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Arius (256 - 336 C.E., poss. in North Africa) was an early Christian theologian, who taught that the Son of God was not eternal, and was subordinate to God the Father (a view known generally as Arianism). Although he attracted considerable support at the time (and since), Arius's views were voted into heresy at the First Council of Nicaea, leading to the formation of the Nicene Creed. Arius is also known as Arius of Alexandria.

He was possibly of Libyan and Berber descent. His father's name is given as Ammonius. He was made presbyter of the district of Baucalis in Alexandria in 313. Warren H. Carroll (paraphrasing Epiphanius of Salamis, an opponent of Arius) describes him as “tall and lean, of distinguished appearance and polished address. Women doted on him, charmed by his beautiful manners, touched by his appearance of asceticism. Men were impressed by his aura of intellectual superiority.”[1]. Sometimes, the intricacies of Christological theology may appear to be of concern only to an intellectual elite. However, contemporary accounts of the debates surrounding the ideas of Arius suggest that shopkeepers and bath-attendants and money changers were all discussing the issues, as Christie-Murray comments 'Every Christian shopkeeper became a theologian' [2]. Furthermore, when Trinitarian and Christological matters are properly and simply explained, most thinking people can recognize the great relevance of the debates and the implications of how one decides regarding the issues under consideration. Conclusions are important not only religiously, but in all matters of life.

Historical sources

Information regarding the life and teachings of Arius is limited; most of Arius' writings, deemed heretical by the Council of Nicea, were consequently destroyed. Indeed, our only record of his teaching is found in writings of those who opposed him and denounced him as a heretic—sources which are obviously far from dispassionate. Yet these, as the only surviving references to him, are all the scholars have. These few remaining works credited to him are Epiphanius' recordings of his letter to Alexander of Alexandria, Theodoret's recording of his letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia, and Athanasius' recording of fragments of Thalia, a popularized work combining prose and verse.

Early life

Arius was a pupil of Lucian of Antioch. Lucian was both a celebrated Christian teacher who became a martyr for the faith. However, in a letter to Bishop Alexander of Constantinople, Alexander of Alexandria wrote that Arius derived his heresy from Lucian. The object of his letter is to complain of the errors Arius was then spreading but the charges in the letter are vague and are unsupported by other authorities. Alexander's language, like that of most controversialists in those days, is not a little violent. Moreover, Lucian is not stated, even by Alexander himself, to have fallen into the heresy afterward promulgated by Arius, but is accused ad invidiam of heretical tendencies.

The historian Socrates Scholasticus reports that Arius first became controversial under the bishop Achillas of Alexandria when he made the following syllogism: "‘If,’ said he, ‘the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence: and from this it is evident, that there was a time when the Son was not. It therefore necessarily follows, that he had his substance from nothing.’"

Alexander accused him of low morality. He no doubt had a disproportionate number of female supporters, but there are no grounds for Alexander's insinuation in the letter, that these women were of loose morals. There appears, however, more foundation for his 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 melodies with infamous associations. Thus, the furious debates among Christians in Egypt "became a subject of popular ridicule, even in the very theaters." (Socrates)

The patriarch of Alexandria has been the subject of adverse criticism for his slow action against his subordinate. Like his predecessor Dionysius, he 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 favor of the opponents of the homoousion. Therefore Alexander allowed the controversy to go on until he felt that it had become dangerous to the peace of the church. Then he called a council of bishops (about 100 in number), and sought their advice. Once they decided against Arius, Alexander delayed no longer. He deposed Arius from his office, and excommunicated both him and his supporters. Then he wrote a letter to Alexander of Constantinople and Eusebius of Nicomedia (where the emperor was then residing), detailing the errors into which he believed Arius had fallen, and complaining of the danger he presented to the Christian church.

In Arius's own letter (also extant) to Eusebius of Nicomedia, it is found a summary of the theology that Alexander considered unacceptable:

"That God was not always the Father, but that there was a period when he was not the Father; that the Word of God was not from eternity, but was made out of nothing; for that the ever-existing God (‘the I AM’—the eternal One) made him who did not previously exist, out of nothing; wherefore there was a time when he did not exist, inasmuch as the Son is a creature and a work. That he is neither like the Father as it regards his essence, nor is by nature either the Father’s true Word, or true Wisdom, but indeed one of his works and creatures, being erroneously called Word and Wisdom, since he was himself made of God’s own Word and the Wisdom which is in God, whereby God both made all things and him also. Wherefore he is as to his nature mutable and susceptible of change, as all other rational creatures are: hence the Word is alien to and other than the essence of God; and the Father is inexplicable by the Son, and invisible to him, for neither does the Word perfectly and accurately know the Father, neither can he distinctly see him. The Son knows not the nature of his own essence: for he was made on our account, in order that God might create us by him, as by an instrument; nor would he ever have existed, unless God had wished to create us."

He states something similar in Thalia:

“God has not always been Father; there was a moment when he was alone, and was not yet Father: later he became so. The Son is not from eternity; he came from nothing.[3]

Arius's Concept of Christ

This question of the exact relationship between the Father and the Son, a part of Christology, had been raised before Arius, for example, when Paul of Samosata was deposed in 269 for his agreement with those who had used the word homoousios (Greek for same substance) 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 showed, this was on account of its scope not having been satisfactorily defined. In the discussion which followed, Dionysius, Patriarch of Alexandria, had used much the same language as Arius did later, and correspondence survives in which Pope Dionysius blames his brother of Alexandria for using such language. Dionysius of Alexandria responded with an explanation, which posterity has been inclined to interpret as vacillating. So far as the earlier controversy could be said to have been decided, it was decided in favor of the opinions later championed by Arius. But this settlement was so unsatisfactory that the question would have been reopened sooner or later, especially in an atmosphere so intellectual as that of Alexandria. For the synod of Antioch which condemned Paul of Samosata had expressed its disapproval of the word homoousios in one sense, and Patriarch Alexander undertook its defense in another.

Arius formulated the following doctrines about Jesus:

  1. that the Logos and the Father were not of the same essence (ousia);
  2. that the Son was a created being (ktisma or poiema); and
  3. that though He was the creator of the worlds, and must therefore have existed before them and before all time, there was a "time" [although Arius refused to use words meaning time, such as chronos or aeon] when He did not exist.

Arius disliked homoousios because it is not found in the Bible and because it 'smacked of materialism … it was used, for example, to describe two coins made of the same material' [4]. The subsequent controversy shows that Arius' avoidance of the words chronos and aion was adroit; when defending himself he clearly argued that there was a time when the Son did not exist. Moreover, he asserted that the Logos had a beginning. By way of contrast, Origen had taught that the relation of the Son to the Father had no beginning and that, to use Dorner's words [5] "the generation of the Son is an eternally completed, and yet an eternally continued, act" - or in other words, the Father has, from all eternity, been communicating His Being to the Son, and is doing so still. However, Arius seems to have further support in his view as his is purely intellectual, whereas those claiming the eternity of the "begotten" (i.e., created, made, or produced) Son need textual revelation to back their belief, which they have not been able to gather.

Arius was obviously perplexed by this doctrine, for he complains of it in his letter to the Nicomedian Eusebius, who, like himself, had studied under Lucian. It is to be regretted that so much stress should have been laid in the controversy on words, but this is understood under the influence of Greek philosophical thought, with concepts such as "substance" that are alien to the Jewish religious experience of the Divine. Arius also contended that the Son was unchangeable (atreptos). 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 Athanasius seems to have admitted that it was 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. He was doubtless confirmed in his attitude by his fear of falling into Sabellianism. Bishop Macedonius I of Constantinople, who had to a certain extent imbibed the opinions of Arius, certainly regarded the Son and the Spirit in much the same way that the Gnostic teachers regarded their aeons. Arius undoubtedly drew some support from the writings of Origen, who had made use of expressions which favored 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 the speculations of Origen were then, as well as currently, considered as pioneer work in theology, often hazarded to stimulate further inquiry rather than to enable men to dispense with it. This explains why in this, as well as other controversies, the authority of Origen is so frequently invoked by both sides.

The Council of Nicaea

Constantine, seeing the division caused by the controversy, sent Hosius, bishop of Córdoba—the one who reportedly instructed him in the faith just before his march to Rome—to investigate and, if possible, put an end to the controversy. Hosius carried with him an open letter from the Emperor: "Wherefore let each one of you, showing consideration for the other, listen to the impartial exhortation of your fellow-servant." But as it continued to rage, Constantine Icalled a council of delegates, summoned from parts of the empire, to resolve this issue, probably at Hosius' recommendation.[6]

All of the secular dioceses into which the empire had been divided, Roman Britain only excepted, sent one or more representatives to the council, the majority of the bishops coming from the East. Pope Sylvester I, himself too aged to be present, sent two presbyters as his delegates. It is possible that Hosius came as a representative of the Pope as well.[7] 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 the already mentioned Eusebius of Nicomedia, and Alexander, patriarch of Alexandria. There was also Eusebius of Caesarea, the renowned historian, as well as the young Athanasius, who was to eventually spend most of his life battling against Arianism. And beside these there were other men present, the brave "confessors," as they were called, whose faces and limbs bore evident traces of the sufferings they had undergone for their faith. The emperor did his best to secure an honest selection and an honest decision.

This was the First Council of Nicaea, which met in 325, near Constantinople, under the patronage of the emperor Constantine. “Some twenty-two of the bishops at the council, led by Eusebius of Nicomedia, came as supporters of Arius. But when some of the more shocking passages from his writings were read, they were almost universally seen as blasphemous.”[8] The assembled bishops agreed upon a creed to be used at baptisms and in catechetical instruction. This creed has come to be known as the Nicene Creed. One particular word in the creed, homoousios—“consubstantial,” or “one in being,”—was incompatible with the beliefs of Arius.[9] The creed was presented for signature on June 19, 325. “All the bishops signed it but two from Libya who had been closely associated with Arius from the beginning.” [10] These two were Theonas and Secundus. They and Arius were exiled to Illyricum. Three other bishops, who had been supportive of Arius, namely Eusebius of Nicomedia, Theognis of Nicaea, and Maris of Chalcedon, were unwilling signatories of the document, but affixed their signatures in deference to the emperor. However, Constantine found some reason to suspect the sincerity of Eusebius of Nicomedia, as well as that of Theognis and Maris, for he soon after included them in the sentence pronounced on Arius. Eusebius of Caesarea defended himself in a letter as having objected to the changes in the creed which he had originally presented, but finally accepted them in the interests of peace. (Theod. H. E. i. 12).

After the Council of Nicaea

That the public unanimity of the council (Secundus and Theonas of Lower Egypt being the only dissenters) masked a considerable amount of divergent opinion is indisputable. Doubts over the use of a term which had been previously denounced as Sabellian weighed on the minds of many. Eusebius of Caesarea has been charged by many later writers as having embraced Arianism. But his moderate attitude throughout the following period suggests that his objections to the decision, which he allowed his love of peace to overrule, owed more to the dread of possible consequences than to the decision in itself. And his allusion to the proceedings at Nicaea in the letter just mentioned shows that his apprehensions were not altogether unreasonable. For he remarks how the final consensus emerged after considerable discussion that the term homoousion was not intended to indicate that the Son formed an actual portion of the Father - which would have been Sabellianism pure and simple, a fear which fed much of the dissension to the adoption of the creed. On the other hand, Athanasius was convinced 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.

The homoousian party's victory at Nicaea was short-lived, however. The controversy recommenced as soon as the decrees were promulgated. When Alexander died at Alexandria in 327, Athanasius was elected to replace him. 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 reformulating his Christology in an effort to mute the ideas his opponents found most objectionable. It was not long before the Nicomedian Eusebius regained his influence with the emperor, which led to a complete reversal of the position of the contending parties. Eustathius of Antioch, one of the staunchest supporters of Athanasius, was deposed. If Theodoret is to be trusted, one of his accusers, when seized by a serious illness, retracted her accusation in a sensational manner. But Socrates Scholasticus (379 C.E. - ca. 439) and Sozomen (400 - 450 C.E.) 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 of Caesarea. Marcellus of Ancyra was the next victim, a friend and champion of Athanasius, found it impossible to defend the Nicene decisions without falling into Sabellianism; he was deposed in 336. In the meantime, Eusebius of Nicomedia turned against obdurate Athanasius. Following Arius' restoration to the emperor's favor, the emperor commanded Athanasius to readmit Arius to communion. Athanasius refused—leading to accusations of treason against the emperor.

Athanasius was exiled to Trier, and Alexander of Constantinople was ordered to receive Arius back into communion. Alexander was conflicted. He dared not disobey the command, but he was opposed to Arius' reinstatement. He requested the prayers of his fellow Nicene Christians that either he or Arius might be removed from the world before the latter was admitted to communion. The prayer was, Henry Wace notes, a strange one. Meanwhile, Arius was summoned before the emperor and found to be suitably compliant. And yet, the very day before he was to be readmitted to communion, Arius died suddenly. Socrates Scholasticus describes his death thus:

It was then Saturday, and … going out of the imperial palace, attended by a crowd of Eusebian [Eusebius of Nicomedia is meant] partisans like guards, he [Arius] paraded proudly through the midst of the city, attracting the notice of all the people. As he approached the place called Constantine's Forum, where the column of porphyry is erected, a terror arising from the remorse of conscience seized Arius, and with the terror a violent relaxation of the bowels: he therefore inquired whether there was a convenient place near, and being directed to the back of Constantine's Forum, he hastened thither. Soon after a faintness came over him, and together with the evacuations his bowels protruded, followed by a copious hemorrhage, and the descent of the smaller intestines: moreover portions of his spleen and liver were brought off in the effusion of blood, so that he almost immediately died. The scene of this catastrophe still is shown at Constantinople, as I have said, behind the shambles in the colonnade: and by persons going by pointing the finger at the place, there is a perpetual remembrance preserved of this extraordinary kind of death [11]

Whether Arius' death was miraculous, as many Nicene Christians believed, or he was the victim of poisoning by his enemies, is a matter of supposition, but the extraordinary death of Arius, followed as it was a year later by that of Constantine himself, led to a temporary lull in the controversy.

This article uses text from A Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century C.E., with an Account of the Principal Sects and Heresies. [12]


Arianism continued for some four hundred years, especially among the Goths. Over time, as the Goths settled within the Roman Empire, they adopted the Nicene faith. Christine-Murray (1976) says that Arians were strong enough, even in the fifth century, 'to chant antiphonally songs denouncing the Catholic views', which sometimes led to outbreaks of violence. He comments that by the 'eight century, Arianism had disappeared - except in the minds of myriads of people sitting in the pews … to whom the analogy of Father and Son has suggested and continues to suggest a human relationship of time implied by the human experience that children always come after their parents.' [13].

Muslim writers often regard Arianism as original. Unitarian Christianity, pointing out that Arians and Muslims both accept 'Jesus as a prophet who … was still a man' and that Christians in territories were Arianism had prevailed tended to become Muslim more readily [14]Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood associates the winning, Trinitarian party at Nicea with the victory of 'sun-worship', claiming that 'key features of the sun-god's birthday celebrations were incorporated into the developing Trinitarian ceremonies' [15] She also says that Constantine, when he was finally baptized (on his death-bed) was baptized 'an as Arian … in the faith of all those he had allowed to be killed' [16].


  1. Warren H. Carroll, A History of Christendom, II, (Chicago, IL: Christendom Press, 2004, ISBN 0931888247) 10
  2. David Christie-Murray. A History of Heresy. (NY: Oxford University Press, 1976. ISBN 0192852108), 46
  3. Carroll, 10
  4. Christie-Murray, 48
  5. J. A. Dorner, ( History Of The Development Of The Doctrine Of The Person Of Christ, translated by D. W. Simon. ii.), 115
  6. Carroll, 11
  7. Ibid., 11
  8. Ibid., 11
  9. Ibid., 12
  10. Ibid., 12
  11. Calvin College, Christian Classics Ethereal Library (XXXVIII: The Death of Arius [1]. Retrieved December 18, 2007.
  12. Henry Wace (1836-1924) [2] A Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century C.E., with an Account of the Principal Sects and Heresies. William C. Piercy (Editor) London: (original 1911) Retrieved December 18, 2007.
  13. Christie-Murray, 55
  14. Muhammad 'Ata u-Rahman. Jesus: Prophet of Islam, Wood Darling Hall, (Norfolk: Diwan Press, 1977), 110
  15. Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood, The Mysteries of Jesus, (Oxford, UK: Sakina Books, 2000), 199
  16. Ibid., 200

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • 'Ata u-Rahman, Muhammad. Jesus: Prophet of Islam, Wood Darling Hall, (Norfolk: Diwan Press, 1977. ISBN 0950444634
  • Carroll, Warren H. A History of Christendom, II, Chicago, IL: Christendom Press, 2004. ISBN 0931888247
  • Christie-Murray, David. A History of Heresy. NY: Oxford University Press, 1976. ISBN 0192852108
  • Dorner, J. A. History Of The Development Of The Doctrine Of The Person Of Christ, translated by D. W. Simon., ii. Kessinger Publishing, (reprint) 2007. ISBN 0548285179
  • Maqsood, Ruqaiyyah Waris. The Mysteries of Jesus. Oxford, UK: Sakina Books, 2000. ISBN 0953805670
  • Wace, Henry. A Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century C.E., with an Account of the Principal Sects and Heresies. William C. Piercy (Editor) Hendrickson Pub., 1994. (original 1911) ISBN 1565630572

See also

External links

All links retrieved August 15, 2023.


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