To those who study Church history, the Arians are a familiar foe of orthodoxy. The heresy came to the forefront in the 4th century, and was declared heretical at the Council of Nicea in 325 and again at the Council of Constantinople in 381. How was the proper view of Christ upheld? Was it strictly by St. Athanasius’s brilliant exposition of scripture? No doubt that was part of the equation, but Arius was also pleading his case from sacred scripture.
By all accounts Arius was also a brilliant orator, and was able to get crowds riled up into a frenzy (Olson, 141). He was a charismatic individual who was also able to coat his words with enough of a shadow of orthodoxy to get some bishops to agree with his opinion. So who was Arius, and what was he propagating? Though that question will be answered, the most interesting question is how the heresy was thwarted?
St. Athanasius gets a lot of credit, and deservedly so, for championing orthodoxy against the false view of Christ that Arius was teaching. As previously stated, he did so using scripture, but the canon would not have been declared until the Council of Rome is 382 (Marshall). The unsung hero during the whole Arian controversy of the 4th century is apostolic succession, and the teaching authority that springs from it. In this article, I will look at Arianism and how it is still a factor today. I will also look at the sources from Church history that show how apostolic succession was used to combat the heresy.
WHAT IS ARIANISM?
As previously stated, Arianism is a heresy that became popular in the early Church in the fourth century. It is tempting to say that Arianism was a denial of the full divinity of Christ (Cross, 100). To get the full story of the Arian controversy it is necessary to dig a little deeper. This deeper exploration will assist in understanding, not only the nature of the heresy, but the role that apostolic succession played in getting it condemned.
The beginning of the controversy can be traced to the earliest patristic fathers such as St. Justin, St. Clement of Alexandria, and Origen. This is not suggesting that they were denying the divinity of Christ, but has to do with the idea of the Logos (Gonzalez, 182). The Greek philosophers saw God as immutable, and the philosophers were told that Christians believed in such a God. In regard to the Logos, Richard Norris writes, “Logos was the divine reason uttered as the divine Word for the sake of forming and governing the world" (Norris, 6). At least that is the understanding that the Stoics and Platonists had as this is not orthodox teaching. This was dangerous as some Christians began to say that the Father was impersonal while the Son, or Logos, was capable of human relationships.
It was hard for a pagan people to understand the Trinitarian concept. Specifically, that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have always existed in unity. It was easier to accept that the Son was somehow subordinate, and this is where a priest named Arius enters the doors of Church history. To these pagan converts, Arius made Christ out to be a type of divine hero, and that was easier for them to grasp (Shelley, 100).
Arius was a student of Lucian of Alexandria, and while studying under Lucian he became friends with a man by the name of Eusebius of Nicomedia. This Eusebius must not be confused with the great church historian of the same name. Eusebius plays an important role in the promulgation of the Arian heresy.
Arius was a priest who was ordained in Alexandria is 311 (Olson, 144). He was a charismatic individual who came to openly challenge the doctrine of the Trinity that his Bishop, Alexander of Alexandria, was teaching. Many of the locals rallied behind Arius because of his persuasiveness as a public speaker, and he used verses such as Proverbs 8:22 to support his doctrine. Proverbs 8:22 states, “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old” (RSV). This basis for Arius’s argumentation continues through Proverbs 8:31, and it describes the role of wisdom in creation. Since Christ is the Logos, he is God’s personified wisdom, or reason, on earth. Since this passage of scripture says that he was created, then he must not be the same substance of God. If he is not the same substance of God, then he must not be fully divine. In this regard Arius writes, “Before he was begotten or created or ordained or established, he did not exist (Pelikan, 192).
In Arius’s view Christ was a created being and he had the tendencies that created being have. This meant that he was even liable to change or even to sin. Saint Athanasius sums up the views of Arius quite nicely. In his first discourse against the Arians he writes:
For what can they say from it, but that ‘God was not always a Father, but became so afterwards; the Son was not always, for He was not before His generation; He is not from the Father, but He, as others, has come into subsistence out of nothing; He is not proper to the Father’s essence, for He is a creature and work?’ And ‘Christ is not very God, but He, as others, was made God by participation; the Son has not exact knowledge of the Father, nor does the Word see the Father perfectly; and neither exactly understands nor knows the Father. He is not the very and only Word of the Father, but is in name only called Word and Wisdom, and is called by grace Son and Power. He is not unalterable, as the Father is, but alterable in nature, as the creatures, and He comes short of apprehending the perfect knowledge of the Father (Schaff, 310).
The temptation when looking at the Arian controversy is to immediately look to the Council of Nicea, but there is much more to the Church’s response. As any good Pastor would be, Bishop Alexander became concerned by the teaching of one of his priests. This error has eternal consequences for those who became wooed by this new doctrine. Alexander admits that he initially ignored the false doctrines and hoped they would die out on their own. Plans changed when Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia came to the aid of Arius. To This Alexander of Alexandria writes:
But seeing that Eusebius, now of Nicomedia, who thinks that the government of the Church rests with him, because retribution has not come upon him for his desertion of Berytus, when he had cast an eye of desire on the Church of the Nicomedians, begins to support these apostates, and has taken upon him to write letters everywhere in their behalf, if by any means he may draw in certain ignorant persons to this most base and antichristian heresy (Schaff, 69).
Seeing that a fellow bishop is no longer teaching doctrine that is part of scripture, or sacred tradition, Alexander used his authority, received via Apostolic Succession, to try to correct the situation. Alexander of Alexandria called a local synod that formally condemned the teachings of Arius, and letters were sent to surrounding bishops to inform them of the synods conclusion (Ferguson, 192). The way that Alexander pleaded his case against Arius was nothing short of brilliant. As previously stated, Arius said that Jesus could not be God because God is immutable. Alexander’s argument was polemical in nature, but very effective. He said that Arius denied the immutability of the Father by saying that he was not immutable until the son was created (Olson, 148). According to Alexander, “Now when Arius and his fellows made these assertions, and shamelessly avowed them, we being assembled with the Bishops of Egypt and Libya, nearly a hundred in number, anathematized both them and their followers” (Schaff, 70).
Over one hundred bishops exercised their authority that they received by apostolic succession to anathematize Arius and his followers. The teaching that was contrary to the apostles was to risk the salvation of souls. The early fathers had no choice but the exercise their authority. According to the synod there was one view of Christ which was handed down directly from the apostles. Sadly, this would not be the end of the heresy. Though the synod had a near unanimous ruling, the eastern bishops were split.
We look back on this event now and say that this was a serious situation, but a schism this early into the Christian era could have been disastrous. Emperor Constantine heard of the controversy from his Bishop named Hosius (Olson, 148). Regarding this the ancient Church historian, Socrates Scholasticus writes, “To this end he sent a letter to Alexander and Arius by a trustworthy person named Hosius, who was bishop of Cordova in Spain, and whom the emperor greatly loved and held in the highest estimation” (Scholasticus, 17). Constantine needed Christianity to be unified in an already crumbling Roman empire.
To maintain unity, the emperor called all the bishops in the empire for a council. This council would become known as the first ecumenical Council of Nicea. The council commenced in 325 and set a precedent for all other ecumenical councils. This council was so important that all other councils would reference it as being so (Sanders, 18). The council was made of 318 bishops. The Holy Father was absent from the council, not because he was not invited, but because he was too elderly to make the trip. In his place he sent two priests to be legates, and to act in his place and authority. Church Historian William Carroll writes, “The recommendation for a general or ecumenical council . . . had probably already been made to Constantine by Ossius [aka Hosius], and most probably to Pope Silvester as well. Ossius presided over its deliberations; he probably, and two priests of Rome certainly, came as representatives of the Pope” (Carroll, 11).
Championing the orthodox cause at the council was St. Athanasius. Athanasius was a brilliant theologian who argued from scripture the case that Christ is eternal. He argued that terms in scripture such as “was handed over” do not imply that the Son was not divine (Norris, 95). The Council fathers rallied behind St. Athanasius, as he was preaching the faith that had been handed on to them (Schroeder, 14). The great saint said many things, but one struck the heart of Arius’s argument. Regarding the Logos, Athanasius said, “It is plain, therefore, to everyone that not knowing is proper to the flesh, whereas the Logos, insofar as he is the Logos, knows all things even before their origination” (Norris, 97). Only God knows all things before their origination. This was a statement of deity that had been passed on from the beginning of the Church (Bokenkotter, 51).
Both sides of the controversy appealed to scripture, but the orthodox side coined the usage of a term that is not in scripture to describe Christ’s deity. This Greek word is known as homoousios. The term means that the Son is of the same substance, or consubstantial, as the Father (Sanders, 18). These are the same words we use at Mass when we recite the Nicean creed. The teaching was passed on by valid apostolic succession. The irony is that while the bishops condemned Arianism, the term was a source of controversy. The terminology and definitions were defined more narrowly in 381 at the Council of Constantinople thanks in part to the Cappadocian fathers. Regarding the definition St, Gregory of Nazianzus writes, “Because they are from him, though not after him. Being unoriginate necessarily implies being eternal, but being eternal does not entail being unoriginate” (Nazianzus, 71).
WHY APOSTOLIC SUCCESSION?
In the previous pages there has been much said about apostolic succession, but I think some clarification is in order. Apostolic succession is much more than one taking an office from a predecessor, though that is part of it. In combating the Gnostics, St. Irenaeus listed apostolic succession as a reason, and boasted in each bishop being able to trace his lineage to the apostles.
In the early days of the Church succession and tradition were like terms and were synonymous with the Greek word diadochí (Benedict XVI, 23). Tradition involves teaching, but again it is much more than that. It is forever linked to the person from whom that teaching derives. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI writes that tradition is “linked to a person, is a living word, that has its concrete reality in faith” (Benedict XVI, 23). Succession is proclaiming something that had been entrusted to someone by Christ himself. In Apostolic succession the lineage is not mutually exclusive from the teaching. They both go hand in hand.
Throughout the Arian controversy and the modern variations, there has been one constant. There was deviation from what was taught in the beginning. Apostolic succession is “holding fast to the apostolic word, just as tradition means the continuing existence of authorized witnesses” (Benedict XVI, 24). Apostolic succession and apostolic tradition assist in defining each other. The succession is the form of the tradition, and the tradition is the content of the succession (Benedict XVI, 28)
It is very tempting to look at the Arian controversy and think that it is a thing of the past. To do so would be irresponsible from a theological and historical perspective. The denying of the divinity of Christ is still something that is an issue among those who call themselves Christians. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons have a view of Christ that is contrary to scripture and to the tradition of the Church. What would Christianity be like today if the bishops in Alexandria and Nicea had not exercised the authority given to them by apostolic succession?
The infant Christian Church would have experienced a sizable schism. The Roman empire may have possibly collapsed and been thrown into utter chaos. It would have been a disaster. There were men who resisted the temptation, stayed faithful, and championed the cause of apostolic teaching. That is the way the Christ set things up. He established a Church with Apostolic Succession to help guide the flock in the way of the master. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI states, “Apostolic succession” is by its nature the living presence of the word in the personal form of the witness. The unbroken continuity of witnesses is derived from the nature of the word as authority and oral statement” (Benedict XVI, 31).
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