The opponents of the Nicene Creed followed Arius.

13. Arian Theology is defective.

14. Arians corrupted theology with philosophy.

15. Emperor Constantius, who supported the Arian cause, was a tyrant.

Other

16. The West always supported Nicaea.

17. The issue in the Controversy was whether Jesus is God.

18. The Councils of 325 and 381 were ecumenical.

19. The Trinity doctrine was the majority view when Theodosius made it the state religion.

20. The church adopted the Trinity Doctrine.

BEGINNING OF THE CONTROVERSY

1. The Trinity doctrine was established orthodoxy.

In the traditional account, the Trinity doctrine was established orthodoxy when the Controversy began. However, there was no orthodoxy. If we must identify an orthodoxy, it was that the Son is subordinate to the Father.

Hanson explains:

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.” (Hanson, p. xviii-xix)

“This is not the story of a defence of orthodoxy, but of a search for orthodoxy.” (Hanson, p. xix-xx) That is why Hanson named his book, ‘The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God’. (Read More)

Hanson says that an orthodoxy did not yet exist when the Controversy began. That is not quite true. There was an ‘orthodoxy’ when the Controversy began. At that time, and for much of the fourth century, all theologians believed that the Son is subordinate to the Father:

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

Comment: Here Hanson refers to “the Eastern theologians.” Since, at Nicaea, the delegates were “drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire” (Ayres, p. 19) and since almost all the Eastern theologians believed that the Son was subordinated to the Father, then almost all delegates at Nicaea believed the same.

“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.” (Hanson, p. xix)

“’Subordinationism’, it is true was pre-Nicene orthodoxy”6Henry Bettenson, The Early Christian Fathers p. 239.

Ayres wrote that even Athanasius believed in a form of subordination. For example, he described the Son as the Father’s Wisdom, never the other way round, and he said that the Son is homoousios with the Father, never the other way round. (Read More)

2. Arius was a deliberate radical.

The title ‘Arian Controversy’ implies that Arius caused it by creating a new heresy that opposed the existing orthodoxy. But that is not true. Arius was a conservative. He did not develop a new heresy.

Rowan Williams, who wrote a recent book specifically on Arius, concluded:

“A great deal of recent work … helped to demolish the notion of Arius and his supporters as deliberate radicals, attacking a time-honoured tradition.” (Williams, p. 21)

“The theology of the Thalia (Arius’ book) … is conservative in the sense that there is almost nothing in it that could not be found in earlier writers; it is radical and individual in the way it combines and reorganizes traditional ideas and presses them to their logical conclusions.” (Williams, p. 177)

“Arius was a committed theological conservative; more specifically, a conservative Alexandrian.” (Williams, p. 175) (Read More)

This conclusion is important because it implies that Arius’ opponent, bishop Alexander of Alexandria, was not conservative. This is discussed below.

3. Arius caused the Controversy.

Arius did not cause the Controversy. The fourth century continued the controversy about the nature of Christ that raged during the third century:

“We will find pre-existing deep theological tensions at the beginning of the fourth century. Controversy over Arius was the spark that ignited a fire waiting to happen, and the origins of the dispute do not lie simply in the beliefs of one thinker, but in existing tensions that formed his background.” (Ayres, p. 20)

“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.” (Hanson, p. xvii-xviii)

“This controversy is a complex affair in which tensions between pre-existing theological traditions intensified as a result of dispute over Arius, and over events following the Council of Nicaea.” (Ayres, p. 11-12)

 “The controversy surrounding Arius was an epiphenomenon of widespread existing tensions.” (Ayres, p. 15)

Therefore, the third-century controversy helps to explain the fourth-century controversy. The main third century dispute was between Origen’s three hypostases view (that Father, Son, and Spirit are three distinct Persons with three distinct minds) and Sabellius’ one hypostasis (that they are a single Person with a single mind). In that century, the ‘three hypostases’ view was the victor and Sabellianism was rejected at more than one council. The section below on the Real Main Issue in the fourth century discusses this further.

COUNCIL OF NICAEA

4. Homoousios was an orthodox term

Homoousios was not an orthodox term. In fact, it was a heretical term. Before Nicaea, it was preferred only by Unitarians. At Nicaea, it was included because Sabellians dominated and, after Nicaea, Sabellians claimed the term as a victory for their side

Homoousios was not an orthodox term:

“We can detect no Greek-speaking writer before Nicaea who unreservedly supports homoousion as applied to the Son.” (Hanson, p. 169)

Before Nicaea, if we define Sabellianism as the belief that the Father and Son are a single hypostasis (Person), homoousios was preferred only by Unitarians (Sabellians). This includes Sabellius himself, the Libyan Sabellians, Dionysius of Rome, and Paul of Samosata. For them, Father and Son are a single Person with a single mind. The only non-Sabellian who accepted the term was Dionysius of Alexandria, but he accepted it reluctantly and only as meaning that the Father and Son are two distinct substances (two hypostases) of the same type. (See here)

It was included in the Creed because Sabellians dominated at Nicaea (see here) and because Constantine was familiar with the term from his experience with Egyptian paganism (see here). The term was not used in any previous creed:

“To say that the Son was ‘of the substance’ of the Father, and that he was ‘consubstantial’ with him were certainly startling innovations. Nothing comparable to this had been said in any creed or profession of faith before.” (Hanson, p. 166-7)

Rowan Williams refers to “the radical words of Nicaea” (Williams, p. 236)

5. Homoouios meant ‘one Being’.

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, the Trinity doctrine has existed from the beginning of that controversy, and homoousios (same substance) in the Nicene Creed meant that Father and Son are one single substance and, therefore, a single Being. However:

“We can therefore be pretty sure that homoousios was not intended to express the numerical identity of the Father and the Son.” (Hanson, p. 202)7‘Numerical identity’ means that two things are one and the same.

The Creed says that the Son was begotten from the substance of the Father and that He (therefore?) is of the same substance as the Father. This sounds as if He was begotten like humans are; that a part of the Father was broken off when he was begotten. However, at the Council, Constantine explained the new terms (ousia, homoousios, hypostasis) highly figuratively, namely, that it only means that the Son is really from the Father:

“Eusebius … writes that Constantine himself spoke, endorsing the term homoousios, but insisting that it did not imply any material division in God.” (Ayres, p. 90-91)

According to Eusebius “the Emperor himself qualified the addition of ‘consubstantial’ by saying that it must not be understood “in the sense of any corporeal experiences.” (Hanson, p. 165) (See – Eusebius’ letter)

The Eusebians were able to accept the term based on this non-literal explanation However, the Sabellians, who proposed the term in the first place, did understand it to mean ‘one substance’ which was equivalent to ‘one hypostasis’ (one Person).

6. The Nicene Creed is Trinitarian.

The Nicene Creed is not Trinitarian. Considering the new terms borrowed from Greek philosophy, it is Unitarian: As stated, the term homoousios was preferred only by Unitarians (Sabellianians). Furthermore, the Creed says that Father and Son are a single hypostasis (Person). This is Sabellianism. Pro-Nicene theology evolved after Nicaea. What we know today as Pro-Nicene is not equivalent to the Nicene Creed but is one way of explaining it.

The Nicene Creed condemns all who say that the Son is “of another hypostasis or ousia.” (Ayres, p. 93) (At the time, the terms hypostasis (Person) and ousia (substance) were synonyms. See here.)  In other words, the Father and Son are a single hypostasis and ousia:

“The production of N … must have been deeply disturbing for many who could not seriously be described as Arian in sympathy but could not believe that God had only one hypostasis, as the creed apparently professed.” (Hanson, p. 274)

To say that Father and Son are a single Person is Sabellianism:

“If we are to take the creed N at its face value, the theology of Eustathius and Marcellus was the theology which triumphed at Nicaea. That creed admits the possibility of only one ousia and one hypostasis. This was the hallmark of the theology of these two men.” (Hanson, p. 235) [Eustathius and Marcellus were the leading Sabellians at Nicaea. See here.]

“The Creed of Nicaea of 325 … ultimately confounded the confusion because its use of the words ousia and hypostasis was so ambiguous as to suggest that the Fathers of Nicaea had fallen into Sabellianism, a view recognized as a heresy even at that period.” (Hanson’s Lecture)8“The condemnation … that the Son is ‘of another hypostasis or ousia’ from the Father … can only have been a highly ambiguous and extremely confusing statement. By the standard of later orthodoxy … it is a rankly heretical (i.e. Sabellian) proposition.” (Hanson, p. 167)9“Simonetti estimates the Nicene Council as a temporary alliance for the defeat of Arianism between the tradition of Alexandria led by Alexander and ‘Asiatic’ circles (i.e. Eustathius, Marcellus) … Alexander … accepted virtual Sabellianism in order to ensure the defeat of Arianism. … The ‘Asiatics’ … were able to include in N a hint of opposition to the three hypostases theory.” (Hanson, p. 171) (Simonetti is another leading modern author but he did not write in English.)

‘Pro-Nicene’, that is, what we today understand as Nicene theology, has only been developed over the course of the century and is not the same as the theology of the Nicene Creed of AD 325. It is one way of reading Nicaea:

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

“By ‘pro-Nicene’ I mean those theologies, appearing from the 360s to the 380s … of how the Nicene creed should be understood. … 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.” (Ayres, p. 6)

To understand why the Creed is Unitarian, one needs to appreciate the situation at Nicaea. Emperor Constantine took Alexander’s side. Since Alexander held to a minority view, he joined forces with the Sabellians who, consequently, were able to influence the wording of the Creed significantly. See here.

7. Homoousios was regarded as important.

After Nicaea, homoousios was not mentioned for more than two decades. Therefore, it could not have been regarded as important.

In the years after that council, the Sabellians claimed that the church, through the Creed, had officially adopted Sabellianism. However, the church eradicated the term from its vocabulary by deposing the leading Sabellians. (See here) After that, homoousios was not mentioned for two decades (see here). During that period, there was no controversy around this term.

“What is conventionally regarded as the key-word in the Creed homoousion, falls completely out of the controversy very shortly after the Council of Nicaea and is not heard of for over twenty years.” (Hanson Lecture)

The controversy around homoousios began again in the 350s when Athanasius began to use the term to defend his one-hypostasis (one Person) theology (see below).

“Athanasius’ decision to make Nicaea and homoousios central to his theology has its origins in the shifting climate of the 350s.” (Ayres, p. 144)

He was the “paragon” of the West (Hanson, p. 304) and, following him, the ‘West’ also began to defend homoousios.

As stated, the term was included in the Creed because Constantine sided with Alexander and his Sabellian allies. Consequently, Emperor Constantine forced the Council to include the term in the Creed. (See here) Athanasius wrote that the term was included to force the true Arians to reject the Creed so that the emperor could exile them10“The most satisfactory explanation of why it was put there is that it was certainly a word … which serious and wholehearted Arians could not stomach; Arius in his Thalia had specifically rejected it.” (Hanson, p. 167) but that might have been an additional reason; not the primary.

ATHANASIUS

8. Athanasius’ theology was orthodox.

Athanasius is often acclaimed as the great defender of the Nicene Creed, which he was. However, a study of his theology reveals that, in his view, the Son was in the Father. In other words, they are a single Person with one single mind. That is what the Sabellians also taught and has already been rejected as heresy.

Athanasius and his predecessor Alexander both believed that the Father, Son, and Spirit are one single hypostasis, meaning a single Person with a single mind. For example:

“In the Father we have the Son: this is a summary of Athanasius’ theology.” (Hanson, p. 426)

“The Son is in the Father ontologically.” (Hanson, p. 428)

“Athanasius’ increasing clarity in treating the Son as intrinsic to the Father’s being” (Ayres, p. 113)

Specifically, they thought of the Son as the father’s one and only Wisdom:

“In Alexander, and in Athanasius … Christ is the one power and wisdom of the Father.” (Ayres, p. 54) (Read More)

This was what the third-century Sabellians also believed.

and was already rejected as heresy in the third century. The best-known Sabellian of the fourth century was Marcellus:

“Marcellus of Ancyra had produced a theology … which could quite properly be called Sabellian.” (Hanson, p. ix)

Similar to Athanasius, the Sabellians believed that the Son is ‘in’ the Father. For example, they said:

“The Word … eternally is in the Father.” (Ayres, p. 63)

“The Word was in the Father as a power.” (Ayres, p. 63)

“To describe the relationship between Word and God he (Marcellus) deploys the analogy of a human person and her reason.”

For that reason, Athanasius and Marcellus were allies:

“Although Athanasius’ theology was by no means identical with Marcellus’, the overlaps were significant enough for them to be at one on some of the vital issues—especially their common insistence that the Son was intrinsic to the Father’s external existence.” (Ayres, p. 106)

They considered themselves allies.” (Ayres, p. 106) At the time when both were exiled to Rome, “Athanasius and Marcellus now seem to have made common cause against those who insisted on distinct hypostases in God.” (Ayres, p. 106)

Pagan

It was “the new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day.” (Hanson, p. 846)

 

 

 

SUMMARY

The fourth-century Arian Controversy is important because it produced the Trinity doctrine. By way of introduction, this article provides an overview of some aspects of that Controversy.

The fundamental problem in understanding the Controversy is that a limited number of the ancient documents survived. Particularly very little of the writings of the anti-Nicenes survived. The traditional account of the Controversy developed from the writings of the pro-Nicenes. However, after further documents became accessible and some groundbreaking research over the last 100 years, some scholars now describe that traditional account as a ‘complete travesty’. (Hanson Lecture) For example:

1. There were no ‘Arians’. The term ‘Arian’ was derived from Arius’ name and implies 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, did not say anything new, did not leave behind a school of disciples, was part of a wider theological trajectory, and did not cause the Controversy. The fourth-century Controversy continued the controversy that raged during the third.

The name ‘Arian’ was invented by Athanasius to insult his opponents by tarring them as followers of a discredited theology. But Athanasius’ opponents did not follow Arius. The term Arian is a serious misnomer.

2. For much of that period, there was no controversy. Furthermore, controversy raged about different things at different times. After Nicaea, the term homoousios disappeared from the debate and came back into Controversy only in the 350s when Athanasius began using the Nicene Creed and homoousios to defend his position.

3. Athanasius was a Sabellian. He is often acclaimed as the great defender of the Nicene Creed, which he was. However, a study of his theology reveals that, in his view, the Father, Son, and Spirit are one single hypostasis, meaning one Person with one single mind; similar to Sabellianism.

4. Subordination was orthodox. 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 distinct from the Father and subordinate to Him.

5. The core issue was whether Jesus is a distinct Person. In the traditional account, it is often stated that the dispute was whether Christ is God. But that was not the issue. All sides agreed that He is God. The real main issue was whether the Son is part of the Father or a real Person with a distinct mind, distinct from the Father.

6. The church inherited the Trinity doctrine from the Roman Empire. An important conclusion of this series is that the church never decided to adopt the Trinity doctrine. What happened was that the church was divided into several factions. However, the Empire could not afford a split in the church because it put the Empire at risk. For that reason, the emperors selected one of those factions, which happened to be the Trinitarian version of Christianity, made it the state religion of the Roman empire, and persecuted all other versions out of existence.11“If we ask the question, what was considered to constitute the ultimate authority in doctrine during the period reviewed in these pages, there can be only one answer. The will of the Emperor was the final authority.” (Hanson, p. 849)12“The history of the period shows time and time again that … the general council was the very invention and creation of the Emperor. General councils … were the children of imperial policy and the Emperor was expected to dominate and control them.” (Hanson, p. 855)

These are just a few of the false claims of the traditional account. Since the Trinity doctrine is the most fundamental doctrine of the church, and since the Arian Controversy gave us that doctrine, every Christian should study that Controversy. It is critical for understanding Revelation’s Mark of the Beast.

– END OF SUMMARY –


AUTHORS QUOTED

Published in 1988, RPC Hanson wrote perhaps the most influential modern book on the Arian Controversy.13Hanson RPC, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy, 318-381. 1988 This was followed in 2004 by another important book by Lewis Ayres.14Ayres, Lewis, Nicaea and its Legacy, An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology, 2004 Ayres confirmed the importance of Hanson’s book.15“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.” (Ayres, p. 12) Ayres’ book is based on those surveys and “in some measure advances on their texts.” (Ayres, p. 5) I also quote from another important book by Rowan Williams, which focused specifically on Arius.16Williams, Rowan (24 January 2002) [1987]. Arius: Heresy and Tradition (Revised ed.). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. ISBN 978-0-8028-4969-4.

THE ARIAN CONTROVERSY

The fourth-century Arian Controversy is important because it produced the Trinity doctrine. By way of introduction, this article provides an overview of some aspects of that Controversy.

The entire period of 62 years, from 318 to 380, is known as “the Arian Controversy” and was “the most dramatic internal struggle the Christian Church had so far experienced.” (Williams, p. 1)

The Traditional Account

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, the church had always held to the Trinity doctrine but Arius caused the Controversy by introducing a novel heresy.

The traditional account of the Arian Controversy runs something like this:

The church had always believed in the Trinity doctrine in which the Father, Son, and Spirit are one Being existing as three ‘Persons’, so the Son is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.

But Arius caused the great fourth-century Controversy by teaching a radical new theology in which the Son is a created Being; distinct from and subordinate to the Father. For example:

“Many summary accounts present the Arian controversy as a dispute over whether or not Christ was divine, initially provoked by a priest called Arius whose teaching angered his bishop, Alexander of Alexandria. Eventually, this traditional account tells us, the controversy extended throughout the century—even after the decisive statements of the Council of Nicaea—because a conspiracy of Arians against the Nicene tradition (represented particularly by Athanasius) perpetuated Arius’ views.” (Ayres, p. 13)

In this account, these disputes are “understood as … the Church’s struggle against a heretic and his followers grounded in a clear Nicene doctrine established in the controversy’s earliest stages.” (Ayres, p. 11-12)

A Complete Travesty 

The fundamental problem in understanding the Controversy is the lack of documentary evidence. However, based on discoveries of ancient documents and new research over the last 100 years, scholars now conclude that the traditional account paints a false picture. In many respects, the true history is the opposite of the traditional account.

The fundamental problem is the lack of documentary evidence:

“The fundamental problem in understanding the course of these controversies stems from the nature of our sources. … The documentary evidence from this period is, in many cases, fragmentary.” (Ayres, p. 2)

Particularly very little of the writings of the anti-Nicenes survived. The church mainly copied documents written by pro-Nicene writers and the traditional account of the Controversy developed from such writings.

However, over the last 100 years, ancient documents, that previously were unknown, became available. For example:

“In the first few decades of the present (20th) century … seminally important work was … done in the sorting-out of the chronology of the controversy, and in the isolation of a hard core of reliable primary documents.” (Williams, p. 11-12)

“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.” (Hanson, p. xx)

Combined with substantial progress in research, scholars now conclude that the traditional account of the fourth-century Arian Controversy presents history from the winner’s perspective and is fundamentally flawed. For example:

RPC Hanson, perhaps the foremost scholar on the fourth-century Arian Controversy, says the traditional account is a complete travesty. (See here)

“The four decades since 1960 have produced much revisionary scholarship on the Trinitarian and Christological disputes of the fourth century.” (Ayres, p. 2)

“The study of the Arian problem over the last hundred years has been like a long-distance gun trying to hit a target. The first sighting shots are very wide of the mark, but gradually the shells fall nearer and nearer. The diatribes of Gwatkin and of Harnack, can today be completely ignored.” (These books were written around the year 1900 and are still regarded by some as important discussions of the Controversy.) (Hanson, p. 95-96)

Ayres wrote in 2004: “A vast amount of scholarship over the past thirty years has offered revisionist accounts of themes and figures from the fourth century” (Ayres, p. 2).

SPECIFIC FALSE CLAIMS

Various articles in this series address specific false claims of the traditional account. This article provides an overview.

Arius was a deliberate radical.

The title ‘Arian Controversy’ implies that Arius caused it by creating a new heresy that opposed the existing orthodoxy and was able to convince many Christians of his views. But that is also false. Arius was not a radical and did not develop a new heresy. He was a conservative. He did not say anything new:

“A great deal of recent work … helped to demolish the notion of Arius and his supporters as deliberate radicals, attacking a time-honoured tradition.” (Williams, p. 21)

“Arius was a committed theological conservative; more specifically, a conservative Alexandrian.” (Williams, p. 175) (Read More)

Athanasius was orthodox.

If we define ‘Sabellian’ as a theology in which Father and Son are a single Person with a single mind, Athanasius was a Sabellian.

Athanasius is often acclaimed as the great defender of the Nicene Creed. This is true. However, a study of his and his predecessor Alexander’s theology reveals that they believe that the Father, Son, and Spirit are one single hypostasis, meaning one Person with one single mind. This was what the third-century Sabellians also believed and was already rejected as heresy in the third century. (See here)

The anti-Nicenes were followers of Arius.

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

“’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.” (Williams, p. 82)

The term ‘Arian’ is a misnomer because it was derived from Arius’ name and implies that he was an important person, the leader of those who opposed the Nicene Creed, and the developer of a new heresy. However:

Arius was an insignificant writer.

Not even the so-called Arians regarded him as an important writer:

“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.” (Hanson, p. 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.” (Ayres, p. 2)

He had no followers.

To call somebody an Arian implies that that person follows Arius, but Arius did not leave behind a school of disciples:

“No clear party sought to preserve Arius’ theology.” (Ayres, p. 14)

“It is virtually impossible to identify a school of thought dependent on Arius’ specific theology.” (Ayres, p. 2)

“Eusebius of Caesarea, the historian and theologian” (Ayres, p. 58) “was the most learned and one of the best-known of the 300-odd bishops present” at Nicaea. (Hanson, p. 159) He supported Arius but was not a follower of Arius. He “thought the theology of Alexander a greater menace than that of Arius.” (Williams, p. 173)

Athanasius invented Arianism.

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

The reason that the Controversy is named after Arius is that Athanasius coined the term to accuse anti-Nicenes of being followers of Arius, and, therefore, followers of a theology that was already condemned:

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

“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.” (Ayres, p. 2)17“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.” (Williams, p. 247)

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

Arius caused the Controversy.

Rather, the Controversy continued the controversy about the nature of Christ that raged during the third century:

“We will find pre-existing deep theological tensions at the beginning of the fourth century. Controversy over Arius was the spark that ignited a fire waiting to happen, and the origins of the dispute do not lie simply in the beliefs of one thinker, but in existing tensions that formed his background.” (Ayres, p. 20)

“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.” (Hanson, p. xvii-xviii)18“This controversy is a complex affair in which tensions between pre-existing theological traditions intensified as a result of dispute over Arius, and over events following the Council of Nicaea.” (Ayres, p. 11-12)19“The controversy surrounding Arius was an epiphenomenon of widespread existing tensions.” (Ayres, p. 15)

What was different 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. For that purpose, the emperors called general councils to force the church towards a consensus. 

 

There was no Controversy.

For much of that period, there was no controversy. Furthermore, controversy raged about different things at different times. After Nicaea, the term homoousios disappeared from the debate and came back into Controversy only in the 350s when Athanasius for the first time began using the Nicene Creed and homoousios to defend his position.

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.” (Hanson, p. xviii)

After Nicaea, Homoousios disappears.

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:

By supporting the Sabellian faction in the Nicene Council, Emperor Constantine forced that council to include the term in the Creed. (See – Nicene Council)

In the years after that council, the Sabellians claimed that the church, through the Creed, had officially adopted Sabellianism. However, the church then deposed the main Sabellians. (See –  Post-Nicaea Correction.)

After that, homoousios was not mentioned for two decades. During that period, there was no controversy around this term. (See – here)

“What is conventionally regarded as the key-word in the Creed homoousion, falls completely out of the controversy very shortly after the Council of Nicaea and is not heard of for over twenty years.” (Hanson Lecture)

The controversy around homoousios began again in the 350s when Athanasius began to use the term to defend his own one-hypostasis (one-Person) theology (see below).

“Athanasius’ decision to make Nicaea and homoousios central to his theology has its origins in the shifting climate of the 350s.” (Ayres, p. 144)

Athanasius was a powerful man; both religiously and politically.20“Towards the end of his life he had reached a position in which his power (in Egypt), not only ecclesiastical but also political, was virtually beyond challenge.” (Hanson, p. 421) He was the “paragon” of the West (Hanson, p. 304) and, following him, the ‘West’ also began to defend homoousios.

The Trinity doctrine did not yet exist.

In the traditional account, the Trinity doctrine was established orthodoxy when the Controversy began and this is reflected in the Nicene Creed of 325. However, that is 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.” (Hanson, p. xviii-xix)

“This is not the story of a defence of orthodoxy, but of a search for orthodoxy.” (Hanson, p. xix-xx) That is why Hanson named his book, ‘The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God’.

Subordination was ‘orthodox’.

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 distinct from the Father and subordinate to Him.

Hanson says that an orthodoxy did not yet exist when the Controversy began. That is not quite true. There was an ‘orthodoxy’ when the Controversy began. At that time, and for much of the fourth century, all theologians believed that the Son is subordinate to the Father:

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

“’Subordinationism’, it is true was pre-Nicene orthodoxy”21Henry Bettenson, The Early Christian Fathers p. 239.

In the first quote, Hanson refers to “the Eastern theologians.” Remember that at Nicaea, the delegates were “drawn almost entirely from the eastern half of the empire” (Ayres, p. 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.

Pro-Nicene Theology developed after 360.

‘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.”  (Ayres, p. 13)

“By ‘pro-Nicene’ I mean those theologies, appearing from the 360s to the 380s … of how the Nicene creed should be understood. … 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.” (Ayres, p. 6)

Homoousios did not mean ‘one substance’.

The Trinity doctrine claims that homoousios (same substance) in the Nicene Creeds means that Father and Son are one single substance. However, “We can therefore be pretty sure that homoousios was not intended to express the numerical identity of the Father and the Son.” (Hanson, p. 202) 

The Councils were not ecumenical.

The Council of Nicaea of 325, which is known as the first ecumenical council, was not a church meeting. It was the emperor’s meeting. Constantine took the side of the Alexander-faction against Arius, called the Council on his own initiative, paid all expenses, appointed his agent Ossius as chair, opened the Council with an address, actively guided the discussions, proposed and enforced the key word Homoousios despite great resistance, and exiled those who refused the Creed. “Constantine took part in the Council of Nicaea and ensured that it reached the kind of conclusion which he thought best.” (Hanson, p. 850) Consequently, the Nicene Creed was not a majority position. (See – Nicaea and The Meaning of Homoousios)

The Council of Constntinople in 481, which is know as the second ecumenical council, was a meeting only of a part of the Eastern Church. And it was a meeting of only one faction of Christianity, namely the pro-Nicene because, already before the meeting, the Eastern Emperor Theodosius had made Trinitarian Christianity the state religion of the Empire and outlawed all other Christianity factions, including the previously dominant Homoian faction.

The issue was not whether Jesus is God.

In the traditional account, it is often stated that the dispute was whether Christ is God. But that is not true. All sides agreed that He is God. The real main issue was whether the Son is part of the Father or a real Person with a distinct mind, distinct from the Father.

In the traditional account of the ‘Arian’ Controversy, the main issue was “whether or not Christ was divine.” (Ayres, p. 3) However: “it is misleading to assume that these controversies were about ‘the divinity of Christ’” (Ayres, p. 14) Even the so-called Arians described Christ as God. For example, the creed of 357, which some regard as the high point of Arianism, describes the Son as “God from God.” (Hanson, p. 345)22As another example, the Dedication Creed, which opposed the Nicene Creed, describes the Son as “God” and as “God from God.”

The issue was also not “whether to place the Son on either side of a clear God/creation boundary.” All debate participants, including those who opposed the Nicene Creed, placed the Son on the ‘God’-side of the ‘God/creation’ boundary.

Today the term “God” has a specific meaning. It identifies one specific Being; the Ultimate Reality. In contrast, in the fourth century, the term ‘God’ was used very flexibly.

“At issue until the last decades of the controversy was the very flexibility with which the term ‘God’ could be deployed.” (Ayres, p. 14)

“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.” (Ayres, p. 4)

Although the Eusebians described both the Father and the Son as “God” (theos or deus), they still described the Son as subordinate to the Father. Both were on the “God” side of the boundary but were not 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.” (Ayres, p. 4)

The Son shares 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.” (Ayres, p. 4-5)23“For some the position entailed recognizing the coeternity of the Son, for many it did not.” (Ayres, p. 5)

Was whether the Son is a distinct Person.

The core issue was whether the Son is a distinct Person.

All sides made mistakes.

Traditionally, it is stated that the so-called ‘Arians’ proposed a defective theology. But Hanson says that all sides made mistakes. Concerning 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.” (Hanson, p. xix)

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.” (Hanson, p. xxi)

Actually, the shoe is on the other foot. The theologians who were most indebted to philosophy were the three pro-Nicene Cappadocian Fathers.


Other Articles

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    “Gwatkin nearly a century ago in the last full-scale book written in English on the Arian Controversy” (Hanson Lecture)
  • 2
  • 3
    Ayres, Lewis, Nicaea and its Legacy, An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology, 2004
  • 4
    “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.” (Ayres, p. 12)
  • 5
    Williams, Rowan (24 January 2002) [1987]. Arius: Heresy and Tradition (Revised ed.). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. ISBN 978-0-8028-4969-4.
  • 6
    Henry Bettenson, The Early Christian Fathers p. 239.
  • 7
    ‘Numerical identity’ means that two things are one and the same.
  • 8
    “The condemnation … that the Son is ‘of another hypostasis or ousia’ from the Father … can only have been a highly ambiguous and extremely confusing statement. By the standard of later orthodoxy … it is a rankly heretical (i.e. Sabellian) proposition.” (Hanson, p. 167)
  • 9
    “Simonetti estimates the Nicene Council as a temporary alliance for the defeat of Arianism between the tradition of Alexandria led by Alexander and ‘Asiatic’ circles (i.e. Eustathius, Marcellus) … Alexander … accepted virtual Sabellianism in order to ensure the defeat of Arianism. … The ‘Asiatics’ … were able to include in N a hint of opposition to the three hypostases theory.” (Hanson, p. 171) (Simonetti is another leading modern author but he did not write in English.)
  • 10
    “The most satisfactory explanation of why it was put there is that it was certainly a word … which serious and wholehearted Arians could not stomach; Arius in his Thalia had specifically rejected it.” (Hanson, p. 167)
  • 11
    “If we ask the question, what was considered to constitute the ultimate authority in doctrine during the period reviewed in these pages, there can be only one answer. The will of the Emperor was the final authority.” (Hanson, p. 849)
  • 12
    “The history of the period shows time and time again that … the general council was the very invention and creation of the Emperor. General councils … were the children of imperial policy and the Emperor was expected to dominate and control them.” (Hanson, p. 855)
  • 13
  • 14
    Ayres, Lewis, Nicaea and its Legacy, An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology, 2004
  • 15
    “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.” (Ayres, p. 12)
  • 16
    Williams, Rowan (24 January 2002) [1987]. Arius: Heresy and Tradition (Revised ed.). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. ISBN 978-0-8028-4969-4.
  • 17
    “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.” (Williams, p. 247)
  • 18
    “This controversy is a complex affair in which tensions between pre-existing theological traditions intensified as a result of dispute over Arius, and over events following the Council of Nicaea.” (Ayres, p. 11-12)
  • 19
    “The controversy surrounding Arius was an epiphenomenon of widespread existing tensions.” (Ayres, p. 15)
  • 20
    “Towards the end of his life he had reached a position in which his power (in Egypt), not only ecclesiastical but also political, was virtually beyond challenge.” (Hanson, p. 421)
  • 21
    Henry Bettenson, The Early Christian Fathers p. 239.
  • 22
    As another example, the Dedication Creed, which opposed the Nicene Creed, describes the Son as “God” and as “God from God.”
  • 23
    “For some the position entailed recognizing the coeternity of the Son, for many it did not.” (Ayres, p. 5)
  • 24
    Overview of the history, from the pre-Nicene Church Fathers, through the fourth-century Arian Controversy
TABLE OF CONTENTS