Arianism symbol
Arianism was a Christological view held by followers of Arius, a Christian priest who lived and taught in Alexandria, Egypt, in the early 4th century. Arius taught that God the Father and the Son were not co-eternal, seeing the pre-incarnate Jesus as a divine being but nonetheless created by (and consequently inferior to) the Father at some point, before which the Son did not exist. In English-language works, it is sometimes said that Arians believe that Jesus is or was a "creature;" in this context, the word is being used in its origin

The conflict between Arianism and of the fourth century and involved most church members, simple believers and monks as well as bishops and emperors. While Arianism did dominate for several decades in the family of the Emperor, the Imperial nobility and higher ranking clergy, in the end it was Trinitarianism which prevailed theologically and politically at the end of the fourth century, and which has since been a virtually uncontested doctrine in all major branches of the Eastern and Western Church. Arianism, which had been taught by the Arian missionary Ulfilas to the Germanic tribes, did linger for some centuries among several Germanic tribes in western Europe, especially Goths and Langobards but did not play any significant theological role thereafter.


Because all contemporary written material on Arianism was written by its opponents, the nature of Arius' teachings are difficult to define precisely today. The letter of Auxentius [1], a 4th century Arian bishop of Milan, regarding the missionary Ulfilas, gives the clearest picture of Arian beliefs on the nature of the Trinity: God the Father ("unbegotten"), always existing, was separate from the lesser Jesus Christ ("only-begotten"), born before time began and creator of the world. The Father, working through the Son, created the Holy Spirit, who was subservient to the Son as the Son was to the Father. The Father was seen as "the only true God." I Corinthians 8:5-6 was cited as proof text:

"Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth — as in fact there are many gods and many lords — yet for us there is one God (theos), the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord (kyrios), Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist." (NRSV)

The Council of Nicea and its aftermath Edit

In 321 Arius was denounced by a synod at Alexandria for teaching a heterodox view of the relationship of Jesus to God the Father. Because Arius and his followers had great influence in the schools of Alexandria — counterparts to modern universities or seminaries — their theological views spread, especially in the eastern Mediterranean. By 325 the controversy had become significant enough that Emperor Constantine called an assembly of bishops, the First Council of Nicaea (modern Iznik, Turkey), which condemned Arius' doctrine and formulated the Nicene Creed, which is still recited in Catholic, Orthodox, and many Protestant services. The Nicene Creed's central term, used to describe the relationship between the Father and the Son, is homoousios, meaning "of the same substance" or "of one being". (The Athanasian Creed is less often used but is a more overtly anti-Arian statement on the Trinity.)

Constantine exiled those who refused to accept the Nicean creed — Arius himself, the deacon Euzoios, and the Libyan bishops Theonas of Ptolemais and Secundus of Mamarica — and also the bishops who signed the creed but refused to join in Arius' condemnation, 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 dispute for a few years, though under the surface opposition to the Nicene creed remained.

Though he was committed to maintaining what the church had defined at Nicea, Constantine was also bent on pacifying the situation and eventually became more lenient towards those condemned and exiled at the council. First he allowed Eusebius of Nicomedia, who was a protégé of his sister, and Theognis to return once they had signed an ambiguous statement of faith. The two, and other friends of Arius, worked for Arius' rehabilitation. At the synod of Tyre in 335 they brought accusations against Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, the primary opponent of Arius; after this, Constantine had Athanasius banished, since he considered him 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, died on the day he was scheduled to depart from Constantinople. Eusebius and Theognis remained in the Emperor's favour, and when Constantine, who had been a catechumen much of his adult life, accepted baptism on his deathbed, it was from Eusebius of Nicomedia.

The theological debates reopenEdit

The Council of Nicea had not ended the controversy, as many bishops of the Eastern provinces disputed the homoousios, the central term of the Nicene creed, as it had been used by Paul of Samosata, who had advocated a monarchianist Christology. Both the man and his teaching, including the term homoousios, had been condemned by synods in Antioch in 269.

Hence, after Constantine's death in 337, open dispute resumed again. Constantine's son Constantius II, who had become Emperor of the eastern part of the Empire actually encouraged the Arians and set out to reverse the Nicene creed. His advisor in these affairs was Eusebius of Nicomedia, who had already at the Council of Nicea been the head of the Arian party, who also was made bishop of Constantinople.

Constantius used his power to exile bishops adhering to the Nicene creed, especially Athanasius of Alexandria, who fled to Rome. In 355 Constantius became the sole Emperor and extended his pro-Arian policy towards the western provinces, frequently using force to push through his creed, even exiling Pope Liberius.

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 mainly opposed the Nicene terminology and preferred the term homoiousios (alike in substance) to the Nicene homoousios, while they rejected Arius and his teaching and accepted the equality and coeternality of the persons of the Trinity. Because of this centrist position, and despite their rejection of Arius, they were called "semi-Arians" by their opponents. The second group also avoided invoking the name of Arius, but in large part followed Arius' teachings and, in another attempted compromise wording, described the Son as being like (homoi) the Father. A third group explicitly called upon Arius and described the Son as unlike (anhomoi) the Father. Constantius wavered in his support between the first and the second party, while harshly persecuting the third.

The debates between these groups resulted in numerous synods among them Sardica in 343, the council of Sirmium in 358 and the double council of Rimini and Selecia in 359, and no less than fourteen further creed formulas between 340 and 360, and the pagan observer Ammianus Marcellinus commented sarcastically: "The highways were covered with galloping bishops." None of these attempts were acceptable to the defenders of Nicene orthodoxy: writing about the latter councils, Saint Jerome remarked that the world "awoke with a groan to find itself Arian."

After Constantius' death in 361, his successor Julian, a devotee of Rome's pagan gods, declared that he would no longer attempt to favor one church faction over another, and allowed all exiled bishops to return; this had the objective of further increasing dissension among Christians. The Emperor Valens, however, revived Constantius' policy and supported the "Homoian" party, exiling bishops and often using force. During this persecution many bishops were exiled to the other ends of the Empire, (e.g., Hilarius of Poitiers to the Eastern provinces). These contacts and the common plight subsequently led to a rapprochement between the Western supporters of the Nicene creed and the homoousios and the Eastern semi-Arians.

After Valens' death in the Battle of Adrianople in 378, the accession of Theodosius I, who adhered to the Nicene creed, allowed for settling the dispute in 381: at the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople, a group of mainly Eastern bishops assembled and accepted the Nicene Creed, which was supplemented in regard to the Holy Spirit. This is generally considered the end of the dispute about the Trinity and the end of Arianism among the Roman, non-Germanic peoples.

Nicene Christianity becomes the state religion of RomeEdit

In the 4th century, the Christian Church in the Roman Empire was wracked with controversy over the nature of the Trinity. In 325 AD, the Council of Nicea had condemned the teachings of the theologian Arius: that Jesus was a created being and inferior to God the Father, and that the Father and Son were of a similar substance (homoiousion in Greek) but not identical. The Council of Nicea had formulated the Nicene Creed, which declared that Jesus and God the Father were of the same substance (homoousion in Greek, a term which was condemned at the Council of Antioch in 264-268). The Council of Nicea did not settle these controversies, and by the time of Theodosius' accession, there were still several different church factions that sought to impose their views on Christianity as a whole. While no mainstream churchmen within the Empire explicitly adhered to Arius or his teachings, there were those who still used the homoiousion formula, as well as those who attempted to bypass the debate by merely saying that Jesus was like (homoi in Greek) God the Father. All these non-Nicenes were frequently labeled as Arians (i.e., followers of Arius) by their opponents, though they would not have identified themselves as such. (For a succinct survey of the situation just before Theodosius' accession, see Failure of Empire, Noel Lenski (U. of California Press, 2002, ISBN 0520233328) pp. 235-237)

The emperor Valens had favored the group who used the homoi formula; this theology was prominent in much of the East and had under the sons of Constantine the Great gained a foothold in the west. Theodosius, on the other hand, cleaved closely to the Nicene Creed: this was the line that predominated in the West and was held by the important Alexandrian church.

Two days after Theodosius arrived in Constantinople, 24 November 380, Theodosius expelled the non-Nicene bishop, Demophilus of Constantinople, and surrendered the churches of that city to Gregory Nazianzus, the leader of the small Nicene community there, an act which provoked rioting. Theodosius had just been baptized, by bishop Acholius of Thessalonica, during a severe illness, as was common in the early Christian world. In February he and Gratian published an edict that all their subjects should profess the faith of the bishops of Rome and Alexandria (i.e., the Nicene faith).

Although much of the church hierarchy in the East had held non-Nicene positions in the decades leading up to Theodosius' accession, he managed to impose Nicene uniformity during his reign. Later Nicene writers took special glee in the ignominious death of Valens, the Arians' protector, and indeed his defeat probably damaged the standing of the Homoian faction.

For the first part of his rule, Theodosius seems to have ignored the semi-official standing of the Christian bishops; in fact he had voiced his support for the preservation of temples or pagan statues as useful public buildings. Then, in a series of decrees called the Theodosian decrees he progressively declared that those pagan feasts that had not yet been rendered Christian ones were now to be workdays (in 389). In 391, he outlawed blood sacrifice and decreed "no one is to go to the sanctuaries, walk through the temples, or raise his eyes to statues created by the labor of man". The temples that were thus closed could be declared "abandoned" as Bishop Theophilus of Alexandria immediately noted in applying for permission to demolish a site and cover it with a Christian church, an act that must have received general sanction, for mithraea forming crypts of churches and temples forming the foundations of 5th century churches appear throughout the former Roman Empire. Theodosius participated in actions by Christians against major cult sites: the destruction of the gigantic Serapeum of Alexandria and its library by a mob in around 392, authorized by Theodosius (extirpium malum) and described in exultant detail by Christian propagandists, was only the most spectacular such occasion (Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom, 2003, p. 73-74). The destruction of the greatest temple in Alexandria gave encouragement to Christian vigilantism and mob action in other centers, often spurred on by the local bishops, as early hagiographies proudly relate.

By decree in 391, Theodosius ended the subsidies that had still trickled to some remnants of Greco-Roman civic paganism too. The eternal fire in the Temple of Vesta in the Roman Forum was extinguished, and the Vestal Virgins were disbanded. Taking the auspices and practicing witchcraft were to be punished. Pagan members of the Senate in Rome appealed to him to restore the Altar of Victory in the Senate House; he refused. After the last Olympic Games in 393, Theodosius cancelled the much-diminished games, and the reckoning of dates by Olympiads soon came to an end.

Now Theodosius portrayed himself on his coins holding the labarum.

The apparent change of policy that resulted in the "Theodosian decrees" has often been credited to the increased influence of Ambrose, bishop of Milan. The personal piety of Theodosius cannot be assessed. It is worth noting that in 390 Ambrose had excommunicated Theodosius, who had recently ordered the massacre of several thousand inhabitants of Thessalonica, in response to the assassination of his military governor stationed in the city and that Theodosius performed several months of public penance. The specifics of the decrees were superficially limited in scope, specific measures in response to various petitions and accusations from the increasingly militant Christians throughout his administration. In 391 or 392 he officially sanctioned the destruction of the most famous of the temples in the East, the Serapeum at Alexandria. Bands of monks and Christian officials had long been accustomed to take the law into their own hands and destroy various centers of pagan worship, but the destruction of the Serapeum seemed to confirm that such actions enjoyed the emperor's tacit approval at least, and served to encourage such action in the future. Theodosius had been effectively manipulated into sanctioning the destruction of the Serapeum by local officials who had essentially engineered the crisis there for this very purpose.

Ambrose preached a panegyric at Theodosius' funeral.

Arianism in the early medieval Germanic kingdomsEdit

However, during the time of Arianism's flowering in Constantinople, the Goth convert Ulfilas (later the subject of the letter of Auxentius cited above) was sent as a missionary to the Gothic barbarians across the Danube, a mission favored for political reasons by emperor Constantius. Ulfilas' initial success in converting this Germanic people to an Arian form of Christianity was strengthened by later events. When the Germanic peoples entered the Roman Empire and founded successor-kingdoms in the western part, most had been Arian Christians for more than a century.

The conflict in the 4th century had seen Arian and Nicene factions struggling for control of the Church; in contrast, in the kingdoms these Arian Germans established on the wreckage of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, there were entirely separate Arian and Nicene Churches with parallel hierarchies, each serving different sets of believers, the Germanic elites being Arians and the majority population being trinitarian. Many scholars see the persistence of the Germans' Arian religion as a strategy to differentiate the Germanic elite from the local inhabitants and maintain their group identity against the local culture.

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

"Arian" as a polemical epithetEdit

In many ways, the conflict around Arian beliefs in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries helped firmly define the centrality of the Trinity in mainstream Christian theology. 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 worshipping Jesus Christ or respecting his teachings, but do not hold to the Nicene creed.

Like the Arians, many groups have embraced the belief that Jesus is not the one God, but a separate being subordinate to the Father, and that Jesus at one time did not exist. Some of these profess, as the Arians did, that God made all things through the pre-existent Christ. Some profess that Jesus became divine, through exaltation, just as the Arians believed. Drawing a parallel between these groups and Arians can be useful for distinguishing a type of unbelief in the Trinity. But, despite the frequency with which this name is used as a polemical label, there has been no historically continuous survival of Arianism into the modern era. The groups so labelled do not hold beliefs identical to Arianism. For this reason, they do not use the name as a self-description, even if they acknowledge that their beliefs are at points in agreement with, or in broad terms similar to, 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 many of whom believe in the moral authority, but not the deity, of Jesus.
  • Jehovah's Witnesses, who hold that at one point in time Jesus did not exist.
  • Christadelphians, who believe that Jesus' pre-natal existence was conceptual, as the "Logos", rather than literal.
  • Followers of the various churches of the Latter Day Saint movement, who believe in the unity in purpose of the Godhead but that Jesus is a divine being separate from and subordinate to God the Father.
  • Muslims, who believe that Jesus (generally called Isa), was a prophet of the one God, but not himself divine.
  • Seventh Day Adventists before the early 1900's.

See alsoEdit

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