Rev. Ronald Hanko
The history of the Arian controversy is exceedingly complicated. There were some twenty or twenty-five councils held and nine or ten Creeds drawn up all in the space of less than fifty years. We will therefore, attempt to be brief and clear.
BEFORE NICEA, 318-325
This history begins about A.D. 318 or 319 when Arius, the presbyter of Bauclis first began to preach and teach his heretical views concerning the divinity of Christ. After several private remonstrances by Alexander his Bishop showed that he was unwilling to retract, severer measures were taken. In 321 Alexander called together a Synod of the Egyptian Bishops. About 100 attended and proceeded to depose Arius. When he continued to agitate and teach his views, he was forced to leave Alexandria.
Arius went to Palestine and from there entered into correspondence with Eusebius of Nicomedia and Eusebius of Caesarea. The former immediately gave his full support. He flooded the East with letters, trying to drum up support for Arius, and wrote to Alexander urging him to receive Arius back into communion. Two Synods were held: one in Bithynia which agreed with Arius and advised Alexander to withdraw his verdict, and another in Palestine which confirmed Arius and his adherents in their clerical status and offices.30
The result was that the whole Eastern Church was in an uproar and it was at this point that Constantine took a hand. In September, 324, he had defeated his opponent, Licinius, at the battle of Chrysopolis and had become the sole ruler of the Empire. Desiring unity in the Church as he had gained it in the Empire, he immediately took upon himself the role of peacemaker in the controversy. He sent his trusted aide and advisor, Hosius, to Alexandria with a letter entreating both parties to make peace. A council was then held at Alexandria which accomplished nothing.
Apparently Hosius returned with a report which favored Alexander, for Constantine wrote a vehement letter to Arius demanding his submission. This, too, accomplished little. Constantine, probably at the suggestion of Hosius, therefore resolved to call a Council of Bishops from the whole Empire to rule on the matter in question. It was decided to hold the Council at Nicea which was at the center of the Empire and accessible from land and sea.
THE COUNCIL OF NICEA, JULY 19, 325
To Nicea, then, came more than 300 bishops from all parts of the Empire, with their retinues. They traveled and were hosted at the public expense. They came to take care of three problems: the Meletian schism, the settling of the date of Easter, and the case of Arius. The last was the most important. Of the Bishops present there were only seven from the West, the principals being Hosius, two presbyters who represented Pope Silvester, and the Bishop of Carthage.
Although Arius had claimed the support of all the East save two or three “heretical and untutored persons,” at the Council his party was a very small minority — about 18 bishops. The Arians led by Eusebius of Nicomedia, first proposed a Creed, a concise statement of their views. It was received with “tumultuous disapproval”31 and torn to pieces in the sight of all. At this point the whole Arian party (including Eusebuis of Nicomedia) with the exception of two Egyptian Bishops, Theonas and Secundus, abandoned the cause of Arius.
Eusebius of Caesarea then stood up and presented the Creed of his church.32 Although the Emperor approved of it, it was found to be insufficient: “this formula had the curious advantage of leaving out every reference to the point at issue.”33 The intent of the Fathers in dealing with these statements seems to have been to use only the language of Scripture, but this proved impossible. Whatever language was proposed, whatever phrase was used, the Arians twisted it to suit their own ends:
The Arians were very ready to accept the Caesarean Creed.
It was evident that something was needed to guard against all Arian evasions. The Emperor himself, again at the prompting of Hosius, formally proposed the word homoousios. After a long debate the word was finally adopted and the Creed of Eusebius was thereupon thoroughly revised under the direction of Hosius and several others. It was presented to and approved by the Council at the urging of the Emperor.
All were required to sign it, and all did except for Arius, Theonas, and Secundus. After a day’s deliberation Eusebius of Caesarea also signed, though he disliked the word homoousios. Arius’ books were burned and he was sent into exile to Illyria. The Emperor had made up his mind to admit no compromise and so also Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicea were banished for their evident hostility to the Creed, even though they had signed it. After being entertained by the Emperor at a great Banquet, the Bishops left for their respective Sees and the first Ecumenical Council was over.
THE ARIAN AND SEMI-ARIAN REACTION, 325-361
For a few years after Nicea, that is, as long as Arius and Eusebius were in exile things were relatively quiet. In the meantime Alexander died (April 17, 328) and Athanasius was made Bishop of Alexandria by common consent of populace and clergy. But the quiet was only the lull before the storm. Arius drew up a personal creed35 which he presented to the Emperor as proof of his good faith. And although the Creed carefully avoids all the terminology of Nicea, the Emperor received Arius back into communion. So also, by exercising his political influence, Eusebius also returned. Both were back by 328.
Eusebius especially was ready to move heaven and earth to efface the results of Nicea. His first target was Athanasius. The ensuing history is as violent as it is complicated:
In 330 a synod of Arian reactionary bishops assembled at Antioch. They secured the deposition of Eustathius of Antioch, one of the supporters of Athanasius, on false charges of immorality and Sabellianism backed by the complaint that he had indiscreetly repeated a current story concerning the Emperor’s Mother. Meanwhile, by alliance with the Meletians, the Arians were doing everything they could to foment disturbances in Egypt.
The purpose of this all was to discredit Athanasius in the eyes of Constantine. Eusebius was also busy at the Capitol using various channels to prefer all sorts of false charges against Athanasius, especially that he had been supporting treasonable persons. He also wrote to Athanasius, exhorting him to receive Arius, and when Athanasius refused, complained to Constantine. Athanasius finally cleared himself of all charges by appearing before the Emperor in person.
Eusebius continued to bring accusations and prevailed finally upon Constantine to call a Council in Caesarea (where Athanasius had many enemies) to deal with these new charges. Athanasius refused to appear and the council fizzled. In 335-337 another council was held at Tyre in connection with the Thirtieth anniversary of Constantine’s reign.
No questions of doctrine were raised. The council was very disorderly and many trumped-up charges were brought against Athanasius: that he had disrupted a worship service and broken a chalice; that he had put to death a Meletian Bishop; that he had committed adultery. Athanasius cleared himself of all charges but in the subsequent disorder was obliged to flee the council. In his absence the council proceeded to depose him.
Athanasius appealed to Constantine who wrote a letter to the Council defending him. The Eusebians responded by sending five representatives to the Emperor with a new charge: that Athanasius was threatening to stop grain shipments from Alexandria to Constantinople. This was a sore spot for Constantine, and without even a hearing, he immediately ordered Athanasius into exile at Treves.
This exile lasted less than a year, for Constantine died soon after (337). “After much intrigue, sedition, and massacre, the three sons of Constantine assumed the title of Augustus.”38 Athanasius was recalled from his exile and immediately returned to Alexandria. Arius also died meanwhile in the midst of preparations for his formal reception into Church communion (February, 336).
Athanasius was in Alexandria only two years before he was again forced to go into exile. Constantius, the new ruler of the Eastern part of the Empire patronized the Arians and with his approval the Arians and Semi-Arians held a Synod at Antioch where they again deposed Athanasius, and appointed a successor, Gregory of Cappadocia. The arrest of Athanasius was ordered but he escaped first into the desert, and then to Rome. This time he was in exile for six years.
While Athanasius was in Rome the Arians corresponded with Pope Julius, attempting to gain his support. But at a Synod in Rome (341) Athanasius was completely vindicated and Julius wrote a letter to that effect to the Arians. Julius’ letter was considered at the Council of Dedication (of Constantius’ “Golden Church”) held in Antioch in the summer of 341. They again confirmed the deposition of Athanasius and drew up four anti-Nicene creeds which were mainly Semi-Arian in construction.39
At the same time the Western Bishops had appealed Athanasius’ case to Constans, their Emperor, who decided that a general council was necessary. Together, he and Constantius arranged for a council to be held at Sandica in 343. The council failed completely. About 100 Western Bishops, as well as Athanasius and several others who had been deposed, attended. The Eastern Bishops refused even to come when they found that they were in a minority and that the defendants were to be seated at the Council. They held their own Synod at Philipopolis, drew up a long and angry statement of principles, and deposed everyone from Pope Julius to Hosius. The Western Bishops again confirmed the orthodoxy of Athanasius and refuted the charges of the Eusebians. And at another Council at Milan (346) the position of Sardica was reaffirmed.
Constans, the Western Emperor, defended Athanasius and urged his brother to restore him to his See. Gregory, Athanasius’ “successor” had died, and the people of Alexandria were also clamoring for the return of their rightful Bishop. Constantius did an abrupt about-face and invited Athanasius to return, giving him strong assurances of good-will and protection. Athanasius met with Constantius at Antioch and then returned to Alexandria where he was received with rejoicing. This restoration marks the beginning of his longest stay in Alexandria (10 years). Burn calls it “an armed truce” which was maintained by the formidable power of Constans.40
In 350 Constans was assassinated. For three years Constantius was busy consolidating his powers and defeating his rivals. But in 353 he became sole ruler of the Empire and the axe fell on Athanasius once again. Constantius was false to his pledges and immediately began working to establish Arianism as the religion of the Empire. In 353 at the Synod of Arles, a formal Imperial condemnation of Athanasius was made. In 355 at Milan, the Western Bishops were forced to ascribe to and sign the deposition of Athanasius. Those who refused to sign (Hosius, Pope Liberius, and Hilary of Potiers were the only ones) were sent into exile.
Athanasius himself remained in Alexandria until early 356, when, in spite of the support of the populace and magistrates of Alexandria, he was deposed by force of arms, and very nearly lost his life before escaping into the desert once again. A certain George was made Bishop in his place and a period of terrible persecution and violence began in Alexandria. Many were killed or banished. Athanasius himself remained in exile until the death of Constantius, nearly six more years.
During this six-year period a large number of councils were held, in the course of which the Arian cause finally triumphed. The synod of Sirmium, held in 357, condemned the word ousios as being unscriptural and proscribed both the words homo- and homoiousios. But the triumph of Arianism also marked it’s downfall, for the decisions of Sirmium, and Constantinople a little later, drove the Semi-Arians into the party of the Orthodox.41 The coalition between Arians and Semi-Arians had always been an uneasy one; now the two part ways. The Council of Constantinople in 360 is the high point of ultra-Arianism, but it also marks the end of the Arian and Semi-Arian league. At that council both the Orthodox and the Semi-Arian positions were condemned and many of the Semi-Arian leaders were deposed or excommunicated.
The Arians retained power for a brief time, but their days were numbered. In 361 Constantius died. This was the beginning of the end for Arianism, and in the next period we see the final victory of the Orthodox party.
THE FINAL TRIUMPH OF ORTHODOXY, 361-381
This final period of the Arian controversy is marked by the union of the Semi-Arians with the Orthodox and the downfall of the Arian party:
Constantius was succeeded by Julian the Apostate who supported the old pagan religion at the expense of both orthodoxy and Arianism. It was during his rule that the fourth exile of Athanasius took place. Julian was angry with Athanasius for making too many converts from paganism. Athanasius’ exile lasted only two years, and then he was allowed to return by Julian’s successor, Jovian.
Jovian ruled only a few months and was succeeded in the East by Valens. Under Valens there was a last revival of Arianism. His fanatical Arianism caused the Semi-Arians to move even closer to the orthodox. Athanasius was for the last time forced to go into exile, but this time for only four months. All Egypt supported Athanasius and Valens had no power to enforce his decrees, in part because his co-ruler in the West, Valentinian, supported the Athanasians.
In 373 Athanasius died. There was another brief revival of Arianism in Alexandria and again the Orthodox suffered many indignities. Valens died soon after (378) and the Empire passed into the hands of Gratian who appointed Theodosius to rule in the East. Both supported the Athanasians and the cause of the Nicene Faith was finally made secure. In 380 Theodosius issued an edict that all should “hold the faith which the holy Apostle Peter gave to the Romans,” which he defined more precisely as that taught by the Bishops, Peter of Alexandria and Damasus of Rome.43
In 381 he called a great council at Constantinople to deal with the new heresies of Apollinarianism and Macedonianism and to confirm the faith of Nicea. This council restated the decisions of Nicea and approved its Creed with a few improvements and additions. Arianism revived briefly in Italy under Gratian’s successor, Valentinian II, and lingered for a while in Gaul where it had been taught by Ulfilas, but in both East and West Orthodoxy prevailed.
THE NICENE CREED
In the history of the Church up to 381, the Nicene Creed was unique:
Its importance cannot, however, be underestimated. In the long history of the Arian controversy it stood as the bulwark against Arianism. Many times the Arians drew up creeds which were intended to replace the Creed of Nicea, but it was the latter which was finally adopted officially by the Church. In a few short phrases it repudiated all the heresies of Arius and his followers. In fact it said clearly and concisely, all that could be said against Arianism.
It teaches in the first place, that the Son is “from the substance of the Father.” This is the “counter-blast” to the principal tenet of Arianism, that the Son had been created out of nothing and had no community of being with the Father. Its Second anti-Arian statement is: “True God from True God”: this in opposition to the Arian doctrine of the uniqueness of the Father. Thirdly, it said against Arius, that the Son was “begotten not made,” making more specific the doctrine of eternal generation. Finally, and the whole weight of the Orthodox reply to Arianism is concentrated here, the creed speaks of the fact that the Son was “of One Substance with the Father” (homoousion). It concluded with a series of anathemas specifically directed against the teachings of Arius.
It is interesting to note in this connection that the orthodox party, throughout the controversy, never saw any need to draw up another creed. All the other creeds of this period were the work of the Arians or Semi-Arians. Those of the Semi-Arians all proved insufficient to protect the Christian faith against Arianism, and none were ever officially adopted by the whole Church.
Throughout the controversy, the Nicene Creed was attacked for its use of unScriptural language. But history proves that although the language is not, as such, Scriptural, it nevertheless expresses the teaching of Scripture. This fact was proved, first of all, in that it held its own throughout the controversy:
But the orthodoxy of the Nicene Creed was vindicated, especially by the Council of Constantinople (381). That Second Ecumenical Council ended the Arian controversy by approving, with only a few, non-essential changes, the Nicene Creed.
THE CREED OF CONSTANTINOPLE
As we have noted, the Creed of Constantinople is in essence the older Nicene Creed. In fact, it is usually called the “Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.” But it is of value to note some of the changes which Constantinople made. For as Curtis says (p. 72): “The controversial character and the literary form of the Nicene Statement were obviously improved upon, and a fuller statement of apostolic faith was secured by it.”
There are really two major differences. First of all, the Creed of Constantinople omits the terminal anathema in the Nicene Creed. It also adds all that follows the words “And in the Holy Spirit,” “without which the Nicene Creed is ill-proportioned, defective and ill-suited for the liturgical use which was made of it.”46 This latter was added especially, “to repel the Macedonian heresy of the impersonality of the Holy Spirit.”47 Besides these things, there is the omission of several words and phrases in the Nicene Creed which were redundant, as well as the addition of words here and there to strengthen and clarify several points: e.g., “to strengthen the affirmation of the atonement”48 the words “crucified for us” were added to Article 4.
Later several other additions were made. In the West and in later Reformed tradition, the creed was expressed in the singular; “I believe.” But the most important addition of all, was the addition of the words “and the Son” (filioque) by the Council of Toledo in 589 to express the double procession of the Holy Spirit. This phrase contributed much to the Great Schism of the Eastern and Western Churches.
THE WORD HOMOOUSION
Much of the Arian controversy as we have seen, revolved around the word homoousion in the Nicene Creed. Walker, (p. 118) even says that it is “a misfortune that a less disputed phrase was not adopted at Nicea.” The objections to it were really two: that it was unscriptural, and that it implied Sabellianism. Athanasius pointed out, in reference to the first objection, that the Arians also used non-Scriptural terminology: e.g., “created out of nothing,” “begotten out of the will of the Father,” etc. The second objection was done away with when the distinction between ousia and hypostasis (essence and person) was made clear. It was pointed out that several of the ancient Fathers had used the word in the Nicene sense: Irenaeus, Origen, Theognostur, and Dionysius of Alexandria.
Today there are still some who think that it has no place in the Christian faith:
This is not true, however. As the Orthodox pointed out time and time again, the word does express the thought of Scripture. And what is more, it guards the truth of the absolute divinity of Jesus Christ against all error. The Great Reformation Creeds use the same language to guard against Socinianism (modern Arianism). One must remember that the Scriptures do not give us a ready-made doctrinal system and that, therefore, the Church has the obligation to express the truth of Scripture logically and systematically, especially over against heresy. This, of necessity, requires non-Scriptural technical terminology. The Church must, of course, be careful in the choice and use of terminology, but it must also be noted again that in this controversy the word homoousia was not pulled out of the air on the spur of the moment at Nicea. There had at least been some precedent for its technical use in the Nicene sense.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE ARIAN CONTROVERSY
The Arian Controversy and the decisions of the Councils of Nicea and Constantinople have an important place in the history of the Church and in the history of the development of Christian doctrine.
Importance for Church History
In the history of the church Arianism represents:
“It was not heresy alone, but heresy arrayed in all the pomp of place and power”51 which the Church now had to combat. Having failed to destroy the Church by means of persecution, Satan attempted to use heresy as a means to destroy her. But by the grace of God, the Church was preserved.
Importance for the History of Dogma
God used this attack upon the faith of the Church to lead her into a clearer understanding of the truth of Scripture. It is no wonder that Satan attacked this doctrine first. The doctrine of the Trinity and of the Nature of God is basic to the whole Christian faith. Before anything else, the church confesses its faith in God, and everything else follows and is based on that confession.
The whole substance of Christianity was at stake, especially the truth of our redemption. If Jesus Christ is not very God, then we have no salvation. Then our faith is meaningless. Athanasius saw this very clearly. He says:
This is the heart of Athanasius’ contribution to the development of the Christian Faith. It was his insistence on this point which finally won over the majority of the Semi-Arians and secured the triumph of Nicene Orthodoxy.
It is interesting in this connection to note that the doctrine of the complete divinity of the Holy Spirit, as well as the doctrine of double procession, were also developed in connection with the doctrine of Christ’s divinity, while the Arian error led directly into the errors of Macedonianism and Apollinarianism (both are really inherent in Arianism).
Here in the Arian heresy we see clearly the work of the Spirit of Truth as He leads the Church into the truth of the Scriptures. Without that Spirit, whom the risen and exalted Son of God gave to the Church, the Church has nothing, but through the Spirit she has everything. It was necessary, therefore, that this doctrine basic to the whole Christian Faith should, through the leading of the Spirit of Truth, be established early in the history of the Church.
It is important, therefore, that the Church study and know the error of Arius:
Arianism is no longer really a threat in the Church. Modernism (which teaches the doctrines of Arius) is too far removed from the mainstream of Christianity to be of any real threat to the truth. But of such an attitude toward the truth, the Church must always beware.
The doctrine of the Trinity, as it was developed especially by Athanasius, we have today in basically the same form. All that can be said concerning the Being of God has been said. We must maintain this truth. With Athanasius we say, then, “Let what was confessed by the Fathers at Nicea prevail.”55
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