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).