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 (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 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 letter … is 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 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)
“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 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 (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)
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.
“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?
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).
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).
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).
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.