The Arian Controversy

Some time between 318 and 323 a conflict arose in the church of Alexandria. According to the church historian Socrates, Bishop Alexander had delivered an address to a gathering of church officers in which he explained "with perhaps too philosophical minuteness, that great theological mystery—the Unity of the Holy Trinity." Arius, a presbyter, took exception to the doctrines propounded by his superior.1  

Arius was a compelling figure.  Physically he was impressive, tall and handsome.  No one questioned his religious zeal: he was a strict ascetic in that early monastic era when asceticism and spirituality were regarded as one and the same.  He was both an eloquent preacher and a talented musician and was popular in the congregations.  He also had a knack for rubbing his peers the wrong way and had a reputation for arrogance.

Arius was no stranger to controversy.  According to Sozomen, another early historian, Alexander's predecessor Bishop Peter had earlier "cast him out of the church" because he disagreed with the way the bishop had handled a matter of church discipline and "could not be restrained in quietness."2

So not being one to sit by quietly when he did not agree with his superiors, Arius "vigorously responded" to Alexander's sermon, accusing him publicly and to his face of the heresy of Sabellianism.  Those were fighting words.

Sabellianism was a view of the Trinity that emphasized the oneness of God at the expense of the true distinction between God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Also called Modalism, it takes its name from Sabellius, its most notorious proponent who tried to explain the three Persons of the Godhead as successive modes of being and not co-equal, co-existing realities.  Sabellius was excommunicated for his rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity in A.D. 220—more than a century before the doctrine of the Trinity was "invented" by the Council of Nicea.

Alexander was no Sabellian and would not appreciate being called such by anyone.  To be accused of it by someone under his spiritual authority was intolerable to him, and the controversy accelerated quickly.

The precise sequence of events is not altogether clear in the historical sources.  Socrates conveys the impression of a public outburst by Arius followed by a stormy but brief controversy between a rebellious priest and his authoritarian bishop.  Sozomen's account describes a messy, drawn out ecclesiastical squabble which Alexander tried to mediate until it was clear that Arius and his followers would not be reconciled.  Though contrasting in viewpoint, the two versions are not necessarily mutually exclusive (as anyone who has ever been through a complex organizational controversy would know).

At any rate, Arius's ministerial career in Alexandria was cut short.  Even if we should grant that Alexander's expressions of doctrine were unbalanced and open to misinterpretation, the riposte of Arius crossed the line far more radically in the other direction.  He was excommunicated, and his view was condemned by the synod in March of 324.

How do we know what Arius taught?

Most of what we know of Arius's doctrines come from the writings of his opponents.  For example, in March of 324, Arius published a presentation of his views in poetic from, entitled Thalia (the name of one of the mythological muses, meaning "good cheer").  The book did not survive the controversy, except as it is quoted by Arius's chief opponent Athanasius in Orations against the Arians and On the Councils of Ariminum and Seleucia. For this reason, some argue that Arius has been misrepresented and distorted, and that the doctrines accepted as orthodoxy must be deconstructed in order to reconnect with the "real" Arius.

This argument is both fallacious and insupportable by factual evidence.  It would not do for the opponents of Arius to misrepresent his teachings, for at least four reasons:

1. Arius and his doctrines were popular and Arius himself was persuasive.  Many in the early church were influenced by him.

2. As in most important controversies, there were three groups: the two opposing sides, small groups who both saw the significance of the issue and were determined to battle it out until there was a clear winner; and the vast majority in the middle who were uncomfortable with the controversy and just wished it would go away.

3. The Council of Nicea was not the final solution to an issue, but the establishment of the terms of a debate that went on for a long time.  Indeed, it was trans-generational, spanning a whole century; and issues raised in the controversy were not fully resolved for yet another century. Athanasius himself was exiled multiple times because of the ongoing political/religious dispute before seeing the Nicene Creed begin to take hold.

4. Arianism did not die with Arius.  It survived through the influence of Arian evangelist/missionaries such as Ulfilas, who converted the Goths with an Arian version of the gospel.  Moreover, it survived as an idea that has surfaced periodically throughout Christian history since then.  The most visible representatives of Arian Christology in the present day are the Jehovah's Witnesses.

What all this means is that straw man arguments would never have sufficed to overturn the spreading influence of Arianism.  Cogent responses would have to be framed to refute what he actually did teach. Any fair reading of his works shows that Athanasius presents robust Arian arguments and does not merely dismiss or ridicule them but works hard to refute them.

In fact, however, we have two letters from Arius that succinctly outline his position, and these do not contradict (nor are contradicted by) the evidence preserved by the anti-Arians.  We don't have to "reconstruct" his position.  We'll let him tell us in his own words.

The Christ of Arius: “A Lofty Creature”

So, what did Arius teach that was so objectionable that he had to be banned from the Church?  The essence of Arianism is that Jesus Christ, the Son of God who came into the world from heaven, had a beginning.  He is not on a level of equality with God the Father.  He is not co-eternal with God the Father.  He is more than a man, possessing a measure of divinity, but he is less than fully divine.

As I mentioned above, Arius wrote two letters that have been preserved.  The first is to Eusebius, the bishop of Nicomedia, in which he complains of being persecuted by Bishop Alexander.1   He summarizes his disagreement with Alexander as a quarrel over terms about what it means to call Jesus Christ the Son of God:

We do not agree with him when he says publicly, "Always Father, always Son," "Father and Son together," "the Son exists unbegottenly with God," "the eternal begotten," "Unbegotten-only-one," "Neither in thought not by a single instant is God before the Son," "always God, always Son," the Son is God himself."4

Arius, in other words, objects to any language Alexander uses to indicate that the Son of God is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father.

He tries to identify his own doctrine with that of Eusebius of Nicomedia and also of Eusebius of Caesarea. (There are a lot of Eusebiuses.) His strategy is to show them that Alexander's decree against him is a highhanded move that brands them heretics as well as himself.  He lists the following points as a positive statement of his beliefs:

"The Son is not unbegotten, nor a part of the unbegotten in any way, nor formed out of any substratum."  I.e., the Son did not exist before he was begotten of the Father.

The Son "was constituted [lit., "hypostasized," was given being] by God's will and counsel."  I.e., the Son was brought into being by a decision and act of God and is not self-existing as God.

His origin is "before times and before ages."  Arius thus acknowledges that he pre-existed before his conception and birth, and indeed before the Creation.

He is "full" of grace and truth, "divine, unique, unchangeable," affirming Arius's belief that Jesus was not a mere man but bears certain divine qualities.

"Before he was begotten or created or ordained or founded," and presumably the Eusebius's would find some word in there they would have agreed with, "he was not.  For he was not unbegotten."  So now he is back to stating the differences with "Alexandrian" doctrine.  Arius is emphatic on this point:  that God the Father has always existed, but the Son of God had a finite beginning.

Arius closes his letter to Eusebius with a reminder of their school ties, so to speak, as fellow students of the venerated martyr Lucien of Antioch.

The second document, an open letter to Alexander (written probably from his safe haven in Nicomedia) served for some time as an Arian creed.5 In this letter Arius strikes a more conciliatory tone.  He writes of "our faith which we received from our forefathers and have also learned from you."  He claims only to be trying to avoid the heresies that Alexander himself had publicly refuted. These include the emanationism of the Gnostics, the materialistic dualism of the Manicheans, the modalism of Sabellius, and other concepts which appear either to multiply or divide the godhead.  

The crux of their disagreement is that Arius understands the generation of the Son by the Father to be an occurrence, an act of creation that had a beginning point. God is one, "the only unbegotten, only eternal, only without beginning, only true, who only has immortality, only wise, only good … unalterable and unchangeable…."  However, "before everlasting Ages, he begot his only begotten6 Son."  Though it took place before the creation of the universe, the begetting was literal, "not in appearance."  It was a "hypostasizing," essentially a creation of the Son ex nihilo by the will of God. In other words, before God created the heavens and the earth and called light into being, first he created his Son by a divine begetting.

The Son may therefore be described as "unalterable and unchangeable, a perfect creature of God, but not as one of the creatures—an offspring, but not as one of the things begotten."

Seemingly as a concession, Arius offers that the begetting or creation of the Son was "before times and before ages," "timeless."  That the Son is thus begotten does not diminish nor divide God in any way, "for he is the fount of all things," "the Monad and cause of all … thus before all."

What this means, then, is that when Arius describes the Trinity as three hypostases, he means that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three distinct beings. What he believes keeps him from being a Tri-theist is that he does not claim the Son and the Spirit are equal with the Father. To Arius, only the Father is God, and the divinity of the Son (and Spirit) is entirely derivative.

Negatively, the Son is "neither eternal nor co-eternal nor co-unbegotten with the Father, nor does he have his being together with the Father."  If scriptural phrases that indicate the Son is from God are taken to mean consubstantiality with God, then the Father must be compound, divisible, alterable, and a body.  In this case the bodiless God would, by the incarnation of the Son, suffer "what belongs to a body," a thought that to Arius was inconceivable and blasphemous.

Positively, the Son "has being and glories from God, and life and all things were given him…. God is his source," and he is the divine agent of the creation "of all ages and all things."

Thus, as church historian H. M. Gwatkin acknowledges, "the Arian Christ is indeed a lofty creature," for Arius was ready to ascribe to the Lord Jesus "everything short of the fullest deity."7   He is raised as high as possible without being essentially divine.  But he is not God, he is absolutely distinct from the Father, and he is categorically not eternal.  If he is a lofty creature, he is only a creature.  If the scriptures ascribe deity to him, it is in an honorific or adoptive sense, not as proper to himself.

At the same time, it must be pointed out that the Arian Christ is not, pertaining to his essential nature, truly human any more than he is truly God.  His nature and being is creaturely like our own yet elevated far above our own in degree.  Arius never denied his godlike pre-existence.  He denied his true deity, his equality with God—but also his equality with man.

Remember, the Council of Nicea was convened to determine what to say in response to the questions raised in controversy by Arius and his doctrines.  What does any of this have to do with the theological scenario framed by Dan Brown in The DaVinci Code?  The Christ preached by Arius is not God become man—he is semi-God become man.  He is superman.

How did Arius's critics perceive his doctrines?

In order to fully understand the issues before the Council of Nicea, we need to know how Arius's opponents understood his teachings.  Did they really have a clear grasp of what he was saying, or did they miss the mark, and thus bequeath to the church a faulty response to a faulty doctrine?  You be the judge.

Alexander wrote letters also.  One of these letters, sent to fellow bishops to explain the proceedings against Arius, contains Alexander's own concise summary of Arianism.8 The Arian positions described here are set forth more sharply and negatively than we see in Arius's letters, but they are a fair representation of Arius's own doctrines, and of the clear implications of those doctrines.  Alexander listed the following as objectionable teachings of Arius:

1.     That God is not the eternal Father, for the Son had a beginning, and God did not become the Father until he had a Son.

2.     That the Logos (the Word, i.e., Christ) is not eternal, but came into being from nothing.  (“Logos” is a biblical term, used in the prologue to the Gospel of John.  Through the influence of Christian thinkers like Justin Martyr and Origen of Alexandria, it was probably the most important theological term in the 4th century.  It's usage at that time carried a good deal of philosophical baggage in addition to its scriptural connotations.  In all its usage, including that of Arius, it expressed a view of the divine nature of Christ.)

3.     That the Logos/Son is "alien to and other than the essence of God."

4.     That the Son is not by nature the Word and Wisdom of God, but is called so "erroneously."

5.     That the Son is "mutable and susceptible of change, as all other rational creatures are."

6.     That "the Father is inexplicable by the Son, and invisible to him, for neither does the Word perfectly and accurately know the Father, nor can he distinctly see him."

7.     That neither does the Son know the nature of his own essence.

8.     That the Son was created on our account in order to provide God with an instrument for creation.  If God had not purposed to create the universe, the Son would not exist.

The above points give the impression not of a positively proclaimed position so much as they do answers to questions in a pointed cross-examination.  In fact, it is stated in the letter than the Arians made a particularly damning admission in response to a direct question, acknowledging that they believed the Logos of God could theoretically fall in sin like the devil.

This summary is revealing about Arianism, but it is even more revealing of what Alexander and those in his camp were most concerned about.  The doctrines Arius and his followers denied were the very ones the Alexandrian church was determined to uphold: the eternity both of the Father and the Son, the essential oneness of the Logos-Son with God the Father, and the unequivocal deity of the Logos-Son.

The last point is particularly interesting, however, in its echo of Gnosticism.  There was not a single doctrine for all Gnosticism, but Gnostics in general had a disdain and distaste for the material world.  They considered matter and “flesh” to be the source of evil.  In any case it was too dirty for God to touch directly.  Some Gnostic theologies posited multiple levels of sub-deities and angels as buffers between God and Creation.  In the Arian Trinity the Son is necessary as the agent for Creation, but not essential to the nature of God.  It is not so much that man needs a mediator to be reconciled to God, but that God needs a mediator so he does not have to soil himself in dealings with man.

To Alexander the position of Arius simply did not square with the obvious meaning of the scriptures.  He also regarded the Arians as "chameleons," changing their colors, using equivocation and slippery logic whenever they were cornered with scriptural proof of their errors.

If Bishop Alexander hoped that excommunicating and banishing Arius would make the controversy go away, it was a vain hope.  The doctrines of Arius began to spread in churches throughout the Empire, creating controversy and provoking church schisms everywhere.  Looked at dispassionately, Arianism seems to be a complicated, philosophically arcane theology.  It did not appear to be so to ordinary churchgoers.  To them it was a dynamic, “common sense” approach to the Trinity.

Doubtless much of the appeal of the doctrine was due to Arius's skill as a communicator.  Clearly his own preaching had a powerful effect on his hearers, but his real genius was to write his theology into singable hymns.  When it comes to winning the hearts and minds of the masses, a good song will beat a thick book every time.

Underlying the spread of Arianism was the fact that his doctrines resonated with people who had not long ago been pagans and polytheists.  The Constantinian revolution had swept thousands into the churches virtually overnight, and assimilating them was a problem that was never adequately resolved.  From the earliest days of the Christian movement there had been a tension between the Oneness of God and his manifest Threeness as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Until now the teachers of doctrine had tried to keep these elements in balance using biblical language, but without defining what the language meant.

Arianism proposed to define the New Testament terminology in a way that made sense to a culture still steeped in a pagan worldview.  There is one God who is fully God. At some point before the Creation, he brought the Son into being, and that's when God became the Father.  Through the instrumentality of the Son he created everything.  When mankind went wrong and prophets would not suffice to turn things around, God sent his Son—his most highly placed subordinate—into the world.  The Son showed us how we are supposed to live, but was persecuted and died as a martyr. Nevertheless, being immortal, he did not truly die and thus rose from the dead and ascended to heaven, from which he continues by the Holy Spirit (not a person, but an extension of deity) to lead a host of holy people.  In the early days his holiest people were likewise persecuted and martyred, but in the present day they suffer for him by depriving themselves of the world's pleasures and provide an example of purity until the day of judgment.

To most of the leaders of the Christian movement, this did not sound like the gospel they had been taught or had preached, but they were ill-equipped to respond to it.  One of the problems was that the Arians used the language of the New Testament, but re-interpreted it according to their doctrines.

As Arianism spread it threatened the unity of the church.  That's when the Emperor stepped in.  Having hitched his own fortunes to the Cross, he could not permit it to be hacked into splinters.  He needed this controversy resolved as quickly as possible and with minimal loss.  There had been regional meetings and councils of bishops before, but that process would be too slow.  Constantine resolved to bring together in one place as many influential bishops as possible in order to answer all the questions before the church at one time.  The most important question to answer was, what to do about Arius.

Part 1 - The 'True' Story vs the Facts

Part 3 - Decoding Nicea

Part 4 - After Nicea


1   Socrates, Historia Ecclesiastica 1.5, in Henry Wace and Philip Schaff, eds., A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series (Oxford: Parker and Co., 1890-1900), vol. 2: Socrates and Sozomenus: Church Histories, revised and translated with introduction and notes by A. C. Zenos and Chester D. Hartranft, 1891.

2  Sozomen, Historia Ecclesiastica 1.5, in Wace and Schaff, vol. 2.

3  Edward Rochie Hardy, ed. The Library of Christian Classics, vol. 3, Christology of the Later Fathers (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954): 329-331.

4 Arius, Letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia in Theodoret, Historia ecclesiastica 1.4,5 in Henry Wace and Philip Schaff, eds., A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, vol. 3: Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, Rufinus, translated with introduction and notes by Blomfield Jackson, Ernest Cushing Richardson, and Wm. Henry Fremantle, 1892.

5 Hardy, 331.

6 Gk., monogenes, translated "only begotten" in the King James Version (John 3:16), and “unique” in many contemporary translations.

7 H. M. Gwatkin, The Arian Controversy (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1896): 6-7.

8 Athanasius, De Synodis, 16, in Schaff and Wace, vol. 4: Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, Archibald Robertson, ed., 1892.

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Council of Nicea?

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Part 2

The Controversial Preacher Arius