ARIUS (c. 270-336)
The controversial church figure. Probably born in Libya, he was named deacon by Patriarch PETER I. Eventually Peter had to excommunicate Arius after he had attached himself to the separatist church of the Melitians. Peter’s successor, ACHILLAS (311-312), ordained Arius presbyter and entrusted him with one of the principal churches in the city, that of Baucalis. It was here that Arius attracted attention through his rhetorical talents and his pragmatic teaching, as well as his asceticism and his pastoral dynamism.
About 318, under Achillas’ successor, ALEXANDER I, Arius’ innovative ideas gained wider dissemination, first during a meeting of the Alexandrian presbyters at the patriarchal palace and subsequently in preaching at his own church, a departure from the traditional ways of Alexandrian pastoral orthodoxy. At Alexandria there was an institution known as Didaskaleion, a Christian cultural center where ecclesiastical education was provided mainly to a limited group of scholars, a kind of intellectual elite.
There certain elements of Hellenistic thought were presented along with Christian teachings, a confusion that was more or less tolerated. It should not be forgotten that the church of Alexandria grew in an atmosphere of Greek philosophy, and consequently was prone to Greek influence in the course of its development. Under these conditions Christian theological thinking was in full process of elaboration, with all the risks that entailed.
Arius found his place at this critical point in the development of Christian thought. His preaching taught a kind of SUBORDINATIONISM with regard to Christ, the second Person of the Trinity, in maintaining the unity of God. He combated all heresies of his day, including SABELLIANISM. But he ultimately became a victim of his own logic, which was more philosophical than theological.
Finding himself in difficulty with the church hierarchy in Alexandria, Arius sought support in the anti-Alexandrian polemic of what has come to be known as the school of Antioch, then represented by LUCIAN OF ANTIOCH, who was under suspicion of heresy. Among the disciples of Lucian (the Collucianists) the most active and intriguing was Eusebius of Nicomedia, a very curious person whose intentions were not solely religious.
The situation worsened to such an extent that in 320 Alexander I had to summon a synod at Alexandria to excommunicate Arius (which it did in 321). The polemic became more bitter. The Christians of Alexandria were divided between Arius, who was highly respected for his asceticism and his pragmatic teaching, and the church hierarchy.
Shortly after his arrival in the East in 324, Emperor CONSTANTINE I, anxious for the peace and unity of his empire, sent Bishop Ossius of Cordova to Alexandria with a view to finding a private compromise between Arius and Alexander. This mission was doomed to failure. The emperor, whose concern was political rather than doctrinal, decided, no doubt on the advice of Ossius, to summon an ecumenical council to settle these differences and all other ecclesiastical conflicts that threatened the peace of his empire. The meeting was first planned for Ancyra (Ankara), then for practical reasons it was decided to hold the council at the town of NICAEA (near Iznik, Turkey).
At the beginning of the summer of 325, under the influence of the fiery deacon ATHANASIUS, who accompanied Alexander I, Arius was condemned and banished from Alexandria into Illyria. His friend Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia, later used his influence at the imperial court to have Arius recalled from his exile (c. 334). Arius returned to Alexandria, where Athanasius had succeeded to the throne of Saint MARK. Athanasius refused to accept him, and Arius had to leave again. He died suddenly (possibly from poisoning) at Constantinople in 336.
Arius was more an eloquent orator than author. He seems to have written very little, and even less has survived, consisting almost entirely of quotations and paraphrases in the writings of his opponents. He spread his doctrines primarily through popular songs, known under the name of Thaleia (Banquet), of which only a few fragments have survived. Of his correspondence, one letter has survived in which he asks the support of EUSEBIUS OF CAESAREA. Another letter, to Bishop Alexander, includes his profession of faith. At the end of 327 a final letter was submitted to Emperor Constantine; in it he records a credo intended to prove his orthodoxy.
Was Arius a heretic? Without entering into the details of his teaching, one may say that he represents a crucial moment in the cultural heritage of Alexandria and other regions, and that his shrewd, logical spirit, philosophical as well as polemical, made him a “typical case” in the history of theological “modernism.” In fact, Arius was an adherent of the literal exegetical method of the school of Antioch; he had even been to Antioch to complete his education. The advanced dialectic of his logical mind drove him to consider Christ as subordinate to the Father (with biblical texts and philology, as well as logic and philosophy, to support him), a view with the purpose of preserving the unity of God in a “rational” manner.
This outlook was already present in the school of Alexandria in the third century—for example, ORIGEN spoke of a deuteros theos (second God) with reference to Christ. Arius, then, did no more than push to extreme limits certain dialectical elements already present in Alexandrian speculations. He ought to have confined himself to private research. To display all this to a wider audience of the “uninitiated” was not a pastoral act, and the pope of Alexandria, in his capacity as shepherd of the flock, had to intervene. The polemic of Athanasius (despite the fact that it is not always objective) grasped the pastoral danger of such speculations. Later tradition made Arius the heretic par excellence.
The case of Arius, from the point of view of the development of Alexandrian thought and of the history of theology (with a Greek philosophical character), reveals a restless and active mind in search of new “rational” interpretations, a mind more concerned with philosophical rationality than with traditional orthodoxy. Origen had subordinationist ideas but in a context profoundly anchored to the ecclesiastical tradition (he was a philosopher despite himself). Arius burned all the bridges and, though proclaiming his orthodoxy, did not succeed in achieving a happy and harmonious union between Greek philosophy and ecclesiastical tradition (he was a theologian despite himself).
To clarify the case of Arius, here, in brief, are the basic positions: In Alexandrian orthodoxy the Logos, identified with Christ, is not the work of a decision, of an act of the divine will, as is the case with created beings. The Logos of God is the expression of God’s eternal Being, and exists in God by nature, from all eternity. According to the speculation of Arius, the Logos, or Son, is the work of a decision, and came into existence by an act of the divine will. Arius associates generation and creation (philosophically and rationally). If the Logos, or Son, is the work of an act of the divine will, then in effect, before he was engendered or created, there was a time when he did not exist. Hence he is related to the created order: “In the beginning the Logos was and the Logos was with God . . .” (J. 1:1ff.).
- Bardy, G. Recherches sur saint Lucien d’Antioche et son école, pp. 216-78. Paris, 1926. The best collection of Arius’ extant literary arguments.
- Boularand, E. “Les Débuts d’Arius.” Bulletin de Littérature ecclésiastique 65 (1964):175-203.
- Roncaglia, M. P. “Essai d’une typologie de l’Arianisme dans l’histoire des “modernismes’ théologiques: Hier et aujourd’hui.” Zeitschrift der deutschen morgenländischen Gesellschaft supp. 3, 1 (1977):231-53.
- Ruggiero, G. de. La filosofia del cristianesimo, Vol. 1, pp. 251-253. Bari, 1967.
- Tresmontant, C. La Métaphysique du christianisme et la naissance de la philosophie chrétienne, pp. 198-208. Paris, 1961.
- . Introduction à la théologie chrétienne, pp. 358-78. Paris, 1974.
MARTINIANO P. RONCAGLIA