Monday, September 29, 2008

Who's who: Arius

Arius had been trained at Antioch, with which city Alexandria had long been in dispute, notably about the way Scripture should be handled. About 318 Arius accused Bishop Alexander of Alexandria of subscribing to Sabellianism (the view that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were merely roles or modes assumed in turn by God). Though Alexander had probably been guilty of no more than an incautious use of language, Arius was concerned to emphasize the oneness of God.
Unhappily, he went to the other extreme. If the Father was absolutely one, where did the Son come in? Arius explained it thus: "The Father existed before the Son. There was a time when the Son did not exist. Therefore, the Son was created by the Father. Therefore, although the Son was the highest of all creatures, he was not of the essence of God."

This was no mere exercise in semantics, but an attack on the doctrine of God and a challenge to the very foundation of Christianity, which holds that Jesus is really and truly God. Alexander, who until then had had a high regard for Arius as an expert logician, brought him to meet with some of the diocesan clergy. Alexander himself chaired the discussion. Arius defended his position, but the others (joined belatedly by Alexander) contended that the Son is consubstantial and coeternal with the Father. The bishop commanded Arius to receive this doctrine and to reject his former opinions.

Arius was not prepared to do so, and in 319 he was officially anathematized, as were all others who made "shameless avowal of these heresies." There the matter might have rested, but Arius was cunning and persuasive. The emperor Constantine had been at first inclined to dismiss the theological differences as "of a truly insignificant character," but he was less concerned about the unity of God (which he imperfectly understood) than about the unity of his empire. The churchmen persisted, however, and Constantine convened the first ecumenical council of the Church, held at Nicea in a.d. 325.

Almost three hundred bishops were present, predominantly from the East. Arianism was the major item on the agenda. Arius and his supporters were given every opportunity to make their case and seemed confident of success. To their dismay, both Arianism and a compromise viewpoint were rejected, and the council produced a creed that upheld the orthodox position. Its crucial point was its insistence on Christ's being of the same essence with the Father, rather than of similar essence (a view the Arians would have accepted). The difference in Greek centered around the presence or absence of the letter Greek letter iota (i) ó i.e., whether it should be homoousios (of the same essence) or homoiousios (of similar essence). The orthodox at Nicea, notably the young Athanasius who was an invaluable aide to Bishop Alexander, rightly saw that this was not merely a battle over a letter, but that true Christian doctrine was at stake.

At the end of the council Arius was excommunicated, but within two years he deceived Constantine into thinking he was orthodox at heart. Athanasius, who became bishop of Alexandria in 328, would not have Arius back in the city, and this became a source of unrest, fully exploited by Athanasius' enemies. Even when the exasperated Constantine sent Athanasius into exile, Arius was refused Communion in the diocese and returned to Constantinople, where he soon died. Arianism was not dead, however, but persisted (often among the highly placed) until its final condemnation at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

J. D. Douglas in Who's Who in Christian History. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.


gentleexit said...

Many reasons are given for the dispute ridicule's beginning - who caused it, why it happened. Like most disputes, its substance may have been secondary.

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