Arian Controversy

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Early Christianity


What was the Arian Controversy all about?


The Arian controversy raged over opposing views about God. One group, headed by Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, proclaimed that there were three persons in one God. Others, headed by Eusebius and Arius, a presbyter in Alexandria, believed in only one indivisible God.

It was Arius' belief that if the Father begat the son, then the son had a beginning in time. Before that time, the son did not exist. Therefore, the son is not equal to, but was created by, God. This is based on a verse in John's Gospel that reads: "….the Father is greater than me." (14:28) Because Jesus had been created by God, he was obviously inferior to him, at least at some point.

This is in opposition to traditional Trinitarian theology, which maintained that the Son and the Holy Spirit shared the same substance, i.e. were "consubstantial" with the Father. The Greek term is homoousios.

This was the first major doctrinal conflict within the Church. While there might be a modern tendency to dismiss it as an early heresy in the forming Church, scholars have long wondered whether it was an attack against the politicizing of Christianity with the Roman Empire. It might have been an attempt to return to the origins of Christianity. The divisiveness might have continued forever had Constantine not stepped into the fray.

After declaring Christianity to be the religion of the Empire, Constantine was fed up with the fighting. His main religious adviser sent letters to Arius and Alexander in an attempt to reconcile their views. Clearly, Constantine had little understanding of the issue at hand. His letters had no effect. Ossius, Constantine's advisor, held a preliminary meeting in 325 CE, called the Council of the Orient. The participants of this meeting condemned Arius' views and began working on a creedal profession of faith. Those who disagreed were promptly excommunicated.

In the summer of 325 CE, Constantine called for a general council of the faithful at Nicaea in Bithynia. The number of bishops attending has been a matter of dispute. It ranges from 220 to 318. No minutes were taken, or at least none exist. They met daily and Arius was summoned to speak often. At the end, the majority voted against Arius.

Eusebius tried to draft a creed that was somewhat sympathetic to Arian views, but it was ultimately rejected. Any bishop opposing the creed was threatened with excommunication. Only three refused to sign, and they were exiled. The Creed is as follows:

"We believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten of the Father, that is, of the substance (ousia) of the Father, God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of the same substance (homoousios) with the Father, through whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth . . . Those who say: 'There was a time when He was not, and He was not before He was begotten;' and that 'He was made out of nothing;' or who maintain that 'He is of another hypostasis or another substance,' or that 'the Son of God is created, or mutable, or subject to change,' the Catholic Church anathematizes (i.e. curses)."

Phrases in the creed directly opposed the Arian position. The Son was "begotten, not made" refutes that the Son had a beginning. "True God of true God" affirmed that the Son was really God. And, of course, homoousios stated that the Son shares the same substance, with the Father and is therefore fully divine. If this wasn't enough to make things clear, the anathemas at the end denounced the Arian position.

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