Scratch Pad Two: Arianism

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See the previous post. Also, do you see Arianism in the modern Church?

Arianism, long latent even before it had a name given to it by a man born long after the heresy developed, erupted in Alexandria at the start of the State Church due to a dispute between Alexander, Bishop of that city, and the conservative Arius[i], one of his presbyters. Erupting over a contested passage[ii], the contest soon spread throughout Egypt and into the Levant, roundly dividing the priests and bishops into the two camps, although those two camps were not as neatly defined as their leaders who have us believe. While Arius and his most ardent followers most likely aligned symmetrically, as were Alexander and his, the tiered supporters did have disagreements amongst themselves. Each had their theologians, with Arius, a poor theologian, defended by Eusebius of Caesarea and Eusebius of Nicomedia, joined by the lapsed Narcissus of Neronias and Alexander supported immediately by Athanasius who would later be accompanied into exile by Marcellus of Ancyra. Letters, documents and position papers were produced, leading to excommunications and eventually, an Imperial call for a council.

In 325, Constantine summoned hundreds of bishops, but only a fraction attended, and nearly all of them from the East. It was to decide, for all time, the position of the Church. After heated disputes[iii], a Creed was introduced by Eusebius and without little change, was accepted as a middle ground to both sides. This Creed was roundly supported by Marcellus of Ancyra and others because of the inclusion of the word ὁμοούσιον (consubstantiálem, Lat.) tying Christ to the same substance as the Father, directly refuting, at least in the majority opinion, the notion that Christ is a creature, made by the Father. The Creed of 325 differed greatly from the Creed of 381 which developed, although with the fight over of the completion enjoyed by the Son, the formula of the Spirit. Further, with its focus on more of the ontological nature of Christ, the Creed of 381 tried to forever put to rest the heresy that there was a time in which the Son was not.

Arianism’s problem for Christianity resides in the question of Incarnation and Atonement. If Christ was a created being, and although higher than the angels, could salvation be affected? Christ, as orthodoxy considered Him, was God in the Flesh, which was necessary, via developed theology, to bring about Salvation because in the Atonement, Christ through His divinity accomplished the ultimate sacrifice. As Melito of Sardis would say, God died; or as Athanasius would say, God became human so that humanity could become divine. It diluted the deity of Christ to a high and perfect creature, but a creature none the less. And if the blood of bulls and goats did nothing, how could another mere creature, regardless of his own divine status? Arius, while attempting to drive the Church away from polytheism which he perceived in Alexander’s speech, drove the Church into the ancient heresies of Ebionism and in some small way, Gnosticism.


[i] So is the argument by Rowam Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in his book, Arius: Heresy and Tradition, Eerdmans,

[ii] I would venture that it was Proverbs 8, in which Wisdom (Christ) is said to be created, although most likely Arius was using the LXX. Constantine in his letter to Alexander would write, When you, Alexander, demanded of the priests what opinion they each maintained respecting a certain passage in Scripture, or rather, I should say, that you asked them something connected with an unprofitable question. See Constantine to Alexander and Arius, 6

[iii] One of my favorite stories is that of Bishop Nicolas (St. Nicholas) who upon hearing Arius’ full treatment walked over to the heretic and with as much strength as he could muster, punched Arius – in front of the Emperor, no less!

Post By Joel Watts (10,045 Posts)

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

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