The Arian Controversy

One of the most serious theological conflicts in the history of Christianity occurred more than one thousand six hundred years ago. Known as the Arian controversy, many people who call them-selves Christian have most likely never heard of the conflict or of most, if not all, of the principal characters of this religious war that shaped our theological outlook far more than one might imagine.

Three hundred years after Jesus’ crucifixion, there was a major theological fight that lasted for fifty plus years over whether Jesus was God. The chief combatants were Arius, a priest at the Church of Baucalis in Alexandria, Egypt and Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria. Other significant players in this theological drama included Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire, plus numerous bishops, most notably including Alexander of Alexandria, Hosius of Cordova, Eusebius of Caesarea and Eusebius of Nicomedia. At this point in church history, all the bishops were considered equal, but Alexander was called “Papa” – or Pope – in other words, he was THE most influential bishop, especially among the other eastern bishops.

In comparison to emperors and bishops, the priest, Arius, was relatively insignificant, but he stirred up a theological hornet’s nest. After he had been preaching at his church for a few years, his bishop, Alexander of Alexandria, began receiving reports that he was questioning the divinity of Jesus.

Arius got in more trouble when he objected to one of his bishop’s sermon in which Alexander said that “the Son is equal with the Father, and of the same substance with God who begat him.” Ari-us, a mere presbyter or priest, accused Alexander of Sabellianism, a heresy asserting that God and Jesus were aspects of the same undivided reality. This merging of Father and Son implied that the Son was not really human. Arius replied, “If the Father begat the Son, then he who was begotten had a beginning in existence, and from this it follows there was a time when the Son was not.” Alexander and his chief deacon assistant, Athanasius, argued that Christ was not of a like substance to God, but the same substance.

Alexander “ejected” Arius from the order of the presbytery, but the controversy quickly escalated. Arius drew even more attention and support from several deacons and other presbyters.

In a letter that Alexander wrote to the Bishop of Constantinople, also named Alexander, concerning Arius and his supporters, the bishop accused the Arians of denying Christ’s divinity and of declaring “him to be on a level with other men.” He also said they quote scriptural passages that support their beliefs while ignoring “all those which declare his divinity and the glory which he possesses with the Father.” He claimed they “maintain the ungodly hypothesis entertained by the Greeks and the Jews concerning Jesus Christ.” A considerable part of the controversy dealt with whether there was a time when the Son of God had no existence or if he had existed from eternity. Alexander and his followers quoted John 1:1-3 to prove their position (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”). He is amazed that the Arians reject or ignore such passages of Scripture as “The Father and I are one” (John 10:30), and “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). [Notice that all of Alexander’s “proof” texts quoted above are from John’s gospel.]

Another point of debate concerned whether Jesus was by nature liable to change and capable of both virtue and vice. The Arians position was if Jesus is God, how can he be virtuous if he did not have the power to choose between good and evil?
Alexander also accused “these evil-minded individuals” of thinking that we, like Jesus, could be-come sons of God. According to him, “the Sonship of our Savior has nothing in common with the sonship of men.”

Alexander even claims “in the Psalms, it is written that the Savior said, ‘The Lord said unto me, ‘Thou art my Son.’” (Psalm 2:7b – NRSV translation: “He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you.” According to The New Oxford Annotated Bible, in this passage a king is responding to a court poet or prophet, in which he is identified as the adopted son of God. It certainly was not Jesus speaking!)

There was also a dispute over the Trinity and the Holy Ghost. Alexander was a staunch supporter of the Trinitarian doctrine: “we confess the existence of the Holy Ghost, which truth has been upheld by the saints of the Old Testament, and by the learned divines of the New.”

He even accused the Arians of dishonoring “Christianity by permitting young women to ramble about the streets.” Arius was a particular favorite of the sailors, dockworkers, and young women and several of these women, who were incensed by his dismissal, reportedly thronged the streets immodestly, demanding his reinstatement. Remember this was still a strongly masculine dominated society. Young women rambling about the streets and their thronging the streets immodestly seem quite different accusations. Did they mean that the women simply gathering in the streets was immodest or were they doing something immodestly?

Although it has nothing directly to do with the Arian controversy, Alexander also wrote that “the world was created out of nothing, [which] shows that its creation is comparatively recent.” Such a quote simply illustrates the naivete of the bishop and of the age in which he lived.

As a result, Alexander was forced, in 321, to order a council of Egyptian bishops to decide what action should be taken. The council condemned Arius’ views and expelled him from his church. Arius refused to accept their verdict and attempted to appeal the decision. He also visited friends in Palestine, Syria and Asia Minor asking for their support.

Let’s back up in history for a moment. When Constantine’s father, Constantius, died in 306, Constantine became the ruler of Britain, Gaul, and Spain. Over the next several years, he gained more power and more territory. In 312, as Constantine’s army was preparing to face a military force twice his size, on a march toward Rome, according to Eusebius, he saw the cross rising from the sun’s light with the message “In Hoc Signo Vinces” (“with this sign you will conquer”). Eusebius also reported that Jesus appeared to Constantine the following night in a dream and told him to inscribe the sign (the Chi Rho – XP – a symbol representing the first two letters of the Greek spelling of the word Christos) on his army’s standards. After conferring with the Christian Bishop Hosius of Cordova, his spiritual adviser, Constantine commanded his soldiers to replace their pagan standards with the Chi Rho. Of course, his army was triumphant and Constantine became the ruler of the West. The persecution of Christians ended with the Edict of Milan in the following year. It was not until 324 that Constantine became emperor of the united Roman Empire. He was convinced that the best way to unite the empire’s diverse and quarreling people was to unify them under one spiritual umbrella – Christianity. His unity plan was almost immediately jeopardized by the Arian controversy, so he sent Bishop Hosius to Alexandria to determine the facts, evaluate them, and make recommendations.
Hosius’ investigation found that Arius was preaching that Jesus had earned his adoption as God’s son by his moral growth and obedience to God. He also asserted that what God did for Jesus, by resurrecting him and granting him immortality, he could do for us as well, provided that we grow in wisdom and virtue as new people in Christ. The Good News of the Gospels, according to Arius, is that all of us are potentially God’s sons and daughters. When Bishop Alexander ordered Arius to preach “the correct doctrine,” he refused. So a council of one hundred Egyptian bishops convened in Alexandria, where they wrote a creed – a Confession of Orthodoxy. When Arius and his followers refused to sign it, the council excommunicated them.
Soon Eusebius of Nicomedia convened another church council that declared Arius’ views were within the range of ideas that were acceptable. Arius then traveled to Lebanon and Palestine acquiring strong support from Bishop Paulinius of Tyre and Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea. Eusebius was an admirer of Origen of Alexandria’s theology. A century earlier, Origen, the greatest theologian of his time, had declared the Son was separate from and less than God. So Eusebius became a champion of Arius’ theology. He convened a council of bishops that met in Caesarea in 321 or 322 that also de-clared Arius theology as orthodox.

As the controversy spread, Christians all over the empire were singing a catchy tune that championed the Arian view: “There was a time when the Son was not.” A historian wrote that “bishop was contending against bishop, and the people were contending against one another, like swarms of gnats fighting in the air.”

Due to Hosius’ failure to mediate the theological controversy in Alexandria, in 325 CE, most likely on Hosius’ recommendation, Constantine decided to call a church council with representatives from all parts of the empire to resolve this issue. He hoped the bishops would work together on a creed – establish a church-wide set of beliefs – that would achieve ecclesiastical harmony. Therefore, the Council of Nicaea convened in 326 CE; of the 1,800 bishop who were invited, about 300 attend-ed, the huge majority from the Eastern church.

The council was led by Bishop Alexander, but it was Athanasius who, due to his sometimes unscrupulous support of orthodoxy and his vengeful attacks on Arianism, was hailed as “the noble champion of Christ.” Athanasius, who succeeded Alexander as bishop in 328, was a violent, vengeful man, but he shaped the future of the church when his side won the theological war that was raging. His adversaries, who were many, charged him with bribery, theft, extortion, sacrilege, treason and murder. He was excommunicated, anathematized, beaten, intimidated, kidnapped, imprisoned, and exiled no less than five times by four Roman emperors, spending 17 of the 45 years he served as Bishop of Alexandria in exile. Athanasius also thought that only a strong God, a strong Church, and a strong empire could provide people with the security they craved. Not surprisingly, Constantine loved Athanasius’ perspective.

The first order of business for the council was the Arian controversy, which consumed more than two weeks. Arius was in Nicaea, but since he was not a bishop, he was not allowed to address the council formally or participate in public discussions.
As the chief representative of Arianism, Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, presented a creed that was based on the traditional baptismal creed used in his church:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible; And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Word of God, God of God, Light of light, Life of life, the only-begotten Son, born before all creation, begotten by God the Father before all ages, by whom all things were made; who for our salvation became incarnate, and lived among us; and who suffered and rose again on the third day, and ascended to the Father, and shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. We believe also in one Holy Spirit. …

Constantine declared the creed to be acceptable, but he suggested an amendment – one word homoousios (homo means “the same” and ousia means “essence” or “substance”) be added. He explained that the term does not describe a bodily state or physical properties, so it is not saying that the Son came from the Father as a division of his being or as a cutting off from it. God’s nature, he said, is not a physical or bodily thing, and so cannot possibly be in a physical state. Therefore, we can only understand such things in divine and mysterious terms.

The Arians had difficulty accepting Constantine’s suggestion. They believed that God adopted Jesus as his Son, but that did not mean they were equal. Jesus of Nazareth was a real man, not some divine apparition of God or God, for that matter.
According to their opponents, the Arians thought in terms of either/or – either Jesus was really God or he was really human. The Arians could not logically imagine that he was both.

Athanasius, the chief Arian opponent, said that God can do anything he chooses, so God incarnated himself – he became human; he chose to become Jesus. Only if Jesus was fully human could he atone for human sin and only if he was fully divine could have the power to save us. To Athanasius, the logic of New Testament doctrine of salvation assumed the dual nature of Christ.

Even though throughout the Gospels Jesus described himself as being other than the Father and less than him, Athanasius maintained that God transformed himself into a man, suffered, died, and then resurrected himself. While Athanasius accused the Arians of demeaning Christ to the point that his majesty and saving power were lost, the Arians accused Athanasius of elevating him to the point that his love and God’s majesty were lost.
The Council of Nicaea eventually produced a creed (the Nicene Creed that is used in the church today is a revised version from the Council of Constantinople):

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, the only-begotten of the Father, of the substance (homoousios) of the Father; God of God and Light of Light; true God of true God; begotten, not made, of the same substance as the Father, by whom all things were made, in heaven and on earth: who for the sake of us men and our salvation, descended, became incarnate, and was made man, suffered, arose again on the third day, and ascended into the heavens, from where he will come again to judge the living and the dead;
And in the Holy Spirit.

But the Holy Catholic and Apostolic church anathematizes those (i.e. the Arians) who say “There was a time when he was not,” and “Before he was begotten, he did not exist” and “He was made from that which did not exist.” The same goes for those who assert that he is of a different substance or essence from the Father, or that he was created, or can be changed.
The creed was agreed upon and signed by 318 members of council. Only five refused to sign, objecting to the term homoousios. They were Eusebius of Nicomedia, Theognis of Nice, Maris of Chalcedon, Theonas of Marmarica, and Secundus of Ptolemaïs. In their defense, they wrote, “Of the same substance means coming from something in one of three ways: by germination, as a shoot comes from the roots; by derivation as children come from their parents; or by division, as two bowls come from one lump of gold. But the Son does not come from the Father in any of these ways. For this reason, we cannot agree to this creed.” Those same five also refused to agree to depose Arius. But the council anathematized Arius, and all who adhered to his opinions. Therefore, the Emperor sent Arius and the five who refused to sign into exile.

Soon after their banishment, some of the exiles changed their opinion and agreed that the Son and the Father are of the same substance.

Eusebius of Caesarea wrote the following to his church: “we agreed that ousia (of the substance) simply means that the Son is truly of the Father, but does not exist as a part of the Father.” Further-more, he said: “‘Of the same substance as the Father,’ is not meant in a physical sense, or in any way like mortal creatures… That the Son is of the same substance as the Father, then, simply implies that the Son of God has no resemblance to created things, but is in every respect like nothing but the Fa-ther who begot him, and that he is of no other substance but the Father’s. Explained in this way, it seemed right for me to assent to the doctrine, especially since some great theologians in the past used the term ‘of the same substance’ in their writings.”
Within a few months, some of Arius’ supporters convinced Constantine to end Arius’ exile. With a few private additions, Arius even signed the Nicene Creed, and the emperor ordered Athanasius, who had by then succeeded Alexander as bishop, to restore Arius to fellowship. However, Athanasius refused.

Shortly after that, some of Athanasius’ enemies accused him of murder, illegal taxation, sorcery, and treason – which led Constantine to exile him to Trier, now a German city near Luxembourg.

When Constantine died two years later, Athanasius returned to Alexandria. During his absence, Arianism had gained the upper hand. Now church leaders were against him, and they banished him again. So Athanasius traveled to Rome to seek support from Pope Julius I. He returned in 346, but was banished three more times before he finally came back to Alexandria to stay in 366. By then he was about 70 years old.

During Athanasius’ first year permanently back in Alexandria, he sent his annual letter to the churches in his diocese. Such communiques were used to fix the dates of Lent and Easter, and to dis-cuss matters of general interest. In this particular letter, Athanasius listed what he believed were the books that should constitute the New Testament: “In these (27 writings) alone the teaching of godliness is proclaimed. No one may add to them, and nothing may be taken away from them.” Although other lists had been made and would still be proposed, it is Athanasius’ list that the church eventually adopted, and it is the one we use to this day.

When Arius died in 336, Athanasius claimed it was God Himself who answered their prayers and “condemned the Arian heresy.”

According to Athanasius, Arius authored a poem called the Thalia (“festivity”). Part of the poem is quoted in Athanasius’ Four Discourses Against the Arians:

And so God Himself, as he really is, is inexpressible to all.
He alone has no equal, no one similar, and no one of the same glory.
We call Him unbegotten, in contrast to him who by nature is begotten.
We praise Him as without beginning, in contrast to him who has a beginning.
We worship Him as timeless, in contrast to him who in time has come to exist.
He who is without beginning made the Son a beginning of created things. He produced him as a son for Himself, by begetting him.
He (the Son) has none of the distinct characteristics of God’s own being
For he is not equal to, nor is he of the same being (homoousios) as Him.
In this portion of the Thalia, Arius explains the ultimate incomprehensibility of the Father to the Son:
In brief, God is inexpressible to the Son.
For He is in himself what He is, that is, indescribable,
So that the Son does not comprehend any of these things or have the understanding to explain them.
For it is impossible for him to fathom the Father, who is by Himself.
For the Son himself does not even know his own essence (ousia).
For being Son, his existence is most certainly at the will of the Father.
What reasoning allows, that he who is from the Father should comprehend and know his own parent?
For clearly that which has a beginning is not able to conceive of or grasp the existence of that which has no beginning”.

Questions and Conclusions

Why did the Arians maintain so vehemently that God sent a Savior who was less than God? Be-cause, fundamentally, the idea of the Eternal becoming a man offended them, as it offended the Jews. To them, identifying Jesus as the same substance as the Father demeaned God.

If Jesus was a creature rather than the creator, if he obeyed God by his will power rather than by nature, if his Sonship was due to adoption by God, then wasn’t he the holiest man in history? Yes! And the most God-like.

How is it possible that Jesus was both God and mediator between God and men? Judge and advocate? An all-powerful Father and a faithful brother and friend?

When Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” surely he was not talking to himself! God would not have prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” (Matthew 26:39) When Jesus admitted that no one knows the day and hour of the coming of the kingdom but the Father – not the angels of heaven or the Son (Mark 13:32) – he was not just being modest. When he told his disciples that “the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28), he meant exactly what he said. If “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor” as Luke 2:52 claims, he was not God – God would not have increased in wisdom or in divine favor. God would not have “learned obedience through what he suffered” (He-brews 5:8) Acts 2:36 says God “made” Jesus both Lord and Messiah.

A painting or statue represents its subject, but it is not the subject itself. Jesus was the image of the Father; he was a perfect representation of God in human form.

Although we may fall short of Jesus’ standards, do we have the potential to become sons and daughters of God? In my opinion, yes! God raised Jesus from the dead and declared him his son be-cause of who he was, what he did during his life and because he repeatedly did God’s will, so the same is, at least potentially, available to us.

If Jesus is a second God, is the Holy Spirit a third God? Anything other than one God is polytheism! Jesus and his disciples were Jews and Judaism is a monotheistic faith. How can a believer in only one God make Jesus God’s equal? If the Christ is literally God, can we seriously believe that God occupied a human body, suffered on the cross, died, and then resurrected himself? The Nicene view of the deity of Jesus is unreasonable and inconsistent with monotheism, with the dignity and absoluteness of God, and leads to Sabellianism or something worse. Isn’t there an alternative way to describe Jesus’ relationship to God that does not either deny his humanity (the Sabellian heresy) or question his divinity (extreme Arianism)?
Can God do anything? Of course! But for me, at least, God (or the Holy Spirit) fathering Jesus is just like the Greek god Zeus impregnating some human maiden. That is disgusting and unbelievable. If God impregnated Mary, wouldn’t the result be a demigod? That is paganism. Even if we accept that God chose to become human in the person of Jesus, how could God suffer on the cross and die the death of a human being? How can he be a model for human behavior if he was not human? If Christ is not completely human, how can we possibly hope to imitate him? Or is Jesus’ life a realistic model for human behavior for only a handful of saints and martyrs?

I have difficulty accepting the Christianity of the unscrupulous “noble champion of Christ” who was accused of bribery, theft, extortion, sacrilege, treason, murder, and sorcery. In any war, the winner’s view is triumphant, but if the conqueror won the battle by employing any or all of the things Athanasius was accused of then I question his qualification to define Christianity for the rest of us.

The nature of Arius’ death was so sudden and violent that one must ask: was he murdered? The timing and manner in which he died certainly are suspicious. In 336, the Synod of Jerusalem had re-stored Arius to communion and, despite the bishop’s objections, the Emperor directed Alexander to receive Arius. Alexander did not dare disobey the Emperor’s command nor did he want to obey it; so on Saturday evening before he was to admit Arius to communion the next morning, he prayed that either he or Arius would die before sunrise. That same evening, the reportedly healthy Arius suddenly became very ill as he and a crowd of his supporters including Eusebius of Nicomedia were leaving the imperial palace after a meeting with the Emperor. As they proudly paraded through the city, Arius was struck with extreme diarrhea. He rushed to the nearest restroom, but died as he relieved himself. The description of his death suggests that he might have been given a powerful poison in a slow dis-solving form with some food or drink during his audience with the Emperor. Such a poison, a method perfected by the Romans, would have produced a delayed and devastating end.

The Arian controversy lasted for over 250 years until it was driven underground. However, a modern church called the The Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of Arian Catholicism claims to follow Arius’ teachings. They teach that the Father alone is absolute God, and that Jesus had a beginning, in the flesh, and is subordinate to the Father. They teach that Jesus Christ was the sinless Messiah and Redeemer; however, they do not accept the virgin birth, some of Jesus’ miracles, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, any divinity or worship of Christ, or Biblical infallibility. The modern Arian church believes that Jesus was the natural son of Joseph and Mary, with the Holy Spirit overseeing the conception. And they teach that the resurrection is of the spirit (the soul), not in the flesh.

The type of Christianity that came from the Council of Nicaea and the subsequent church councils that followed, with Jesus, the Christ, incorporated into God, its pessimistic view of human nature, and its bishops and saints increasingly becoming more important, may have been better suited to ex-press the hopes and fears of Christians in an age of unpredictable change and lowered social expectations, but, in my opinion, is ill suited for the progressive Christianity of the 21st Century.

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