views updated May 17 2018


Major 4th-century Trinitarian heresy, originated by the teachings of the Alexandrian priest arius (d. 336). The basic tenet of Arianism was a negation of the divinity of Christ and, subsequently, of the Holy Spirit. Arius reduced the Christian Trinity to a descending triad, of whom the Father alone is true God.

The key to the theology of Arius is the doctrine of agennèsia (the unbegotten) as the essential attribute of the Godhead: God is by necessity not only uncreated, but unbegotten and unoriginate. Hence God is absolutely incommunicable and unique. As a result the Logos, whom the Scriptures designate clearly as begotten from the Father, cannot be true God. Even though He is adored by all Christians, He is God and Son of God only by participation in grace or by adoption. Since the Godhead is indivisible and incommunicable and the Logos has His being from the Father, there remains but the affirmation that He is a creature, "alien and dissimilar in all things from the Father"; a perfect creature and immensely above all other created beings, but a creature nevertheless.

Since Arius did not accept the opinion of origen, which postulated an eternal creation, he asserted that the Son had a beginning: "There was when He was not." This assertion was considered blasphemous by the faithful, and it was condemned as such by the Council of nicaea i (325). Since He was not true God, the Logos had but an imperfect knowledge of the Father; He was also subject to change and peccable by nature, if not in fact.

The main arguments used by the Arians were scriptural texts such as "The Lord created me a beginning of his ways" (Prv 8:22); "The Father is greater than I" (Jn 14.28); "the first-born of all creation" (Col 1.15). Moreover, all through the controversy with the defenders of the Nicene Creed, the Arians consistently rejected nonscriptural words and expressions.

Part of the Arian system was the Word-flesh christology, which denied the existence of a human soul in the Incarnate Word; its place was taken by the Logos Himself. Although Arius said little about the Holy Spirit, his followers, true to the logic of their system, considered the third person, or hypostasis, of the Trinity as the highest creature produced by the Son, but inferior to and dissimilar from both the Father and the Son.

Doctrinal Antecedents. The problem of the doctrinal antecedents of Arianism has not yet been fully elucidated. Although Arius claimed to be a disciple of lucian of antioch, much of his theology points to the Origenistic tradition, which was dominant in Alexandrian circles: an insistence on the Father as the only God; an emphasis on distinction rather than unity in the Trinity; and the subordinate position of the Son and the Spirit. But neither Origen nor any other pre-Nicene writer offered support for Arius's teaching that the Logos had a beginning of existence. The influence of Aristotle, for which Arians were often blamed by their adversaries, seems to have consisted more in the rationalistic method of argument than in the ideas themselves. Certainly, the cosmological conception of the Logos as a demigod, produced by the Father of all as an intermediary being between the Godhead and the universe, appeared as an adaptation of Christianity

to the Hellenistic philosophy of the time. As H. Gwatkin justly remarked, Arianism, scarcely disguised by the traditional terminology and the addition of scriptural quotations, was pagan to the core.

Historically, the controversy concerning the theology of Arius broke into the open in Alexandria about 320, when a local synod under Bishop Alexander condemned his views. When he refused to submit and gained more followers, Alexander summoned a council of the entire Egyptian episcopate, which again condemned Arius and excommunicated him. As a result he left Alexandria and journeyed through Palestine, Syria, and Asia Minor, gaining support from such influential bishops as eusebius of caesarea and eusebius of nicomedia. They sent out numerous letters to fellow bishops and organized synods to uphold Arius's position, while Alexander, in turn, wrote to Eastern and Western bishops to express the true nature of the conflict. Thus, what started as a local dispute soon caused division in the entire Eastern Church.

Constantinian Intervention. When constantine i conquered the East in 324, he sent his ecclesiastical adviser Bishop Hosius of Córdoba (more properly Ossius) to Alexandria with a letter to Bishop Alexander and Arius exhorting them to make peace. But this mission failed; and Hosius on his return to the court presided at a Council of the Orient in Antioch (early 325). Arianism was condemned, and a profession of faith was promulgated that closely resembled the Alexandrian creed. Three bishops were provisorily excommunicated for their refusal to sign it. Meanwhile Constantine, probably at the suggestion of Hosius, had summoned a general council of the Church, first at Ancyra in Galatia, then at Nicaea in Bithynia for the summer of 325.

Council of Nicaea I. Having heard an exposition of the teachings of Arius, the Council of Nicaea I condemned them as blasphemous; from this condemnation radical Arianism never recovered. The Council, apparently led by Hosius, also promulgated the famous nicene creed, defining once and for all the true relation of the Son to the Father as homoousios.

Eusebius of Caesarea, athanasius of Alexandria, and philostorgius have given divergent accounts of how this creed was drafted; what follows is only the most probable reconstruction of events at Nicaea. Some bishops, Hosius and probably Alexander among others, persuaded Constantine that the promulgation of a unique creed would be the surest way to achieve lasting unity in the Church. They selected a local creed, probably that of Syro-Palestinian origin, and inserted into it several clauses intended to exclude the typically Arian opinions. Thus they added "from the substance of the Father"; "true God from true God, begotten not made"; and the key word of the creed, which was to become so controversial for many decades, homoousion tōi Patri, that is, "of one substance with the Father." In the end the redactors added the anathemas and explicitly rejected the shocking Arian expression "there was when He was not." Significant in this connection was the fact that hypostasis (person) was identified with ousia (substance), against the dominant Origenist tradition in the East that affirmed three hypostaseis in the Godhead. But Constantine crushed the opposition among the bishops and demanded the signature of all present under the penalty of banishment. Only two bishops from Libya refused; together with Arius and the priests who remained faithful to him, they were exiled to Illyricum.

Anti-Nicene Reaction. Ostensibly, the Arian crisis had been resolved, and unity had been restored among the churches. But a few years later a strong anti-Nicene reaction arose, in which two tendencies seem to have been at work. There was a small but active group of Arian sympathizers who had signed the Nicene Creed for fear of exile but had renounced none of their convictions. The other group comprised a large number of Eastern bishops whose beliefs were basically orthodox but whose fear of monarchianism inspired them with a marked distrust of the homoousios. These sentiments were shrewdly exploited by the first group, to which the real leaders of the reaction belonged, including both Eusebius of Nicomedia and Eusebius of Caesarea, Paulinus of Tyre, and Menophantes of Ephesus. Knowing how strongly Constantine was attached to the Nicene faith, they at first avoided a direct attack against it and concentrated their efforts on eliminating the most influential defenders of the homoousios. Thus, from 328 on Eustathius of Antioch, Marcellus of Ancyra, Asclepas of Gaza, and finally the foremost leader of all, Athanasius of Alexandria, fell victim to this war of persons: all were deposed by synodical sentence and replaced by members of the anti-Nicene party. After the death of Constantine (337) all exiled bishops were allowed to return to their sees; but the division of the Empire between Constans, who ruled in the West and favored the Nicene party, and Constantius II, who ruled the East and favored the anti-Nicene reaction, soon was reflected on the ecclesiastical level.

Athanasius, Marcellus, and others were recognized as legitimate bishops by the West at the Council in Rome (34041) but were considered deposed and excommunicated by the East at the Dedication Council of Antioch (341). At the Antioch meeting Eusebius of Nicomedia and his supporters for the first time dared to attack the Nicene faith directly: they promulgated the so-called Second Creed of Antioch, known also as the creed of Lucian of Antioch, which, while condemning several Arian doctrines, omitted the characteristic Nicene phrases "from the essence of the Father" and homoousios.

Synods at Sardica and Sirmium. The Council of sardica, summoned in 343 by both emperors to restore unity, failed to heal the breach between the Eastern and Western episcopates, as the former refused to sit in a joint meeting with Athanasius and his fellow exiles. Nevertheless the dominant position of Emperor Constans and a general desire for rapprochement produced a precarious peace; Athanasius returned to Alexandria in 346 and remained in possession of his see until 356. But the deaths of Constans in 350 and Pope julius i in 352, and the accession of Constantius II as sole ruler of the Empire, gave rise to a renewed offensive on the part of the Arians.

As early as the winter of 351 a group of Eastern bishops held a synod in the imperial residence at sirmium. After deposing the local bishop, Photinus, a disciple of marcellus of ancyra, they promulgated what is known as the First Formulary of Sirmium, consisting of the Fourth Creed of Antioch and a series of anathemas directed partly against radical Arianism and partly against the doctrines of Marcellus and Photinus. Except for the omission of homoousios and a few traces of subordinationism, this formulary was susceptible of an orthodox interpretation. The leaders of the anti-Nicene party, especially two Arian court bishops, Valens of Mursa and Ursacius of Singidunum, then staged an allout attack against the undisputed leader of Nicene orthodoxy, Athanasius. Under strong pressure by Emperor Constantius, two Western councils agreed to the condemnation of Athanasius: Arles in October 353 and Milan in the spring of 355. The few bishops who refused, including Pope Liberius and hilary of poitiers, were exiled to the East, and the centenarian Hosius of Cordova was detained for a year at the court of Sirmium.

Arian Triumph and Downfall. Having forced the Western churches into submission, Constantius and his Arianizing counselors then turned to the East. In February 356 Athanasius was forced to flee to the desert, where he hid for six years; and an Arian intruder, George of Cappadocia, was installed in his place. Thus all voices raised in defense of the Nicene faith were silenced, and all bishoprics were occupied by the opposition.

This apparent triumph caused the downfall of the anti-Nicene coalition: united in the battle against Athanasius and the faith of Nicaea, they fell out with each other when trying to impose a definitive substitute for the Nicaenum. Three main factions emerged, vying for the favor of Constantius and supremacy in the Church. Each had its own formulary; each held a council dominated by its leaders; each knew its hour of triumph. Since the doctrinal position of each was characterized by a proposed substitute for the Nicene homoousios, they have been named after their favorite theological expression: the radical Anomoeans, who held that the Son was anomoios (unlike) the Father; the moderate Homoeousians, who preferred the term homoiousios (of like substance) with the Father; and the devious Homoeans, whose password homoios (similar to, like) covered any and all opinions.

The first to bid for power were the radical Arians, led by Valens and Ursacius in the West and by Eudoxius and Eunomius in the East. In the summer of 357 they held a synod at Sirmium that, with the approval of Constantius, promulgated the Second Formulary of Sirmium. This stressed the inferiority of the Son to the Father; and since their doctrine was of unmistakingly Arian inspiration, it provoked violent indignation both in the West and in the East. basil of ancyra and George of Laodicea organized the opposition among the moderates of the anti-Nicene party. In the synods of Ancyra (spring 358) and Sirmium (summer 358) they strongly condemned anomoeism and defined their own position in the Third Formulary of Sirmium, the key word of which was homoiousios, that is, "the Son is of like substance with the Father." Basil of Ancyra even planned another general council to be held at Nicomedia, but an earthquake forced postponement and gave his enemies time to gain the emperor's favor for a third group, the Homoeans, led by acacius of caesarea. He persuaded Constantius to summon not one but two meetings, one for the West at Rimini and the other for the East at Seleucia.

To prepare for these meetings, Marcus of Arethusa drew up yet another creed, the Fourth Formulary of Sirmium, better known as the Dated Creed, which proclaimed the Son homoios, like the Father in all things that the Scriptures declare. With a few variationsthe most important of which was the final omission from the text of the clause "in all things"this creed was forced on the bishopric of the entire Church at the councils of Rimini (October 359), Seleucia (winter 359), and Constantinople (January 360).

This triumph of homoeism was deceptive, however, since it was based solely on imperial support: it collapsed immediately after the death of Constantius in 361. Moreover, by persecuting Homoousians and Homoeousians alike, it brought about better understanding and, ultimately, reconciliation between the two groups. Beneficial in this aspect were also the wise decisions of Athanasius at the Synod of Alexandria in 362; the peacemaking efforts of Basil of Caesarea; and the theological writings of all three Cappadocian Fathers.

Under valens (36478) homoeism regained imperial favor in the East; but it collapsed again after his death. Both Gratianus and theodosius i were strong defenders of the Nicene faith: by official decrees of 380 and 381 Catholic orthodoxy was imposed on all Christians and the Arians were deprived of their offices and churches. In 381 the Council of constantinople i for the East and that of Aquileia for the West sealed the final adoption of the faith of Nicaea by the entire Church and completed it by proclaiming the full divinity of the Holy Spirit against the so-called Macedonians, or Semi-Arians as they are known also.

Later Revival. Utterly defeated in the Roman Empire, Arianism received new life through its implantation among the Germanic tribes and, with them, reentered the Western Empire. The conversion of these peoples was initiated by the missionary activity of Wulfila, apostle of the Goths, who were established on both banks of the lower Danube. This grandson of Christian captives from Cappadocia had been consecrated bishop by Eusebius of Nicomedia at the Dedication Council of Antioch in 341; and upon his return north, he succeeded in converting a good many of his people. He invented a Gothic alphabet and translated the Bible; but the creed he gave his people was the Homoean Creed of the Council of Constantinople of 360, at which he was present. Thus the Germanic Christians were known as Arians. Despite some persecution, Christianity in this form spread with remarkable vigor from the Goths to the neighboring tribes, such as the Gepides, Herules, Vandals, Suevi, Alamanni, and Burgundians. When they invaded the West and established the various Germanic kingdoms, most of these tribes professed homoeism as their national religion and in some instances persecuted those among the Roman population who professed Catholic orthodoxy.

This religious division, added to the ethnic antagonism, retarded the unification of the Roman and barbarian peoples; but gradually the Catholic Church succeeded in eliminating Arianism. In some instances this was achieved by military action that all but wiped out the Germanic element: in 553 the vandals in Africa were utterly destroyed by the armies of Justinian I; and in 552 the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy suffered a similar fate. By peaceful means and through the action of Bp. avitus of vienne, the Burgundians in southwestern Gaul had accepted Catholicism in 517, under King Sigismund.

In Spain the Suevi turned to Catholicism c. 450 but were soon afterward absorbed by the strong Visigothic kingdom, which remained Arian until 587, when its king, Reccared, became Catholic under the guidance of leander of seville. The lombards, the last tribe to enter the former Roman Empire, were partly pagan and partly Arian. Their conversion to Catholicism, prepared by queens Theodolinda and Gondeberga, took place under kings Aribert and Perctarit toward the end of the 7th century.

Bibliography: j. r. palanque et al., The Church in the Christian Roman Empire, tr. e. c. messenger, 2 v. in 1 (New York 1953) 396408. a. d'alÈs, Le Dogme de Nicée (Paris 1926). j. n. d. kelly, Early Christian Creeds (2d ed. New York 1960); Early Christian Doctrines (2d ed. New York 1960) 22379. g. l. prestige, God in Patristic Thought (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge; 1935; repr. 1959). t. e. pollard, "The Origins of Arianism," Journal of Theological Studies (new series 1950) 9 (1958) 10311. h. a. wolfson, Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Harvard Univ. 12 (1958) 328. w. haugaard, "Arius Twice a Heretic?," Church History 29 (1960) 25163. h. gwatkin, Studies of Arianism (2d ed. Cambridge 1900). e. schwartz, Zur Geschichte des Athanasius (Gesammelte Schriften 3; Berlin 1959); "Zur Kirchengeschichte des 4. Jahrhunderts," Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche 34 (1935) 129213. h. g. opitz, ed., Urkunden zur Geschichte des arianischen Streites (Athanasius' Werke v.3.1; Berlin 1934). j. zeiller, Les Origines chrétiennes dans les provinces danubiennes (Paris 1918). k. d. schmidt, Die Bekehrung der Germanen zum Christentum, 2 v. (Göttingen 193940). m. r. barnes and d. h. williams, eds., Arianism after Arius: Essays on the Development of the Fourth Century Trinitarian Conflicts (Edinburgh 1993). r. c. gregg and d. e. groh, Early ArianismA View of Salvation (Philadelphia 1981). r. p. c. hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy 318381 (Edinburgh 1988). g. s. stead, Divine Substance (Oxford 1977). r. gregg, Arianism, Historical and Theological Reassessments (Cambridge, Mass. 1985). r. williams, Arius: Heresy and Tradition (London 1987).

[v. c. de clercq]


views updated May 21 2018


ARIANISM is the heretical doctrine promulgated by the Christian Alexandrian priest Arius (c. 250336) that asserted the radical primacy of the Father over the Son. Three distinct streams of influence merged in the sea of doctrinal upheaval of Christianity in the fourth century: (1) the theological system developed by Arius himself, which was his private and pastoral accomplishment; (2) the moderate and conservative Origenism of the majority of Eastern bishops who found themselves in consonance with Arius's own Origenian background; and (3) the political initiatives of these bishops against Alexander of Alexandria. The complex state of church affairs arising from the confluence of these three streams has become known as the Arian controversy.

Without Arius the controversy would never have existed. Paradoxically, however, the Alexandrian priest contributed more to the name of the crisis than to the shaping of its doctrinal issues. In Arius's thought, certain trends of Alexandrian theology, formulated by Origen a few generations earlier, reached their ultimate consequences. Arius's concept of the Christian godhead was monarchic, that is, it held that the first and unique absolute principle of divinity is the Father. Consequently, any other divine reality was considered by him as secondary to the Father. He applied this view first of all to the Logos, the Word of God, the Son who becomes the instrument of the divine plan of creation and salvation. The Son, being bound to the decision of the Father in the very process of his own generation as the Son, is not eternal in the same sense as the Father is eternal; more important, he is not eternal because only the Father is ungenerated. On the other hand, being the instrument of the fulfillment of the Father's will, the Son is by nature linked with the divine creation. He is, so to speak, the first transcendent creature, the principle of all things. Arius developed several Origenian insights in a way that led him finally to contradict Origen's notion of the godhead. In the course of his systematic inquiry, he not only urges traditional forms of trinitarian subordinationism, he pleads also for a radical dissimilarity among the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

It is not easy to garner an authentic picture of Arius's teachings on the incarnation of the Word and his interpretation of the gospel narratives. His main opponents, Alexander of Alexandria and Athanasius, have transmitted no direct evidence from Arius on these points; one must deduce Arius's conceptions from what his opponents denounce and refute in their anti-Arian writings. Arius's teachings on incarnation were probably traditional and reflective of Origen's christological legacy. Arius, like Origen, advocated that Christians should imitate the Son's asceticism and contemplate the mystery of his kenosis, which involved the Son even in the experience of death. The final glorification means that the risen Christ earned the right to be recognized in his divine rank as the Son of God. It has been suggested that Arius conceived of Jesus as being without a human soul, the Logos himself taking its place, but there is no support for this thesis in Arius's own writings.

Underlying the whole of Arius's thought is a philosophical perspective that guarantees the uniqueness of his system among the Origenian-type theologies current in the Greek-speaking churches of the first half of the fourth century. Arius's writings show a passionate concern for the radical transcendency of the first principle in the godhead, and he interprets the Christian notion of the Son in light of a rigorous, metaphysical deduction about the nature of the Son as proceeding from the first principle, his Father. Sharing the metaphysical concerns of Plotinus in Ennead 5 but using the Christian categories of Father and Son, Arius develops his view of God and the world only in regard to the origination of the second principle of the godhead, without regard to the teaching of the New Testament on the full divinity of Christ.

This underlying point of view seems to have shaped Arius's thought more than anything else. It was for this reason that he remained relatively isolated in the theological scene of his time, before as well as after his condemnation in Nicaea in 325. The misunderstandings to which his system led are best exemplified by the public statements against him by Alexander of Alexandria and Athanasius. Even the Eastern bishops, who for a time became his main supporters, ignored the merits of his rigorous logic and rejected his conclusions concerning the nature of the Son.

The Eastern bishops contributed in their own way to the controversy by their conservative politics. What Athanasius and other supporters of the Nicene Creed denounced as Arianism in the thought and the writings of certain Eastern bishops basically amounted to the Eastern bishops' opposition to the term homoousios ("same substance"), which had been canonized at Nicaea, and their preference for more biblical, more traditional, and often more or less subordinationist formulations, in the tradition of Origen.

The main party of bishops was called Homoeans, from homoios, meaning "similar" rather than "same," because they stressed the similitude of the Son to the Father in biblical terms, without dogmatic precision. The most prominent figures among the so-called Semi-Arians actually reverted to Nicene orthodoxy after the death of Emperor Constantius II (337361). A true Arianism, which radicalized the rationalistic theology of Arius, recurred only once, in Alexandria, from about 355 to 366, with Aetios and Eunomios as its leaders.

Not only bishops, clerics, and church communities but emperors also may be called Arians during the struggles of the fourth century. Constantine, however, was never called Arian, even though he allowed the pro-Arian bishops to protect Arius during his lifetime. His son and successor, Constantius II, following in his father's footsteps, became an Arian in the eyes of the pro-Nicene bishops who were persecuted under his reign; it is difficult, however, to discern a precise theological motivation in the religious concerns of Constantius's complex personality. The emperor Valens (364378) supported the pro-Arian majority of bishops in the East without true personal conviction. Arianism, transmitted to the Teutonic tribes, survived in the West until the sixth century.


A general survey on the nature and origins of Arianism can be found in Jaroslav Pelikan's The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, 100600, vol. 1 of The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine (Chicago, 1971). Thomas A. Kopecek's A History of Neo-Arianism, 2 vols., "Patristic Monograph Series," no. 8 (Cambridge, Mass., 1979), as well as Robert C. Gregg and Dennis E. Groh's Early Arianism: A View of Salvation (Philadelphia, 1981), are useful introductions to specific aspects of Arianism. A survey of current research is provided in Arianism: Historical and Theological Reassessments, edited by Robert C. Gregg (Philadelphia, 1985).

Charles Kannengiesser (1987)


views updated May 29 2018

Arianism. The Christian heresy according to which the Son of God was a creature and not truly God. In the Arian system the Son could be called ‘God’, but only as a courtesy title; he was created (not begotten) by the Father, and he achieved his divine status by his perfect obedience to him. As a creature, it must be said of Christ ēn pote hote ouk ēn (a famous slogan), ‘there was once when he was not’. The chief proponent of the doctrine was the Alexandrian priest Arius (c.250–c.336).


views updated Jun 11 2018

Arianism in Christian theology, the main heresy denying the divinity of Christ, originating with the Alexandrian priest Arius (c.250–c.336). Arianism maintained that the son of God was created by the Father and was therefore neither coeternal nor consubstantial with the Father. It retained a foothold among Germanic peoples until the conversion of the Franks to Catholicism (496).


views updated May 29 2018

Arianism Theological school based on the teachings of Arius ( 250–336), considered heretical by orthodox Christianity. Arius taught that Christ was a created being, and that the Son, though divine, was neither equal nor co-eternal with the Father. Arianism was condemned by the first Council of Nicaea (325).