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Heresies & Heretics

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by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Arianism, a fourth-century heresy which denied the divinity of Jesus Christ. Its author was Arius (256-336), a priest of Alexandria, who in 318 began to teach the doctrine which now bears his name. According to Arius there are not three distinct persons in God, co-eternal and equal in all things, but only one person, the Father. The Son is only a creature, made out of nothing like all other created beings. He may be called God but only by an extension of language, as the first and greatest person chosen to be divine intermediary in the creation and redemption of the world.

In the Arian system, the Logos or Word of God (the second person of the Trinity in orthodox theology) is not eternal. There was a time when he did not exist. Yet, he is before all time and ages, which began only with the creation of the world. He is not a son by nature, but merely by grace and adoption. God adopted him in prevision of his merits, since he might have sinned but did not. He was therefore sinless not by necessity of nature but simply as a matter of fact. If we call him God, it is only in the broad sense in which all the just in Scripture are said to be divine. In a word, instead of being God he is a kind of Demiurge-a lesser god like the one posited by the earlier Gnostics-who advanced in virtue and merit and thus came to be closely associated with the Father. But his nature is not of the same substance as the Father's.

Arius did not say much about the Holy Spirit except to deny that he was God. In Arian terminology the Spirit was produced mediately by the Logos, much as the Logos was directly produced by the Father.

Boldly anti-trinitarian, Arianism struck at the foundations of orthodox Christianity by reducing the Incarnation-the union of divinity with humanity in Christ—to a figure of speech. If the Logos was created and not divine, God did not become man nor redeem the world and all the consequent mysteries of the faith are dissolved.

A variety of factors conspired to produce Arianism. Philo Judaeus among the Jewish Hellenists and Plotinus among the Neo-Platonists contributed the theory of an agglomerate of ideas as the first mediator between God and the world. Gnosticism furnished the notion of aeons or lesser deities. The ambiguity of certain Fathers like Athenagoras, Tatian, Tertullian, Novatian, and Lucian of Antioch suggested a kind of subordinationism, namely, that the Son was less divine than the Father because he either did not come into being or at least was not perfect until the dawn of creation. Most directly, Arius was affected by the disciples of Paul of Samosata, bishop of Antioch (260-268), who denied the Trinity and claimed that, although divine wisdom abided in Christ to an eminent degree, he was not the incarnate Son of God.

The Council of Nicaea was convoked in 325 to meet the Arian crisis. Since the signature lists are defective, the exact number of prelates who attended the council is not known. However, at least 220 bishops, mostly from the East, but also from Africa, Spain, Gaul and Italy, signed the creed which affirmed the divinity of Christ and condemned Arius as a heretic. "We believe," the formula read, “in one God, the Father Almighty, Creator of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father, that is, of the substance of the Father; God from God, light from light, true God from true God; begotten, not created, consubstantial [Greek homo-ousion] with the Father." The soul of the council was St. Athanasius (296-373), bishop of Alexandria, whose resolute character and theological insight were the main obstacles to the triumph of Arianism in the East.

Advisedly the council used the phrase "Son of God" in place of "Logos" to avoid confusion. The words "only-begotten" were further explained to mean that the Word was not created from nothing, but possessed the very nature and substance of the Father.

Condemned and exiled to Illyricum, Arius was rehabilitated after 330 by the emperor Constantine, to whom he had given a vague profession of faith. But St. Athanasius refused to receive him. After the latter's exile Arius tried, but still in vain, to return to his diocese. His followers obtained permission for him to work in Constantinople. He was about to make a triumphal entry when he died suddenly under circumstances which moved Athanasius to quote the fate of Judas Iscariot.

Officially proscribed by Nicaea, Arianism next entered on its polemical phase. Different formulas of doctrine became current, generally ambiguous and susceptible of an orthodox interpretation, which the civil authorities frequently sanctioned and even imposed under heavy penalties of law. During this period of strife, the leading defender of Christian tradition was again St. Athanasius, who combated every compromise with the orthodox faith and was exiled for his constancy no less than five times by four emperors, including Constantine.

The Arians themselves broke into several factions. Strict Arians (Anomoeans) claimed that the Son is unlike (anomoios) the Father. Semi-Arians said the Son is only similar (homoios) but not identical in essence with the Father. Both forms persisted longer among the Goths than elsewhere. The Arian Ulfilas, educated in Constantinople and consecrated bishop by Arius' friend, Eusebius, had organized missionary work among the Visigoths and made most of them Arians about the middle of the fourth century. After the battle of Adrianople (378), the great body of Visigoths settled within the empire where Arianism became the national religion of Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Burgundians, Suevi, Vandals and Lombards. For almost two centuries they kept it alive in the West. The heresy persisted in the Visigothic kingdom of Spain until the great council at Toledo in 589.

About the year 360 some Arian bishops began to teach that the Holy Spirit is not also divine. Named Macedonians, commonly but perhaps erroneously after Bishop Macedonius of Constantinople, and also called Pneumatomachi (enemies of the Spirit), they were condemned in 381 by the second ecumenical council at Constantinople which reaffirmed the Nicene Creed and clearly defined the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

Certain modern denominations have a logical relationship meet the to Arianism, although not necessarily a linear development from the ancient stock. Unitarians, Anti-trinitarians, and Socinians believe in the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the example of Jesus as a model of ethical perfection, and the salvation of mankind through an evolutionary process inherent in all things.

Also in the Arian tradition are the Rationalists when they deal with the person of Christ. Their system postulates the absolute rights of natural reason as the only source of religious truth. Consequently they deny the divinity of Christ, except in Arius' sense of "the most intimate to God," and for the same reason as Arius, because the Trinity and Incarnation are mysteries of faith to be accepted on the authority of God.

Collier’s Encyclopedia
Vol. 2, pp. 592-593

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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