Arianism

A heresy that denied the eternality of Jesus Christ the Son of God as the Logos.* It was condemned at the Council of Nicea* in 325. Very little of the written work of Arius, presbyter of Alexandria (d.336), remains, but the Arian controversy (c.318-81) was strategic to the crystallization and development of Christian doctrine. Along with Eusebius of Nicomedia, Arius studied under Lucian of Antioch, whose views foreshadowed Arius's Christology. Arius's genius was to push the christological question back to the origin of the pre-incarnate Logos. The controversy seems to have arisen in a dispute between Arius and his bishop, Alexander of Alexandria,* though after Nicea it was the young Athanasius,* deacon to Alexander, who carried the argument against Arius and whose defense of biblical Christology* eventually triumphed over the Arians in the fourth century.

Affirming a univocal sense of “begetting” with reference to our Lord's being the “only begotten Son,” Arius said (to quote Socrates Scholasticus): “If the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence: and from this it is evident, that there was (a time) when the Son was not. It therefore necessarily follows, that he had his subsistence from nothing.”

On the basis of a certain logic of terms, Arius's subordinationist Christology is consistent, but it is also patently heretical judged by the apostolic witness. If God is indivisible and not subject to change, then, on one reading of “begotten,” whatever is begotten of God must derive from a creative act, not from the being of God. Hence it has a beginning of existence. Therefore the Son is not coeternal with the Father.

Fastening upon the term “begotten,” Arius said that because Christ is begotten He must have had a beginning. Athanasius countered that because Christ is begotten of the Father, He could not have had a beginning. To say that a father begets a child is one thing, but to say that the Father begat the Son is another. The one is temporal, the other eternal; the one is of the will, the other from the being of the Father. Thus the Nicene Creed insisted that Christ is of the substance of the Father, thereby sacrificing neither the impassibility of God nor the deity of the Son. To say that the Son is begotten from the Father from eternity is not to divide the indivisible God but to accept the testimony of the apostles.

Crucial to the question are the doctrines of Creation and the Trinity. At Nicea, Christians adopted the teaching that the one Lord Jesus Christ from eternity is of one substance with the Father (note John's prologue, 1:1-18). This marked the end of the period in which Christ could be thought of as God's intermediary in His work of creation and redemption. Thus was vindicated the OT doctrine of the direct creation of the world by God, rather than the Greek concept of an intermediary or intermediaries who linked the world to God but not God to the world. The concept of intermediaries (as in Gnosticism) was formulated to overcome the antinomy of how God could be ingenerate and impassible yet act to create the world. Against Arius, Athanasius insisted there is no room in Christian thought for any being of intermediate status between Creator and creature, and because redemption is a divine prerogative, only God in Christ, not some intermediate being, could redeem.

The Arian controversy was protracted and involved many complicated documents circulated in the fourth century. The Arians achieved great popularity after the Council of Nicea, especially following the death of Constantine in 337, because his son and successor Constantius was fond of Arius (see separate articles on Anomoeans, and Homoeans). Eventually the force of Arian teaching was dissipated, though only through fierce struggle involving Athanasius. The Nicene Symbol was confirmed at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

The most noteworthy Arian-like Christology in modern times is the teaching of the Jehovah's Witnesses, who deny the eternality of the Son of God, the doctrine of the Trinity, and who, like Arius, posit the Logos as an intermediate being between the Creator and creation.

Athanasius, Orations Against the Arians (1873) and On the Incarnation of the Word of God (1944); G.L. Prestige, Fathers and Heretics (1940), chap. 6; H. Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church (1946) and Early Christian Fathers (1956); E.R. Hardy, Christology of the Later Fathers (1954); J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (1958) and Early Christian Creeds (1960); B. Altaner, Patrology (1960).