If Arius was so important, why did his writings not survive?

Introduction

The Arian “crisis of the fourth century was the most dramatic internal struggle the Christian Church had so far experienced” (RW, 1). ‘Arianism’, named after Arius, “has often been regarded as … aimed at the very heart of the Christian confession” (RW, 1). “Arius himself came more and more to be regarded as a kind of Antichrist … a man whose superficial austerity and spirituality cloaked a diabolical malice, a deliberate enmity to revealed faith” (RW, 1).

Arius’ theology was discussed and rejected at Nicaea in 325 but ‘Arianism’ continued to dominate the church after Nicaea for more than 50 years.

Sources

This article quotes from the following authors:

RH = Bishop RPC Hanson – The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381 (1981)

RW = Archbishop Rowan Williams – Arius, Heresy & Tradition, 2001

Both are highly respected scholars who have made in-depth studies of the Arian Controversy of the fourth century.

Documents that Survived

As far as Arius’ writings go, we only have:

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

“The Thalia is Arius’ only known theological work” (RH, 10) but “we do not possess a single complete and continuous text” (RW, 62). We only have extracts from it in the writings of Arius’ enemies, “mostly from the pen of Athanasius of Alexandria, his bitterest and most prejudiced enemy” (RH, 6). (Arius’ friends never quoted him, as far as we know.)

These extracts in the writings of Arius’ enemies “are … very far from presenting to us the systematic thought of Arius” (RW, 92). “We can never be sure that his statements are transmitted correctly” (RW, 92). “Athanasius, a fierce opponent of Arius, certainly would not have stopped short of misrepresenting what he (Arius) said” (RH, 10). For example, “the quotations from the Thalia in Orationes con. Arianos I.5-6 are full of derogatory and hostile editorial corrections clearly emanating from Athanasius” (RH, 11). “Athanasius is paraphrasing rather than quoting directly, and in places may be suspected of pressing the words maliciously rather further than Arius intended” (RH, 15).

Why so little survived

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

The usual explanation is that Constantine gave instructions that all of Arius’ writings must be destroyed, but that is not the real reason. The church remained ‘Arian’ for more than 50 years after the Nicene Council. If Arius had that much support, his supporters would have kept copies of his writings despite Constantine’s edict.

The real reason is that Arius was not the hero or leader or founder of an ‘Arian’ sect in the church:

“The bishops at Antioch in 341 declare … that they were not ‘followers of Arius; for how could we as bishops be followers of a presbyter?’ They meant … that they … did not look on him as a factional leader, or ascribe any individual authority to him.” (RW, 82-83)

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

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

The Two Parts of the Arian Controversy

To understand this, we must realize that the events of the Nicene Council divided the Arian Controversy into two parts:

In the first part of the Nicene Council, Arius’ theology was presented and very soon rejected:

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

This made an end to the first part of the Arian Controversy, namely of support for Arius’ theology.

But then the Nicene Council, by stating in the Creed that the Son is homoousios (of the same substance) as the Father, created a new and different problem. The word homoousios is based on the Greek word ousia (substance) which is a concept from philosophy and does not appear anywhere in the Scriptures. It was mentioned in the debate before Nicaea but to bring it into a formal creed of the church was an innovation:

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

Therefore, Williams refers to “the conservative anti-Nicene response.” (RW, 236).

The inclusion of ousia (substance)-words in the Creed caused the second phase of the Arian Controversy:

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

Various alternatives were proposed in the years after Nicaea, such as “like in substance” and “different in substance,” but eventually, the church settled on a Homoean creed that did not refer to substance and put a ban on the use of substance language.

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

The point is that, in this second and main phase of the ‘Arian Controversy’, the Arius problem was long forgotten:

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

Consequently:

“The expression ‘the Arian Controversy’ is a serious misnomer.” “The name “Arian” is not appropriate” because “Arius was not accepted as leader of a new movement. He did not write anything worth preserving. … Arius was only the spark that started the explosion. He himself was of no great significance.” (RH, xvii-xviii)

“There is the growing sense that ‘Arianism’ is a very unhelpful term to use in relation to fourth-century controversy. There was no single ‘Arian’ agenda, no tradition of loyalty to a single authoritative teacher. Theologians who criticized the Creed of Nicaea had very diverse attitudes to Arius himself.” (RW, 247).

There was no such thing in the fourth century as a single, coherent ‘Arian’ party. Those who suspected or openly repudiated the decisions of Nicaea had little in common but this hostility … certainly not a loyalty to the teaching of Arius as an individual theologian” (RW, 233).

Why is it called the Arian Controversy’?

Since the word “Arian” is derived from Arius’ name, and if Arius’ theology was a minority view during the second and main phase of the ‘Arian Controversy’, why is it called the ‘Arian Controversy’? The reason is that:

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

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

Why did Athanasius do this?

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

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

‘Arians’ was a derogatory name that Athanasius coined to insult his opponents:

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

Unfortunately, Athanasius’ title “Arians” became generally accepted in the church because the winner wrote the history:

“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).


Conclusions

The Arian crisis of the fourth century was the most dramatic internal struggle the Christian Church had so far experienced.

‘Arianism’ is named after the Alexandrian presbyter Arius. However, very little of his writings are extant.

The reason is that ‘Arianism’ as a coherent system, founded by a single great figure and sustained by his disciples, is a fantasy:

Arius’ ‘movement’ was brought to an end when the church majority rejected his views at the Nicene Council of 325.

The inclusion of ousia (substance)-words in the Creed caused the second and main phase of the ‘Arian Controversy’; from 325 to 380. In this phase, Arius’ teachings were not to the fore and represented a theological style no longer acceptable in Arian circles.

Consequently, the expression ‘the Arian Controversy’ is a serious misnomer. The textbook picture of an Arian system, inspired by the teachings of the Alexandrian presbyter, was invented by Athanasius. He 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.

Athanasius’ word “Arian” became generally accepted in the church because the winner wrote the history.


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