Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century A.D., with an Account of the Principal Sects and Heresies.
« Aristo Pellaeus Arius, the heresiarch Arius, Followers of »

Arius, the heresiarch

Arius (Αρειος) the heresiarch was born in Africa—the locality is disputed—in A.D. 256. In his early days he was a pupil of Lucian of Antioch, a celebrated Christian teacher, and a martyr for the faith. By some Arius is said to have derived his heresy from Lucian (see Lucianus, 12). This statement is made in a letter written by Alexander, bp. of Alexandria, to bp. Alexander of Constantinople. The object of the letter is to complain of the errors Arius was then diffusing. The writer says of Lucian that he lived for many years out of communion with three bishops (Theod. Eccl. Hist. i. 4). But the charge is somewhat vague in itself; it is unsupported by other authority, and Alexander's language, like that of most controversialists in past days, is not a little violent. Moreover, Lucian is not stated, even by Alexander himself, to have fallen into the heresy afterwards promulgated by Arius, but is accused generally—rather ad invidiam, it would seem—of heretical tendencies. The question of the exact nature of the relation between the Father and the Son had been raised some 50 years before the Nicene controversy arose. But the discussion of it at that time had been insufficient and unsatisfying. So far as the earlier controversy could be said to have been decided, it was decided in favour of the opinions afterwards held by Arius. But so unsatisfactory was that settlement that the reopening of the question sooner or later was practically unavoidable, especially in an atmosphere so intellectual as that of Alexandria. The reason of the deposition of Paul of Samosata in A.D. 269 was his agreement with those who had used the word ὁμοούσιος to express the relation of the Father and the Son. The expression was at that time thought to have a Sabellian tendency, though, as events shewed, this was on account of its scope not having been satisfactorily defined. In the discussion which then arose on the question, Dionysius, bp. of Alexandria, had used much the same language as Arius afterwards held, and a correspondence is extant in which Dionysius of Rome blames his brother of Alexandria for using such language. Dionysius of Alexandria withdrew, or perhaps rather explained (see Athan. de Decret. Syn. Nic. c. 25), the expressions complained of, and posterity has been inclined to blame him for vacillation. Whether this accusation be just or not, it is quite clear that the position in which a question of such supreme importance was left by the action of Dionysius could only postpone the controversy, and that its resumption was therefore only a question of time. For the synod of Antioch which condemned Paul of Samosata had expressed its disapproval of the word ὁμοούσιος in one sense. The bp. (Alexander) of Alexandria (c. 320) undertook its defence in another.

The character of Arius has been severely assailed by his opponents. Alexander, bp. of Alexandria, in a letter to Alexander of Constantinople, describes it in very unfavourable terms. But in those days it was customary to mingle personal attacks with religious controversies. Arius appears to have been a man of ascetic character, pure morals, and decided convictions. It has been stated that his action was largely the result of jealousy on account of his having been a candidate for the patriarchal throne of Alexandria, when Alexander was elected to it. But the best early authorities are doubtful on the point. He had no doubt a disproportionate number of female supporters, but there seems no ground for the insinuation of Alexander of Alexandria, in the above-mentioned letter, that these women were of loose morals. There appears, however, more foundation for the charge that Arius allowed the songs or odes contained in the book called Thaleia—which he wrote after his first condemnation, in order to popularize his doctrine—to be set to tunes which had gross and infamous associations. Nor can he be acquitted of something like a personal canvass of the Christian population in and around Alexandria in order to further his views.

The patriarch of Alexandria has also been the subject of adverse criticism for his action against his subordinate. He too, like his predecessor Dionysius, has been charged with vacillation in his treatment of Arius. Yet it is difficult to see how he could have acted otherwise than he did. The question, as we have seen, had been left unsettled two generations previously, or, if in any sense it could be said to have been settled, it had been settled in favour of the opponents of the Homoousion. Therefore Alexander allowed the controversy to go on until he felt that it was becoming dangerous to the peace of the church. Then he called a council of bishops (about 100 in number), and sought their advice. They decided against Arius. Alexander then delayed no longer. He acted with resolution as well as promptitude, deposed Arius from his office, and repelled both him and his supporters from communion. Then he wrote (the letters are extant) to Alexander of Constantinople and Eusebius of Nicomedia (where the emperor was then residing), detailing the errors into which Arius had fallen, and complaining of the danger to the Christian church arising from his heresy. It is clear, from Arius's own letter (also extant) to Eusebius of Nicomedia, that Alexander's charges against Arius were in no way unfair. The question, as the event has shewn, was a vital one, and plainly called for an authoritative decision. Arius taught:  (1) that the Logos and the Father were not of the same οὐσία (essence);  (2) that the Son was a created being (κτίσμα or ποίημα); and  (3) that though He was the creator of the worlds, and must therefore have existed before them and before all time, there was—Arius refused to use such terms as χρόνος or αἰών—when He did not exist. The subsequent controversy shows that the absence of the words χρόνος or αἰών was a mere evasion, and that when defending himself he argued in just the same manner as though he had used those words. Moreover, he asserted that the Logos had an ἀρχή (beginning); yet not only Athanasius, but Origen before him, had taught that the relation of the Son to the Father had no beginning, and that, to use Dorner's words (Person of Christ, ii. 115), "the generation of the Son is an eternally completed, and yet an eternally continued, act"; i.e. the Father has, from all eternity, been communicating His Being to the Son, and is doing so still.

Arius was obviously perplexed by this doctrine, for he complains of it in his letter to the Nicomedian Eusebius, who, like himself (see above), had studied under Lucian, in the words, ἀειγεννής ἐστίν; ἀγεννητογενής ἐστίν. It is unquestionably to be lamented that so much stress should have been laid in the controversy on words which, when used, not popularly, but in metaphysical discussions, had a tendency to confound the eternal generation of the Son with the purely physical process of the generation of men and animals. The latter is a single act, performed at a definite moment in time. The former is a mysterious, eternal process, for ever going on. Had the defenders of the Nicene doctrine made more general use of the term communication of Being, or Essence, they would have made it clearer that they were referring to a continual and unchangeable relation between the First and Second Persons in the Trinity, which bore a very slight analogy indeed to the process which calls inferior creatures into existence. Moreover, Arius contended that the Son was unchangeable (ἄτρεπτος). But what he thus gave with the one hand he appears to have taken away with the other. For so far as we can understand his language—on a subject which even Athanasius seems to have admitted to have been beyond his power thoroughly to comprehend—he taught that the Logos was changeable in Essence, but not in Will. The best authorities consider that he was driven to this concession by the force of circumstances. [See art. Arius, Followers of.] He was doubtless confirmed in his attitude by his fear of falling into Sabellianism [Sabellius], which practically represented the Logos as a sensuous emanation of the Godhead for the purpose of carrying out the work of salvation, or else as a purely subjective human conception of certain aspects of the Divine Being—not as an eternal distinction subsisting objectively in the Godhead itself. Arius, while opposing the Sabellian view, was unable to see that his own view had a dangerous tendency to bring back Gnosticism, with its long catalogue of aeons. Macedonius, who had to a certain extent imbibed the opinions of Arius, certainly regarded the Son and the Spirit in much the same light in which the Gnostic teachers regarded their aeons. Yet Arius undoubtedly derived some support from the dangerous language of Origen, who had ventured to represent the Logos as a δεύτερος (or δευτερεύων) θεός. Origen (see his de Principiis, I. ii. 6, 12) had also made use of expressions which favoured Arius's statement that the Logos was of a different substance to the Father, and that He owed His existence to the Father's will. But it is not sufficiently remembered that the speculations of Origen should be regarded as pioneer work in theology, and that they were often hazarded in order to stimulate further inquiry rather than to enable men to dispense with it. This explains why, in the Arian, as well as other controversies, the great authority of Origen is so frequently invoked by both sides.

The Christian church had by this time become so powerful a force in the Roman world that Constantine, now sole emperor, found himself unable to keep aloof from the controversy. He was the less able to do so in that he had himself been brought up under Christian influences. [Constantine.] He therefore sent the venerable Hosius, bp. of Cordova, a man who had suffered cruelly on behalf of his faith, on a mission to Egypt, with instructions to put an end, if possible, to the controversy. But as it continued to rage, Constantine took a step hitherto unprecedented in Roman history. Republican Rome of course had her free institutions, and the Christian church had been accustomed to determine matters of faith and practice in her local assemblies. But anything like a council of delegates, summoned from all parts of the empire, had been hitherto unknown. Such an assembly Constantine determined to call together. All the secular dioceses into which the empire had been for some time divided, Britain only excepted, sent one or more representatives to the council. The majority of the bishops came from the East, but there was, nevertheless, an imposing display of men of various races and languages. Sylvester of Rome, himself too aged to be present, sent two presbyters as his delegates. The object of the council, it must be remembered, was not to pronounce what the church ought to believe, but to ascertain as far as possible what had been taught from the beginning. It was indeed a remarkable gathering. There was not only as good a representation of race and nationality as was possible under the circumstances, but the ability and intellect of the church were also well represented. There was Eusebius of Nicomedia, the astute politician and man of the world. There was also the renowned Eusebius of Caesarea, a sound theologian, and perhaps the most well-informed, careful, impartial, and trustworthy ecclesiastical historian the church has ever possessed. Alexander, patriarch of Alexandria, was also a man of mark. And, young as he was, the great Athanasius was already a host in himself, from his clearness of insight into the deepest mysteries of our religion. And beside these there were men present who manifested the power of faith—the brave "confessors," as they were called, whose faces and limbs bore evident traces of the sufferings they had undergone for their Master. Nor could any one object that it was a packed assembly. The emperor did his best to secure an honest selection and an honest decision.

The council met (325) at Nicaea, in Bithynia, a town of some importance, on the Sea of Marmora, near Constantinople. The number of bishops present is variously stated at from 250 to 318. But the latter number, as typified by the number of Abraham's servants when he rescued Lot, was generally accepted before the council of Constantinople. No Acts of the council are extant. In the writings of two men of note who were present, Athanasius, then a young deacon of about 28 years old, and the already celebrated and learned Eusebius of Caesarea, we have accounts of what happened. Moreover, well-informed and honest, if sometimes more or less inaccurate, historians have studied and handed down documents of great value, bearing on the proceedings. Constantine himself was present at the council. At first he refused to take part in its deliberations, or even to take a seat until invited. But he afterwards departed from that humble attitude, if some of our authorities are to be trusted, and when he found difficulties arising, did his best to remove them by joining in the discussions. At the outset he administered a well-merited rebuke to the bishops for the spirit in which many of them had come to the council. Producing a number of recriminatory letters from those who were present, he called for a brazier, and burnt them all before the assembly, begging the bishops to lay aside their personal animosities, and to devote themselves whole-heartedly to setting forth the truth. The question next arose, in what form the universal belief of the church from the beginning should be expressed. This, of course, was the crux of the whole situation. Hitherto particular churches had their own forms of creed (πίστις) for use at baptisms and in catechetical instruction. There was no substantial difference between them, consisting as they did of a confession of faith in the Trinity, as well as a summary of the main facts recorded in the gospels. But now a dogmatic formula for Christendom had to be drawn up, a task full of difficulty and even of danger. Some few of the bishops, we learn, apparently under the leadership of Eusebius of Nicomedia, presented a document so frankly Arian that it was at once torn to pieces by those present, and Arius was excommunicated by all but Theonas and Secundus. Then, as it seems, the famous scholar and ecclesiastical historian Eusebius of Caesarea intervened, and produced a Palestinian Creed, which he said he had received from "the bishops before him." He adds that "no one present could gainsay" the orthodoxy of this creed. This statement must, however, be taken with some limitations. The Palestinian Creed could only, if accepted, have been accepted as a basis for discussion. It was not ultimately adopted in the shape in which it was propounded, but underwent considerable alteration. The sentence γεννηθέντα ἐκ τοῦ Πατρός μονογενῆ was made definitely τούτεστιν ἐκ τῆς οὐσίας τοῦ Πατρός. Further on, the words ὁμοούσιον τῷ Πατρί were added after the words "begotten, not made." And the word ἐνανθρωπήσαντα, which means rather more than "made man," and implies an intimate association of the Godhead with the Manhood, was added after "was Incarnate" (i.e. made flesh—σαρκωθέντα—a phrase which was felt to be insufficient and even misleading by itself). The anathema which was also added embraces those who deny that the Son and the Father were of one οὐσία or ὑπόστασις, as well as those who say that there was a time when the Son did not exist, or that He was created from nothing, or that He was liable to change or alteration. At this stage of the controversy the words οὐσία (essence) and ὑπόστασις (substance) were used as synonymous. It will be seen [art. Arius, Followers of] that Basil and the Gregories afterwards wrung from Athanasius a concession on this point. Athanasius had warmly attacked Arius for asserting that there were three hypostases in the Trinity. But at the later date it was agreed that the word οὐσία might be used to denote what was common to all three Persons, and ὑπόστασις to denote the distinctions (which we call Persons) between them. For the present, however, any distinction between οὐσία and ὑπόστασις was considered heretical. The council then broke up, after having addressed a letter to the churches in and around Alexandria. Constantine issued a circular letter to the same effect. Arius, Theonas, and Secundus were deposed and banished, while three other bishops, who had displayed leanings toward Arius, namely Eusebius of Nicomedia, Theognis of Nicaea itself, and Maris of Chalcedon, a city on the Asiatic shore opposite Constantinople, were unwilling signatories of the document, but affixed their signatures in deference to the emperor's wishes. Eusebius of Caesarea describes himself, in a letter to some Arians who had accused him of tergiversation, as having demurred to the changes in the creed which he had himself presented, but as having finally accepted them in the interests of peace (Theod. H. E. i. 12, from Athan. de Decret. Syn. Nic.).

That the apparent unanimity of the council (Secundus and Theonas of Lower Egypt being the only dissentients) covered a considerable amount of divergent opinion is indisputable. Doubts of the wisdom of employing a term which had been rejected at an important council as savouring of Sabellianism weighed on the minds of many who had submitted. Eusebius of Caesarea has been charged by many later writers as having coquetted with Arianism. But his moderate attitude throughout the period which followed proves that his objections to the decision, which he allowed his love of peace to overrule, were more owing to the dread of possible consequences than to the decision in itself. Though a man of ability, learning, and honesty, he was timorous withal, and desirous to stand well with the powers that be. And his allusion to the proceedings at Nicaea in the letter just mentioned shews that his apprehensions were not altogether unreasonable. For he remarks how it was elicited after considerable discussion at the council that the term ὁμοούσιον was not intended to signify that the Son formed an actual portion (μέρος) of the Father. That would have been Sabellianism pure and simple, a danger against which it was necessary to guard. And much of the dissension to which the adoption of the creed of Nicaea led was due to this very natural apprehension. But Eusebius emphatically condemned the language of Arius, and there is no reason whatever to suspect his sincerity in so doing. On the other hand, Athanasius was convinced—and the event proves that he was right—that unless the Essence of the Son was definitely understood to be the same as that of the Father, it would inevitably follow that the Son would at best be no more than the highest of a series of Gnostic aeons. As to Eusebius of Nicomedia, it is clear that Constantine found some reason to suspect his sincerity, as well as that of Theognis and Maris, for he soon after included them in the sentence pronounced on Arius. Philostorgius says that Secundus and Theonas predicted that this would happen when they themselves had been sentenced to banishment. Possibly expressions fell from them in the heat of argument which led Constantine to the conclusion that their submission was not genuine.

It must be confessed that the Nicene settlement, though necessary in itself and satisfactory in the end, was at least premature. The controversy recommenced as soon as the decrees were promulgated. When Alexander died at Alexandria in 327, the election of Athanasius in his place was only secured in the face of violent opposition from the Arianizing faction. Soon after, Eusebius of Nicomedia was reinstated in his see, after having written a diplomatic letter to the emperor. Arius, who had taken refuge in Palestine, was also soon permitted to return, after having made a somewhat disingenuous recantation. So astute a politician as the Nicomedian Eusebius was not long before he regained his influence with the emperor, and then began a series of intrigues which led to a complete reversal of the position of the contending parties. Eustathius of Antioch, one of the staunchest adherents of Athanasius, was the first victim. The question of heterodoxy was skilfully kept in the background, and a number of false and odious personal charges were trumped up against him by men and women of abandoned lives. If Theodoret is to be trusted, one of the women aforesaid, when seized by a serious illness, retracted her accusation in a remarkably sensational manner. But the other historians (Socrates and Sozomen) are reticent about the nature of the charges, and only tell us that Eustathius had been unfortunate enough to get involved in a controversy with Eusebius Pamphili (of Caesarea). Eustathius was at once ejected from his see, and was regarded by the emperor as having been the cause of the riot his expulsion excited among the people, with whom Eustathius was a favourite. Marcellus of Ancyra was the next victim. He had all along been the friend and champion of Athanasius. But unfortunately he was not at home in the thorny paths of metaphysical theology, and found it impossible to defend the Nicene decisions without falling into Sabellianism. There was no need, therefore, for the Arianizers to bring personal charges against him. Accordingly few, if any such, were brought. He was charged, and quite fairly, with Sabellianism. On this point Eusebius Pamphili came safely to the front, and wrote strongly against Marcellus, while the latter sturdily defended himself. The actual condemnation of Marcellus was deferred till 336, and in the meantime Eusebius of Nicomedia had commenced proceedings against the only rival he really dreaded, Athanasius himself. He had, as we have seen, contrived the restoration of Arius to the emperor's favour by inducing the latter to write an insincere retractation, and when the emperor, deceived by this manœuvre, laid his commands on Athanasius to readmit Arius to communion, Athanasius, naturally, pleaded reasons of conscience against doing so. Then the storm burst forth in all its fulness. The accusations of treason against the emperor and the insinuations that the patriarch wished to set up an empire of his own against or above the supreme authority of the divine Augustus had certainly some effect on the mind of Constantine. Charges were made of sacrilege, tyranny, magic, mutilation, murder, of immorality (as some allege), and, worst of all in the emperor's eyes, of raising funds for treasonable objects. They were investigated (if the scenes of violence and passion which took place can be termed an investigation) at a synod of 150 bishops at Tyre (335).

The triumphant vindication of himself by Athanasius at that council, the dramatic scenes with which that vindication, according to some historians, was accompanied, and the equally dramatic appeal from his accusers to Constantine himself in the streets of Constantinople (which all the accounts describe as having taken place), belong rather to the history of Athanasius than of Arius. [Athanasius.] Suffice it to say that the bold and decisive action, backed by innocence, of the great archbishop only succeeded in deferring his fall. The synod of Tyre had already issued a condemnation while he was on his way to Constantinople in order to appeal to the emperor. The emperor, for the moment, was struck and touched by the appeal and by the commanding personality of Athanasius. But Eusebius proved ultimately to be master of the situation. With consummate dexterity the wily tactician, with the aid of Theognis and Maris, his old associates, as well as of the arch-intriguers Ursacius and Valens, of whom we shall hear so much in the next article, contrived that the old charges of ecclesiastical offences should be dropped, and that fresh charges of interference with the secular affairs of the empire should be substituted for them. Accordingly, Athanasius was now charged with detaining the corn which was ordered to be sent from Egypt to Constantinople. The artifice succeeded. Constantine was weary of the strife. His only object had been the settlement of the question. The shape which that settlement took was to him a secondary matter. He had, as he himself tells us (see his letters to Alexander and Arius in the Life of Constantine by Eusebius Pamphili), a strong objection to idle and word-splitting discussions, private or public, and considered them unnecessary and unprofitable. The measures he had been persuaded to take at Nicaea had not produced the effect which he had expected from them. So, like other despots in a similar position, he turned fiercely on those who had induced him to adopt them. That it was Athanasius who had advocated the measures which had so palpably failed needed no demonstration. So he was exiled to Trier (Trèves), after a number of leading bishops had been assembled at Constantinople to try him, and Alexander of Constantinople was ordered to receive Arius back into church communion. But God had otherwise ordained. Alexander was in dire perplexity. He dared not disobey the command, neither dare he obey it. In his extremity he asked the prayers of the orthodox that either he or Arius might be removed from the world before the latter was admitted to communion. The prayer was, we must admit, a strange one. But even Gibbon records the incident as a fact, though he makes it the occasion for one of his characteristic gibes at Christianity and Christians. Meanwhile, as the historian Socrates tells us, Arius was ordered to appear before the emperor, and asked whether he was willing to sign the Nicene decrees. He replied, without hesitation, that he was ready to do so. Asked whether he would confirm his signature by an oath, he agreed to do this also. This last fact Socrates declares (H. E. i. 38) that he had verified by an inspection of the imperial archives. The very day before the one appointed for his readmission to communion, Arius died suddenly, and in a most remarkable manner. Whether his death can be described as a miracle or not may be disputed. It seems preferable to attribute it to natural causes. But that the event was one of the numerous occasions in history when we are compelled to recognize a Divine interposition can hardly be doubted. The extraordinary occurrence made a vast impression throughout Christendom. The heresiarch had only been able to obtain the decree for readmission to communion by a feigned adherence to the Nicene symbol. His position was, therefore, in the eyes of Christendom one of gross and palpable deception—nothing less than an act of glaring and defiant impiety. Socrates tells us that in his time, a century afterwards, the place where he died was still pointed out. Athanasius himself describes the incident (de Morte Arii). There are therefore few facts in history more fully attested. The tragic death of Arius, followed as it was a year later by that of Constantine himself, led to a temporary lull in the controversy. The sequel will be found in the next article.

Bibliography.—(1) Ancient. The writings of Athanasius generally, especially his de Incarnatione Verbi Dei and de Decretis Synodi Nicenae; the Vita Constantini of Eusebius Pamphili; and the ecclesiastical histories of Socrates, Sozomen, and Theodoret. Of these the first is the best, though the documents cited at length by Theodoret are valuable. English translations of these authors, save of quite recent date, are by no means implicitly to be trusted, especially as to metaphysical terms. The ecclesiastical history of Philostorgius, which would give us the Arian point of view, is unfortunately only known to us through a hostile epitome by Photius, patriarch of Constantinople in 9th cent.

(2) Of comparatively modern works the church histories of Neander and Gieseler contain very valuable information, as does also Dorner's learned and impartial treatise On the Person of Christ. Bp. Martensen's History of Christian Dogmatics is also valuable; Gibbon's Decline and Fall is useful in giving us the secular view of the period. Bp. Kaye's Council of Nicaea will be found worth reading. De Broglie's L’Eglise et l’Empire romain au IV e siècle is full of information. Newman's Arians of the Fourth Century is marred by some prejudices and prepossessions. Dean Stanley's account of the Nicene council in his Eastern Church will be found more picturesque than accurate. Prof. Gwatkin's Studies of Arianism is, as its title implies, rather a series of sketches than a detailed history, but contains a vast amount of original research, illuminated by flashes of insight into the characters and motives of the principal actors in the controversy, and gives an exhaustive bibliography. His Arian Controversy is a brief summary for popular use. There is a valuable article in Texts and Studies, vol. vii. (1901), by Mr. Bethune Baker on "The Meaning of Homoousios in the Constantinopolitan Creed." His Introduction to the Early Hist. of Christian Doctrine (1903) will be found useful, as will the art. "Arianism" in Hastings's Encycl. of Religion and Ethics, i. (1908). Harnack, Hist. of Dogma (Eng. trans. 1894–1899), gives the modern German view.


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