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

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    LA = Lewis Ayres Nicaea and its legacy, 2004

Emperor Theodosius eliminated Arianism from the Roman Empire.

Summary

The emperor Theodosius put an end to the Arian Controversy.

Constantine had a decisive influence on the formulation of the Nicene Creed but later rejected the Homoousion Christology of the Nicene Creed. The emperors who succeeded Constantine crushed the church leaders who taught the homoousion principle in the Nicene Creed. When emperor Valens died in 378, the imperial capital was solidly Arian.

Theodosius I succeeded Valens. He was a passionate supporter of Homoousion Christology. Commentators often refer to the Council of Constantinople of 381 as the turning point where Arianism was replaced by Nicene Christology, but that council was a mere formality. Already prior to the council, Theodosius outlawed all other forms of Christianity and exiled Arian bishops.1Theodosian Code 16:2, 1 Friell, G., Williams, S., Theodosius: The Empire at Bay, London, 1994 – See, Homoousion – Wikipedia Furthermore, ‘Arians’ were not allowed to attend the Council of 381.

Since the 381 Council was simply a formality, the real decisions were taken by the Roman Emperor. Theodosius, with the strong arm of the empire, effectively wiped out ‘Arianism’ among the ruling class and elite of the Eastern Empire. This supports again the main thesis of this article series, namely that the emperors had a decisive influence on the Christology of the church.

The 381 Creed does not contain the Trinity concept, namely that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three Persons with three minds or wills in one Being. But Theodosius’ Edict of Thessalonica of 380 does prescribe Trinitarian theology. In other words, the State laws were Trinitarian while the church decreed lagged behind. This also supports the thesis that the Christology of the church was determined by the emperors.

In the centuries after Theodosius, the church formulated the doctrines that Christ had two separate natures, namely that He had both a divine and a human nature, and that Mary is the Mother of God.

– END OF SUMMARY –


OVERVIEW OF HISTORY

After the church became Gentile-dominated, all sorts of abominations entered. Concerning Christology, in the second century, the church began to explain the Son of God as the Logos of Greek philosophy. Monarchainism also developed in the second century and explained that the Father and Son are one single Being. This was refined by the Sabellianism of the third century, which explained Father and Son as two faces of one single Being. However, the church formally rejected Sabellianism and entered the fourth century with the traditional Logos-theology, but as refined by Origen, with the Son as the subordinated agent of the Father.

In the second and third centuries, the church, as a persecuted entity, had no way of making and enforcing empire-wide decisions. But after Christianity was legalized in 313, the controversy that had been seething underground burst into the open. The spark that ignited the fire was the dispute between Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, and Arius, one of his presbyters (priests).

Alexander, similar to the Sabellians before him, taught that Father and Son are one single Person with one single Rational Faculty. Arius, similar to most bishops before him, taught that they are two distinct Beings with two distinct Rational Faculties.

But Arius also has some extreme views. While the tradition said that the Son was born from the Being of the Father, Arius said that He was made out of nothing. And while Origen said that the Son always existed, Arius said that ‘there was’ when the Son ‘was not’.

This dispute spread to most of Egypt. Many bishops supported Arius; not because they supported his views but because they regarded Alexander’s as destructive.

Emperor Constantine, seeking unity in the church to support the unity of the empire, wrote to Arius and Alexander to end their quarrel, but to no avail. His religious advisor (Ossius) advised him to take Alexander’s side in the dispute. Ossius then chaired a meeting in Antioch early in 325 where Eusebius of Caesarea, the historian and the most respected theologian of the time, and Arius’ most famous supporter, was provisionally excommunicated.

Constantine then called the Nicene Council and installed his religious advisor as presiding officer. Alexander allied with the Sabellians Eustathius and Marcellus and, through his intimidating presence, forced that meeting to accept the word homoousios which, in the previous century, was only preferred by Sabellians.

However, in the years after Nicaea, Constantine allowed the church to remove the main drivers of the Nicene Creed, the Sabellians Eustathius and Marcellus, from their positions. After this, the Nicene Creed and the term homoousios were not mentioned for about 20-30 years.

Alexander died a few years after Nicaea and was replaced by Athanasius as bishop of Alexandria, but he was also exiled; not for theology but for “tyrannical behaviour.” (LA, 124) Constantine also allowed the exiled ‘Arian’ bishops to return. And, shortly before his death, he was baptized by an ‘Arian’ bishop. So, it seemed as if all decisions at Nicaea were made null and void.

But trouble was brewing in the West. At first, the West was not part of the Controversy. “The Eastern Church was always the pioneer and leader in theological movements in the early Church. … The Westerners at the Council (of Nicaea) represented a tiny minority.” (RH, 170) However, both Athanasius and Marcellus were exiled to Rome, where they joined forces against the Eastern Church.

At that time, Athanasius developed his polemical strategy, in which he claimed himself to be innocent of tyranny, put the blame for his exile on an ‘Arian Conspiracy’, claimed that he was really exiled for his theology (just like Marcellus), and labeled the Eastern Church followers of Arius (from which we got the term ‘Arian’). Athanasius was able to convince the pope (the bishop of Rome) of his version of reality, causing friction and division between the Eastern and Western Churches.

This happened in the period after Constantine died in 337 when his three sons divided the empire between themselves. While Emperor Constants in the West supported the views of the Western Church, Emperor Constantius in the East supported the Eastern Church

However, by the year 353, after his brothers had both been killed, Constantius ruled the entire empire. In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, “Constantius has frequently been seen as a ruthless and brutal ruler and was painted by later pro-Nicene writers as a persecuter of supporters of Nicaea. The true picture is more complex: within the fourth-century context Constantius was a fairly mild ruler.” (LA, 133) “As his control over the west grew Constantius increased his attempts to get bishops to agree to the key eastern decisions of the previous few years.” (LA, 135) “He was not beyond subterfuge and force to achieve public agreement between factions.” (LA, 134)

“When Constantius died in 361 his immediate successor was his cousin Julian.” (LA, 168) “As Emperor, Julian soon became an active non-Christian, repudiating the Christianity that he had earlier professed. In his attempt to undermine the Church Julian tried to foment dissension between groups in the Church—initially by recalling all bishops who had been banished under Constantius.” (LA, 168-9)

The next emperor (Julian) did not choose sides, but he ruled only for three years.

Valens (364–378) succeeded Julian and revived Constantius’ anti-Nicene policy. He also exiled Nicene bishops to the other ends of the empire and often used force against them. Consequently, when Valens died in the year 378, the imperial capital of the empire (Constantinople), which by then has existed for 50 years, was solidly ‘Arian’.

Theodosius wiped Arianism out.

Theodosius I succeeded Valens. He and his wife Flacilla were passionate supporters of the Nicene Creed. Flacilla was instrumental in Theodosius’ campaign to end Arianism. Sozomen reports an incident where she prevented a meeting between Theodosius and Eunomius of Cyzicus, who served as figurehead of the most radical sect of Arians. Ambrose and Gregory of Nyssa praised her Christian virtues (Roman Catholic Encyclopedia (1909), article “Ælia Flaccilla” by J.P. Kirsch).

Commentators often refer to the First Council of Constantinople, which Theodosius convened in the spring of 381, as the turning point where Arianism was replaced by Nicene Christology, but that council was a mere formality:

Firstly, Theodosius already on 27 February 380, with the Edict of Thessalonica decreed that Trinitarian Christianity would be the only legal religion of the Roman Empire and that Christians teaching contrary views would be punished. Through this edict, Theodosius outlawed all other versions of Christianity.

Secondly, the incumbent bishop of Constantinople was an Arian (a Homoian). Two days after Theodosius arrived in Constantinople, on 24 November 380, and therefore also before the First Council of Constantinople in the spring of 381, he exiled this bishop and appointed Gregory of Nazianzus, the leader of the rather small Nicene community in the city, as bishop over the churches of that city.

Thirdly, only supporters of the Nicene Creed were allowed into the Council of 381. The previous Arian bishop and leaders were already banished and Arians arriving to attend the council were denied admission.

The 381 Council, therefore, was simply a formality. Theodosius, with the strong arm of the empire, effectively wiped out Arianism from the Roman Empire.

Edict of Thessalonica

This edict states:

According to the apostolic teaching
and the doctrine of the Gospel, let us believe in
the one deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,
in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity.

We authorize the followers of this law to assume the title of Catholic Christians; but as for the others, since, in our judgment, they are foolish madmen, we decree that they shall be branded with the ignominious name of heretics, and shall not presume to give to their conventicles (places of worship) the name of churches. They will suffer in the first place the chastisement of the divine condemnation and in the second the punishment of our authority which in accordance with the will of Heaven we shall decide to inflict. — Edict of Thessalonica (Documents of the Christian Church, Henry Bettenson, editor, 1967, p. 22)

The term “Catholic” in this quote means ‘universal’. The word “Catholic” only became part of the name of the Catholic Church in 1054, at the East-West schism.

Summarized, Church historian Sozomen reports as follows on the Edict of Thessalonica:

Gratian bestowed the government of Illyria and of the Eastern provinces upon Theodosius. The parents of Theodosius were Christians and were attached to the Nicene doctrines. Theodosius made known by law his intention of leading all his subjects to the reception of that faith which was professed by Damasus, bishop of ROME, and by Peter, bishop of ALEXANDRIA. He enacted that the title of “Catholic Church” should be exclusively confined to those who rendered EQUAL HOMAGE to the Three Persons of the Trinity and that those individuals who entertained opposite opinions should be treated as heretics, regarded with contempt, and delivered over to PUNISHMENT. (Sozomen’s Church History VII.4)

The First Council of Constantinople was a mere formality.

It was customary, in the fourth century, for emperors, as the real heads of the church, to appoint church leaders and convene church councils. Similarly, Theodosius convened the First Council of Constantinople in the spring of 381. It is also known as the Second Ecumenical Council. ‘Ecumenical’ means it represents all Christian Churches and perspectives, but that was certainly not the case in this instance:

Theodosius already outlawed Arianism in the previous year, with the threat of punishment for people that teach anything different.

Gregory of Nazianzus—the leader of the Nicene party in the city—presided over part of the Council and vehemently opposed any compromise with the Homoiousians (those who believed that the Son’s substance is “similar” to the Father’s). 2Lewis Ayres – Nicaea and its legacy – Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-875505-0. Retrieved 21 October 2011

Arians were not admitted into the council. Theodosius already banished the previous Homoian bishop and leaders. And 36 Pneumatomachians arrived to attend the council but were denied admission when they refused to accept the Nicene Creed.

Gregory resigned from his office and Nectarius, an unbaptized civil official, was chosen to succeed Gregory as president of the council. Nectarius, as a civil servant, was fully under Theodosius’ control.

The Council, not surprisingly, confirmed Theodosius’ installation of Gregory Nazianzus as Bishop of Constantinople, accepted the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 and dogmatically condemned of all shades of Arianism as heresy. 

Contents of the Creed of 381

The Holy Spirit

The 325 Creed merely mentions the Holy Spirit in connection with the Father and Son. It does not refer to the Holy Spirit as theos (“god” or “God”) or that the Spirit is of the same substance as the Father. 

The 381 Creed goes much further. The 5 words about the Holy Spirit in the Nicene Creed of 325 became 33 words in the Creed of Constantinople, saying that:

      • The Holy Ghost is “the Lord and Giver of life,”
      • He proceeds from the Father and
      • He is worshiped together with the Father and the Son.

The 381 Creed, therefore, describes the Holy Spirit much clearer as a separate Person and as God.

The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, “God,” p. 568, states that the teaching of the three Cappadocian Fathers “made it possible for the Council of Constantinople (381) to affirm the divinity of the Holy Spirit, which up to that point had nowhere been clearly stated, not even in Scripture.

Note: Catholics are not concerned if their doctrines are not found in the Bible because they believe in continued revelation through the church.

The Trinity

As discussed in the article on the Nicene Creed, the present writer does not find the Trinity concept, namely that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one Being with one single Mind, in the Nicene Creed. It is also absent from the creed of 381.

However, the Edict of Thessalonica of 380, quoted above, which was an act of law by the emperor, made Trinitarian theology law. Compare the opening phrases of the Edict of Thessalonica of 380:

“Let us believe in
the one deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

With the opening phrase of the Creed of 381:

“We believe in
one God, the Father Almighty …
And in one Lord Jesus Christ …
And in the Holy Ghost”

An edict which Theodosius issued after the Council of 381 is also clearly Trinitarian:

“We now order that all churches are to be handed over to the bishops who profess Father, Son and Holy Spirit of a single majesty, of the same glory, of one splendour” (quoted by Richard Rubenstein, When Jesus Became God, 1999, p. 223).

In other words, the State laws were Trinitarian while the church creeds lagged behind. The first clear Trinitarian church statement is the Athanasian Creed which was not formulated by a Church Council and originated perhaps 100 years later. The contents of Theodosius’s decrees, when compared to the church decrees, support the main thesis of these articles, namely that the decisions, with respect to which Christology the church will adopt, was made by the emperors; not by ecumenical councils.

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    Theodosian Code 16:2, 1 Friell, G., Williams, S., Theodosius: The Empire at Bay, London, 1994 – See, Homoousion – Wikipedia
  • 2
    Lewis Ayres – Nicaea and its legacy – Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-875505-0. Retrieved 21 October 2011