1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Arius
ARIUS (Ἄρειος), a name celebrated in ecclesiastical history, not so much on account of the personality of its bearer as of the “Arian” controversy which he provoked. Our knowledge of Arius is scanty, and nothing certain is known of his birth or of his early training. Epiphanius of Salamis, in his well-known treatise against eighty heresies (Haer. lxix. 3), calls him a Libyan by birth, and if the statement of Sozomen, a church historian of the 5th century, is to be trusted, he was, as a member of the Alexandrian church, connected with the Meletian schism (see Meletius of Lycopolis), and on this account excommunicated by Peter of Alexandria, who had ordained him deacon. After the death of Peter (November 25, 311), he was received into communion by Peter’s successor, Achillas, elevated to the presbytery, and put in charge of one of the great city churches, Baucalis, where he continued to discharge his duties with apparent faithfulness and industry after the accession of Alexander. This bishop also held him in high repute. Theodoret (Hist. Eccl. i. 2) indeed does not hesitate to say that Arius was chagrined because Alexander, instead of himself, had been appointed to the see of Alexandria, and that the beginning of his heretical attitude is, in consequence, to be attributed to discontent and envy. But this must be rejected, for it is a common explanation of heretical movements with the early church historians, and there is no evidence for it in the original sources. However, Arius was ambitious. Epiphanius, using older documents, describes him as a man inflamed with his own opinionativeness, of a soft and smooth address, calculated to persuade and attract, especially women: “in no time he had drawn away seven hundred virgins from the church to his party.” When the controversy broke out, Arius was an old man.
The real causes of the controversy lay in differences as to dogma. Arius had received his theological education in the school of the presbyter Lucian of Antioch, a learned man, and distinguished especially as a biblical scholar. The latter was a follower of Paul of Samosata, bishop of Antioch, who had been excommunicated in 269, but his theology differed from that of his master in a fundamental point. Paul, starting with the conviction that the One God cannot appear substantially (οὐσιωδῶς) on earth, and, consequently, that he cannot have become a person in Jesus Christ, had taught that God had filled the man Jesus with his Logos (σοφία) or Power (δύναμις). Lucian, on the other hand, persisted in holding that the Logos became a person in Christ. But since he shared the above-mentioned belief of his master, nothing remained for him but to see in the Logos a second essence, created by God before the world, which came down to earth and took upon itself a human body. In this body the Logos filled the place of the intellectual or spiritual principle. Lucian’s Christ, then, was not “perfect man,” for that which constituted in him the personal element was a divine essence; nor was he “perfect God,” for the divine essence having become a person was other than the One God, and of a nature foreign to him. It is this idea which Arius took up and interpreted unintelligently. His doctrinal position is explained in his letters to his patron Eusebius, bishop of the imperial city of Nicomedia, and to Alexander of Alexandria, and in the fragments of the poem in which he set forth his dogmas, which bears the enigmatic title of “Thalia” (θάλεια), used in Homer, in the sense of “a goodly banquet,” most unjustly ridiculed by Athanasius as an imitation of the licentious style of the drinking-songs of the Egyptian Sotades (270 B.C.). From these writings it can even nowadays be seen clearly that the principal object which he had in view was firmly to establish the unity and simplicity of the eternal God. However far the Son may surpass other created beings, he remains himself a created being, to whom the Father before all time gave an existence formed out of not being (ἐξ οὐκ ὄντων); hence the name of Exoukontians sometimes given to Arius’s followers. On the other hand, Arius affirmed of the Son that he was “perfect God, only-begotten” (πλήρης θεὸς μονογενής); that through him God made the worlds (αἰῶνες, ages); that he was the product or offspring of the Father, and yet not as one among things made (γέννημα ἀλλ᾽ οὐχ ὡς ἓν τὤν γεγενημένων). In his eyes it was blasphemy when he heard that Alexander proclaimed in public that “as God is eternal, so is his Son,—when the Father, then the Son,—the Son is present in God without birth (ἀγεννήτως), ever-begotten (ἀειγενής), an unbegotten-begotten (ἀγεννητογενής).” He detected in his bishop Gnosticism, Manichaeism and Sabellianism, and was convinced that he himself was the champion of pure doctrine against heresy. He was quite unconscious that his own monotheism was hardly to be distinguished from that of the pagan philosophers, and that his Christ was a demi-god.
For years the controversy may have been fermenting in the college of presbyters at Alexandria. Sozomen relates that Alexander only interfered after being charged with remissness in leaving Arius so long to disturb the faith of the church. According to the general supposition, the negotiations which led to the excommunication of Arius and his followers among the presbyters and deacons took place in 318 or 319, but there are good reasons for assigning the outbreak of the controversy to the time following the overthrow of Licinius by Constantine, i.e. to the year 323. In any case, from this time events followed one another to a speedy conclusion. Arius was not without adherents, even outside Alexandria. Those bishops who, like him, had passed through the school of Lucian were not inclined to let him fall without a struggle, as they recognized in the views of their fellow-student their own doctrine, only set forth in a somewhat radical fashion. In addressing to Eusebius of Nicomedia a request for his help, Arius ended with the words: “Be mindful of our adversity, thou faithful comrade of Lucian’s school (συλλουκιανιστής)”; and Eusebius entered the lists energetically on his behalf. But Alexander too was active; by means of a circular letter he published abroad the excommunication of his presbyter, and the controversy excited more and more general interest.
It reached even the ears of Constantine. Now sole emperor, he saw in the one Catholic church the best means of counteracting the movement in his vast empire towards disintegration; and he at once realized how dangerous dogmatic squabbles might prove to its unity. His letter, preserved by the imperial biographer, Eusebius of Caesarea, is a state document inspired by a wisely conciliatory policy; it made out both parties to be equally in the right and in the wrong, at the same time giving them both to understand that such questions, the meaning of which would be grasped only by the few, had better not be brought into public discussion; it was advisable to come to an agreement where the difference of opinion was not fundamental. This well-meaning attempt at reconciliation, betraying as it did no very deep understanding of the question, came to nothing. No course was left for the emperor except to obtain a general decision. This took, place at the first oecumenical council, which was convened in Nicaea (q.v.) in 325. After various turns in the controversy, it was finally decided, against Arius, that the Son was “of the same substance” (ὁμοούσιος) with the Father, and all thought of his being created or even subordinate had to be excluded. Constantine accepted the decision of the council and resolved to uphold it. Arius and the two bishops of Marmarica Ptolemais, who refused to subscribe the creed, were excommunicated and banished to Illyria, and even Eusebius of Nicomedia, who accepted the creed, but not its anathemas, was exiled to Gaul. Alexander returned to his see triumphant, but died soon after, and was succeeded by Athanasius (q.v.), his deacon, with whose indomitable fortitude and strange vicissitudes the further course of the controversy is bound up.
It only remains for us here to sketch what is known of the future career of Arius and the Arians. Although defeated at the council of Nicaea, the Arians were by no means subdued. Constantine, while strongly disposed at first to enforce the Nicene decrees, was gradually won to a more conciliatory policy by the influence especially of Eusebius of Caesarea and Eusebius of Nicomedia, the latter of whom returned from exile in 328 and won the ear of the emperor, whom he baptized on his death-bed. In 330 even Arius was recalled from banishment. Athanasius, on the other hand, was banished to Trèves in 335. During his absence Arius returned to Alexandria, but even now the people are said to have raised a fierce riot against the heretic. In 336 the emperor was forced to summon him to Constantinople. Bishop Alexander reluctantly assented to receive him once more into the bosom of the church, but before the act of admission was completed, Arius was suddenly taken ill while walking in the streets, and died in a few moments. His death seems to have exercised no influence worth speaking of on the course of events. His theological radicalism had in any case never found many convinced adherents. It was mainly the opposition to the Homoousios, as a formula open to heretical misinterpretation, and not borne out by Holy Writ, which kept together the large party known as Semiarians, who under the leadership of the two Eusebiuses carried on the strife against the Nicenes and especially Athanasius. Under the sons of Constantine Christian bishops in numberless synods cursed one another turn by turn. In the western half of the empire Arianism found no foothold, and even the despotic will of Constantius, sole emperor after 351, succeeded only for the moment in subduing the bishops exiled for the sake of their belief. In the east, on the other hand, the Semiarians had for long the upper hand. They soon split up into different groups, according as they came to stand nearer to or farther from the original position of Arius. The actual centre was formed by the Homoii, who only spoke generally of a likeness ὁμοιότης of the Son to the Father; to the left of them were the Anomoii, who, with Arius, held the Son to be unlike (ἀνόμοιος) the Father; to the right, the Homoiousians who, taking as their catchword “likeness of nature” (ὁμοιότης κατ᾽ οὐσίαν), thought that they could preserve the religious content of the Nicene formula without having to adopt the formula itself. Since this party in the course of years came more and more into sympathy with the representatives of the Nicene party, the Homoousians, and notably with Athanasius, the much-disputed formula became more and more popular, till the council summoned in 381 at Constantinople, under the auspices of Theodosius the Great, recognized the Nicene doctrine as the only orthodox one. Arianism, which had lifted up its head again under the emperor Valens, was thereby thrust out of the state church. It lived to flourish anew among the Germanic tribes at the time of the great migrations. Goths, Vandals, Suebi, Burgundians and Langobardi embraced it; here too as a distinctive national type of Christianity it perished before the growth of medieval Catholicism, and the name of Arian ceased to represent a definite form of Christian doctrine within the church, or a definite party outside it.