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Arianism is a heresy with regard to the person of Christ, which spread widely in the church from the fourth to the seventh centuries. It took its name from Arius, a presbyter of Alexandria, said to have been a Libyan, and a man of subtle, but not profound mind. The most probable account is that he was educated in the school of Lucian the martyr at Antioch, and the doctrinal position of Lucian (scientifically nearer to the subsequent doctrine of Arius than of Athanasius) helps to explain not only how Arius’s view arose, but also how it happened to be so widely received. He is said to have favored Meletius, who was deposed in A.D. 306, but it appears that Peter, bishop of Alexandria, the great enemy of Meletius, ordained Arius deacon about A.D. 311, but soon, on account of his turbulent disposition, ejected him. When Peter was dead, Arius feigned penitence; and being pardoned by Achillas, who succeeded Peter, he was by him raised to the priesthood, and intrusted with the church of Baucalis, in Alexandria (Epiphan. Hæres. 68, 4). It is said that on the death of Achillas, A.D. 313, Arius was greatly mortified because Alexander was preferred before him, and made bishop, and that he consequently sought every occasion of exciting tumults against Alexander, but this story rests simply on a remark of Theodoret (Hist. Eccles. i, 2) that Arius was envious of Alexander.
Arianism (Ἀρειανισμός Areianismós) is a Christological doctrine first attributed to Arius (c. AD 256–336), a Christian presbyter from Alexandria, Egypt. Arian theology holds that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, who was begotten by God the Father with the difference that the Son of God did not always exist but was begotten within time by God the Father, therefore Jesus was not co-eternal with God the Father.
Arius’ trinitarian theology, later given an extreme form by Aetius and his disciple Eunomius and called anomoean (“dissimilar”), asserts a total dissimilarity between the Son and the Father. Arianism holds that the Son is distinct from the Father and therefore subordinate to him. The term Arian is derived from the name Arius; it was not what the followers of Arius’s teachings called themselves, but rather a term used by outsiders. The nature of Arius’s teachings and his supporters were opposed to the theological doctrines held by Homoousian Christians, regarding the nature of the Trinity and the nature of Christ.
There was a controversy between two interpretations of Jesus’ divinity (Homoousianism and Arianism) based upon the theological orthodoxy of the time, one trinitarian and the other also a derivative of trinitarian orthodoxy, and both of them attempted to solve its respective theological dilemmas. Homoousianism was formally affirmed by the first two ecumenical councils; since then, Arianism has always been condemned as “the heresy or sect of Arius.” As such, all mainstream branches of Christianity now consider Arianism to be heterodox and heretical. Trinitarian (Homoousian) doctrines were vigorously upheld by Patriarch Athanasius of Alexandria, who insisted that Jesus (God the Son) was “same in being” or “same in essence” with God the Father. Arius stated: “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.” The ecumenical First Council of Nicaea of 325, convened by Emperor Constantine to ensure church unity, declared Arianism to be a heresy. According to Everett Ferguson, “The great majority of Christians had no clear views about the nature of the Trinity and they did not understand what was at stake in the issues that surrounded it.”
Arianism is also used to refer to other nontrinitarian theological systems of the 4th century, which regarded Jesus Christ—the Son of God, the Logos—as either a begotten creature of a similar or different substance to that of the Father, but not identical (as Homoiousian and Anomoeanism) or as neither uncreated nor created in the sense other beings are created (as in semi-Arianism).
Origin of Arianism
Controversy over Arianism arose in the late 3rd century and persisted throughout most of the 4th century. It involved most church members—from simple believers, priests, and monks to bishops, emperors, and members of Rome’s imperial family. Two Roman emperors, Constantius II and Valens, became Arians or Semi-Arians, as did prominent Gothic, Vandal, and Lombard warlords both before and after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Such a deep controversy within the early Church during this period of its development could not have materialized without significant historical influences providing a basis for the Arian doctrines.
Arius had been a pupil of Lucian of Antioch at Lucian’s private academy in Antioch and inherited from him a modified form of the teachings of Paul of Samosata. Arius taught that God the Father and the Son of God did not always exist together eternally.
TEXTUAL STUDIES: Lucian of Antioch (c. 240-312 C.E.): The Teacher of Arius?
Lucian of Antioch (c. 240-312 C.E.): the Path to the Byzantine Text
First Period: to the Council of Nicaea
The eloquence of Arius gained him popularity, and he soon began to teach a doctrine concerning the person of Christ inconsistent with His divinity. When Alexander had one day been addressing his clergy, and insisting that the Son is co-eternal, co-essential, and co-equal with the Father (ὁμότιμον τοῦ Πατρός, καὶ τὴν αὐτὴν οὐσίαν ἔχειν, Theod. i, 11), Arius opposed him, accused him of Sabellianism, and asserted that there was a time when the Son was not (ἦν ὅτε οὐκ ἦν ὁ ὑιός), since the Father who begot must be before the Son who was begotten, and the latter, therefore, could not be eternal. Such is the account, by the early writers, of the origin of the controversy. But if it had not begun in this way, it must soon have begun in some other. The points in question had not arrived at scientific precision in the mind of the church; and it was only during the Arian controversy, and by means of the earnest struggles invoked by it, carried on through many years, causing the convocation of many synods, and employing some of the most acute and profound intellects the church has ever seen, that a definite and permanent form of truth was arrived at. At length, Alexander called a council of his clergy, which was attended by nearly one hundred Egyptian and Libyan bishops, by whom Arius was deposed and excommunicated. This decision was conveyed to all the foreign bishops by circulars sent by Alexander himself (A.D. 321). Arius retired to Palestine, whereby his eloquence and talents he soon gained a number of converts. Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia, who had also studied under Lucian, and doubtless held his opinions, naturally inclined to favor Arius, who addressed to Eusebius a letter, still extant (Epiphanius, Hæres. 69, 6, and in Theodoret, Hist. Eccl. i, 5), from which we derive our knowledge of the first stage of Arian opinion. It runs thus: “We cannot assent to these expressions, ‘always Father, always Son;’ ‘at the same time Father and Son;’ that ‘the Son always co-exists with the Father;’ that ‘the Father has no pre-existence before the Son, no, not so much as in thought or a moment.’ But this we think and teach, that the Son is not unbegotten, nor a part of the unbegotten by any means. Nor is he made out of any pre-existent thing; but, by the will and pleasure of the Father, he existed before time and ages, the only begotten God, unchangeable; and that before He was begotten, or made, or designed, or founded, he was not. But we are persecuted because we say that the Son has a beginning, and that God has no beginning. For this we are persecuted; and because we say the Son is out of nothing. Which we therefore say, because he is not a part of God, or made out of any pre-existent thing” (διδάσκομεν, ὅτι ὁ υἱὸς οὐκ ἔστιν ἀγέννητος, οὐδὲ μέρος ἀγεννήτου κατʼ οὐδένα τρόπον, οὐδὲ ἐξ ὑποκειμένου τινός· ἀλλʼ ὅτι θελήματι καὶ βουλῇ ὑπέστη πρὸ χρόνων καὶ πρὸ αἰώνων πλήρης θεός, μονογενής, ἀναλλοίωτος, καὶ πρὶν γεννηθῇ, ἤτοι κτισθῇ, ἢ ὁρισθῇ, ἢ θεμελιωθῇ, οὐκ ἦν· ἀγέννητος γὰρ οὐκ ἦν· διωκόμεθα ὅτι εἴπαμεν, ἀρχὴν ἔχει ὁ υἱός, ὁ δὲ θεὸς ἄναρχός ἐστι … καὶ ὃτι εἴπαμεν, ὃτι ἐξ οὐκ ὄντων ἐστίν· οὕτω δὲ εἴπαμεν καθότι οὐδὲ μέρος θεοῦ οὐδὲ ἐξ ὑποκειμένου τινός). Voigt (in his Lehre des Athanasius von Alexandrien) gives this letter, with critical emendations, which elucidate the development of the opinions of Arius. The second direct source of our knowledge of the opinions of Arius is a letter addressed by him to Alexander (preserved in Epiphanius Hæres. 69, 7, and in Athanasius, De Synod. 16), in which he states his positions plausibly and cautiously, and claims that they are the traditional opinions of the church. “We believe that there are three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. God, the cause of all things, is alone without beginning. The Son, begotten of the Father before time, made before the ages were founded, was not before he was begotten. Nor is he eternal, or co-eternal, or begotten at the same time with the Father.” In these two letters Arius teaches that the Father alone is God, and that the Son is his creature. He still regards the Son, however, “as occupying a unique position among creatures; as unalterable and unchangeable; and as bearing a distinctive and peculiar likeness to the Father” (Dorner, l. c. p. 236). He terms the Son “a perfect creature of God, but not as one of the creatures; an offspring, but not as one of those who are generated” (Ep. ad Alex.). Alexander now wrote a letter to Alexander of Constantinople (Theod. i, 4), in which he charges Arius with teaching not only that the Son is less than the Father, but also that he is “liable to change,” notwithstanding that Arius, in the epistles cited above, speaks of the Son as “unalterable and unchangeable” (ἀναλλοίωτος, ἄτρεπτος). But Arius abandoned these terms and set forth the changeableness of the Son without reservation in his Thalia (Θάλεια), the latest of his writings known to us (written during his stay at Nicomedia). It is partly in prose and partly in verse, and obviously addressed to the popular ear. What we have extant of it is preserved in Athanasius (cont. Arianos, i, 5–9; De Synod. 15).
A council was called in Bithynia (A.D. 323) by Eusebius of Nicomedia, and other favorers of Arius, by which an epistle was written to “all bishops,” exhorting them to hold fellowship with Arius (Sozomen, i, 15). Another council was now held at Alexandria (323?), from which Alexander sent forth an encyclical letter against Arius, and also sharply censured Eusebius of Nicomedia, and other Eastern bishops, as supporters of grave heresy (preserved in Socrates, Hist. Eccl. i, 6). We now hear, for the first time, the name of Eusebius of Caesarea in connection with the controversy. He did not accept the Arian formula (ἦν πότε ὅτε οὐκ ἦν); but, as he had been educated in Origen’s denial of the eternal Sonship of Christ, he was just in the position to suggest a compromise between the opposing parties. He wrote letters in this spirit (excusing Arius) to Alexander; but the question at issue was a fundamental one, ready for its final decision, and the day of compromise was past and gone (Sozomen, Hist. Eccl. i, 15; Epiphanius, Hæres. 69, 4). The controversy had now spread like a flame throughout the Eastern empire, and at last Constantine found it absolutely necessary to bring it to a point. At first, he sought to reconcile Alexander and Arius by a letter in which he urged them to drop discussion on unessential points, and to agree together for the harmony of the church. This letter was conveyed by his court bishop, Hosius; but he met with no success, and an uproar arose in Alexandria, in which the effigy of the emperor himself was insulted. As all the provincial synods had only helped to fan the flame of strife, Constantine determined to call a general council of bishops, and accordingly, the first ecumenical council was held at Nice, A.D. 325, consisting of 318 bishops, most of whom were from the East.
The gist of the question to be settled by the Council of Nicaea lay in the summary argument of Arius: “The Father is a Father; the Son is a Son; therefore the Father must have existed before the Son; therefore once the Son was not; therefore he was made, like all creatures, of a substance that had not previously existed.” This was the substance of the doctrine of Arius. His intellect, logical, but not profound or intuitive, could not embrace the lofty doctrine of an eternal, unbeginning generation of the Son. In a truly rationalistic way, he thought that he could argue from the nature of human generation to divine; not seeing that his argument, while insisting on the truth of the Sonship of Christ, ended by alienating Him wholly from the essence of the Father. “The Arian Christ was confessedly lacking in a divine nature, in every sense of the term. Though the Son of God was united with human nature in the birth of Jesus, yet that Son of God has a κτίσμα. He indeed existed long before that birth, but not from eternity. The only element, consequently, in the Arian construction of Christ’s person that was preserved intact and pure was the humanity” (Shedd, History of Doctrines, i, 393). Of the debates upon these great questions in the Council of Nicaea no full account is extant. Athanasius, who was then a deacon under Alexander, bore a prominent part in the council, and contributed largely to its decisions, in defense of which the remainder of his life was chiefly occupied. For an account of the proceedings, as far as known, see Kaye, Council of Nicæa (Lond. 1853). Eusebius of Caesarea was also a chief actor in the council, and sought, in harmony with his character and habits, to act as mediator. He proposed, finally, a creed which he declared he had “received from the bishops who had preceded him and from the Scriptures” (Socrates, Eccl. Hist. i, 8), which received the immediate approbation of Constantine. It did not, however, contain the word ὁμοούσιος, which was insisted upon by the orthodox. (It is given in parallel columns with the Nicene Creed in Christian Remembrancer, January 1854, p. 133.) The Creed, as finally adopted, condemned the heresy of Arius, and fixed the doctrine of the person of Christ as it has been held in the church to this day, declaring the Son to be “begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” According to Sozomen (i, 20), all the bishops but fifteen, according to Socrates (i, 8), all but five, signed the Creed. These five were Eusebius of Nicomedia, Theognis of Nice, Maris of Chalcedon, Thomas of Marmarica, and Secundus of Ptolemais; and of these only the two last held out against the threat of banishment made by the emperor. Arius was excommunicated and banished, and his books ordered by the emperor to be burnt.
Condemnation by the Council of Nicaea
Emperor Constantine the Great summoned the First Council of Nicaea, which defined the dogmatic fundaments of Christianity; these definitions served to rebut the questions posed by Arians. All the bishops who were there were in agreement with the major theological points of the proto-orthodoxy, since at that time all other forms of Christianity “had by this time already been displaced, suppressed, reformed, or destroyed.” Although the proto-orthodox won the previous disputes, due to the more accurate defining of orthodoxy, they were vanquished with their own weapons, ultimately being declared heretics, not because they would have fought against ideas regarded as theologically correct, but because their positions lacked the accuracy and refinement needed by the fusion of several contradictory theses accepted at the same time by later orthodox theologians. According to Bart Ehrman that is why the Trinity is a “paradoxical affirmation.”
Of the roughly 300 bishops in attendance at the Council of Nicaea, two bishops did not sign the Nicene Creed that condemned Arianism. Constantine the Great also ordered a penalty of death for those who refused to surrender the Arian writings:
In addition, if any writing composed by Arius should be found, it should be handed over to the flames, so that not only will the wickedness of his teaching be obliterated, but nothing will be left even to remind anyone of him. And I hereby make a public order, that if someone should be discovered to have hidden a writing composed by Arius, and not to have immediately brought it forward and destroyed it by fire, his penalty shall be death. As soon as he is discovered in this offence, he shall be submitted for capital punishment. …
— Edict by Emperor Constantine against the Arians
Ten years after the Council of Nicaea, Constantine the Great, who was himself later baptized by the Arian bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia in 337 AD, convened another gathering of church leaders at the regional First Synod of Tyre in 335 (attended by 310 bishops), to address various charges mounted against Athanasius by his detractors, such as “murder, illegal taxation, sorcery, and treason”, following his refusal to readmit Arius into fellowship. Athanasius was exiled to Trier (in modern Germany) following his conviction at Tyre of conspiracy, and Arius was, effectively, exonerated. Athanasius eventually returned to Alexandria in 346, after the deaths of both Arius and Constantine. Though Arianism had spread, Athanasius and other Nicene Christian church leaders crusaded against Arian theology, and Arius was anathemised and condemned as a heretic once more at the ecumenical First Council of Constantinople of 381 (attended by 150 bishops). The Roman Emperors Constantius II (337–361) and Valens (364–378) were Arians or Semi-Arians, as was the first King of Italy, Odoacer (433?–493), and the Lombards were also Arians or Semi-Arians until the 7th century. Visigothic Spain was Arian until 589. Many Goths adopted Arian beliefs upon their conversion to Christianity. The Vandals actively spread Arianism in North Africa.
CONSTANTINE THE GREAT: A Defender of Christianity?
Who Were the Goths and Why Is the Gothic Version of Interest to Textual Scholars and Bible Translators?
Little of Arius’s own work survives except in quotations selected for polemical purposes by his opponents, and there is no certainty about what theological and philosophical traditions formed his thought.
Arianism taught that the Logos was a divine being begotten by God the Father before the creation of the world, made him a medium through whom everything else was created, and that the Son of God is subordinate to God the Father. A verse from Proverbs was also used: “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work.” [Proverbs 8:22–25] Therefore, the Son was rather the very first and the most perfect of God’s creatures, and he was made “God” only by the Father’s permission and power.
Arians do not believe in the traditional doctrine of the Trinity. The letter of the Arian bishop Auxentius of Durostorum regarding the Arian missionary Ulfilas gives a picture of Arian beliefs. The Arian Ulfilas, who was ordained a bishop by the Arian bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia and returned to his people to work as a missionary, believed: God, the Father, (“unbegotten” God; Almighty God) always existing and who is the only true God. [John 17:3] The Son of God, Jesus Christ, (“only-begotten God” [John 1:18]), Mighty God; [Isaiah 9:6] begotten before time began [Proverbs 8:22–29], [Revelation 3:14], [Colossians 1:15] and who is Lord/Master. [1 Corinthians 8:6] The Holy Spirit (the illuminating and sanctifying power, who is neither God the Father nor Lord/Master). 1 Corinthians 8:5–6 was cited as proof text:
Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords/masters—yet for us there is one God (Gk. theos – θεός), the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord/Master (kyrios – κύριος), Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
— 1 Corinthians 8:5–6
The creed of Arian Ulfilas (c. 311–383), which concludes the above-mentioned letter by Auxentius, distinguishes God the Father (“unbegotten”), who is the only true God, from Son of God (“only-begotten”), who is Lord/Master; and the Holy Spirit, the illuminating and sanctifying power, who is neither God the Father nor Lord/Master:
I, Ulfila, bishop and confessor, have always so believed, and in this, the one true faith, I make the journey to my Lord; I believe in only one God the Father, the unbegotten and invisible, and in his only-begotten Son, our Lord/Master and God, the designer and maker of all creation, having none other like him. Therefore, there is one God of all, who is also God of our God; and in one Holy Spirit, the illuminating and sanctifying power, as Christ said after his resurrection to his apostles: “And behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you; but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye be clothed with power from on high” [Luke 24:49] and again “But ye shall receive power when the Holy Spirit is come upon you”; [Acts 1:8] Neither God nor Lord/Master, but the faithful minister of Christ; not equal, but subject and obedient in all things to the Son. And I believe the Son to be subject and obedient in all things to God the Father.
— Heather & Matthews 1991, p. 143
A letter from Arius (c. 250–336) to the Arian Eusebius of Nicomedia (died 341) states the core beliefs of the Arians:
Some of them say that the Son is an eructation, others that he is a production, others that he is also unbegotten. These are impieties to which we cannot listen, even though the heretics threaten us with a thousand deaths. But we say and believe and have taught, and do teach, that the Son is not unbegotten, nor in any way part of the unbegotten; and that he does not derive his subsistence from any matter; but that by his own will and counsel he has subsisted before time and before ages as perfect as God, only begotten and unchangeable, and that before he was begotten, or created, or purposed, or established, he was not. For he was not unbegotten. We are persecuted because we say that the Son has a beginning but that God is without beginning.
— Theodoret: Arius’s Letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia, translated in Peters’ Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe, p. 41
Principally, the dispute between Trinitarianism and Arianism was about:
- has the Son always existed eternally with the Father or was the Son begotten at a certain time in the past?
- is the Son equal to the Father or subordinated to the Father?
For Constantine, these were minor theological points that stood in the way of uniting the Empire, but for the theologians, it was of huge importance; for them, it was a matter of salvation.
For the theologians of the 19th century it was already obvious that in fact Arius and Alexander/Athanasius did not have much to quarrel about, the difference between their views was very small, and that the end of the fight was by no means clear during their quarrel, both Arius and Athanasius suffering a great deal for their own views. Arius was the father of Homoiousianism and Alexander the father of Homoousianism, which was championed by Athanasius. For those theologians it was clear that Arius, Alexander and Athanasius were far from a true doctrine of Trinity, which developed later, historically speaking.
Guido M. Berndt and Roland Steinacher state clearly that the beliefs of Arius were acceptable (“not especially unusual”) to a huge number of orthodox clergy; this is the reason why such a major conflict was able to develop inside the Church, since Arius’s theology received widespread sympathy (or at least was not considered to be overly controversial) and could not be dismissed outright as individual heresy.
Arianism had several different variants, including Eunomianism and Homoian Arianism. Homoian Arianism is associated with Acacius and Eudoxius. Homoian Arianism avoided the use of the word ousia to describe the relation of Father to Son, and described these as “like” each other. Hanson lists twelve creeds that reflect the Homoian faith:
- The Second Sirmian Creed of 357
- The Creed of Nice (Constantinople) 360
- The creed put forward by Acacius at Seleucia, 359
- The Rule of Faith of Ulfilas
- The creed uttered by Ulfilas on his deathbed, 383
- The creed attributed to Eudoxius
- The Creed of Auxentius of Milan, 364
- The Creed of Germinius professed in correspondence with Ursacius of Singidunum and Valens of Mursa
- Palladius‘ rule of faith
- Three credal statements found in fragments, subordinating the Son to the Father
Struggles with Orthodoxy
In 321, Arius was denounced by a synod at Alexandria for teaching a heterodox view of the relationship of Jesus to God the Father. Because Arius and his followers had great influence in the schools of Alexandria—counterparts to modern universities or seminaries—their theological views spread, especially in the eastern Mediterranean.
By 325, the controversy had become significant enough that the Emperor Constantine called an assembly of bishops, the First Council of Nicaea, which condemned Arius’s doctrine and formulated the original Nicene Creed of 325. The Nicene Creed’s central term, used to describe the relationship between the Father and the Son, is Homoousios (Ancient Greek: ὁμοούσιος), or Consubstantiality, meaning “of the same substance” or “of one being” (the Athanasian Creed is less often used but is a more overtly anti-Arian statement on the Trinity).
The focus of the Council of Nicaea was the nature of the Son of God and his precise relationship to God the Father (see Paul of Samosata and the Synods of Antioch). Arius taught that Jesus Christ was divine/holy and was sent to earth for the salvation of mankind but that Jesus Christ was not equal to God the Father (infinite, primordial origin) in rank and that God the Father and the Son of God were not equal to the Holy Spirit. Under Arianism, Christ was instead not consubstantial with God the Father since both the Father and the Son under Arius were made of “like” essence or being but not of the same essence or being (see homoousia).
In the Arian view, God the Father is a deity and is divine and the Son of God is not a deity but divine (I, the LORD, am Deity alone.) [Isaiah 46:9] God the Father sent Jesus to earth for salvation of mankind. [John 17:3] Ousia is essence or being, in Eastern Christianity, and is the aspect of God that is completely incomprehensible to mankind and human perception. It is all that subsists by itself and which has not its being in another, God the Father and God the Son and God the Holy Spirit all being uncreated.
According to the teaching of Arius, the preexistent Logos and thus the incarnate Jesus Christ was a begotten being; only the Son was directly begotten by God the Father, before ages, but was of a distinct, though similar, essence or substance from the Creator. His opponents argued that this would make Jesus less than God and that this was heretical. Much of the distinction between the differing factions was over the phrasing that Christ expressed in the New Testament to express submission to God the Father. The theological term for this submission is kenosis. This ecumenical council declared that Jesus Christ was true God, co-eternal and consubstantial (i.e., of the same substance) with God the Father.
Constantine is believed to have exiled those who refused to accept the Nicaean Creed—Arius himself, the deacon Euzoios, and the Libyan bishops Theonas of Marmarica and Secundus of Ptolemais—and also the bishops who signed the creed but refused to join in condemnation of Arius, Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicaea. The emperor also ordered all copies of the Thalia, the book in which Arius had expressed his teachings, to be burned. However, there is no evidence that his son and ultimate successor, Constantius II, who was a Semi-Arian Christian, was exiled.
Although he was committed to maintaining what the Great Church had defined at Nicaea, Constantine was also bent on pacifying the situation and eventually became more lenient toward those condemned and exiled at the council. First, he allowed Eusebius of Nicomedia, who was a protégé of his sister, and Theognis to return once they had signed an ambiguous statement of faith. The two, and other friends of Arius, worked for Arius’s rehabilitation.
At the First Synod of Tyre in AD 335, they brought accusations against Athanasius, now bishop of Alexandria, the primary opponent of Arius. After this, Constantine had Athanasius banished since he considered him an impediment to reconciliation. In the same year, the Synod of Jerusalem under Constantine’s direction readmitted Arius to communion in 336. Arius died on the way to this event in Constantinople. Some scholars suggest that Arius may have been poisoned by his opponents. Eusebius and Theognis remained in the Emperor’s favor, and when Constantine, who had been a catechumen much of his adult life, accepted baptism on his deathbed, it was from Eusebius of Nicomedia.
The Aftermath of Nicaea
The First Council of Nicaea did not end the controversy, as many bishops of the Eastern provinces disputed the homoousios, the central term of the Nicene Creed, as it had been used by Paul of Samosata, who had advocated a monarchianist Christology. Both the man and his teaching, including the term homoousios, had been condemned by the Synods of Antioch in 269. Hence, after Constantine’s death in 337, open dispute resumed again. Constantine’s son Constantius II, who had become emperor of the eastern part of the Roman Empire, actually encouraged the Arians and set out to reverse the Nicene Creed. His advisor in these affairs was Eusebius of Nicomedia, who had already at the Council of Nicaea been the head of the Arian party, who also was made the bishop of Constantinople.
Constantius used his power to exile bishops adhering to the Nicene Creed, especially St Athanasius of Alexandria, who fled to Rome. In 355 Constantius became the sole Roman emperor and extended his pro-Arian policy toward the western provinces, frequently using force to push through his creed, even exiling Pope Liberius and installing Antipope Felix II.
The Third Council of Sirmium in 357 was the high point of Arianism. The Seventh Arian Confession (Second Sirmium Confession) held that both homoousios (of one substance) and homoiousios (of similar substance) were unbiblical and that the Father is greater than the Son. (This confession was later known as the Blasphemy of Sirmium.)
But since many persons are disturbed by questions concerning what is called in Latin substantia, but in Greek ousia, that is, to make it understood more exactly, as to ‘coessential,’ or what is called, ‘like-in-essence,’ there ought to be no mention of any of these at all, nor exposition of them in the Church, for this reason and for this consideration, that in divine Scripture nothing is written about them, and that they are above men’s knowledge and above men’s understanding;
As debates raged in an attempt to come up with a new formula, three camps evolved among the opponents of the Nicene Creed. The first group mainly opposed the Nicene terminology and preferred the term homoiousios (alike in substance) to the Nicene homoousios, while they rejected Arius and his teaching and accepted the equality and co-eternality of the persons of the Trinity. Because of this centrist position, and despite their rejection of Arius, they were called “Semi-Arians” by their opponents. The second group also avoided invoking the name of Arius, but in large part followed Arius’s teachings and, in another attempted compromise wording, described the Son as being like (homoios) the Father. A third group explicitly called upon Arius and described the Son as unlike (anhomoios) the Father. Constantius wavered in his support between the first and the second party, while harshly persecuting the third.
Epiphanius of Salamis labeled the party of Basil of Ancyra in 358 “Semi-Arianism”. This is considered unfair by Kelly who states that some members of the group were virtually orthodox from the start but disliked the adjective homoousios while others had moved in that direction after the out-and-out Arians had come into the open.
The debates among these groups resulted in numerous synods, among them the Council of Serdica in 343, the Fourth Council of Sirmium in 358 and the double Council of Rimini and Seleucia in 359, and no fewer than fourteen further creed formulas between 340 and 360, leading the pagan observer Ammianus Marcellinus to comment sarcastically: “The highways were covered with galloping bishops.” None of these attempts were acceptable to the defenders of Nicene orthodoxy; writing about the latter councils, Saint Jerome remarked that the world “awoke with a groan to find itself Arian.”
After Constantius’ death in 361, his successor Julian, a devotee of Rome’s pagan gods, declared that he would no longer attempt to favor one church faction over another, and allowed all exiled bishops to return; this resulted in further increasing dissension among Nicene Christians. The emperor Valens, however, revived Constantius’ policy and supported the “Homoian” party, exiling bishops and often using force. During this persecution many bishops were exiled to the other ends of the Roman Empire (e.g., Saint Hilary of Poitiers to the eastern provinces). These contacts and the common plight subsequently led to a rapprochement between the western supporters of the Nicene Creed and the homoousios and the eastern Semi-Arians.
Council of Constantinople
It was not until the co-reigns of Gratian and Theodosius that Arianism was effectively wiped out among the ruling class and elite of the Eastern Empire. Valens died in the Battle of Adrianople in 378 and was succeeded by Theodosius I, who adhered to the Nicene Creed. This allowed for settling the dispute. Theodosius’s wife St Flacilla was instrumental in his campaign to end Arianism.
Two days after Theodosius arrived in Constantinople, 24 November 380, he expelled the Homoiousian bishop, Demophilus of Constantinople, and surrendered the churches of that city to Gregory of Nazianzus, the leader of the rather small Nicene community there, an act which provoked rioting. Theodosius had just been baptized, by bishop Acholius of Thessalonica, during a severe illness, as was common in the early Christian world. In February he and Gratian had published an edict that all their subjects should profess the faith of the bishops of Rome and Alexandria (i.e., the Nicene faith), or be handed over for punishment for not doing so.
Although much of the church hierarchy in the East had opposed the Nicene Creed in the decades leading up to Theodosius’s accession, he managed to achieve unity on the basis of the Nicene Creed. In 381, at the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople, a group of mainly Eastern bishops assembled and accepted the Nicene Creed of 381, which was supplemented in regard to the Holy Spirit, as well as some other changes: see Comparison of Nicene Creeds of 325 and 381. This is generally considered the end of the dispute about the Trinity and the end of Arianism among the Roman, non-Germanic peoples.
From the Council of Nicaea to the Council of Milan
Soon after the close of the Council of Nicaea, Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nice, being found to continue their countenance of the Arian cause by refusing to carry out its anathemas, were deposed, were both subjected to the same penalty of exile by the emperor, and had successors appointed to their sees. By imposing upon the credulity of Constantine, they were in three years restored, and gained considerable influence at court (Sozom. ii, 16, 27). The indulgent emperor, on the statement being made to him (by a presbyter of the household of his sister Constantia, who herself favored Arianism, and on her death-bed recommended this presbyter to Constantine) that Arius had been misrepresented, and differed in nothing that was important from the Nicene fathers, had him recalled from banishment, and required him to present in writing a confession of his faith (Socrates, Hist. Eccles. i, 25). He did this in such terms as, though they admitted a latent reservation, yet appeared entirely orthodox, and therefore not only satisfied the emperor, but offended some of his own friends, who from that time separated from him. Athanasius, now bishop of Alexandria, was not so easily imposed upon, but was resolute in refusing Arius admission to the communion, since the Nicene Council had openly condemned him, until a similar synod should receive his submission and restore him. The Synod of Tyre, convened A.D. 335 by the emperor, tried Athanasius on trumped-up charges of immorality, and he was banished. The emperor then sent for Arius to Constantinople, and, after receiving his signature to the Nicene Creed, insisted on his being received to communion by Alexander, the bishop of that city. On the day before this reception was to have taken place Arius died suddenly (A.D. 336) (Socrates, i, 26–38).
Constantine died A.D. 337, and the empire fell to his three sons, Constantine II in Gaul; Constantius in the East; Constans in Italy and Gaul. The latter was a friend and protector of Athanasius. The religious question was now greatly mixed up with politics. On the death of the younger Constantine, the emperor of the East, Constantius (340), took the Arians formally under his protection (Sozom. iii, 18). Eusebius obtained great influence with Constantius, and became bishop of Constantinople A.D. 339, and secured permission for the Arians to celebrate public worship at Alexandria and other places of the Eastern empire. Nevertheless, a council was held at Antioch, A.D. 341, in which the Eastern bishops declared that they could not be followers of Arius, because “how could we, being bishops, be followers of a presbyter?” In this synod four creeds were approved, in which an endeavor was made to steer a middle course between the Nicæan Homoousios and the definitions of Arius, which two points were considered to be the two extremes of divergence from the standard of ecclesiastical orthodoxy in the East. These four Antiochene creeds are extant in Athanasius, De Synodis, § 22–25). As this middle course originated with Eusebius of Nicomedia, its adherents were called Eusebians. The Council of Antioch deposed Athanasius, who went to Rome, and was fully recognized as orthodox by the Synod of Rome, A.D. 342. Another Arian council met at Antioch, A.D. 345, and drew up what was called the long Creed (μακρόστιχος, to be found in Socrates, Hist. Eccl. ii, 18), leaving out the homoousion, which they sent to the council of Western bishops summoned by Constans at Milan (A.D. 346). The Milan council not only rejected this creed but required the deputies who brought it to sign a condemnation of Arianism. Of course they left the council in wrath. The emperors Constantius and Constans endeavored to reconcile the combatants for Oriental and Occidental orthodoxy by calling a general council of both East and West at Sardica, in Illyricum, A.D. 347 (according to Mansi A.D. 344, putting back also the preceding dates); but the Eusebians refused to remain in the council unless Athanasius and other heterodox bishops were excluded. Failing in this, they retired to the neighboring city of Philippopolis, leaving their opponents alone at Sardica. Eusebianism was, under Constantius, as victorious in the East as the Nicene Creed was, under Constans, in the West. The Eusebians procured the deposition of Marcellus, bishop of Ancyra, on a charge of Sabellianism. After the death of Constans, A.D. 350, and the victory over Magnentius, A.D. 353, Constantius endeavored to establish Arianism by force in the West. In the synods of Arles, A.D. 354, and of Milan, A.D. 355, he compelled the assembled bishops to sign the condemnation of Athanasius, though most of them were, it is thought, orthodox. Hosius of Cordova and Liberius of Rome, refusing to sign, were deprived of their sees. Athanasius was expelled from Alexandria (A.D. 356), and George of Cappadocia put in his place, not without force of arms. Constantius persecuted the orthodox relentlessly, and it seemed for a time as if their cause were irretrievably ruined. Even Hosius (now a century old) and Liberius were brought to sign a confession which excluded the homoousion.
Divisions among the Arians: History to the Council of Constantinople
A new era now began with this apparent triumph of Arianism. Heretofore the various classes of opponents of the orthodox doctrine had been kept together by the common bond of opposition. Now that the state and church were both in their power, their differences of doctrine soon became apparent. The reins of government were really in the hands of the Eusebians, whose opinions were a compromise between strict Arianism and orthodoxy. The strict Arians were probably in a minority during the whole period of the strife. Their leaders at this period were Aetius of Antioch, Eunomius of Cappadocia, and Acacius of Cæsarea; and from them the parties were called Aetians, Eunomians, Acacians. They were also called ἀνόμοιοι (Anomoeans), because they denied the sameness of the essence of the Son with the Father; and also Heterousians, as they held the Son to be ἑτεροούσιος (of different essence), inasmuch as the unbegotten, according to their materialistic way of judging, could not be similar in essence to the begotten. Aetius and Eunomius sought, at the first Council of Sirmium (A.D. 351), to put an end to all communion between Arians and orthodox; but they were vigorously met by the Semi-Arians, led by “Basilius, bishop of Ancyra, and Georgius, bishop of Laodicea, who held fast by the position of the Eusebians, viz. that the Son is of similar essence with the Father (ὁμοιούσιος), and were hence called Homoiousians and Semi-Arians. Constantius was attached to the Semi-Arians, but a powerful party about his court exerted themselves with no less cunning than perseverance in favor of the Anomœans. And because they could not publicly vindicate their formula, they persuaded the emperor that, in order to restore peace, the formulas of the two other parties also must be prohibited, which measure they brought about at the second synod of Sirmium (A.D. 357. The formula is given in Walch, Bibl. Symb. p. 133). On the other hand, Basil, bishop of Ancyra, called together a synod at Ancyra (358), which established the Semi-Arian creed, and rejected the Arian. Constantius allowed himself to be easily convinced that the Sirmium formula favored the Anomœans, and the confession of faith adopted at the second was now rejected at a third synod of Sirmium (358), and the anathemas of the Synod of Ancyra were confirmed. The Anomœans, for the purpose of uniting in appearance with the Semi-Arians, and yet establishing their own doctrine, now adopted the formula τὸν υἱὸν ὅμοιον τῷ πατρὶ κατὰ πάντα ὡς αἱ ἅγιαι γραφαὶ λέγουσι τέ καὶ διδάσκουσι (the Son is similar to the Father in all respects, as the Scriptures say and teach), and succeeded in convincing the emperor that all parties might be easily united in it. For this all bishops were now prepared, and then the Westerns were summoned to a council at Ariminum, the Easterns to another at Seleucia, simultaneously (359). After many efforts, the emperor at last succeeded in getting most of the bishops to adopt that formula. But, along with this external union, not only did the internal doctrinal schism continue, but there were besides differences among such as had been like-minded, whether they had gone in with that union or not. Thus Constantius, at his death, left all in the greatest confusion (A.D. 360). The new emperor, Julian (361–363), was, as a Pagan, of course equally indifferent to all Christian dogmas, and restored all the banished bishops to their sees. Jovian also († 364), and his successors in the West, Valentinian († 375), then Gratian and Valentinian II, maintained general toleration. On the contrary, Valens, emperor of the East (364–378), was a zealous Arian, and persecuted both orthodox and Semi-Arians.
“Various causes had contributed, since the death of Constantius, to increase in the East the number of adherents to the Nicene Creed. The majority of the Orientals, who held fast by the emanation of the Son from the Father, were naturally averse to strict Arianism; while the Nicene decrees were naturally allied to their ideas, as being fuller developments of them. Moreover, the orthodox were united and steadfast; the Arians were divided and wavering. Finally, the influence of Monachism, which had now arisen in Egypt, and was rapidly becoming general and influential, was bound up with the fortunes of Athanasius; and in all countries where it was diffused, was busy in favor of the Nicene Creed. One of the first of the important converts was Meletius, formerly an Acacian Arian, who declared himself in favor of the Nicene Creed immediately after he had been nominated bishop of Antioch, A.D. 361. But the old Nicene community, which had still existed in Antioch from the time of Eustathius, and was now headed by a presbyter, Paulinus, refused to acknowledge Meletius as bishop on the charge that he was not entirely orthodox (Socrates, Hist. Eccl. ii, 44). The Council of Alexandria, assembled by Athanasius (362), sought, indeed, not only to smooth the way generally for the Arians to join their party by mild measures, but endeavored particularly to settle this Antiochian dispute; but Lucifer, bishop of Calaris, gave firm footing to the Meletian schism about the same time by consecrating, as bishop, Paulinus the Eustathian. The Westerns and Egyptians acknowledged Paulinus, the Oriental Nicenes, Meletius, as the orthodox bishop of Antioch. If the emperor Valens (364–378) had now favored the Semi-Arians instead of the Arians, he might, perhaps, have considerably checked the further spread of the Nicene party; but, since he wished to make Arianism alone predominant by horribly persecuting all who thought differently, he drove by this means the Semi-Arians, who did not sink under the persecution, to unite still more closely with the Nicenes. Thus a great part of the Semi-Arians (or, as they were now also called, Macedonians, from Macedonius, bishop of Constantinople, who had been deposed in 360, at the instigation of the Arians) declared themselves, at several councils of Asia Minor, in favor of the Nicene confession, and sent an embassy to Rome to announce their assent to it (366). The Arians, supported by the emperor Valens, endeavored to counteract this new turn of affairs; yet the Macedonians were always passing over more and more to the Nicene Creed, and for this the three great teachers of the Church, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa, began now to work. These new Oriental Nicenians did not believe their faith changed by their assent to the Nicene formula, but thought they had merely assumed a more definite expression for it in the rightly-understood ὁμοούσιος. Since they supposed that they had unchangeably remained steadfast to their faith, they also continued to consider their Eusebian and Semi-Arian fathers as orthodox, although condemned by the old Nicenes. Thus the canons of the Oriental councils held during the schism constantly remained in force, particularly those of the Council of Antioch, A.D. 341, and of Laodicea (perhaps A.D. 363), which canons afterward passed over from the Eastern to the Western Church. During this time new schisms arose from new disputes on other points of doctrine. The doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and the controversies respecting the Logos, had for a long time remained untouched. But when, in the East, not only the Semi-Arians, but also many of the new Nicenians, could not get rid of the Arian idea that the Holy Spirit is a creature and servant of God, the other Nicenes took great offence at this, and opposed these errorists as πνευματομάχους (afterward Macedonians). Finally Apollinarism arose.
“Thus Theodosius, who, as a Spaniard, was a zealous adherent of the Nicene Creed, found at his accession to the throne of the West (379) universal toleration; in the East, Arianism prevalent, the Homoousians persecuted, and, besides them, the parties of the Photinians, Macedonians, and Apollinarists, with innumerable other sects, existing. After conquering the Goths, he determined to put an end to these prolonged and destructive strifes. Accordingly, he summoned a general council at Constantinople (381), by which the schism among the Nicenes was peaceably removed, and the Nicene Creed enlarged, with additions directed against heretics who had risen up since its origin. Valentinian II allowed the Arians in the West to enjoy freedom of religion some years longer; but the case was quite altered by Theodosius, and a universal suppression of the sect ensued. The last traces of its existence in the Byzantine empire appear under the Emperor Anastasius at Constantinople, 491–518” (Gieseler, Church History, § 81).
Closing Period of Ancient Arianism
In the West, Arianism maintained itself for a long time among the German tribes, which had received Christianity in the Arian form under the emperor Valens. Arianism was carried by the Ostrogoths into Italy, by the Visigoths into Spain, and by the Vandals into Africa. The Ostrogoths, though strong Arians, did not persecute the orthodox. Arianism remained among them till the destruction of the Ostrogoth kingdom by Justinian (A.D. 553). More intolerant against the Catholics were the Visigoths; but Arianism gradually lost hold upon them, and finally, under the guidance of their king, Reccaredus, they adopted the Nicene Creed, and were received into the Catholic Church by the Council of Toledo (A.D. 589). The Arian Vandals, after conquering Africa in 429, under the leadership of Genseric, instituted a furious persecution against the Catholics, which did not cease until the destruction of the Vandal empire through Belisarius in 534. The Suevi of Spain became Arians about the middle of the fifth century, probably in consequence of their connection with the Visigoths; they went over to the Catholic Church in 558, under Theodemir. The Burgundians, who came to Gaul as pagans in 417, appear as Arians in 440. The progress of the Catholic Church among this tribe is especially due to Aristus of Vienna, who gained over the son of king Gundobad, Sigismund, who, after his accession to the throne in 517, secured to the Catholic Church the ascendency. Nowhere did the Arian doctrine maintain itself so long as among the Lombards. They invaded Italy (A.D. 568), and founded a new kingdom at Pavia, and their king, Antharis, embraced Arian Christianity in 587; but when his successor Agilulph married Theudelinda, the Catholic daughter of the duke of Bavaria, the orthodox faith soon found adherents among them, and the son of Theudelinda, Adelward, gave all the churches to the Catholics. But this called forth a reaction. An Arian ascended the throne, who, however, was unable to suppress Catholicism; and we now find in every important city in Lombardy both a Catholic and an Arian bishop. Under Luitprand, who died in 744, the Catholic Church was entirely predominant. But, although Arianism was externally suppressed, its long prevalence in Spain, Gaul, and Northern Italy left behind it a spirit of opposition to the ecclesiastical supremacy of Rome and made these countries a fertile soil for the spreading of dissenting doctrines.
Among Medieval Germanic Tribes
During the time of Arianism’s flowering in Constantinople, the Gothic convert and Arian bishop Ulfilas (later the subject of the letter of Auxentius cited above) was sent as a missionary to the Gothic tribes across the Danube, a mission favored for political reasons by the Emperor Constantius II. The Homoians in the Danubian provinces played a major role in the conversion of the Goths to Arianism. Ulfilas’s translation of the Bible into Gothic language and his initial success in converting the Goths to Arianism was strengthened by later events; the conversion of Goths led to a widespread diffusion of Arianism among other Germanic tribes as well (Vandals, Langobards, Svevi, and Burgundians). When the Germanic peoples entered the provinces of the Western Roman Empire and began founding their own kingdoms there, most of them were Arian Christians.
The conflict in the 4th century had seen Arian and Nicene factions struggling for control of Western Europe. In contrast, among the Arian German kingdoms established in the collapsing Western Empire in the 5th century were entirely separate Arian and Nicene Churches with parallel hierarchies, each serving different sets of believers. The Germanic elites were Arians, and the Romance majority population was Nicene.
The Arian Germanic tribes were generally tolerant towards Nicene Christians and other religious minorities, including the Jews. However, the Vandals tried for several decades to force their Arian beliefs on their North African Nicene subjects, exiling Nicene clergy, dissolving monasteries, and exercising heavy pressure on non-conforming Nicene Christians.
The apparent resurgence of Arianism after Nicaea was more an anti-Nicene reaction exploited by Arian sympathizers than a pro-Arian development. By the end of the 4th century, it had surrendered its remaining ground to Trinitarianism. In Western Europe, Arianism, which had been taught by Ulfilas, the Arian missionary to the Germanic tribes, was dominant among the Goths, Langobards and Vandals. By the 8th century, it had ceased to be the tribes’ mainstream belief as the tribal rulers gradually came to adopt Nicene orthodoxy. This trend began in 496 with Clovis I of the Franks, then Reccared I of the Visigoths in 587 and Aripert I of the Lombards in 653.
The Franks and the Anglo-Saxons were unlike the other Germanic peoples in that they entered the Western Roman Empire as Pagans and were converted to Chalcedonian Christianity, led by their kings, Clovis I of the Franks, and Æthelberht of Kent and others in Britain (see also Christianity in Gaul and Christianisation of Anglo-Saxon England). The remaining tribes – the Vandals and the Ostrogoths – did not convert as a people, nor did they maintain territorial cohesion. Having been militarily defeated by the armies of Emperor Justinian I, the remnants were dispersed to the fringes of the empire and became lost to history. The Vandalic War of 533–534 dispersed the defeated Vandals. Following their final defeat at the Battle of Mons Lactarius in 553, the Ostrogoths went back north and (re)settled in south Austria.
From the 5th to the 7th Century
Much of south-eastern Europe and central Europe, including many of the Goths and Vandals respectively, had embraced Arianism (the Visigoths converted to Arian Christianity in 376 through their bishop Wulfila), which led to Arianism being a religious factor in various wars in the Roman Empire. In the west, organized Arianism survived in North Africa, in Hispania, and parts of Italy until it was finally suppressed in the 6th and 7th centuries. Visigothic Spain converted to Nicene Christianity through their king Reccared I at the Third Council of Toledo in 589. Grimoald, King of the Lombards (662–671), and his young son and successor Garibald (671), was the last Arian kings in Europe.
From the 16th to the 19th Century
Following the Protestant Reformation from 1517, it did not take long for Arian and other nontrinitarian views to resurface. The first recorded English antitrinitarian was John Assheton, who was forced to recant before Thomas Cranmer in 1548. At the Anabaptist Council of Venice 1550, the early Italian instigators of the Radical Reformation committed to the views of Michael Servetus, who was burned alive by the orders of John Calvin in 1553, and these were promulgated by Giorgio Biandrata and others into Poland and Transylvania.
The antitrinitarian wing of the Polish Reformation separated from the Calvinist ecclesia maior to form the ecclesia minor or Polish Brethren. These were commonly referred to as “Arians” due to their rejection of the Trinity, though in fact the Socinians, as they were later known, went further than Arius to the position of Photinus. The epithet “Arian” was also applied to the early Unitarians such as John Biddle, though in denial of the pre-existence of Christ they were again largely Socinians, not Arians.
In 1683, when Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury, lay dying in Amsterdam – driven into exile by his outspoken opposition to King Charles II – he spoke to the minister Robert Ferguson, and professed himself an Arian.
In the 18th century the “dominant trend” in Britain, particularly in Latitudinarianism, was towards Arianism, with which the names of Samuel Clarke, Benjamin Hoadly, William Whiston and Isaac Newton are associated. To quote the Encyclopædia Britannica’s article on Arianism: “In modern times, some Unitarians are virtually Arians in that they are unwilling either to reduce Christ to a mere human being or to attribute to him a divine nature identical with that of the Father.”
A similar view was held by the ancient anti-Nicene Pneumatomachi (Greek: Πνευματομάχοι, “breath” or “spirit” and “fighters”, combining as “fighters against the spirit”), so called because they opposed the deifying of the Nicene Holy Spirit. Although the Pneumatomachi’s beliefs were somewhat reminiscent of Arianism, they were a distinct group.
After the Reformation, the Antitrinitarians, who soon appeared, were chiefly Socinians. In Italy they especially developed themselves, and Alciati (1555) commenced his heretical course with teaching that Christ was divine, but inferior to the Father.
The teachings of the first two ecumenical councils – which entirely reject Arianism – are held by the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox Churches, the Assyrian Church of the East and most churches founded during the Reformation in the 16th century or influenced by it (Lutheran, Reformed/Presbyterian, and Anglican). Also, nearly all Protestant groups (such as Methodists, Baptists, Evangelicals and most Pentecostals) entirely reject the teachings associated with Arianism. Modern groups which currently appear to embrace some of the principles of Arianism include Unitarians and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Although the origins of their beliefs are not necessarily attributed to the teachings of Arius, many of the core beliefs of Unitarians and Jehovah’s Witnesses are very similar to them.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
The doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) concerning the nature of the Godhead teaches a nontrinitarian theology. The church’s first Article of Faith states: “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit,” while the 130th section of the its Doctrine and Covenants explains that “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Spirit has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit. Were it not so, the Holy Spirit could not dwell in us.”
Similarities between LDS doctrines and Arianism were noted as early as 1846. There are, however, a number of key differences between Arianism and Latter-day Saint theology, including the co-eternality of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit with the Father. Latter-day Saints deny any form of creation ex nihilo, whereas creation ex nihilo and Christ’s created and inferior nature are fundamental premises of Arianism. Arianism also teaches that Christ’s existence is contingent on the Father, and that he is ontologically subordinate to the Father. Both of these premises are rejected by Latter-day Saint doctrine. Conversely, the LDS Church teaches that Christ is equal in nature, power, and glory with the Father, having perfectly subordinated his will to the Father’s. In turn, the Father is understood to have his power by virtue of his own perfect character and subordination to eternal and uncreated principles of righteousness. The Book of Mormon prophet Alma summarizes this by saying that were God not to be perfectly just, then “God would cease to be God”. Thus, Christ’s subordination to the Father’s will is understood as subordination to those same eternal and uncreated principles of righteousness through perfectly emulating the Father’s character and example.
The LDS Church teaches that this view of the Godhead is the doctrine taught by Jesus Christ and other ancient prophets, and, by extension, that taught by the scriptures now compiled as the Bible and the Book of Mormon. Thus, Latter-day Saint doctrine does not accept the Nicene definition of Trinity (that the three are consubstantial) nor agree with the Athanasian statement that God and Christ are incomprehensible. In contrast, the Church teaches that the Biblical doctrine is self-evident: “the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (or Holy Spirit)… are three physically separate beings, but fully one in love, purpose and will”, as illustrated in the Farewell Prayer of Jesus, his baptism at the hands of John, his transfiguration, and the martyrdom of Stephen.
CHRISTIAN APOLOGETIC EVANGELISM: What Will You Say to a Mormon?
Is Mormonism Compatible with the Bible?
MORMONISM: Joseph Smith Was a Young Man Who Lost His Way In His Search for Answers
Jehovah’s Witnesses are often referred to as “modern-day Arians” or they are sometimes referred to as “Semi-Arians,” usually by their opponents, although Jehovah’s Witnesses themselves have denied these claims. While there are some significant similarities in matters of doctrine, Jehovah’s Witnesses differ from Arians by stating that the Son can fully know the Father (something which Arius himself denied), and by their denial of personality to the Holy Spirit. The original Arians also generally prayed directly to Jesus, whereas Jehovah’s Witnesses exclusively worship and pray to Jehovah God (God the Father) only through Jesus the son as a mediator.
Jehovah’s Witnesses Say
CHRISTENDOM’S mysterious three-in-one God is not the God of the Jews. Their daily Shema, or confession of faith, states: “The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Neither is this triune deity the God of the nearly 600 million Muslims, whose Koran declares: “He, Allāh, is one.”
It is a historical fact that Christianity had Jewish roots. Jesus Christ himself was a Jew. He fulfilled the Law God gave to the Jews and was the Messiah whose coming was foretold by the Jewish prophets. (Matthew 5:17; John 1:45; Acts 3:18) His earliest followers were all Jews or circumcised proselytes. (Matthew 10:5, 6; Acts 2:1-11) And we have seen that the Trinity was not and still is not believed by the Jews.
Can it be said that Christ and the writers of the Christian Scriptures abandoned the monotheistic notion of one God and introduced a mysterious three-in-one Godhead? No, for the Encyclopædia Britannica (1976 edition) correctly states: “Neither the word Trinity, nor the explicit doctrine as such, appears in the New Testament, nor did Jesus and his followers intend to contradict the Shema in the Old Testament: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord’ (Deut. 6:4). . . . The doctrine developed gradually over several centuries and through many controversies.”
Apostasy and Philosophy
The Christian apostle Paul wrote: “The time is sure to come when, far from being content with sound teaching, people will be avid for the latest novelty and collect themselves a whole series of teachers according to their own tastes; and then, instead of listening to the truth, they will turn to myths.”—2 Timothy 4:3, 4, the Catholic Jerusalem Bible.
Evidence within the Bible itself shows that apostasy already was at work before the death of Christ’s apostles. (2 Thessalonians 2:3, 7; 1 John 2:18, 19; Jude 3, 4, 16, 19) Apostates from within the Christian congregation rose up as false teachers. Instead of following Bible truth, these ungodly men turned to “myths.” They carried off many Christians as their prey “through the philosophy and empty deception according to the tradition of men.”—Colossians 2:8.
Commenting on what happened, Oxford University Professor J. N. D. Kelly writes: “During the first three centuries of its existence, the Christian Church had first to emerge from the [monotheistic] Jewish environment that had cradled it and then come to terms with the predominantly Hellenistic (Greek) culture surrounding it.” Then, speaking of early teachers who later became known as church fathers, Professor Kelly continues: “Most of them exploited current philosophical conceptions. . . . They have been accused of Hellenizing Christianity (making it Greek in form and method), but they were in fact attempting to formulate it in intellectual categories congenial [suited] to their age. In a real sense they were the first Christian theologians.” These early “theologians” set about adapting primitive Bible-based Christianity to current philosophical ideas.
Philosophical Origins of the Trinity
Interestingly, the French encyclopedia Alpha states: “Most religious traditions or philosophical systems set forth ternary [threefold] groups or triads that correspond to primeval forces or to aspects of the supreme God.” Another French work points to the Greek philosopher Plato (of about 427 to 347 B.C.E.) and declares:
“The Platonic trinity, itself merely a rearrangement of older trinities dating back to earlier peoples, appears to be the rational philosophic trinity of attributes that gave birth to the three hypostases or divine persons taught by the Christian churches. . . . This Greek philosopher’s conception of the divine trinity . . . can be found in all the ancient [pagan] religions.”—Dictionnaire Lachatre.
Naturally, Christendom’s priests and clergymen, for the most part, deny this pagan philosophical origin of the Trinity dogma. The authoritative French Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique devotes 16 columns of small type to its arguments against the relationship between Plato’s trinity and Christendom’s triune God. Yet, this work has to admit that Catholic “Saint” Augustine himself—said to have been “of decisive importance for the Western [Roman] development of the Trinitarian doctrine”—recognized this relationship. Moreover, the Encyclopædia Britannica (1976, Macropædia) states: “Such a Hellenization did, to a large extent, take place. The definition of the Christian faith as contained in the creeds of the ecumenical synods of the early church indicate that unbiblical categories of Neoplatonic philosophy were used in the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity.”
A Trinitarian “Unknown God”
Speaking to a group of philosophers in Athens, Greece, the apostle Paul declared: “While passing along and carefully observing your objects of veneration I also found an altar on which had been inscribed ‘To an Unknown God.’” (Acts 17:23) Interestingly, the French Pirot and Clamer Bible comments that the Greek philosophers “had not come to a knowledge of God the Creator. Even Plato saw in God merely the organizer of preexistent matter.” Plato’s God was a nameless supreme “idea” that his later disciples called “the One,” or “the Good.” It was such a mysterious, unknowable God tied in with Plato’s divine triad theory that apostate Christian church fathers set out to imitate. In a sense, therefore, Christendom has an “unknown God.”
Since “neither the word Trinity, nor the explicit doctrine as such, appears in the New Testament,” the philosopher-theologians had to fish around in the Scriptures to find a semblance of justification for a triune God. The best they could come up with were a few texts that happen to mention the Father, the Son and the holy spirit in the same context, although not necessarily in that order. (Matthew 28:19; 1 Corinthians 12:4-6; 2 Corinthians 13:14 [13 in many Catholic Bibles]) Such texts were said to contain a “triadic formula.” On this point, the scholarly Theological Dictionary of the New Testament states: “Perhaps recollection of the many triads of the surrounding polytheistic world contributed to the formation of these threefold formulae.” Then, in a footnote, this work says that in the apocryphal Gospel of the Hebrews, the spirit (feminine gender in Hebrew and Aramaic) “is regarded as the mother of Jesus” and adds: “Thus we have the common family triad of antiquity, i.e., father, mother and son.”
Of course, this was a little too much like the pagan triune gods of Egypt, Babylon and Gaul. And if the holy spirit was Jesus’ mother, what would become of Mary? So the church fathers abandoned the pagan “father, mother and son” trinity and invented an original triune God composed of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But this caused further problems, as explained by the Encyclopædia Britannica: “The question as to how to reconcile the encounter with God in this threefold figure with faith in the oneness of God, which was the Jews’ and Christians’ characteristic mark of distinction over against paganism, agitated the piety of ancient Christendom in the deepest way. It also provided the strongest impetus for a speculative theology—an impetus that inspired Western metaphysics [philosophy] throughout the centuries.” Yes, the Trinitarian “unknown God” of Christendom is a product of theological speculation and philosophy.
The Trinity Controversy
In the early centuries of our Common Era there was “an astonishing plurality of views and formulations” regarding the Trinity. Historian J. N. D. Kelly, himself a Trinitarian, admits that the earliest church fathers were all firm monotheists. He writes: “The evidence to be collected from the Apostolic Fathers is meagre, and tantalizingly inconclusive. . . . Of a doctrine of the Trinity in the strict sense there is of course no sign.”—Early Christian Doctrines.
True, such second-century “fathers” as Ignatius of Antioch and Irenaeus of Lyons expressed ideas that could be interpreted, at the most, as belief in a two-in-one God made up of the Father and the Son. But Kelly states: “What the Apologists had to say about the Holy Spirit was much more meagre . . . [They] appear to have been extremely vague as to the exact status and role of the Spirit. . . . There can be no doubt that the Apologists’ thought was highly confused; they were very far from having worked the threefold pattern of the Church’s faith into a coherent scheme.”
Those who held that there is only one God, the Father, of whom Jesus is the Son, came to be called Unitarians. We read: “The Trinitarians and the Unitarians continued to confront each other, the latter at the beginning of the 3rd century still forming the large majority.” (Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition) But as time went by and church fathers became increasingly influenced by a new form of Plato’s philosophy (Neoplatonism), the Trinitarians gained ground. Third-century Neoplatonic philosophy, with its complicated theories of substance or essence, seemingly enabled them to reconcile the irreconcilable—to make a threefold God appear like one God. By philosophical reasoning they claimed that three persons could be one while retaining their individuality!
The Arian Controversy
The Trinity controversy came to a head at the beginning of the fourth century C.E. The main protagonists were three philosopher-theologians from Alexandria, Egypt. On the one side was Arius, with Alexander and Athanasius on the other. Arius denied that the Son was of the same essence, or substance, as the Father. He held the Son to be really a son, who therefore had a beginning. Arius believed the Holy Spirit was a person, but not of the same substance as the Father or the Son and in fact inferior to both. He did speak of a “Triad,” or “Trinity,” but considered it to be composed of unequal persons, of whom only the Father was uncreated.
Alexander and Athanasius, on the other hand, maintained that the three persons of the Godhead were of the same substance and, therefore, were not three Gods but one. Athanasius accused Arius of reintroducing polytheism by separating the three persons.
The head of the Roman Empire at that time was Constantine, who was anxious to use apostate Christianity as “cement” to consolidate his shaky empire. For him, this theological controversy was counterproductive. He called the Trinity quarrel a “fight over trifling and foolish verbal differences.” Having failed to reconcile the two opposing parties by a special letter sent to Alexandria in 324 C.E., Constantine summoned a general church council to settle the matter either way. At this First Ecumenical Council held at Nicaea, Asia Minor, in 325 C.E., the assembled bishops eventually came out in favor of Alexander and Athanasius. They adopted the Trinitarian Nicene Creed, which, with alterations believed to have been made in 381 C.E., is subscribed to up to the present day by the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church and most Protestant churches. Thus it was that Christendom came to worship a mysterious, incomprehensible, three-in-one “unknown God.”
The Trinity controversy did not end at Nicaea. Arianism (which was not true Christianity) made several comebacks over the years. The German tribes that invaded the declining Roman Empire professed Arian “Christianity” and took it into much of Europe and North Africa, where it continued to flourish until well into the sixth century C.E., and even longer in some areas.
The Trinity doctrine divided Christendom for centuries. At various ecumenical councils, theologians philosophized on the precise nature and role of the Son and on whether the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father alone or from the Father and the Son. All these wranglings merely confused the notion of God in the minds of people. The Trinity doctrine has, in fact, so confused the minds of many members of Christendom’s churches that their faith in God is shaky, if not completely shaken. – w84 8/1 pp. 20-24 How Christendom Came to Worship an Unknown God
Iglesia ni Cristo
Iglesia ni Cristo (Tagalog pronunciation: [ɪˈglɛ̝ʃɐ ni ˈkɾisto̞], abbreviated as INC; transl. Church of Christ; Spanish: Iglesia de Cristo) is an independent Nontrinitarian Christian church, founded in 1913 and registered by Felix Y. Manalo in 1914 as a unipersonal religious corporation to the United States administration of the Philippines.INC describes itself to be the one true church and the restoration of the original church founded by Jesus, whereby all other Christian churches are apostate. According to INC doctrine, the official registration of the church with the Philippine government was on July 27, 1914, by Felix Y. Manalo—who is upheld by members to be the last messenger of God—was an act of divine providence and the fulfillment of biblical prophecy concerning the re-establishment of the original church of Christ in the Far East concurrent with the coming of the seventh seal marking the end of days.By the time of Manalo’s death in 1963, INC had become a nationwide church with 1,250 local chapels and 35 cathedrals.
The Iglesia di Cristo’s christology has parallels with Arianism in that it affirms Jesus’ pre-existence but holds that he was sanctified and given his holiness by the Father, who they hold to be the only true God.
Others Nontrinitarian Groups
Other groups which oppose the belief in the Trinity are not Arian.
Other Biblical Unitarians such as the Christadelphians and Church of God General Conference are typically Socinian rather than Arian in their Christology.
The Gospel Assemblies, a group of Pentecostal, non-denominational churches which believe that only the Father has inherent immortality, but that the Son has received immortality from the Father, and that the Holy Spirit is not a distinct person with distinct intelligence, but rather the life and presence of God the Father and his Son. The Godhead comprises two distinct persons.
There are also various Binitarian churches that believe that God is two persons: the Father and the Son, and that the Holy Spirit is not a person. These include the Church of God (Seventh Day) and its various offshoots. One offshoot in particular, Radio Church of God (founded by Herbert W. Armstrong and renamed Worldwide Church of God), was originally Binitarian, but converted to Trinitarianism after Armstrong’s death. That conversion prompted the formation of many small breakaway churches which retained Binitarian beliefs, such as Restored Church of God, United Church of God, Philadelphia Church of God, and Living Church of God. Other Binitarian churches include the Church of Jesus Christ (Bickertonite), an offshoot of Mormonism, which believes that God is two personages, not two persons. Binitarian churches generally believe that the Father is greater than the Son, a view somewhat similar to Arianism.
Is the Doctrine of the Trinity Essential for Salvation?
Attribution: This article incorporates some text from the public domain: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, John M’Clintock, James Strong, and Edward D. Andrews