What Was the Arian Controversy? Arius and the Background to the First Council of Nicaea

Updated on April 6, 2018
The Council of Nicaea
The Council of Nicaea

INTRODUCTION: THE ROAD TO NICAEA

The First Council of Nicaea is perhaps one of the most famous events in the history of the church, and yet much confusion and misinformation surrounds it. The council was convened primarily to address two matters of dissention within the church*, the most notable of which was a schism between the proponents of what would from then be known as Nicene Orthodoxy and those of a doctrine now known by the name of its most famous advocate, Arius.

When the Arian controversy broke out, it quickly enveloped the whole of the Roman east and beyond. Much of the controversy and its rapid spread can be better understood by considering what the Arian doctrines were, their origin, and the background of their principle teachers.

TRINITARIAN ORTHODOXY

Before delving into the matter of Arian theology, it is important to understand the basic orthodox understanding of the relationship between God the Father and Jesus Christ. (For those who feel they are essentially grounded in the history and theology of Trinitarian Orthodoxy, please feel free to continue to the next section below) The earliest extant evidence demonstrates a worship of Jesus Christ alongside God the Father7, the Gospel of John and the Pauline epistles being primary evidence for this reverence. Although the cannon of the New Testament represent the earliest texts we possess, even extra-biblical writings display a view as Jesus Christ as both Son of God and God. An excellent example of this can be found in the letters of Ignatius of Antioch written no later than 108A.D.,

“Out of the fullness of God the Father you have been blessed…the source of your unity and election is genuine suffering which you undergo by the will of the Father and of Jesus Christ, our God. Hence you deserve to be considered happy.8

It is common, particularly in such early writings, for references to Christ’s deity to be somewhat couched, carefully paired with clear distinctions between the God the Father and God the Son. This is a reflection of the writings (at least those which we possess) and presumably the sentiment of the times. They are not philosophical in nature and do not seek to delve deeper into the scriptures than what can be plainly gathered from them nor do they attempt to assert what is not taught in them. This was a time of a more simple faith, one not yet colored by centuries of reactions against heresies and schisms, where hymns were sung to Christ as to a god++ by men and women who had not yet sought to settle the questions that would assail the church in years to come. This is not to naively say the church was free from internal struggles – quite the contrary! – nor is it reasonable to claim that all subsequent dogmas created in reaction to heresies should be dismissed as needless, rather, it is a picture of the church before it had sought to answer questions that many throughout the ages have believed should never have been asked and, once asked, should not have been granted an answer.

When a 3rd century theologian in Rome, over eager to answer the questions of the nature of the trinity puts forward a modalist perspective, it is Tertullian who answered. In doing so, Tertullian presented the relationship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in a formula; they are three persons comprised of one substance.

“…the mystery of the dispensation is still guarded, which distributes the Unity into a Trinity…the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost: three, however…not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as He is one God, from whom these degrees and forms and aspects are reckoned, under the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.9

Although Tertullian’s treatise was not without philosophical flavor, his formula was based on a conservative reading of scripture which sought neither to introduce contradictions into the Christian scriptures nor disregard certain passages in favor of others. Tertullian presented the faith as he had received it, holding that there is only one God, but that this God has a son, and that the son has also sent from the father a helper – the Holy Spirit – who is himself of equal status with the Son and the Father. The son does not have a beginning, nor does the Holy Spirit. They are distinct from the Father, yet one with Him, each called God. Tertullian’s formula eventually became the standard explanation of the faith throughout the whole of the church.

There would be those who challenged this formula over the years, some would gain notable followings, but ultimately few, if any, would gain such traction in their efforts to “overthrow” Tertullian’s Trinitarian orthodoxy as the Arians. It is to this that we now return our attention.

LUCIAN OF ANTIOCH

Although Arianism is named for an Alexandrian Presbyter – Arius – Arius is not the originator of this school of thought, or at least not its most essential aspects.

Arius was a disciple of Lucian of Antioch, an esteemed thinker of his time who established a school in Antioch which, although it stood at odds with the orthodox church for a long time, eventually seems to have taken some steps to be accepted into communion shortly before Lucian was killed during the intense persecutions of Christians c. 311-312. Among Lucian’s disciples were other soon-to-be influential figures such as Eusebius of Nicomedia**.

Lucian held that Christ was not eternal, but had a beginning; he was not a man like Paul of Samosata had held, nor was he created in the same way as man or any other creation – He was wholly unique. Like Paul, however, Lucian believed Christ achieved his “Immutability” – his nature of being unchanging – by persisting in steadfast obedience1. As we will see, Arius seems to have differed on this last point, or at least considered Christ’ immutability to have been achieved before time began, but in Lucian’s teachings the foundation of Arianism is clearly seen.

Whatever the circumstances of his re-admittance into the church, it is perhaps the acceptance of Lucian that most contributed to the spread of Arianism at the onset of the controversy. Lucian possessed a high reputation for his intellect, and his disciples were able to gain influential positions in the church despite their unorthodox views before the conflict arose; thus the first Arians were well positioned to defend and disseminate their teachings when the controversy required. Eusebius became bishop of Nicomedia (a city in which Constantine established his provisional capital and so frequently came under the influence of the bishop – this would have fateful, long standing consequences) and Arius became a presbyter in Alexandria. By the time the conflict broke out, several other Arians already held bishoprics as well.

ARIANISM

It is easy to overemphasize, exaggerate, or simply misunderstand Arius’ views as they differed from Christian orthodoxy. Arius, like Eusebius of Nicomedia and other disciples of Lucian, did not consider Jesus to be a mere man nor a creation like any other, indeed, Arius held that “By his own will and counsel he existed before times and ages fully God, only-begotten, unchangeable2

From the term “unchangeable,” it seems he may have considered Christ to have possessed divine immutability, like the father, from before time began. This is uncertain, however, as a letter from Arius’ bishop, Alexander, states that Arian views considered it still possible for Christ to be changed3a, and the council of Nicaea’s letter to the churches suggests Arius held that Jesus was capable of sin (even if he never exercised such an ability)3c. Whether Alexander and the Synod were correct concerning Arius’ view or perhaps placed a spectrum of diverse Arian views on Arius himself is uncertain. Regardless, it seems that some among the Arians may have believed the Only-Begotten Son was capable of change and, at one time, sin.

The debate was not one that sought to establish whether or not Jesus Christ was God and thus to be worshipped or a mere man, as the Arians themselves professed to have no trouble with calling him “True God++” and “by nature only-begotten4”. Instead, the controversy focused on two of Arius’ contentions; that Jesus did not exist “before he was begotten, or created, or appointed, or established” and that therefore he was not “of the same substance” as the father, but rather had his existence from nothing. “He is neither part of God [the father] nor derived from any substance.2

The Arians expressed this teaching in the mantra, “There was a time when he was not.3c

The Arian Controversy

The Arian controversy first arose in the early years of the fourth century as a dispute between Arius and Bishop Alexander of Alexandria. According to Socrates Scholasticus, Alexander began to preach on the unity of the Trinity, delving deeper into the relationship of the Father and Son than perhaps he should have. Either out of true conviction or sensing an opportunity for gain, Arius accused the bishop of subtly reviving Sabellian Modalism+ and presented Lucian’s teachings as a diametrically opposed alternative3. The ensuing debate soon enveloped all of Egypt, and then spread beyond.

Bishop Alexander endeavored to settle the matter by convincing Arius and his Alexandrian proselytes to recant their teachings, but when it became clear they would not be swayed, he called for a synod of the bishops of Egypt and Libya who agreed to excommunicate Arius and his followers from the church. Arius then appealed to Eusebius of Nicomedia for support3.

Of all the supporters of Arius’ cause, Eusebius of Nicomedia stands out as the most influential, vocal, and ultimately effective. As bishop Eusebius held the clout a humble presbyter such as Arius did not have. When word reached him of the debate raging in Alexandria (likely from Arius himself), Eusebius undertook to write treatises defending Arius and his fellow Arians which he disseminated to other churches and bishops, thus furthering the reach of the debate3a.

Eusebius of Nicomedia was not alone among the bishops, though history demonstrates he found himself certainly in the minority for the time being. In a letter to Eusebius, Arius claims that virtually all of the eastern bishops affirmed the Arian view2, but the results of the synod called by Alexander and the future Council of Nicaea demonstrate this claim to be misinformed at best. He also names Eusebius of Caesaria among the Arian bishops, a claim which, as we will see, is at least very partisan. There can be no doubt, however, that some bishops fervently agreed with Arius and Eusebius of Nicomedia, and that the Arian movement was gaining ground, particularly in Asia Minor.

The Moderate View

Due to the nature of the debate, passions ran high when the Arian Controversy first broke out, but there were some who remained determined to see the two divergent camps reconcile. Chief among these were Eusebius of Caesaria and the Emperor Constantine. Eusebius of Caesaria’s views on Arianism are often a matter of some debate: some consider him to have been an Arian – indeed, Arius himself seems to have held this view2 – or that he was initially sympathetic to the Arian view but was convinced otherwise4. Still others believe he was essentially orthodox but willing at times to compromise in the interest of seeing the church at peace5. Regardless of his state of orthodoxy, Eusebius’ chief motive was doubtless church unity. Eusebius criticized Alexander for misrepresenting Arius’ views1, but ultimately signed his name to the Nicene Creed which clearly condemned Arian teachings on the relationship of the Father and Son. He further wrote a letter to his church affirming the Creed and explaining the points of contention in some detail3d.

Constantine likewise sought to establish unity, and wrote letters to Alexander and Arius exhorting them both to be reconciled3b. His opinion was that both Alexander and Arius were in the wrong; Alexander was wrong to have stirred up the controversy by delving too deeply into the mysteries of the Godhead, and Arius was wrong to have been provoked to seek answers to them.

“It was neither prudent to at first agitate such a question, nor to reply to such a question when proposed: for the claim of no law demands the investigation of such subjects, but the idle, useless talk of leisure occasions them…indeed, how few are capable of adequately expounding, or even accurately understanding the import of matters so vast and profound!3b

It seems likely that this was the view held by Eusebius of Caesarea as well; the true evil that had entered the church was not so much the subject of the controversy, as the controversy itself6. Writing over a hundred years later, Socrates Scholasticus’ ecclesiastical history reflects a similar view, quietly criticizing Alexander for addressing the topic of the unity of the Trinity with “too philosophical minuteness,3” while equally accusing Arius of having a “love of controversy.”

Conclusion

Despite all efforts to see the debate settled or the two camps reconciled, it quickly became clear that the schism between Alexander and Arius had grown far beyond their corner of the Empire. If there was to be any hope of settling the controversy, the whole of the church would have to settle it. To this aim, Constantine called for a council of church leaders to be held in Nicaea. Perhaps as many as three hundred and eighteen bishops gathered with their deacons and presbyters in tow, and although they would almost unanimously settle on the side of Alexander’s orthodoxy, the council, its decisions, and the events that followed would have serious repercussions in the ensuing history of the church.

Footnotes

* The Arian Controversy and the date of Easter celebration. A letter from the synod as recorded by Socrates Scholasticus as well as Theordoret mentions a third matter settled – that of the Melitians who had caused a schism in Egypt shortly before the Arius and which Eusebius Pamphilus also mentions in brief (Life of Constantine, book 2). Rufinius records a list of further decrees agreed to, though he makes it clear these matters arose despite the central matters at hand.

** Not to be confused with the historian Eusebius of Caesaria, also called Eusebius Pamphilus.

+ The belief that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one person manifesting himself in different ways at different times. It was in response to a form of Modalism contemporary to Sabellius that prompted Tertullian to formulate the “Trinitarian Formula” in the early third century – One substance, three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Tertullian, Against Praexis) – This formula became the standard expression of Trinitarian orthodoxy.

++ This should be considered with some caution, as Athanasius' treatment of Arius' "Thalia" suggests that Arius and his fellow Arians considered Jesus' status as "True God" to be a conferred title rather than an intrinsic reality. If this was truly Arius' view, it does not seem to have been understood as such by more moderate voices such as Eusebius of Caesaria. (See Athanasiu - Against the Arians)


BIBLIOGRAPHY:

1. Schaff, Introduction to Eusebius’ Life of Constantine, section 5

2. Arius, letter to Eusebius, cited from Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 2nd ed. p.39

3. Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, edited by A.C. Zenos, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series

a. Letter of Alexander as quoted by Socrates

b. Letter of Constantine as quoted by Socrates

c. Letter of the Nicene Council as quoted by Socrates

d. Letter of Eusebius as quoted by Socrates

4. Theodoret, Ecclesiastical History, Edited by Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series

5. Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1

6. Eusebius Pamphilus, Life of Constantine, Edited by Philip Schaff

7. Larry Hurtado, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pLeXpSCLrD8

8. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Ephesians 0:1, Translated by Cyril Richardson, Early Christian Fathers, Vol. 1

9. Tertullian, Against Praexis, chap 2 http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0317.htm

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    • Peopleofthebook profile imageAUTHOR

      B A Johnson 

      8 months ago

      Actually the church was fairly effective in dealing with “Christian-Gnostic” sects over the course of the second century (which was really the period of time when they flourished) to the point that they can be said to have been “rejected” by the first half of the third century.

      Gnostic sects of course still existed in the 3rd and 4th centuries, but there was no longer any real ability for them to argue that their teachings had any place within the church. The First Council of Nicaea (325A.D.) was convened to address a dispute which had arisen within the church, rather than to address any external groups.

      Long story short, by sharing their own recognized gospels and creeds, the various churches were able to coalesce into a unified, “Catholic” church. (Catholic meaning literally “according to the whole”)

      Some of the finer points of this process are addressed here:

      https://owlcation.com/humanities/The-New-Testament...

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      8 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Why am I thinking about the Gnostic in the first Council?

    • Peopleofthebook profile imageAUTHOR

      B A Johnson 

      8 months ago

      +Eric Dieker Well thank you very much. I look forward to your input!

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 

      8 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Uh oh -- this is so well done I will study more of it and come back to you.

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