Past and Present: An Overview of The Arian Controversy




Gregory Hadley




Recently the Anglican bishop John Spong called for a reconsideration of the theological debate surrounding Arianism, an alternative view of Christ which was sometimes popular during the third and fourth century AD.  This paper reviews the Arian controversy, and questions wisdom of reopening this theological can of worms.  Support for the present christological paradigm will also be discussed.  




In his recent best-selling book, gWhy Christianity Must Change or Dieh, the Anglican Bishop John Shelby Spong writes:

The purpose of every written creed historically was not to clarify the truth of God.  It was, rather, to rule out some contending point of view.  The adoption and expansion of these creeds took place in church councils amid raucous debates and politically motivated compromises.  I see no reason to believe that the people who participated in these councils were any more brilliant, insightful or knowledgeable than the Christians of today.  I do not, therefore, believe that the christological formula was set for all time at Chalcedon in 451 CE.  I believe that we Christians must inevitably revisit Chalcedon and once again do the hard work of rethinking and redefining the Christ experience for our time and in words and concepts appropriate to our world.  I even favor the reopening of the debate between Arius and Athanasius on the nature of Christ.[1]


Bishop Spong is certainly correct that, at least in the beginning, Christian creeds were never seen by most as necessary, until views surfaced which differed from what was either commonly believed or previously unquestioned by the majority of Christians.  He is also accurate in asserting that ancient theologians and clergy were, in their search for the truth, involved in heated debates, and were sometime motivated by goals which were less-than-pure.  The search for clarity and understanding, like any human enterprise, is fraught with human frailty.  However, is Spongfs call for a reassessment of the christological formula of Chalcedon warranted?  Specifically, would reopening the Arian debate be a constructive and helpful move for Christians, many of whom are already separated by other theological chasms?   Before taking such a step, it would be helpful to look once more at the Arian-Athanasian debate, and study effects this controversy had upon Christian thought.  During this review of the Arian controversy, special consideration will be given to the theological implications of Ariusf christology.  In studying these events, Christians everywhere might better discern whether the present christological paradigm is satisfactory, or, as Spong has suggested, the current understanding of Christ ghas become empty and meaninglessh[2] and is in need of repair.


The Cultural Milieu

      The dark era of Christian persecution was, for the moment, over.  The Roman Emperor Constantine had decreed Christianity as new official religion of the empire.  The ensuing Christian growth, both numerically and materially, was phenomenal.  While only a few years earlier, Christian clergy and theologians were constantly living under the threat of a brutal and painful death, Constantine's decrees now suddenly afforded them with special privileges and exemptions.  Constantine did all that he could to assure that Christian worship was protected in every way, even in the face of great opposition from traditional elements in the society who favored a return to the worship of the old Roman pantheon.   Constantine saw stability in the ethical teachings of Christianity that was lacking in the old Roman religions.  Seeing that a Christian system of ethics could strengthen the aging empire, he felt it "...his duty to assure the welfare of the churches in order that they, by their worship, might assure the good estate of the peoples of the empire."[3]

While Christians enjoyed the support of their newfound patron, they soon found to their dismay that the Emperor, who was not a Christian but a devotee of the Sun Cult, wanted to have a role in their theological decisions.  Constantine stressed that he only wanted to maintain his version of the Pax Romana in the Church, but many saw him as simply meddling in their affairs.  This was especially apparent during an incident known as the Donatist Controversy.  A schism developed in North Africa after some Christian churches, which had not lapsed under pre-Constantinian persecution, were refusing to recognize the authority of the growing Roman clergy.  In this controversy Constantine tried and failed to force Donatist Bishops into conformity, and ended up creating an atmosphere in North Africa where many pockets of Christian believers became counter-cultural and schismatic.[4]   In a short time, this discontent was to start a war throughout the Empire.  It would not be a war of swords and stratagems, but of words and ideas.


The Dawn of Arianism

      It was in this ferment of African nonconformity that on the outskirts of Alexandria, in the suburbs of Baucalis, a Presbyter by the name of Arius burst upon the scene.[5]  He was described as "a priest of mature age, who after a period of misdirected and factious activity, had attained a high position in the oldest church of Alexandria.  He was respected for his ascetic life, and admired for his eloquent preaching and dialectical ability; while his influence was enhanced by a dignified demeanor and a voice full of persuasive charm."[6]                    

Sometime before or during his time at Alexandria, Arius began to struggle with the question that all Christians must face: Who was Jesus? 

Theologians today are able to respond to this question with statements such as "God very God", "God the Son" or Trinitarian formulas like "Jesus is equal to the Father."  However, in Ariusf time Christians had yet to verbalize these beliefs in a manner that was systematic, formal, and universal.  For many, it did not seem necessary because of what was already written in scripture and the books of earlier Christians against heresies such as Gnosticism or Marcionism.[7]    But soon there would be a need to state openly and clearly what it meant to call Jesus "Lord", for Arius was about to start a theological brush fire that would not be extinguished for sixty years.      

Arius was sincere in his study and interpretation of Scripture.  Based upon his understanding of Greek language (in which the New Testament was written), he began to have doubts about what was traditionally believed about the nature of Christ.    What did scripture mean when it referred to Christ as the gonly-begotten of the Father?h[8]  Was "only-begottenh to be interpreted in the strictest sense of the word?   If so, would the biblical terms of gSon of Godh, and gFirstborn of All Creationh refer to his nature as a created being?  However, if he were created, how could he at the same time be the Creator?  If Christ were a created being, what would this say about the claims of his divinity?  Arius ultimately concluded that Christ was the most perfect of all creations, but not eternal and somehow less than God.[9]  It was to this growing conviction that he devoted his genius for the rest of his life. 

Arius began to preach in church about his understanding of Christ.  Because of the apparent logic and persuasiveness of his arguments, Arius soon developed a strong following in Egypt.  His logical conclusions offered an easy explanation to the doubts and confusion many Christians had about the mystery of Jesus' humanity and divinity.  In AD 319 the Pope of Alexandria, Alexander, began to take notice of the Arian movement in his parish, and grew concerned as to it's ramifications.  He first took Arius aside and counseled him in a discreet manner to repent from his divergent teachings.  Arius refused to listen to him.  Later Alexander asked Arius to come and debate his views against other teachers of theology.  Following the debate, Pope Alexander again asked Arius publicly to stop teaching his heretical ideas.  Arius again refused, and disseminated his views even more zealously. 

Alexander eventually called for an ecclesiastic council for deposing Arius.  Arius, knowing that was about to lose his position in the church, and likely be excommunicated, quickly retreated to Israel where gained the support a number influential people.  The most noteworthy of these was Eusebius of Nicomedia.  He wrote to Eusebius, complaining that the Alexander "...drives us from the city as atheists because we do not concur with him when he publicly preaches, '...God always, the Son always, the Son exists from God himself.'...We are persecuted because we say the Son has a beginning, but God is without beginning."[10]

While in Israel, Arius wrote his thesis entitled Thalia.  In it, he systematically presented his christological convictions.  His writing style was easier to understand than the dry works of other Christian scholars, and he frequently used humor to prove his point.  He wrote pithy rhymes about his view of Christ, such as "there was a time when he was not.h These short phrases, the ancient ancestor of the media soundbyte, were soon on the lips of the common man throughout the empire.[11]  Eusebius started a writing campaign against Alexander, and tried to muster enough political pressure among those in Egypt who sympathized with Arius so as to get him reinstated.  Alexander fought back and started his own campaign, which caused the controversy to intensify.  News of Arius' views continued to spread all over the Empire, and found a sympathetic ear with a large number of bishops in the Eastern Churches of Asia Minor.

In AD 324, Constantine defeated the forces of Licentius, and he assumed control over the Eastern Empire.  To his surprise, he found himself stepping right into the middle of the raging Arian Controversy in Asia Minor.  By this time, the argument had fallen from the discussion of lofty theological concepts to an embarrassing contest of insults.  Confused by the pandemonium, Constantine tried arrange a quick fix by sending his advisor, Hosius of Cordova, with a letter that essentially advised everyone involved to stop arguing over trivial theological matters and get on with more important things.[12]  This attempt was a total failure, and Hosius exacerbated the situation by installing an anti-Arian priest while in Egypt.  Soon the controversy began to fester in the streets.  It was recorded that marketplaces were rife with Arian intriguers who would stir up arguments over silly questions such as if a son could exist before he was born.[13]

In the summer of AD 325, Constantine decided that he would settle the Arian Controversy once and for all.  He called for a Council of all the parties involved in the dispute.  The meeting place was in the city in Asia Minor, called Nicaea.


The Nicaean Council

      Most who came to the Council were from the Eastern Church.  Representing the small group of Arian supporters was Eusebius of Nicomedia.  Another group, which strongly supported Pope Alexander, included Eustathius of Antioch and a remarkable man from Alexandria by the name of Athanasius.  He was a prolific writer and staunch enemy against all heretics of the faith.  A third group was led by Eusebius of Caesarea, who was suspected of being an Arian sympathizer because of his support for subordinationalism, an older Trinitarian formula invented by Tertullian, which viewed Christ as a gsonh in a subordinate role.  With the arrival of the Emperor, who was to preside over the proceeding, the council could begin.  Oddly enough, it seemed that everyone who came to the council was confident that their view would be vindicated.


Theological Stances

      The Arians began by making impressive claims about the Savior.  He was called the monogenes, a Greek word that means gonly-begotten,h but has great theological significance in the writings of the Apostle John.  Other titles given to Christ were the power of God, the wisdom of God and the word of God.  gWordh means glogosh in Greek, and has an active and philosophical nature that is not expressed in English or Japanese.  In the Johannine literature of the New Testament, it was frequently used to express the preexistent state of Christ before the incarnation.  During the debate, Christ was frequently referred to as gthe Logosh as a means to discuss the aspects of his nature that could not be easily perceived.  Eusebius of Nicomedia had stated that Christ was created born before time, and for that reason was unchangeable.[14]  Nevertheless, as a created being, the Logos was "subject to change and capable of either virtue or vice, just as human beings are."[15]

There were numerous references to scripture that were put forth to support this position.  The Arians selected scripture that reported that God, not Christ, raised Christ from the Dead.  They pointed out that Christ sat at the right hand of God, and that he did not know the day or hour of the final judgement.[16] 

Much of Arius' claims rested on the scriptural record that the Father "begot" the Son.  "If the Father beget the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence; hence it is clear that there was when the Son was not.  It follows then of necessity that he had his existence from the non-existent".[17]  In claiming to be faithful to the literal meaning of scripture, the Arians attacked the theological position of Alexander and Athanasius, asserting they were actually preaching two co-equal Gods:  "But he is eternal, and co-exists with the Father, call Him no more the Father's Son, but brother."[18]     

Alexander countered by stating that the Arians were only presenting half the picture when reading scripture:   "They remember all the passages concerning the Savior's passion, both the humiliation and the emptying, and what is called impoverishment...but of those sayings which are indicative of his nature and glory and nobility and union with the Father, they are forgetful."[19]   It was pointed out that Christ made strong claims to divinity.  Not only did Christ state that he and the Father were one, at least on one occasion He was almost stoned to death by a crowd who clearly understood that he equated himself with God.[20]  Further, Athanasius questioned the framing of the other Arian arguments by expounding upon the concept of Christ the man and Christ the Logos.  It was the humanity of Christ that was humbled, did not know certain things and died.  The Logos was exalted, knew all things, and rose his Crucified body to life.[21]  Athanasius explained that, while Arianism seemed logical, one needed to see with spiritual eyes the deeper meaning of Scripture.  For, "if He is called the eternal offspring of the Father, He is rightly so called.  For never was the substance of the Father imperfect...but He is God's offspring, and as being proper Son of God, who is ever, He exists eternally...God's offspring is eternal, for His nature is ever perfect."[22]  Related to this argument are differing cultural concepts surrounding gson.h  For ancient Greek and Roman cultures, the status of son was always lower than the father.  This was also true for Hebrew and other Semitic cultures as well.  However, gson,h is also used as a literary device in the Old Testament Hebrew scriptures, which means one who has the same attributes and partakes of the same character of someone or something else.  For this reason one can find poetic references in scripture to people as being a gson of the dawn,h gson of thunder,h or gsons of light.h[23]

A pivotal issue then for both parties was how to define the sonship of the Logos.  Arian confusion arose as to what "coming to be", "generated" or "begotten" actually meant.  Those who opposed Arius sought to define God as the agennetos, a Greek word meaning, gthe only ungenerated oneh, and referred to Christ as the gennetos, or gthe begotten one.h  Yet it is questionable whether these specialized terms did anything to strengthen their argument or adequately describe the depths of Christ.


Creeds in Conflict

      All parties decided that the controversy could be resolved by making a universal declaration of faith that would be the measuring rod for orthodox belief.  Eusebius of Nicomedia offered up what was later called the Arian Creed.  No more than twenty votes could be mustered in support of it, and the bishops, in what appears to have been a free-for-all, ripped up the document in an angry clamor.  After this show of violence, all but five persons completely abandoned Arius.[24]  Then Eusebius of Caesarea stepped forward and offered a confession of faith that had been used by Christians in his city.  Eusebius seemed well situated to make this proposal, because he tended to agree with some tenants of Arius' belief, and at the same time was in good standing with Constantine and the other bishops.  The Emperor and majority of the Bishops accepted Eusebiusf creed, and meshed it with another creed that some Christians gave publicly before receiving baptism. 

It looked as if the council would soon finish without anything definitive being said about Arianism or the Nature of Christ, when Constantine suggested that the word homoousios be added into the creed.  This meant to be of one substance with the Father.  This was strongly resisted by Eusebius of Caesarea, who felt it to be too close to the heresy of Sabellius, who stated that the Father, Son and Spirit were not three unique persons, but rather three modes of action within one Being.  Paul of Samoasota used the same term in AD 269 and was condemned for it.  In addition, the Greek word ousia or homoousios were never used by the Apostles in the New Testament to describe either the Father or Christ.  Many felt the inclusion of these words would invite future heresies.[25]

Nevertheless, the creed was passed, becoming the universal confession of faith that all churches could use to define orthodox faith in Christ.  As a demonstration of the power and prestige they had through the Emperor, the Bishops pronounced condemnation upon Arianism and sent Arius, Eusebius of Nicomedia and many of their supporters into exile.  It appeared that the controversy had finally ended. 


Arianism after Nicaea

      However, the affair was far from over.  Many were uncomfortable with ousia and homoousios as being part of the first universal standard of faith, adding that this new formula was no better than some of the local creed which had circulated before Nicaea.  This discontent, as well as some political gains in Egypt and the imperial court, gave the Arians the opportunity to reopen the debate.

In the same year that Athanasius succeeded Alexander to the See of Alexandria, Eusebius of Nicomedia was recalled from his banishment and reinstated as a priest.  Eusebius then maneuvered his way into the post of Constantine's religious adviser following the death of Hosius of Cordova.  After solidifying his position with the Emperor, Eusebius soon began a campaign of revenge against those who had exiled him.  Consequently, Athanasius was stripped of his office, condemned as a heretic, and died in exile.  The next thirty-five years saw what seemed like an unending cycle of intrigue, dismissal, excommunications and arguments.  Through the support of Eusebius and others, Arianism began to flourish in the East, and for many years was seen as the orthodox faith of Constantinople.  


The Decline of Arianism

Over time, the Eastern Bishops began to see unwelcome changes in their parishes because of their embrace of Arianism.  Increasingly it became apparent that the Church in the East was in danger of having marginalized the role of Christ to the point of losing Him.  Many began to suggest that Athanasius' views were in fact correct, and in AD 361, an improved version of the Nicene Creed was issued.  In an effort to settle the cultural unrest started by these christological conflicts, the imperial court called for a final, definitive formula.  This was accomplished at Chalcedon in 451 AD.  In this creed, Christ was affirmed as the gone and the same Son...perfect in Godhead and perfect in manhoodh with two natures both distinct and unified in one person, being the only-begotten of God and God the Word (logos).[26]    From this time, onward Arianism suffered a serious decline in supporters.  Although elements of this discarded christological system have sometimes found their way in the writings of thinkers such as Milton, Newton, and schismatic groups such as the Jehovahfs Witness movement, Arianism has never risen to the level of prominence it once had.[27]


Should the Debate be Reopened?

It has been shown that, as Spong has stated, the formation of Christian creeds was a messy and painful process.  Moreover, the partisan nature of the christological controversies fell far short of Christfs command to love onefs enemies.  The Arians unwittingly sought to confuse people on what was already a difficult concept to understand, and the results were a Christianity without Christ.  However, in their zeal to protect the truth, Athanasius and others sought to further define Christfs nature in ways that have failed to do justice to scripture.[28]  Moreover, the gorthodoxh Christians resorted to political power to force their point.  This was a temptation that Christ resisted continually during His earthly ministry, but in the days of Constantine, the Church did not.  Through their loveless acts of violence, they too risked preaching a Christianity that was devoid of love, and ultimately, the Resurrected Christ.

What is amazing is that this sort of controversy arose among a generation that was separated from Christfs earthly ministry by only 300 years.  They spoke and read the language of the New Testament, and most likely had access to written materials and records of the first Christian witnesses which are no longer extant today.  If they, having such advantages as these, still struggled with understanding the nature of Christ, could we, who are separated by 2000 years and several languages, expect to do any better? 

Spong states that the early theologians were no cleverer than we were, however, it must be admitted that we are no cleverer than they.  It is questionable that anyone from any generation could do much better in explaining the enigma Christ. For it is written in scripture, God g...has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.h[29]  Humanity may be able to ask questions about Christ, but we will most certainly lack the capacity to fully comprehend.

This is not to suggest that the Christian community will never learn more about the God they worship.  The whole Bible attests to the fact that through the ages humanity has grown to know more about the nature and character of God.  Theological truth in this sense is interpreted as a progressive revelation of the Divine, which can be built upon as our understanding of the universe grows.  For example, for several years astrophysicists have been discussing evidence that suggests that the universe is not composed of four dimensions, but eleven.[30]  Such a concept, if it proves true, would easily allow for the existence of a triune being who is three persons in one and operates outside the confines of time.  Such knowledge can help Christians to better understand that the concept of the trinity and other things discussed in the creeds are not, in fact, impossibilities.

However, Spongfs concept of theological truth is deconstructionist in nature.  All truth is negotiable and continually open to radical redefinition.  He calls for each generation to continually redefine what creedal understandings of Christ according to their ever-changing worldview.[31]   In a situation where theological truth is constantly in a state of flux, it is unlikely that anything constructive would come from a reopening of the Arian debate, except for more debate, conflict, confusion and disruption.

In the final analysis, Spong is right in asserting that the Christian creeds should be viewed as imperfect documents which were created by imperfect men.  However, while imperfect, the creeds as they stand today have still been helpful though the centuries as gteaching aidsh that point gropingly towards a deeper, unfathomable truth about God.  They serve their purpose admirably so long as one does not mistake the creed for the Christ to whom it points.  Viewed in light of the difficulty with which they were created, Spongfs call for a reconsideration of the Arian debate should be viewed with skepticism, and the present christological paradigm should remain as a point of Christian unity, not contention.    





[1].Spong, John Shelby.  Why Christianity Must Change or Die.  San Francisco: 

HarperSanFrancisco, 1998, pgs. 18-19.

[2].Spong, Ibid, 20.

[3].Walker, Williston, ed.  A History of the Christian Church.  Fourth Edition, New York:  Charles Scribner's Sons, 1985, pg. 129.

[4].Walker, Ibid, 131.

[5].Walker, Ibid, 131.

[6].Bright, William.  The Orations of St. Athanasius Against the Arians.  Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1873, pg. x.

[7].Justin, Dialogue with Trypho, and Irenaeus, Against Heresies.  In Hulgren, Arland J., and Haggmark, Steven J. (eds).  The Earliest Christian Heretics.  Minneapolis: The Fortress Press, pgs 38-40, 102-103.

[8].Bible, John 1:14.

[9].Rattenbury, H. Morley.  A Sketch of Church History.  London:  The Epworth Press, 1962, pg. 26.

[10].Bettenson, Henry, ed.  Documents of the Christian Church.  Second Edition, New York:  Oxford University Press, 1962, pg. 39.

[11].Casey, Robert P, ed.  "The Armenian Version of the Pseudo-Athanasian Letter to the Antiochenes and of the Expositio Fidei."  Studies and Documents, Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 1947, pg. 13.

[12].Walker, Ibid, 133.

[13].Bright, Ibid, xi.

[14].Bright, Ibid, xi.

[15].Walker, Ibid, 132.

[16].Casey, Ibid, 20, 23, 32.

[17].Bettenson, Ibid, 40.


[18].Anglican Church.  Library of Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church Anterior to the Division of the East and West.  Vol. 1 and 2. Oxford:  John Henry Parker; J.G.F and J. Rivington, London, 1842, pg 200.

[19].Gregg, Robert C. and Groh, Dennis E.  Early Arianism - A View of Salvation.  Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1981, pg. 2.

[20].Bible, John 8:58, John 10:30, John 14:9-11.

[21].Casey, Ibid, 22-38.

[22].Anglican Church, Ibid, 201.

[23].Bible, Isaiah 14:12, I Thessalonians 5:5, Mark 3:17.

[24].Gwatkin, Henry Melvill.  Studies of Arianism.  Cambridge:  Deighton Bell and Co., 1882, pg. 38.

[25].Gwatkin, Ibid, 41-43.

[26].Schaff, Phillip.  The Creeds of Christendom Volume Two: The Greek and Latin Creeds.  Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993, pg. 62.

[27].Rattenbury, Ibid, 27.

[28].Berkhof, Louis.  Systematic Theology.  London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1969, pg. 82.

[29].Bible, Ecclesiastes 3:11.

[30].Ross, Hugh.  The Heavens Declare the Glory of God.  Paper presented at Hayama Missionary Seminar, Hayama, Japan, 1996.

[31].Spong, Ibid, 19.