Advanced Historical Theology - The Arian Controversy - C. Matthew McMahonHistorical Theology Articles
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The Arian Controversy and the Council of Nicea
Constantine had turned the persecuted church into a tolerated church and a new era for Christianity began. This era held many of the great theologians of the church like Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Jerome, Ambrose, Eusebius (the first great historian of the church) and Aurelius Augustine (possibly the greatest thinker in the history of the church since the time of Paul the Apostle). The new political conditions gave some negative consequences to theology as a whole. The toleration of Christianity in this way also gave toleration to various theological ideas that could be influenced by politics. This is what happened in the controversy surrounding the Arian heresy.
Arius was a popular preacher and presbyter in the Church of Alexandria who clashed with his bishop, Alexander, over the divinity of Christ and how that was to be interpreted. Alexander was a “right-winged” Origenist who felt that the divinity of Christ should be preserved at all cost. Arius believed the opposite. Arianism is an absolute form of monotheism which could not allow the possibility of the Son being God. The Son had to have a beginning and was created or made by the Father out of nothing. Before this, the Son did not exist, and it is therefore incorrect for the Son to call God eternal Father. Alexander attacked this doctrine against Arius, and Arius went about the streets chanting “There was a time when he was not!” This news reached Constantine and a council was drawn together to decide these issues. This council would meet in Bythinia, in the city of Nicea in 325 A.D. and had more than three hundred bishops in attendance.
Among those attending, only a few had convictions about what was being discussed. Of these, Eusebius of Nicomedia sided with the “Lucianists” and with Arius, and he argued for the subordination of the Son. At this point, though, their causes were lost since subordinationism was already a theological heresy throughout the Church. Instead, Constantine adopted the term “consubstantial” (or homoousios) which was to be included in the creed. By imperial decree, those who did not sign the document upholding the “one substance” nature of the Son to the Father, were banished from the land and their books were burned.
As a side note, though this was a huge step in the right direction for theological soundness, there may, however, be some ambiguity over the whole document. The creed, whose purpose was to affirm the divinity of the Son, could also be a simple affirmation of the unity of the divine essence instead. In this way, affirming the unity of the Father, Son and Spirit, it could be used to “affirm” a form of Sabellianism. That is why, in spite of the condemnation of Arius at Nicea, it did not prove successful is eradicating it from the church completely for another fifty years.
The Arian Controversy After Nicea
The controversy around Arianism did not end with Nicea. It continued for fifty years after that. Eusebius and Arius were exiled, but political ramifications took place that allowed politics to gain a foothold in theological matters. Even before the conclusion of the controversy was finished, there were judgments being made by political authorities like Constantine that would found a precedent.
Later, Constantine, again by way of politics, ordered Alexander of Constantinople to admit Arius to communion. Alexander thought this was sacrilege. Alexander then died in 328 A.D. and was succeeded by Athanasius, who had been his closest associate.
The main opponents that the Arians had in the East were Eustathius of Antioch, Marcellus of Ancyra, and Athanasius of Alexandria. These men struggled to overcome the Arian teachings and politics that often caused problems for truth and orthodoxy to reign. Athansius was even judged as a heretic by Eusebius who brought together a council at Tyre with Constantine. However, Athanasius defended the false accusations, but later was tried again and they banished him from the land.
Constantine was succeeded by his three sons, Constantine II, Constans, and Constantius. Constantius was providentially afforded rule over the territory that was disputing Arianism. At first it seemed he would uphold Nicea, but later, he decided for the defender of Arianism, Eusebius of Nicomedia. After Constantius’ death, the West united with the East under the rule of Constans. Athanasius was then allowed to return to Alexandria in 346 A.D. The Arians, knowing that a champion was returning, set up a council in Antioch in 345 A.D. called “The Council of the Dedication.” It produced four different Arian creeds in defense of the heresy.
There was a decisive step that took place by Athanasius to overcome the Arian heresy. In a synod in Alexandria in 362 A.D. they decided to use some terms that were purposely vague in order to gain the political strength they needed. With this decision, the Nicene party opened the way to an alliance with the conservative majority. They also opted to include the deity of the Holy Spirit as being the same as the Father. At that point, the Arian cause was lost. Not only did the council affirm in the majority with the Father and Son as being the same in substance, but also the Holy Spirit. In 381 A.D. at the Council of Constantinople, the final blow was given against Arianism and it was officially condemned. This was also called the Second Ecumenical Council called by Emperor Theodosius. It not only condemned Arianism, but also other heresies of the day – anomoean, homoean, and pneumatomachian theology, as well as Apollinarianism. With this action, the theological view of Arianism ceased to be part of any meaningful theological discussion. Thus, the Nicene faith was upheld and the Arian heresy overthrown.