Arius and Arianism

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Arius was a controversial fourth-century Christian thinker in Alexandria, Egypt, who was condemned by the first ecumenical council at Nicaea in 325. Because most of his writings were destroyed as heretical and "Arianism" as a movement developed only after his death, historians continue to debate both the content and the purpose of his teaching. Theological debate continued for a century within Christianity, prompting a number of councils and creeds as well as a voluminous literature exploring the definition of God as Trinity, the origin of the divine Son, and the nature of salvation. From these events "Arianism" has been traditionally defined in theological polemic as a denial of the essential divinity of the Son and therefore of both the orthodox doctrines of Incarnation and Trinity.

Arius and the Council of Nicaea

As a Christian presbyter in Alexandria, Arius claimed a connection to a famous martyr and theologian, Lucian of Antioch. Philosophically educated as well as an exegete of scripture, he criticized Bishop Alexander of Alexandria for using language of eternity and nature with regard to the generation of the Son from the Father; this defended a common shared divinity, but muddled their separate personal identities. Arius argued that the Father, defined as the creator of all existence, could not share his uncaused nature or being with the Son. To speak of a shared divine nature would compromise biblical monotheism as well as contradict the definition of the creator as unbegun by nature, therefore opposing the first principle of all existence. The Son had to be of a separate nature because he was created or generated at some point as the offspring of the Father.

Contrary to earlier theologians, Arius argued that the Son could not be eternally begotten or he would be a coexistent principle. Instead, the Son possessed divinity from his direct creation by the Father and preexistence before all creation, but this was a separate and secondary divinity. Early authors had also interpreted the title of Word from the Gospel of John or Wisdom from Proverbs to show the Son's eternal presence with the Father as a mental attribute. By contrast, Arius accepted the traditional titles, but denied the eternal presence; he also denied that the Son knew the Father apart from what knowledge the Father had bestowed upon him. The secondarily divine Son remained the revealer of the Father, the agent of creation, and the mediator of the divine will and salvation through Incarnation.

The origins and motivations of Arius's views remain controversial, and no single interpretation has yet to persuade all scholars. Only three of his documents remain, and his opponent, Athanasius, preserved fragments of his theological poem, Thalia. All historians emphasize his indebtedness to earlier theologians, such as Origen, who described the Son as Word, and ascribed a lesser and derivative nature to the Son. This hierarchical model echoed both the philosophy of Numenius and Philo, in which the Logos was the mediator between transcendent reality and the material world, as well as biblical accounts of the Son's obedience to the Father. However, by contrast, Arius denied any communication or participation of essence between the Father and the Son; apophatic theology became central to his thought. This highly significant shift may well reflect changes in contemporary Platonism, such as the increased transcendence of Plotinus's thought, but the parallels are not entirely conclusive.

Arius may also be defending the theology of Lucian of Antioch, which emphasized the will of God and the agency of the Son. The emphasis on the distinct nature of the Son may have been to portray him as a moral exemplar and mediator, in line with the New Testament model of the obedient Christ in Luke; the evidence for this interpretation, however, remains contested. Finally, Arius's rejection of coexistent principles could also be linked to the growing presence of Manichees in Egypt, who taught two eternal principles of good and evil. Clearly, Arius was a creative and powerful thinker who was revising traditional categories to clarify the singularity of the Father and the mediation of the Son.

After local councils did not succeed in reconciling or suppressing the controversy, Emperor Constantine convened a council of bishops from the East and West at Nicaea in 325. The accounts of the council show the difficulty of using scriptural language that, insofar as it was metaphorical, did not solve analytical difficulties concerning causality or nature. Homoousios, or "of the same nature," was adopted as a definition of the relation of the Father and Son, less as a positive definition than as a term rejected by Arius and others. However, the creed was not readily adopted by the larger church, and other councils were held over the next five decades to find more acceptable language. Constantine accepted a later statement by Arius that avoided discussing the nature of the Father and Son, if affirming the priority of the Father. Arius died in 336 before being accepted back into communion with the church, perhaps by poisoning.

"Arianism" after Arius

The issues of divine causality and saving knowledge raised by the Arian controversy and the Nicene definition were strenuously debated for several decades. We may best speak of these shifting alliances as "non-Nicenes" rather than use the older categories of "Arians" or "Semi-Arians" to describe all those who for various reasons rejected the authority of the creed of Nicaea. Many were content to avoid substance language or affirm a "like substance" (homoiousios ) between the Father and the Son, maintaining a traditional hierarchy of being and action. Aetius and Eunomius, often called "Neo-Arians," were the most strenuous opponents of Nicene theology; they argued that the Father and Son must be dissimilar in nature since the divine essence was "unbegun," and insisted this description was fully revelatory of God. These varied opponents of Nicaea thinkers did not describe themselves as followers of Arius; rather, they were tagged with his condemnation by opponents, such as Athanasius and Marcellus of Ancyra, in order to discredit their theological positions.

The separation of divine nature between the Father and the Son also had implications for salvation and incarnation. The author of the Latin Opus imperfectum insisted that the created Son was able to suffer authentically on the cross; he criticized the Christology of the orthodox of Docetism, since they claimed only the body suffered and not the eternal Word. A series of legislative acts curtailed the activities of the non-Nicenes after the council of Constantinople in 381.

Later Arianism

The Christianization of the Goths occurred during this theological turmoil, and they were baptized as "Arians." The destruction of the Visigothic library in medieval Spain erased documents that might have provided significant clues to Gothic theology. In the seventeenth century "Arianism" was embraced by a number of English theologians, including Isaac Newton and William Whiston, who questioned the logic of the Trinity and the biblical authority of creeds.

See also Christianity; Newton, Isaac; Platonism and the Platonic Tradition; Plotinus.


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J. Rebecca Lyman (2005)