In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus poses an
important question to his disciples: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
The twelve quickly answer his question with a list of popular opinions, but when
forced to reach a decision on their own, they cannot easily come up with an
answer. Indeed, three centuries after this question was initially posed by
Jesus, it had still not been satisfactorily answered by his followers. The
question is no mere theological polemic, for if it is through Jesus that mankind
is saved, the question of Jesus’ identity is necessarily a question that
strikes at the very nature of salvation itself. It is beyond the scope of this
paper to answer a question of such magnitude; rather, this paper will examine
the doctrine and teachings of a man who did attempt such an answer, the philosophical
background that produced his teachings, and the early developments of the
movement that his teachings inspired. He is often referred to as the Great
Heretic; scorned as a teacher of false doctrine and a servant of the devil, his
name is Arius, and his doctrine and teachings are known as Arianism.
Following the works of Robert Gregg and
Dennis Groth, early Arianism shall be defined primarily as those doctrines and
beliefs put forward by the movement’s first writers: Arius (256-336), Asterius
the Sophist (d. ca. 341), and Eusebius of Nicodemia (d. ca. 342). The teachings
and works of second generation Arians, commonly referred to as neo-Arians, and
those who attempted a compromise with the Nicene Christians after the first
Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, commonly referred to as semi-Arians, will not be
examined. It is sufficient to say that these groups did differ slightly in their
doctrinal statements from the early Arians, and at times even disavowed any
connection to Arius himself.
Any examination of the historical
beginnings of Arianism is immediately hampered by a lack of first-hand Arian
literature. After the teachings of Arius were rejected by the Christian Church
at the council of Nicaea in 325, Arius was condemned as a heretic, and “people
who owned his writings were ordered to deliver them up on pain of
punishment.” Although some extant copies of Arius’ own writings and other
early Arian sources do exist, they are nonetheless painfully sparse. Therefore,
in order to make a thorough examination of early Arianism—indeed, any
examination at all—one must attempt to find in the works of later Arian
writers, and the works of one of Arius’ great opponents, Athanasius of
Alexandria, some core of early Arian doctrine.
It is tempting to use the works of Athanasius as a source for
Arianism, for it is here that direct mention of Arius’ beliefs and quotations
of his work are purported to be found. Scholars agree, however, that much of
Athanasius’ reproduction of the words of Arius are a “mixture of paraphrase,
expansion (designed to bring out the unacceptable implications of what Arius
actually says), and fragmentary quotation.” All this aside, one section of
Athanasius’ de Synodis , generally referred to as the “blasphemies of
Arius,” is considered by most scholars to be an authentic reproduction of
Arius’ doctrine and teachings. This section, taken with a great deal of support from
later Arian works, have laid the foundation for modern research into early
Arianism. This paper will thus draw from a sufficient body of historical and
theological literature on Arianism, as well as look at the “blasphemies of
Arius” as they are reproduced in Hanson’s The Search for the Christian
God . Before one turns to the doctrines of Arianism itself, however, some
background into the historical and philosophical developments that produced
Arius’ theology is in order.
Leading up to the Crisis
Christianity was born into a world of
great dichotomy. Still firmly committed to the Jewish faith that it had
inherited, the fledgling religion nonetheless attempted to grow and establish
itself within a world dominated by Greek philosophy. Thus, the early
developments of Christian doctrine dealt primarily with the adoption and
incorporation of a philosophy that was, to some extent, at odds with
Christianity’s religious heritage. In Jewish thought, God was conceived of as
being an “artisan”—one who is totally unlike creation and separate from
it. Following the works of Aristotle, Plato, and the Stoics, however, the Greek
understanding of God centred around His role as “begetter”—one who “generates” the world and all creatures out of His own essence. If the
entire world was begotten out of God’s essence, however, Christians were
forced to ask how it was, then, that God was present within the person of Jesus
of Nazareth? If God’s essence is in everything (for everything comes from
God), then why not speak of everyone as being the begotten sons and daughters of
God? It is with these two contradictory and conflicting notions of “artisan”
and “begetter” that the Christian community attempted to synthesize a
distinctly Christian notion of God, and Jesus’ relationship to Him.
Any primitive Christian concept of Jesus
as just another man with human origins had early on been dismissed by the
Christmas narratives of Matthew and Luke. Although Jesus had lived and walked
among the people as a simple carpenter and a religious teacher, he was from the
very beginning of the Christian movement conceived of as being different. Beyond
his miraculous birth, the early Christian community believed that Jesus had, in
some sense, existed before his appearance as a Galilean Jew. Thus, his
relationship with God would not be as simple as the relationship that all humans
have with God, for the early Christian community believed that Jesus, in at
least some aspect, transcended humanity.
First century Christian writers, such as
Paul of Tarsus and John the Evangelist, described Jesus of Nazareth as having a “preexistence” as God’s Wisdom or
“Logos.” Jesus’ human birth at
Bethlehem had been adequately described in the gospels, but the question of
whether the pre-existent Logos had come into being through generation or creation
was not specifically laid out in Scripture. Paul spoke of the pre-existent Christ
as “Son” and
“the firstborn of creation,” and the Gospel of
John specifically refers to him as the “only begotten.” There is some reason
to believe that these references were originally meant to be taken within the
context of the Jewish tradition, and not to be taken literally. Jesus was called
“begotten,” and was “God’s Son” only in a figurative sense, and
certainly had been “created” or made by God.
If this was indeed the early Christian
community’s view of Jesus of Nazareth, by the late third and early fourth
century, the Christian view of God had radically changed. No longer was the Son
conceived of as having been simply created. By the time Arius was born in Libya
in 256, the Christian Church had come to believe, like the Gnostic heretics of
the second century, that the Son had been generated by the Father. Although
generation in this regard was not identical to human generation, fourth century
Christianity taught that the Logos was by no means a creature. Those phrases of
Scripture that called the Logos “Son” or “begotten” were now taken in a
much more literal sense by such influential theologians and Christian apologists
as Justin Martyr, Theophilus and Origen.
This is not to say that all Christians on
the eve of the Arian controversy felt that the Church had adequately explained
the Son’s relationship to God. Scripture had presented the picture of the
Word, or Son, as God, but how this could be true, and how a distinction between
the Father and the Son could still be drawn, was never completely understood or
explained, even by the most influential theologians. Although all agreed that
Christ’s divinity was in effect a “mystery,” a clear distinction still
needed to be made between God and creation. Either Christ was on the divine side
of the gulf, or the created side.
By the fourth century, the persecution of
the Church that had long been the hallmark of previous centuries had ended with
the edict of Milan in 312. Persecution from the government had occupied such a
central role in the lives of Christians during the second and third centuries,
that any doctrinal disputes that may have existed at the time were certainly
secondary in importance. Now, however, imperial repression would no longer
overshadow the Church’s need to clarify its doctrines. The Church had for
nearly a century maintained some degree of clarity on the Son’s divinity by
following Origen’s sufficiently vague teaching that the Son was “eternally
generated” from the Father. It became painfully apparent in the early part
of the fourth century, however, that more clarity was needed. Christianity after
312, therefore, could not allow Jesus to ride the fence of divinity as it were;
to allow this to continue would create uncertainty about the person of Jesus,
and thus bring into question the issue of salvation. To no surprise, some were
content to leave God’s relationship to the Son in the realm of mystery. A
young presbyter by the name of Arius, however, decided that, in the midst of the
Church’s uncertainty, he was going to set everyone straight.
The Arian controversy found its formal
beginning in a debate between Arius and Bishop Alexander of Alexandria. During a
lecture on the nature of God, Arius contested Alexander’s assertion that there
was an eternal “oneness” between the Father and the Son. Arius’ objection
to Alexander was a simple one: “If the Father had begotten the Son, he who had
been begotten had a beginning, and therefore there must have been a time when
the Son did not exist.” Alexander, like many Christians of his time,
thought it reprehensible to believe that the Son was created. (Perhaps more to
his dislike was the fact that a subordinate of his dared to challenge his
authority). Whether the fierceness of the debate had more to do with the egos of
the men involved or the issue at hand is irrelevant; the Arian controversy had
more importantly brought to the forefront of the Christian Church the unresolved
issue of Christ’s divinity.
As stated above, Scripture had called the
Son “God,” and apparently considered him to be equal with the Father. At
the same time, however, even a cursory glance at the New Testament reveals that
Jesus himself claimed to be inferior to, and distinct from God. At John 20:17,
he tells Mary Magdalene that the Father is his God; he specifically says
in John 14:28 that “the Father is greater than I;” he claims
imperfect knowledge; he could not do things by himself, and apparently
disclaimed moral perfection as well.
Arius drew upon these passages to
demonstrate that, although the Son should indeed be called “God,” since he
was inferior to the Father, he was “God” in name only. With Christ’s
inferiority as his starting point, Arius then put into motion his supreme
argument from one of his most important “proof-texts,” Proverbs 8:22. Here,
God’s Wisdom says, “The Lord created me as the beginning of his
work.” For Arius, then, God the Father had created the Son, who then became a
“secondary God” or a “subservient God.” The Father and the Son were
indeed “one,” but in moral perfection only, and were certainly not identical
in being. In other words, Arius had effectively solved the issue of
Christ’s divinity by placing him with the “created” beings.
By drawing more specifically from the
works of Arius, Asterius, and Eusebius, a more detailed look at the doctrines of
Arianism can be pieced together. Before proceeding, however, one more note of
caution is in order. As mentioned above, the literary sources of Arianism are
few and far between, and therefore may not completely or accurately reflect
Arian doctrine. What must also be taken into consideration, however, is the fact
that not all Arian writers necessarily agreed with each other on every
“fundamental theological and Christological proposition.” Nevertheless,
in following the works of Hanson, the unique doctrines of Arianism can, with
some degree of certainty, be summed up in four points.
First of all, one of Arius’ central
doctrines revolved around the fact that God was completely and utterly separate
from the world. So far removed and unapproachable, in fact, that He could not
directly create the matter of the universe Himself. Demophilius, the last Arian
Archbishop of Constantinople, commented that “[God] would have been under the
necessity of either making everything gods to be worthy of Him, or else
everything would have disintegrated by contact with Him.” Therefore it was
necessary for God to create the World through an intermediary, namely the Son.
Once this mediating Being came into existence, the rest could be created.
Soteriologically, it would be incorrect, however, to say that the Arians
believed in a demi-God mediator between man and God. Rather, as according to 1
Timothy 2:5, the mediator between God and man was the man Jesus Christ.
The Orthodox questioned first of all the need for God to create an intermediary
in creation. Athanasius rather mockingly stated that God was neither so spent
from creating the Son that he needed further assistance to create the rest of
creation, nor was he so vane as to not merely condescend himself rather than
send an aide. Second of all, Athanasius questioned whether this Arian doctrine
of God really allowed for the creation of a creaturely Son. If all of creation
could not stand the direct presence of God, how could a single being? As well,
how could a creature bring into creation other creatures?
Second of all, since the Son had a
beginning and was created by the Father, he must have been created out of
nothing like the rest of creation. As scandalous as this may have sounded to
Arius’ opponents, Arius was firm in his declaration that the Son “having not
existed, attained existence by the Father’s will.” The Logos was the
“son” of God, not in the sense of biological generation, but in the extended
meaning of the word in designation of all believers, or adoptive sons of
God. The term has this meaning in Arian proof texts such as Deuteronomy 14:1,
“You are children of the Lord your God,” and John 1:12, “But to all who
received [the Son], who believe in his name, he gave power to become children of
God.” The relationship between the redeemer and God was “by participation in
the Spirit,” “by a participation of grace,” “a certain grace and habit
of virtue,” “by adoption,” “by free gift of God,” “named Word and
Son according to grace,” “grace by acquisition,” “grace as an
accident,” and so on. 
Indeed, it seems that the Arians believed
that there were many different Words and Powers and Wisdoms of God, and that
Christ was in no sense the only one. For the Arians to maintain that the Son was
the true Word or Wisdom of God would have been to capitulate to the entire
Alexandrian substantialist viewpoint. If Christ was the true Word of God,
then he would necessarily share in the divine essence. The true or essential Word,
Power, and Wisdom of God, according to the Arians, was to be found completely
and solely within the nature of God alone. These were, in other words, God’s
intrinsic attributes that He could give to no other. The Son as Word and Wisdom
could only be described as a derivative of the eternal divine Word and Wisdom.
Having the distinct honour of being
directly created by the Father (while the rest of creation was created
“through” the Son), Christ was, however, not completely similar to the other
creatures. Arius himself describes the Son as being the “only-begotten God,
and he is different from any other.” Beyond his ontological position
within creation, Christ’s unwavering obedience, for the Arians, also placed
him in a position far above the other creatures. While Christ was in many
regards like the other “brothers” who are “partakers in the heavenly
calling,” to no other creature were the same tittles applied.
Yet, at the heart of the Arian view of
Christ was the image of an obedient servant. The term
“servant” were often times interchangeable in Arian biblical exegesis. It is
not so much in Arianism that the Son’s will is that of the Father’s, but
rather that the Son chose to follow the Father’s will, and in doing so was
obedient throughout his life, even (and especially) unto his death. This was in
precise opposition to the Orthodox view of the Father and Son as homoousius .
In orthodox thought, the Son can do no other than the will of the Father, since
in essence they are the same. As Robert Gregg notes: “as the very hypostasis
of the Father’s will, there can be no split in [the Son] between hearing and
The essential difference between the Arian
and the Orthodox viewpoint can here be described, then, as the difference
“will.” The Orthodox saw reality in terms of static
being. The Son has the being of the Father, and as such, is eternally co-equal
and co-substantial with the Father. The Arians saw reality, not in terms of
static being, but in terms of event and will. The Son is the Word and Wisdom of
God due to his following of the divine will. It is the event of following,
rather than an inherited essence or nature, that brings about his distinction
from the rest of creation.
Third, since the Son was created out of
nothing, he cannot have complete knowledge of a Being, namely the Father, who is
uncreated. This doctrinal statement was particularly unpopular among the
readers of Arius’ works, but Arius was nevertheless rather blunt in his
assertion that “God is mysterious to the Son.” In fact, it was thought
by the Arians that the Son learned from the Father through inquiry even before
his earthly ministry. The Father taught the Son how to fashion the cosmos,
whereupon the whole created order was made. Arius stated further that:
perfectly nor accurately does the Logos know the Father, nor is he able to see
him fully. And indeed the Son, as he is, does not even know his own essence.
is on the Son’s knowledge of the Father in particular that one may catch a
glimpse of Arius’ thinking. The Alexandrian presbyter must have known the kind
of response he would receive in saying that the Son has incomplete knowledge of
the Father, but his concern does not seem to be with how his teachings were to
be received. It seems that Arius’ main concern was with taking a point of
doctrine to its most logical conclusion. If the Son is created, obviously he
cannot fully know the uncreated Father.
of all, since the Son is a creature, he would by definition have to be capable
of moral change. Indeed, central to the Arian view of Christ as an obedient
servant was the insistence upon the Son’s free-will, and thus the changeable
moral nature of the redeemer. A favourite Arian proof text was the Christological
hymn of Philippians 2:6-9:
Who, though he was in
the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death --
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name that is above every name.
they stressed the rewards the Son received for being obedient. How could the Son
advance in position, they asked, if he was fully God and incapable of change?
The ramifications of such a doctrine are enormous. According to a Christian
interpretation of Scripture, the devil had once held a position of great honour
as one of the archangels, but as a creature, he had the opportunity to turn away
from God, and indeed did just that. Arius’ opponents were quick to point to
the devil’s fall from glory as a possible future for a
Son. If Christ could turn away from God as the devil had done, and it is
through Christ that mankind is saved, our salvation, in a sense, is in danger
of being nullified. Athanasius in particular, since he held that in God there is
no free-will, did not give much credence to the Arian concepts of obedience and
free response. For Athanasius, the Son’s mission to earth was simply that of a
free gift; his mission never in doubt, nor an alternate outcome possible.
Athanasius’ soteriological views seem rather rigid to the modern reader, the
Arian view was not as open as it may at first seem. Arius himself was able to
mitigate his stand somewhat in order to avoid the disturbing possibility of a
potential loss of salvation due to the Son’s disobedience. He stated that
although the Son was capable of change, he was capable of change in principle
only. The Arians noted that, while it was possible that Christ could have
sinned, he never did indeed do so. God would never have created a redeemer that
would have rebelled. Indeed, God foresaw that the Son would not “turn bad,”
as it were, and therefore “exempted him from evil in advance.”
the Orthodox and the Arian view one can see more than the surface issues of a
created versus an uncreated Son. The Orthodox view described grace as the entry
into a stable order in which creation had reached a new redeemed existence. This
was in harmony with a view of Christ as unchangeable and the eternal Son of God.
The Arian view saw grace as the empowerment by which people might advance
morally. This was in harmony with the Arian view of a created savoir that had
advanced himself, and was rewarded for his obedience. Therefore, how people
lived their lives, in terms of salvation and holiness, was determined by these
views, each essentially linked to its particular party’s Christology. Bishops
were confronted, then, with two systems that, although each had roots extending
back into earliest Christianity, were essentially new and different from the
Christianity of previous centuries, and offered very different interpretations
of the Scriptures and reality.
then, is early Arianism in its barest form. It was for Arius’ opponents a
horrible system of beliefs, and Arius’ two chief opponents, Athanasius of
Alexandria and Alexander of Alexandria, found no shortage of words in their
opposition to it. Yet, even those who early on in the movement found fault in
the doctrine and teachings of Arius and his followers, would have to admit that Arianism
an appealing, rational logic to it. As can be ascertained from above, it did, to
some extent, bring about a return of Christian doctrine to the Jewish notion of
God as “artisan.” Arius’ doctrine of a “created” Son certainly seemed
to be in harmony with both the Old and New Testaments, which still showed an
influence of a more distinctly Jewish notion of God. Arianism was popular
because it had dramatically simplified the confusing Greek notion of God as “begetter,” and put an end to the vague teachings of Origen that had
predominated in the Church until Arius’ day. For the simple layman and the learned intellectual
alike, Arianism made sense.
Early Arianism, Footnotes
note: All Bible verses
taken from the NRSV.
2. R.C.P. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God , (Edinburgh: 1988), 127 28. M.R. Kopeck, “Neo Arian Religion: Evidence of the Apostolic Constitutions,” Arianism : Historical and Theological Reassessments, (Philadelphia: 1985) 160-2.
3. Walter Nigg, The Heretics , Richard and Clara Winston, Ed. and trans. (New York: 1962), 128.
4. R.D. Williams, “The Quest for the Historical Thalia,” Arianism , (Philadelphia: 1985), 1.
5. Williams, 1-9.
6. Harry Austryn Wolfson, The Philosophy of the Church Fathers , vol.1, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: 1970), 290-91.
7. John 1:1; 1 Corinthians 10:4.
8. Wolfson, 291.
9. Henry Chadwick, “The Early Christian Community,” The Oxford History of Christianity , John McManners, Ed., (Oxford: 1993), 29.
10. Wolfson, 292.
11. Chadwick, 65.
12. Nigg, 124.
13. John 1:1; Philippians 2:6.
14. Mark 13:32; John 12:49; Matthew 10:18.
15. Hanson, 102.
16. Chadwick, 65, 102.
17. Williams, 12.
18. Demophilius quoted in Hanson, 101.
19. Hanson, 100.
20. Gregg, 116-117.
21. Arius quoted in Hanson, 14.
22. Arius quoted in Gregg, 28.
23. Arius quoted in Hanson, 14.
24. Hebrews 2:14.
25. Gregg, 27.
26. Gregg 67-68.
27. Hanson, 22.
28. Williams, 15-16; Arius quoted in Hanson, 15.
29. Arius quoted in Gregg, 7.
30. Hanson, 21.
31. Gregg, 29
32. Williams, 10.
33. Hanson, 21.
34. Hillaire Belloc, The Great Heresies , (New York: 1968), 47.
35. James D. Tracy, “Erasmus and the Arians: Remarks on the Consensus Ecclesiae,” The Catholic Historical Review , 67 (1981): 7.
36. Belloc, 48
Written by the Liberal
Back to the Top
Arianism | Arian
Church History | Arian Catholic Hymn |
Arianism vs Nicaea | Early Arian History | Arian Catholic Lore and Philosophy
Eleven Arian Confessions | Historic Arian Letters | A Chronology of the Arian Controversy
Apollinarianism | Nestorianism | Monophysitism | Eutychianism |Monothelitism
Donate to the “Arian Catholic Church and Theological Society” in £ Sterling by Cheque, Postal Order, International Money Order, Credit / Debit Card or PayPal...
© 2005-6 Rev. Dr. M.J. Mackenzie-Hanson, B.A. (Hons), D.D., a.c.O.S.B.