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Arianism in Early Christianity

by Octavian Sarbatoare

Arianism, as doctrine in the Early Christian church, appeared initially to be a real challenge to the then established Christianity both in the West and East. But the Arian heresy proved at the end to be part of a process that led to a stronger orthodox tradition. As we shall see, the Nicene Creed has come to be seen as the primary symbol of Christian orthodoxy. This short paper attempts to analyse Arianism in Early Christianity, by uncovering its beginnings, successes and failures, and finally making an assessment of it. For our study we have consulted relevant scholarly material to identify Arianism as an active form of Christian thought, and to make a succinct description of its tenets. It is our hope that this short work will find readers attentive to the subject of Arianism, and scholars will be interested in the intricate theological problems raised by it. Arianism proved to be a remarkable case of great scholarly debate. A few words could be said about the appearance of Christianity overall.

Christianity emerged within Judaism as a messianic movement resulting from a three-year ministry of Jesus (Yeshua), the Christ (the Greek word Christos is the translation of the Hebrew mâshîaþ) who preached within the settings of Judaic messianic expectations. The early Christianity constructed a portrayal of Jesus Christ in tune with the expectation of the Graeco-Roman world relevant to the Hellenistic cult of benefactors (energetai).1 Thus what followed later on, in the construct of Christianity became disconnected from the Jewish vision of a saviour of Israel.2 However, Christianity was still in its formative stages, during which various challenges arose to contest the clerical orthodox accepted views upon Jesus as God's Son. Overall, apostle Paul's doctrinal belief that the Father is in the Son, and the Son is in the Father, was understood as consubstantiality. Paul's exaltation of Christ as being 'the visible image of the invisible God,'3 of his existence 'before God made anything at all,' 4 and of his supremacy 'over all creation,'5 arose questions in relation to the initial appearance of Jesus as Son of God. There were attempts to question the equal spiritual positions of the Father and the Son. One of such attempts was Arianism. As it might appear, Arianism was not a reformist challenge, but a theological battle within orthodoxy itself (vid. inf.).

Arianism was the first of the great heresies centred, nearly all of them, upon the divine nature of Jesus Christ.6 As an attempt to rationalise the orthodox view upon the dual natures of the Christ, as being at the same time fully God and fully Man, Arianism arose as a summing up and conclusion of various movements which did not accept the full mystery of the dual natures of Jesus.7 But, Arianism was not heretical in the sense of denying the basic tenets of Christianity; it was willing to grant Jesus every kind of honour short of full divine nature of the Godhead.8 As we shall see further down the track of our study, Arianism has significant doctrinal substance. This notable feature made this Christian heresy of the Early Christianity establishment a real doctrinal threat in the sense of replacing the strong orthodox views upon the Father - the Son consubstantiality. The Alexandrian priest Arius (c.250-c.336) was the chief proponent of this early Christian heresy.

It is believed that the new Christian theological development, which later on became known as Arianism, was initially articulated by Arius's teacher Lucian of Antioch (according to historians).9 Arius became a promoter of a doctrine that created much theological disturbances, both in the West and the East, for its more rationalistic views into the issues of the natures of God and his Christian Son Jesus, and their intrinsic spiritual relation.

Arius's work of bringing forth a new doctrine became apparent a decade before 319 CE, the year in which he published his ideas10 in a work known as Thalia (The Banquet), that was a summary of his doctrine.11 Thalia as composite work did not survive to the present days. It is believed that Arius as priest became frustrated with the doctrinal ideas of his Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, who was supported by Athanasius (296-373) in the key ideas of consubstantiality of the Father and the Son.

According to it, the Son is present in the Father without birth (agennetos), he was ever-begotten (aeigenes), and is unbegotten-begotten (agennetogene). But, Arius' logical assumption was that a father must somehow precede his son, such an inference leading to the idea that the Son has a beginning of his existence.12 As Arius puts it in one of the surviving letters known as Arrii ad Eusebium ('Arius to Eusebius'), the Son 'before being united or created or defined or established, He was not.' (Latin: antequam genitus esset aut creatus vel definitus aut fundatus, non fuit.).13 As we have mentioned already, Arius' main writing Thalia did not survive, but his ideas could be deduced from what his opponents refuted concerning Arianism.14

In Arius' thought were present some ideas formulated already by Origen (c.185-c.254) earlier, but Arius articulated the concept of the Father - the Son relation in his own deductive way. Basically, Arius emphasised upon the Father as the first and the unique absolute principle of divinity. As a logical consequence, any other divine reality, namely Jesus Christ as Son of God in particular, is secondary to the Father. According to Arius, the Son became created, so that he has a beginning in time just as the Word of God has been as instrument of the divine plan of creation. It follows logically that the Son is not eternal as the Father, because he is generated by the Father, and consequently has a subordinate position.15 Such kinds of theological matters became subject to great scholarly debates in which the Alexandrian priest Athanasius was a leading proponent. A collection of writings known as The Orations of St. Athanasius Against the Arians (TOI AGIOI ATHANASIOI KATA AREIANON LOGOI) consists of four discourses in which Athanasius makes clear his position against the Arians by criticising Arius' ideas from his work Thalia.16 Most relevant to mention are the extracts from the Thalia of Arius17 in Discourse I.5, those ideas that Athanasius criticises. We learn Arius' main ideas thus: 1. God was not always a Father; 2. Once God was alone and not yet a Father, but afterwards He became a Father; 3. The Son was not always; 4. The Son had an origin of creation; 5. Once God was alone, and the Word as yet was not, nor the Wisdom.18 Furthermore we learn more in detail about Arius's ideas from Athanasius's critique thus:

Arius dares to say that the Word is not the true God. When He is called God, he says, it is only a figure of speech, referring to the privileges He is endowed with by God. All things connected with Him are distinct and separate from the Father. The Son has to do with created things and persons, of whom He is one. And he proceeds to assert, with devilish arguments, that the Father is invisible to the Son, and that the Son is incapable of a true and perfect knowledge of the Father.19

Jesus Christ's limitations as human being, which were emphasised by Arius in his Thalia, are criticised by Athanasius thus:

When the Son is said to know and behold Him, it is only meant that He does so as far as He has the capacity to do so, just as we imperfectly apprehend Him. Through this deficiency the Son is not only ignorant of the nature of the Father, but of his own.20

Athanasius presents a central point of Arius's ideas in relation to the Trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost in the following terms:

The beings and nature of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are widely dissimilar. The nature and glory of the Word have no connection with those of the Father and the Holy Ghost.21

Although Arius' ideas appear to be logically consistent, Athanasius dogmatically disregards entirely the logic of thoughts expressed by Arius. Arianism was condemned at a synod at Alexandria (c.320) and categorically at the Council of Nicaea by means of the homoousion formula (vid. inf.).22 The issue of the divine nature of Jesus Christ was doctrinally and politically so important at that time that the General Council of Nicaea was convoked by the Emperor Constantine in 325 CE to settle the debate so important for the state 'whose peace, he held, was compromised by obstinate heretics or schismatics.'23 The 318 bishops who attended the council condemned Arianism. The Nicene Creed, which was in fact the endpoint of debate, was adopted as the official view of the Christian Church in relation to the Father - the Son consubstantiality.24

The relation under the one Godhead of the Father and the Son, 'of one substance' (Greek: homoousion) became the key word in the statement passed by the Council of Nicaea:

We believe, … in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, born of the Father, the sole-begotten; that is to say, of the substance of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God; born, not made, 'consubstantial' with the Father (in the Greek original: homoousion toi patri), through whom all things were made, which are in heaven and on earth.25

However, the word itself homoousion that is non-scriptural, became subject to multiple interpretation of its meaning. Marius Victorinus (a pro-Nicene scholar who wrote in Latin) remarks that the Father and the Son appear to have separate lives (tout deux ont la vie par eux-mêmes);26 as the Father has a life of His own, so He has given to the Son a separate life (Latin: Ut habet ex se vitam pater, ita et filio dedit ex se habere vitam.; French: Comme le Père a la vie par soi, ainsi il a donné au Fils d'avoir la vie pas soi.).27 Furthermore, Victorinus writes that the homoousion has to be understood as omou ousion einai , to be together as one substance (Latin: simul eandem esse substantiam; French: être ensemble une même substance.).28 In Victorinus's view, the homoousion has to be translated in Latin as deum in deo, lumen in lumine,29 the key words that later on became contained within the famous formula of Christian faith deum de/in deo, lumen de/in lumine, consubstantialem parti.30 Although Victorinus' semantic expressions appear to settle the issue of Father - Son consubstantiality, it does not answer to the famous Arian slogan referring to Jesus; 'there was once when he was not' (ên pote hote ouk ên).31 Therefore the Father was still alone when He decided to be together with the Son (vid. sup.). Consequently, the homoousion argument did not settle the Arian theological dilemma, and the political establishment became more involved into the religious matters. A strong opposition arose against the Nicene Creed.

In the East the Emperor Constantius (337-361 CE) sided with the Arians. In the West Arian teaching was accepted at the Councils of Arles (353 CE) and of Milan (355 CE). Athanasius and other supporters of the Nicene Creed were driven into exile.32 But a strong opposition arose against imperial interference in religious affairs; in the East it was led by St. Basil (Bishop of Cappadocia in 379 CE), in the West by St. Ambrose (Bishop of Milan in 387 CE).33 A council convened at Aquileé (Aquileia) in the West in 381 CE in which Arianism was condemned as heresy by St. Ambrose (Ambrosius) and other bishops who issued an edict known as GESTA EPISCOPORUM AQUILEIA ADVERSUM HAERETICOS ARRIANOS.34 In the East, Arianism became a matter of imperial enforcement. With the coming into power of the Emperor Theodosius the Great, the General Council of Constantinople in 381 CE condemned Arianism as a heresy.35 The council published four canonical declarations: the formula of homoousion from the General Council of Nicaea was declared valid, the Eastern part of Christian church acquired a larger degree of autonomy from Rome, Constantinople was exalted second to Rome in religious matters, but also aspired to have primacy above Rome in relation to religious jurisprudence.36 The orthodox theology of Christian theologians known as the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus) led to the final victory of Nicene orthodoxy.37 Notably are also the theological contributions of Athanasius and Ambrosius (Ambrose Bishop of Milan).

From that time Arianism never recovered as major doctrine. Although defeated almost everywhere, Arianism had a second rebirth. Jean Guitton describes the appearance of Arian ideology among the barbarians of the Roman world as the metempsychosis of Arianism,38 but this is not so. The Gothic Christianity39 was a result of Christianisation of the Goths by the Arians, a missionary work in which Ulfila (c.311-c.382), an Arian of Roman-Gothic descent, had a remarkable contribution. 40 But finally Arianism died out as doctrine linked to an established organisation.41 However, the Arian ideas are too important to disappear. As H. M. Gwatkin puts it:

Arianism is extinct only in the sense that it has long ceased to furnish party names. It sprang from permanent tendencies of human nature, and raised questions whose interest can never perish.42

In our view the defeat of Arianism is an unfortunate event in the history of Early Christianity. As theological construct (or better to say reconstruct) Arianism appears to be more logical than the traditional view of Christianity upon the issue of God the Father - the Son relation. For his appeal to reason Arius was named dialektikotatos ('acute reasoner') as he was a skilled practitioner of Aristotelian logic.43 On the other hand, the traditional orthodoxy appears in our views lacking logical support when Arianism is criticised. As Wiles puts it, the decisions at the Council of Nicaea 'did not seem to allow room for a clearly distinct identity of the Son'.44 As we see it, the rich polemical construct created over centuries against Arianism failed overall to present a logical argument. The consubstantiality of the Father - the Son disregards the basic tenets of empirical experience. In our view, Arianism's assumption that the Son acquired a divine status by his perfect obedience to the Father45 sounds a more rational way of expressing such theological matters. Arianism was theologically the most successful of Christian heresies of the early Christianity. It had a great appeal to Christian believers on the path of salvation.

Arius composed popular songs to embody his doctrine.46 'He brought the subject into the street and market-place, and made the Mystery of the Divine Generation the subject of popular songs and hymns.47 Arianism provided a rationalistic theology of path of salvation for the paradigmatic example of Jesus as human being who suffered in order to attain divine status. In Arius' view, the Christian godhead was monarchic. As Charles S. J. Kannengiesser puts it, Arius 'applied this view first of all to the Logos, the Word of God who becomes the instrument of the divine plan of creation and salvation.'48 On the path of salvation Christians 'should imitate the Son's asceticism and contemplate the mystery of his kenosis.'49 Thus, Arian soteriological approach focuses on Jesus as paradigmatic example of submission to a heavenly Father for attaining salvation.

On the other hand, the Arian soteriology was marked by the debate in the Platonism of the time upon 'the relation of this transient realm of sensible experience to the transcendent realm of the ideal forms.'50 The Arian approach to personal salvation was influenced by the Platonic ontological view angle, when 'sharing the metaphysical concerns of Plotinus in Ennead 5, but using the Christian categories of Father and Son.'51

In conclusion, Arianism as doctrine in Early Christianity was an attempt to appeal to reason for a more logical interpretation of the relation between God the Father, and Jesus the Son, against the more dogmatic orthodox theological views of those days. Although logically consistent, Arius' argument did not succeed for a strong political and theological opposition. The orthodox theological scholarship of Cappadocian Fathers (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus), Ambrosius, and Athanasius in particular, contributed to the doctrinal downfall of Arianism. Although partially successful during Early Christianity, Arianism fell at the end, mainly because of political interferences into religious matters. The Emperor Theodosius the Great, in his zeal for orthodoxy, was instrumental in the decision of the General Council of Constantinople in 381 CE to condemn Arianism as Christian heresy.

However, Arianism left a theological imprint that will never disappear for its everlasting theme. The more rationalistic theology of Arius exegesis in relation to the divine intervention into human affairs, appear to us a better construct to explain the case of Jesus Christ, depicted by the Christian creed as Son of God, to be a separate entity in relation to God the Father. In our view, Arianism was a lost opportunity in Christianity. Thus, we hope we made a convincing argument upon Arianism as doctrine in Early Christianity.

Endnotes

  • 1 Hans-Josef Klauck, The Religious Context of Early Christianity: A Guide to Graeco-Roman Religions (Edinburgh: T&T Clark Ltd., 2000), p. 328 points out that the early days of Christianity were marked by the idea of divinised human beings as a common feature of the Graeco-Roman world, part of the Hellenistic cult of benefactors (energetai). Klauck asserts that the Greek world interpreted the events (that took place in the Roman province of Judea) as related to Jesus, through a view angle in which God's and Jesus' titles as saviours (sg. soter) were linked to the cult of benefactors (energetai) of the Graeco-Roman world (See Luke 1: 47; 2:11; 22:25).
  • 2 Joseph Klausner, The Messianic Idea of Israel from its Beginning to the Completion of the Mishnah (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1955), in Appendix The Jewish and the Christian Messiah, pp. 519-531; the Jewish Messiah (Hebrew: mâshîaþ 'the anointed one') is truly human in origin, of flesh and blood, whereas the Christian Messiah was idealised to such an extent that his human side disappeared by being identified with God the Father. Klausner points out that Jesus, as claimant to Messiah of Israel, did not fulfil the Judaic expectations, so that nothing extraordinary happened for the Jews as a result of Jesus' mission.
  • 3 In Colossians 1:15.
  • 4 Ibid.
  • 5 Ibid.
  • 6 Hilaire Belloc, The Great Heresies (London: Sheed and Ward, 1938), p. 31.
  • 7 Belloc, op. cit., p. 32.
  • 8 Ibid., p. 33.
  • 9 William M. Ross, The Fathers of the Church: An Outline of Early Church Fathers, Heretics and Heresies (Mount Lewis: Lumen Verum Apologetics, 2001), p. 16.
  • 10 Barrows Dunham, The Heretics (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1963), p. 113.
  • 11 Charles S. J. Kannengiesser, "Arius," in The Encyclopedia of Religions, edited by Mircea Eliade. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987), Vol. 1., p. 412.
  • 12 Dunham, op. cit., p. 114.
  • 13 Original Latin in Marius Victorinus, Traités théologiques sur la Trinité Part I (Paris: Les éditions du cerf, 1960), p. 178.
  • 14 Charles S. J. Kannengiesser, "Arianism," in The Encyclopedia of Religions, edited by Mircea Eliade. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987), Vol. 1., p. 405.
  • 15 Ibid.
  • 16 Athanasius' Greek Benedictine text is available in William Bright, TOI AGIOI ATHANASIOI KATA AREIANON LOGOI The Orations of St. Athanasius Against the Arians (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1884).
  • 17 See Rowan D. Williams, "The Quest of the Historical Thalia," in Arianism: Historical and Theological Reassessments, edited by Robert C. Gregg. (Philadelphia: The Philadelphia Patristic Foundation, 1985), pp. 1-36, raising questions about the reliability of those words attributed to Arius by Athanasius, and considering the latter's offensive expressions, and the possibility that Athanasius' quotations from Arius are articulated in such a way to suit his critical arguments. In relation to what is truly of Arius note the contribution of G. C. Stead, "The Thalia of Arius and Testimony of Athanasius" article published in the Journal of Theological Studies, Vol. XXIX, 1978, pp, 20-52 as cited by Charles S. J. Kannengiesser "The Blasphemies of Arius: Athanasius of Alexandria De Synodis 15," in Robert C. Gregg, ed., op. cit, p, 59.
  • 18 Athanasius, Selected Treatises of St. Athanasius, Archbishop of Alexandria, in Controversy with the Arians. Trans. not indicated (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1844, p. 185.
  • 19 Athanasius, The Orations of St. Athanasius Against the Arians. Trans. not indicated (London: Griffith, Farran, Okeden and Welsh, year not indicated), pp. 15f.
  • 20 Ibid., p. 16.
  • 21 Ibid.
  • 22 Robert. C. Gregg and Dennis. E. Groh, "Arianism," in The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, edited by John Bowker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 88.
  • 23 M. L. Cozens, A Handbook of Heresies (London: Sheed and Ward, 1945), p. 35.
  • 24 Ross, op. cit., p. 17.
  • 25 Ibid.
  • 26 Translation by Pierre Hadot in Victorinus (Part I), op. cit., p. 543.
  • 27 Victorinus (Part I), op. cit., pp. 542f.
  • 28 Ibid.
  • 29 Marius Victorinus, Traités théologiques sur la Trinité Part II (Paris: Les éditions du cerf, 1960), p. 1056.
  • 30 M. L. Cozens, op. cit., p. 37.
  • 31 Robert. C. Gregg and Dennis. E. Groh, loc. cit., p. 88.
  • 32 Ross, op. cit., p. 19.
  • 33 Ibid.
  • 34 See Roger Gryson, Scolies ariennes sur le concile d'Aquileé (Paris: Les éditions du cerf, 1980), pp. 330-383 for the entire Latin text and the French translation of GESTA EPISCOPORUM AQUILEIA ADVERSUM HAERETICOS ARRIANOS.
  • 35 Ross, op. cit., p. 19.
  • 36 See the Italian edition of Manlio Simonetti, La crisa arians nel quatro secolo (Roma: Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum, 1975), pp. 536-542 for the 'quatro canoni' and their descriptions in I canoni e il simbolo di Constantinopoli.
  • 37 Robert. C. Gregg and Dennis. E. Groh, loc. cit., p. 88.
  • 38 Jean Guitton, Great Heresies and Church Councils (London: Harvill Press, 1965), p. 87.
  • 39 See Maurice Wiles, Archetypal Heresy: Arianism through the Centuries (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), "Gothic Christianity" in Chap. 2, pp. 40-51.
  • 40 Ibid., pp. 40f.
  • 41 Arianism continued to raise interest among scholars of Christian religion; see Wiles, op. cit., in Chap. Four, for British Arianism linked to names such as Isaac Newton, William Whiston and Samuel Clarke, and the tendency to Arianism of English Presbyterianism. For the development of Arianism after Arius see Michel R. Barnes and Daniel H. Williams, eds., Arianism after Arius: Essays in the Development of the Fourth Century Trinitarian Conflict (Edinburgh: T&T Clark Ltd., 1993). See also Michael Slusser, "Traditional Views of Late Arianism," in Barnes and Williams, eds., op. cit., pp. 3-30, elaborating on further doctrinal views of late Arianism.
  • 42 H. M. Gwatkin, The Arian Controversy (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1889), p. 1.
  • 43 Wiles, op. cit., p. 24.
  • 44 Ibid., p. 28.
  • 45 Robert. C. Gregg and Dennis. E. Groh, loc. cit., p. 88.
  • 46 Ibid.
  • 47 Cozens, op. cit. p. 32.
  • 48 Charles S. J. Kannengiesser, "Arianism," loc. cit., p. 405.
  • 49 Ibid. See also Robert C. Gregg and Dennis E. Groh, Early Arianism: A View of Salvation (London, 1981), for a broader view on Arian thought on salvation, passim.
  • 50 Wiles, op. cit., p. 24.
  • 51 Kannengiesser, "Arianism," loc. cit., p. 405.

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