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Arianism And The Nicene Creed

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#1 Evangelion



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Posted 13 January 2012 - 04:20 PM

During the years AD 318 and 319, a popular churchman was found to profess a controversial definition of the pre-existent Christ and his relation to God the Father. His name was Arius, a Libyan priest whose theological formation had been obtained not at the school of Alexandria but in Syrian Antioch, under the Antiochene priest Lucian. While Arius’ ideas met with immediate opposition by contemporary theologians, he did succeed in obtaining a considerable following among laity and clergy alike. Indeed, it is estimated that at one point Arianism was confessed by at least thirty percent of the church.

Contrary to popular belief, the ensuing debate was not the result of an official position being challenged (for the church of Arius’ day had no definitive doctrine of Christ); instead, it was the result of an older Christology fighting to keep itself alive against the innovative thinking of powerful and influential churchmen.

In AD 325, the emperor Constantine presided over the Council of Nicaea, at which Arianism was rejected and an authoritative Christological creed (known today as the Nicene Creed) agreed upon by the majority. But this was not the end of the controversy, nor even the beginning of the end; it was merely the end of the beginning. In the years which followed, Arianism continued to spread. It was still alive in AD 381, when the Council of Constantinople attempted to plug the theological gaps which Nicaea had left open, and would remain the normative belief among the Gothic tribes for several centuries to come.

In the words of Henry Chadwick:

It was the misfortune of the fourth-century church that it became engrossed in a theological controversy at the same time as it was working out its institutional organisation. The doctrinal disagreements quickly became inextricably associated with matters of order, discipline, and authority. Above all, they became bound up with the gradually growing tension between the Greek East and the Latin West.

During the first half of the century the Arian leaders in the East were able to use this tension to build a considerable united front among the Greek churches, and they had the support of a tolerant emperor, first Constantius II (337-61) and then Valens (364-78). Moreover, the manner in which Arianism was finally overcome in the East was as such to ensure that even after the controversy was over the tension between East and West was continued.

How this came about will be clear from the story.1

The Arian controversy is important on two levels: the theological and the historical. Theological because it reveals the increasingly formal processes under which doctrine was formulated in the post-Apostolic era and explains why so much of this doctrine was patently unbiblical; political because it helps us to understand how and why the church changed so radically after the conversion of Constantine.

It is not easy to determine the precise nature of Arius' heresy. Stuart G. Hall explains why:

The true nature of the original issue is clouded. Modern theologians have read into Arianism whatever views they themselves particularly abominate. Our ancient sources reveal other problems. First, what we have of Arius' own writing is meagre, and even these documents are preserved by his critics, and selected to be damaging, if not actually misquoted or misconstrued.

Secondly, his critics often attribute to him views which he never stated: the most famous is, "There was once when he [the Son] was not." There can be no doubt that if he had ever written that, he would have been quoted direct.

Thirdly, the dispute about Arius led to divisions between churchmen over many other issues, both ecclesiastical (such as the alleged episcopal tyranny of Athanasius) and theological (such as whether the Son is like the Father or unlike him), and much of this is called the "Arian controversy", even though Arius had nothing directly to do with the issues. Arius is not Arianism, as generally understood.

His surviving letters, and the poem called Thalia, show that he thought of himself as a conservative, treading in the footsteps of pious teachers, and following the doctrine of his bishop. He held that there is "one God, alone unbegotten, alone everlasting, alone unbegun..." (Letter to Alexander, New Eusebius 326) and that the Son of God makes his father known by being different: "We call him [the Father] Unbegotten because of the one in nature begotten; we raise hymns to him as Unbegun because of the one born in time." (Thalia, II 3-5 [New Eusebius 330.]2

Hall's analysis is confirmed by another Christian professor; Dr. John C. McDowell. In an otherwise cogently argued dissertation, McDowell struggles (with limited success) to clarify the Arian position:

Over a century ago Newman innovatively argued that Arius stood in a tradition stretching back to Paul of Samosata through Lucian of Antioch. Arius was thus an adoptionist, as indeed he was accused of being by several 4th century critics, entertaining a 'low view' of a Christ 'exalted into a God', and reading the title 'son of God' in the Old Testament sense of one specially chosen by God to perform some task....

By virtue of an obedient life, lived by grace, Jesus, as the proto-typical human being and or representative creature, received divine grace and favour, and was thus exalted at his resurrection, becoming a Son. The Son was one with the Father, then, not in essence but in will. Hence Christ was ontologically a creature and not God, and it was for this reason that the Arians stressed his mutability. When Arius and his companions spoke of the Christ, they thought of a being called into existence by the divine will, a creature finite in knowledge and morally changeable...

This was no blatant adoptionism, however, for Arius taught a pre-existent Logos.3

McDowell’s use of the term 'adoptionism' may require clarification.

Adoptionism requires that Jesus’ Sonship is purely symbolic, being no longer predicated upon a special act of creation (as Arius actually believed) or a miraculous conception (as the Bible teaches.) This doctrine was categorically rejected by a vital clause in the 6th Arian Creed of AD 351:

(27.) And in accurate delineation of the idea of Christianity we say this again; Whosoever shall not say that Christ is God, Son of God, as being before ages, and having subserved the Father in the framing of the Universe, but that from the time that He was born of Mary, from thence He was called Christ and Son, and took an origin of being God, be he anathema.4

According to the Arians, then, Christ is God’s Son by virtue of the fact that he was begotten 'before all ages'; he is 'God, Son of God' because he has his being directly from the Father. Those who reject this idea (claiming instead that Christ’s Sonship began with his birth by Mary, or at some later date) are uncompromisingly anathematised.

McDowell concedes that the Arian Christ was pre-existent, but attempts to mitigate the fact by insisting that

…this was more out of necessity since it played no important theological role.

Yet the Arians conceived of Christ as a sublime creature born outside time, who was – by the Father’s delegation – responsible for the creation of all that exists, including time itself.

Contrary to McDowell’s claim, therefore, the pre-existence of Christ was an absolute necessity for the Arian school of thought and played a major theological role. For, like Philo, Justin, Irenaeus and many others, the Arians required a Christian equivalent of the Hellenic Demiurge in order that the Supreme Being might be kept at a comfortable distance from His creation.

The precise definition of Arianism has been further obscured by Jaroslav Pelikan, who claims unequivocally that the Arians prayed to Christ and worshipped him:

The Arians found prayer to the Logos an unavoidable element of Christian worship... From the attacks of orthodox writers like Ambrose it is clear that the Arians refused to abandon the practice of worshiping Christ; 'else, if they do not worship the Son, let them admit it, and the case is settled, so that they do not deceive anyone by their professions of religion.'5

But this is not sufficient to prove Pelikan's point. In fact, the ambiguity of the situation is clearly demonstrated by the quote from Ambrose, who questions whether they worship the Son or not. This becomes even more obvious when we examine Ambrose’ words in context:

69. But if the Arians believe Him to be a strange God, why do they worship Him, when it is written: "Thou shall worship no strange God"?

Else, if they do not worship the Son, let them confess thereto, and the case is at an end,--that they deceive no one by their professions of religion.

This, then, we see, is the witness of the Scriptures. If you have any others to produce, it will be your business to do so.6

Ambrose is clearly struggling to define the Arian position. He thinks that they might worship the Son, but he cannot be sure. Thus, he requests that they clarify the point.

His primary concern

Else, if they do not worship the Son, let them confess thereto, and the case is at an end--that they deceive no one by their professions of religion.

is that they have not actually confessed to worshipping the Son. (Hence his keen desire for an answer.) Ambrose has no solid evidence that they worship the Son – all he has at this stage is their “professions of religion”, which (by his own admission) tell him little.

In a later section he writes:

103. But in any case let our private judgment pass: let us enquire of Paul, who, filled with the Spirit of God, and so foreseeing these questionings, hath given sentence against pagans in general and Arians in particular, saying that they were by God's judgment condemned, who served the creature rather than the Creator.

Thus, in fact, you may read: "God gave them over to the lusts of their own heart, that they might one with another dishonour their bodies, they who changed God's truth into a lie, and worshipped and served the thing created rather than the Creator, Who is God, blessed for ever."

104. Thus Paul forbids me to worship a creature, and admonishes me of my duty to serve Christ. It follows, then, that Christ is not a created being. The Apostle calls himself "Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ," and this good servant, who acknowledges his Lord, will likewise have us not worship that which is created.

How, then, could he have been himself a servant of Christ, if he thought that Christ was a created person? Let these heretics, then, cease either to worship Him Whom they call a created being, or to call Him a creature, Whom they feign to worship, lest under colour of being worshippers they fall into worse impiety. For a domestic is worse than a foreign foe, and that these men should use the Name of Christ to Christ's dishonour increaseth their guilt.7

Here again we see Ambrose’ confusion as he attempts to define the Arian position. Do they believe that Christ is a creature? Apparently so. Do they worship him? That is less clear.

It would seem that some Arians did (or at least, allowed others to believe that they did so; probably for the sake of avoiding excommunication) but Ambrose is highly sceptical, dismissing their alleged worship as 'feigned.'

What he wants to see is open, unashamed worship of the Son as Deity – and yet, that is precisely what the Arians are not doing. It is also interesting to note that although Ambrose frequently compares the Arians with pagans (implying that they are really polytheists and not Christians at all), he has no concrete evidence for such a claim, and so does not press it. Indeed, when Arius was first excommunicated, he was condemned as an 'atheist' and not as a polytheist – a charge which would certainly have been laid if he and his fellows had actually worshipped Christ.

Remember also that second- or third-hand accounts of various religious practices by those who did not subscribe to those practices, are frequently inaccurate. Pliny, for example, wrote that the early Christians 'sang hymns to Christ as to a god' – but this was merely his interpretation of events, and not an accurate description of what transpired at Christian meetings. In like manner, Tertullian records that many pagans of his day believed the Christians to be sun-worshippers because they met on Sunday and prayed towards the east.

Lacking a substantial argument, Ambrose employs the expedient of ridiculing Arius with misquoted Scripture. To this end he misappropriates Romans 1:25 ('They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creation rather than the Creator...')

Arius' Christology may be summarised in the following points:

• Jesus is created by God via an incomprehensible generation. While he exists as a superlative divine being, he is unquestionably not God Himself.
• Jesus occupies a unique place between the Deity and the rest of creation. He is a created, yet somehow much more than a creature ('a perfect creature, yet not as one among other creatures; a begotten being, yet not as one among other begotten beings.') This paradox would later be exploited by the Arians' opponents.
• Jesus is immortal, but not eternal; he exists by the will of the Father. While on Earth, as a man, he was subject to the weaknesses of mortal men.

Though known today as 'Arianism', we shall see this Christology had previously been taught by a number of early church fathers, using language which was usually similar and often identical.

1 Chadwick, H. 1984. The Early Church. (133). Pelican Books: London, UK.
2 Hall, S. G. 1994. Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church (121-122). SPCK: London, UK.
3 McDowell, J. C. 1994. Arius: A Theological Conservative Persecuted? Retrieved on January 5, 2012, from: www.oocities.org/johnnymcdowell/papers/Arius.doc
4 Athanasius, De Synodis, 27.
5 Pelikan, J. 1971. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, 100–600. (199). University Of Chicago Press: Chicago, IL.
6 De Fide, I.II.69.
7 Ambrose' argument runs thus: 'Paul forbids me to worship a creature and insists that I must serve Christ. Christ is therefore not a creature.' But the conclusion does not follow logically from the premise. In the language of logic, this is known as a 'non sequiter.' Ambrose also falsely equates 'serve' with 'worship' (without addressing the question of whether or not Christ is God at all), then tosses in the quote from Paul as if this clinches the argument. He would have done better to present an argument in favour of Christ’s deity first (on the basis of which he could then claim that Jesus is worthy of worship) followed by the quote from Paul (forbidding us to worship that which is created).
'Abba Antony said, "A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.'"'

Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (2006), Antony 25, p. 5.


#2 Evangelion



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Posted 13 January 2012 - 05:01 PM

Born in Libya around AD 250, Arius had studied at the feet of Lucian, presbyter of Antioch, who was later martyred for his faith. Lucian himself had studied under Paul of Samosata at one time, but had not embraced his Christology. Instead he followed in the footsteps of Justin Martyr and Origen, seeing the Son of God as a superlative divine being, yet something less than God Himself.

Origen’s Christology provides some of the terms and definitions which Arius would later use. Note the idiosyncratic reference to 'two gods.' Arians had no difficulty referring to Christ as 'God' in the sense of a divine being ontologically distinct from the Father; to their minds, this did not compromise monotheism:

Origen: Is the Father God?

Heraclides: Assuredly.

Origen: Is the Son distinct from the Father?

Heraclides: Of course. How can he be Son if he is also Father?

Origen: While being distinct from the Father, is the Son also God?

Heraclides: He himself is also God.

Origen: And do two Gods become a unity?

Heraclides: Yes.

Origen: Do we confess two Gods?

Heraclides: Yes, [but] the power is one.8

Origen goes on to explain that the Father and Son are 'one' in the same sense as Adam and Eve, citing Genesis 2:24 & Matthew 19:5. He adds the proviso that Adam and Eve are 'two in one flesh' but 'not two in one spirit' or 'two in one soul.' Citing I Corinthians 6:17, he says 'the just person and Christ are "one spirit"... Yet when a just person is united to Christ the word is "spirit" and when Christ is united to the Father the word is not "flesh" or "spirit" but the more prestigious word "God."' This is how Origen understands John 10:30 ('I and my Father are one.')

The significance of Origen as an inspiration for Arianism via Arius' mentor Lucian cannot be overlooked. On one hand, Arius rejected Origen's belief in the 'eternal generation' of the Son. On the other hand, he appreciated the description of Christ as 'a second God'9, and endorsed Origen's teaching that the Father alone is autotheos; that is, self-existent and inherently God:

And I am therefore of the opinion that the will of the Father alone ought to be sufficient for the existence of that which He wishes to exist. For in the exercise of His will He employs no other way than that which is made known by the council of His will. And thus also the existence of the Son is generated by Him.10

Though decried as heretical today, Origen’s view was common to many of the early fathers:

The Christian writers of the second and third centuries considered the Logos as the eternal reason of the Father, but as having at first no distinct existence from eternity; he received this only when the Father generated him from within his own being and sent him to create the world and rule over the world.

The act of generation then was not considered as an eternal and necessary life-act but as one which had a beginning in time, which meant that the Son was not equal to the Father, but subordinate to Him. Irenaeus, Justin, Hippolytus and Methodius share this view called Subordinationism.11

Lucian was a subordinationist of this type, considering himself an 'Origenist' (as did most of his Eastern friends) because his Christology was derived almost entirely from the teachings of Origen. Arius had inherited Lucian’s Christology, but courted disaster by refining it with increasing precision. The consequences of this development were deeply divisive. For as long as the precise nature of the relationship between Father and Son was left to the believer’s imagination, 3rd- and 4th-Century Christians could flatter themselves with the naïve assumption that they all believed much the same thing.

But what if that relationship was clearly delineated by a series of theological propositions? What if the language of Christology was officially formalised? What if the current, heterodox terminology was subdivided by necessity into 'heretical terms' and 'orthodox terms'? What if the basic principles of 3rd Century Christology were taken to their logical conclusions? What would all of this mean for people’s understanding of Christ – and what would they do if they suddenly discovered that their apparent theological unity had been largely superficial? All of these questions were answered by the events of the Arian controversy.

Arius was not a contentious man, and there is no indication that he was looking for a debate when his views first came into question. He lived a quiet, simple life in Alexandria, confessing a typically Alexandrian Christology. He mixed easily with clergy and laity alike and lived his life by the principles of a strict spiritual asceticism which he nevertheless refrained from imposing upon others. He was also a man of tremendous faith and courage; during the Great Persecution under Diocletian he had remained in Alexandria even after its bishop (Peter) had fled.12 At considerable personal risk to himself, Arius offered succour to the Christian prisoners and spiritual guidance to those few who remained free.

Peter’s cowardice was disappointing to many Christians, but Melitius of Lycopolis (an Egyptian bishop who also functioned as metropolitan of the Thebaid) found it positively offensive. Alexandria was a great city and its bishop was partly responsible for several churches in Libya and Egypt, who clearly required guidance and support at this difficult time. Accordingly, Melitius left his own see, commandeered the position of Peter in Alexandria, consecrated two additional bishops to share the load and continued to perform ecclesiastical duties as if he had always been there.

From the safety of his hiding place Peter condemned Melitius with volume and vigour, ordering him to leave the city and forbidding the local clergy to obey him. But it was all to no avail. Melitius responded by coolly ignoring the absent bishop (which, with so much distance between them, he found quite easy to do) and his fellow clergymen, who saw nothing wrong with Melitius or his actions, followed suit.

In time, however, the persecution subsided and Peter returned to his see. Summoning a local council of like-minded churchmen, he excommunicated Melitius on the charge of abusing his authority. Shortly afterwards, Melitius was arrested by the Romans during a resurgence of the previous persecution, and sent to work in the mines of Palestine. There he served with courage and distinction as a prison priest for several years, eventually returning to Egypt as a free man.

Arius’ enemies would later claim that he had co-operated with Melitius during the rogue bishop’s brief rule in Alexandria; in fact, this was not true. Arius had been careful to remain aloof from the Melitian schism, a fact which Peter openly and gratefully acknowledged at the resumption of his bishopric. Bishop Achillas (Peter’s short-lived successor) even went so far as to make Arius a presbyter – a generous promotion which would not even have been contemplated if he had been a Melitian sympathiser.

Following the death of Achillas, the see of Alexandria was granted to Bishop Alexander, who divided the city into quarters over which he appointed four presbyters. Of the four places available, Arius somehow ended up with the worst: he was made presbyter of the Baucalis or wharf quarter, a seedy locale in the roughest part of the city.

In retrospect, he was an ideal candidate for the role. His age and wisdom commanded respect, his grey hair and slim build lent an air of distinction and his scrupulous personal morality (a somewhat irregular virtue in 4th Century presbyters) was much admired. Standing well above the height of the average man, he was also immune to physical intimidation and enjoyed an arresting presence.

Arius delighted his congregation by composing his sermons in rhythmic meter and singing them to the tune of popular ballads. These often contained explicit references to Arian Christology. Surprisingly, the wider implications of Arius' views were not immediately apparent to his bishop. Although disturbed by the thought of heresy being taught right under his nose, Alexander believed this was a minor affair of purely local significance. He generously proposed that Arius’ teachings should be examined in a private forum which would allow him an opportunity to clarify his beliefs and respond to his critics.

Thus, in the presence of Alexander, Arius is alleged to have stated:

Before he [Christ] was begotten, he was not.

By this Arius would have meant that Jesus Christ was the Word, or Logos; a created being which God called into existence before the creation of the world, in order to create all else through him. Even if the quote is falsely attributed, the essential predicate of Arius’ Christology remains the same: Jesus himself is not truly God but stands on the side of creation as a unique product of the Father, mysteriously 'begotten' by some incomprehensible process and therefore not actually 'created' per se.

Arianism was heterodox, but no more so than any other belief of the day. Alexander found it offensive, though he stopped short of punitive action. Over time, a series of increasingly agitated meetings were held between Alexander and his deacons as they struggled to agree on a suitable response to Arianism. These early investigations into Arius' Christology were not belligerent; Arius was simply asked to withdraw and discard his teachings on the nature of Christ. He refused. Popular support was on his side, and he continued to preach as before. Shocked by this defiance, Alexander convened a local church council, which ruled that Arius should be deposed from office and excommunicated with his clerical adherents. Suddenly Arius found himself persona non grata.

Given Alexander's initial tact, one might ask why this final judgement was so severe. Several factors may be involved. Firstly, Alexander needed to reassert his authority. Secondly, he was now aware that Arius’ supporters comprised a significant proportion of the clergy. This threatened the stability of the entire Alexandrian church. Thirdly, Arius had recently criticised Alexander's own Christology as Sabellian, and the bishop was keen to retaliate. Finally, Alexander needed to mitigate any criticism that he had been overtaken by events by failing to recognise the danger of Arianism.13

If Alexander believed excommunication would marginalise Arius, he was wrong. Support for Arianism continued to grow, and its influence began to spread beyond Alexandria. Even the bishops of Ptolemais and Marmarica were persuaded by Arian Christology. Correctly noting that the church still lacked a universal Christology, Arius refused to recognise his excommunication and sent a letter of protest to Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, detailing his confrontation with Alexandria.

It was an adroit political manoeuvre, instantly depriving the conflict of its local limitations and ensuring its impact would be felt throughout the entire Eastern church. The decision forced Alexander to take more decisive action. He immediately summoned a general council of all Egypt, at which one hundred bishops renounced the 'Arian Heresy' and re-affirmed the excommunication of Arius and all his defenders in the Egyptian and Libyan clergy.

The resulting encyclical consisted of a concise account of Arius’ false doctrine, an extensive refutation on behalf of the synod, and a stinging reference to Eusebius of Nicomedia, as payback for his passive support of the errant priest. But by AD 320 it was clear that no amount of intimidation would cause Arius to recant. He had moved back to Nicomedia where he drew up a profession of faith, signed by himself and all those who had been excommunicated with him. It asserted that the faith which they held was that which they had heard Alexander proclaim within the Church of Alexandria; namely, that only the Father is eternal – He alone is without beginning – and the Son, God’s perfect creature, does not possess his being with the Father, since the Father existed before the Son.

Eusebius of Nicomedia lent considerable authority to the Arian cause by convening a local council which declared Arius orthodox and readmitted him to communion. Encouraged by this success, and perhaps sensing an opportunity to consolidate his support base, Arius composed a new sermon called Thalia ('The Banquet') which contains some of the most famous references to his idiosyncratic Christology. An excerpt follows:

The Unbegun made the Son a beginning of things originated; and advanced Him as a Son to Himself by adoption.
He has nothing proper to God in proper subsistence.
For He is not equal, no, nor one in essence with Him...
Thus there is a Triad, not in equal glories.
Not intermingling with each other are their subsistences.
One more glorious than the other in their glories unto immensity.
Foreign from the Son in essence is the Father, for He is without beginning.
Understand that the Monad was; but the Dyad was not, before it was in existence.
It follows at once that, though the Son was not, the Father was God.
Hence the Son, not being (for He existed at the will of the Father), is God Only-Begotten, and He is alien from either.14

During the same year, Arius convoked a Bithynian synod which sent a circular to all bishops, calling for the restoration of ecclesiastical communion with those who had been excommunicated by Bishop of Alexander. He protested that, since they were orthodox, pressure should be placed on the bishop to receive them back. His AD 320 profession of faith, with its multiple signatures, added considerable weight to this argument.

Alexander was now feeling pressure from many sides, and for the purpose of ecclesiastical harmony it appeared that the time was coming for him to revise his judgement on Arius. Until such a decision became imperative, however, the bishop still felt obliged to warn others of the inherent dangers contained in Arius’ teachings. Accordingly, he embarked on a massive correspondence campaign. Letters were sent to the bishops of the East, and obtained the support of those in Egypt, Palestine, Asia Minor, Greece and the Balkan Peninsula. The Bishop of Rome (Silvester I) was informed of the recent events in Alexandria, including the excommunication of the Alexandrian clerics.

It was not long before full-scale literary warfare had broken out between the Arian and Alexandrian factions. Clerical dignity was forgotten as polemic from both sides included historical misrepresentations, doctrinal distortions, and crude accusations of a most personal nature. Inevitably, the split in Eastern Christianity came to the attention of Emperor Constantine.

8 Dialogue of Origen with Heraclides and his Fellow Bishops on the Father, the Son, and the Soul.
9 Contra Celsum, 5:39.
10 De Principiis, 1.2.6.
11 Schmaus, M. 1971. Dogma, Vol. 3, 'God and His Christ.' (216). Sheed and Ward: London, UK.
12 Peter’s escape at this time only served to delay the inevitable, for he was beheaded in AD 311 during the closing months of a second persecution.
13 Such criticism was not slow in coming, and Alexander's humiliation was acute.
14 Thalia at WikiSources, retrieved on January 5, 2012, from: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Nicene_and_Post-Nicene_Fathers:_Series_II/Volume_IV/On_the_Councils_of_Ariminum_and_Seleucia/De_Synodis/History_of_Arian_Opinions
'Abba Antony said, "A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.'"'

Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (2006), Antony 25, p. 5.


#3 Evangelion



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Posted 13 January 2012 - 05:44 PM

Following Bishop Alexander's unsuccessful attempts to silence and excommunicate him, Arius found support outside the Alexandrian church - most notably among his influential friends in Nicomedia. A series of local councils having failed to settle the dispute, Alexander sent a direct appeal to Emperor Constantine himself. The opening paragraph of Constantine's reply did not inspire confidence in a swift resolution:

When I stopped recently in Nicomedia, my plan was to press on to the East at once. But while I was hurrying towards you and was already past the great part of the journey, the news of this business reversed my plans, so that I might not be forced to see with my eyes what I did not think possible ever to reach my hearing!15

Baus (1980) notes16 that Constantine's initial response to the controversy betrays his failure to recognise its greater significance. While his bishops were already treating it as a life or death matter, the Emperor saw the problem in a different light. His letter to Alexander and Arius goes on to represent the doctrinal division as analogous to a disagreement by two philosophers regarding superficial issues on which there could be private, differing views.

In the words of Hall:

His letter gives an account of the origins of the dispute, and describes a pointless and useless question by Alexander about a passage from the 'Law' (i.e. the Scripture), and a rash and improper answer. Neither was edifying to the people, or even within human rational capacity. Both question and answer should be withdrawn, and the public dissension set aside.17

Constantine, with breathtaking optimism, requested that the two opponents become reconciled and restore peace and unity in the Church so that general harmony, his political goal, could be assured in the Empire. The complexity of the dispute had totally escaped him. This should not surprise us, for although Constantine was a brilliant administrator and a superb general, he was no theologian. Christianity had changed his life, but its inner workings were a complete mystery and his own faith a simple one.

Bishop Hosius of Córdoba, whose unenviable task it had been to deliver the Imperial letter, realised on his arrival in Alexandria that it would take more than a cessation of public discussion for the controversy to be resolved.

Alexander quickly succeeded in convincing Hosius that the theological implications of the 'Arian heresy' were of the utmost significance to the Church's stability. It became apparent that the only chance of restoring peace was to summon the entire episcopate of the Church to a great synod, in order to establish a binding decision. But Arius was in no mood for reconciliation with Alexander, and for the most part absented himself from the Egyptian capital altogether during Hosius' visit. The outcome was predictable; eventually, having achieved nothing more than a series of sympathetic discussions with Alexander, Hosius returned to Nicomedia and grimly admitted the failure of his mission to Constantine.

We now come to review the Arians' position. This is how it was described by Bishop Alexander in a cyclical letter to his fellow church leaders:

Now those who became apostates are these, Arius, Achilles, Aeithales, Carpones, another Arius, and Sarmates, sometime Presbyters: Euzoius, Lucius, Julius, Menas, Helladius, and Gaius, sometime Deacons: and with them Secundus and Theonas, sometime called Bishops. And the novelties they have invented and put forth contrary to the Scriptures are these following:-

God was not always a Father, but there was a time when God was not a Father.
The Word of God was not always, but originated from things that were not; for God that is, has made him that was not, of that which was not; wherefore there was a time when He was not; for the Son is a creature and a work.

Neither is He like in essence to the Father; neither is He the true and natural Word of the Father; neither is He His true Wisdom; but He is one of the things made and created, and is called the Word and Wisdom by an abuse of terms, since He Himself originated by the proper Word of God, and by the Wisdom that is in God, by which God has made not only all other things but Him also.

Wherefore He is by nature subject to change and variation as are all rational creatures. And the Word is foreign from the essence of the Father, and is alien and separated therefrom. And the Father cannot be described by the Son, for the Word does not know the Father perfectly and accurately, neither can He see Him perfectly.

Moreover, the Son knows not His own essence as it really is; for He is made for us, that God might create us by Him, as by an instrument; and He would not have existed, had not God wished to create us. Accordingly, when some one asked them, whether the Word of God can possibly change as the devil changed, they were not afraid to say that He can; for being something made and created, His nature is subject to change.18

Cardinal Newman believed this was written on Alexander's behalf by Athanasius, and includes it in his Select Treatises of St. Athanasius, Volume 1.19 While the language is reminiscent of Athanasius, majority scholarship accepts it as the work of the Bishop.

Alexander's response is more significant than he knows, for it provides us with the following gem:

And the novelties they have invented and put forth contrary to the Scriptures are these following:-

God was not always a Father, but there was a time when God was not a Father.20

Did Arius ever actually say this? Hall (1994) does not believe so. Hanson (1988) and Kelly (1977) say he did. Williams (2002) agrees, citing Athanasius' De Synodis; yet even he concedes there is room for ambiguity, noting Kannengeisser (1982) who says Athanasius does not present the exact words of Arius.21 Whatever the case, Alexander places this crucial phrase in the mouths of his opponents, decrying it as a 'novelty' and 'invention' of the Arians. But it was neither. In fact, it had been emphatically stated by Tertullian in a lengthy epistle against a leading heretic of his day:

God has not always been the Father. For He could not have been the Father previous to the Son. There was a time when the Son did not exist.22

Here was an opportunity for the Arians to defend their orthodoxy (however outdated) by an appeal to Tertullian's confession that 'God was not always a Father' and his description of the Son's mystical 'begettal.' McDowell observes that the Arians tried something of this sort, though not from the works of Tertullian:

By the 340s there existed a small dossier of extracts purporting to be from the works of Dionysius of Alexandria which the Arians were using in support of their position. Dionysius insisted that the Son was a creature and agenēton, a thing made and generated, not 'proper' (idion) to the nature of God but 'alien in substance' as the vine-dresser is different from the vine and the shipwright from the boat: 'and … he did not exist before he was generated.'

Dionysius of Rome, implicitly referring to his Alexandrian namesake, denounced those who in their eagerness to avoid Sabellianism spoke of 3 separate hypostases or 'divinities'. However Dionysius may have refined his later theology it is impossible to avoid seeing some influence upon Arius being exerted. The damning passage from his Letter to Euphranos and Ammonius is altogether too like Arian doctrine for one to regard it as insignificant.23

Athanasius follows Alexander's example in chapter 2 of his first Discourse Against the Arians, quoting Thalia in order that Arius might be condemned out of his own mouth. He also provides us with what he believes to be the logical conclusion of Arius' propositions. The attributions to Arius are enclosed in apostrophes:

And by nature, as all others, so the Word Himself is alterable, and remains good by His own free will, while He chooseth; when, however, He wills, He can alter as we can, as being of an alterable nature. For 'therefore,' saith he, 'as foreknowing that He would be good, did God by anticipation bestow on Him this glory, which afterwards, as man, He attained from virtue. Thus in consequence of His works fore-known, did God bring it to pass that He being such, should come to be.'

Moreover he has dared to say, that 'the Word is not the very God;' 'though He is called God, yet He is not very God,' but 'by participation of grace, He, as others, is God only in name.' And, whereas all beings are foreign and different from God in essence, so too is 'the Word alien and unlike in all things to the Father's essence and propriety,' but belongs to things originated and created, and is one of these.

Finally we have the Arians themselves, who put their case in a joint letter to Alexander:

To Our Blessed Pope and Bishop, Alexander, the Presbyters and Deacons send health in the Lord. Our faith from our forefathers, which also we have learned from thee, Blessed Pope, is this:--

We acknowledge One God, alone Ingenerate, alone Everlasting, alone Unbegun, alone True, alone having Immortality, alone Wise, alone Good, alone Sovereign; Judge, Governor, and Providence of all, unalterable and unchangeable, just and good, God of Law and Prophets and New Testament;

who begat an Only-begotten Son before eternal times, through whom He has made both the ages and the universe; and begat Him, not in semblance, but in truth; and that He made Him subsist at His own will, unalterable and unchangeable; perfect creature of God, but not as one of the creatures; offspring, but not as one of things begotten;

nor as Valentinus pronounced that the offspring of the Father was an issue; nor as Manichaeus taught that the offspring was a portion of the Father, one in essence; nor as Sabellius, dividing the Monad, speaks of a Son-and-Father; nor as Hieracas,24 of one torch from another, or as a lamp divided into two; nor that He who was before, was afterwards generated or new-created into a Son, as thou too thyself, Blessed Pope, in the midst of the Church and in session hast often condemned;

but, as we say, at the will of God, created before times and before ages, and gaining life and being from the Father, who gave subsistence to His glories together with Him. For the Father did not, in giving to Him the inheritance of all things, deprive Himself of what He has ingenerately in Himself; for He is the Fountain of all things. Thus there are Three Subsistences.

And God, being the cause of all things, is Unbegun and altogether Sole, but the Son being begotten apart from time by the Father, and being created and founded before ages, was not before His generation, but being begotten apart from time before all things, alone was made to subsist by the Father.

For He is not eternal or co-eternal or co-unoriginate with the Father, nor has He His being together with the Father, as some speak of relations, introducing two ingenerate beginnings, but God is before all things as being Monad and Beginning of all.25

We see from their letter that it is God who created Christ (according to the Arians) and that Christ did not exist 'of himself'; nor is he co-eternal or co-unregenerate; nor is he autotheos.26 Notice also that this public declaration denies that Christ has existence of himself, using language that is too clear to be misunderstood.

The Arians affirm that God

…made Him [Christ] subsist at His [God's] own will, unalterable and unchangeable; perfect creature of God, but not as one of the creatures; offspring, but not as one of things begotten; …but being begotten apart from time before all things, alone was made to subsist by the Father.27

This appears to contradict Arius' own words in his letter to Eusebius, when he wrote:

…we say and believe, and have taught, and do teach, that the Son is not unbegotten; and that He does not derive his subsistence from any matter; but that by His own will and counsel He has subsisted before time.

The significance of this discrepancy is much debated. Hall resolves it thus:

Alexander made much of the error of the Arians in saying Christ is 'changeable' or 'mutable (Socrates, HE 1.6 10-12 [New Eusebius, 323.]) Mutability implied the possibility of change for the worse, which in Platonic terms is by definition impossible for God.

The truth is that Arius held the Son to be changeless in a less absolute sense; it is at the Father's will he is unchangeable, and so could have been changeable. The anti-Arian Council of Antioch in 325 anathematized 'those who say he is immutable by his own act of will, … and deny he is immutable in the way the Father is' (New Eusebius 336.)

Some modern writers (especially Gregg and Groh) regard the freedom of the Son to change by improvement, or to resist temptation by moral effort, as essential characteristics of Arian spirituality. This does not seem to match Arius' efforts to assert that the Son is unchangeable and vastly superior to all his creatures.28

The Arians' letter is a sophisticated diplomatic appeal. It makes careful use of acceptable terminology and condemns a number of well known Christological heresies. One item is of particular interest:

…nor as Hieracas, of one torch from another, or as a lamp divided into two

Ironically, this 'torch from torch' idiom was the very same used by Justin Martyr to define the generation of the Son by the Father. Now considered heretical due to its associations with Hieracas, it would soon be rehabilitated in the crucial clause of the Nicene Creed.

The language of Christology had come full circle, but Christological development marched on and the Arians were not keeping up.

15 Rubenstein, R. E. 2000. When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity during the Last Days of Rome. (49). Harcourt, Inc: New York.
16 History of the Church. The Seabury Press: New York.
17 Hall, S. G. 1994. Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church. (126). SPCK: London, UK.
18 Alexander of Alexandria, Deposition of Arius, ii.
19 Encyclical Letter of Alexander, Archbishop of Alexandria, upon his Deposition and Excommunication of Arius. Retrieved on January 5, 2012, from: http://www.newmanreader.org/works/athanasius/volume1/alexander.html
20 Ibid.
21 '...though the conclusions he draws from stylistic considerations about the dating of this text are not, I believe, defensible (see Williams in Gregg (1985) and pp.65-6 above).' Williams, R. 2002. Arius: Heresy & Tradition. (310). Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, Michigan.
22 Against Hermogenes, Chapter 3.
23 McDowell, J. C. 1994. Arius: A Theological Conservative Persecuted? Retrieved on January 5, 2012, from: http://www.geocities.ws/johnnymcdowell/papers/Arius.doc
24 Hierarcas was a 3rd Century Egyptian ascetic affiliated with the Coptic monks. He promoted virginity as the prime Christian virtue. Some have seen his influence in Origen's Christology.
25 De Synodis, II, xvi.
26 'God in himself'; the state of self-existent deity.
27 De Synodis, II, xvi.
28 Hall, S. G. 1994. Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church. (125). SPCK: London, UK.
'Abba Antony said, "A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.'"'

Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (2006), Antony 25, p. 5.


#4 Evangelion



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Posted 13 January 2012 - 06:29 PM

We have seen that the Arians could trace their Christology through a long tradition held by prominent church elders in good standing. But appeals to the past were becoming difficult to justify as innovation gathered apace. Some generally approved writings from an earlier time contained beliefs now regarded as heterodox. The church of the early 4th Century had no official position on these works and no theological benchmark against which they could be assessed.

McDowell correctly identifies this as the most significant aspect of the Christological debate:

In A.D. 318 there was no universally recognised orthodox answer as to the question of how divine Christ is (e.g., Origen and Tertullian). The frontiers of orthodoxy were not so rigidly demarcated as they later became, and important currents of thought flowed outside the main channel.

This is one of the reasons why the controversy lasted for so long.

Of course certain positions were declared untenable, for example Sabellianism, and adoptionism. But within these very broad limits no doctrine could properly be said to be heretical (Arius views were regarded as no more than a radical version of an acceptable theological tradition by Eusebius of Caesarea, for example).29

The Nicenes were troubled by difficulties arising from the Christology of highly regarded church fathers such as Justin, Irenaeus and Tertullian, whose writings were for the most part still considered orthodox.

Justin's Christology distinguished the Father from the Son to such an extent that Irenaeus' Christology - a possible reaction to it - seems dangerously Modalistic by comparison. Tertullian followed with a Christology so far in the opposite direction that he was accused of teaching tritheism, and wrote a lengthy discourse (Adversus Praxean) which some have seen as a direct attack on Irenaeus himself.30

The Arians were not so far removed from Irenaeus' Christology, and reluctant to speculate about the nature of Christ's begettal. Ambrose mocked them for it, but what would he have done if they had answered with the words of Irenaeus himself?

If anyone asks us, 'How then was the Son produced by the Father?' we reply to him, that no man understands that production, or generation, or calling, or revelation or by whatever other name one may describe his generation. For it is in fact altogether indescribable.31

This response was considered acceptable not only by Irenaeus' contemporaries, but by those who immediately followed him. Nor is there any reason to believe that it would have been rendered unacceptable if invoked by the Arians themselves, for it was not their work but the work of an older, greater man. If Irenaeus wrote such things and was still considered orthodox, the Arians might have argued, how can we, who merely repeat them, be accused of heresy?

Earlier terms of reference could be considered quite ambiguous and even heretical when placed in the context of a later discussion. This was even more likely if they had been closely identified with a specific idea, or set of ideas, which was now considered unorthodox. Alternatively, a new heresy could be wrapped in the language of an older, acceptable orthodoxy and thereby rendered palatable to the church.

A Modalist could borrow the words of Irenaeus; a tritheist could benefit from Tertullian's terminology and even argue he was being misunderstood in the way Tertullian had been.

Herein lay a crucial aspect of the rationale which had led to the condemnation of phrases such as 'of one torch from another', or 'as a lamp divided into two.' Another aspect (perhaps even more significant) was the shocking realisation that the original source of this language - none other than the great Justin Martyr - was now vulnerable to legitimate accusations of heresy, and with him, all those who deferred to his work as a touchstone of orthodoxy.

Chadwick explains the problem:

In arguing against Hellenized Jews who held that the divine Logos is distinct from God only in the refined sense in which one can distinguish in thought between sun and sunlight, Justin had urged that the analogy of one torch lit from another was a much more satisfactory picture because it did justice to the independence (later theology, from Origen onwards, would have used the technical term hypostasis) of the Logos. Such language was disturbing.

One of the central issues in the conflict with Gnosticism had been the question whether of there is more than one ultimate first principle. The orthodox had insisted that there is no first principle other than God the Creator, no coequal devil, no coeternal matter, but a single monarchia. Justin's language appeared to prejudice this affirmation and to be insufficiently protected against the accusation of ditheism.32

In the era of Justin and his contemporaries, such language had been perfectly orthodox. In the theological climate of Arianism it was associated with Hieracas the Manichæan, a heretic now considered the greatest enemy of Athanasius (aside from Arius). By condemning Hieracas the Arians hoped to establish common ground with the Nicenes and avert a larger confrontation.

The Arians' formula was constructed partly from Arius' lyrical sermons and partly from philosophical speculations apparently influenced by Tertullian, but mostly from a collection of proof texts such as Proverbs 8:22:

The Lord created me as the beginning of his way, before his works of old.

This was nothing new. Tertullian had used the same verse for the same purpose more than a century earlier. He had even said the Son was created in a certain moment; not eternally generated (as Origen and others believed) but in the instant immediately preceding the rest of creation:

Then, therefore, does the Word also Himself assume His own form and glorious garb, sound and vocal utterance, when God says, 'Let there be light.' This is the perfect nativity of the Word, when He proceeds forth from God, formed by Him first to devise and think out, and afterwards begotten to carry all into effect --

When He prepared the heaven, I was present with Him.

Thus does He make Him equal to Him: for by proceeding from Himself He became His first-begotten Son, because begotten before all things; and His only-begotten also, because alone begotten of God, in a way peculiar to Himself, from the womb of His own heart -- even as the Father Himself testifies: 'My heart,' says He, 'has emitted my most excellent Word.'

The father took pleasure evermore in Him, who equally rejoiced with a reciprocal gladness in the Father's presence: 'You art my Son, today have I begotten You; even before the morning star did I beget You.'

The Son likewise acknowledges the Father, speaking in His own person, under the name of Wisdom:

'The Lord formed Me as the beginning of His ways, with a view to His own works; before all the hills did He beget Me.'33

Notwithstanding the closeness of their ontological relationship, the Arians did not see Jesus as possessing the same substance as God. This point was to be the axis upon which the entire controversy turned. To counter it, and the Tertullianist arguments advanced in its support, the Nicenes had to find some way of affirming the generation of the Son from the Father without admitting a difference in substance between the two.

They found their solution in the same formula the Arians had publicly denied: 'a flame from a flame', or as the Nicene Creed would later express it, 'light from light.' Its polemical value was enormous, for it enabled the Nicenes to condemn the Arians on two grounds:

  • Their rejection of the original 'flame from flame' analogy, which could now be conveniently construed as an attack on Nicene Christology34

  • Their rejection of the belief that the Son is of the same substance as the Father, against which the 'light from light' analogy was undeniably effective

Thus, by the mere rephrasing of a heretical analogy, the Nicenes were able to anathematise a conservative theological movement which had committed no other crime than faithful adherence to an outdated Christology.

The first Ecumenical Council met at Nicaea in AD 325. Attendance is open to debate. Eusebius says more than 250 bishops attended. Athanasius gives the figure of 300 on one occasion but amends this to 318 in another account. Eustathius claims 'over 270.'35 All three were all present at the council, so this discrepancy is perplexing. Stranger still is the consensus for Athanasius' figure of 318 among Christians of a much later period.36 It is curiously precise.

Modern authorities have seen a Biblical connection. Wand is one of many who observe that 318 corresponds to Genesis 14:14.37 Davis points out that in Greek, 318 is a cipher for 'TIH', widely interpreted by early Christians as representative of Jesus and the cross.38 Thus there were theological reasons for preferring 318 regardless of historical data, which helps to explain why six subsequent church councils unerringly recall the figure and appeal to it as authoritative.39

Representation at Nicaea was unbalanced. The Western contingent was very small; only four or five bishops from the Latin West were able to attend, not counting Hosius of Cordoba and the two Roman presbyters Vitus and Vincent, who attended as the personal delegates of Silvester I. The remaining company was composed of Eastern bishops from almost every imaginable area within the Middle East. Chief among them were Alexander of Alexandria, Eustathius (Bishop of the Syrian capital), Marcellus of Ancyra and Macarius of Jerusalem - all stridently opposed to the Arian view. On their side, Arius and his friends were led by the irrepressible Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia and his brilliant namesake, Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea.

Contemporary accounts reveal the pro-Arian faction seized the initiative almost immediately, proposing a creed incorporating essential elements of Arian theology. But violent protest arose from the opposing side; bishops read aloud passages from Arius' work, arguing his formulations were extreme and intolerable to the majority. Eusebius of Caesarea intervened with a compromise proposal, recommending the acceptance of the baptismal creed employed in his diocese. While this was recognised as being orthodox by Constantine and most of the bishops, there were a few who disagreed.

Debate raged over the significance and meaning of the word homoousios ('one in being'40) which was unacceptable to both Arian and anti-Arian Eastern bishops, but considered appropriate by the Latins. In the end, it was the Emperor himself (doubtless guided by Hosius) who succeeded in determining that the orthodox definition of the term, as employed by the Greeks, was included in the Nicene Creed. Ironically this word originated in Greek philosophy and had been condemned as heretical at the Council of Antioch, convened against Paul of Samosata.41

The definitive statement appears in the conclusion of the Creed:

But some say: 'There was a time in which he was not', and, Before he was born, he was not', and, 'He was created out of nothing', or they claim that the Son of God is of another substance or another being, or he was created or subject to change or alteration. The Catholic and Apostolic Church declares them excluded from its membership.

Only three refused to sign the Creed: Arius himself, and the bishops Theonas and Secundus, who confessed his Christology. They were excommunicated and exiled to Illyria. Yet Arius' doctrine continued to spread, for it had not been countered in any serious way.

The popular view is that Nicaea was fatal to Arianism. Not so, argues Hall:

The anathema at the end attacks a series of statements believed to be Arian. In fact Arius could evade most of them. There is no evidence he actually wrote 'There was when he was not.' He would certainly deny 'alterable' or 'mutable', as we have seen.

He appears to have written 'before he was begotten, he was not', and, 'he is from nothing' (Letter to Eusebius, Theodoret, HE 1.5.4 [New Eusebius 325]); but even there 'from nothing' may be what he is accused of and not what he admits to asserting (note what follows, 'this we do say, that he is neither part of God nor of any lower essence.')

'Created' he did say, but it is not in the original text of N.42 Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis later claimed, 'We subscribed to the creed; we did not subscribe to the anathematizing; not as objecting to the creed, but as disbelieving the party accused to be such as was represented' (Socrates, HE 1.14.3 [New Eusebius 354.]).43

This probably meant that they accepted the whole creed, including the anathema at the end, but did not accept that it applied to Arius. Later events would show their opinion was shared by many.

29 McDowell, J. C. 1994. Arius: A Theological Conservative Persecuted? Retrieved on 5th of January 2012, from: http://www.geocities.ws/johnnymcdowell/papers/Arius.doc
30 'Tertullian's most elaborate doctrine of God and Christ is stated in response to Praxeas, a heretic otherwise unknown to us; since his name means "fixer" or "fraud", it may be a nickname Tertullian invented; it is not even out of the question that Irenaeus is the person concerned, since Tertullian is in his book Against Praxeas trying to attach heresy to a known opponent of Montanism.' Hall, S. G. 1994. Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church. (70). SPCK: London, UK.
31 Adversus Haereses II, XXVIII, vi.
32 Chadwick, H. 1984. The Early Church. (86). Pelican: London, UK.
33 Adversus Praxean, VII.
34 As opposed to its original purpose in a repudiation of the heresy with which the analogy was historically identified.
35 Modern estimates lie between 200 and 330; the most commonly accepted is 225.
36 Evagrius, Hilary of Poitiers, Jerome & Rufinus.
37 'It was attended by about 300 bishops; Eustathius gives the number as 270, while popular prejudice preferred the number 318, but that was probably arrived at through the mystical connexions of the number of the armed servants of Abraham (Gen. xiv 14).' Wand, J. W. C. 1965. A History of the Early Church to A.D. 500. (153). Methuen Publishing Limited: London, UK.
38 This was a pre-Nicene tradition; we find it as early as Epistle of Barnabas (9:7-9).
39 'How many came? There exist lists of the bishops who signed the final creed and canons, but none seems o be complete or in full agreement with another... Soon after, however, the symbolic number 318 was assigned to the Council, the number of Abraham’s armed servants in Genesis 14:14, a number which in Greek read TIH, symbol of the Cross and Jesus. These 318 of Nicaea will be appealed to in the six subsequent general councils.' Davis, Leo D. 1994. The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787), Their History and Theology. (57-58). Michael Glazier, Inc.: Wilmington, DE.
40 The alternative was 'homoiousius', meaning 'similar in being.' This was the term favoured by Arians. Homoousios defined Father and Son as one being sharing identical substance; homoiousius defined them as separate, individual beings of similar substance.
41 Paul was a 3rd Century Unitarian. His teachings had been condemned by three local church councils.
42 Hall's shorthand for the original text of the Nicene Creed.
43 Hall, Stuart G. 1994. Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church. (131). SPCK: London, UK.
'Abba Antony said, "A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.'"'

Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (2006), Antony 25, p. 5.


#5 Evangelion



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Posted 13 January 2012 - 07:06 PM

The task of defending the Nicene Creed fell to Athanasius, successor to Alexander of Alexandria. Controversially appointed as Bishop of Alexandria in AD 328 whilst still less than thirty years old,44 he was influenced by Western theologians he had met whilst in Rome during a politically advantageous flight from his diocese.

Infamous for his use of violence and intimidation against opponents, Athanasius became leader of the Nicene faction, openly defying Constantine and mocking the Arians as 'Ariomaniacs.' Exiled 5 times over 17 years (largely for political reasons) he was supported by the desert monks of Egypt and numerous firebrands among the Alexandrian clergy. Although despised for his unscrupulous methods, Athanasius was never accused of heresy.

Athanasius began the attack on Arius in his famous book On the Incarnation, which deals with the fall of man and his need of a saviour. Instead of arguing the proof-texts of Arius (which he found too difficult) Athanasius sought to demonstrate that the logic of the Scriptures as a whole made the incarnation of the Word inevitable.

Athanasius was not so concerned with the expression of theology as the preservation of its principles. He defended the Nicene Creed because in his mind the alternative - Arianism - constituted an unintelligible attempt to explain the reconciliation of God to man. According to Arius the Logos was simply manifested in Christ the Son, but Athanasius was convinced that unless the Son was considered co-eternal and co-equal with the Father, he could have no personal relationship with the beings he came to save. It was under Athanasius' leadership that the battle for Christ's deity became irrevocably politicised.

Following their victory in AD 325 the Nicenes found it difficult to maintain consistent imperial support. Constantine's favour swung back and forth between Arian and Nicene parties as he struggled to contain their destructive influences. Constantine himself cared little for the debate (which he could not understand anyway) and his unstable temper led to frequent changes of mind.

Both sides were adept at persuading Constantine to their cause, but carelessness and overconfidence occasionally caused them to overstep the mark, bringing imperial recrimination. Sometimes the Emperor's favour could be won back by heavy lobbying; at other times the punishment had to be borne until Constantine softened, as he invariably did.

At some point Constantine must have realised that the Council of Nicaea had failed. Its consensus was a sham and the divisions he had hoped to repair were even deeper than before. In AD 332 he attempted reparations with Arius, swinging away from the uncompromising bishops who had been so vocal at Nicaea and embracing a revised version of Arianism himself.

We also know that Arius' own beliefs were under revision, for he modifies and qualifies his "official" statements from time to time. Athanasius followed each new twist and turn with an unflinching gaze, carefully recording the development of Arian Christology in a series of letters that survives to this day.

By AD 336 four councils had declared Arius orthodox, and preparations were made to receive him into the church. Unfortunately he died on the night before his formal reconciliation, leaving Athanasius to crow over his corpse with snide allusions to Judas.45 Many Nicenes hoped this would bring an end to the heresy, but Arius was no longer central to Arianism, and his Christology had become a movement which rumbled on under its own momentum.

The debate continued to rage even after Constantine's own death in AD 337. He was survived by his three sons: Constantine II,46 Constantius II,47 and Constans.48 Each had been granted a third of the empire, in which their favoured Christology was upheld as orthodox. Local councils were convened in different regions, all condemning their own definition of heresy while affirming idiosyncratic definitions of orthodoxy.

During this period Arianism was increasingly refined. The 4th Arian Confession (AD 341) rejects the idea that there was a time when Christ did not exist and affirms the Son as a direct product of the Father's own subsistence:

But those who say, that the Son was from nothing, or from other subsistence and not from God, and, there was time when He was not, the Catholic Church regards as aliens.49

The 5th Arian Confession (AD 344) goes further:

But those who say,

(1) that the Son was from nothing, or from other subsistence and not from God;
(2) and that there was a time or age when He was not,

the Catholic and Holy Church regards as aliens.

Likewise those who say,

(3) that there are three Gods:
(4) or that Christ is not God;
(5) or that before the ages He was neither Christ nor Son of God;
(6) or that Father and Son, or Holy Ghost, are the same;
(7) or that the Son is Ingenerate; or that the Father begat the Son, not by choice or will;

the Holy and Catholic Church anathematizes.

For neither is safe to say that the Son is from nothing, (since this is no where spoken of Him in divinely inspired Scripture,) nor again of any other subsistence before existing beside the Father, but from God alone do we define Him genuinely to be generated...

Nor may we, adopting the hazardous position, 'There was once when He was not,' from unscriptural sources, imagine any interval of time before Him, but only the God who has generated Him apart from time; for through Him both times and ages came to be...50

We see here that that the Arians tried hard to define their Christology in terms acceptable to both sides of the debate. They were not entirely successful (sometimes gaining the support of liberal Nicenes at the expense of the more conservative Arians) but although the language was subject to variation, the essential lineaments of Arian Christology never really changed.

Clearer still is the growing Arian preference for unambiguous Scriptural statements and the rejection of unbiblical terminology. This enabled them to avoid being drawn into speculative debates about aspects of the Godhead not explicitly revealed in Scripture. Consequently, Arian confessions became shorter while Nicene confessions became longer.

The divided empire gave Arianism some breathing space to redefine itself and prepare for the next great battle against Nicene Christology. This was made easier by the deaths of the Nicene emperors. Constantine II had been killed in battle against Constans in AD 340 while Constans was murdered by Magentius, a former bodyguard in AD 350. Having outlived his brothers, Constantius II established Arianism as official Christology51 but was killed en route to fight his half-uncle, Julian the Apostate, in AD 361.

Julian reigned for less than 10 years, during which he promoted paganism and undermined Christianity. He introduced sweeping changes to eliminate corruption, reduce bureaucracy and reverse Constantine’s reforms. An edict of 'religious tolerance' (similar to Constantine's Edict of Milan) restored paganism to its former position as a privileged faith.

Additional legislation reopened pagan temples and restored property to pagans. Exiled bishops were recalled in the hope that their return would spark new disputes and revitalise the old ones.52 But although dampened, the Arian/Nicene controversy continued to smoulder beneath the surface of a repressed Christian community. Three Cappadocian churchmen - Gregory Nazianzen,53 Gregory of Nyssa, and his brother, Basil of Caesarea54 - emerged as champions of the Athanasian legacy. It is to these men that Trinitarianism owes its orthodox form.

Following almost two decades of political unrest, Theodosius I came to power as co-Augustus of the East in AD 378. With the assent of his fellow rulers he declared Trinitarianism the only orthodox position of the church55 and convened a new ecumenical council in AD 381: the Council of Constantinople. The latter decision was necessitated by longstanding inadequacies in the Nicene Creed, which had established the deity of Christ without elaborating on the nature of the Holy Spirit or defining an explicit Trinity.

Rubenstein observes that a lack of definitive vocabulary made it difficult to work through these issues and establish consensus:

Even great theologians such as Athanasius still used terms like 'essence' (ousia) and 'being' (hypostasis) interchangeably, sometimes exchanging these words with other terms like 'person' (prosopon.) The Nicene Creed itself anathematised not only those who denied that the Father and son were 'one in essence' but those who denied that the Father and son were one in 'being.'56

The Cappadocian fathers proposed a delineation between ousia and hypostasis; essence and being. Under their definition, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three separate beings,57 each with his own individual characteristics - they are three hypostases. But they are one and the same in essence - they are homoousios.

Basil of Caesarea laboured to clarify this point:

Adopting an idea of Origen's that easterners would appreciate, Basil of Caesarea described Jesus as a 'sharer of [God's] nature, not created by fiat, but shining out continuously from his ousia.' And the Holy Spirit, which the Arians and some Nicenes considered a principle or person lower down the scale of divinity than either the Father or Son, shares that same divine essence. The Holy Spirit, that is, a third individual being (or Person) 'consubstantial' with the Father and the Son.58

In other words, lest any should suggest that he was degrading the third member of the Trinity, Basil reassured his contemporaries that the Holy Spirit shares the same divine ousia possessed by the Father and Son. While all three are separate hypostases,59 together they constituted the Godhead, melded into a consubstantial 'one' by virtue of their shared ousia.60

Despite this, Basil was not prepared to deify the Holy Spirit and his formula above is intended to satisfy readers without inviting closer scrutiny:

It is therefore notable that, while adopting formulae and language which plainly imply the substantial Trinity, Basil does not write of the Holy Spirit as 'God' or as 'consubstantial with the Father.' So in a letter asserting the one essence, he concludes 'God the Father' and 'God the Son' (Gk theon huion), but 'the divine Holy Spirit' (Gk to theion pneuma to hagion). He does not want to expose his case to the retort that it adds unbiblical titles to the Spirit, though there can be no doubt about what he believes.61

Basil's reticence invited charges of heresy from more progressive bishops but he was defended by the now ageing Athanasius, who had made great strides in the reconciliation of Nicene and semi-Arian factions. Yet his conservative views were widespread among the laity, as Gregory Nazianzen admitted:

But, they go on, what have you to say about the Holy Ghost? From whence are you bringing in upon us this strange God, of Whom Scripture is silent? And even they who keep within bounds as to the Son speak thus. And just as we find in the case of roads and rivers, that they split off from one another and join again, so it happens also in this case, through the superabundance of impiety, that people who differ in all other respects have here some points of agreement, so that you never can tell for certain either where they are of one mind, or where they are in conflict. Now the subject of the Holy Spirit presents a special difficulty, not only because when these men have become weary in their disputations concerning the Son, they struggle with greater heat against the Spirit…62

But of the wise men amongst ourselves, some have conceived of [the Holy Spirit] as an Activity, some as a Creature, some as God; and some have been uncertain which to call Him, out of reverence for Scripture, they say, as though it did not make the matter clear either way. And therefore they either worship Him nor treat Him with dishonour, but take up a neutral position, or rather a very miserable one, with respect to Him. And of those who consider Him to be God, some are orthodox in mind only, while others venture to be so with the lips also.63

In AD 451 the Council of Chalcedon finally hammered the Trinity into its current shape: three distinct persons sharing one divine essence, following the Cappadocians' formulae. It had taken three and a half centuries to achieve a definitive post-apostolic Christology.

McDowell concludes:

Gwatkin admits that 'Arius never deliberately set himself to lower the Person of the Lord.' It might be said that there were enough tensions and loose ends in C3rd theology to make it predictable that the C4th would produce some sort of doctrinal crisis. There is reason, then, to conclude with Williams that 'Arius was a committed theological conservative; more specifically a conservative Alexandrian.'64

Orthodoxy has chosen to paint Arius as a dangerous radical; the proponent of novel and heretical ideas. But the truth is that he proposed nothing new. His only 'crime' was an outdated Christology which, though orthodox in its day, had been rapidly overtaken by new developments.

44 This was contrary to church tradition, which mandated 30 as the minimum age of a bishop; perhaps in emulation of Christ. But Athanasius had influential friends and no qualms about breaking the rules when it suited him.
45 '...Arius, who had great confidence in the Eusebians, and talked very wildly, urged by the necessities of nature withdrew, and suddenly, in the language of Scripture, falling headlong he burst asunder in the midst [Acts 1:18], and immediately expired as he lay, and was deprived both of communion and of his life together.' To Serapion, concerning the death of Arius, 3.
46 A Nicene Christian.
47 An Arian.
48 Another Nicene.
49 Athanasius, De Synodis, 25. LPNF, ser. 2, vol. 4, 462.
50 Athanasius, De Synodis, 26. LPNF, ser. 2, vol. 4, 462-464.
51 It was of this period that Jerome would later write, 'The whole world woke up and groaned to find itself Arian' (The Dialogue Against the Luciferians, 19).
52 This strategy proved ineffective, as the bishops merely united against Julian under the common goal of self-preservation.
53 Also known as Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory the Theologian.
54 Also known as Basil the Great.
55 'Theodosius declared that true Christians were those who believed in "the single divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit within an equal majesty and an orthodox Trinity." He named Damasus of Rome and Peter of Alexandria as examples of episcopal orthodoxy and labelled Arians and other dissenters as heretical madmen deserving punishment.' Rubenstein, R. E. 2000. When Jesus Became God. (220). Harcourt: San Diego, CA.
56 Ibid. (206).
57 Though not in a strictly ontological sense; in other words, they are not three separate and individual beings.
58 Rubenstein, R. E. 2000. When Jesus Became God. (206). Harcourt: San Diego, CA.
59 A term still being used as synonymous with 'person' and 'being.'
60 'Essence', or 'substance.'
61 Hall, S. G. 1991. Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church. (158-159). SPCK: London, UK.
62 Oration XXXII, The Fifth Theological Oration; On the Holy Spirit, 1.
63 Oration XXXII, The Fifth Theological Oration; On the Holy Spirit, 5.
64McDowell, J. C. 1994. Arius: A Theological Conservative Persecuted? Retrieved on January 5, 2012, from: www.oocities.org/johnnymcdowell/papers/Arius.doc
'Abba Antony said, "A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.'"'

Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (2006), Antony 25, p. 5.


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