Did Arius corrupt theology with pagan philosophy?

Summary

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:

Logos-theology

In Greek philosophy, the Logos was the Intermediary between God and creation. The Christian theologians of the second and third centuries (the Apologists) identified the Son of God as that Greek Logos. Consequently, Logos-theology was orthodoxy when the Arian Controversy began. It was accepted by most delegates to Nicaea. Therefore, Arius did not bring Logos-theology into the church. In fact, Arius was not comfortable with Logos-theology.

Classical Theism

Classical Theism includes principles such as that God is immaterial, unable to change or do evil, exists outside time, and incapable of suffering or feeling pain. These principles from Greek philosophy were accepted by Christian theologians in the centuries before Arius and all theologians of the fourth century accepted these principles. Theologians, generally accept these principles even to this day.

Arius was not a philosopher.

Our authors conclude:

Arius. “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 Cappadocians were philosophers.

However, while Arius was traditionally accused of using philosophy, according to R.P.C. Hanson, it was the Cappadocian fathers who, in the years 360-380, developed the Trinity Doctrine (pro-Nicene theology) as a way to explain “how the Nicene creed should be understood” (LA, 6), who were deeply influenced by philosophy. “The Cappadocians … were all in a sense Christian Platonists.” (RH, 863) 

– END OF SUMMARY –

Arius is accused of 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.

Authors quoted

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.

Forms of Philosophy in Theology

There are two forms of philosophy that could have influenced theology, namely:

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

Logos-Theology

The Logos of Greek Philosophy

In Greek philosophy, the Logos was the Intermediary between God and creation.

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 Logos of the Apologists

The Apologists identified the Son as that Greek Logos.

These concepts from Greek philosophy 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.

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 was not comfortable with 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)

All fourth-century theologians accepted Classical Theism.

“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)

Hanson wrote:

“One can draw up a rough list of the general presuppositions derived from contemporary philosophy which were likely to occupy the mind of any Christian theologian in the fourth century:

        • reality meant ontological permanence so that God, the highest form of reality, is most immutable of all;
        • and he cannot in any way involve himself with pathos (process, change or flux or human experience)” (RH, 859)

He says:

“These did not necessarily cancel nor obscure Biblical ideas and assumptions in the minds of those who held them, but they certainly coloured and shaped their general outlook.” (RH, 859)

“Christians were capable of using Platonist terms without necessarily being Platonists.” (RH, 861-2)

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 corrupting theology with philosophy, the shoe is on the other foot. 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:

No philosophers before the Cappadocians

“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 anti-Nicene.” (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

“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

“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

“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)

What type of philosophy did Arius prefer?

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 to 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

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    Frend, W.H.C.: The Rise of Christianity
  • 2
    Overview of the history, from the pre-Nicene Church Fathers, through the fourth-century Arian Controversy

Athanasius invented Arianism.

Purpose of this article

The ‘Arian’ Controversy began in the year 318; only five years after the end of the “great persecution.” It began with a dispute between Arius, who was in charge of one of the churches in Alexandria, and his bishop Alexander. That Controversy continued until Emperor Theodosius made an end to it in 380; 62 years later.

The term ‘Arian” is derived from the name Arius. This implies that Arius was the founder and teacher of ‘Arianism’, and that his teachings dominated the church for most of the fourth century. 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) Consequently, “the four decades since 1960 have produced much revisionary scholarship on the Trinitarian and Christological disputes of the fourth century.” (Ayres, p. 11) On the basis of this research, this article shows that Arius, in himself, was of no great significance, and continues to explain why it is called the ‘Arian’ Controversy.

Summary

The First Seven Years

Arius was of some significance during the first 7 years of the Controversy until the Nicene Council in 325 decidedly rejected his theology. However, his importance was limited. He was not the founder or leader of ‘Arianism’:

“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)

“Many of the issues raised by the controversy were under lively discussion before Arius and Alexander publicly clashed” (RH, 52). Arius “was the spark that started the explosion. But in himself he was of no great significance.” (RH, xvii)

“Many of Arius’ earliest supporters appear to have rallied to him because they, like him, opposed Alexander’s theology” (Ayres, p. 14).

The Next 55 Years

During the next 55 years of the ‘Arian Controversy’, Arius and his theology were no longer of any significance. The Controversy of those 55 years was not caused by Arius. It was caused by the inclusion in the Nicene Creed of “new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day.” (RH, 846) The Controversy revolved specifically around the term homoousios, meaning “same substance.” This was a new and different dispute. As discussed in another article:

The Homo-ousians, with Athanasius on the forefront, defending the term against the anti-Nicene majority, argued that the Son’s substance is identical to the Father’s.

The homo-i-ousians claimed that His substance is similar to the Father’s, but not identical.

The hetero-ousians (the Neo-Arians) said that the Son’s substance is different from the Father’s.

The homo-ians refused to talk about God’s substance because the Bible does not say anything about it.

The point is that “Arius’ own theology is of little importance in understanding the major debates of the rest of the century” (after Nicaea) (Ayres, p. 56-57):

“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.” (Williams, p. 165)

“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.” (Williams, p. 233)

Athanasius invented Arianism.

So, if the word “Arian” is derived from Arius’ name, and if Arius “in himself … was of no great significance” (RH, xvii), why is it called the ‘Arian Controversy’? The reason is that, while the anti-Nicenes sometimes accused Athanasius and the Nicene Creed of Sabellianism, Athanasius invented the term ‘Arian’ “to tar” his opponents with the name of another theology that was already then formally rejected by the church:

“’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)

But, since Athanasius’ opponents were NOT followers of Arius:

“Theologians who criticized the Creed of Nicaea had very diverse attitudes to Arius himself.” (Williams, p. 247)

‘Arianism’ is a serious misnomer.

Since the term ‘Arianism’ implies “a coherent system, founded by a single great figure and sustained by his disciples” (Williams, p. 82), Hanson concludes that “the expression ‘the Arian Controversy’ is a serious misnomer” (RH, xvii-xviii):

“This controversy is mistakenly called Arian.” (Ayres, p. 13)

“If Athanasius’ account does shape our understanding, we risk misconceiving the nature of the fourth-century crisis.” (Williams, p. 234)

– END OF SUMMARY –


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:

Hanson, bishop R.P.C.
The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God –

The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

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

Ayres, Lewis
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; Williams, p. 95)

The Thalia

“The Thalia is Arius’ only known theological work” (RH, 10) but “we do not possess a single complete and continuous text.” (Williams, p. 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.

Arius was not a great theologian.

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.

The real reason is that Arius was not a great theologian and that not even his fellow ‘Arians’ 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 in the year 325 divided the Arian Controversy into two parts:

The first phase focused on Arius.

The first phase began around AD 318 in Alexandria with a dispute between Presbyter Arius and his bishop Alexander.  After this dispute had spread to some African regions, Emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicaea in AD 325 to bring an end to the controversy. This phase came to an end when the Council of Nicaea discussed and very soon rejected Arius’ theology:

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

The second phase focused on Homoousios.

Thereafter, however, the council meeting continued and became a dispute between the two other parties at Nicaea over how the creed must be formulated. As Eusebius of Caesarea explained, the minority party of Alexander of Alexandria, because they were protected by the emperor, was able to insert “new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day” (RH, 846) (substance – ousia, same substance – homoousion, and hypostasis) into the Creed against the will of the majority:

“The decisions of Nicaea were really the work of a minority.” 2Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed 1963, p 41

The reformed website Bible.ca states: “We will grant … that a majority opposed the Nicene creed. … The majority who opposed the creed were not aligned with Arius!”

These terms “borrowed from the pagan philosophy” were only infrequently heard in debates before Nicaea. They were never before used in any Christian profession of faith. Since they were key words in Greek philosophy, they created a new and different problem and became the main focus of the Controversy during the second and main phase of the Arian Controversy that continued after Nicaea for more than 50 years.

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

Williams, as a Trinitarian, accepts these words but he admits that these words were not used before Nicaea and they 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.” (Williams, p. 234-5)

This second phase lasted for a further 55 years after Nicaea. The point is that, in this second phase, the controversy was now no longer about Arius’ theology. Arius was now irrelevant.

Homoousios divided the church into several sides.

Arius was irrelevant in the second and main phase of the Arian Controversy. During that phase there was no such thing as a single Arian movement. While the first phase of the Controversy focused on the dispute between Arius and Alexander, the 55 years of the second phase became a dispute between several different views of the ontological relationship between the Father and the Son:`

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. But there were two camps:

People like bishop Damasis of Rome thought that homoousios means that Father and Son are one single Reality (Person).

People like Basil of Caesarea understood that Father and Son are two distinct Realities. (See – Meletian Schism)

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. This was also Arius’ view but Heterousianism was significantly different from Arius’ theology.

The homoians (homo-eans) said that the Son is like the Father but rejected all uses of the word ousia (substance), including homo-ousios and homoi-ousios because the Bible does not say anything about God’s substance. 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” (Williams, p. 234).

Arius and Athanasius were the extremists.

Arius’ theology approximated that of the hetero-ousians. But the homo-i-ousians and the homo-ians dominated in the years after Nicaea. For example, several councils were held in which homo-i-ousian or homo-ian creeds were accepted to replace the Nicene Creed (e.g., the Long Lines Creed). In the mid-fourth century, the anti-Nicenes were the “mainstream Christians” and regarded both Athanasius and Arius as extremists:

“The very wide spectrum of non-Nicene believers thought of themselves as mainstream Christians, and regarded Athanasius and his allies as isolated extremists – though increasingly they also looked on the more aggressive anti-Nicenes (Aetius, Eunomius, and the like) as no less alien to the mainstream of Catholic tradition.” (Williams, p. 82)

In the Second Phase,
Arius was irrelevant.

So, Arius was important in the first 7 years of the Controversy, but in the second and main part of the Controversy, which raged for another 55 years, the focus was on the new words from pagan philosophy. In this phase, Arius was irrelevant. The following is further evidence of this:

His theology was irrelevant.

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

“Those who suspected or openly repudiated the decisions of Nicaea … certainly (did not have) a loyalty to the teaching of Arius as an individual theologian” (Williams, p. 233).

The so-called ‘Arians’ opposed Arius.

“Arius was suspect in the eyes of the Lucianists and their neo-Arian successors.” (Williams, p. 234)

“Arianism (was) the … long-lasting hostility to or unease with Nicaea among those who would have found the Thalia puzzling and none too congenial” (Williams, p. 167).

“Holger Strutwolf (1999) … concludes that Eusebius initially misunderstood Arius as saying something similar to himself, and then distanced himself more and more from the Alexandrian as he realized his error, while still opposing the theology … advanced by Alexander” (Williams, p. 261).

The so-called ‘Arians’ never quoted Arius.

“The Arians could and did appeal to great names in the past … but not Arius!” (RH, 828).

“We have no knowledge of later Arian use of the Thalia [Arius’ book] … which suggests that it was not to the fore in the debates of the mid-century.” (Williams, p. 65)

“He may have written a lot of works … but (not even) … his supporters … thought them worth preserving. Those who follow his theological tradition seldom or never quote him.” (RH, xvii)

Bishops did not support Arius; they opposed Alexander.

Arius was supported by several bishops; not because they agreed with Arius, but because they opposed also Alexander:

“Many of Arius’ earliest supporters appear to have rallied to him because they, like him, opposed Alexander’s theology” (Ayres, p. 14).

“Arius gained support from some bishops …  Although these supporters may have been wary of some aspects of Arius’ theology … they joined in opposition to Alexander.” (Ayres, p. 17)

Eusebius of Caesarea “thought the theology of Alexander a greater menace than that of Arius.” (Williams, p. 173)

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.” (Williams, p. 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.” (Williams, p. 233)

“The bishops at Antioch in 341 … did not look on him as a factional leader, or ascribe any individual authority to him.” (Williams, p. 82-83, cf. 166)

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

Arius was an academic.

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

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

He did not leave behind a school of disciples.

“Arius evidently made converts to his views … but he left no school of disciples.” (Williams, p. 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.” (Williams, p. 165)

“The later ‘neo-Arians’ of the mid-century traced their theological ancestry back to the Lucianists rather than Arius” (Williams, p. 31).

Arius was part of a wider theological trajectory.

“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)

Arius was only the spark.

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

“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)

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

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 survive 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 invented Arianism.

The only reason we today use the terms “Arian” and “Arianism” is because:

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

“’Arianism’ is the polemical creation of Athanasius above all.” (Williams, p. 247) (Athanasius was the main defender of Nicene theology against the anti-Nicene majority.)

“’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)

What was Athanasius’ purpose?

Athanasius’ purpose was to create the impression that, although the various anti-Nicene views seem to differ, they all constituted a single coherent system; all based on Arius’ teachings. For example:

“Athanasius’ controversial energies … are dedicated to building up the picture of his enemies as uniformly committed … to a specific set of doctrines advanced by Arius and a small group of confederates” (Williams, p. 82-83).

“The professed purpose of Athanasius … is to exhibit the essential continuity of Arianism from first to last beneath a deceptive appearance of variety, all non-Nicene formularies of belief really lead back to the naked ‘blasphemies of Arius’.” (Williams, p. 66)

“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)

Athanasius’ purpose, therefore, was to argue, since Arius’ theology was already formally rejected by the church, that all opposition to the Nicene Creed was also already rejected.

Athanasius was accused of Sabellianism.

After Nicaea, the anti-Nicenes accused Alexander, Athanasius, and the Nicene Creed of submitting to Sabellianism; a theology 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.”3St. 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 referred to his opponents as ‘Arians’.

“Heresiological labels enabled early theologians and ecclesiastical historians … to tar enemies with the name of a figure already in disrepute. Most famously some participants in the debate described loosely related but clearly distinct thinkers as Arians.” (Ayres, p. 2)

The term ‘Arian’ was intended to insult.

Athanasius was fond of insulting his opponents by calling them all sorts of names. (See Tuggy’s podcasts 169, 170, 171.) The name ‘Arian’ fits this pattern:

“’The Arians’, (and a variety of abusive names whereby he [Athanasius] distinguishes them.” (RH, 19)

Athanasius quotes Arius because he relies on such texts being a positive embarrassment to most of his opponents” (Williams, p. 234).

A Serious Misnomer.

There was no single, coherent ‘Arian’ party.

The term “Arian” creates the impression that there was only one anti-Nicene view. However:

As already shown above, the term homoousios divided the church into several different branches, including several very different anti-Nicene views.

“‘Arianism,’ throughout most of the fourth century, was in fact a loose and uneasy coalition of those hostile to Nicaea in general and the homoousios in particular” (Williams, p. 166).

“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.” (Ayres, p. 13-14)

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

Arius was not the dominant teacher.

Furthermore, the term “Arian” creates the impression that Arius was the dominant teacher of the ‘Arian’ movement and that his disciples propagated his theology later in the century. However:

“No clear party sought to preserve Arius’ theology. Many … are termed Arian … (but) their theologies often have significantly different concerns and preoccupations.” (Ayres, p. 13)

“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.” (Williams, p. 247)

“The fourth-century crisis … is very far from being a struggle by ‘the Church’ against a ‘heresy’ formulated and propagated by a single dominated teacher” (Williams, p. 234).

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

A Serious Misnomer

Since Arius was not the dominant teacher but, actually, a relatively unimportant person, and since there was no single ‘Arian’ party, our authors concluded that:

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

“’Arianism’ is a very unhelpful term to use in relation to fourth-century controversy.” (Williams, p. 247)

“This controversy is mistakenly called Arian.” (Ayres, p. 13)

Rowan Williams concluded, “I was still, in 1987, prepared, even with reservations, to use the adjective ‘Arian’ in a way I should now find difficult” (Williams, p. 248).

And Lewis Ayres said, “For these reasons some scholars now simply refrain from using the term Arian other than as an adjective to describe Arius’ own theology and I shall follow that practice.” (Ayres, p. 14)

A Complete Travesty

Hanson stated that the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, which stems originally from the version given of it by the victorious party, is now recognized by a large number of scholars to be a complete travesty. Our authors confirm:

The “older accounts (of the Arian Controversy) are deeply mistaken.” (Ayres, p. 11)

“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).

This message, however, has yet to fully reach the level of preachers and ordinary Christians due to, as Williams indicated, the prejudice caused by the long history of ‘demonizing’ Arius is extraordinarily powerful. (Williams, p. 2)

Athanasius distorts.

In the view of the Catholic Church and many, many Protestants, Athanasius is the hero of the Arian Controversy and they believe whatever he wrote. But, apart from Jesus, nobody is without sin, and the above shows that Athanasius’ writings distort the nature of that Controversy:

“If Athanasius’ account does shape our understanding, we risk misconceiving the nature of the fourth-century crisis.” (Williams, p. 234)

“This book has attempted to view Arius without the distorting gloss of Athanasian polemic intervening and determining our picture of the heresiarch.” (Williams, p. 234)

The article titled Complete Travesty lists several aspects of the traditional account that are blatantly wrong but the fact that ‘Arianism’ is a serious misnomer is one of the more important aspects.

Trinitarian Christianity continued the deception.

Unfortunately, after Emperor Theodosius, in the year 380, made the Trinitarian version of Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and ruthlessly eliminated all other versions of Christianity from amongst the Roman people, the victorious Trinitarian Christianity accepted and continued Athanasius’ description of the Arian Controversy.

Even today, any person who opposes the Trinity doctrine is labeled as an ‘Arian’, irrespective of what the person believes.

It was only after the ancient documents became more readily available in the 20th century that scholars realized that the textbook account of the Arian Controversy is a complete travesty. But this realization is slow to work its way through to the rank and file of Christianity. 


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FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    Fourthcentury.com. 23 January 2010.
  • 2
    Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd Ed 1963, p 41
  • 3
    St. Athanasius (1911), “In Controversy With the Arians”, Select Treatises, Newman, John Henry Cardinal trans, Longmans, Green, & Co, p. 124, footn.
  • 4
    Overview of the history, from the pre-Nicene Church Fathers, through the fourth-century Arian Controversy
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