A doctrine derived originally from a priest of the church of Alexandria named ARIUS (c. 270-336). It concentrated mainly on the status of the Son within the godhead, and held that he had originated at some point by the creative act of the Father’s will. Arius at first held that the Son had been made “out of nothing,” but he and his followers soon dropped this idea. Though eternal and enjoying the attributes of divinity, the Son was inferior in every respect to the Father.
Little of what Arius wrote survives, and there is no reason to think that he wrote much beyond a collection of verse setting forth his views, called the Thaleia (Banquet). Arius himself was of no great significance, but his doctrine sufficed to spark the Arian controversy, which convulsed the church from 318 to 381, when the creed of the Council of CONSTANTINOPLE is generally regarded as having brought the dispute to an end.
The principles of Arianism can be deduced not only from the writings of its bitter opponents but also from some recently recovered writings by Arians themselves, such as the scholia on the Council of Aquileia, fragments originally discovered by Angelo Mai (prefect of the Vatican Library, 1819-1854), the homilies of Asterius, and various other sermons and biblical commentaries. Arius’ doctrine of the Son, though radical, would not have been regarded as completely unacceptable by many in his day. EUSEBIUS OF CAESAREA, though he joined in the condemnation of Arius at the Council of NICAEA in 325, in some respects sympathized with him, and later Arianism was much influenced by Eusebius’ thought.
There is much to be said for the theory that though we hear of almost no reference to the Incarnation by Arius himself, Arianism was, in fact, a theology devised to allow for a God who could suffer. One of the consistent themes of Arianism was that the incarnate Word had no human mind or soul; the divine nature thus was exposed to suffering, though not injured by it. The Arians assumed that only a lower God, representative of the higher, impassible God, could suffer. When they spoke of the Holy Spirit, they regarded Him as a being created by the Father through the Son, inferior to the Son, not divine, and only above angels in the hierarchy of being.
A variant of Arianism, usefully dubbed “Neo-Arianism” by Kopecek, appeared between 360 and 390, championed by Aetius and Eunomius of Cyzicus. It was rationalist, virtually unitarian, and relied upon a somewhat arbitrary choice of contemporary philosophy, especially Aristotelian logic. Opposition to it occupied the pens of the Cappadocian theologians, but it was not of lasting significance.
During the years it enjoyed imperial support (355-378), Arianism made significant headway in missionary work among various Gothic peoples, and this ensured its continuation among the Visigoths and Vandals in the fifth and following centuries. In Egypt it had little following outside Alexandria, and there its representative, George of Cappadocia, who had come into the see in 356 upon Athanasius’ flight from the city, was lynched by a mob on 24 December 361. Arianism never threatened Athanasius again.
- Boularand, E. L’Hérésie d’Arius et la “foi” de Nicée. Paris, 1972. Gregg, R. C., ed. Arianism. Oxford, 1985.
- Hanson, R. P. C. The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God. Edinburgh, 1988.
- Kopecek, T. History of Neo-Arianism. Cambridge, Mass., 1979. Simonetti, M. La crisi ariana nel IV secolo. Rome, 1975.
- Stead, C. Divine Substance. Oxford, 1977.
- Williams, R. D. “The Logic of Arianism.” Journal of Theological Studies, n.s. 34 (1983):56-81.
R. P. C. HANSON