The Arian Controversy
The Great Persecution of AD 303-313 was Rome’s final attempt to limit the expansion of Christianity. This persecution came to an end with Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313. The Arian Controversy began only 5 years later in 318 AD.
The Controversy divided the church into a number of camps. The controversy came to an end in the year 380, 62 years after it began, when emperor Theodosius made one of those camps, namely, the Trinitarian version of Christianity, the official religion of the Roman Empire and brutally destroyed all other versions of Christianity.
This was the church’s most dramatic struggle. After the Controversy was brought to an end, Arius became more and more regarded as some kind of Antichrist. However, over the last 100 years, due to new information about this ancient crisis, the scholarly view of the Controversy was significantly revised.
Arius’ following was limited to Africa but he had the support of the two most important church leaders of the time: Eusebius of Nicomedia was the ‘top executive’ of the church and Eusebius of Caesarea was regarded as the most scholarly bishop of his day. They supported Arius in his struggle against Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, whose theology they regarded as dangerous, but they did not follow Arius.
Alexander excommunicated Arius. Emperor Constantine attempted to restore unity but failed. He did not understand the issues.
Why it is important to understand Arius.
Over the centuries, the church came to regard Arius as some kind of Antichrist. Furthermore, in his own time, his own supporters did not regard Arius as particularly important. But Arius is an important dimension in Christianity. His theology was always described as hopelessly defective but he is now recognized as an exegete of sharpness and originality.
However, Arius and his theology were only relevant in the first 7 years of the controversy. The second and main phase of the Controversy was a dispute about terms included in the Creed from pagan philosophy, particularly the word homoousios. In that phase, Arius and his theology were irrelevant.
Arius was a conservative.
It is often claimed that Arius was a deliberate radical, breaking away from the ‘orthodoxy’ of the church fathers. But it is now recognized that Arius was a conservative.
Why is Arius still misunderstood?
Arius was misunderstood over the centuries and is still misunderstood by many because:
- Little of his writings survived,
- What has survived, survived as criticism of Arius in Athanasius’ writings and Athanasius misrepresents Arius.
- We fail to recognize the context of the time, namely that, in his time, all theologians regarded the Son as subordinate to the Father, and because
- Arius has been demonized for such a long time.
– END OF SUMMARY –
The Arian Controversy
During the first three centuries, the Roman Empire persecuted Christianity. The Great Persecution, only the 2nd empire-wide persecution and easily the longest, led by Diocletian, was Rome’s final attempt to limit the expansion of Christianity across the empire. Beginning around 303, Diocletian’s first edict commanded churches and holy sites razed to the ground, sacred articles burned, and believers jailed.
This persecution of Christians came to an end when Christianity was legalized with Galerius’ Edict of Toleration in 311 followed by Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313, after Emperor Constantine himself had become a Christian.
The Arian Controversy began only 5 years later.
The Arian Controversy began in 318 when Arius, who was in charge of one of the churches in Alexandria, publicly criticized his bishop Alexander for “carelessness in blurring the distinction of nature between the Father and the Son by his emphasis on eternal generation”.1Lyman, J. Rebecca (2010). “The Invention of ‘Heresy’ and ‘Schism'” (PDF). The Cambridge History of Christianity. According to Legal History Sources, Arius accused Alexander of Sabellianism.
Emperor Theodosius made an end to the Controversy.
The Controversy around the word homo-ousios divided the church into a number of camps, such as the homo-ousians, hetero-ousians, homo-i-ousians, and the homo-ians. The homo-ousians were the pro-Nicenes. In the years 360-380, the Cappadocian fathers developed the Trinity doctrine as a way to explain the Nicene Creed. Following this development, the controversy came to an end 62 years after it began when emperor Theodosius, in the year 380, through the edict of Thessalonica, made the Trinitarian version of Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. He wrote that all must:
“Believe in the one deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,
in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity.”
Theodosius destroyed ‘Arianism’ within the Roman Empire.
That same edict threatened all other Christians with “the punishment of our authority.” This threat was brutally implemented and the Roman Army eliminated all other versions of Christianity. Hetero-ousians, homo-i-ousians, and homo-ians were forbidden to meet and their places of worship were given to those bishops who accepted the Trinity doctrine, as required by the Roman law. For a further discussion, see – Theodosius.
This made an end to ‘Arianism’ among the Roman citizens. However, the Germanic nations – both inside and outside the empire – remained ‘Arian’.
The ‘Arian Controversy’ was the church’s most dramatic struggle.
That entire period of 62 years from 318 to 380 is known as “the Arian Controversy” and described as “the most dramatic internal struggle the Christian Church had so far experienced” (RW, 1).
The doctrine of God is the church’s most fundamental doctrine. So, perhaps this controversy will flame up again in the end-time, when “the image of the beast” will kill those who “do not worship (obey) the image of the beast” (Rev 13:15).
This is an article in the series on the Arian Controversy. This article explains who Arius was and why it is important to learn about him.
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
Trevor Hart wrote about this book: “While contributions have not been wanting, nothing comparable in either scale or erudition exists in the English language … treating in considerable detail … the so-called ‘Arian controversy’ which dominated the fourth century theological agenda.”
Kermit Zarley described Hanson as “the preeminent authority on the development of the church doctrine of God in the 4th century.”
Lewis Ayres, Emory University, wrote that this book “has been the standard English scholarly treatment of the trinitarian controversies of the fourth century and the triumph of Nicene theology.
RW = Archbishop Rowan Williams
Arius: Heresy and Tradition, 2002/1987
Lewis Ayres wrote that this book “offers one of the best recent discussions of the way scholarship on this controversy has developed. (LA, 12)
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.
Over the last century, after ancient documents have become more readily available, scholars have realized that the traditional textbook account of the Arian Controversy is a complete travesty. For example:
“In the first few decades of the present (20th) century … seminally important work was … done in the sorting-out of the chronology of the controversy, and in the isolation of a hard core of reliable primary documents.” (RW, 11-12)
“The post-war period has been astonishingly fertile in Arius scholarship” (RH, 16).
“A vast amount of scholarship over the past thirty years (i.e., as from 1970) has offered revisionist accounts of themes and figures from the fourth century.” (LA, 2)
“The four decades since 1960 have produced much revisionary scholarship on the Trinitarian and Christological disputes of the fourth century” (LA, 11).
Hanson summarizes this development as follows:
“The study of the Arian problem over the last hundred years has been like a long-distance gun trying to hit a target. The first sighting shots are very wide of the mark, but gradually the shells fall nearer and nearer:
The diatribes of Gwatkin and of Harnack, can today be completely ignored.
Prestige hardly pays sufficient attention to Arianism to be able to understand it.
Boularand consistently treats Arianism as if it had been from the outset an easily recognised heresy in contrast to a known and universally recognised orthodoxy, which is far from being the case.”
More recent and more thorough examination of Arianism has brought a more realistic estimate of it.” (RH, 95-96)
In consequence, Hanson noted that the conventional account of the Arian Controversy is a complete travesty. The three books listed above reflect this ‘revised’ scholarly view.
Arius was about 60 years old when the Controversy began (RH, 3, 5; cf. RW, 30). Epiphanius described him as follows:
“He was very tall in stature, with downcast countenance … always garbed in a short cloak and sleeveless tunic; he spoke gently, and people found him persuasive and flattering.” (RW, 32)
Was Arius a student of Lucian?
Hanson says that “Arius very probably had at some time studied with Lucian of Antioch” because he refers to somebody else as “truly a fellow-disciple of Lucian.” (RH, 5, cf. 29) But Williams questions whether “we should assume from the one word in Arius’ letter that he had actually been Lucian’s student.” (RW, 30)
Was Arius involved in the Melitian Schism?
In the past, many writers have assumed that our Arius is the same as the Arius who was involved in the Melitian schism, “who had an outward appearance of piety, and … was eager to be a teacher.” (RW, 34, 32-40) However, after several pages of detailed analysis, Williams concludes that “the Melitian Arius … melt(s) away under close investigation.” (RW, 40)
Arius’ following was limited to Africa.
The controversy had spread from Alexandria into almost all the African regions and was considered a disturbance of the public order by the Roman Empire. (Eusebius of Caesarea in The Life of Constantine)
“The Thalia appears … to have circulated only in Alexandria; what is known of him elsewhere seems to stem from Athanasius’ quotations.” (LA, 56-57)
The two Eusebii supported Arius.
Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia “was a supporter of Arius as long as Arius lived.” (RH, 30-31)
Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea “was certainly an early supporter of Arius” (RH, 46).
The two Eusebii were the most important church leaders.
At the time, the two Eusebii were perhaps the two most important church leaders (LA, 52). For example:
“Many eastern bishops rallied around the Eusebii even while differing among themselves.” (LA, 52)
Eusebius of Nicomedia was the ‘top executive’ of the church.
“The conventional picture of Eusebius (of Nicomedia) is of an unscrupulous intriguer.” (RH, 27) “This is of course because our knowledge of Eusebius derives almost entirely from the evidence of his bitter enemies.“ (RH, 27) Hanson lists several examples where Eusebius displayed integrity and courage (RH, 28) and then concludes that this Eusebius:
“Virtually took charge of the affairs of the Greek-speaking Eastern Church from 328 until his death.” (RH, 29) (Remember, at that time, the bulk of the church was in the east.)
“Was … influential with the Emperors Licinius, Constantine, and Constantius.” (LA, 52) (It was this Eusebius who baptized Emperor Constantine on his deathbed.)
“Certainly was a man of strong character and great ability.” (RH, 29)
Encouraged the spread of the Christian faith beyond the frontiers of the Roman Empire. (The version of the Christian faith that the missionaries spread was that favored by Eusebius and not by Athanasius. This is evidence of his zeal. (RH, 29))
“Eusebius of Caesarea, the historian and theologian” (LA, 58) “was made bishop of Caesarea about 313 (and) attended the Council of Nicaea in 325.” (RH, 47) He was:
“Universally acknowledged to be the most scholarly bishop of his day.” (RH, 46; cf. 153)
“One of the most influential authors of the fourth century.” (RH, 860)
The most learned and one of the best-known of the 300-odd bishops present” at the Nicene Council (RH, 159).
“Neither Arius nor anti-Arians speak evil of him.” (RH, 46)
The Eusebii did not follow Arius.
The two Eusebii supported Arius but they did not follow Arius as if they were students of Arius. They supported Arius because they also opposed Alexander’s theology:
Eusebius of Caesarea “thought the theology of Alexander a greater menace than that of Arius.” (RW, 173)
“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).
Socrates confirmed that Eusebius was not a follower of Arius. For example, he wrote that Eusebius stated:
“Anyone could justly censure those who have presumed to affirm that he is a Creature made of nothing, like the rest of the creatures; for how then would he be a Son?”
Arius’ followers were limited to a small number of people in Egypt. The Eusebii were the real theological leaders of the anti-Nicene movement. They agreed with Arius in many respects because they all belonged to the same school. Therefore they supported Arius in his struggle against the theology of Alexander of Alexandria. For example:
“Arius … represents a school … 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)
“If some of these … agreed with him, then the explanation is to be sought rather in the fact that both he and they were drawing upon a common theological heritage.” (Dr. Hart)
Events before Nicaea (318-325)
Alexander excommunicated Arius.
In AD 321, three years after the dispute arose and four years before the Council of Nicea, Alexander removed Arius from office and also excommunicated him [i.e.; banned him from the communion table].
Emperor Constantine attempted to restore unity.
“Constantine desired that the church should contribute to the social and moral strength of the empire.”
Therefore, “religious dissension was (regarded as) a menace to the public welfare.”
Consequently, “if necessary, secular authority might be exercised for … suppression” of “religious dissension.”
Constantine interceded “for the settlement of the Arian controversy,” not for “the protection of any creed or interpretation of Christian doctrine,” but “to preserve unity within the church.”
Constantine did not understand the issues.
Constantine sent a letter to both parties rebuking them for quarreling about ‘minute distinctions’, as he believed them to be doing.3Encyclopædia Britannica, 1971, Constantine, Vol. 6, p. 386 He dismissed the theological question of the relationship of Father and Son as “intrinsically trifling and of little moment” and as “small and very insignificant questions.”4Drake, 4. Constantine and Consensus He told the opposing parties that they are “not merely unbecoming, but positively evil, that so large a portion of God’s people which belong to your jurisdiction should be thus divided.”5Davis, Leo Donald. The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology. Vol. 21. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 1990. 55
Very little of Arius’ writings have survived until today. As explained elsewhere, the reason is that “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)
Given that so little of Arius’ writings survived, we need to reconstruct what Arius actually taught from the writings of his enemies, which is difficult.
Why is it important that we study Arius?
The church demonized Arius.
Why should we learn about Arius? ‘Arianism’ “has often been regarded as … aimed at the very heart of the Christian confession.” (RW, 1) Athanasius implied that Arius is the devil’s pupil (RW, 101). After Emperor Theodosius in AD 380 made the Trinitarian version of Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and, thereafter, brutally eliminated all other versions of Christianity,
“Arius … came more and more to be regarded as a kind of Antichrist among heretics, a man whose superficial austerity and spirituality cloaked a diabolical malice.” (RW, 1)
“By the early medieval period, we find him represented alongside Judas in ecclesiastical art.” (RW, 1)
“No other heretic has been through so thoroughgoing a process of ‘demonization’.” (RW, 1)
Arius’ own supporters did not regard him as particularly important.
The article – Arius is not important – argues as follows:
Since the Arian Controversy is named after Arius, it may seem as if Arius was an important person; the leader of the Arians and the cause of the Arian Controversy. And if we remember that ‘Arianism’ dominated the church during most of the Arian Controversy, that would mean that Arius was a very important person during the fourth century.
But Arius was not regarded by his fellow ‘Arians’ as a great theologian. He was not the founder of Arianism nor the leader of a movement. He did not leave a school of disciples and his following was limited to Africa. “He was the spark that started the explosion. But in himself he was of no great significance.” (RH, xvii)
We refer to the fourth-century crisis today as the ‘Arian’ Controversy because Athanasius referred to his opponents as Arians. His purpose was to tar them with a theology that was already formally rejected by the church.
But Athanasius’ opponents were not followers of Arius. After Nicaea, the controversy around the word Homoousios divided the church into four main camps and, in that context, Arius was irrelevant
There is another and more valid reason for learning about Arius.
Arius’ theology was always described as hopelessly defective.
Arius’ views have always been “represented as … some hopelessly defective form of belief” (RW, 2). For example:
Harnack (1909) describes Arius’ teaching as “novel, self-contradictory and, above all, religiously inadequate.” (RW, 7)
“Gwatkin (c. 1900) characterizes Arianism as … a crude and contradictory system.” (RW, 10)
But Arius is now recognized as an exegete of sharpness and originality.
Contrary to the traditional view, after writing a recent book specifically about Arius, Rowan Williams concluded that Arius had already early on produced a consistent position on almost all points under debate (RW, 2). In his view:
Arius is “a thinker and exegete of resourcefulness, sharpness and originality.” (RW, 116)
“Arius … is confronted with a bewildering complexity of conventions in Scripture for naming the mediator … and he seeks to reduce this chaos … to some kind of order.” (RW, 111)
“Arius may stand for an important dimension in Christian life that was disedifyingly and unfortunately crushed.” (RW, 91)
“Arianism was not, as some of its critics have claimed, a juxtaposition of incongruous doctrines.” (RH, 99)
The point is that we need to study Arius because, as Williams wrote, he “may stand for an important dimension in Christian life.” (RW, 91)
Arius only explains the Nicene Creed.
As explained elsewhere, the Arian Controversy had two clear phases:
The first was the dispute between Arius and Alexander. That dispute was concluded when Arius was rejected at the Nicene Council in the year 325.
The second phase was caused by the insertion in the Creed of terms from pagan philosophy, particularly the word homoousios. That caused the controversy over the next 55 years.
That article explains that Arius and his theology had no role in the second and main phase of the controversy from 325 to 380. Lewis Ayres confirms:
“Arius’ own theology is of little importance in understanding the major debates of the rest of the century.” (LA, 56-57)
Therefore, a study of Arius will only help us to understand the first phase of the Controversy, culminating in the Nicene Creed.
Another false accusation that has always been levied against Arius is that he is a deliberate radical, breaking away from the ‘orthodoxy’ of the church fathers. But the opposite is true:
“A great deal of recent work seeking to understand Arian spirituality has, not surprisingly, helped to demolish the notion of Arius and his supporters as deliberate radicals, attacking a time-honoured tradition.” (RW, 21)
“Arius was a committed theological conservative; more specifically, a conservative Alexandrian.” (RW, 175)
“In Alexandria he (Arius) represented … a conservative theology.” (RW, 233)
“The theology of the Thalia (Arius’ book) … is conservative in the sense that there is almost nothing in it that could not be found in earlier writers; it is radical and individual in the way it combines and reorganizes traditional ideas and presses them to their logical conclusions.” (RW, 177)
Arius defended the tradition:
“Arius had perceived the necessity … of a critical and logical defence of tradition in the face of increasingly dangerous theological ambiguities in the teaching of his day [i.e., Alexander].” (RW, 235)
If the evaluation of Arius by these scholars is correct, why do so many people still regard Arius and his theology as “crude and contradictory?” Williams is surprised by “the way in which the modern study of Arius and ‘Arianism’ has often continued to accept … the image of this heresy as the radically ‘Other’.” (RW, 2)
Little of his writings survived.
One major reason is, as already stated, that very little of his writings have survived. The letters written by Arius that we have today only provide his summary conclusions with no clear explanations of how he came to those conclusions:
“The Arian controversy is essentially about hermeneutics … the principles of exegesis … Unfortunately, however, we have very little evidence for Arius’ own exegesis.” (RW, 108)
Athanasius misrepresents Arius.
Secondly, most of what we know about Arius are criticisms of Arius in the writings of his enemies – particularly Athanasius and:
The extracts in the writings of Arius’ enemies “are … very far from presenting to us the systematic thought of Arius.” (RW, 92)
“Athanasius, a fierce opponent of Arius, certainly would not have stopped short of misrepresenting what he said.” (RH, 10)
“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)
This is the main reason why scholars still misunderstand Arius:
“Elliger argues that the consensus of earlier scholarship has radically misunderstood Arius, largely as a result of reading him through the spectacles of his opponents.” (Walter Elliger, 1931) (RW, 12)
“Once we stopped looking at him from Athanasius’ perspective, we shall have a fairer picture of his strength.” (RW, 12-13)
Subordination was orthodoxy when Arius wrote.
Another reason we fail to understand Arius is that we do not adequately consider his context.
For example, Arius is often accused of introducing a ‘new’ teaching that the Son is subordinate to the Father. However, in Logos-Theology, which was ‘orthodoxy’ when the Arian Controversy began, the Logos is subordinate to the supreme Being. Therefore, when Arius wrote, all Christians regarded the Son to be subordinate to the Father:
“There is no theologian in the Eastern or the Western Church before the outbreak of the Arian Controversy, who does not in some sense regard the Son as subordinate to the Father.” (RH, 63)
“The initial debate was not about the rightness or wrongness of hierarchical models of the Trinity, which were common to both sides.” (RW, 109)
“Subordinationism might indeed, until the denouement (end) of the controversy, have been described as accepted orthodoxy.” (RH, xix)
The subordination of the Son to the Father, therefore, was an idea that Arius shared with his opponents; not a new idea proposed by Arius.
Arius has been demonized for a long time.
Rowan Williams adds two more reasons why Arius is misunderstood. The first is “Nicaea’s traditional and liturgical importance.” The second is “the long history of what I have called the ‘demonizing’ of Arius is extraordinarily powerful” (RW, 2).
- 1Lyman, J. Rebecca (2010). “The Invention of ‘Heresy’ and ‘Schism'” (PDF). The Cambridge History of Christianity.
- 2W.K. Boyd, The Ecclesiastical Edicts of the Theodosian Code (1905)
- 3Encyclopædia Britannica, 1971, Constantine, Vol. 6, p. 386
- 4Drake, 4. Constantine and Consensus
- 5Davis, Leo Donald. The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology. Vol. 21. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 1990. 55