4th Century, Alister McGrath, Arianism, Arianism heretical, Arius, Arius' songs, Athanasius, Battle of Milvian Bridge, Begotten not made, Bruce Shelley, Chi Rho, Christ, Christianity, Constantine, Constantine's conversion, Constantine's vision, Council of Nicea, Diocletian, Ecumenical council, Eusebius, God of very God, Heresy, Heterodox, homoiousios, homoousios, Identity of Jesus, Idolatry, Is Jesus God, Jehovah's Witnesses, Jesus, Jesus Christ, Jesus is God, Milvian bridge, Nicene Creed, one substance with the Father, Refutation of Arianism, Salvation, Savior, the blessing of heresy, Trinity
Throughout the history of the Christian church, there have been many events, which have decisively shaped the future of Christianity. The Protestant Reformation and the Great Schism are a few which immediately come to mind. While these events are certainly important, there was a controversy in the early 4th century, which rests at the very foundation of the Christian faith. This controversy pondered the proper understanding of the nature and identity of Jesus of Nazareth. Historians refer to this episode as the Arian controversy. The historical events stemming from the Arian controversy protected the church from a false view of the nature of Christ. The aim of this paper is explore the Arian controversy by investigating the events which lead up this debate, explaining what Arianism is and what it teaches, then clarifying why Arianism is a false understanding of Jesus’ nature, and finally, reporting on the historical event results which followed.
Within the pages of history is recorded an event which changed Christianity, and its ability to influence the world years to come. Until the time of Constantine, the Christian church and the state had an ever changing, and oftentimes, arduous relationship. In fact, just years before Constantine, under the emperor Diocletian, tremendous persecution rang out against the Christians. In an effort to run the administration of his empire more efficiently, Diocletian divided his kingdom into four territories. As divine providence would have it, Constantius Chlorus—the father of Constantine—governed one of these territories. Eventually, Constantine won many key battles against his rivals, the most important of which, at least for the Christian church, was the battle of Milvian Bridge.
Before the battle of Milvian Bridge, church historian Eusebius of Caesarea reports that Constantine took tome to pray and while doing so saw a vision. In the vision Constantine claimed,
He saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, about the sun, and an inscription, CONQUER BY THIS attached to it…Then in his sleep the Christ of God appeared to him with the sign which he had seen in the heavens, and commanded him to make a likeness of that sign which he had seen in the heavens, and to use it as a safeguard in the all engagements with his enemies.
According to Dowley, Constantine then took the Chi and Rho—the first two initials of the Greek rendering of the name of Christ—which he had seen in his vision, and placed it on the shields of his soldiers. Constantine was victorious at the battle of Milvian Bridge. He deemed his success a confirmation that his vision was truly from God and the Christian religion was superior among all others.
Shelley explains how many historians question whether Constantine’s conversion was genuine, or simply a political scheme. Regardless, after his purported vision, Constantine favored Christianity publicly, generously helping with the construction of church buildings, was baptized and instituted many freedoms to Christian ministers that they previously had not enjoyed. A byproduct of this newfound religious freedom allowed for theological debate, especially in terms of the true identity of the nature of Jesus.
“One of the greatest challenges,” explains Alister McGrath, “faced by the early church was the weaving together of the threads of the New Testament witness to the identity of Jesus of Nazareth into a coherent theological tapestry.” Understandably, this must have been a difficult task. Whether the Christian was Jewish or Gentile, the main question which rose out of the newfound religious freedom, was the identity of Jesus. Through the theological debates, many diverse attempts to categorize Jesus’ identity developed. Yet, one overarching theme was clear; the early church would have nothing to do with Jesus merely being “God’s deputy.” In other words, the early church rejected even the most honoring ways of categorizing Christ’s identity within the motif of Jesus simply as God’s helper. Eventually, the early church realized that they would have to put aside all known philosophies and religious prototypes, as none would suffice. It was at this time, the central doctrine of the Incarnation, “the act of God the Son whereby he took to himself a human nature,” took hold. Even so, the notion of Incarnation was not without its opposition. Many were troubled by apparent philosophical difficulties within this doctrine. Ultimately, the discussion came to a head in the early 4th century by an Egyptian movement called Arianism.
What is Arianism? What Does It Teach?
Arianism is best described as the theological teachings of a 4th century Alexandrian presbyter named Arius. Arius—who lived from 250 A.D. – 336 A.D.—was an influential teacher, responsible for the Baucalis—one of the twelve churches in Alexandria. Dowley explains Arius was a very “persuasive preacher, with a following of clergy and ascetics.” Many sources claim Arius was a clever marketer; presenting his teachings in popular songs and jingles. Below is a tune, which according to Knoll, was sung by Arius while defending his views at the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D.:
The uncreated God has made the Son
A beginning of things created,
Any by adoption has God made the Son
Into an advancement of himself.
Yet the Son’s substance is
Removed from the substance of the Father:
The Son is not equal to the Father,
Nor does he share the same substance.
God is the all-wise Father,
And the Son is the teacher of his mysteries.
The members of the Holy Trinity
Share unequal glories.
According to McGrath and Knoll, only fragments and quotations of Arius’ teachings are available today. Nonetheless, historians are confident Arius’ essential teachings are not in question. These fundamental teachings of Arius can be summed up in three statements. First, Arius alleged Jesus and the Father do not have the same substance. Second, Arius taught the Father, at a certain point in history, created Jesus. And third, Arius believed there was a time when Jesus did not exist. Let us examine Arius’ reasons for teaching these three beliefs about the identity of Christ.
Dowley, Erickson and Knoll defend that Arius claimed his teachings were grounded in Biblical text. For example, Arius used Scripture passages which imply that Jesus was a creature of sorts, the Father is described as the only true God, the Son was somehow inferior to the Father and the Son contained such imperfections as weakness, ignorance or suffering. Although Arius claimed to hold Jesus in the highest regard of all created beings, the sum effect of his teachings led Arius, and his followers, to a diminished status of the Christ to a lesser type of deity.
A Refutation of Arianism
Did Arius’ beliefs represent the proper Biblical understanding of the nature of Christ? Space does not allow for a full critique of Arius’ views, however, next we will look at two significant Biblical texts used by Arian teachers to defend their position: Proverbs 8:22 and Colossians 1:15.
Arius argued Jesus was a created being from Proverbs 8:22 which reads, “The Lord made me, at the beginning of His creation before His works of long ago.” Considering Jesus is identified as God’s wisdom in other areas of Scripture, and Proverbs chapter 8 is speaking of wisdom, Arians claim the Father created wisdom (or as Arians would argue, Jesus) at the beginning of his creation. Or to put it simply, God created Jesus. However, Grudem argues the commonly used Hebrew word for to create is bara. The problem for Arians is that bara is not used in verse 22. Instead, the word used is qanah. According to Grudem, qanah is used 84 times in the Old Testament and is always translated to get or acquire. Therefore, the Arian claim that this verse is decisively teaching Jesus, the personification of wisdom, was created is, at the least inadequate, if not overtly false.
A second proof text used by Arians is Colossians 1:15, “[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.” Indeed one can appreciate how Arius and his followers took this verse as confirmation for their view that Jesus was a created being. At first blush, the text says Jesus was the firstborn, implying his creation. However, this is surely a shallow and superficial position considering the fullness of the Biblical text. By the context of the passage, a careful reader can surmise that the reference to firstborn is a metaphor for privilege or rank. Moreover, even without the context of the entirety of the Colossians passage, one can make this determination from the whole of Biblical teaching on the meaning of firstborn.
If we look in the Psalms where there is discussion of the Davidic Covenant we can see David is called, “My Firstborn, the greatest of the kings of the earth.” However, David was not the first King of Israel appointed by God; Saul was. Consequently, God was speaking of David in a positional sense, rather than a chronological sense. The same is true in Exodus when Israel is called God’s firstborn, “…this is what the Lord says: Israel is my firstborn son.” Again, Israel was not the firstborn in any chronological sense, but rather in a sense regarding rights and privilege. Therefore, a proper understanding of the term firstborn Colossians 1:15 is of positional rank and right of leadership or authority, rather than of a created chronological understanding.
The use of these Biblical proof texts to defend a position highlights the importance of proper hermeneutics. One cannot, and should not, take a few verses to put together a systematic theology. Rather, one needs to examine the entirety of Scripture in order to mesh together the complete understanding of any doctrine. Without this, one could easily fall into error, just as the Arians did.
Athanasius’ Arguments Against Arius
One of the great Christian apologists from Arius’ time was Athanasius of Alexandria. Athanasius lived from 296 A.D.—373 A.D. and was a key figure in defending orthodoxy from the Arian heresy. Athanasius used two brilliant arguments against the consistency of the Arian view. First, Athanasius argued God is the only one who can save sinners. In other words, Athanasius maintained in order for a person to interrupt the power of sin in their life, and achieve salvation from Christ, God would have to be the active agent. Athanasius’ main point was that God and God alone would have to be responsible for this change. No created being could cause salvation for another creature. As McGrath eloquently portrays, “if Christ is not God, he is part of the problem, not its solution.”
Athanasius cleverly underscored the teaching of the Bible is that Jesus is the savior of the world. According to McGrath, Arius was “firmly committed to the idea that Christ was the savior of humanity.” Yet as discussed above, Athanasius stressed the fact that only God could be the savior. Therefore, the tension in the Arian view is well defined. If Christ is the savior, then in order for Christ to save creatures, he cannot be a created being himself; for only God can save sinners. In other words, Arius has left himself with only two options: either accept that Jesus is God and responsible for saving the world, or admit that Jesus cannot redeem humanity. Thus, Arius’ views were at best inconsistent and at worse incoherent or illogical.
The second problem with Arianism, brought to light by Athanasius, was the reality that since the days of the New Testament itself, Christians have been praying to and worshiping Jesus. If Arius’ views regarding Jesus as merely a creature were correct, then certainly Christians would be guilty of worshiping a creature instead of God. This of course would imply that Christians were guilty of the deplorable sin of idolatry, the worship of anything that is not God. There is no doubt the teaching of Scripture, which Arius agreed with, deemed idolatry a serious sin. Therefore, Arius again was caught in the inconsistencies in his view of Christ’s nature. Arius was either to stop the practice of praying to and worshiping Jesus, or else consider himself an idolater. According to McGrath, Arius didn’t have a problem with those who worshiped Jesus, but would not agree with Athanasius’ conclusion.
There is little doubt that the emperor Constantine was unsettled by the Arian controversy. According to Gwatkin, Constantine was not disturbed religiously by the debate, but rather more concerned with the potential political ramifications. Constantine recognized Egypt was a difficult region to rule in-and-of itself. He knew that a theological controversy—by which meager songs were causing deadly fights—was potentially an issue that could tear his empire apart. Consequently, Constantine—who was desperately trying to be a unifying imperial influence—came to realize that his newfound religion was not unified. Therefore, Constantine knew he needed to take care of this schism quickly. Perhaps not fully understanding the nature of the debate, Constantine first believed that this controversy “seemed a mere affair of words” and could be settle easily if the differing parities could air out their differences together, in person. Accordingly in 325 A.D., Constantine called an ecumenical council to be held in his imperial palace at Nicaea in Asia Minor.
Approximately 300 bishops, with an imperial escort, attended the council at the emperor’s request. This was welcomed change considering some of the bishops themselves were physically maimed from persecution just years earlier. Constantine himself sat in the middle of the conference gallery and presided over the initial meetings. “[Constantine] spoke briefly to the churchmen,” records Shelley, “reminding them that they must come to some agreement on the questions that divided them. Division in the church, he said, was worse than war.”
The Arian doctrines were quickly declared heretical. Arius took the stand and was “courageous enough to state his views in the most uncompromising terms.” Dowley explains that Arius was “condemned by his own words.” Even with the Arian views quickly being considered error, much debate continued for days regarding a statement of belief from the council’s decision. To ensure the Arian blunder would be eliminated, the council produced a statement of orthodoxy. We have come to call this statement the Nicene Creed. Although space does not allow for a complete quotation of the creed, there are four significant assertions directed at the Arian heresy worth highlighting.
First, the Nicene Creed states Christ was “God of very God,” emphasizing that Jesus was truly God and nothing less. Second, Christ was of “one substance with the Father,” stressing the unity of the Son with the Father. Third, Christ was “begotten, not made” highlighting that Jesus was never created. And fourth, that Christ took on a human nature “for us men and for our salvation.” This of course was underscoring the importance which Athanasius argued that only God could bring salvation to man. Of the estimated 300 bishops in attendance, only two, along with Arius, refused to signed the their names with agreement. This of course was a great success and sign of ecumenical unity!
Unfortunately, even with the superb agreement flowing out of the Council of Nicea, the Arian controversy did not, and has not gone away. Shortly following the council, a great controversy arose regarding the statement that Christ was homoousios (homo-, meaning same and -ousia meaning substance) or of one substance with the Father. This is because some asserted the Greek word that ought to be use is homoiousios. This word means of similar substance (homoi- meaning similar and –ousia meaning substance). The only grammatical difference between these two words is the i, or in Greek what is called the iota. But theologically the difference is much more than a single iota; it is vital! Knoll explains, “in the end, homoousios [of one substance] won out because it reinforced as unequivocally as possible the fact that Christ was truly ‘very God of very God.”
Even today Arianism has not died out. In fact, if you have ever received a knock at your door from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, you have spoken with a few modern day Arians. Although the Jehovah’s Witnesses may not realize many of their essential doctrines agree with the 4th century heretic Arius, the facts are undeniable. Jehovah’s Witnesses resurrect the old Arian heresy by teaching, among other things, that Christ is a created being and the Son is merely a lesser god, not Jehovah God.
While there is certainly more that could be said regarding the Arian controversy, my exploration of the historical events stemming from the Arian controversy and how they protected the church from a false view of the nature of Christ is complete. By investigating the events, which lead up this debate, including Constantine’s conversion and rise to emperor, we saw how a fresh religious tolerance toward Christianity was fertile ground for theological debate. This tolerance allowed a man named Arius to begin teaching heretical doctrines regarding Jesus as a created being and not equal to the Father, among other things. Yet, after taking a closer look at Arius’ reasons for teaching these doctrines, we discovered each was insufficient for a justified belief. Additionally, the great Christian apologist Athanasius demonstrated that Arius’ views were at their least inconsistent, and at worst illogical. Ultimately, we saw that Arianism is a false understanding of the nature of Jesus. Although there was great celebration that resulted form the significant agreement in the Council of Nicea, we explored how even the smallest iota (literally) caused more dialogue on the true nature of Jesus of Nazareth. Finally, we briefly identified a well-known religious group, which still holds to many Arian doctrines today.
Arianism was not the first heretical movement in the Christian church. There have been some since and the New Testament promises that there will be more in the future. Although one never wishes for believers to fall into heresy, Carl Mosser argues that heresy can often be a blessing. Mosser writes:
When one surveys the history of Christian theology, it quickly becomes evident that many of the greatest theological insights occur in the course of responding to heterodox doctrines…The result—the blessing of heresy, one might say—was more accurate and profound understanding of the nature of God and our salvation.
Mosser hits the nail on the head. Many of our greatest theological understandings have been related to a reaction to a heresy or heterodox movement. For example, the Judaizers provided St. Paul the opportunity to develop the doctrine of justification by faith. And certainly the Arian controversy provided 4th century theologians, such as Athanasius and the bishops at the Council of Nicea to be very fruitful in their determination on what the Scriptures have to say about the true identity and nature of Jesus of Nazareth.
Athanasius. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. Edited by Philip Schaff. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
Bancroft, Emery. Christian Theology. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976.
Beckwith, Francis, Carl Mosser and Paul Owen. The New Mormon Challenge: Responding to the Latest Defenses of a Fast-Growing Movement. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.
Dowley, Tim. Introduction to the History of Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.
Erickson, Millard. Christian Theology. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998.
Frend, W.H.C. The Rise of Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994.
Gwatkin, Henry Melvill. The Arian Controversy. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1908.
Laing, Stefana. “Ancient Heresies Repackaged.” REASONS Conference Lecture. Faith Bible Church, The Woodlands, TX, October 13, 2012.
Martin, Walter. Jehovah’s Witnesses. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1957.
McGrath, Alister. Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth. New York: HarperOne, 2009.
Noll, Mark. Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000.
Shelley, Bruce. Church History in Plain Language. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008.
 Mark Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000), 49.
 As quoted in, Noll, Turning Points, 50.
 Tim Dowley, Introduction to the History of Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 139.
 Bruce Shelly, Church History in Plain Language (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 94.
 Alister McGrath, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 140.
 McGrath, Heresy, 141.
 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 543.
 Dowley, Introduction to the History of Christianity, 164.
 Ibid.; Noll, Turning Points, 52-53; Shelly, Church History in Plain Language, 100-101.
 Quote in Noll, Turning Points, 52.
 Ibid.; McGrath, Heresy, 143.
 McGrath, Heresy, 143.
 Dowley, Introduction to the History of Christianity, 165; Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), 713; Noll, Turning Points, 53.
 Proverbs 8:22, Acts 2:36, Romans 8:29, Colossians 1:15 and Hebrew 3:2
 John 17:3
 John 14:28
 Mark 13:32
 All Biblical passages are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible unless otherwise noted.
 1 Corinthians 1:24
 Grudem, Systematic Theology, 230.
 Emphasis mine.
 Psalm 89:27
 1 Samuel 8
 Exodus 4:22
 McGrath, Heresy, 146.
 H.M. Gwatkin, The Arian Controversy (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1908), 18.
 McGrath, Heresy, 139.
 Gwatkin, The Arian Controversy, 18.
 Dowley, Introduction to the History of Christianity, 166.
 Shelly, Church History in Plain Language, 101.
 Ibid., 102.
 Dowley, Introduction to the History of Christianity, 166.
 Nicene Creed.
 Noll, Turning Points, 57-58.
 Noll, Turning Points, 58.
 Walter Martin, Jehovah’s Witnesses (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1957).
 Carl Mosser, The New Mormon Challenge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 85.