Arianism Essay, Research Paper


A heresy which arose in the fourth century, and denied the Divinity of Jesus



First among the doctrinal disputes which troubled Christians after Constantine

had recognized the Church in A.D. 313, and the parent of many more during some

three centuries, Arianism occupies a large place in ecclesiastical history. It

is not a modern form of unbelief, and therefore will appear strange in modern

eyes. But we shall better grasp its meaning if we term it an Eastern attempt to

rationalize the creed by stripping it of mystery so far as the relation of

Christ to God was concerned. In the New Testament and in Church teaching Jesus

of Nazareth appears as the Son of God. This name He took to Himself (Matt., xi,

27; John, x, 36), while the Fourth Gospel declares Him to be the Word (Logos),

Who in the beginning was with God and was God, by Whom all things were made. A

similar doctrine is laid down by St. Paul, in his undoubtedly genuine Epistles

to the Ephesians, Colossians, and Philippians. It is reiterated in the Letters

of Ignatius, and accounts for Pliny’s observation that Christians in their

assemblies chanted a hymn to Christ as God. But the question how the Son was

related to the Father (Himself acknowledged on all hands to be the one Supreme

Deity), gave rise, between the years A. D. 60 and 200, to number of Theosophic

systems, called generally Gnosticism, and having for their authors Basilides,

Valentinus, Tatian, and other Greek speculators. Though all of these visited

Rome, they had no following in the West, which remained free from controversies

of an abstract nature, and was faithful to the creed of its baptism.

Intellectual centers were chiefly Alexandria and Antioch, Egyptian or Syrian,

and speculation was carried on in Greek. The Roman Church held steadfastly by

tradition. Under these circumstances, when Gnostic schools had passed away with

their “conjugations” of Divine powers, and “emanations” from the Supreme

unknowable God (the “Deep” and the “Silence”) all speculation was thrown into

the form of an inquiry touching the “likeness” of the Son to His Father and

“sameness” of His Essence. Catholics had always maintained that Christ was truly

the Son, and truly God. They worshipped Him with divine honors; they would never

consent to separate Him, in idea or reality, from the Father, Whose Word, Reason,

Mind, He was, and in Whose Heart He abode from eternity. But the technical terms

of doctrine were not fully defined; and even in Greek words like essence (ousia),

substance (hypostasis), nature (physics), person (hyposopon) bore a variety of

meanings drawn from the pre-Christian sects of philosophers, which could not but

entail misunderstandings until they were cleared up. The adaptation of a

vocabulary employed by Plato and Aristotle to Christian truth was a matter of

time; it could not be done in a day; and when accomplished for the Greek it had

to be undertaken for the Latin, which did not lend itself readily to necessary

yet subtle distinctions. That disputes should spring up even among the orthodox

who all held one faith, was inevitable. And of these wranglings the rationalist

would take advantage in order to substitute for the ancient creed his own

inventions. The drift of all he advanced was this: to deny that in any true

sense God could have a Son; as Mohammed tersely said afterwards, “God neither

begets, nor is He begotten” (Koran, cxii). We have learned to call that denial

Unitarianism. It was the ultimate scope of Arian opposition to what Christians

had always believed. But the Arian, though he did not come straight down from

the Gnostic, pursued a line of argument and taught a view which the speculations

of the Gnostic had made familiar. He described the Son as a second, or inferior

God, standing midway between the First Cause and creatures; as Himself made out

of nothing, yet as making all things else; as existing before the worlds of the

ages; and as arrayed in all divine perfections except the one which was their

stay and foundation. God alone was without beginning, unoriginate; the Son was

originated, and once had not existed. For all that has origin must begin to be.

Such is the genuine doctrine of Arius. Using Greek terms, it denies that the Son

is of one essence, nature, or substance with God; He is not consubstantial

(homoousios) with the Father, and therefore not like Him, or equal in dignity,

or co-eternal, or within the real sphere of Deity. The Logos which St. John

exalts is an attribute, Reason, belonging to the Divine nature, not a person

distinct from another, and therefore is a Son merely in figure of speech. These

consequences follow upon the principle which Arius maintains in his letter to

Eusebius of Nicomedia, that the Son “is no part of the Ingenerate.” Hence the

Arian sectaries who reasoned logically were styled Anomoeans: they said that the

Son was “unlike” the Father. And they defined God as simply the Unoriginate.

They are also termed the Exucontians (ex ouk onton), because they held the

creation of the Son to be out of nothing.

But a view so unlike tradition found little favour; it required softening or

palliation, even at the cost of logic; and the school which supplanted Arianism

form an early date affirmed the likeness, either without adjunct, or in all

things, or in substance, of the Son to the Father, while denying His co-equal

dignity and co-eternal existence. These men of the Via Media were named Semi-

Arians. They approached, in strict argument, to the heretical extreme; but many

of them held the orthodox faith, however inconsistently; their difficulties

turned upon language or local prejudice, and no small number submitted at length

to Catholic teaching. The Semi-Arians attempted for years to invent a compromise

between irreconcilable views, and their shifting creeds, tumultuous councils,

and worldly devices tell us how mixed and motley a crowd was collected under

their banner. The point to be kept in remembrance is that, while they affirmed

the Word of God to be everlasting, they imagined Him as having become the Son to

create the worlds and redeem mankind. Among the ante-Nicene writers, a certain

ambiguity of expression may be detected, outside the school of Alexandria,

touching this last head of doctrine. While Catholic teachers held the Monarchia,

viz. that there was only one God; and the Trinity, that this Absolute One

existed in three distinct subsistences; and the Circuminession, that Father,

Word, and Spirit could not be separated, in fact or in thought, from one

another; yet an opening was left for discussion as regarded the term “Son,” and

the period of His “generation” (gennesis). Five ante-Nicene Fathers are

especially quoted: Athenagoras, Tatian, Theophilus of Antioch, Hippolytus, and

Novatian, whose language appears to involve a peculiar notion of Sonship, as

though It did not come into being or were not perfect until the dawn of creation.

To these may be added Tertullian and Methodius. Cardinal Newman held that their

view, which is found clearly in Tertullian, of the Son existing after the Word,

is connected as an antecedent with Arianism. Petavius construed the same

expressions in a reprehensible sense; but the Anglican Bishop Bull defended them

as orthodox, not without difficulty. Even if metaphorical, such language might

give shelter to unfair disputants; but we are not answerable for the slips of

teachers who failed to perceive all the consequences of doctrinal truths really

held by them. >From these doubtful theorizings Rome and Alexandria kept aloof.

Origen himself, whose unadvised speculations were charged with the guilt of

Arianism, and who employed terms like “the second God,” concerning the Logos,

which were never adopted by the Church – this very Origen taught the eternal

Sonship of the Word, and was not a Semi-Arian. To him the Logos, the Son, and

Jesus of Nazareth were one ever-subsisting Divine Person, begotten of the Father,

and, in this way, “subordinate” to the source of His being. He comes forth from

God as the creative Word, and so is a ministering Agent, or, from a different

point of view, is the First-born of creation. Dionysius of Alexandria (260) was

even denounced at Rome for calling the Son a work or creature of God; but he

explained himself to the pope on orthodox principles, and confessed the

Homoousian Creed.


Paul of Samosata, who was contemporary with Dionysius, and Bishop of Antioch,

may be judged the true ancestor of those heresies which relegated Christ beyond

the Divine sphere, whatever epithets of deity they allowed Him. The man Jesus,

said Paul, was distinct from the Logos, and, in Milton’s later language, by

merit was made the Son of God. The Supreme is one in Person as in Essence. Three

councils held at Antioch (264-268, or 269) condemned and excommunicated the

Samosatene. But these Fathers would not accept the Homoousian formula, dreading

lest it be taken to signify one material or abstract substance, according to the

usage of the heathen philosophies. Associated with Paul, and for years cut off

from the Catholic communion, we find the well-known Lucian, who edited the

Septuagint and became at last a martyr. From this learned man the school of

Antioch drew its inspiration. Eusebius the historian, Eusebius of Nicomedia, and

Arius himself, all came under Lucian’s influence. Not, therefore, to Egypt and

its mystical teaching, but to Syria, where Aristotle flourished with his logic

and its tendency to Rationalism, should we look for the home of an aberration

which had it finally triumphed, would have anticipated Islam, reducing the

Eternal Son to the rank of a prophet, and thus undoing the Christian revelation.

Arius, a Libyan by descent, brought up at Antioch and a school-fellow of

Eusebius, afterwards Bishop of Nicomedia, took part (306) in the obscure

Meletian schism, was made presbyter of the church called “Baucalis,” at

Alexandria, and opposed the Sabellians, themselves committed to a view of the

Trinity which denied all real distinctions in the Supreme. Epiphanius describes

the heresiarch as tall, grave, and winning; no aspersion on his moral character

has been sustained; but there is some possibility of personal differences having

led to his quarrel with the patriarch Alexander whom, in public synod, he

accused of teaching that the Son was identical with the Father (319). The actual

circumstances of this dispute are obscure; but Alexander condemned Arius in a

great assembly, and the latter found a refuge with Eusebius, the Church

historian, at Caesarea. Political or party motives embittered the strife. Many

bishops of Asia Minor and Syria took up the defence of their “fellow-Lucianist,”

as Arius did not hesitate to call himself. Synods in Palestine and Bithynia were

opposed to synods in Egypt. During several years the argument raged; but when,

by his defeat of Licinius (324), Constantine became master of the Roman world,

he determined on restoring ecclesiastical order in the East, as already in the

West he had undertaken to put down the Donatists at the Council of Arles. Arius,

in a letter to the Nicomedian prelate, had boldly rejected the Catholic faith.

But Constantine, tutored by this worldly-minded man, sent from Nicomedia to

Alexander a famous letter, in which he treated the controversy as an idle

dispute about words and enlarged on the blessings of peace. The emperor, we

should call to mind, was only a catechumen, imperfectly acquainted with Greek,

much more incompetent in theology, and yet ambitious to exercise over the

Catholic Church a dominion resembling that which, as Pontifex Maximus, he

wielded over the pagan worship. From this Byzantine conception (labelled in

modern terms Erastianism) we must derive the calamities which during many

hundreds of years set their mark on the development of Christian dogma.

Alexander could not give way in a matter so vitally important. Arius and his

supporters would not yield. A council was, therefore, assembled in Nicaea, in

Bithynia, which has ever been counted the first ecumenical, and which held its

sittings from the middle of June, 325. (See FIRST COUNCIL OF NICAEA). It is

commonly said that Hosius of Cordova presided. The Pope, St. Silvester, was

represented by his legates, and 318 Fathers attended, almost all from the East.

Unfortunately, the acts of the Council are not preserved. The emperor, who was

present, paid religious deference to a gathering which displayed the authority

of Christian teaching in a manner so remarkable. From the first it was evident

that Arius could not reckon upon a large number of patrons among the bishops.

Alexander was accompanied by his youthful deacon, the ever-memorable Athanasius

who engaged in discussion with the heresiarch himself, and from that moment

became the leader of the Catholics during well-nigh fifty years. The Fathers

appealed to tradition against the innovators, and were passionately orthodox;

while a letter was received from Eusebius of Nicomedia, declaring openly that he

would never allow Christ to be of one substance with God. This avowal suggested

a means of discriminating between true believers and all those who, under that

pretext, did not hold the Faith handed down. A creed was drawn up on behalf of

the Arian party by Eusebius of Caesarea in which every term of honour and

dignity, except the oneness of substance, was attributed to Our Lord. Clearly,

then, no other test save the Homoousion would prove a match for the subtle

ambiguities of language that, then as always, were eagerly adopted by dissidents

from the mind of the Church. A formula had been discovered which would serve as

a test, though not simply to be found in Scripture, yet summing up the doctrine

of St. John, St. Paul, and Christ Himself, “I and the Father are one”. Heresy,

as St. Ambrose remarks, had furnished from its own scabbard a weapon to cut off

its head. The “consubstantial” was accepted, only thirteen bishops dissenting,

and these were speedily reduced to seven. Hosius drew out the conciliar

statements, to which anathemas were subjoined against those who should affirm

that the Son once did not exist, or that before He was begotten He was not, or

that He was made out of nothing, or that He was of a different substance or

essence from the Father, or was created or changeable. Every bishop made this

declaration except six, of whom four at length gave way. Eusebius of Nicomedia

withdrew his opposition to the Nicene term, but would not sign the condemnation

of Arius. By the emperor, who considered heresy as rebellion, the alternative

proposed was subscription or banishment; and, on political grounds, the Bishop

of Nicomedia was exiled not long after the council, involving Arius in his ruin.

The heresiarch and his followers underwent their sentence in Illyria. But these

incidents, which might seem to close the chapter, proved a beginning of strife,

and led on to the most complicated proceedings of which we read in the fourth

century. While the plain Arian creed was defended by few, those political

prelates who sided with Eusebius carried on a double warfare against the term

“consubstantial”, and its champion, Athanasius. This greatest of the Eastern

Fathers had succeeded Alexander in the Egyptian patriarchate (326). He was not

more than thirty years of age; but his published writings, antecedent to the

Council, display, in thought and precision, a mastery of the issues involved

which no Catholic teacher could surpass. His unblemished life, considerate

temper, and loyalty to his friends made him by no means easy to attack. But the

wiles of Eusebius, who in 328 recovered Constantine’s favour, were seconded by

Asiatic intrigues, and a period of Arian reaction set in. Eustathius of Antioch

was deposed on a charge of Sabellianism (331), and the Emperor sent his command

that Athanasius should receive Arius back into communion. The saint firmly

declined. In 325 the heresiarch was absolved by two councils, at Tyre and

Jerusalem, the former of which deposed Athanasius on false and shameful grounds

of personal misconduct. He was banished to Trier, and his sojourn of eighteen

months in those parts cemented Alexandria more closely to Rome and the Catholic

West. Meanwhile, Constantia, the Emperor’s sister, had recommended Arius, whom

she thought an injured man, to Constantine’s leniency. Her dying words affected

him, and he recalled the Lybian, extracted from him a solemn adhesion to the

Nicene faith, and ordered Alexander, Bishop of the Imperial City, to give him

Communion in his own church (336). Arius openly triumphed; but as he went about

in parade, the evening before this event was to take place, he expired from a

sudden disorder, which Catholics could not help regarding as a judgment of

heaven, due to the bishop’s prayers. His death, however, did not stay the plague.

Constantine now favoured none but Arians; he was baptized in his last moments by

the shifty prelate of Nicomedia; and he bequeathed to his three sons (337) an

empire torn by dissensions which his ignorance and weakness had aggravated.

Constantius, who nominally governed the East, was himself the puppet of his

empress and the palace-ministers. He obeyed the Eusebian faction; his spiritual

director, Valens, Bishop of Mursa, did what in him lay to infect Italy and the

West with Arian dogmas. The term “like in substance”, Homoiousion, which had

been employed merely to get rid of the Nicene formula, became a watchword. But

as many as fourteen councils, held between 341 and 360, in which every shade of

heretical subterfuge found expression, bore decisive witness to the need and

efficacy of the Catholic touchstone which they all rejected. About 340, an

Alexandrian gathering had defended its archbishop in an epistle to Pope Julius.

On the death of Constantine, and by the influence of that emperor’s son and

namesake, he had been restored to his people. But the young prince passed away,

and in 341 the celebrated Antiochene Council of the Dedication a second time

degraded Athanasius, who now took refuge in Rome. There he spent three years.

Gibbon quotes and adopts “a judicious observation” of Wetstein which deserves to

be kept always in mind. From the fourth century onwards, remarks the German

scholar, when the Eastern Churches were almost equally divided in eloquence and

ability between contending sections, that party which sought to overcome made

its appearance in the Vatican, cultivated the Papal majesty, conquered and

established the orthodox creed by the help of the Latin bishops. Therefore it

was that Athanasius repaired to Rome. A stranger, Gregory, usurped his place.

The Roman Council proclaimed his innocence. In 343, Constans, who ruled over the

West from Illyria to Britain, summoned the bishops to meet at Sardica in

Pannonia. Ninety-four Latin, seventy Greek or Eastern, prelates began the

debates; but they could not come to terms, and the Asiatics withdrew, holding a

separate and hostile session at Philippopolis in Thrace. It has been justly said

that the Council of Sardica reveals the first symptoms of discord which, later

on, produced the unhappy schism of East and West. But to the Latins this meeting,

which allowed of appeals to Pope Julius, or the Roman Church, seemed an epilogue

which completed the Nicene legislation, and to this effect it was quoted by

Innocent I in his correspondence with the bishops of Africa.

Having won over Constans, who warmly took up his cause, the invincible

Athanasius received from his Oriental and Semi-Arian sovereign three letters

commanding, and at length entreating his return to Alexandria (349). The

factious bishops, Ursacius and Valens, retracted their charges against him in

the hands of Pope Julius; and as he travelled home, by way of Thrace, Asia Minor,

and Syria, the crowd of court-prelates did him abject homage. These men veered

with every wind. Some, like Eusebius of Caesarea, held a Platonizing doctrine

which they would not give up, though they declined the Arian blasphemies. But

many were time-servers, indifferent to dogma. And a new party had arisen, the

strict and pious Homoiousians, not friends of Athanasius, nor willing to

subscribe to the Nicene terms, yet slowly drawing nearer to the true creed and

finally accepting it. In the councils which now follow these good men play their

part. However, when Constans died (350), and his Semi-Arian brother was left

supreme, the persecution of Athanasius redoubled in violence. By a series of

intrigues the Western bishops were persuaded to cast him off at Arles, Milan,

Ariminum. It was concerning this last council (359) that St. Jerome wrote, “the

whole world groaned and marvelled to find itself Arian”. For the Latin bishops

were driven by threats and chicanery to sign concessions which at no time

represented their genuine views. Councils were so frequent that their dates are

still matter of controversy. Personal issues disguised the dogmatic importance

of a struggle which had gone on for thirty years. The Pope of the day, Liberius,

brave at first, undoubtedly orthodox, but torn from his see and banished to the

dreary solitude of Thrace, signed a creed, in tone Semi-Arian (compiled chiefly

from one of Sirmium), renounced Athanasius, but made a stand against the so-

called “Homoean” formulae of Ariminum. This new party was led by Acacius of

Caesarea, an aspiring churchman who maintained that he, and not St. Cyril of

Jerusalem, was metropolitan over Palestine. The Homoeans, a sort of Protestants,

would have no terms employed which were not found in Scripture, and thus evaded

signing the “Consubstantial”. A more extreme set, the “Anomoeans”, followed

Aetius, were directed by Eunomius, held meetings at Antioch and Sirmium,

declared the Son to be “unlike” the Father, and made themselves powerful in the

last years of Constantius within the palace. George of Cappadocia persecuted the

Alexandrian Catholics. Athanasius retired into the desert among the solitaries.

Hosius had been compelled by torture to subscribe a fashionable creed. When the

vacillating Emperor died (361), Julian, known as the Apostate, suffered all

alike to return home who had been exiled on account of religion. A momentous

gathering, over which Athanasius presided, in 362, at Alexandria, united the

orthodox Semi-Arians with himself and the West. Four years afterwards fifty-nine

Macedonian, i.e., hitherto anti-Nicene, prelates gave in their submission to

Pope Liberius. But the Emperor Valens, a fierce heretic, still laid the Church


However, the long battle was now turning decidedly in favour of Catholic

tradition. Western bishops, like Hilary of Poitiers and Eusebius of Vercellae

banished to Asia for holding the Nicene faith, were acting in unison with St.

Basil, the two St. Gregories, and the reconciled Semi-Arians. As an intellectual

movement the heresy had spent its force. Theodosius, a Spaniard and a Catholic,

governed the whole Empire. Athanasius died in 373; but his cause triumphed at

Constantinople, long an Arian city, first by the preaching of St. Gregory

Nazianzen, then in the Second General Council (381), at the opening of which

Meletius of Antioch presided. This saintly man had been estranged from the

Nicene champions during a long schism; but he made peace with Athanasius, and

now, in company of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, represented a moderate influence

which won the day. No deputies appeared from the West. Meletius died almost

immediately. St. Gregory Nazianzen (q. v.), who took his place, very soon

resigned. A creed embodying the Nicene was drawn up by St. Gregory of Nyssa, but

it is not the one that is chanted at Mass, the latter being due, it is said, to

St. Epiphanius and the Church of Jerusalem. The Council became ecumenical by

acceptance of the Pope and the ever-orthodox Westerns. From this moment Arianism

in all its forms lost its place within the Empire. Its developments among the

barbarians were political rather than doctrinal. Ulphilas (311-388), who

translated the Scriptures into Maeso-Gothic, taught the Goths across the Danube

an Homoean theology; Arian kingdoms arose in Spain, Africa, Italy. The Gepidae,

Heruli, Vandals, Alans, and Lombards received a system which they were as little

capable of understanding as they were of defending, and the Catholic bishops,

the monks, the sword of Clovis, the action of the Papacy, made an end of it

before the eighth century. In the form which it took under Arius, Eusebius of

Caesarea, and Eunomius, it has never been revived. Individuals, among them are

Milton and Sir Isasc Newton, were perhaps tainted with it. But the Socinian

tendency out of which Unitarian doctrines have grown owes nothing to the school

of Antioch or the councils which opposed Nicaea. Neither has any Arian leader

stood forth in history with a character of heroic proportions. In the whole

story there is but one single hero – the undaunted Athanasius – whose mind was

equal to the problems, as his great spirit to the vicissitudes, a question on

which the future of Christianity depended.

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