Rev. Ronald Hanko
The history of the Arian Controversy is really the climax of Ancient Church History both from historical and doctrinal points of view. The Pelagian controversy is probably equally important, but it represents in the final outcome a backward step doctrinally rather than an advance, and has nowhere near the ecumenical prominence of the history of Arianism. Also, the history of the Pelagian controversy takes one into what is really Medieval Church History.
The Arian controversy began about A.D. 318 and lasted till 381, the date of the Second Ecumenical Council at Constantinople. From a doctrinal view point we find in this period the first official formulation of the truth of Scripture. The doctrine of the divinity of Jesus Christ was officially established and expressed at the Council of Nicea in A.D. 323. This formulation and its subsequent vindication represent a mighty advance in the history of the development of the Christian truth.
The truth which was expressed at Nicea was the basis of all subsequent developments in Christology. But this doctrine of the divinity of the Son of God is also the foundation of the whole Christian faith. It was the substance of Christianity which was the issue at Nicea in 325. Faith in a God Who sovereignly saves His people by Himself making an atonement for their sins in the Person of His own Son is the heart of the Christian religion. Take away the truth of a divine Son of God from the Christian faith and you have nothing left.
Historically this period also marks several firsts. In this period we see, for the first time, the Church officially recognized by the civil government. In all her previous history the Church had been denied official status: usually she was suppressed and persecuted. Now not only is the Church officially recognized, but Christianity becomes the favored religion of the Empire. As a direct result of this, we also find in this period the first instance of civil interference in the affairs of the Church. Having given the Church a favored place, the Emperors supposed that they had the right and obligation to guide ecclesiastical affairs and when necessary to “help” in ending controversy and enforcing Church policies and doctrines.
The result for the Church was not always good:
Such prominence meant many years of chaos in the Church and much suffering for the defenders of the truth.
Another first in this history is the Council of Nicea, the first Ecumenical Council. All other Synods and Councils before it had been local in character. As the Council, so also its creed is ecumenical, even today. The Creed of Nicea (with its subsequent revisions by the Council of Constantinople) is the only creed which is accepted by all of Christendom, Eastern and Western, Roman and Protestant. This is not in itself important but it illustrates the importance of this history.
The history of Arianism is the history of the Roman Empire as well as the history of the Church. From layman to Pope and from lowliest slave to Emperor, all had at least an intellectual interest in the controversy. Gregory of Nyssa describes the situation very graphically:
Again, the interest shows the importance of the issue.
There have been other heresies in the church but none so prominent as Arianism. There have been other Church councils, but none so important and illustrious as Nicea.3 It is well worth our while, then, to take a close look at this history. The heresy of Arianism is still alive today and from the history of Nicea we may well learn the answer of the Church to those who deny that Jesus Christ is very God.
The issue in the Arian controversy was the divinity of Jesus Christ. The problem, however, was theological rather than Christological. The divinity of Christ as that concerns the value and significance of His person and work was not at stake, but rather the divinity of Christ as that concerns the nature of God. It is true, of course, that the two cannot be separated. In fact, the Arian controversy led into the Christological controversies because, as Athanasius clearly saw, Arianism did concern the whole work of Christ and our salvation. Nevertheless, the issue as such was trinitarian and theological.
The problem was this: the Church had always confessed belief in God the Father and in His Son, Jesus Christ. She believed that God was divine and that Jesus was divine. Baptism was administered in the name of the Father and of the Son, and in the Apostolic Creed the Church confessed, “We believe in God the Father, Almighty . . . and in Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son, our Lord. But on the other hand she maintained a strict monotheism over against all pagan and heretical polytheism. The problem, then, was to confess both, without denying either. The Apostolic Creed proved to be inadequate, for its language (which is also the language of Scripture) was, at least for the Arians, open to misinterpretation. The Arians simply denied that “only begotten Son” meant that Jesus was God in the absolute sense.
THE PROBLEM OF TERMINOLOGY
What the Church had to do, then, was find a terminology which would adequately express the truth of Scripture and at the same time leave no room for Arian “misinterpretation.” The Church at this time did not possess the terminology to explain a Trinity of Persons in a unity of essence, and so could not at first express herself positively. The Church understood from the very beginning, and correctly so, that “only begotten” meant that from eternity Christ was the natural Son of God, but to express this in clear and unequivocal language which did not conflict with the truth that God is one was the work of almost fifty years.
There was especially one word which filled all these requirements. That was the word homoousios (“of the same substance”). This word clearly expressed the equality of the Father and the Son, left no room for Arianism, and allowed for the personal distinction of Father and Son. This was the word proposed and adopted by the Council of Nicea for those reasons. The trouble was that many opposed the use of this word — many even who were really opposed to Arianism. The objections were two. In the first place, the word was not Scriptural. In the second place, the word was suspected of having Sabellian overtones. Paul of Samosata had used it to deny any personal distinction in the Trinity, and he had been condemned for his error.
Compounding this confusion was the fact that in the fourth anathema, the Creed of Nicea used the word homoousios synonymously with the word hypostasis. This was foreign to the thought of some who used the second word to mean “person.” To speak, therefore, of one hypostasis also sounded like Sabellianism: the men from Alexandria spoke of three hypostases or “persons.”
Finally, matters were complicated by the fact that the word ousios was itself ambiguous. The word could be used to indicate sameness of essence in numerical separation. It could be said, for example, that two men are homoousios just because they are both men. In the Nicene Creed, however, the word was used to indicate identity of essence. Altogether, these facts led to much unnecessary fighting. But until these matters were cleared up, the controversy was not settled: when the distinction between the words was finally made clear, then the controversy was over too.
THE ROOTS OF THE CONTROVERSY
In order fully to understand this controversy, we must go back to its roots which lie in the previous period. There are two things especially which made this controversy almost inevitable. The are (a) the contradictory Christology of Origen and (b) the Monarchian tendencies of the School of Antioch.
THE CHRISTOLOGY OF ORIGEN
Throughout the Eastern Church and even in the West, Origen was regarded as the greatest theologian that the Church had produced. He was generally thought to be orthodox at all points. That he was a great theologian is true; that he was always orthodox in his views is not. His Christology is a case in point.
Origen did much work in Christology and from one point of view his work represents a tremendous advance in the history of the Christian Faith. Origen was the first to speak of the eternal generation of the Son. In connection with the divinity of Christ he recognized and pointed out the fact that the words “only begotten Son” could only mean that Jesus Christ was eternally the Son of God. If He was begotten in time He would be no different from any other creature, and then He could not be called “only begotten.”
On the other hand, however, Origen also taught that the Son is not God in the same sense as the Father. The Father is “the God” (ò theós), while the Son is only “God” (theós). The Son, he said, is “of a different essence” (heteros tãs oúsías or tou hupokeiménou), “begotten out of the will of the Father.” He called the Son “a secondary God” (deúteros theós) ) in distinction from the Father (autotheós), and thus he made the Son subordinate to the Father. In his Commentary on John, II, 6 he says:
And in this connection he also speaks of the tact that the Son is begotten as an act of the Father’s will.
Now these two cannot be reconciled. If the Son is begotten in eternity then He cannot be begotten out of the will of the Father. If He is begotten of the Father’s will then He is a creature and not the natural Son of God. If He is eternal, then He must be equal and not subordinate to the Father, for only God is eternal. If He is God, but of a different essence than the Father, then there are two Gods. But Origen did not see these contradictions, although that was in part because the distinction of essence and person had not yet been made clear.
Both sides appealed to Origen’s teachings in the Arian controversy. Some held only the one side of his system and concluded that the Son was indeed not equal to God. They went a step further however and said that the Son was a creature, or at best a sort of demi-God. The orthodox in the controversy laid hold on the doctrine of eternal generation, and, abandoning the rest of Origen’s system, logically concluded that the Son was equal to the Father in all things — that He was “of the same essence” as the Father.
This, theologically, is the root of the Arian Controversy.
Historically, Arianism arose out of the Catechetical School of Antioch and thus out of Sabellian Monarchianism. This School was one of two very important theological schools of the ancient Church in the East the other was at Alexandria. Between these two schools there was a bitter rivalry, for the school at Antioch was extremely Monarchian in its teachings, that is, it tended to maintain the unity of the Godhead at the expense of any personal distinctions.
It was out of this school that the Monarchian heresy arose in both of its forms (dynamic Monarchianism and Sabellianism). In fact, both the Bishop of Antioch, Paul of Samosata, and the head of the School, Lucian the Martyr, had been deposed around the year 270 for their teaching that Jesus, a man, was the adopted Son of God by virtue of the power of God in Him. Their views however only represented the thought current in Antioch at that time. Their teaching was carried on in the form of Sabellianism which taught that the “persons” of the Trinity were only different ways in which the One God revealed Himself.
Arianism was decidedly Monarchian in its tendencies but differed from Sabellianism:
Both Arius and Eusebius of Nicomedia, the leaders of the Arian party, were students of Lucian and carried over his one-sided emphasis on the unity of the Godhead.
Opposed to the whole School of Antioch and its thinking was the School of Alexandria. There the personal distinctions in the Trinity were strictly maintained. The Orthodox party in the Arian controversy arose out of this school. Alexander and Athanasius (successively the bishops of Alexandria) maintained the eternal generation of the Son. But together they carried that doctrine through to its logical conclusion, namely, homoousion theology.
THE THREE PARTIES
At Nicea and subsequent to it there were three parties in the Church. On the one side there were the Arians (also called Eusebians or Anomoeans) and the Semi-Arians or Homoeans. On the other side was the Orthodox party. Each had a different view of the relation between the Father and the Son.
The Strict Arians were always a very small party. At the Council of Nicea they numbered only about 18 persons, a very small minority. But by political intrigue and deception they gained an unusual, though temporary success. This success was due in large measure to imperial interference and was accomplished by alliance with the Semi-Arians. The best Emperors vacillated in their support of the Orthodox, and two, Constantius and Valens, were fanatically Arian
Arius and Eusebius of Nicomedia were the original leaders of the Arian party. When they died the leadership of the party passed into the hands of such men as Aetius of Antioch, Eunomius of Cappadocia, and Acacius of Caesarea in the East and Valens of Rome in the West.
There were several divisions in the Arian party from the very start. There were of course, the Semi-Arians, who used the term homoiousios, but they were really a separate party. There were also three groups in the Arian party itself The political Arians cared little for the doctrine involved in the controversy and were willing to unite with the Semi-Arians if that was to their political advantage. The other two groups, who were seldom in agreement. differed in emphasis rather than essentials. The Anomoeans (Aetians and Eunomians) stood in opposition to the Nicene doctrine of homoousios as well as the Semi-Arian homoiousios. They spoke of the Son as being heteroousios (of a different substance) and anomoios (unlike) the Father. There were also those who disdained all use of the term ousion, but opposed the doctrine of eternal generation. They spoke of the Son as a creature. Alexander calls them “oì ãn hóte oúk ãn” (the ones who said that “there was a time when the Son was not”). Arius really belonged to this latter group.
Arius is a strange figure. He was “an able preacher and a man of learning, ability, and piety.”6 Among the people he was very influential. The other side of his character is not so nice, however. Schaaf calls him “proud, artful, restless and disputatious.”7 As a thinker he was not very deep. But, worst of all, he was not even reverent. He translated his theories into verses “which were sung to the tunes of licentious and comic songs.”8 As Burn says, “A tree is known by its fruits.”9
He was also very devious. Athanasius several times complains of the fact that he was always changing what he said. In order that he might return from exile after Nicea, he drew up a creed, ostensibly to show conformity with Nicea, but which carefully avoids all the issues in question.10 Presenting it to the Emperor, he was restored to communion in order that he might continue his intrigues.
When he first began to propound his heresy he was the priest of Bauclis, a suburb of Alexandria. Earlier, as a deacon, he had been on the wrong side in the Meletian schism and had been excommunicated. He had been reconciled to Alexander’s predecessor, Achillas, and had been appointed presbyter of Bauclis and teacher of exegesis at one of the schools of Alexandria as a token of good faith. It was not long before he was again embroiled in controversy. He died in 336.
EUSEBIUS OF NICOMEDIA
Eusebius is an even more distasteful character than Arius. He was a man of few scruples, interested only in his own advancement. He was originally Bishop of Beryius, but he used his political influence (he was high in the favor of Constantina, the sister of Constantine) to gain first the Bishopric of Nicomedia, the city of the Imperial Court, and later that of Constantinople for himself. He used his influence from these positions to further the cause of Arius and undermine Nicene Orthodoxy. Always the courtier, never interested in the welfare of the Church, he was the real political leader of the Arian party.
Because both Arius and Eusebius were disciples of Lucian, the keystone of their system was:
From this it follows necessarily that the Son was subordinate to the Father, and this was Arius’ heresy.
Arius taught that the name “Son” implies an act of procreation. Therefore, he said, before such an act there was not a Son, neither could God properly be called “Father”: “once God was alone, and not yet a Father, but afterwards He became a Father.”12 The Son, therefore, is not co-eternal, but begotten of the will of the Father, begotten out of nothing, begotten before time. He is a creature, “created and made.” The Father is the only one without a beginning and “there was a time when the Son was not.”
Arius taught, however, a certain superiority of the Son to the rest of Creation. He was the firstborn of all creatures (the first to be created, cf. Heb. 1:6), and the agent of the Father in the work of creating the world:
The Son was as like God as it was possible to be, the highest of all creatures, the architect of the universe, but not equal to God: “One equal to the Son, the Superior is able to beget; but one more excellent, or superior, or greater, He is not able.”14
There are several corollaries which attach to such a doctrine and Arius did not hesitate to lay hold on them. The first is that the Son, because He is finite and the Father infinite, can have no real knowledge of the Father:
The second corollary is that the Son is liable to change and sin, though Arius also said that the Son never sinned by virtue of the strength of His will: “And by nature, as all others, so the Word Himself is alterable, and remains good by His own free will, while He chooseth.”16
Finally, this doctrine of subordination affected Arius’ view of the incarnation. He taught that this created Son of God, that is, the Logos, took the place of the human reasoning spirit in the man Jesus — a sort of hybrid of Sabellianism which was later called Apollinarianism.
The orthodox party was even smaller than the Arian. At times during the controversy, there were only three or four men who were professedly orthodox. One of these was always Athanasius and often it was literally true of him that he stood contra munda. He and Alexander before him were the strength and hope of orthodoxy.
Alexander was Bishop of Alexandria and the leaden of the African church when Arius first began to expound his heretical opinions. He was the first opponent of Arianism. It was he and not Athanasius who was the official representative of the Alexandrian Church at the Council of Nicea. It was also he who called the Council of Alexandria in 323 which deposed Arius. At that time he was already an aged man and he died soon after Nicea. He was sound in his beliefs and held to the doctrine of eternal generation.
Athanasius succeeded Alexander as head of the Alexandrian Church. He became the great champion of the Orthodox cause. In fact, the history of the Orthodox party in the controversy is really no more than a history of Athanasius. He gave his life and energy to a defense of the Nicene Faith. Schaff says:
It was largely on account of his efforts that the Orthodox party finally prevailed.
His role at the Council of Nicea is not completely clear. Nominally, he was the private secretary and trusted advisor of Alexander, but what influence he had there is the subject of much discussion. Some regard him as “the controlling spirit and genius of its proceedings.”18 That is probably an exaggeration, though he himself says that he “spoke boldly against the impiety of the Arian madmen.”
Whatever his role at the Council may have been, his place in the subsequent controversy is very clear, Inflexibly opposed to Arianism, he was both leader and champion of the orthodox party. His enemies, as a result, were many. Five times he was sent or forced into exile — twenty of the forty-five years of his official life were spent in exile. Never did he waver in his convictions.
Always the target of malicious charges, lies, and slander, he never returned as he received. In all the controversy he showed himself to be a man of God. Du Bose says of him: “It is an immortal honor to Athanasius that he showed the temper and spirit of Christ in dealing with men who had so bitterly opposed him.”19 Even when victory was in sight, he continued to show a wise and godly moderation and patience.
His appeal is always Scriptural. Of his four great Orations Against the Arians, about eighty percent is exegetical explanation of various Scripture texts and this is characteristic of his writings.
It has been suggested by some “that he left the people out of account, that his appeal is always to the theologians and the professionally religious.”20 This is decidedly not the case. Never did he see the controversy as a dogmatic matter among theologians. Always he appeals to the people’s own faith and hope. Again and again he sets forth as his conviction that if Jesus was not true God then He cannot be the Saviour.
He was truly a great man. Even Gibbon lays aside, as has been said, “his solemn sneer” to do honor to the memory of this champion of the faith, who never lost heart, but could make of failure “a triumph’s evidence for the fulness of days.”21
HOSIUS OF CORDOVA
Hosius, or Osius, was Bishop of Cordova in Spain. He lived to be over a hundred and was for half that time “the most influential bishop in Christendom.”22 He was the court bishop of Constantine as well as his official envoy. It was he whom Constantine sent to Alexandria at the beginning of the controversy with an official rebuke of Arius. He also advised and represented Constantine at Nicea.
Again, due to lack of official records we do not know much about what he did at that Council. He seems to have had much influence. Athanasius says that the Creed of Nicea was in large measure composed by him. Most historians agree that it was probably at Hosius’ behest that Constantine proposed the insertion of the word homoousios into the Creed. Whether or not that is true we know that he regarded the word as a bulwark against Arianism.
Athanasius invariably refers to him as “the Great,” and says of him:
To the day of his death he supported Athanasius. He was one of the three or four banished by the Council of Milan (346), the only ones in the whole empire who would not subscribe to Arianism and a condemnation of Athanasius.
THE THREE CAPPADOCIANS
When Athanasius died (373) the leadership of his party passed into the hands of three very capable men. Although they arose out of the ranks of the Semi-Arians, they were the ones who finally vindicated orthodoxy and implemented the final union of Orthodox and Semi-Arians. They also further developed the doctrines of Nicea in combating Macedonianism and Apollinarianism. These three are Basil of Caesarea in Cappadocia, his brother of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa. They all saw that the question of Christ’s divinity involved His efficacy as a Savior, and thus, eventually they too came to defend Nicene faith.
HILARY OF POTIERS
Mention should also be made here of Hilary of Potiers. Burn calls him “the great western ally” of Athanasius. He did much to clarify the terms which had resulted in so much confusion at Nicea. It was his work in this area that finally made the union of Orthodox and Semi-Arians possible.
THE ORTHODOX POSITION
The views of the Orthodox party are best represented in the writings of Athanasius since he is the main figure in the controversy and since little else is extant. Athanasius, Berkhof says, strongly emphasized the unity of God and insisted on a construction of the doctrine of the Trinity that would not endanger this unity.24 He therefore defended without qualification both the Nicene doctrines of homoousios and of eternal generation.
His views are best presented by quoting him. In his own statement of faith we have a brief and clear picture of what he taught:
That, in the words of Athanasius, is the Orthodox position.
Finally, then, we come to the compromise party, usually called Semi-Arians. This was by far the largest party in the controversy. The party itself arose at Nicea out of opposition to the use of the word homoousios, though it also rejected emphatically the views of Arius. In spite of the fact that the party really stood closer to the Orthodox doctrinally, and even though all signed the Creed of Nicea, the party afterwards sided with the ultra-Arians in opposition to the Orthodox.
Many of them did not even understand the point at issue and in the interest of Church unity tried to compromise. That compromise was never really successful. The many excesses of the Arian party eventually drove them closer and closer to the Orthodox. Finally, through the patient work of Athanasius and Hilary and the leadership of the Three Cappadocians they were united to the Orthodox in confession of homoousios.
On the whole, they too held to eternal generation and the true divinity of the Son. They avoided homoousios, especially because of its Sabellian connotations. They proposed homoiousios, “of like substance,” as an alternative term at Nicea and that word became their battlecry.
EUSEBIUS OF CAESAREA
The Semi-Arian party was under the leadership of Eusebius of Caesarea. From every point of view he is an excellent representative. In one person he represents the feelings of the whole Semi-Arian party: vacillating, indecisive, generally on the side of the Arians against Athanasius. But he is so inconsistent and indecisive that it is difficult to tell exactly what he believed. Most agree that he leaned toward Arianism but on the whole simply was not able to make up his mind where he stood:
Nevertheless, he was considered to be the greatest scholar of his day and thus wielded considerable influence both with the Emperor and with his own party. As Bishop of Caesarea he was succeeded by Acaius, a friend of the Arians.
The Emperors cannot be considered as a separate party in the Nicene debate. Nevertheless, they hold a special place in the controversy and must be taken into account. Their interference in Church affairs made both the temporary triumph of Arianism and the final victory of Orthodoxy possible.
Constantine was the first and most important of the Emperors who took a hand in church business. After becoming sole ruler of the Roman Empire he gave official recognition to the Christian church and used it as a force to weld together his huge empire. But he united the Empire under the banners of Christianity, only to find that the Church itself was divided and in turmoil over the Arian question. He was determined to have unity and called together the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea to end the strife.
He himself took a leading hand in the controversy and attended the Council of Nicea (as well as several subsequent Councils) in person. His desire for Church unity made itself felt in the Council. Probably at the prompting of Hosius he supported the Orthodox, and himself proposed the addition of homoousios to the Creed when it became evident that nothing else would do. Once passed, the decisions of Nicea were zealously defended by him. Those who spoke against the Creed or showed a spirit of rebellion he sent into exile (Arius, Eusebius of Nicomedia, Theognis of Nicea). While he lived the Orthodox party held sway.
His interest in the question was primarily political. He does not seem to have had a great deal of interest in the question as such, dismissing it as petty bickering:
His political motives can be clearly seen in the restoration of both Arius and Eusebius after only a few years in exile, and in the exile of Athanasius on the basis of trumped-up charges by the Arians.
THE SUCCESSORS OF CONSTANTINE
With the possible exceptions of Gratian and Theodosius, the Emperors who succeeded Constantine were moved by the same political motives as he. Two of them, his son Constantius and, later Valens, supported the Arians, even to the extent of persecuting the Orthodox. The rest more or less supported the Orthodox. Most of the time the Empire was divided not only politically, but also ecclesiastically, between two Emperors, the Eastern Emperor supporting Arianism, and the Western Athanasius. Gratian and Theodosius secured the final victory of the Orthodox.
Ronald Hanko was the minister of the Word of God in the Wyckoff Protestant Reformed Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey
Discuss this article and other topics in our Discussion Board