Arius (256-336 AD)
born: 256 AD, Libya?
died: 336 AD, Constantinople
remembered for: heretical views about Christ and the Trinity
Arius was a priest at Alexandria who taught the created nature of Christ, which was denounced as a heresy. The Arian Controversy led to the Council of Nicea (325 AD) and the development of the Nicene Creed.
Arius was a pupil of Lucian of Antioch, who was both a celebrated Christian teacher and a martyr for the faith. In a letter to bishop Alexander of Constantinople, Alexander of Alexandria wrote that Arius derived his heresy from Lucian. The object of the letter is to complain of the errors Arius was then diffusing but the charge is vague in itself, and is unsupported by other authorities, and Alexander's language, like that of most controversialists in those days, is not a little violent. Moreover, Lucian is not stated, even by Alexander himself, to have fallen into the heresy afterwards promulgated by Arius, but is accused ad invidiam of heretical tendencies.
Although the character of Arius has been severely assailed by his opponents, Arius appears to have been a man of ascetic character, pure morals, and decided convictions.
The historian Socrates Scholasticus reports that Arian first became controversial under the bishop Achillas of Alexandria, when he made the following syllogism, quoted by Socrates: "‘If,’ said he, ‘the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence: and from this it is evident, that there was a time when the Son was not. It therefore necessarily follows, that he had his substance from nothing.’" (Thus his actions were not the result of any jealousy on account of his unsuccessful candidacy for the patriarchate of Alexandria in rivalry with Alexander.) He no doubt had a disproportionate number of female supporters, but there are no grounds for Alexander's insinuation in the letter, that these women were of loose morals. There appears, however, more foundation for the charge that Arius allowed the songs or odes contained in the book called Thaleia -- which he wrote after his first condemnation, in order to popularize his doctrine -- to be set to melodies with infamous associations. The furious debates among Christians in Egypt "became a subject of popular ridicule, even in the very theatres." (Socrates)
The patriarch of Alexandria has also been the subject of adverse criticism for his action against his subordinate. He too, like his predecessor Dionysius, has been charged with vacillation in his treatment of Arius. Yet it is difficult to see how he could have acted otherwise than he did. The question, as we have seen, had been left unsettled two generations previously, or, if in any sense it could be said to have been settled, it had been settled in favour of the opponents of the homoousion. Therefore Alexander allowed the controversy to go on until he felt that it had become dangerous to the peace of the church. Then he called a council of bishops (about 100 in number), and sought their advice. Once they decided against Arius, Alexander delayed no longer. He deposed Arius from his office, and excommunicated both him and his supporters. Then he wrote a letter to Alexander of Constantinople and Eusebius of Nicomedia (where the emperor was then residing), detailing the errors into which Arius had fallen, and complaining of the danger he presented to the Christian church. It is clear, from Arius's own letter (also extant) to Eusebius of Nicomedia, that Alexander's main charges against Arius were in no way unfair:
- "That God was not always the Father, but that there was a period when he was not the Father; that the Word of God was not from eternity, but was made out of nothing; for that the ever-existing God (‘the I AM’—the eternal One) made him who did not previously exist, out of nothing; wherefore there was a time when he did not exist, inasmuch as the Son is a creature and a work. That he is neither like the Father as it regards his essence, nor is by nature either the Father’s true Word, or true Wisdom, but indeed one of his works and creatures, being erroneously called Word and Wisdom, since he was himself made of God’s own Word and the Wisdom which is in God, whereby God both made all things and him also. Wherefore he is as to his nature mutable and susceptible of change, as all other rational creatures are: hence the Word is alien to and other than the essence of God; and the Father is inexplicable by the Son, and invisible to him, for neither does the Word perfectly and accurately know the Father, neither can he distinctly see him. The Son knows not the nature of his own essence: for he was made on our account, in order that God might create us by him, as by an instrument; nor would he ever have existed, unless God had wished to create us."
This question of the exact relationship between the Father and the Son, a part of Christology, had been raised some 50 years before Arius, when Paul of Samosata was deposed in AD 269 for his agreement with those who had used the word omoousios to express the relation of the Father and the Son. The expression was at that time thought to have a Sabellian tendency, though, as events showed, this was on account of its scope not having been satisfactorily defined. In the discussion which followed, Dionysius, Patriarch of Alexandria, had used much the same language as Arius did later, and correspondence survives in which Pope Dionysius blames his brother of Alexandria for using such language. Dionysius of Alexandria responded with an explanation, which posterity has been inclined to interpret as vacillating. So far as the earlier controversy could be said to have been decided, it was decided in favor of the opinions later championed by Arius. But this settlement was so unsatisfactory that the question would have been reopened sooner or later, especially in an atmosphere so intellectual as that of Alexandria. For the synod of Antioch which condemned Paul of Samosata had expressed its disapproval of the word omoousios in one sense, and Patriarch Alexander undertook its defence in another.
Arius formulated the following doctrines about Jesus:
- that the Logos and the Father were not of the same essence (ousia);
- that the Son was a created being (ktisma or poiema); and
- that though He was the creator of the worlds, and must therefore have existed before them and before all time, there was - Arius refused to use such terms as cronos or aion - when He did not exist.
The subsequent controversy shows that the absence of the words chronos or aion was mere evasion, and that when defending himself he argued in just the same manner as though he had used those words. Moreover, he asserted that the Logos had a beginning; yet not only Athanasius, but Origen before him, had taught that the relation of the Son to the Father had no beginning, and that, to use Dorner's words (Person of Christ, ii. 115), "the generation of the Son is an eternally completed, and yet an eternally continued, act" - or in other words, the Father has, from all eternity, been communicating His Being to the Son, and is doing so still.
Arius was obviously perplexed by this doctrine, for he complains of it in his letter to the Nicomedian Eusebius, who, like himself, had studied under Lucian. It is to be regretted that so much stress should have been laid in the controversy on words which, when used in metaphysical discussions, had a tendency to confuse the eternal generation of the Son with the purely physical process of the generation of men and animals. Had the defenders of the Nicene doctrine made more general use of the term "communication of Being", or "of Essence", they would have made it clearer that they were referring to a continual and unchangeable relation between the First and Second Persons in the Trinity, which bore a very slight analogy to the process which engenders physical creatures into existence.
Moreover, Arius contended that the Son was unchangeable (atreptos). But what he thus gave with the one hand he appears to have taken away with the other. For so far as we can understand his language on a subject which even Athanasius seems to have admitted to have been beyond his power thoroughly to comprehend - he taught that the Logos was changeable in Essence, but not in Will.
The best authorities consider that he was driven to this concession by the force of circumstances. He was doubtless confirmed in his attitude by his fear of falling into Sabellianism. Arius, while opposing the Sabellian view, was unable to see that his own view had a dangerous tendency to bring back Gnosticism, with its long catalogue of aeons. Macedonius, who had to a certain extent imbibed the opinions of Arius, certainly regarded the Son and the Spirit in much the same way that the Gnostic teachers regarded their aeons. Arius undoubtedly drew some support from the writings of Origen, who had made use of expressions which favored Arius's statement that the Logos was of a different substance to the Father, and that He owed His existence to the Father's will. But the speculations of Origen were then, as well as currently, considered as pioneer work in theology, often hazarded to stimulate further inquiry rather than to enable men to dispense with it. This explains why in this, as well as other controversies, the authority of Origen is so frequently invoked by both sides.
The Christian church had by this time become so powerful a force in the Roman world that Constantine found himself unable to keep aloof from the controversy. He therefore sent Hosius, bishop of Córdoba to put an end, if possible, to the controversy, armed with an open letter from the Emperor: "Wherefore let each one of you, showing consideration for the other, listen to the impartial exhortation of your fellow-servant." But as it continued to rage, Constantine took an unprecedented step: he called a council of delegates, summoned from all parts of the empire, to resolve this issue. All of the secular dioceses into which the empire had been divided, Roman Britain only excepted, sent one or more representatives to the council, the majority of the bishops coming from the East. Pope Sylvester I, himself too aged to be present, sent two presbyters as his delegates.
The object of the council, it must be remembered, was not to pronounce what the church ought to believe, but to ascertain as far as possible what had been taught from the beginning. It was indeed a remarkable gathering: there was not only as good a representation of race and nationality as was possible under the circumstances, but the ability and intellect of the church were also well represented. There was the already mentioned Eusebius of Nicomedia, and Alexander, patriarch of Alexandria. There was also the renowned Eusebius of Caesarea, a sound theologian, perhaps the most well-informed, careful, impartial, and trustworthy ecclesiastical historian the church has ever possessed. And, young as he was, the great Athanasius was already a host in himself, from his clearness of insight into the deepest mysteries of the religion. And beside these there were men present who manifested the power of faith - the brave "confessors," as they were called, whose faces and limbs bore evident traces of the sufferings they had undergone for their faith. The emperor did his best to secure an honest selection and an honest decision.
This was the First Council of Nicaea, which met in 325, near Constantinople. Under the influence of the emperor Constantine, the assembled bishops agreed upon a creed to be used at baptisms and in catechetical instruction expressed in words that made Arius' language heretical. Both council and emperor issued a circular letter to the churches in and around Alexandria. Arius, Theonas, and Secundus were deposed and banished, while three other bishops, who had been supportive of Arius, namely Eusebius of Nicomedia, Theognis of Nicaea, and Maris of Chalcedon, were unwilling signatories of the document, but affixed their signatures in deference to the emperor. However, Constantine found some reason to suspect the sincerity of Eusebius of Nicomedia, as well as that of Theognis and Maris, for he soon after included them in the sentence pronounced on Arius. Eusebius of Caesarea defended himself in a letter as having objected to the changes in the creed which he had originally presented, but finally accepted them in the interests of peace (Theod. H. E. i. 12)
That the public unanimity of the council (Secundus and Theonas of Lower Egypt being the only dissidents) masked a considerable amount of divergent opinion is indisputable. Doubts over the use of a term which had been rejected at an important council as savouring of Sabellianism weighed on the minds of many. Eusebius of Caesarea has been charged by many later writers as having embraced Arianism.
But his moderate attitude throughout the following period suggests that his objections to the decision, which he allowed his love of peace to overrule, owed more to the dread of possible consequences than to the decision in itself. And his allusion to the proceedings at Nicaea in the letter just mentioned shows that his apprehensions were not altogether unreasonable. For he remarks how the final consensus emerged after considerable discussion that the term omoousion was not intended to indicate that the Son formed an actual portion of the Father - which would have been Sabellianism pure and simple, a fear which fed much of the dissension to the adoption of the creed.
On the other hand, Athanasius was convinced - and the event proves that he was right - that unless the Essence of the Son was definitely understood to be the same as that of the Father, it would inevitably follow that the Son would at best be no more than the highest of a series of Gnostic aeons.
While the Nicene settlement, though necessary in itself and satisfactory in the end, was at least premature. The controversy recommenced as soon as the decrees were promulgated. When Alexander died at Alexandria in 327, the election of Athanasius in his place was only secured in the face of violent opposition from the Arianizing faction. Soon after, Eusebius of Nicomedia was reinstated in his see, after having written a diplomatic letter to the emperor. Arius, who had taken refuge in Palestine, was also soon permitted to return, after having made a somewhat disingenuous recantation.
It was not long before the Nicomedian Eusebius regained his influence with the emperor, then began a series of intrigues which led to a complete reversal of the position of the contending parties. Eustathius of Antioch, one of the staunchest supporters of Athanasius, was deposed on a number of false and personal charges. If Theodoret is to be trusted, one of his acusers, when seized by a serious illness, retracted her accusation in a sensational manner. But Socrates Scholasticus and Sozomen are reticent about the nature of the charges, and only tell us that Eustathius had been unfortunate enough to get involved in a controversy with Eusebius of Caesarea. Marcellus of Ancyra was the next victim, a friend and champion of Athanasius, but unfortunately not fluent in Christology, and found it impossible to defend the Nicene decisions without falling into Sabellianism. There was no need, therefore, to levy charges against his morals. He was charged with Sabellianism but not actually deposed until 336.
In the meantime Eusebius of Nicomedia turned against the only rival he really dreaded, Athanasius himself. Following Arius' restoration to the emperor's favor by his recantation, the emperor commanded Athanasius to readmit Arius to communion. Athanasius, naturally, pleaded reasons of conscience against doing so - leading to accusations of treason against the emperor and the insinuations that the patriarch wished to set up an empire of his own against or above the supreme authority of the Augustus. Charges were made of sacrilege, tyranny, magic, mutilation, murder, of immorality, and (worst of all in the emperor's eyes) of raising funds for treasonable purposes. These charges were investigated at a synod of 150 bishops at Tyre in 335.
The triumphant vindication of Athanasius at that council belong rather to the history of Athanasius than of Arius. However, Eusebius proved ultimately to be master of the situation. With consummate dexterity the wily tactician contrived fresh charges of interference with the secular affairs of the empire. By now, Constantine was weary of the strife. His only object had been the settlement of the question; the shape that settlement took was to him a secondary matter. He now turned fiercely upon those he believed were responsible for the continuing unrest. Athanasius was exiled to Trier, and Alexander of Constantinople was ordered to receive Arius back into church communion.
Alexander was in dire perplexity. He dared not disobey the command, neither dare he obey it. In his extremity he asked the prayers of the orthodox that either he or Arius might be removed from the world before the latter was admitted to communion. The prayer was, the very reverend Henry Wace notes, a strange one. Meanwhile Arius was ordered to appear before the emperor, and asked whether he was willing to sign the Nicene decrees. He replied, without hesitation, that he was ready to do so. And yet, the very day before he was to be readmitted to communion, Arius died suddenly, and in a most remarkable manner, as Socrates describes:
- It was then Saturday, and . . . going out of the imperial palace, attended by a crowd of Eusebian [Eusebius of Nicomedia is meant] partisans like guards, he [Arius] paraded proudly through the midst of the city, attracting the notice of all the people. As he approached the place called Constantine's Forum, where the column of porphyry is erected, a terror arising from the remorse of conscience seized Arius, and with the terror a violent relaxation of the bowels: he therefore enquired whether there was a convenient place near, and being directed to the back of Constantine's Forum, he hastened thither. Soon after a faintness came over him, and together with the evacuations his bowels protruded, followed by a copious hemorrhage, and the descent of the smaller intestines: moreover portions of his spleen and liver were brought off in the effusion of blood, so that he almost immediately died. The scene of this catastrophe still is shown at Constantinople, as I have said, behind the shambles in the colonnade: and by persons going by pointing the finger at the place, there is a perpetual remembrance preserved of this extraordinary kind of death.
The justice or miraculous nature of Arius' death is not the subject of history, but the extraordinary death of Arius, followed as it was a year later by that of Constantine himself, led to a temporary lull in the controversy.
- This article incorporates some public domain text from A Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century A.D., with an Account of the Principal Sects and Heresies by Henry Wace.