Arius was a conservative. He did not say anything new.


Arius was a presbyter in the city of Alexandria, Egypt. In the year 318, he confronted his bishop Alexander for ‘erroneous’ teachings concerning the nature of the Son of God. Their disagreement escalated and even became a threat to the unity of the empire. So, Emperor Constantine called a council at Nicaea in the year 325 where Arius’ theology was presented, discussed, and soon rejected.


This article discusses Arius’ antecedents: From whom did Arius receive his theology? Or did he develop his theology himself? In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, Arius’ theology was an innovation opposing established orthodoxy. But this article shows that Arius did not say anything new.

Was Arius important?

Only a few pages of what Arius wrote survived until today. The reason is that, as discussed in a previous article, Arius was not regarded by his peers as a particularly significant writer.

Still another article concluded that, while Athanasius’ enemies labeled him as a Sabellian, Athanasius invented the terms ‘Arian’ and ‘Arianism’ to label his opponents with Arius’ theology, with all the incoherence and inadequacy that teaching displayed. But his opponents were not ‘Arians’, meaning that they were not followers of Arius. They were the anti-Nicenes of a different place and time. In fact, they also opposed Arius’ theology.

Nevertheless, Arius was significant in the first 7 of the 62 years of the ‘Arian’ Controversy. (See – The Arian Controversy had two phases.) To understand the Nicene Creed, we need to understand him.


This article is mainly based on the following books:

RH = Bishop R.P.C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381 (1981), particularly chapter 3.

RW = Archbishop Rowan Williams, Arius, Heresy & Tradition (2001)

These are world-class scholars and Trinitarians.


“A very large number of names have been suggested as predecessors of Arius” (RH, 60).

“His enemies first associated him with Paul of Samosata and with Judaizing tendences in Christology; later on, after the reputation of Origen had been virtually ruined in the Church, Arius was regarded by some as an Origen redivivus (a reborn Origen). Some more modern scholars have been much preoccupied with the question of whether Antioch or Alexandria should be seen as his spiritual and intellectual home.” (RW, 116)

This section summarizes Hanson’s and Williams’ conclusions concerning Arius’ dependence on specific predecessors:


Plato’s philosophy of time and the origin of the universe still dominated in the fourth century and shaped what most influential writers of that time said about creation:

“Plato’s Timaeus served as the central text upon which discussions of the world’s origins focused, not only in late antiquity, but right up to the revival of Christian Aristotelianism in the thirteenth century. …

There can be no doubt that for many of the most influential writers of the age, from Origen to Eusebius Pamphilus, the contemporary discussion of time and the universe shaped their conceptions of what could intelligibly be said of creation.” (RW, 181)

“Plato distinguishes between:

      • What exists without cause and, therefore always exists and never comes into being, and
      • The universe as we perceive it, which had a beginning, is not eternal, and never exists stably.” (RW, 181)

Furthermore, Plato argues that, since the cosmos is beautiful; it must therefore be modeled upon what is higher and better. The Creator made something like himself; reflecting order and beauty. To establish this order, God created time. The heavenly bodies are made in order to measure and regulate time. In other words, so to speak, time did not always exist. (RW, 181-2) (Similar to the modern big bang theory)

So, yes, Arius was influenced by Plato, but so was every other theologian of his time.

Philo of Alexandria

Philo (20 BC – 50 AD) was a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher who interpreted Jewish scripture in terms of Greek philosophy. That is significant because the Christian theologians of the second and third centuries did the same with the New Testament (See – the Apologists).

Wolfson concluded, “Arius was responsible for ‘a reversion to the original view of Philo’ on the Logos, after the aberrations of a modalism which deprived the Logos of real subsistence” (RW, 117).

“Wolfson … suggested that Philo may have been a former of Arius’ thought because he too taught two Logoi, and the creation of one of them ex nihilo, and the incomparability of God.

But then, Wolfson was obsessed to an excessive degree with the influence of Philo on the fathers; Philo’s Logos-doctrine is confused and obscure; he does not make the same division between the Logos and God as did the Arians. We cannot claim Philo as an ancestor of Arius’ thought.” (RH, 60)

After discussing the evidence, Rowan Williams comes to a similar conclusion. He says that the similarities between Philo and Arius “should not … mislead us into hastily concluding that Arius was an assiduous student of Philo. What all this shows is, rather, that Philo mapped out the ground for the Alexandrian theological tradition to build on, and that Arius’ theological problematic is firmly within that tradition.” (RW, 122-123)

So, to the same extent that Arius was influenced by Philo, Alexandrian theologians, in general, were also influenced by him. Philo was not the origin of Arius’ idiosyncrasies.


Arius also did not receive his theology from the Gnostics:

“There are some resemblances to Gnostic doctrines in Arius’ thought. … But these resemblances are either too general or refer to terms used for different things in the two authors. Furthermore, Arius several times rejects the favourite Gnostic concept of the ‘issue’ … of beings, from God.” (RH, 60)

Clement of Alexandria

Clement (150-215) was the bishop of Alexandria in the early third century in the same city where Arius and his bishop lived.

Clément’s theology included one of the peculiar aspects of Arius’ theology, namely, “two Logoi.” (See the explanation below.) However, Clement’s “two Logoi are quite different from those of Arius.” (RH, 60)

Furthermore, while Arius taught ‘there was when He (the Son) was not, Clement taught “the eternity of the Son.” (RH, 60)

Clement describes the Logos as:

“The primary image of God …
the ‘second cause’ in heaven,
‘life itself’.” (RW, 125-126)

After showing that Clement’s theology is significantly different from that of Arius, Williams concludes:

“However, this is not to deny that Clement also passes on a positive legacy to Arius and his generation. … There are the numerous parallels in vocabulary between Arius’ Thalia and the language of Clement.” (RW, 126)

“It is less a question of a direct influence on Arius than of a common ethos … Arius begins from the apophatic tradition shared by Philo, Clement and heterodox Gnosticism … but his importance lies in his refusal to … (admit) into the divine substance … a second principle.” (RW, 131)

So, Arius inherited many things from Clement, just like he received many things from many other theologians, but the peculiar aspects of Arius’ theology cannot be blamed on Clement (RH, 60).


Origen (185-253) was the most influential theologian of the first three centuries. “From very early on, there were those who saw Origen as the ultimate source of Arius’ heresy” (RW, 131). The similarities and differences between Origen and Arius are discussed in a separate article. Hanson concluded:

“Arius probably inherited some terms and even some ideas from Origen, … he certainly did not adopt any large or significant part of Origen’s theology.” (RH, 70)

“He was not without influence from Origen, but cannot seriously be called an Origenist” (RH, 98).

Dionysius of Alexandria

“Dionysius was bishop of Alexandria from 247 to 264.” (RH, 72) “The Arians … were adducing (offering) Dionysius of Alexandria as a great authority in the past who supported their doctrine.” (RH, 73) For example, Dionysius wrote:

“The Son of God is a creature and generate,
and he is not by nature belonging to
but is alien in ousia from the Father,
just as the planter of the vine is to the vine,
and the shipbuilder to the ship;

Further, because he is a creature
he did not exist before he came into existence” (RH, 73).

“Dionysius … rejected homoousios because it did not occur in the Bible.” (RH, 75)

“Athanasius defends Dionysius, though he admits that he wrote these words, on the grounds that the circumstances, since he was combating Sabellianism, justified such expressions” (RH, 73).

“Basil … says that Dionysius unwittingly sowed the first seeds of the Anhomoian error, by leaning too far in the opposite direction in his anxiety to correct wrong Sabellian views” (RH, 74).

Hanson concludes as follows:

“However Dionysius may have refined his later theology, it is impossible to avoid seeing some influence from his work in the theology of Arius. The later Arians and Basil were right. The damning passage quoted from his letteris altogether too like the doctrine of Arius for us to regard it as insignificant.” (RH, 75-76)

“If, as seems likely, Arius put together an eclectic pattern of theology … Dionysius of Alexandria certainly contributed to that pattern” (RH, 76).

So, of all the writers referred to above, Dionysius is the first one who really could have been the source of Arius’ theology. And Dionysius was the bishop of the city when Arius was born there.

Paul of Samosata

Paul was Bishop of Antioch from 260 to 268. At the time, Antioch was the headquarters of the church. “Many scholars have conjectured that the views of Paul of Samosata, or at least of his school, must have influenced Arius” (RH, 70). However:

“Apparently for Paul the Son was Jesus Christ the historical figure without any preexistent history at all.

And the stock accusation made against Paul by all ancient writers who mention him from the ivth century onward was that he declared Jesus to be no more than a mere man.” (RH, 71)

“Apart from his (moral?) superiority to us in all things because of his miraculous generation, he is ‘equal to us’. Wisdom dwells in Jesus ‘as in a temple’: the prophets and Moses and “many lords’ (kings?) were indwelt by Wisdom, but Jesus has the fullest degree of participation in it.” (RW, 159-160)

“This is an idea which all Arian writers after Arius (and, in my view, probably Arius himself) regularly rejected.” “Arius believed firmly in a pre-existent Son.” (RH, 71) “Arius … ranges himself with those who most strongly opposed Paul. (RW, 161)

To conclude:

“We know very little with certainty about Paul of Samosata.” Therefore, “any attribution of influence from Paul of Samosata upon Arius must rest almost wholly upon speculation.” (RH, 72)

Theognostus of Alexandria

Theognostus wrote between 247 and 280. His views “echoes Arian concerns in insisting that the Father is not divided” but he also had some quite un-Arian views, such as that:

The Son is an issue of the Father (RH, 78).

“The ousia of the Son … was (not) introduced from non-existence, but it was of the Father’s ousia.” (RH, 77) “Theognostus explicitly disowned the doctrine, which Arius certainly held, that the Son was created out of non-existence” (RH, 78).

While Arius taught “that there are two Logoi (one immanent in the Father and one a name given somewhat inaccurately to the Son),” … Theognostus insisted that there was only one Logos (RH, 79). Therefore:

“We cannot glean any satisfactory evidence that Theognostus was a predecessor of Arius.” (RH, 79)

Methodius of Olympia

Methodius of Olympia (died c. 311) was a bishop, ecclesiastical author, and martyr.

He was “the most vocal critic of Origen in the pre-Arian period” (RW, 168). He “seems to assume that Origen’s doctrine of the eternity of creation implies the eternity of matter as a rival self-subsistent reality alongside God” (RW, 168).

He “produces some views which interestingly resemble those of Arius. For example:

“The Son … is wholly dependent on the Father.” (RH, 83).

The Son is “the first of all created things” (RH, 83).

“God alone … is ingenerate [meaning, exists without a cause]; nothing else in the universe is so, certainly not, he implies, the Son.” (RH, 83)

“God the Father is the ‘unoriginated origin’, God the Son the beginning after the beginning, the origin of everything else created.” (RH, 83)

“God the Father creates by his will alone. God the Son is the ‘hand’ of the Father, orders and adorns what the Father has created out of nothing.” (RH, 83)

Lucian of Antioch

The authorities above are discussed in chronological sequence. Lucian was the last of them. He died as a martyr in 312, only 6 years before Arius and his bishop clashed.

“Jerome ... describes Lucian thus: ‘A very learned man, a presbyter of the church of Antioch” (RH, 81). He was “well versed in sacred learning” (RH, 79).

Evidence that Arius was a follower of Lucian

“A figure to whom many scholars have looked in order to explain the origins of Arius’ thought is Lucian of Antioch:”

“Arius describes Eusebius of Nicomedia, to whom he is writing, as ‘a genuine fellow-disciple of Lucian’” (RH, 80), implying that Arius himself was a “disciple of Lucian.”

Philostorgius also described Eusebius of Nicomedia, who was one of Arius’ close friends, as “the _ disciple of Lucian the martyr’” (RH, 81).

Epiphanius identifies “the Arians” with “the Lucianists” (RH, 80). “’Lucian and all the Lucianists’, he says, ‘deny that the Son of God took a soul [i.e. a human soul), ‘in order that, of course, they may attach human experiences directly to the Logos.” (RH, 80) This was a standard teaching of the Arians.

Lucian’s theology

“According to Sozomen, the second creed of the Dedication Council on Antioch in 341 was said to be a confession of faith stemming from Lucian.” (RW, 163-4; cf. RH, 80-81)

“There is one fact, and one fact only, which we can with any confidence accept as authentic about Lucian’s doctrine. … Lucian taught that the Saviour at the Incarnation assumed a body without a soul” (RH, 83).

But Arius deviated from Lucian.

“Philostorgius knew of a tradition that Arius and the Lucianists disagreed about the Son’s knowledge of the Father, (RW, 165)

While Arius maintained “that God was incomprehensible … also to the only-begotten Son of God’ (RW, 165), “the Lucianists … were remembered to have held that God was fully known by the Son … Eusebius of Caesarea says much the same.” (RW, 165)

If these are true, then Arius differed from Lucian on this key aspect of his teachings.

Conclusions re Lucian

“We can be sure that Arius drew on the teachings of Lucian, but … we do not know what Lucian taught” (RH, 82, cf. 83). “Our witnesses to Lucian’s theology are fragmentary and uncertain in the extreme.” (RW, 163)

“It is wholly unlikely that Arius was a vox clamantis in deserto (a lone voice calling in the desert). He represents a school, probably the school of Lucian of Antioch, and the school was to some extent independent of him. Arianism did not look back on him later with respect and awe as its founder.” (RH, 97)

Antioch or Alexandria?

“Some … modern scholars have been much preoccupied with the question of whether Antioch or Alexandria should be seen as his spiritual and intellectual home.” (RW, 116).

However, “the stark distinctions once drawn between Antiochene and Alexandrian exegesis or theology have come increasingly to look exaggerated. (RW, 158)

“Arius is an unmistakable Alexandrian in his apophaticism (knowledge of God). … We have no real justification even for regarding him as a rebel in the matter of exegesis.” (RW, 156) “Arius inherits a dual concern that is very typically Alexandrian.” (RW, 176)


Arius did not cause the Controversy.

The analysis above shows that the authors preceding Arius had very conflicting views of the Son. Sabellian and his supporters are not even mentioned above because Arius was on the opposite end of the spectrum. Consequently:

“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 (only) the spark that started the explosion.” (RH, xvii)

Arius was particularly influenced by two authors.

Arius rejected Gnosticism and the theology of Paul of Samosata.

Arius is unmistakably Alexandrian in his theology and the general heritage of the church in Alexandria was shaped by Plato, Philo, Clement, Origen, and Lucian:

Arius’ theology was “clearly the result of a very large number of theological views.” (RW, 171)

The two authors whom Arius could rightly claim as his theological predecessors are Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, and Methodius, bishop of Olympia:

It is likely that Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria contributed to Arius’ theology (RH, 76).

Bishop Methodius of Olympia regarded the Father alone as ingenerate; the ‘unoriginated origin’ and the Son as the first of all created things and wholly dependent on the Father (RH, 83).

While Hanson said that “Arius … represents a school, probably the school of Lucian of Antioch” (RH, 97), Williams proposed that “it is perhaps a mistake to look for one self-contained and exclusive ‘theological school’ to which to assign him” (RW, 115).

Arius did not say anything new.

Arius’ book (The Thalia) “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.” (RW, 177).

“Arius … can no longer be regarded as the strange monster of heresy which Gwatkin, and even Harnack, depicted him to be” (RH, 84-85).


This second section discusses specific doctrines which Arius might have received from his predecessors. Almost everything that Arius wrote can be found in the writings of his predecessors. This section relies on both the discussion above and the article – Was Origen the ultimate source of Arius’ heresy?

A Creature

Both Origen and bishop Dionysius of Alexandria (247 to 264), described the Son as a ‘creature’ (RH, 63):

“Origen did … describe the Son both as ‘having come into existence’ and as a ‘creature’. … But at the same time, he declares his belief in the eternity of the Son as a distinct entity from the Father” (RH, 63-64). He used the term ‘creature’ in the general sense of a being whose existence was caused by another. That would include ‘begotten’ beings.

Dionysius described the Son of God as “a creature,” “alien in ousia from the Father” (RH, 73).


Methodius emphasized that the Father alone exists without a cause and, therefore, without a beginning. Origen, similarly, described the Son as “the originated God” (RH 62).


“Origen, with Arius, can be said to have subordinated the Son to the Father” (RH, 64). Hanson also explains that, for Origen, the Son was less subordinate than for Arius (RH, 64). Nevertheless, Hanson goes on to say that all theologians in the Eastern or the Western Church before the outbreak of the Arian Controversy regarded the Son as subordinate to the Father.

“Subordinationism might indeed, until the denouement (end) of the controversy, have been described as accepted orthodoxy” (RH, xix).

For example, Bishop Methodius of Olympia (died c. 311) regards the Son as the first of all created things and wholly dependent on the Father (RH, 83).

Not fully understand

Origen taught that the Son does not fully understand the Father.

Produced by the Father’s will

In contrast to Nicene theology, in which God never made a decision to generate the Son; the Son simply always exists, “Ignatius, Justin, Hippolytus, Clement of Alexandria and Origen” taught “the Son was produced by the Father’s will” (RH, 90).

Not homoousios

Dionysius of Alexandria “rejected homoousios” (RH, 75) and said that “the Son of God … is alien in ousia from the Father” (RH, 73).

There was when He was not

Dionysius of Alexandria said that the Son did not always exist:

“Because he is a creature he did not exist before he came into existence” (RH, 73).

From non-existence

As indicated by the anathemas attached to the Nicene Creed, this was one of the main aspects of Arius’ theology to which the Council objected. In opposition to the view that the Son is from non-existence, the Nicene Creed interprets “begotten” as that He is from the substance of the Father.

Hanson says that “Arius’ view, that “the Son was created from non-existent things, has never been supplied with a convincing antecedent.” (RH, 88)

But I would like to differ a bit from Hanson in this regard. I cannot find a place where Arius adds the word “things” to this statement. Arius simply said, “God made him ‘out of non-existence'” (RH, 20, 24). To me, this simply means that the Son did not exist before He was begotten. If that is the meaning, bishop Dionysius of Alexandria said the same thing about 50 years earlier when he said, “Because he is a creature he did not exist before he came into existence” (RH, 73).

Two Logoi

One of the unique aspects of Arius’ teaching was ‘two logoi’. Clement of Alexandria also taught “two Logoi” (RH, 60) but Theognostus of Alexandria “insisted that there was only one Logos” (RH, 79). This aspect requires more detail because the modern reader would not off-hand understand the significance:

Logos-theology had only one Logos.

The church became Gentile (non-Jewish) dominated in the second century but was still persecuted by the Roman Empire. These ‘Gentile’ theologians developed the Logos-theology and this became generally accepted in the church.

Logos-theology was an interpretation of the New Testament on the basis of Greek philosophy, which still dominated the intellectual world of the Roman Empire (see – The Apologists).

In Greek philosophy, God’s Logos (Word, Wisdomhas always existed as part of God but became a separate reality (hypostasis) when God decided to create. So, in Greek philosophy, there was only one Logos.

These church fathers explained the pre-existent Jesus Christ as the Logos of Greek philosophy. Consequently, the pre-existent Jesus Christ was explained as God’s only Logos. In this theology, God does not have another Logos. In other words, God does not have his own ‘mind’ or ‘Wisdom’ apart from His Son.

This view was challenged by Sabellianism in the third century but Sabellianism was rejected. Consequently, Logos-theology was the general explanation of the Son with which the church entered the fourth century. For example, Theognostus of Alexandria (247 to 280) “insisted that there was only one Logos” (RH, 79).

Since Hanson mentions only one theologian who taught “two Logoi” (Clement of Alexandria – RH, 60), presumably all other theologians taught one single Logos – as per the traditional Logos theology. For a further discussion, see – Logos-Theology

Arius deviated from Logos-theology.

Both Alexander and Athanasius noted that Arius taught two Logoi (two Wisdoms): The Son is Logos and God has His own Logos (mind). For example, Athanasius, in his paraphrasing of Arius’ teaching, wrote:

“There are … two Wisdoms, one God’s own who has existed eternally with God, the other the Son who was brought into existence. … There is another Word in God besides the Son” (RH, 13, cf. 16).

The fact that they mentioned this shows that they regarded this as noteworthy and even a deviation. Arius is very often accused of bringing philosophy into the church. However, his two Logoi seem to be a protest against the influence of Greek philosophy on church doctrine.

Other Articles

Athanasius invented Arianism.


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’, which 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.” (RW, 11-12) Consequently, “the four decades since 1960 have produced much revisionary scholarship on the Trinitarian and Christological disputes of the fourth century.” (LA, 11) On this basis, this article shows that Arius, in himself, was of no great significance, and continues to explain why it is called the ‘Arian’ Controversy:


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.” (LA, 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” (LA, 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 said that we should not 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) (LA, 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.” (RW, 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.” (RW, 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.” (RW, 82)

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

“Theologians who criticized the Creed of Nicaea had very diverse attitudes to Arius himself.” (RW, 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” (RW, 82), Hanson concludes that “the expression ‘the Arian Controversy’ is a serious misnomer” (RH, xvii-xviii):

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

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


Authors / Sources

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

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

The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

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

LA = Lewis Ayres
Nicaea and its legacy, 2004

Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology

Little of Arius’ writings survived.

Arius’ Own Writings

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

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

The Thalia

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

Why did so little survive?

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

Constantine destroyed Arius’ writings.

The usual explanation is that, a few years after the Nicene Council in 325, when Emperor Constantine thought that Arius threatened to split the church, he gave orders that all copies of the Thalia be burned so that “nothing will be left even to remind anyone of him.” He even commanded that those who do not immediately destroy Arius’ writings must be put to death (Constantine’s Edict) 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 part began with the dispute between Alexander and Arius in the year 318 and came to an end when the Council of Nicaea discussed and very soon rejected His theology:

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

The second phase focused on Homoousios.

But then the Nicene Council, by inserting “new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day” (RH, 846) into the Nicene Creed, particularly the word homoousios, saying the Son is of the same substance as the Father, caused a new and different problem and caused the second and main phase of the Arian Controversy:

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

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

Williams, as a Trinitarian in good standing, 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.” (RW, 234-5)

This second phase lasted for a further 55 years after Nicaea. The point is that the controversy now no longer was about Arius’ theology but about the word homoousios.

The word Homoousios divided the church into four main branches.

To show further that Arius was irrelevant in the second and main phase of the Arian Controversy, we need to understand that, in the 50+ years of the second phase of the Arian Controversy, there was no such thing as a single Arian movement. The church was divided into a number of branches; similar to our denominations today:

The homo-ousians were the pro-Nicenes. They accepted the statement in the Nicene Creed that the Son is homoousios (of the same substance) as the Father. The anti-Nicenes were divided as follows:

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

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

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

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

Arius 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.” (RW, 82)

For the most part,
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.” (LA, 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” (RW, 233).

The so-called ‘Arians’ opposed Arius.

“Arius was suspect in the eyes of the Lucianists and their neo-Arian successors.” (RW, 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” (RW, 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” (RW, 261).

The so-called ‘Arians’ never quote 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.” (RW, 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 supported Arius because 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” (LA, 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.” (LA, 17)

Eusebius of Caesarea “thought the theology of Alexander a greater menace than that of Arius.” (RW, 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.” (RW, 171)

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

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

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

Arius was an academic.

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

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

He did not leave behind a school of disciples.

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

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

“The later ‘neo-Arians’ of the mid-century traced their theological ancestry back to the Lucianists rather than Arius” (RW, 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.” (LA, 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 … is the invention of Athanasius’ polemic.” (RW, 234)

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

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

“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” (RW, 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’.” (RW, 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.” (RW, 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 defended against accusations 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.”2St. Athanasius (1911), “In Controversy With the Arians”, Select Treatises, Newman, John Henry Cardinal trans, Longmans, Green, & Co, p. 124, footn.

It was to counter this accusation, and “to tar” his opponents with the name of another theology that was already rejected, that Athanasius 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.” (LA, 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” (RW, 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” (RW, 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.” (LA, 13-14)

“There was no such thing in the fourth century as a single, coherent ‘Arian’ party.” (RW, 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.” (LA, 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.” (RW, 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” (RW, 234).

“It is virtually impossible to identify a school of thought dependent on Arius’ specific theology.” (LA, 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.” (RW, 247)

“This controversy is mistakenly called Arian.” (LA, 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” (RW, 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.” (LA, 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.” (LA, 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. (RW, 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.” (RW, 234)

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

Other Articles

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