Arianism: When Jesus (a.s.) was Not God

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

Arianism is a Christian heresy which arose in the fourth century.  Arians denied the Divinity of Jesus Christ (a.s.).  Arianism bears the distinction of being one of the earliest, and most enduring doctrinal dispute in ecclesiastical history.  Arianism’s main contention is that Jesus (a.s.) is not the Second Person in the Trinity and denies the Divine Mystery.  Mainstream Christianity, which is Pauline by creed, bases its theology on select verses of the canonical gospels – gospels that the Pauline faction made canonical.

Matthew 11:27
27 “My Father has entrusted everything into my hands; none knows the Son truly except the Father, and none knows the Father truly except the Son, and those to whom it is the Son’s good pleasure to reveal him.”

John 10:36
36 “Why then, what of him whom God has Sanctified and Sent into the world?  Will you call me a blasphemer, because I have told you I am the Son of God?”

The beginning of the Gospel according to John declared Jesus (a.s.) to be the Word, Logos.

John 1:1
1 At the beginning of time the Word already was; and God had the Word abiding with him, and the Word was God.

Paul, and what became his faction, promoted this doctrine in his Epistles to the Ephesians, the Colossians, and the Philippians. It is also reiterated in the Letters of Ignatius.

Whilst the Father was acknowledged by all factions a the Supreme Omnipotent, Omniscient God, the Sonship was a controversy in which Paul’s doctrine was far from the majority in the beginning.  The theological conundrum of how the Son related to the Father led to the proliferation of various theosophic doctrines, collectively known as Gnosticism.  Between 60 and 200 CE, Greek thinkers such as Tatian, Basilides, Valentinus, Philo and Simon Magus - the proto-Gnostics.  The intellectual centres of these doctrines were Alexandria and Antioch, far away from the orthodoxy of Rome.  Whilst Catholics had always maintained that Christ (a.s.) was truly the Son, and truly God, and worshipped Him with divine honours, they could never consent to separate Him, in essence or reality, from the Father.  In the early days of the Church, the technical terms of doctrine were not fully defined; Greek terms such as the essence, ousia; the substance, hypostasis; the nature, physis; the person, hyposopon; and others, which are now familiar to Christian theologians; were not fully defined and bore a variety of meanings dependent upon the philosophical traditions they were based upon.

Essentially, Christian though adopted wholesale the vocabulary Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus and Classical Greek philosophers.  And with it, their doctrinal baggage.  The Pauline Christians pushed their version of a Triune God, the rationalists resisted it, and all manner of groups arose between the two positions.  In all this, the position of Arius was simple: God does not have a Son.  He predated the Final Prophet (s.a.w.) by several centuries, but Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) vindicated him with the Revelation of the Qur’an:

He begetteth not, nor is He begotten; and there is none like unto Him. (Surah al-Ikhlasw:3-4)

Pauline Christians class Arianism and all similar heresies Unitarianism.  We do not have the actual doctrines of Arius in his own words.  The closest we do have is Athanasius’ Four Discourses against the Arians.  Athanasius’ Contra Gentes, Against the Heathens and De Incarnatione, On the Incarnation, did not address it itself since they were written before the Arian heresy rocked the foundations of the Church.

Arianism itself did not evolve directly from Gnosticism, although Irenaeus labelled every heresy a form a Gnosticism.  Arianism did take the middle position between Pauline Christianity and Gnosticism, denying the Sonship, and by extension, the Trinity; but Arianism also did not accept any concept of a demiurge.  Jesus (a.s.) was considered an Intercessor for the First Cause.  Arius believed that God is Eternal, but Jesus (a.s.) was not.  Arius contended that God Alone was without beginning, Unoriginate; the Son was originated, and once had not existed, for all that has origin must begin to be.  In essence, it was islam before Islam.  The genuine doctrine of Arius denies that the Son is of one essence, nature, or substance with God; Jesus (a.s.) is not consubstantial, homoousios, with the Father, and therefore unlike Him, or not equal in dignity, or co-eternal, or within the sphere of deityship.  The Logos an Attribute, Reason, belonging to the Divine, and is not a person distinct from another, and therefore is a ‘Son’ metaphorically, not in reality.  

In summary, Arian belief asserts that Jesus Christ (a.s.) is the Son of God, Created by God the Father, distinct from the Father and therefore subordinate to the Father.  The Arian belief that the Son of God did not always exist, but was Created by God the Father is based on an interpretation of a verse in the Gospel according to John:

John 14:28
28 “You have heard me say that I am going away and coming back to you.  If you really loved me, you would be glad to hear that I am on my way to my Father; my Father has greater power than I.

Arius believed that God the Father and the Son of God did not always exist together eternally.  Arians believed that the Logos was a divine being Created by God the Father before the world and that the Son of God is subordinate to God the Father.  They refer to verses such this on the creation of the Son:

Proverbs 8:22
22 The Lord Made me His when First He went about His Work, at the birth of time, before His Creation began.

In a letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia, Arius wrote that “the Son is no part of the Ingenerate.”  Thereafter, Arians sometimes called ‘Anomoeans’, the ones who maintain that the Son was ‘unlike’ the Father, defined God as simply ‘Unoriginate’.  They were also called Exucontians, from ‘ex ouk onton’, because they held that the Creation of the Son was out of nothing, kun faya kun.

But there were also Semi-Arians who affirmed the Trinity but denied the Son co-equal dignity and co-eternal existence.  This via media is even more untenable logically ad theologically.  As such, because of the extreme differences between Arianism and Catholicism, the via media had no real creed or theology, varying wildly between one or the other position, and alternatively agreeing and contradicting each other.  While they affirmed the Word of God to be everlasting, they imagined him to have become the Son to create and redeem mankind.  This actually segued into outright polytheism.

Quite a few of the early Church Fathers of the Ante-Nicene period held either Arian or Semi-Arian views.  Arianism was not the far out heresy that is has since been depicted by Christianity.  It was the most widely accepted doctrine in large sections of the Church.  If history had played out differently, Pauline Christianity would be considered the heresy.  Aside from Athenagoras, Tatian, Theophilus of Antioch, Hippolytus, and Novatian, others who held pro-Arian views on the Sonship include Tertullian, and Origen – giants of early Christian theology.

Arianism, although named after Arius, did not originate with him.  Arius was its most successful proponent.  It had many beginnings and initially coalesced with Paul of Samosata, contemporary with Dionysius, and Bishop of Antioch.  Paul said that the man Jesus (a.s.) was distinct from the logos and was ‘made’ God by merit.  But there was still only one essence.  It took three councils, all held at Antioch, from 264 to 268 CE to condemn the heresy and excommunicate the Samosatene.  However, the councils declined to accept the homoousian formula, since they were not in a position to properly define it.  They feared that this would result in a Christology that would be uncomfortably close to several pagan traditions.

Arius was a Libyan by descent, brought up at Antioch and a went to school with Eusebius, later Bishop of Nicomedia.  Arius had been a pupil of Lucian of Antioch, at Lucian’s private academy.  He inherited from him, a modified form of the doctrine of Paul of Samosata.  He first came to into prominence for opposing the Sabellians.  The Sabellians are named after Sabellius, who taught that God was single and indivisible.  He held that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were three manifestations of one divine Person.

Epiphanius described Arius as tall, grave, and winning.  Even his enemies in the Church can find no aspersion on his moral character to this day.  He has some personal doctrinal differences with his patriarch, Alexander.  They quarreled, and in public synod, he accused Alexander of teaching that the Son was identical with the Father.  Alexander condemned Arius in a great assembly.  Arius found a refuge with Eusebius, now the Church historian, at Caesarea, and his former school mate.  It became political and different parties within the Church took sides.  The bishops of Syria and Asia Minor sided with their fellow Lucianist, as Arius was known.

The Roman emperor Constantine, was not interested in what he thought a minor dispute and sought only to restore ecclesiastical order.  He has supported the Church out of political convenience, to strip the pagan temples of their political clout, and later their wealth.  Arius had written to the Nicomedian prelate, and boldly rejected the Catholic position on the Trinity.  Constantine sent a letter from Nicomedia to Alexander, seeking peace.  Alexander could not give way in a matter fundamental doctrine.  Neither would Arius and his supporters yield.  An ecumenical council was assembled in Nicaea, in Bithynia, the first ecumenical.

It is commonly held that Hosius of Cordova presided.  Pope Silvester was represented by his legates, and 318 Church Fathers attended, almost all from the East.  The acts of the Council are not preserved, so much of its theological debates can only be discerned from Athanasius.  He was a deacon, still in his youth, and had accompanied Alexander.  It is here that Athanasius made his name and became the leading theologian of the Church until his death.

Eusebius of Nicomedia wrote in, declaring openly that he did not believe Christ (a.s.) to be of one substance with God.  And this became the contention between the Arians and the Pauline Christians, the Catholics.  Eusebius drew up the Arian creed, an attempted compromise which accorded every term of honour and dignity to Jesus (a.s.), except the oneness of substance, one in being, with God.

The Church rejected this and reiterated what the Gospel according to John said:

John 10:30
30 “My Father and I are one.”

The ‘consubstantial’, ‘homoousios’ nature of the Sonship was accepted by all except thirteen bishops.  These dissenters became seven.  An anathema was proposed for those who affirmed that the Son once did not exist; that before he was begotten, He was not existent; that he was creatio ex nihilo; that he was of a different substance or essence from the Father; or was created or changeable.  Every bishop made this declaration except six, which became four.  Eusebius of Nicomedia withdrew his opposition to the Nicene terms, but refused to sign the condemnation of Arius.  Although Arius had as many supporters as Alexander and Athanasius, most of the bishops signed thee condemnation of Arius upon pain of death or exile by the Emperor.  Constantine did not care for either positon.  He cared for a united church behind him as he fought foreign adversaries.  It was politics and not faith that determined the direction of the Church from this juncture.

By the decree of the emperor, heresy was considered rebellion.  That would have meant a painful death.  The proposed alternative was subscription or banishment.  On political grounds, the Bishop of Nicomedia was exiled not long after the council.  Arius and his followers were exiled to Illyria.  And this was the beginning of Church precedent in dealing with major challenges to its doctrine.  And this was the beginning of its long dispute with Arianism in its various incarnations.  Athanasius succeeded Alexander in the Egyptian patriarchate in 326 CE.  He was not even thirty years of age.  And thus, the players were in position.

In 328 CE, Eusebius recovered Constantine's favour.  He went through his mother or sister, depending on the source.  A period of Arian reaction to the Paulines set in.  Eustathius of Antioch was deposed on a charge of Sabellianism in 331 CE.  The Emperor command that Athanasius receive Arius back into communion.  Athanasius firmly declined.  In 335 CE, Arius was absolved by two councils, at Tyre and Jerusalem.  The Council of Tyre also deposed Athanasius on the charge of threatening to cut off the grain supply from Egypt to Constantinople in a fit of petulance against the Emperor.  He was exiled to Trier and stayed there until Constantine’s death in 337 CE.

In 336 CE, Constantia, the sister of the Emperor, recommended Arius to Constantine’s leniency as her dying wish.  The emperor recalled the Lybian, extracted an adhesion to the Nicene creed, and then ordered Alexander, Bishop of the Imperial City, to give him communion in his own church.  Arius had openly triumphed against the Pauline faction, and was granted a parade, thoroughly vindicated.  On the eve of communion, Arius died.  The Catholic Church called it a miracle.  I call it a convenient death.  Arius was undoubtedly poisoned by agents of the Catholic Church.  And that is the extent of the history of Arius and Athanasius.

Athanasius was a consummate politician, and involved himself in the intrigues, the deadly infighting and the factionalism of the Church, whilst at the same time, shaping the Catholic response to Arianism and its Christology.  After the passing of Arius, due to many factors, Arianism became a spent force within the Church.  Its advocates sought rapprochement with the powerful Athanasius, or were exiled, or they passed on.  Athanasius himself died in 373 CE, but his cause triumphed at and shaped Western Christianity to this day.

At the Second General Council, the Council of Constantinople, in 381 CE, the current form of the Nicene Creed, first formulated in part at the Council of Nicaea, was approved.  It was drawn up by Gregory of Nyssa.  Constantinople was the bastion of Arianism.  This signaled the end of Arianism as a viable doctrine within the Church.  Whilst Arianism did gain a foothold amongst the Germanic tribes, it never developed doctrinally and these developments were more political than theological.

In summary, the Pauline doctrine of Trinitarianism was formally affirmed by the first two ecumenical councils – Nicaea in 325 CE and Constantinople in 381 CE.  Arianism provided the Catholic Church the impetus to formalize much of its doctrines.  The result of the first two councils was the Nicene Creed, and eventually, the Athanasian Creed to address the Arian heresy.  Thereafter, all mainstream branches of Christianity considered Arianism heterodox and heretical.  Nicaea deemed it a heresy.  In between the first two ecumenical councils, there were the regional synods of Tyre and Jerusalem, in 335 CE.  Here, Arius was exonerated.  After his death, he was anathemised and pronounced heretic at the First Council of Constantinople of 381 CE.

Arian books were burned and the doctrine was expunged from Church records.  We only know of his doctrine from polemics, particularly Athanasius.  Even accounts of Arius and Athanasius are highly partisan to the point of caricature.  Arianism did continue to exist for several decades.  By the end of the 4th century, it was virtually extinct as a theological force, and 2,000 years later, most Christians have no idea that it was once, one of the dominant doctrines of the early Church.  As Catholic theologians wrote the last century, had it finally triumphed, it “would have anticipated Islam, reducing the Eternal Son to the rank of a prophet, and thus undoing the Christian revelation.”

In western Europe, Ulfilas, the Arian bishop ordained by Eusebius, converted the Goths and Lombards and, significantly for the late Empire, the Vandals.  Whilst it eventually died out amongst the other Germanic tribes, the Vandals of Iberia clung on to it.  Centuries later, when the Muslims came, they found it easy to adopt Islam, and the Land of the Vandals, became ‘Dar al-Andalus’, since there is no ‘v’ in Arabic.  And that is why al-Andalus, Andalusia, easily became Muslim.  Arianism resurfaced after the Reformation, in the 16th century.  The epithet ‘Arian’ was also applied indiscriminately to every non-trinitarian group that emerged.  But these ‘unitarians’ had varied doctrines, and some were far from being truly Unitarian, being closer to binitarianism.


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