Last week Andrew traced over the entire 4thcentury transformations of the Church, covering the notable figures and events of the period. Tonight, we begin hitting them one by one and the first one to come into view is the Arian controversy. There is no doubt that the Arian controversy was one of the greatest disputes in the entire history of Christianity, for it asked and sought to clarify one grand and most monumental question: who is Jesus Christ?
But let’s back up and set the stage to all of this.
In 324 AD the emperor Constantine conquered the Eastern half of the empire and found that the church there was divided and in the midst of a volatile debate. This debate began in 318, when an elderly presbyter from Libya named Arius (256-336) began teaching the following:
-Only the Father is God, infinite, eternal, and uncreated
-The Logos, or the Son of God, was a created being formed out of nothing before the universe was made.
-Thus, there was a time the Son didn’t exist.
-The Son is the greatest of all creations of the Father
-The Son is closer to the Father than all else
-All else was created through the Son and related to the Father through the Son
Arius taught these things for two reasons:
-First, Arius believed he was upholding monotheism (there is only one God). According to him, if Christians hold to Christ’s deity (that He is fully/truly God) Christians would in effect be worshipping two separate Gods. To him, this contradicted God’s oneness.
-Second, Arius didn’t agree with the prevalent view of the deity of the Son at the time, which taught that the Son was divine but slightly less divine than God the Father. This view, originally from Origen, was the common belief of most the Eastern bishops. Arius believed there could be no degrees of divinity and that there was an infinite distance between God the Father and all else, therefore Christ the Son could not be God and must be a created being.
In Alexandria, Arius was strongly opposed by a man named Alexander who was the bishop of Alexandria. Alexander also didn’t agree with Origen’s popular opinion of degrees of divinity but he arrived at an opposite conclusion to Arius. To him, the Son of God was fully and truly God as absolutely as the Father was and this, he argued, doesn’t lead to a belief in two Gods at all.
The debate between these two intensified as a few years went by and in 320 Alexander gathered together a group of bishops and condemned Arius and his teachings as heretical. Arius though, wasn’t keen on backing down. No, he gathered his own group of bishops (who also happened to study under the same teacher as he did, Lucian of Antioch) and wrote to them appealing to their common teacher asking them to support him and his cause. Arius gained a lot of support in the Eastern church because his teaching resembled more of the popular view that Origen taught than Alexander’s teaching did. This created a massive divide in the Eastern church, and soon all the bishops were either with Arius or with Alexander on this issue.
In steps Constantine. Being emperor he felt it was his duty to solve the division within the church and so he called the first council of the church to settle the matter in 325 AD. In the city of Nicea 300 bishops and even more presbyters and deacons were in attendance. Eusebius of Caesarea describes the entrance of Constantine at the opening session of the council like this… Clearly, Constantine viewed himself as the champion of church unity and was going to protect the church from heresy and division.
As the sessions, debates, and discussions went on it was Constantine himself who presided over them all. His assistant helping him preside over these sessions was a bishop from the West named Hosius (who had a very strong belief in the full deity of Christ). Eventually it was Hosius who persuaded Constantine to adopt his own position, that Christ was not a created being but was indeed eternal and divine. After more disputing the counsel arrived the same conclusion and began drafting and redrafting a statement. This statement, known as the Nicene Creed, goes as follows…
When you read through it it’s easy to spot the words that are anti-Arius or anti-Arian. They believed in one God and believe Jesus to be true God, the same essence of the Father, and not created by or the greatest of all creations of God. The main word in view in all of this was the word homoousios, meaning ‘of the same substance/being/essence/nature.’ The Arians rejected this and argued it should be ‘homoiousios’ meaning ‘of similar substance.’ They lost definitively. But there was more…
The council decided they would not only craft this creedal statement, but that they needed to also add a series of anathemas. To anathematize someone was to declare that someone was outside the Church, a heretic, and shouldn’t be viewed as a Christian from that moment on unless they repent. So after the creed follows this statement: “As for those who say, there was a time when the Logos was not; and, He was not before He was created; and, He was created out of nothing, or out of another essence of thing; and, the Son of God is created, or changeable, or can alter – the holy catholic and apostolic Church anathematizes those who say such things.” What the result of the council? All those present signed the statement except three: Arius, and two of his friends: Secundus of Ptolemais, and Theonas of Marmarica. For this, these three were exiled.
You might think this council would’ve solved the problems of division present in the Eastern church, but time would show that it didn’t. After the council of Nicea the Eastern church was now divided into three different parties: those who continued to believe what Origen taught (that there are degrees of divinity between the Persons in the Godhead), those that continued to follow Arius (that the Son was a created being and not truly divine), and those who submitted to the Nicene statement (that Christ was fully and truly God). There was much confusion added onto this threefold split in the church because the word ‘homoousios’ meaning ‘of the same substance.’ Nicea used this word in their statement, as we’ve seen, but it was also used by another heretical group in the East called the Sabellians. This group, using the same word homoousios, taught that the Father and the Son were the same person and that the Father was the One who became flesh and became the God Man. The Arians saw this confusion and while they clearly knew the difference between these two groups (they had just been at Nicea for remember) they were very content to not clarify the differences. Rather, they used this confusion to their advantage, promoting discord between these two groups in the East for the next 50 years. The result of this was not a wide range acceptance of Arianism, no. Though the Eastern bishops signed the Nicene statement (partly because Constantine pressured them to), Origen’s view remained the majority view in the East because they believed the Nicene statement was nothing more than Sabellianism re-packaged.
Only one city in the Eastern church remained faithful to the Nicene statement, Alexandria. To explain the faithfulness of this lone city we must go back to the council of Nicea. During the ebb and flow of the various sessions when arguments would be given there was one figure that stood out as a powerful force for the cause of Christ’s full and true divinity, his name was Athanasius. Little is known of Athanasius’ early life, but his friend and admirer Gregory of Nazianzus described him as being a short small man with a power of argument that grabbed ahold of his hearers, even his enemies. Because he so clearly distinguished himself during Nicea as the bishop of Alexandria (Alexander) lay on his deathbed, he made the recommendation that Athanasius should immediately take his place. The church voted in agreement and brought him in. This is why Alexandria was the only city to hold fast to Nicene doctrine because their bishop was the Nicene champion.
Athanasius’ whole doctrine of the deity of Christ centered around salvation. His reasoning went like this, ‘With 2 Peter 1:4 we believe that Christians are partakers of the divine nature. How could Christ make those who believe in Him partakers of the divine nature if He Himself didn’t have a full divine nature? Therefore if Christ is mankind’s Savior He must be God and man in one person because in Christ the God-man humanity has been lifted up into the life of God.’ One particular quote stands out…For 46 years he would preach, write, and fight for this very cause. This is why he is so well known today. His faithfulness in the midst of a world around him going against him is inspiring to say the least. (I would highly recommend John Piper’s biographical sermon on him called “Contending for Our All: the Life and Ministry of Athanasius.”)
Events though, continued to unfold around the Nicene Statement. In 328, the same year Athanasius became bishop of Alexandria, Eusebius of Nicomedia was able to get the exile on Arius recalled and in 335 he was able to convince Constantine to send Athanasius off into exile. (side note: of Athanasius’ 45 years as bishop, he would spend a total of 17 years in exile. What came of Arius upon his return? Not much…in fact, in just a few years he would experience a horrible death…Arius’ death…page 243-244)
In 337 Constantine died and Athanasius returned to his post as bishop. Two years later in 339 Constantius, the new emperor and son of Constantine, would banish Athanasius once again and Athanasius fled to Rome. There in Rome in 340 Pope Julius I would review the case and conclude that Athanasius had been wrongly exiled. And in 341 the Eastern church angrily responded and called a council of their own, declaring Rome couldn’t make such declarations and even wrote up a new version of the Nicene Statement (or Creed). As a result of the West’s support of Athanasius and the East’s support of Arian doctrine, there was almost a total divide between the West and East divisions of the empire. So, another council was called to settle the matter and bring unity once again. They met in Sardica in 343. Both the emperors were present: Constantius from the East and Constans from the West. Despite their desire for unity the council ended up being little more than a shouting/cursing match between the two sides, and when it ended the split between East and West was unofficially official.
For the next few years allowances were made on both sides to foster a new unity, and Athanasius was even allowed to return to Alexandria. But the tide would turn for the worst when, in 350, a military minded rebel named Magnentius killed the pro Nicene emperor Constans in the West and became the sole emperor over the whole empire. Which ushered in a new era of Arian persecution of Nicene believers.