A Summary of Arianism
Among the most well-known of all heresies in the Catholic Church, Arianism was a Christological view held by the followers of Arius, an Alexandrian priest from the early 4th century. Arianism had to do with one of the most fundamental beliefs of Christianity- the Trinity. In being challenged by this heresy, the Church further clarified its views on the divinity of Christ.
Since the times of Paul in his letters to the Ephesians, Colossians, and Philippians, the Christian belief of the equality of Jesus with God the Father has been explicitly stated.Arianism, in an attempt to make the mystery of the trinity “rational”, denies the equality in essence, nature, or substance of Jesus with God the Father.The Arian belief is that if God the Father had not actually created Jesus, He could hardly be a Father. From this conclusion, Arius drew that there must have been a time that God the Father existed and Jesus did not, saying that God the Son somehow had less priority or less divinity than God the Father. Some followers of Arius, namely Auxentius, 4th century bishop of Milan, even went as far as to say that the Holy Spirit was the creation of the Son, therefore being below both the Father and Son.Arius, however, still held that Jesus was to be worshipped, but his opponents pointed out that this would be polytheism. Arianism was perhaps the most widespread and serious of doctrinal disputes in the history of Catholicism.
Due to the fact that almost all the writings of Arius were destroyed by Nicene factions, not much is known about the early history of Arius himself. From what we know, he was most likely born in Libya in the late 3rd century, and was a pupil of Lucien of Antioch. However mislead, Arius appears to have been a man of religious conviction. He became a deacon in Alexandria during Peter of Alexandria’s bishopric from the year 300 to 311. From there, he began his tempestuous religious career.
According to Socrates Scholasticus, a Byzantine Church historian, Arius first ran into trouble with the Church under bishop Achillas of Alexandria with this statement:
“‘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.’”
Arius was excommunicated by the Church with his association with the Melitians, a heretical religious sect, and quickly afterward was restored by Alexandrian bishop Achillas (311-312) and then ordained to the priesthood and given the church of Baucalis. Sometime around the year 320, Arius clashed with Bishop Alexander over the nature of Christ. A truce was attempted between them. However, a synod in the year 324 acknowledged the truce, but anathematized Arius.In retaliation, Arius published his book of teachings, the Thalia, effectively negating the truce. The Thalia now only exists in its quotations in refutations by Athanasius, all copies of it having been burnt later by Emperor Constantine.
Arius was later denounced in a synod in Antioch in 325, and the conflicts caused by Arius and his followers compelled Constantine to call the first ecumenical council later that year. That council, the Council of Nicaea, created a creed to be used at baptisms and in instructing the faith. The creed’s wording made Arius’ beliefs heretical, using the term “consubstantial” or “one in being” to describe Jesus’ relationship to God the Father. Subsequently, Arius was banished to Trier.
In Trier, Arius continued his correspondences and teachings. Around the year 332, Constantine opened correspondence with Arius, meeting him at Nicomedia in the year 335. There, Arius presented a profession that was judged by Constantine to be orthodox enough for reconsideration. Despite the arguments of the saint Athanasius, a bishop of Alexandria and one of the main opponents of the Arian movement, Arius was readmitted to receive Holy Communion in the synod of Jerusalem in 335. However, he died of a severe hemorrhage before he was able to leave Constantinople.
The death of Arius was by no means the end of the Arian movement; there were still many Arian followers, some of them even bishops. The council of Nicaea, instead of mending the situation in the Church, sparked even more controversy than before. As arguments and debates went on, the Arian factions gradually evolved into different forms, differing in the wording of their professions of their faith. One of these is the “Semi-Arians”, a group of people believing that the Son was distinct from the Father, not sharing the same substance but still in equality with the Father and Holy Spirit. Another group only conceded that the Son was like the Father. A third group, still under the name of the heresiarch Arius, maintained that the Son was unlike the father.During the debates between these three groups, numerous synods were called and creed formulas made. Saint Jerome said, “The world has awoken with a groan to find itself Arian”, and Ammianus Marcellinus, a pagan, remarked, “The highways were covered with galloping bishops.”
In addition to the Church politics, Roman politics had a hand in the matter as well. After the death of Constantine, Rome was put into the hands of a series of emperors with different religious beliefs. Constantine’s son Constantius favored the Semi-Arians while persecuting both the Arians and the Nicaeans. Julian, Constantius’ successor, favored the Roman pagans, and declared there would be no favored party and declared all exiled bishops remittance. The emperor Valens again favored the Semi-Arian factions, forcefully exiling bishops.
However, the successor of Valens, the emperor Theodosius, was more open-minded towards the Nicaeans. He convened the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople, presided over by St. Gregory of Nazianzus, the Theologian.This council was a decisive point in Church history, ending the dispute between the numerous Arian factions and the orthodox Nicaean section of the Church.
Theodosius made great steps forward for the Catholic Church in the Roman Empire. Many pagan temples were closed, and many more churches built to replace them. The already-diminished Olympic Games were discontinued, the vestal virgins disbanded, and the Altar of Victory in the Roman Senate house was taken down. Theodosius did these and much more to make the Catholic faith the religion of Rome.
However, even though Rome was converted completely from Arianism, the Germanic tribes still remained Arian. When these tribes had been assimilated into the Roman Empire, the majority of Christians in Rome were Arian, and the sudden change was a shock to them. The widespread influence of Arianism, as well as the work of the Arian missionary Ulfilas, converted many of the Germanic tribes, and it was not until the late 600s that Orthodoxy finally regained its former position in the Catholic Church.
To conclude, Arianism was one of the most critical heresies in the time of early Church. The Church needs its members to help teach and obey its laws and uphold its truths, as it did in the early Church. Arianism, to this day, has not been revived to its former influence, except in small groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) and the Unitarian religion. The Church has always upheld its beliefs, and in times of struggle, has further taught and defined them. If you want to learn something more about Gnosticism, don’t miss our following post.