Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Arius
ARIUS (Ἄρειος), a well-known name in ecclesiastical history, identified with the origin and spread of the first great “heresy” in the Christian church. Arius is supposed to have been a native of Cyrenaica in Africa, but nothing is really known of his birth or of his early training. He first comes clearly into view as a presbyter of the Church of Alexandria, in the commencement of the 4th century, engaged in conflict with his bishop, Alexander. At a previous period he is said to have been connected with the Meletian schism, and on this account to have been excommunicated by Peter of Alexandria, who had ordained him deacon. But if so, he had regained a position of importance in the Alexandrian Church, as he is found, under Peter's successor, Achillas, in charge of one of the great city churches, Baucalis or Boucalis, where he continued to discharge his duties with apparent faithfulness and industry for six years after the accession of Alexander, the third bishop in order with which ecclesiastical tradition connects him. Theodoret (Hist. Eccl., i. 2) does not hesitate to say that Arius was chagrined because Alexander, instead of himself, was appointed to succeed Achillas in the see of Alexandria, and that the beginning of his heretical attitude is, in consequence, to be attributed to discontent and envy. But this is so common an explanation of heretical movements with the early church historians, that it is not to be received without reserve. Upon the whole, there is no evidence that Arius was animated by mere personal considerations in the advocacy of his doctrinal opinions. Rather, it seems evident, as Neander says (Church Hist., vol. iv. 25), that he thought he was only unfolding the traditionary church doctrine. Although an African he appears to have been trained in the school of Antioch, under Lucian, and there to have imbibed a strong leaning towards the subordination system as to the relation of the Father and Son, which prevailed in that school. Probably it was this training, and a natural lack of insight and speculative depth, which led him into a line of negative thought, from which the church had hitherto wisely abstained. Yet the idea of his craft and ambition deeply pervades early Christian history. In his well-known treatise against eighty heresies (Lib. II. Hær., lxix. c. 3), Epiphanius describes him as a man “inflamed by his own opinionativeness; of tall stature, with a downcast look; his figure composed like that of a subtle serpent, to deceive the guileless by his crafty exterior.” “His dress,” he adds, “was simple; his address soft and smooth, calculated to persuade and attract, so that he had drawn away seven hundred virgins from the church to his party.”
The views of Arius first attracted attention about 319 A.D. According to the church historian Socrates (lib. i. c. 5), Bishop Alexander, in addressing the presbyters and other clergy on the doctrine of the Trinity, dwelt so strongly on the consubstantial unity of the Father and the Son that Arius charged him with holding Sabellianism. But, according to Sozomen, a contemporary historian of the 5th century, Arius made himself conspicuous by the advocacy of his special opinions, and Alexander only interfered after being charged with remissness in leaving him so long to disturb the faith of the church. Having called Arius and his opponents before him, Alexander heard their respective arguments, and finally, after due examination, gave judgment against Arius. The result was a wide-spread commotion, extending not only through Africa, but other provinces of the Roman empire. Bishops joined issue with bishops; congregations were violently excited; and the greatest mystery of the Christian religion became a subject of irreverent controversy among women and children. Even the heathen joined in the profane uproar. Arius himself cannot be excused from stirring up this popular and unworthy clamour; for he composed verses, under the name of Thalia (Θαλεία), which appear to have been a sort of popular miscellany for diffusing his opinions. He addressed at the same time an elaborate letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia, which remains to this day one of the clearest statements of his dogmatic position. It sets out with a complaint of the persecution which he had suffered at the hands of Alexander, who had driven him and his adherents (he says) out of the city as impious men or atheists (ἀθέους), “merely for dissenting from his public declaration that ‘as God is eternal so is His Son’—when the Father, then the Son—the Son is present in God without a birth (ἀγεννήτως), ever begotten (ἀειγενής), an unbegotten-begotten (ἀγεννητογενής); an eternal God, an eternal Son; the Son is from God himself.” . . . . “These blasphemies we cannot bear to hear even,” he says, “no, not if the heretics should threaten us with ten thousand deaths. What, on the other hand, do we maintain ? that the Son is not unoriginate (ἀγέννητος), nor part of the Unoriginate, nor made of any previously existing substance, but that by the will and purpose of God He was in being before time (πρὸχρόνων καὶ πρὸ αἰώνων), perfect God, the only begotten (πλήρης Θεὸς, μονογενής); that before this generation or creation He was not (πρὶν γεννηθῇ . . . . οὐκ ἦν),” &c.
There is another letter to the same purpose, but more moderate in statement, addressed to Alexander after his banishment; and the student will find in those letters, and in the Thalia, the most original and trustworthy account of the opinions of Arius. “We believe,” he says in the letter to Alexander, “in one God alone without birth, alone everlasting, alone unoriginate . . . . We believe that this God gave birth to the only begotten Son before eternal periods (πρὸ χρόνων αἰωνίων), through whom He made these periods (αἰῶνας) and all things else; that He gave birth to Him, not in semblance, but in truth, giving Him a real existence (ὑποστήσαντα), at His own will so as to be unchangeable, God's perfect creature, but not as other creatures . . . . not, as Valentinus (a Gnostic of the 2d century) maintained, a development (προβολήν); nor, again, as Manichæus, a consubstantial part (μέρος ὁμοούσιον), nor as Sabellius, Son and Father at once (υἱοπάτερα), which is to make two out of one, . . . but created by the will of God, and endowed with His own glorious perfections yet not so that the Father did thereby deprive himself of attributes which are His without origination (ἀγεννήτως), being the Source (πηγή) of all things; so that while there are three persons (ὑποστάσεις) yet God is alone the Cause of all things and unoriginate. The Son, on the other hand, is originate, begotten by the Father time-apart. The Son is not, therefore, co-eternal or co-unbegotten with the Father, as if these were two unbegotten principles; but God is before all things as (μονάς) single and the principle of all, and therefore before Christ also.”
On the one side, therefore, Arius denied of Christ that He was unoriginate; or part of the Unoriginate; or consubstantial (ὁμοούσιον) with the Father; or without beginning (ἄναρχος); or a mere development of God. The Son, he said, “did not exist before He was begotten (οὐκ ἦν πρὶν γεννηθῇ).” In other words, “He is of a substance that once was not (ἐξ οὐκ ὄντων),”— hence the name of Exoucontians sometimes given to his followers. But, on the other side, Arius affirmed of the Son that He was in being before time (προχρόνων); that he was perfect God (πλήρης Θεός); only begotten (μονογενής); that God made the worlds or ages (αἰῶνας) through Him; that He was the making or offspring of the Father, and yet not as one amongst things made (γέννημα ἀλλ’ οὐχ ὡς ἕν τῶν γεγεννημένων).
Although defeated at the Council of Nicæa, Arius was by no means subdued. He obtained means of access to Constantia, the sister of the emperor, who, on her death bed, strongly urged her brother to reconsider the question, and to recall the heresiarch from banishment. Restored to court, he, along with the Eusebian party, who, although professing to accept the Nicene doctrine, were in reality indifferent, if not hostile, to it, renewed the theological strife, in which Athanasius was nothing loth to join. Interchanges, now of friendly recognition and now of menace, passed betwixt the emperor and the intrepid bishop of Alexandria, who obstinately refused to reinstate Arius as presbyter. At length, on the banishment of Athanasius to Treves in 336, Arius returned to Alexandria to claim his old position; but even in the absence of the bishop the people rose in uproar against the heretic, and the emperor was forced to recall him to Constantinople. There the bishop was reluctantly compelled to profess his willingness to receive him once more into the bosom of the church, but before the act of admission was completed Arius was taken suddenly ill, while walking with a friend in the evening, and died in a few moments. This was interpreted by the adherents of the Nicene theology as a special interposition of Providence on their behalf, and they openly gave thanks to God in the church. The modern reader will look with less credulity upon an event which was probably quite natural in its occurrence, but he will hardly see any cause in it for lamentation. The character of Arius, if not originally tainted by self-seeking and restless ambition, appears to have gathered something of this taint in the course of his career, and the most impartial student of church history fails to see anything in it to admire beyond the pertinacity of his courage and his faithful devotion to his own opinions.
The Followers of Arius.—The death of Arius, as described above, did not extinguish the Arian party. On the contrary, they continued active and zealous within the church for upwards of fifty years, or till the second general council at Constantinople, in 381. Afterwards they may be said to have existed, as a distinct Christian sect, outside the Catholic Church, till about the middle of the 7th century. 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 Cæsarea, and his namesake, Eusebius of Nicomedia. On the other hand, the Nicene doctrine found the most able and ardent defender in Athanasius, the young deacon who had attended Bishop Alexander at the council, and who shortly afterwards succeeded him in the see of Alexandria. An unceasing contention ensued betwixt the Eusebian and Athanasian factions of the church. Constantius, who succeeded his father in 337, strongly favoured the former, or semi-Arian party, and successive synods were called with the view of adjusting differences and compelling uniformity of faith. “The highways were covered,” says an ancient historian (Ammianus, xxi. 15, quoted by Gibbon, vol. iii. 67, Milman's ed.) “with troops of bishops galloping from every side to these assemblies.” At length the tenet of the Homoiousion was substituted for that of the Homoousion at the Council of Rimini (Ariminum) in 360. But the war of words raged as fiercely as ever during the reigns of Julian (the Apostate) and his successors till after the accession of Theodosius the Great, under whose auspices the Council of Constantinople was convened and the Nicene doctrine was confirmed and finally accepted as the catholic doctrine of the church. Even then, however, Arianism was warmly espoused by several of the German nationalities then assailing the empire. The entire nation of the Ostrogoths became Arian; the Visigoths followed their example, till, at the request of their king, Reccared, they embraced the catholic faith at the Council of Toledo in 589. The Vandals in Africa, the Suevi in Spain, and the Burgundians in Gaul, were all for a time zealous Arians, and the heresy maintained its influence amongst the Lombards in the north of Italy to a later period than elsewhere. Gradually, however, it perished as a distinctive national type of Christianity before the growth of mediaeval Catholicism, and the name of Arian ceased to represent a definite form of Christian doctrine within the church, or a definite party outside of it. Individual Christian teachers of great eminence, such as John Milton and Samuel Clark, and even Ralph Cudworth, have been accused of Arianism, but even where, as in Milton's case, the accusation seems well founded, the peculiar heresy known by that name has never assumed any influence, or regained, for any length of time, its influence in the church.