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Icon depicting Emperor Constantine and anti-Arianist bishops with the Nicene creed.

Arianism was a major theological movement in the Christian Roman Empire during the fourth and fifth centuries C.E. The conflict between Arianism and standard Trinitarian beliefs was the first major doctrinal battle in the Christian church after the legalization of Christianity by Emperor Constantine I. Named after an Alexandrian priest named Arius, Arianism spawned a great controversy that divided the Roman Empire and defined the limits of Christian orthodoxy for centuries to come.

The controversy involved not only emperors, priests, and bishops, but also simple believers throughout the Christian empire. Bitter disputes among popular church leaders led to mob violence and political turmoil, and thus Emperor Constantine was moved to convene the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea in 325. The Nicene Creed rejected the tenets of Arianism and exiled its main proponents, but did not put an end to the controversy. Constantine eventually reversed his position, pardoned Arius, and sent his main opponent, Athanasius of Alexandria, into exile. Later fourth century emperors supported Arianism, but in the end, the Athanasian view prevailed and has since been the virtually uncontested doctrine in all major branches of Christianity.

Arius taught that although God the Son indeed pre-existed as a divine being before the creation of the Universe, he was not "co-eternal" with God the Father. The opposite position, championed by Athanasius, held that the Father and Son existed together with the Holy Spirit from the beginning. Further disagreements involved the question of whether the Son and the Father were of the "same substance" and whether the Son was in any way subservient to the Father.

The Arian controversy was one of several bitter disputes that split the Christian world during the early centuries following Christianity's rise to power. Whether or not the outcome was providentially correct, it should not be presumed that either party's ideas or methods had divine approval. Jesus, after all, told his followers:

"By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (John 13:35)

Arianism was the first form of Christianity to make major inroads with the Germanic tribes, and many of the "barbarians" who conquered Rome were actually Arian Christians. As a result of Arianism being successfully taught to the Germanic tribes by the missionary Ulfilas, Arian Christianity lingered for several centuries in western Europe after the fall of the western Roman Empire.


Since Arius' writings were burned by his enemies, few of his actual words are available. In one of the only surviving lines thought to express at least some of his own words, he states:

God was not always a Father… Once God was alone, and not yet a Father, but afterwards He became a Father. The Son was not always… [He was] made out of nothing, and once He was not. [1]

The quote above is provided by Arius' bitter opponent, Athanasius, the only surviving source of Arius' supposed words. However, the sources agree that Arianism affirmed God's original existence as a solitary Being, rather than as a Trinity from the beginning. The "begetting" or "generation" of the Son may have taken place in a moment "before time," but in Arius' view, the begetting itself proved that God was once alone and therefore not yet the Father. In the above statement, Arius also affirmed that the Son was created from nothing—ex nihilo—just as the rest of creation. Therefore the Son could not be of the same substance as God the Father. This issue gave rise to three Greek expressions that are difficult for English readers to distinguish, but were at the root of bitter, sometimes violent controversies:

  • homoousios—of the same nature/substance (the Athanasian position)
  • homoiousios—of similar nature/substance (the position of moderate Arians and semi-Arians)
  • anomoios—dissimilar in nature/substance (the conservative Arian position)

Traditional Arianism

Strict Arians condemned the term homoousios, but also rejected "homoiousios" as conceding too much, insisting instead on the term "anomoios."

A letter from the later fourth century Arian bishop of Milan, Auxentius (d. 374) still survives. It speaks of:

"One true God… alone unbegotten, without beginning, without end, eternal, exalted, sublime, excellent, most high creator, epitome of all excellence... who, being alone… did create and beget, make and establish, an only-begotten God [Christ].

Although Christ thus did not always exist with God the Father, he is nevertheless a pre-existent being, the Second Person of the Trinity, and the agent of creation. Christ is described as:

Author of all things [made to exist] by the Father, after the Father, for the Father, and for the glory of the Father... He was both great God and great Lord and great King, and great Mystery, great Light and High Priest, the providing and law-giving Lord, Redeemer, Savior, Shepherd, born before all time, Creator of all creation.

Auxentius went on to praise the efforts of the great Germanic Arian missionary Ulfilas in tones that provide a glimpse into the bitter antagonism between the Arian, Nicene, and semi-Arian parties:

In his preaching and exposition he asserted that all heretics were not Christians, but Antichrists; not pious, but impious; not religious, but irreligious; not timid but bold; not in hope but without hope; not worshipers of God, but without God, not teachers, but seducers; not preachers, but liars; be they Manichaeans, Marcinonists, Montanists, Paulinians, Psabbelians, Antropians, Patripassians, Photinans, Novatians, Donatians, Homoousians, (or) Homoiousians.

Auxentius also preserved the creed that Ulfilas taught to his converts. It is likely that many of the Arian Christians among the Germanic tribes adhered to this confession, or something like it:

I believe that there is only one God the Father, alone unbegotten and invisible, and in His only-begotten Son, our Lord and God, creator and maker of all things, not having any like unto Him… And I believe in one Holy Spirit, an enlightening and sanctifying power...[who is] neither God nor Lord, but the faithful minister of Christ; not equal, but subject and obedient in all things to the Son. And I believe the Son to be subject and obedient in all things to God the Father."

Semi-Arian Creeds

Several other Arian and semi-Arian creeds also circulated. A council of bishops held at Antioch in 341 endorsed a compromise formula representing the semi-Arian stance side-stepping the question of "like substance" vs. "same substance." It is known as the Creed of the Dedication:

We have not been followers of Arius,—how could Bishops, such as we, follow a Presbyter?—nor did we receive any other faith beside that which has been handed down from the beginning… We have been taught from the first to believe in one God, the God of the Universe, the Framer and Preserver of all things both intellectual and sensible. And in One Son of God, Only-begotten, who existed before all ages, and was with the Father who had begotten Him, by whom all things were made, both visible and invisible… And we believe also in the Holy Ghost…

In the process of battling Arianism and enforcing the destruction of Arian works, Athanasius himself ironically became history's main source of information on Arianism. His De Synodis [2] in particular preserves many of the Arian and semi-Arian creeds adopted by various church councils, including the one just cited. Another example of a semi-Arian statement preserved by Athanasius is the following:

Since 'Coessential' (homoousios) and 'Like-in-essence,' (homoiousios) have troubled many persons in times past and up to this day, and since moreover some are said recently to have devised the Son's 'Unlikeness' (anomoios) to the Father, on their account we reject 'Coessential' and 'Like-in-essence,' as alien to the Scriptures, but 'Unlike' we anathematize, and account all who profess it as aliens from the Church. And we distinctly confess the 'Likeness' (homoios) of the Son to the Father. [3]

The History of Arianism

Arius reportedly learned his doctrine from an Antiochan presbyter (priest/elder) and later martyr named Lucius. Arius spread these ideas in Alexandria and was appointed a deacon in that city by its bishop, Peter. Controversy ensued, and Arius was briefly excommunicated, but was soon reconciled with Peter's successor, Achillas, who promoted him to the position of presbyter, providing him authority as a teacher of church doctrine. A persuasive orator and gifted poet, Arius' influence grew steadily. However, he gained the enmity of another new bishop, Alexander, and in 321 Arius was denounced by the local synod for teaching a heterodox view of the relationship of God the Son to God the Father.

Despite this setback, Arius and his followers already had great influence in the schools of Alexandria, and when he was forced into exile, his views spread to Palestine, Syria, and other parts of the eastern Mediterranean. His theological songs and poems, published in his book, Thalia, were widely recited. Many bishops soon accepted Arius' ideas, including the influential Eusebius of Nicomedia, who had the ear no less a personage than the Emperor himself.

Nicea and its aftermath

Constantine's hopes that Christianity would serve as a unifying force in the empire, meanwhile, faced frustration. By 325, the Arian controversy had become significant enough that he called an assembly of bishops, the First Council of Nicea. Reports vary, but the church historian Eusebius of Caesaria indicated that the Emperor himself expressed his support of the term homoousios to the council. Arius' views may have been losing the day in any case, but once the Emperor weighed in, the Arian cause was hopeless. The council condemned Arianism and formulated the Nicene creed, which is still recited in Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and some Protestant services.

… God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God;

begotten, not made, being of one substance (homoousios) with the Father.

In its original version, the creed added the following statement in more overt opposition to Arianism:

But those who say: "There was a time when he was not"; and "He was not before he was made"; and "He was made out of nothing"; or "He is of another substance" or "essence"... they are condemned by the holy Catholic and apostolic Church.

Constantine exiled those who refused to accept the creed—including Arius himself and several others. He also exiled the bishops who signed the creed but refused to condemn Arius—notably Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicea. The Emperor also ordered all copies of the Thalia, the book in which Arius had expressed his teachings, to be burned. This ended the open theological debate for several years, but under the surface, opposition to the Nicean creed remained strong.

Eventually Constantine became convinced that homoousios was an ill-advised and divisive term. It the previous century, it had been condemned by several church councils because of its association with the teaching of the heretic Paul of Samosata. Otherwise orthodox bishops, espeically in the East, adamantly rejected the term. Concerned to bring peace to the Empire, Constantine became more lenient toward those exiled at the council. He allowed Theognis of Nicea and Eusebius of Nicomedia, a protégé of his sister, to return once they had signed an ambiguous statement of faith. The two, together with other friends of Arius, then began to work for Arius' rehabilitation.

At the synod of Tyre in 335, they brought accusations against Arius' nemesis, Athanasius, now the powerful bishop of Alexandria. Constantine had Athanasius banished, considering him intransigent and an impediment to reconciliation. In the same year, the synod of Jerusalem readmitted Arius to communion, and in 336, Constantine allowed Arius to return to his hometown. Arius, however, soon died. Eusebius and Theognis remained in the Emperor's favor.

When Constantine, who had been an unbaptized believer much of his adult life, accepted baptism on his deathbed, it was from the semi-Arian bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia.

The debates reopen

Proponents of Arianism and semi-Arianism prospered under the 24-year reign of Constantius II, shown above. After a struggle during the reign of Julilan the Apostate, they regained a favored position under Valens.

The Nicean terminology was proving insufficient. After Constantine's death in 337, open dispute resumed again. Eusebius of Nicomedia, who had been made bishop of Constantinople, became an adviser to Constantine's son Constantius II, then emperor of the Eastern half of the Empire. Constantius encouraged the anti-Nicene groups and set out to revise the official creed itself through numerous Church councils. He proceeded to exile bishops adhering to the old creed, including Athanasius, who fled to Rome. In 355 Constantius became the sole Emperor and extended his pro-Arian policy to the western provinces. When the Bishop of Rome, Liberius, refused to sign a denunciation of Athanasius, Constantius forced him into exile for a period of two years, the first instance a long struggle in which the Roman church would emerge—in its view—as the champion of orthodoxy in the face of royal error.

As debates raged in an attempt to come up with a new formula, three camps evolved among the opponents of the Nicene Creed.

  • The first group opposed the Nicene formula mainly because of the divisive term homoousios, which some had rejected as heretical long before the advent of the Arian controversy. They preferred the term homoiousios. They rejected Arius, and accepted the equality and co-eternality of the Three Persons of the Trinity. However, they were usually called "semi-Arians" by their opponents.
  • The second group—called both Arians and semi-Arians—in large part followed Arius' teachings but avoided invoking his name. In another compromise wording, they described the Son as being "like" the Father (homoios).
  • A third, overtly Arian, group described the Son as unlike (anomoios) the Father and condemned the compromisers as heretics.

Some bishops, of course, did not fall neatly into any of the above categories. Meanwhile, some among the now persecuted Nicene group stubbornly rejected any formula but the original one, which they deemed to be inspired by the Holy Spirit. Coalitions between semi-Arian and moderate Nicene bishops waxed and waned, while other semi-Arians found allies among their more strict Arianist brethren.

No less than fourteen creedal formulas were adopted in formal Church councils throughout the Empire between 340 and 360. The pagan observer Ammianus Marcellinus commented sarcastically: "The highways were covered with galloping bishops." Constantius hoped the matter would be finally settled at the twin councils of Rimini(Italy) and Seleucia (Turkey) in 359-360. The formula adopted, however, proved unacceptable to even moderate Nicenes, while the semi-Arian group explained:

Whereas the term 'essence,' (ousia) has been adopted (by) the Fathers in simplicity, and gives offence as being misconceived by the people, and is not contained in the Scriptures, it has seemed good to remove it, that it be never in any case used of God again, because the divine Scriptures nowhere use it of Father and Son. But we say that the Son is like (homoios) the Father in all things, as also the Holy Scriptures say and teach.

Saint Jerome remarked that the world "awoke with a groan to find itself Arian."

After Constantius' death in 361, Bishop Liberius of Rome declared the above-mentioned councils null and void. Meanwhile, Constantius' successor Julian the Apostate, a devotee of paganism, declared that the empire would no longer favor one church faction over another. He allowed all exiled bishops to return. With no political consequences at stake for expressing previously unacceptable views, the Nicene formula re-emerged as a rallying point for many bishops, particularly in the West.

The next emperor, Valens, however, revived Constantius' policy and supported the "Homoian" party, exiling opposing bishops and often using force. Many Nicene bishops were exiled to the other ends of the Empire. These contacts, paradoxically, contributed to a rapprochement between the Western supporters of the Nicene creed and the Eastern semi-Arians.

Theodosius and the Council of Constantinople

The tide turned decisively against Arianism when Valens died in battle in 378 and was succeeded by Theodosius I, who strongly adhered to the Nicene Creed. Two days after Theodosius arrived in Constantinople, on November 24, 380, he expelled the Homoian bishop, Demophilus of Constantinople, and gave the supervision of the churches of that city to the future Bishop Gregory of Nazianzus, the leader of the rather small Nicene community there, an act which provoked rioting. Theodosius had recently been baptized during a severe illness, as was common in the early Christian world. In February he published an edict ordering that all Roman subjects should profess the faith of the bishops of Rome and Alexandria (i.e., the Nicene faith).

In 381, at the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople, a group of mainly Eastern bishops assembled and accepted the Nicene Creed. This is generally considered the end of Arianism among the non-Germanic peoples. At the close of this council, Theodosius issued an imperial decree ordering that any non-conforming churches would be turned over pro-Nicene bishops. Although many in the church hierarchy in the East had opposed the Nicene creed in the decades leading up to Theodosius' accession, he managed to impose unity by a combination of force and effective administration.

Arianism in the Germanic kingdoms

During the time of Arianism's flowering in Constantinople, the Goth convert Ulfilas was sent as a missionary to the Gothic barbarians across the Danube, a mission supported for political reasons by Constantius II. Ulfilas' initial success in converting this Germanic people to an Arian form of Christianity was strengthened by the fact that Arianism was favored by the contemporary emperors.

Alaric I, who conquered Rome in 410 B.C.E.., was an Arian Christian.

When the Germanic peoples entered the Roman Empire and founded successor-kingdoms in its western part, most had been Arian Christians for more than a century. The conquerors established Arian churches throughout much of the former western Roman empire. Parallel hierarchies served different sets of believers—the Germanic elites being Arians, while the majority population adhered to the Nicene creed.

While most Germanic tribes were tolerant regarding the trinitarian beliefs of their subjects, the Vandals tried for several decades to force their Arian belief on their North African trinitarian subjects, exiling trinitarian clergy, dissolving monasteries, and exercising heavy pressure on non-conforming Christians.

Other Germanic Arian tribes tended to be less adamant in their faith than Nicene Christians, and the orthodox party possessed advantages in literacy and the sophistication of their Christian culture. By the beginning of the 8th century, the Arian kingdoms had either been conquered (Ostrogoths, Vandals, Burgundians) by Nicene neighbors, or their rulers had accepted Nicene Christianity voluntarily (Visigoths, Lombards). The Franks were unique among the Germanic peoples in that they entered the empire as pagans and converted to Nicene Christianity directly.

Later "Arianism"

As the first major intra-Christian conflict after Christianity's legalization, the struggle between Nicenes and Arians left a deep impression on the institutional memory of Nicene churches. Thus, over the past 1,500 years, some Christians have used the term Arian to refer to those groups that see themselves as worshiping Jesus Christ or respecting his teachings, but who place Jesus in a subservient position to God.

In 1553, the Spanish scholar and Protestant reformer Michael Servetus, seen by many Unitarians as a founding figure, was sentenced to death and burned at the stake by his fellow reformers, including John Calvin, for the heresy of Antitrinitarianism. His Christology was similar in several ways to Arianism.

Like the Arians, many more recent groups have embraced the belief that the Son is a separate being subordinate to the Father, and that Christ at one time did not exist. Some of these profess, as the Arians did, that God made all things through the pre-existent Christ. Others profess that Jesus became divine through his obedience to God. Despite the frequency with which Arianism is used to describe such groups, there has been no historically continuous survival of Arianism into the modern era, nor do the groups so labeled hold beliefs identical to Arianism. For this reason, they do not use the name as a self-description, even when they acknowledge that their beliefs are occasionally in agreement with Arianism.

Those whose religious beliefs have been compared to, or labeled as, Arianism include:

  • Unitarians, who believe that God is one, as opposed to a Trinity, and who often accept Jesus as a moral authority but not as a divinity.
  • Jehovah's Witnesses, who—like Arius—teach that Jesus had a pre-human existence as the Logos, but not as the Second Person of the Trinity in the orthodox sense.
  • Christadelphians, who believe that Jesus' pre-natal existence was as a conceptual Logos, rather than an actual Son to God the Father.
  • Followers of the various churches of the Latter-day Saints, who believe in the unity in purpose of the Godhead but teach that Jesus is a divine being distinct from the Trinity.
  • Unificationists, who believe that Jesus was the incarnation of the pre-existent Logos, but who also affirm that God existed alone before conceiving his Ideal of Creation.
  • Muslims, who believe that Jesus was a prophet of the one God, but not himself divine.

See also

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External links

All links retrieved August 12, 2023.


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