After the Fall of Rome, Arianism dominated.

ABSTRACT: In 380, Emperor Theodosius made the Trinitarian version of Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. This was the birth of the Roman Church. In the fifth century, Arian Germanic immigrants dominated the Western Empire and the West was Arian once again. But they tolerated the Roman Church and it actually grew in strength.

This is an article in the series that explains how the Trinity doctrine became established in the Church. The current article considers the events of the Fifth Century.

FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE

The Origin of the Roman Church

In the year 379, Theodosius became emperor. One year later, in 380, he issued an edict that made the Trinity doctrine the sole state religion of the Roman Empire. In this way, the Trinity doctrine became the identifying mark of the Roman Church, understood as the Church of the Roman Empire.

While the Nicene Creed still identifies the “one God” as the Father, Theodosius’ edict identified the “one God” as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It was, therefore, a significant ‘advance’ on the Nicene Creed. As discussed, when the Arian Controversy began, the ‘orthodoxy’ was that the Son is distinct from and subordinate to the Father. What is declared as ‘orthodox’ in Theodosius’ edict was not orthodox when the Controversy began:

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, the Trinity doctrine was orthodoxy when the Controversy began. However, we know today that the traditional account is a complete travesty. The 20th century has produced much revisionary scholarship on the Trinitarian and Christological disputes of the fourth century.” (LA, 11) 1LA = Lewis Ayres Nicaea and its legacy, 2004

One year later, the Council of Constantinople in 381 issued a creed that is very similar to the creed of 325 but still identifies the “one God” as the Father.

Nevertheless, in 380, Theodosius outlawed all non-Trinitarian forms of Christianity and ruthlessly exterminated all opposition to the Trinity doctrine. He expelled their bishops, forbade them to meet and preach, and gave their churches to Trinitarian congregations. He was responsible for the first official executions of Christian ‘heretics’. [Jones 1964, p. 164] Religious persecution was part of the Roman culture. Roman emperors always used religion to strengthen the unity of their vast empire and persecuted religions that threatened unity.

The West became Germanic-dominated.

However, the Germanic peoples (called ‘barbarians’ by the Romans) remained anti-Trinitarian. Huge numbers of Germanic peoples migrated into the territory of the Empire over the previous century. Many of them were recruited into the Roman army, to such an extent that the Imperial forces became dependent on Germanic soldiers. They were also appointed to top positions in the military. Since Roman generals always were very influential in the Roman Empire, this put these ‘barbarians’ in a very strong position.

Theodosius was the last Roman emperor to rule the entire Empire. Soon after he died in 395, Germanic people effectively had control of the Western Roman Empire. Nevertheless, the Graeco-Roman population still treated them as second-class citizens. Therefore, to demand equal rights and permanent residency in the empire, the Germanic people revolted against the severe conditions of their tenure in the Roman Empire. They sacked Rome in 410 and again in 455. (See Fall of the Roman Empire.)

Although they dominated the Western Empire already from the beginning of the 400s (the fifth century), they tolerated figurehead Western Roman Emperors until 476, when Odoacer—an Arian Germanic chieftain—deposed the last Western Roman Empire and soon conquered the whole of Italy.

They then divided the territory of the Western Empire between the Germanic tribes. However, these tribes continued to function as part of the Roman Empire. In name at least, they were subject to the Emperor in Constantinople. For these reasons, historians today prefer to refer to the Transformation of the Western Roman Empire; rather than to its Fall. It was a slow process over decades and even centuries during which the Germanic people wrestled control of the Western Empire from the Romans. 

The ‘Germans’ were ‘Arians’.

Theodosius had exterminated opposition to the Trinitarian doctrine from among the Roman people. But the Germanic nations were converted by the efforts of the church in the time before Theodosius when the church majority was ‘Arian’. These Germanic people, therefore, were ‘Arian’. Consequently, the Western Roman Empire was once again ‘Arian’. dominated.

The term ‘Arian’ is a serious misnomer because Arius was an insignificant theologian. He did not leave a school of disciples. Today, we use the term ‘Arian’ for all opposition to the Trinity doctrine because Athanasius invented to term to insult his opponents by labelling them with an already discredited theology. This article continues to use the term ‘Arian’, not to refer to the theology of Arius, which was one specific anti-Trinitarian theology, but to refer to all opposition to the Trinity doctrine.

THE ROMAN CHURCH

United with the Roman Empire.

The Roman Church survived throughout this period. There are at least two reasons why we might have expected the Church in Rome to perish with the demise of the Western Empire. Firstly, as stated, while the Roman Church was Trinitarian, the Germanic peoples were ‘Arian’. 

Secondly, the Church in Rome was part of the government of the Roman Empire. After Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in 313 AD, the church became united with the state. Division of church and state was not a reality. The emperors decided which religions were legal and they effectively became the head of the church. He had the final say concerning controversies in the church and with respect to whether bishops should be exiled and re-admitted. The view of the emperor, and whoever had the ear of the emperor, determined the theology of the church. For example:

Emperor Constantine had a huge role in the decisions of the Council of Nicaea. He called the council, presided over it, guided the discussions, proposed and enforced the important word Homoousios, and exiled all bishops who refused to sign the Creed. The preference of the emperor allowed the inclusion of the term homoousios.

When Theodosius I became emperor in 379, the imperial capital was solidly Arian. But he almost immediately outlawed all non-Trinitarian forms of Christianity, exiled Arian bishops, and excluded Arians from the Council of 381. (See Theodosius.)

As a consequence of the elevated status of the church, Christianity became wealthy and the religion of any ambitious civil official.

The ‘Germans’ tolerated the Roman Church.

Given the unity of the Roman Church and the Roman Empire, one might have expected the Germanic peoples to oppose the Roman Church in the West. However, the Roman Church survived in the West. The new Arian rulers in the Western Empire allowed the Roman Church (the Church of the Roman Empire) to co-exist unimpeded. The Germanic people, after they took control of the Western Empire, intended to remain part of the Roman Empire and tolerated the Roman Church because it was an official part of the Roman system of government; accountable to the emperor. The Germanic people voluntarily—in name at least—subjected themselves to the Roman Emperor, who reigned from the east. Consequently, Arianism and the Trinitarian Church of the Roman people existed side by side. The Jewish Encyclopaedia describes the situation:

“Most Germanic peoples—such as the eastern and western Goths, as also the Franks, the Lombards, the Suevi, and the Vandals—were baptized into Arian Christianity. These tribes settled in widely spread districts of the old Roman empire. A large number of Jews, already resident in those lands, fell under Arian domination. In contrast with the domination of the orthodox church, the Arian was distinguished by a wise tolerance and a mild treatment of the population of other faiths. This conduct was traceable to some degree to certain points of agreement between the Arian doctrine and Judaism. The very insistence upon the more subordinate relationship of the Son to the God-father is much nearer to the Jewish doctrine of the Messiah than to the conception of the full divinity of the Son, as enunciated at Nicaea.” (Kohler, Kaufmann; Krauss, Samuel. “ARIANISM”. Jewish Encyclopedia. Kopelman Foundation.)

The tolerance of the Arian tribes towards other religions resulted in entirely distinct Arian and Trinitarian systems of churches and bishops in the previous Western Empire. 

Although the Arian Germanic tribes were generally tolerant towards Nicene Christians, the Vandals in North Africa tried to force their Arian beliefs on their North African Nicene subjects, exiling Nicene clergy, dissolving monasteries, and exercising heavy pressure on non-conforming Nicene Christians. This matter will become important when we read of Emperor Justinian’s efforts in the sixth century to regain control of the Western Empire, for the first ‘barbarian’ nation that he attacked was the Vandals.

The Roman Church became stronger.

Actually, instead of perishing, the Church in Rome grew in strength after the ‘barbarians’ wrestled control of the western provinces from the original Graeco-Roman population (Britannica). The reasons include the following:

(A) The Church had a strong, centralized organization: The pope in Rome is the head of the Church. All clergy, including bishops and priests, fell under his authority. Bishops supervised priests; the lowest-ranking members of the clergy. For most people, local priests served as the main contact with the Church.

(B) At the same time, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, there was no single state or government that united all people who lived on the European continent. The transformation of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century was a time of great political chaos and warfare and the well-organized church became the only stabilizing force. As secular governments came and went, the Papacy remained. The church was a stable force during an era of constant warfare and political turmoil.

(C) The Church also bonded people together. It gave a sense of communal identity. At the local level, the village church was a unifying force in the lives of most people. It served as a religious and social center. Religious holidays, especially Christmas and Easter, were occasions for festive celebrations.

Arians converted to the Roman Church.

One consequence of the growing strength of the Roman Church was that the Germanic peoples converted to the Trinity doctrine, rather than to Arianism. The Franks were the first to convert.

The Franks and the Anglo-Saxons also were Germanic peoples but never were Arians. They entered the Western Roman Empire as Pagans.

The Franks were the first to convert. In 496, Clovis, king of the Franks, converted to Nicene Christianity—as opposed to the Arianism of most other Germanic tribes. Consequently, sometime between 496 and 508, Clovis I forcibly converted the Franks to Christianity. (So much for religious freedom!) This led to widespread conversion among the Frankish peoples across what is now modern-day France, Belgium, and Germany.

Æthelberht of Kent did the same for the Anglo-Saxons (see also Christianity in Gaul and Christianisation of Anglo-Saxon England). 

Visigothic Spain was Arian until 589. 

The Lombards were Arians until the 7th century.

CONCLUSIONS

The religious preferences of the Roman Emperors determined the Christology of the church. The current article refers to the roles which Constantine and Theodosius played. As the next article will show, in the sixth century, Emperor Justinian gave Arianism a death wound and it died during the subsequent Byzantine Papacy. The fact that the church today is dominated by the Trinity doctrine is the direct result of decisions taken by Roman Emperors.

OTHER ARTICLES

Origin of the Trinity Doctrine

CHURCH FATHERS

ARIAN CONTROVERSY

ARIUS

THE NICENE CREED

ARIANISM

    • The Dedication Creed 21This Creed shows how the Nicene Creed would have read if emperor Constantine had not manipulated the Nicene Council.
    • Athanasius invented Arianism. 22The only reason we today refer to ‘Arians’ is that Athanasius invented the term to falsely label his opponents with a theology that was already formally rejected by the church.
    • Did Arians describe the Son as a creature? 23‘Arians’ described Christ as originating from beyond our universe, the only being ever brought forth directly by the Father, and as the only being able to endure direct contact with God.
    • Homoian theology 24In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
    • Homoi-ousian theology 25This was one of the ‘strands’ of ‘Arianism’. It proposed that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s, but not the same.
    • How did Arians interpret Colossians 2:9? 26Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.

LATER

THE PRO-NICENES

AUTHORS 

Extracts from the writings of scholars who have studied the ancient documents for themselves:

TRINITY DOCTRINE – GENERAL

    • Elohim 34Elohim (often translated as God) is plural in form. Does this mean that the Old Testament writers thought of God as a multi-personal Being?
    • The Eternal Generation of the Son 35The Son has been begotten by the Father, meaning that the Son is dependent on the Father. Eternal Generation explains “begotten” in such a way that the Son is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.

Other Articles

All articles on this Site

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    LA = Lewis Ayres Nicaea and its legacy, 2004
  • 2
    The pre-Nicene fathers described the Son as “our God” but the Father as “the only true God,” implying that the Son is not “true” God. This confusion is caused by the translations.
  • 3
    Sabellius taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are three portions of one single Being.
  • 4
    If we define Sabellianism as that only one hypostasis – only one distinct existence – exists in the Godhead, was Tertullian a Sabellian?
  • 5
    The Controversy gave us the Trinity doctrine but the traditional account of the Controversy is a complete traversy.
  • 6
    RPC Hanson states that no ‘orthodoxy’ existed but that is not entirely true. This article shows that subordination was indeed ‘orthodox’ at that time.
  • 7
    The term “Arianism” implies that Arius’ theology dominated the fourth-century church. But Arius was not regarded in his time as a significant writer. He left no school of disciples.
  • 8
    Over the centuries, Arius was always accused of this. This article explains why that is a false accusation.
  • 9
    There are significant differences between Origen and Arius.
  • 10
    Arius wrote that the Son was begotten timelessly by the Father before everything. But Arius also said that the Son did not always exist. Did Arius contradict himself?
  • 11
    New research has shown that Arius is a thinker and exegete of resourcefulness, sharpness, and originality.
  • 12
    The word theos, which is translated as “God” in John 1:1 is not equivalent to the modern English word “God.”
  • 13
    Constantine took part in the Council of Nicaea and ensured that it reached the kind of conclusion which he thought best.
  • 14
    Eusebius of Caesarea, the most respected theologian at the Council, immediately afterward wrote to his church in Caesarea to explain why he accepted the Creed and how he understood the controversial phrases.
  • 15
    The Creed not only uses non-Biblical words; the concept of homoousios (that the Son is of the same substance as the Father) is not in the Bible.
  • 16
    Does it mean that Father and Son are one single Being, as the Trinity doctrine claims? How was it understood before, at, and after Nicaea? – Summary of the next article
  • 17
    The Nicene Creed describes the Son as homoousios (same substance) as the Father. But how was the term used before, during, and after Nicaea?
  • 18
    The term homoousios was not mentioned by anybody during the first 30 years after Nicaea. It only became part of that controversy in the 350s.
  • 19
    The word is not found in the Bible or in any orthodox Christian confession before Nicaea.
  • 20
    The Creed seems to say that the Father and Son are the same hupostasis. This is Sabellianism.
  • 21
    This Creed shows how the Nicene Creed would have read if emperor Constantine had not manipulated the Nicene Council.
  • 22
    The only reason we today refer to ‘Arians’ is that Athanasius invented the term to falsely label his opponents with a theology that was already formally rejected by the church.
  • 23
    ‘Arians’ described Christ as originating from beyond our universe, the only being ever brought forth directly by the Father, and as the only being able to endure direct contact with God.
  • 24
    In the 350s, Athanasius began to use homoousios to attack the church majority. Homoian theology developed in response.
  • 25
    This was one of the ‘strands’ of ‘Arianism’. It proposed that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s, but not the same.
  • 26
    Forget about Arius. He was an isolated extremist. This article quotes the mainstream anti-Nicenes to show how they understood that verse.
  • 27
    In the fifth century, Arian ‘barbarians’ dominated the Western Empire, but they tolerated and even respected the Trinitarian Roman Church.
  • 28
    Eustathius and Marcellus played a major role in the formulation of the Creed but were soon deposed for Sabellianism.
  • 29
    Athanasius presents himself as the preserver of Biblical orthodoxy but this article argues that he was a Sabellian.
  • 30
    In the Trinity doctrine, Father, Son, and Spirit are one substance or Being. This article shows that Basil taught three distinct substances.
  • 31
    This council reveals the state of Western theology at that time.
  • 32
    A summary of this book, which provides an overview of the fourth-century Arian Controversy. Lewis Ayres is a Catholic theologian and Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology.
  • 33
    A very informative lecture on the Arian Controversy by RPC Hanson, a famous fourth-century scholar
  • 34
    Elohim (often translated as God) is plural in form. Does this mean that the Old Testament writers thought of God as a multi-personal Being?
  • 35
    The Son has been begotten by the Father, meaning that the Son is dependent on the Father. Eternal Generation explains “begotten” in such a way that the Son is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.