The Arian Controversy
[Reference Note: As this article relies primarily on First Three Centuries by Alvan Lamson, page numbers enclosed in parentheses are to Lamson’s book. References to other works are enclosed in parentheses with the work’s title or the author’s name listed in “References” at the end of this article.]
The Arian Controversy
The principal actors in the Arian controversy were Arius and Alexander. Arius (250 or 256 – 336) was a presbyter in Alexandria and an ascetic. Alexander (d. 326 or 328) was the Bishop of Alexandria. After the Council of Nicaea, Athanasius (c. 296–298 – 373) would become an important actor. When Alexander died, Athanasius became the leader of the opposition to the Arians.
In the years before the Council of Nicaea in 325, Christianity was becoming sharply divided into two primary camps on the issue of the Trinity: the Arians and the Athanasians. Arius led the Arians, and Alexander and later Athanasius led the Athanasians. Both sides appealed to the ante-Nicene Fathers to show the antiquity of their dogma. Both sides read into the writings of the early Fathers, dogmas unknown to the Fathers. Eventually, the Athanasians would prevail, and beginning with the Council of Nicaea, they developed what eventually became the Trinity Doctrine.
The controversy began with Arius protesting Alexander’s, the Bishop of Alexandria and Arius’ superior, Sabellian-like concept of the Trinity. About the Trinity, Arius credited Alexander as saying, “‘Always God, always the Son; as the Father, so is the Son; the Son is unbegotten of the Father; neither in thought, nor the least point of time, does God precede the Son; always God, always the Son’” (p. 287). Alexander maintained that “the Son was eternal and wholly uncreated” (Walker, p. 115). His description of the Trinity was a move away from the orthodox concept of the Trinity. Alexander demanded Arius to abandon his (Arius’) views of the Trinity and to embrace his (Alexander’s) views. Because Arius could not assent to Alexander’s Sabellian-like doctrine, Alexander assembled a council, which condemned Arius and drove him from Alexandria in 320.
Arius asserted that Alexander had anathematized “‘all the Oriental bishops,’ since they asserted that ‘the Father existed before the Son’” (p. 271), except three whom Alexander pronounced as ignorant heretics.
After Arius left Alexandria, he went to Palestine where Eusebius of Caesarea (260/265 – 339/340), Bishop of Caesarea, befriended him. Later Eusebius of Nicomedia (died 341), Bishop of Berytus (Beirut) and later Bishop of Nicomedia, also befriended Arius. Afterwards Eusebius of Nicomedia wrote many letters defending Arius. Consequently, Arians were often called Eusebians.
In defense of Arius, Eusebius of Nicomedia stated, “‘He never heard that there were two unbegotten. We affirm that there is one unbegotten [the Father], and another [the Son] who did in truth proceed from him, yet who was not made out of his substance, and who does not at all participate in the nature or substance of him who is unbegotten. We believe him [the Son] to be entirely distinct in nature and in power’” (p. 293).
Arius claimed that his views of the Father and the Son were those received from tradition. That is, “‘the Father existed before the Son’” (p. 294). On “the supremacy of the Father and his priority of existence” (p. 295), tradition was on the side of the Arians. About “[t]he new doctrine embraced by the orthodox concerning the generation of the Son, . . . [the Arians claimed] was pure Manichaeism and Valentinianism” (p. 295). (Manichaeism rejected the historical Jesus. According to Manichaeism, Jesus Christ was “an aeon or persistent personification of Light in the world. . . . Christ appeared to be man, to live, suffer, and die to symbolize the light suffering in this world” [Arendzen]. Valentinianism held that Christ had three figures or dimensions: spiritual, psychic, and body.)
While Arius was soliciting support, so was Alexander. In his extant letters, Alexander acrimoniously attacks Arius and Eusebius in the harshest terms.
Discord had reached such heights that Emperor Constantine was induced to intervene. Although he blamed both sides, he placed most of the blame on Alexander. To Constantine, the controversy was merely a frivolous dispute about words. In spite of the Emperor urging reconciliation, the dispute grew more intense. Finally, Constantine ordered the bishops throughout the Empire to assemble in council and resolve the issue. In 325, the council convened in Nicaea — thus, it was called the Council of Nicaea, Nicene Council, or Nicaean Council, which Lamson called the Council of Nice.
The ante-Nicene Fathers maintained the “strict and proper inferiority of the Son” (p. 299). Except for Origen, they believed “that the Son was begotten in time, and not from eternity” (p. 299). Based on Platonic influences, the Fathers also believed that the Son “had a sort of metaphysical existence in the Father from eternity; in other words, existed as his Logos, Wisdom, or Reason; that is, as an attribute, which was afterwards converted into a real person by a voluntary act of the Father” (p. 299).
Arius accepted the tradition that the Son was begotten and was not eternal and that the Son was inferior to the Father. Also, the Son “is by his own will unchangeable, ever remaining unalterably good” (p. 301). However, he rejected the mysticism of the Fathers about the Son, the Logos. This point distinguished the doctrine of Arius from that of the Fathers.
“The characteristic dogma of Arius was, that the Son was originally produced out of nothing; and, consequently, there was a time when he did not exist. . . . he was a great pre-existent spirit, the first and chief of all derived beings; that this spirit became afterwards united with a human body, and supplied the place of the rational soul” (pp. 299-300). Thus, the distinguishing characteristic Arius’ Christology was that “Christ was a created being” (Walker, p. 114). Therefore, Christ “was not of the substance of God, but was made like other creatures of ‘nothing.’ Though the first-born of creatures, and the agent in fashioning the world, He was not eternal. ‘The Son has a beginning, but . . . God is without beginning’” (Walker, pp. 114-115). He believed that Christ was “God in a certain sense, . . . but a lower God, in no way one with the Father in essence or eternity. In the incarnation, this Logos entered a human body, taking the place of the human reasoning spirit. . . . Christ was neither fully God nor fully man, but a tertium quid [intermediate between the two] between.” (Walker, p. 115). According to Arius, “the human soul was wanting in Jesus Christ, and he was a compound being only in the sense in which all human beings are; that is, he consisted of a body, and one simple, undivided, and finite spirit” (p. 300). (“Some of the preceding Fathers attributed a human soul as well as body to Jesus; which, however, was so absorbed in the divine part of his nature, that they were, in a strict sense, one spirit, and not two, as modern Trinitarians affirm, or imply” [p. 300]).
Arius appealed to the Scriptures and used scriptural terminology to describe his doctrine. Such an appeal brought the Arians “under suspicion of evasion and of narrow and bare literalness, while the orthodox were made to appear the advocates of broader and freer views, and of more accurate and straightforward statement” (p. 300n). (Apparently, according to the Athanasians, the Bible should not be read and understood literally. It should be read and understood using human speculation and philosophy. The Athanasian’s attitude toward relying on a strict literal reading of the Scriptures to support one’s doctrine is prima facie evidence that they were convinced that the Scriptures supported Arian’s position better than it did theirs.)
Arius stated, “‘We must either suppose two divine original essences without beginning, and independent of each other; or we must not shrink from asserting that the Logos had a beginning of his existence; that there was a moment when he did not as yet exist’” (p. 301). In favor of Arius’ position was the “‘expression “made” applied to Christ (as Acts ii. 36, and Heb. iii. 2), or in which he is styled the First-born’” (pp. 301-302).
Arius never intended “‘to lower the dignity of Christ, but would ascribe to him the greatest dignity which a being could have after God, without entirely annihilating the distinction between that being and God’” (p. 302). He believed that he was defending the old doctrine of the Church and was merely simplifying it.
Athanasius accompanied Bishop Alexander to the council at Nicaea. Afterwards, he became a zealous champion of what would develop into the new orthodoxy of the Trinity.
Arriving at a doctrine that would be generally acceptable, but also exclude the Arians proved a great difficulty. The Council had to condemn the Arian dogma that the Son “was produced out of nothing, and that there was a time when he did not exist” (p. 306) and had to affirm the opposite doctrine. Selecting terms that the orthodox could employ, but that the Arians could not without changing their sentiments proved difficult.
The first proposal was “to make use only of Scriptural expressions, such as, ‘Christ is the Wisdom and the Power of God,’ the ‘Brightness of his Glory;’ or others of a similar character” (p. 306). As the Arians found this approach acceptable, it was abandoned. A creed was offered, but as it contained no term to which the Arians would object, it was disapproved because it was “no sufficient test of orthodoxy” (p, 307). Then the Council discovered that “the Arians had great dread of the term ‘consubstantial’” (p. 307). Thus, this word was placed in the previously rejected creed, and other modifications were made. Then the Council adopted the creed.
As expected, the Arians objected. They argued “that the language in question was new; that it had not the sanction of the sacred writings or of antiquity” (p. 307). Moreover, many bishops were forced to sign the creed. Thus, the Nicene Creed was adopted. It read:
We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through Whom all things came into being, things in heaven and things on earth, Who because of us men and because of our salvation came down, and became incarnate and became man, and suffered, and rose again on the third day, and ascended to the heavens, and will come to judge the living and dead, And in the Holy Spirit. But as for those who say, There was when He was not, and, Before being born He was not, and that He came into existence out of nothing, or who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance, or created, or is subject to alteration or change — these the Catholic and apostolic Church anathematizes (Creed of Nicaea).The new, unscriptural term “consubstantial” caused reluctance of some bishops to assent to the new creed — especially Eusebius of Caesarea. He assented after the phrase “‘of the substance [consubstantial] of the Father’” (p. 308) was explained to him to mean “‘the Son is of the Father, but not as being part of the Father,’ that is, ‘not part of his substance’” (p. 308). Thus, he concluded “‘that the expression, of the substance of the Father, implies only that the Son of God does not resemble, in any one respect, the creatures which he has made; but that to the Father, who begat him, he is in all points perfectly similar’” (p. 308).
The Nicene Creed did not declare the numerical equality of the Father and the Son. It did not declare the Son equal to the Father. Further, it did not declare the Son eternal.
Thus, the ante-Fathers could interpret the Nicene Creed as upholding their concept of the Trinity. Athanasians could (and did) use it to develop what eventually became the Trinity Doctrine. Moreover, the Sabellians would have had little problems in accepting the Creed as they could easily explain it as supporting their concept of the Trinity. (Many of Origen’s disciples saw the Creed as Sabellian.) However, the Arians and the Artemonites would have to abandon their beliefs to adhere to this Creed.
Athanasius interpreted the Nicene Creed to mean that the Father alone is self-existent and absolute God. The Son and Holy Spirit are derived and subordinate. The Son is derived by eternal generation, and the Holy Spirit, by eternal procession.
The anathemas annexed to the Creed “prohibited the use of expressions not found in the Scriptures. Yet the creed contained such expressions” (p. 308).
Later, Arius convinced Constantine of his orthodoxy and, under the order of the Emperor, was readmitted to the Church. Meanwhile, Constantine banished Athanasius after having found him guilty of various crimes. Later, Athanasius’ banishment was commuted, and he became the off-and-on Bishop of Alexandria. He became a vigorous opponent of the Arians and did not hesitate to call them all sorts of evil names.
To Athanasius, the primary issue was salvation. “The Greek conception of salvation had been, . . . the transformation of sinful mortality into divine and blessed immortality — the impartation of ‘life.’ . . . Only by real Godhead coming into union with full manhood in Christ could the transformation of the human into the divine be accomplished in Him, or be mediated by Him to His disciples” (Walker, p.118). To him “the great error of Arianism was that it gave no basis for a real salvation” (Walker, p. 118).
About Athanasius’ character, Lamson wrote, “His piety and love of truth we have no disposition to call in question; yet the history of his life would seem to authorize the suspicion, that he was influenced rather by motives of pride and ambition than by a desire to promote the peace of the church. He would set all Christendom in a flame sooner than relinquish the patriarchal throne of Alexandria” (p. 331). (Far too many church leaders are guided more by pride and ambition than by the love of Jesus and the truth.)
For decades following its adoption, the Nicene Creed aroused a great deal of turmoil. Its two major opponents were the Arians and the disciples of Origen who objected to it for being a Sabellian creed.
After the death of Constantine (337), Arianism revived and prospered for a while. As it grew, schisms occurred. One faction, the Semi-Arians or Homoiousians, maintained “that the Son was, in all respects, of like substance with the Father” (p. 323). The other faction was the strict Arians, who were dominated by the Aetians, Eunomiaus, and Anomceans. They believed that the Son “of a different substance, and wholly unlike the Father” (p. 323). By uniting with the Semi-Arians, the Athanasians eventually overcame the Arians. Arianism ceased to exist after 660, at least publicly.
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Copyright © 2017 by Thomas Coley Allen.
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