Arianism – a troublesome for the Church quarrel, over the Son of God

The Burning of Aryan Texts at the Council of Nicaea, fresco by Carlo Mannoni, Baptistery of San Giovanni in Laterano

The Burning of Aryan Texts at the Council of Nicaea, fresco by Carlo Mannoni, Baptistery of San Giovanni in Laterano

“I believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty (…) and in one, Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father (…) true God from true God, begotten not made, one in Being with the Father”. This is how the most important prayer of each Roman Catholic faithful begins, known to him since childhood and repeated at every Holy Mass. However, very few people know that the words contained within aroused such great emotion, that on their behalf, fights and quarrels erupted and multi-generational schisms were caused.

The Burning of Aryan Texts at the Council of Nicaea, fresco by Carlo Mannoni, Baptistery of San Giovanni in Laterano
Emperor Constantine at the Council of Nicaea, medieval manuscript, pic. Wikipedia
Head of Constantine the Great, remains of the emperor’s statue, Musei Capitolini
Emperor Constantine at the Council of Nicaea, medieval manuscript, pic. Wikipedia

“I believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty (…) and in one, Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father (…) true God from true God, begotten not made, one in Being with the Father”. This is how the most important prayer of each Roman Catholic faithful begins, known to him since childhood and repeated at every Holy Mass. However, very few people know that the words contained within aroused such great emotion, that on their behalf, fights and quarrels erupted and multi-generational schisms were caused.

After a period of persecutions and conspiracies, at the moment when Christians, after the Edict of Milan from 313, were able to openly profess their faith, doctrinal arguments ensued, which aroused the emotions of not only theologians and bishops, but also those of the faithful to such an extent that situations occurred which were described by Gregory of Nyssa in the following words: “If you questioned a baker about the price of bread, he would answer that the Father is greater and the Son is subordinate to Him”.

 


That is why in the year 325   the Council of Nicaea (present-day İznik in Turkey) was called by Emperor Constantine the Great, of which the main task was to settle the dispute over the nature of Christ, or more appropriately over the relationship between the Father and the Son. In the years preceding the council there was a severe conflict between supporters of the thesis, that Christ is consubstantial with God the Father and those who believed that he is lower in status – as he was born by the Father he is in a way subordinate to Him. The latter view was represented by the presbyter from Alexandria, Arius, who enjoyed great esteem among the faithful and who in 318, protecting true monotheism stated that there is only one God, while the Son born of the Father cannot be equal to Him. His teachings were based on fragments of the New Testament, including the Gospel of St. John, in which Christ refers to himself as “lower than the Father”. Arius’s speech became the start of a true religious war. The bishop of Alexandria, Alexander, to whom Arius was directly subject, deemed his words as heretic. However, despite this fact, the preacher who was popular in the city attracted a significant group of followers, who started being referred to as Arians. Fuel to the fire was added by bishop Alexander himself, who excommunicated Arius, taking care of his personal vendetta against the clergy of Alexandria on the side. The wave of hateful propaganda which he incited, allowing Arius’s supporters to be called “heretic scum” or “stupid and thoughtless rabble”, did not bode well for a compromise. In fact just the opposite – it strengthened the Arian resolve. When Arius was thrown out of the city by Alexander, he turned to the bishop of Nicomedia, Eusebius of Nicomedia, who was favorably disposed towards him, while the preacher’s statements continued to polarize the Christian community.

For Constantine the Great the division in the Church of Alexandria was difficult to understand. The council which he had called was to calm the emotions around Arius. The emperor wanted unity in the womb of the Church and looked with disfavor upon arguments and  turmoil. Religion was to be the backbone of order, was to unify, not divide. Seeing, that there is no chance for a compromise between the conflicted camps, he forced his opinion during the council attaining support of most of the bishops. Arius was condemned, exiled to Gaul, while his writings were destroyed. The defender of orthodoxy bishop Alexander was able to announce one of the most important theses of the council, which was the confirmation of Christ as consubstantial to God the Father. The Nicene Credo was developed, meaning the prayer which was mentioned in the introduction. This stance was also supported by the bishop or Rome – Silvester I, who sympathized with the bishop of Alexandria since the beginning of the conflict.  The imperial judgement and the will of the council however, could not force the supporters of Arius to remain silent, especially since emperor Constantine’s view of him also changed. Arius was recalled from exile and rehabilitated. If that was not enough, immediately prior to his death the emperor was baptized by a representative of the Arians. This fact did not end the conflict. Subsequent emperors had to deal with it – successors of Constantine, who generally supported Arianism. 

 

The problem which continuously sparked the emotions, especially in the east of the empire, was once again undertaken by the council called in 381 in Constantinople, by the then Emperor Theodosius I, a supporter of orthodoxy. His council once again confirmed the decisions reached at the Council of Nicaea, underlining that the Nicene interpretation is the only mandatory credo, meaning the basis of faith.

In the West, Arianism was dealt with rather quickly, mainly thanks to the bishop of Milan Ambrose, who valiantly stood by orthodoxy just as the bishops of Rome had done. From that moment on Arianism was treated as a heretical view, meaning one that assumes the abandonment of truth and probably it would have been forgotten, if it had not resurfaced as phoenix from the ashes along with Goth invaders a century later – who as it turned out – professed Arianism. They got to know Christianity during the missionary activity of the Arian bishop Ulfilas, who in mid IV century converted Goths settled on the Danube. Thus, after the dethronement of the last emperor of the Roman Empire, Romulus Augustulus, an Arian of Germanic descent, Odoacer ruled Italy, followed by a continuator of his work, Theodoric the Great of the Ostrogoth tribe. Therefore, a rather uncomfortable for all situation developed, where the court in Ravenna decisively favored Arianism, while the representatives of the Arian rulers of Italy participated in talks of the papal conclave (supporters of orthodoxy) and with their authority confirmed their election. However, surprisingly, the relations between both parties for nearly fifty years of Aryan reign (Odoacer, Theodoric) were rather proper, even exemplary. However, only for a time being. Reconciliation of the until now rival religious camps of the Church of the East and West led to a victory of orthodoxy and a definite defeat of Arianism, this time by Emperor Justinian.

We do not know the exact views of Arius, since his writings were destroyed, while for possessing or disseminating them one risked the death penalty. Only his most controversial statements or opinions on them remained, told by his adversaries. Arianism was the first in the history of the Church heresy, combated not only by the clergy but also by the state. This movement died down around the year 600 A.D., when its last professors – the Visigoths from the Pyrenean Peninsula – converted to Roman Catholicism.