The Arian Controversy

The Arian Controversy

Church History I

First Baptist Church Dandridge

Dr. Justin Terrell

Session Eleven

The Arian Controversy


With the radical conversion of Emperor Constantine, Christianity no longer faced the outside threats of widespread persecution and oppression inflicted by the Roman Empire. However, the church continued to face the inside threat of false teaching – which is always more dangerous to Christian life. While outside persecution often produces strength and growth, inside heresy (false teaching) produces weakness and decline, and this was the threat posed by several heresies in the early centuries of church history. However, just as God redeemed persecution for greater growth, he redeemed heresy for greater theological precision. In fact, some of the strongest theological formulations in church history came as a defense against false teaching. And one such defense came during the Arian controversy, which has been called “the greatest theological controversy in the history of Christianity” (Needham, 219). 

  1. The Arian Controversy
  1. Background: In AD 318, a popular presbyter and teacher from Libya named Arius (AD 256-336) began teaching in Alexandria. He came with the message that the Father alone was God, and not the Son. According to Arius, the Son was a created being – formed out of nothing when the universe was made, which meant that there was a time when the Son had not existed. A popular phrase of the time was, “there was when He was not.” However, Arius taught that the Son was indeed the first and greatest of all that God created. He was closer to God than all the others, and the rest of creation was created through him. But only the Father was truly God – infinite, eternal, and uncreated. This teaching sent shockwaves throughout the Empire. Was Jesus not truly God? 
  1. Motive: It would be wrong to say that Arius was a sinful, wicked deceiver, only looking to mislead the church. It appears that Arius thought he was defending the fundamental truth that there is only one God. In his mind, if Christ was also God, it would mean that the Father and Son are two separate Gods, which contradicted the Bible’s statements about God’s oneness. Some believe that Arius was turned off by Origen’s idea that there could be “degrees” or “grades” of divinity, with the Son being “less divine” than the Father. However, if God is “One,” then even varying degrees of God would still result in God being more than one.  
  • History: Most likely Arius received this understanding from his teacher, Lucian of Antioch, who was the head the Antiochene school of theology. Because Lucian’s views are so similar to Arius’, he has been called “the father of Arianism.” 
  • Opposition: In AD 313, Arius was strongly opposed by his own bishop, Alexander of Alexandria. Alexander insisted that the Son was fully God, no less divine than the Father. However, the issue for Alexander was to prove that this view did not lead to the conclusion of two Gods, which led to Arius’ teaching. As a result, in AD 320, Alexander called for a council of Egyptian bishops to charge Arius with heresy. But Arius wouldn’t go down without a fight. 
  • Strategy: To draw supporters to his side, Arius called upon a network of Eastern bishops throughout Palestine. These bishops had likewise studied under Lucian in Antioch and would have been open to Arius’ teaching. It was even said that when Arius sent out letters to these bishops, he addressed them as, “Dear fellow pupil of Lucian.” The strategy worked, as many bishops throughout the East supported Arius and opposed Alexandria. 
  • The Council of Nicaea
  1. Background: While the issue began as theological, the division among believers made it become political. Constantine could see that this intense disagreement over the nature of Jesus was leading to a political divide in the Empire, which meant that he needed to intervene to save his kingdom from civil war. Therefore, in AD 325, he personally called for a council of bishops and others to meet in the city of Nicaea. This council would include over 300 bishops, along with many presbyters and deacons. Constantine presided over the Council of Nicaea, even taking an active part in the debates and discussions that followed. Then, following the lead of his advisor, Hosius of Cordova, who affirmed the full divinity of Christ, Constantine ruled in favor of Alexander. As a result, the Nicene Creed was written, which not only affirmed the full divinity of Jesus, but was written with staunch anti-Arian language. 
  2. Nicene Creed: We believe in one God, the Father almighty, Creator of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the essence of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not created, of the same essence [homoousios] as the Father, through Whom [i.e., through Christ] all things were created both in heaven and on earth; Who for us human beings and for our salvation came down and was incarnate, was made man, suffered and rose again on the third day, ascended into heaven, and is coming again to judge the living and the dead; and [we believe] in the Holy Spirit.”
  • Anathemas: “As for those who say, ‘There was a time when He [the Logos] was not; and, He was not before He was created; and, He was created out of nothing, or out of another essence [hypostasis] or thing [ousia]; and, The Son of God is created, or changeable, or can alter’ – the holy, catholic and apostolic Church anathematizes those who say such things.” 
  • Discipline: The Nicene Creed became the deciding factor between orthodoxy (correct belief) and heterodoxy (false belief). If one did not affirm the Nicene Creed, they were declared “anathema,” which is the Greek word meaning “to give over,” declaring that someone was no longer a Christian. Eventually, all but two of Arius’ followers – Secundus and Ptolemais – signed the Creed, which meant that these two, along with Arius were declared unbelievers and sent into exile. 
  • Continued Debate: While the Council of Nicaea seemed to have settled the Arian controversy, there was still an underlying division in the Eastern Church. Debate and division would continue for the next fifty years. Interestingly, while the Arian party was ruled as heretics, there was still division between those who followed Alexander and those who follow Origen. 
  1. Origen had taught that the Son was co-eternal with the Father, meaning that the Son was divine (unlike Arius). However, Origen also taught that the Father was more divine than the Son. In other words, the Father had a greater level of divinity than Jesus. Therefore, the Origenist party, as it was known, followed and defended these teachings.  
  • Alexander, whose views were followed by the Nicene party, held that the Father and Son were equally divine, both possessing the same level of divinity, meaning that Jesus is truly and fully God. However, the language the Nicene’s used didn’t make sense to the Origenists, which led to the idea that the Father and Son were the same person. 
  • Homoousios – According to the Nicene Creed, the word “homoousios” was used to explain that the Father and Son had the “same essence/substance” (GK. “ousia”). In other words, the Father and Son shared the same divine nature, being, or qualities. However, the unorthodox Sabellians used the same word (ousia) to mean that the Father and Son were the same person, which is modalism, or the idea that the Father changed modes, or transformed into the Son in the incarnation; and the Son changes modes, or transformed into the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, etc. Therefore, the Origenists blew the whistle, claiming that the Nicene’s were Sabellians. The Origenists preferred the Greek word “homoiousios,” which means “similar essence/substance.” In other words, the Father and Son were not the same, but similar. The letter “i” is among the smallest in the alphabet, but it contains huge theological implications.  
  • Arians? ­– However, because the Origenists held that the Father and Son were both God, but the Son was a lesser degree than the Father, the Nicene’s believed the Origenists were more like the Arians (“Semi-Arians”), because they were less firm on the Son’s divine nature. The two parties would be at odds for over 50 years, which led to negative feelings by the Eastern Church concerning the Nicene Creed. 
  • Athanasius
  1. Background: In AD 328, Alexandria received a new bishop named Athanasius. Like Alexander before him, Athanasius fully supported the Nicene Creed. He would become one of the greatest and most influential thinkers in the history of the Church. Little is known about his early life, but most likely Athanasius was raised in a poor, Coptic family, before being converted and appointed as the senior deacon and secretary of bishop Alexander. Athanasius spent much of his time with monks in the desert, where he learned Scripture and theology and incredible discipline. Gonzalez notes, “His monastic discipline, his roots among the people, his fiery spirit, and his profound and unshakable conviction made him invincible” (174). He had taken part in the debates at the Council of Nicaea, arguing persuasively for the full divinity of Christ. Athanasius came to the council as a young man, dark and short in appearance, which is why his enemies called him “the black dwarf.” However, because of his adamant theological views concerning the fully deity of Christ, it was the dying request of Alexander that Athanasius become bishop. 
  • Theology: Athanasius’s main focus was on “soteriology,” which is the doctrine of salvation. He understood salvation in terms of “deification,” meaning that upon belief Christ makes humans divine beings. Now, this did not mean that Christ actually changed believers into divine beings like God, but that human nature was lifted up by grace, through Christ, to share in the glory and immortality of God (i.e., regeneration). He often referenced 1 Peter 1:3-4, “[God] called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” Therefore, Athanasius reasoned that if Christ could make human nature divine then he himself must be fully divine. Further, if Christ is man’s Savior, then he must be God and man in one person. He also argued on the worship of Christ – how could Jesus be worshiped if he wasn’t truly God? Finally, in AD 362, at a synod gathering in Alexandria, Athanasius declared that it was acceptable to refer to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as “one substance” as long as this did not remove the distinctions among the three. In other words, one God–three persons. 
  • Writings: Athanasius explained his understanding of Christ and salvation in writings such as The Incarnation of the LogosOrations against the Arians, and Letters to Serapion. In his Festal Letter, he recognizes the 27 books of the New Testament as canonical.  
  • Legacy: After serving as bishop of Alexandria for 45 years, Athanasius proved to be a fierce opponent of Arianism in all its forms. Historian Edward Gibbon noted that Athanasius’ life “was a classic example of what effect may be produced, or what obstacles may be surmounted, by the force of a single mind, when it is inflexibly applied to the pursuit of a single object. The immortal name of Athanasius will never be separated from the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity, to whose defense he consecrated every moment and every faculty of his being.” Needman describes Athanasius as one with an “unfaltering devotion to Christ…high moral courage, a quick-thinking mind, a spark sense of humor, and a broad-minded tolerance of many theological differences among all who were united with him in the struggle against the Arians” (228-229). However, because of political turmoil following the death of Emperor Constantine, which resulted in more theological division among the churches of the East and West, Athanasius was exiled and returned several times until the end of his life.