On the Arian Heresy

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St. Nicholas Strikes Arius at the Council of Nicea (Painted by Giovanni Gasparro)

Arianism is a word we don’t hear much in the modern world, but it’s ideology permeates the entire planet both inside and outside of Christendom. Many Christians mistakenly believe Arianism was defeated centuries ago, but in truth, it never left us. It just morphed, changing forms, and remains with us today in many different manifestations. It is, perhaps, the single most destructive heresy in Christian history. That so few people know what it is only demonstrates how well it’s been able to stealthily slip into society and shipwreck the faith of millions.

Arius was a “Christian” priest and ascetic, a Berber from Libya, who lived between AD 250 – 336. At that time, all of Northern Africa and much of the Middle East was Christian. Arius was ordained a priest in AD 313, the year Christianity was legalized in the Roman Empire. He served in Alexandria, Egypt, the Christian capital of North Africa at the time. Warren H. Carroll, a Catholic historian, describes Arius as “tall and lean, of distinguished appearance and polished address. Women doted on him, charmed by his beautiful manners, touched by his appearance of asceticism. Men were impressed by his aura of intellectual superiority” (Carroll, A. History of Christendom, Volume II. p. 10.). He might have one day been canonized as a Saint, had he not embraced the heresy that bears his name.

What was that heresy?

Arius rejected the Christian teaching that Jesus Christ is God. It’s as simple as that. Arius believed Jesus (the Son), which St. John describes as the Word (Logos or λόγος) in his gospel, was a created being, not eternal, and therefore something less than God. He imagined the Son came to earth in the form of Jesus of Nazareth — Israel’s Messiah. According to Saint Athanasius (AD 296 – 373), Arius’ teaching reduced Jesus Christ to a demigod, rather than God in the flesh, introducing polytheism to Christians (since the worship of Christ was not abandoned), and undermining the Judeo-Christian concept of monotheism which was promoted by the Apostles.

Arius taught this heresy to his parish in Alexandria, and when his bishop heard of it, he excommunicated Arius and exiled him from the city. Sympathizers soon came to Arius’ side. These became the first “Arians” promoting the heresy of Arianism. His movement grew, as sympathizers continued to rally to his side. The heresy spread fast, like wildfire, not only within Alexandria, but all throughout Egypt and Northern Africa. It wasn’t long before followers of Arius could be found throughout the entire Roman Empire.

Part of the reason for Arius’ success was that Christianity was just emerging from the persecution of the Roman Empire. The Emperor, Caesar Constantine, was in the process of making restitution to Christians, handing over Pagan temples to be renovated into churches and restoring confiscated property. The trajectory of Rome was clear. Constantine was gradually moving the empire away from ancient Paganism and toward Christianity as the new imperial religion. Many early Christians rallied to Arianism because they were not well catechized (religiously trained) at the time. I’m talking primarily about the laity here, some priests, and very few bishops. They had spent their entire lives evading persecution, and didn’t have much time for theology lessons. Arius’ explanation of things was relatively simple, and simplicity always makes for quick answers to tough questions, though not always the right answers. Arius was skilled and persuasive. He was a trained philosopher and knew how to make a case. Within a matter of just one decade he had turned the whole Christian world upside-down, forcing an ecumenical council to resolve the matter.

The council was to be held in the Asia-Minor City of Nicea (the city is now called Iznik in Turkey). They would meet in a large Christian basilica on the west side of the city, on the shore of Lake İznik. Today, what remains of the basilica is submerged underwater. At the time of the council, however, it must have been significantly elevated above the shoreline.  It was said that most of the bishops who attended the Council of Nicea, in AD 325, were Trinitarians and believed Jesus Christ to be fully divine. They knew this going in, and knew full well what the result of the council would be. But, in the interest of fairness, they had to let Arius’ speak and give his case a hearing. This they did, and Arius gave such a compelling speech, against the divinity of Jesus Christ, many in the basilica were offended by what they considered not only heresy but also blasphemy. Legend has it that one bishop, a fellow by the name of Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra (modern Demre in Turkey), who would later become “St. Nicholas” or the man we call “Santa Claus,” was so offended that he got up from his seat, walked to the the front of the basilica, and slapped Arius across the face. For this, Nicholas spent the night in the dungeon, where he received a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and then apologized to Arius the next morning. The most compelling speech during the council was not from Arius though. It came from a simple Christian who didn’t have much to say. Before all the bishops gathered in the basilica, he confessed his faith in the Trinity, then disrobed in front of them, revealing the scars of a lion maul on his back, torso, arms and legs. These, he reported, were the injuries of his persecution, having been thrown to the lions in the Roman circus for believing in the Trinity and worshiping Jesus Christ as God in the flesh. This, he reported, was the faith he suffered for, and many of his Christian brothers and sisters died for, not this “new religion” preached by Arius.

When the council was ended, the Trinitarian understanding of God prevailed, and Arius was condemned for heresy. That wasn’t the end of his movement though. Even though the Council of Nicea strictly defined Christianity as a Trinitarian religion, the Arian heresy continued to grow and spread for decades. Having been defeated in the hierarchy of the Church, the Arians turned to civil politics as a means of gaining power over ancient Christianity, attempting to reshape it in their image. This resulted in the persecution of Trinitarian bishops and priests in the form of political exile, but most of them returned to their dioceses after the death of Arius. Two Arian emperors followed in the years ahead, causing a significant amount of trouble for ancient Christians. Arianism continued to be a recurring problem in the ancient Church for the following two centuries. However, in the late sixth to early seventh century, it morphed into something else, leaving Christianity behind for a millennium. What did Arianism morph into? It was embraced by a man who sought to take pieces of it, and use it to build his own religion. That man was named Mohammed, and today we call his religion Islam.

Islam reduces Jesus to the status of a prophet, a human being who is lesser than God and did not pre-exist before his conception and birth. Islam is semi-Arianism, having reduced Jesus to the status of a mere man. He is revered in Islam as both the promised Messiah to the Jewish people, and the greatest prophet, second only to Mohammed.

Arianism would resurface in the West once more in Protestant America. In the fertile soil of American religious-pluralism, entirely new religions sprouted in the nineteenth century. One of them was called the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, otherwise known as the Jehovah’s Witnesses. This religion is closer to classical Arianism, teaching the Jesus pre-existed before his conception and birth through the Virgin Mary. The Jehovah’s Witnesses identify this pre-existing Son (Word or Logos) as the Archangel Michael. Like the Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses reject the worship of Jesus Christ, but like the ancient Arians, they regard Jesus as a demigod who is godlike in power and ability. In the twentieth century, Arianism saw another American manifestation in the churches founded by Herbert W. Armstrong, in what Protestants refer to as “Armstrongism” which is really just a modern American form of Arianism, similar to the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Arianism, in a nutshell, is the rejection of the Trinity. In Arianism, the Trinity is broken down as follows…

  1. God the Father is the only God. There is no other.
  2. Jesus Christ is not God. He is at most a demigod, or a highly powerful angelic-like being, who pre-existed as such before he was born of the Virgin Mary, and was created as such eons ago, before the primordial universe was created. Or, he could be something lesser than that, either a normal man who became a demigod by God’s adoption, or just a highly favored prophet. It all depends on what form of Arianism we’re talking about here, but it’s all Arianism. In ancient Arianism, Jesus Christ was worshiped alongside God the Father. While in modern Arianism, Jesus Christ is respected and revered as “Lord” or “Prophet” but not worshiped in the same sense God the Father is.
  3. The Holy Spirit is not a Person, but rather the “force” of God, or his “power” moving in the world. Therefore, the Holy Spirit (being just the “force” of God’s power) is not worshiped either.

In contrast, the Christian understanding of God is Trinitarian, which means simply this…

  1. There is only ONE God.
  2. This ONE God is eternally existing in three divine Persons who all share the same divine substance.
  3. The Father is God. The Son is God. The Holy Spirit is a Person and he too is God. Yet there is only ONE God.
1174px-Shield_of_Trinity_in_hexagon_English.svg
The Trinity Illustrated

This teaching was given by the Apostles, though at the time the word “Trinity” or “Tri-Unity” had not yet been invented. Nevertheless, the concept was clearly taught by the Apostles and can be easily seen in the writings of the New Testament. The problem was, in Arius’ time, the New Testament hadn’t been canonized as a single book yet, or standardized throughout the ancient Church. That wouldn’t happen until nearly a hundred years after Arius and the Council of Nicea.

The concept of the Trinity is in keeping with the Jewish concept of monotheism. When we say that Jesus is God’s Son, the Jewish understanding of God forbids the idea of God procreating in the same way humans do. Pagans believed that gods came down from the heavens and had sexual relations with human women, producing demigods as offspring. The Jewish understanding of Yahweh (יהוה) forbids this concept because God is a creator not a progenitor. God creates his children. He doesn’t spawn them. So when it is said that Jesus is the Son of God, one has to conclude that he is either a created being (Arianism) or else he is a manifestation of God himself (Trinitarianism). The Apostolic Tradition, included in the writings of the New Testament, asserts the latter. So, this manifestation of God is a Person (not a mask, mode or facade), but a real Person. When we say Jesus is the Son of God, we do so in the Jewish concept that he is God manifested as a Person whom we call “The Son” (Word or Logos) prior to his incarnation in the Virgin Mary, and then as “Jesus Christ” after his incarnation in the Virgin Mary. This type of manifestation, in relation to “The Son,” is called “begetting.” Likewise, the Holy Spirit is anther manifestation of God as a Person, not a thing or force but a Person, and this type of manifestation is called “proceeding.” So the Son is begotten of the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father (and the Son). All three Persons are made of the same divine substance, which is God, and therefore there is only ONE God, as the diagram above illustrates.

To combat the Arian Heresy, the Council of Nicea formulated a Creed, which was required of all Christians to learn and memorize. This Creed was to be recited at all Eucharistic services in perpetuity. Today, we know which Christian churches are most closely associated with the ancient Church because they still recite this Nicene Creed at every Eucharistic Service (Mass)…

THE NICENE CREED
According to Divine Worship: The Missal

I BELIEVE in one God,
the Father Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
and of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
begotten of his Father before all worlds,
God of God, Light of Light,
very God of very God,
begotten, not made,
being of one substance with the Father;
by whom all things were made;
who for us men and for our salvation
came down from heaven,
and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary,
and was made man;
and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered and was buried;
and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures,
and ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of the Father;
and he shall come again, with glory,
to judge both the quick and the dead;
whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost the Lord, the Giver of Life,
who proceedeth from the Father and the Son;
who with the Father and the Son together
is worshipped and glorified;
who spake by the Prophets.

And I believe one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church;
I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins;
and I look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

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