Arian Controversy


According to the Arian view, Christ was to be esteemed neither truly divine nor truly human, neither God nor man; but a being intermediate between the two, the first and most exalted of creatures, who at the fulness of time assumed a human body for the sake of man's redemption. Such a view as this had never been received in the Church with any favor, and indeed an exact parallel is not to be found among the preceding heresies.

Arius, who gave the name to this heresy, was a native of Libya, but came to reside at Alexandria as a presbyter of the Church there. He is described as tall and thin, ascetic in habit, and possessed of considerable tact as a logician. About the year 320, his peculiar views had attracted sufficient attention to cause the summoning of a council of Egyptian and Libyan bishops, by which he and his followers were excommunicated. But Arius was not to be silenced. For the wider circulation of his views, he sent abroad his Thaleia, a work partly in prose and partly in verse. A few bishops were found to agree with his doctrine. Others, while not holding exactly his view of the nature of Christ, still favored such an emphatic subordination of the Son to the Father as to entertain much sympathy for him. Especially prominent among these was Eusebius of Nicomedia. Others, while they were not in doctrinal agreement with Arius, deprecated agitation, and thought it impolitic to press the case against him and his adherents. To many, however, the Arian view seemed an intolerable and blasphemous innovation. When, therefore, the attention of Constantine was called to the subject, he found a great agitation existing. Careful above all things for unity, he sought to allay the controversy, and to this end addressed a letter to the disputants in Egypt. He represented that there was no adequate cause, in the nature of the question at issue, for such fierce contention, and pointed to the example of philosophers, who could differ on individual tenets, and still maintain comparative harmony in view of the teachings held by them in common. But conviction and zeal had reached too high a pitch to be quieted by such means. Constantine felt obliged to turn to some more effective expedient, and at length fixed upon the idea of calling a general council. Invitations were sent to bishops in different sections of the Empire, and means were liberally provided for conveying them to the point of meeting.

The council met and held its sessions at Nicæa in Bithynia in the summer of the year 325. According to Athanasius, with whose statements Socrates and Theodoret agree, three hundred and eighteen bishops were present. These constituted the council proper, the numerous presbyters and deacons who accompanied them not being accorded the privilege of voting. The Latin Church had but few delegates in the assembly, --only about a half dozen bishops, and two presbyters who served as representatives of Sylvester, the aged Bishop of Rome.

An assembly so largely representative of the Christian world, and meeting for the first time under the auspices of a Christian emperor, was naturally regarded as a very impressive spectacle. And truly the circumstances, as also the personal makeup of the council, endow it with a peculiar interest. The Church represented here was the Church of the peruecutions, the Church which still bore the imprint of the blows dealt by heathen tyranny. "Many," says Theodoret, speaking of the assembled bishops, "like the holy apostles, bore in their bodies the marks of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul, Bishop of Neo-Cæsarea, a fortress situated on the banks of the Euphrates, had been deprived of the use of both hands by the application of a red-hot iron. Some had had the right eye torn out, others had lost the right arm. In short, it was an assembly of martyrs." [Hist. Eccl., i. 7.]

Among the most august features, in the view of malty, was the presence of the Emperor. Eusebius, who is understood to have presented him the salutations of the bishops, records with evident delight the scene of his introduction to the council. After the entrance of several of his family and friends, "at last he himself proceeded through the midst of the assembly, like some heavenly messenger of God, clothed in raiment which glittered as it were with rays of light, reflecting the glowing radiance of a purple robe, and adorned with the brilliant splendor of gold and precious stones. He surpassed all present in height of stature and beauty of form, as well as in majestic dignity of mien and inimitable strength and vigor. All these graces, united to a suavity of manner and a serenity becoming his imperial station, declared the excellence of his mental qualities to be above all praise. As soon as he had advanced to the upper end of the seats, at first he remained standing; and, when a low chair of wrought gold had been set for him, he waited until the bishops had beckoned to him, and then sat down, and after him the whole assembly did the same." [Vita Cons., iii. 10.] After the address of Eusebius, the Emperor spoke to the assembly, re-affirming his desire for unity and concord in the Church. At a later stage of the proceedings, he gave an emphatic supplement to the main idea of this speech. Gathering up the accusations which quarrelsome persons had presented against certain bishops, he caused them to be burned openly, declaring at the same time upon oath that he had not read them. "He said that the crimes of priests ought not to be made known to the multitude, lest they should become an occasion of offence or of sin. He also said, that, if he had detected a bishop in the very act of committing adultery, he would have thrown his imperial robe over the unlawful deed." [Hist. Eccl., i. 11.]

The discussions of the council revealed at once the existence of at least three parties: (1) the Arians; (2) those commonly ranked together as semi-Arians, though they represented opinions all the way from a near approach to Arianism to a near approach to orthodoxy; (3) the orthodox party, which might also be called the Nicene, inasmuch as it framed and championed the creed that was established by the council of Nicæa. The strict Arians constituted but a small minority. According to Sozomen, they numbered seventeen at the commencement of the council. [Hist. Eccl., i. 20.] The semi-Arians, like the Arians, represented the Greek rather than the Latin Church, and revealed considerable numerical strength in the period following the council, whatever proportion they may have formed in the assembly at Nicæa. Little difficulty, however, was experienced in prevailing upon the great majority to sign the creed of the victorious or orthodox party. The essential feature of that creed was the safeguard against any denial of the Son's divinity which, it provided, through the explicit statement that the Son is homoousion, or consubstantial, with the Father; not of an essence dissimilar to that of the Father, or even of an essence merely similar, but of the same essence. Only two of the assembled bishops, Theonas and Secundus, persistently refused to sign; and these were excommunicated and banished, together with Arius. Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis, while they subscribed the creed, refused to sanction the sentence against Arius. For this cause they were deposed and banished shortly after the adjournment of the council, but ere long were restored and regarded by Constantine with favor.

The council of Nicæa did not overthrow the heresy against which it passed sentence. To be sure, for the next quarter of a century or more, there was little exhibition of strict Arianism; and the numerous synods that were convened were characterized in general by its formal repudiation. The strict Arians, for the time being, disguised their sentiments, and trained under the banner of the semi-Arians. This latter party was highly successful in its endeavors after imperial patronage. Even before the death of Constantine, there were conspicuous tokens of its influence at court. Persistent attempts were made to poison the mind of Constantine against the most able champion of the Nicene creed, namely, Athanasius, who had become Bishop of Alexandria shortly after the adjournment of the council. Slanderous charges were urged, and finally had their desired effect (336) in securing the banishment of the iron-hearted bishop. Meanwhile, Arius had been recalled from banishment and restored to imperial favor, since he succeeded in convincing Constantine of his substantial agreement with the Nicene formula, and declared upon oath that he did not hold the faith for which he had been condemned. To complete his triumph and that of his friends, it only remained that he should formally be restored to church fellowship. But this was not to take place. As Athanasius relates, the partisans of Arius in Constantinople (in 336) were threatening that another day should not pass without seeing his restoration accomplished. Greatly distressed at this turn of events, the bishop Alexander prostrated himself before God, and prayed that either he or Arius might be taken out of the world before ever the Church should be profaned by the presence of the heretic. The petition was speedily answered. "For the sun had not gone down, when Arius, compelled by necessity to go into a place of retirement, fell down there, and in a moment was deprived both of communion and of life." [Epist. ad Episcopos Ægypti et Libyæ, § 19. Compare Epist. ad Serapion; Rufinus, Hist. Eccl., i. 13; Socrates, i. 38; Sozomen, ii, 29, 30.]

Under Constantius, the semi-Arians were still more influential; indeed, they advanced to an apparent ascendency. Their ascendency, however, corresponded to the means by which it was obtained, and was rather external than internal and substantial. The testimony of such witnesses as Athanasius, as well as other evidences, makes it quite evident that in this controversy the opponents of orthodoxy were peculiarly distinguished by craft and violence. Milman, notwithstanding his lack of fervent admiration for the Athanasian cause, assents to this conclusion. "The Arian party," he says, "independent of their speculative opinions, cannot be absolved from the unchristian heresy of cruelty and revenge. However darkly colored, we cannot reject the general testimony to their acts of violence, wherever they attempted to regain their authority." [History of Christianity, Book III., chap, v. The preceding remark is not intended to imply that Milman shows lack of sympathy for the Nicene faith. The basis of the remark is his representation that Athanasius was extra rigorous in insisting upon the orthodox shibboleth, the word homoousion.] In the opinion of Baur, also, the Arian party had an overweening confidence in external means, and was far less distinguished by a truly religious interest than the Nicene party. "On the side of the Arians," he says, "the religious and dogmatic interest was ever subordinate to the political, and, as the whole period covered by the reigns of Constantine and Constantius shows, was interwoven with a whole series of machinations and court intrigues." [Dogmengeschichte.]

The tyrannical pressure of Constantius drove the Nicene party into the shade, and caused not a few instances of defection within its ranks. But unflinching advocates still sustained its cause. Athanasius, in particular, was unmoved by the storm of adversity, and his ardor was in no wise cooled by his repeated experience of banishment. This outward defeat of the Nicene party, however, prepared for the overthrow of the opposing forces. As the victory against the former appeared secure, the latter began to break ranks. The strict Arians thought it no longer necessary to train under the banner of the semi-Arians, and began to give open and definite expression of their sentiments. Aëtius and his disciple Eunomius, who were prominent among the later champions of that cause, taught Arianism in terms more disparaging to the nature of the Son than Arius himself had presumed to employ. This naturally alienated the semi-Arians; and, as they were made to feel the pressure of an Arian persecution at the hands of Valens, they found it easy to coalesce with the orthodox, from whom, indeed, a section of their party had never been very widely separated as respects doctrinal beliefs. The victory, therefore, had already been prepared for orthodoxy when the second ecumenical council assembled at Constantinople, in the year 381, under the auspices of the Emperor Theodosius. By that council the Nicene creed was successfully re-affirmed. Arianism appeared thereafter as a vanquished foe, and found little place except among certain of the barbarian tribes, in whose midst it maintained itself till the sixth century.