Who was Arius, and what did he teach?

When learning about early Christian history it’s very common to run across a theology known as Arianism. I had never heard of the term until about twelve years ago when I began writing my book, In Search of Christian Origins: A Timeline of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Once I learned of the popularity of Arius’s theology, I wanted to look deeper to see what why it was so widespread.

Arians were a sect of early Christians who subscribed to the ideas of Arius, a priest from Alexandria, Egypt, who died in 336 AD. Being a scholar and clergyman, he was very familiar with Christian writings. I can’t use the term “scripture” here because in his time, there was no Holy Scripture. The New Testament wouldn’t be compiled and begin to be referred to as “scripture” until about fifty years after Arius died. Since he was in Alexandria, and that was probably the most important Christian city at the time, he must have had access to any significant Christian writings.

From his studies, Arius concluded that God had created Jesus. And if that was true, the two of them could not be the same being. That would make those who promoted the idea of the Trinity wrong. If God created him, Jesus had to be subordinate to God. The arguments between Arians and Trinitarians came down to both sides quoting verses from the Bible that supported their way of thinking.

In the time of Arius and his bitter nemesis, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, just as today, it’s easy to find conflicts and contradictions in Christian writing.

Christians didn’t have a monopoly on godly trinities

The concept of a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit wasn’t fully established until the end of the fourth century, but the sparks of the Arian schism began to fly at the Council of Nicaea in 325. For reasons of convenience, many Christians may have supported the idea of a Trinity because it wasn’t unusual for religions to have trinities. Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Daoism, Hinduism all had trinities or triads before Christianity. It may not be that Christians copied the idea from other religions, but that the number three held some mystical importance as a “perfect number”. I’m not saying I understand how three is perfect, but maybe you can.

Just as important as the number three was the belief that if Jesus wasn’t God, but was still a divine being, that would make Christianity a polytheistic religion. Christians, as spiritual descendants of monotheistic Judaism, couldn’t accept the idea that there was more than one God, so the trinity solve that problem by making Jesus divine, but not separate from God.

The Counsel of Nicaea

Roman emperor, Constantine I called the Council of Nicaea in an attempt to bring harmony among the constantly bickering Christian sects. He wanted a unifying religion for his empire and chose Christianity as the solution. The main agenda item at the council was how to make peace between the Trinitarians and the Arians.

The two sides, pro-Arius and anti-Arius, differed on one key word of the proposed Nicene Creed. The Trinitarians insisted the relation between Jesus and God was homoousios, the Greek word for “same substance” or “same essence”. In other words, Jesus and God were two forms of the same being. The Arians however, said Jesus Christ and God were homoiousios, meaning “similar substance”, but that God created Jesus. That “one iota”, the Greek letter i, was enough of a difference to set the theologians at each other’s throats—only figuratively I hope. Otherwise their theologies were almost identical.

The exile of Arius

The Nicene Creed was crafted to defeat Arianism, as can be seen by its wording. The Council of Nicaea ended with the bishops tentatively adopting the new creed and Arius refusing to agree to it. The council thus declared Arius and his supporters heretics and the emperor sent Arius into exile.

The creed firmly established in Christian tradition that Jesus was nothing less than Almighty God himself. From that time onward, the Church probably assumed no one would ever doubt the Trinity again. Arius was the necessary scapegoat.

To make sure that Arianism disappeared, Constantine ordered the burning of all of Arius’s writings. He also decreed that anyone caught hiding copies of those writings would be executed.

Arius returns

As proof of Arius’s popularity, influential Byzantines, including Constantine’s sister, persuaded Constantine to allow Arius to return from exile. Arius was recalled and reinstated in the Alexandrian Church after agreeing to a compromise with the Trinitarians. He died in 336, but his interpretation of what would become scripture lives on.

Emperors establishing Christian theology

Scholars are discovering how much Christianity has been influenced by factors other than the Bible. For over half of the fourth century, Byzantine emperors would determine the fate of the religion, not the clergy or the scripture. Before Constantine died in 337, he divided the Roman Empire between his sons. Constans became the western emperor and favored the Trinitarians, aka Nicene Christians. Constantius II was the eastern emperor and he supported the Arians. Unexpectedly, by 350, Constantius became the sole emperor and united the empire under Arian Christianity. By 360, the Romans had rejected the Trinitarian creeds.

It’s believed that captured Roman soldiers and slaves converted the Germanic tribes to Arian Christianity. The bishop Wulfila, or Ulfilas, translated the Bible into the Gothic language.  Since he died in 383, his translation was available sometime before that.

After Emperor Constantius died, Valens continued the imperial support of Arianism. But, when he died in 378, the Arians were no longer protected. In 381 at the Council of Constantinople, the bishops officially adopted the Nicene Creed, and by 391, Theodosius I ended Arianism by threatening persecution. Theodosius was so serious about uniting the empire under one religion that he made every other religion illegal. With Arianism brought to an end in the Roman Empire, that would seem like the last we would hear of that particular theology. But it wasn’t.

The Germanic tribes

In the fourth century, the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, Lombards, and other Germanic tribes were eating away at the fringes of the Western Roman Empire. As they came into closer contact with Roman culture the Germanic tribes gradually adopted Roman customs, including their religion.

The Visigoths converted to Arian Christianity in 376 during the time when it was the empire’s preferred theology. The Vandals converted to Arianism in 405. Later, the Ostrogoths dealt the final blow to the Western Roman Empire in 476. By that time, against all odds, Arian Christians ruled most of Western Europe. When the Germanic or “barbarian” tribes later entered regions that had reverted to trinitarian Christianity, there were bitter feelings between the two groups. Sometimes the Arian Christians would confiscate Trinitarian churches and use them for themselves.

The tribe of Franks converted to trinitarian Roman Catholicism in 496, and that set a precedence for other tribes to follow. Other than isolated pockets of Catholics, Ireland had been the last remaining outpost of Roman Christianity in Western Europe. And, that was Celtic-speaking Christianity, not Latin. The two churches would later unite.

With both Rome and Ireland sending out missionaries, they were able to convert the rest of Western Europe to trinitarian theology by the end of the 600s. The Nicene Creed became the gold standard of orthodox Christianity. Anyone who deviated from it would be considered a heretic and punished accordingly.

Arianism today

This whole story shows that politics molded Christianity as much as anything in the Bible. Once the Roman emperors chose Christianity, they turned it into a state religion. It was no longer a religion of personal commitment but instead one that people were forced to adopt.

Even after all the attempts to eradicate Arianism, it still exists. Certain sects like Universalists and Jehovah’s Witnesses reject the idea of the trinity. That theology is still with us today because there really is more than one way to interpret the relationship between Jesus Christ and God.


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