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Arianism: Divinity of Jesus Christ

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    First among the doctrinal disputes which troubled Christians after Constantinehad recognized the Church in A.D. 313, and the parent of many more during somethree centuries, Arianism occupies a large place in ecclesiastical history. Itis not a modern form of unbelief, and therefore will appear strange in moderneyes. But we shall better grasp its meaning if we term it an Eastern attempt torationalize the creed by stripping it of mystery so far as the relation ofChrist to God was concerned. In the New Testament and in Church teaching Jesusof Nazareth appears as the Son of God. This name He took to Himself (Matt., xi,27; John, x, 36), while the Fourth Gospel declares Him to be the Word (Logos),Who in the beginning was with God and was God, by Whom all things were made. Asimilar doctrine is laid down by St. Paul, in his undoubtedly genuine Epistlesto the Ephesians, Colossians, and Philippians.

    It is reiterated in the Lettersof Ignatius, and accounts for Pliny’s observation that Christians in theirassemblies chanted a hymn to Christ as God. But the question how the Son wasrelated to the Father (Himself acknowledged on all hands to be the one SupremeDeity), gave rise, between the years A. D. 60 and 200, to number of Theosophicsystems, called generally Gnosticism, and having for their authors Basilides,Valentinus, Tatian, and other Greek speculators. Though all of these visitedRome, they had no following in the West, which remained free from controversiesof an abstract nature, and was faithful to the creed of its baptism.

    Intellectual centers were chiefly Alexandria and Antioch, Egyptian or Syrian,and speculation was carried on in Greek. The Roman Church held steadfastly bytradition. Under these circumstances, when Gnostic schools had passed away withtheir “conjugations” of Divine powers, and “emanations” from the Supremeunknowable God (the “Deep” and the “Silence”) all speculation was thrown intothe form of an inquiry touching the “likeness” of the Son to His Father and”sameness” of His Essence. Catholics had always maintained that Christ was trulythe Son, and truly God. They worshipped Him with divine honors; they would neverconsent to separate Him, in idea or reality, from the Father, Whose Word, Reason,Mind, He was, and in Whose Heart He abode from eternity. But the technical termsof doctrine were not fully defined; and even in Greek words like essence (ousia),substance (hypostasis), nature (physics), person (hyposopon) bore a variety ofmeanings drawn from the pre-Christian sects of philosophers, which could not butentail misunderstandings until they were cleared up.

    The adaptation of avocabulary employed by Plato and Aristotle to Christian truth was a matter oftime; it could not be done in a day; and when accomplished for the Greek it hadto be undertaken for the Latin, which did not lend itself readily to necessaryyet subtle distinctions. That disputes should spring up even among the orthodoxwho all held one faith, was inevitable. And of these wranglings the rationalistwould take advantage in order to substitute for the ancient creed his owninventions. The drift of all he advanced was this: to deny that in any truesense God could have a Son; as Mohammed tersely said afterwards, “God neitherbegets, nor is He begotten” (Koran, cxii). We have learned to call that denialUnitarianism. It was the ultimate scope of Arian opposition to what Christianshad always believed.

    But the Arian, though he did not come straight down fromthe Gnostic, pursued a line of argument and taught a view which the speculationsof the Gnostic had made familiar. He described the Son as a second, or inferiorGod, standing midway between the First Cause and creatures; as Himself made outof nothing, yet as making all things else; as existing before the worlds of theages; and as arrayed in all divine perfections except the one which was theirstay and foundation. God alone was without beginning, unoriginate; the Son wasoriginated, and once had not existed. For all that has origin must begin to be. Such is the genuine doctrine of Arius. Using Greek terms, it denies that the Sonis of one essence, nature, or substance with God; He is not consubstantial(homoousios) with the Father, and therefore not like Him, or equal in dignity,or co-eternal, or within the real sphere of Deity. The Logos which St. Johnexalts is an attribute, Reason, belonging to the Divine nature, not a persondistinct from another, and therefore is a Son merely in figure of speech.

    Theseconsequences follow upon the principle which Arius maintains in his letter toEusebius of Nicomedia, that the Son “is no part of the Ingenerate.” Hence theArian sectaries who reasoned logically were styled Anomoeans: they said that theSon was “unlike” the Father. And they defined God as simply the Unoriginate. They are also termed the Exucontians (ex ouk onton), because they held thecreation of the Son to be out of nothing. But a view so unlike tradition found little favour; it required softening orpalliation, even at the cost of logic; and the school which supplanted Arianismform an early date affirmed the likeness, either without adjunct, or in allthings, or in substance, of the Son to the Father, while denying His co-equaldignity and co-eternal existence. These men of the Via Media were named Semi-Arians.

    They approached, in strict argument, to the heretical extreme; but manyof them held the orthodox faith, however inconsistently; their difficultiesturned upon language or local prejudice, and no small number submitted at lengthto Catholic teaching. The Semi-Arians attempted for years to invent a compromisebetween irreconcilable views, and their shifting creeds, tumultuous councils,and worldly devices tell us how mixed and motley a crowd was collected undertheir banner. The point to be kept in remembrance is that, while they affirmedthe Word of God to be everlasting, they imagined Him as having become the Son tocreate the worlds and redeem mankind. Among the ante-Nicene writers, a certainambiguity of expression may be detected, outside the school of Alexandria,touching this last head of doctrine. While Catholic teachers held the Monarchia,viz. that there was only one God; and the Trinity, that this Absolute Oneexisted in three distinct subsistences; and the Circuminession, that Father,Word, and Spirit could not be separated, in fact or in thought, from oneanother; yet an opening was left for discussion as regarded the term “Son,” andthe period of His “generation” (gennesis).

    Five ante-Nicene Fathers areespecially quoted: Athenagoras, Tatian, Theophilus of Antioch, Hippolytus, andNovatian, whose language appears to involve a peculiar notion of Sonship, asthough It did not come into being or were not perfect until the dawn of creation. To these may be added Tertullian and Methodius. Cardinal Newman held that theirview, which is found clearly in Tertullian, of the Son existing after the Word,is connected as an antecedent with Arianism. Petavius construed the sameexpressions in a reprehensible sense; but the Anglican Bishop Bull defended themas orthodox, not without difficulty. Even if metaphorical, such language mightgive shelter to unfair disputants; but we are not answerable for the slips ofteachers who failed to perceive all the consequences of doctrinal truths reallyheld by them. ;From these doubtful theorizings Rome and Alexandria kept aloof.

    Origen himself, whose unadvised speculations were charged with the guilt ofArianism, and who employed terms like “the second God,” concerning the Logos,which were never adopted by the Church – this very Origen taught the eternalSonship of the Word, and was not a Semi-Arian. To him the Logos, the Son, andJesus of Nazareth were one ever-subsisting Divine Person, begotten of the Father,and, in this way, “subordinate” to the source of His being. He comes forth fromGod as the creative Word, and so is a ministering Agent, or, from a differentpoint of view, is the First-born of creation. Dionysius of Alexandria (260) waseven denounced at Rome for calling the Son a work or creature of God; but heexplained himself to the pope on orthodox principles, and confessed theHomoousian Creed.

    HISTORYPaul of Samosata, who was contemporary with Dionysius, and Bishop of Antioch,may be judged the true ancestor of those heresies which relegated Christ beyondthe Divine sphere, whatever epithets of deity they allowed Him. The man Jesus,said Paul, was distinct from the Logos, and, in Milton’s later language, bymerit was made the Son of God. The Supreme is one in Person as in Essence. Threecouncils held at Antioch (264-268, or 269) condemned and excommunicated theSamosatene. But these Fathers would not accept the Homoousian formula, dreadinglest it be taken to signify one material or abstract substance, according to theusage of the heathen philosophies. Associated with Paul, and for years cut offfrom the Catholic communion, we find the well-known Lucian, who edited theSeptuagint and became at last a martyr. From this learned man the school ofAntioch drew its inspiration.

    Eusebius the historian, Eusebius of Nicomedia, andArius himself, all came under Lucian’s influence. Not, therefore, to Egypt andits mystical teaching, but to Syria, where Aristotle flourished with his logicand its tendency to Rationalism, should we look for the home of an aberrationwhich had it finally triumphed, would have anticipated Islam, reducing theEternal Son to the rank of a prophet, and thus undoing the Christian revelation. Arius, a Libyan by descent, brought up at Antioch and a school-fellow ofEusebius, afterwards Bishop of Nicomedia, took part (306) in the obscureMeletian schism, was made presbyter of the church called “Baucalis,” atAlexandria, and opposed the Sabellians, themselves committed to a view of theTrinity which denied all real distinctions in the Supreme. Epiphanius describesthe heresiarch as tall, grave, and winning; no aspersion on his moral characterhas been sustained; but there is some possibility of personal differences havingled to his quarrel with the patriarch Alexander whom, in public synod, heaccused of teaching that the Son was identical with the Father.

    The actualcircumstances of this dispute are obscure; but Alexander condemned Arius in agreat assembly, and the latter found a refuge with Eusebius, the Churchhistorian, at Caesarea. Political or party motives embittered the strife. Manybishops of Asia Minor and Syria took up the defence of their “fellow-Lucianist,”as Arius did not hesitate to call himself. Synods in Palestine and Bithynia wereopposed to synods in Egypt. During several years the argument raged; but when,by his defeat of Licinius (324), Constantine became master of the Roman world,he determined on restoring ecclesiastical order in the East, as already in theWest he had undertaken to put down the Donatists at the Council of Arles. Arius,in a letter to the Nicomedian prelate, had boldly rejected the Catholic faith.

    But Constantine, tutored by this worldly-minded man, sent from Nicomedia toAlexander a famous letter, in which he treated the controversy as an idledispute about words and enlarged on the blessings of peace. The emperor, weshould call to mind, was only a catechumen, imperfectly acquainted with Greek,much more incompetent in theology, and yet ambitious to exercise over theCatholic Church a dominion resembling that which, as Pontifex Maximus, hewielded over the pagan worship. From this Byzantine conception (labelled inmodern terms Erastianism) we must derive the calamities which during manyhundreds of years set their mark on the development of Christian dogma.

    Alexander could not give way in a matter so vitally important. Arius and hissupporters would not yield. A council was, therefore, assembled in Nicaea, inBithynia, which has ever been counted the first ecumenical, and which held itssittings from the middle of June, 325. (See FIRST COUNCIL OF NICAEA). It iscommonly said that Hosius of Cordova presided. The Pope, St. Silvester, wasrepresented by his legates, and 318 Fathers attended, almost all from the East. Unfortunately, the acts of the Council are not preserved. The emperor, who waspresent, paid religious deference to a gathering which displayed the authorityof Christian teaching in a manner so remarkable. From the first it was evidentthat Arius could not reckon upon a large number of patrons among the bishops.

    Alexander was accompanied by his youthful deacon, the ever-memorable Athanasiuswho engaged in discussion with the heresiarch himself, and from that momentbecame the leader of the Catholics during well-nigh fifty years. The Fathersappealed to tradition against the innovators, and were passionately orthodox;while a letter was received from Eusebius of Nicomedia, declaring openly that hewould never allow Christ to be of one substance with God. This avowal suggesteda means of discriminating between true believers and all those who, under thatpretext, did not hold the Faith handed down. A creed was drawn up on behalf ofthe Arian party by Eusebius of Caesarea in which every term of honour anddignity, except the oneness of substance, was attributed to Our Lord. Clearly,then, no other test save the Homoousion would prove a match for the subtleambiguities of language that, then as always, were eagerly adopted by dissidentsfrom the mind of the Church.

    A formula had been discovered which would serve asa test, though not simply to be found in Scripture, yet summing up the doctrineof St. John, St. Paul, and Christ Himself, “I and the Father are one”. Heresy,as St. Ambrose remarks, had furnished from its own scabbard a weapon to cut offits head. The “consubstantial” was accepted, only thirteen bishops dissenting,and these were speedily reduced to seven. Hosius drew out the conciliarstatements, to which anathemas were subjoined against those who should affirmthat the Son once did not exist, or that before He was begotten He was not, orthat He was made out of nothing, or that He was of a different substance oressence from the Father, or was created or changeable. Every bishop made thisdeclaration except six, of whom four at length gave way. Eusebius of Nicomediawithdrew his opposition to the Nicene term, but would not sign the condemnationof Arius. By the emperor, who considered heresy as rebellion, the alternativeproposed was subscription or banishment; and, on political grounds, the Bishopof Nicomedia was exiled not long after the council, involving Arius in his ruin.

    The heresiarch and his followers underwent their sentence in Illyria. But theseincidents, which might seem to close the chapter, proved a beginning of strife,and led on to the most complicated proceedings of which we read in the fourthcentury. While the plain Arian creed was defended by few, those politicalprelates who sided with Eusebius carried on a double warfare against the term”consubstantial”, and its champion, Athanasius. This greatest of the EasternFathers had succeeded Alexander in the Egyptian patriarchate. He was notmore than thirty years of age; but his published writings, antecedent to theCouncil, display, in thought and precision, a mastery of the issues involvedwhich no Catholic teacher could surpass. His unblemished life, consideratetemper, and loyalty to his friends made him by no means easy to attack. But thewiles of Eusebius, who in 328 recovered Constantine’s favour, were seconded byAsiatic intrigues, and a period of Arian reaction set in. Eustathius of Antiochwas deposed on a charge of Sabellianism, and the Emperor sent his commandthat Athanasius should receive Arius back into communion.

    The saint firmlydeclined. In 325 the heresiarch was absolved by two councils, at Tyre andJerusalem, the former of which deposed Athanasius on false and shameful groundsof personal misconduct. He was banished to Trier, and his sojourn of eighteenmonths in those parts cemented Alexandria more closely to Rome and the CatholicWest. Meanwhile, Constantia, the Emperor’s sister, had recommended Arius, whomshe thought an injured man, to Constantine’s leniency. Her dying words affectedhim, and he recalled the Lybian, extracted from him a solemn adhesion to theNicene faith, and ordered Alexander, Bishop of the Imperial City, to give himCommunion in his own church (336). Arius openly triumphed; but as he went aboutin parade, the evening before this event was to take place, he expired from asudden disorder, which Catholics could not help regarding as a judgment ofheaven, due to the bishop’s prayers. His death, however, did not stay the plague.

    Constantine now favoured none but Arians; he was baptized in his last moments bythe shifty prelate of Nicomedia; and he bequeathed to his three sons anempire torn by dissensions which his ignorance and weakness had aggravated. Constantius, who nominally governed the East, was himself the puppet of hisempress and the palace-ministers. He obeyed the Eusebian faction; his spiritualdirector, Valens, Bishop of Mursa, did what in him lay to infect Italy and theWest with Arian dogmas. The term “like in substance”, Homoiousion, which hadbeen employed merely to get rid of the Nicene formula, became a watchword. Butas many as fourteen councils, held between 341 and 360, in which every shade ofheretical subterfuge found expression, bore decisive witness to the need andefficacy of the Catholic touchstone which they all rejected. About 340, anAlexandrian gathering had defended its archbishop in an epistle to Pope Julius.

    On the death of Constantine, and by the influence of that emperor’s son andnamesake, he had been restored to his people. But the young prince passed away,and in 341 the celebrated Antiochene Council of the Dedication a second timedegraded Athanasius, who now took refuge in Rome. There he spent three years. Gibbon quotes and adopts “a judicious observation” of Wetstein which deserves tobe kept always in mind. From the fourth century onwards, remarks the Germanscholar, when the Eastern Churches were almost equally divided in eloquence andability between contending sections, that party which sought to overcome madeits appearance in the Vatican, cultivated the Papal majesty, conquered andestablished the orthodox creed by the help of the Latin bishops. Therefore itwas that Athanasius repaired to Rome. A stranger, Gregory, usurped his place.

    The Roman Council proclaimed his innocence. In 343, Constans, who ruled over theWest from Illyria to Britain, summoned the bishops to meet at Sardica inPannonia. Ninety-four Latin, seventy Greek or Eastern, prelates began thedebates; but they could not come to terms, and the Asiatics withdrew, holding aseparate and hostile session at Philippopolis in Thrace. It has been justly saidthat the Council of Sardica reveals the first symptoms of discord which, lateron, produced the unhappy schism of East and West. But to the Latins this meeting,which allowed of appeals to Pope Julius, or the Roman Church, seemed an epiloguewhich completed the Nicene legislation, and to this effect it was quoted byInnocent I in his correspondence with the bishops of Africa.

    Having won over Constans, who warmly took up his cause, the invincibleAthanasius received from his Oriental and Semi-Arian sovereign three letterscommanding, and at length entreating his return to Alexandria (349). Thefactious bishops, Ursacius and Valens, retracted their charges against him inthe hands of Pope Julius; and as he travelled home, by way of Thrace, Asia Minor,and Syria, the crowd of court-prelates did him abject homage. These men veeredwith every wind. Some, like Eusebius of Caesarea, held a Platonizing doctrinewhich they would not give up, though they declined the Arian blasphemies. Butmany were time-servers, indifferent to dogma. And a new party had arisen, thestrict and pious Homoiousians, not friends of Athanasius, nor willing tosubscribe to the Nicene terms, yet slowly drawing nearer to the true creed andfinally accepting it. In the councils which now follow these good men play theirpart.

    However, when Constans died (350), and his Semi-Arian brother was leftsupreme, the persecution of Athanasius redoubled in violence. By a series ofintrigues the Western bishops were persuaded to cast him off at Arles, Milan,Ariminum. It was concerning this last council (359) that St. Jerome wrote, “thewhole world groaned and marvelled to find itself Arian”. For the Latin bishopswere driven by threats and chicanery to sign concessions which at no timerepresented their genuine views. Councils were so frequent that their dates arestill matter of controversy. Personal issues disguised the dogmatic importanceof a struggle which had gone on for thirty years. The Pope of the day, Liberius,brave at first, undoubtedly orthodox, but torn from his see and banished to thedreary solitude of Thrace, signed a creed, in tone Semi-Arian (compiled chieflyfrom one of Sirmium), renounced Athanasius, but made a stand against the so-called “Homoean” formulae of Ariminum. This new party was led by Acacius ofCaesarea, an aspiring churchman who maintained that he, and not St. Cyril ofJerusalem, was metropolitan over Palestine.

    The Homoeans, a sort of Protestants,would have no terms employed which were not found in Scripture, and thus evadedsigning the “Consubstantial”. A more extreme set, the “Anomoeans”, followedAetius, were directed by Eunomius, held meetings at Antioch and Sirmium,declared the Son to be “unlike” the Father, and made themselves powerful in thelast years of Constantius within the palace. George of Cappadocia persecuted theAlexandrian Catholics. Athanasius retired into the desert among the solitaries. Hosius had been compelled by torture to subscribe a fashionable creed. When the vacillating Emperor died (361), Julian, known as the Apostate, suffered allalike to return home who had been exiled on account of religion. A momentousgathering, over which Athanasius presided, in 362, at Alexandria, united theorthodox Semi-Arians with himself and the West. Four years afterward fifty-nineMacedonian, i.e., hitherto anti-Nicene, prelates gave in their submission toPope Liberius. But the Emperor Valens, a fierce heretic, still laid the Churchwaste.

    However, the long battle was now turning decidedly in favour of Catholictradition. Western bishops, like Hilary of Poitiers and Eusebius of Vercellaebanished to Asia for holding the Nicene faith, were acting in unison with St. Basil, the two St. Gregories, and the reconciled Semi-Arians. As an intellectual movement the heresy had spent its force. Theodosius, a Spaniard and a Catholic,governed the whole Empire. Athanasius died in 373; but his cause triumphed at Constantinople, long an Arian city, first by the preaching of St. GregoryNazianzen, then in the Second General Council (381), at the opening of whichMeletius of Antioch presided. This saintly man had been estranged from theNicene champions during a long schism; but he made peace with Athanasius, andnow, in company of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, represented a moderate influencewhich won the day.

    No deputies appeared from the West. Meletius died almostimmediately. St. Gregory Nazianzen (q. v.), who took his place, very soonresigned. A creed embodying the Nicene was drawn up by St. Gregory of Nyssa, butit is not the one that is chanted at Mass, the latter being due, it is said, toSt. Epiphanius and the Church of Jerusalem. The Council became ecumenical byacceptance of the Pope and the ever-orthodox Westerns. From this moment Arianismin all its forms lost its place within the Empire. Its developments among thebarbarians were political rather than doctrinal. Ulphilas (311-388), whotranslated the Scriptures into Maeso-Gothic, taught the Goths across the Danubean Homoean theology; Arian kingdoms arose in Spain, Africa, Italy.

    The Gepidae,Heruli, Vandals, Alans, and Lombards received a system which they were as littlecapable of understanding as they were of defending, and the Catholic bishops,the monks, the sword of Clovis, the action of the Papacy, made an end of itbefore the eighth century. In the form which it took under Arius, Eusebius ofCaesarea, and Eunomius, it has never been revived. Individuals, among them areMilton and Sir Isasc Newton, were perhaps tainted with it. But the Sociniantendency out of which Unitarian doctrines have grown owes nothing to the schoolof Antioch or the councils which opposed Nicaea. Neither has any Arian leaderstood forth in history with a character of heroic proportions. In the wholestory there is but one single hero – the undaunted Athanasius – whose mind wasequal to the problems, as his great spirit to the vicissitudes, a question onwhich the future of Christianity depended.

    Category: Religion

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