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Early Arianism

Part One: Early Arian History

Introduction

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.[1] 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.[2]

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.”[3] 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.

St Athanasius of Egypt 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.”[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] 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.”[7] 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.[8]

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.[9] 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.[10]

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.[11] 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. Top of Page

The Controversy Begins

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.”[12] 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.[13] 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.[14]

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.”[15] The Father and the Son were indeed “one,” but in moral perfection only, and were certainly not identical in being.[16] In other words, Arius had effectively solved the issue of Christ’s divinity by placing him with the “created” beings. Top of Page

 

Part Two: Early Arian Theology

Four Points

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.”[17] Nevertheless, in following the works of Hanson, the unique doctrines of Arianism can, with some degree of certainty, be summed up in four points.

1. God Seperate from the World

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.”[18] 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.[19] 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?[20] Top of Page

2. The Son is Created Ex Nihilo”

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.”[21] 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. [22]

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.”[23] 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.[24]

Yet, at the heart of the Arian view of Christ was the image of an obedient servant. The term “son” and “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 doing.”[25]

The essential difference between the Arian and the Orthodox viewpoint can here be described, then, as the difference between “being” and “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.[26] Top of Page

3. The Son is not Omniscient

Third, since the Son was created out of nothing, he cannot have complete knowledge of a Being, namely the Father, who is uncreated.[27] 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.”[28] 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:

For neither 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.[29]

It 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. Top of Page

 

4. The Son is not Immutable

 

Last 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.

Here 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 “creaturely” Son.[30] 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.[31]

 

Although 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.[32] 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.”[33] Top of Page

 

Conclusion

 

Between 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.

 

Such, 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 has 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. Top of Page


__________  

Early Arianism, Footnotes

note: All Bible verses taken from the NRSV.

1. Matthew 16:14.
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

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