Arianism was a theological viewpoint first proposed early in the Fourth Century by Arius, an elder of the Church of Alexandria. Mainstream Christianity condemned Arianism as a heresy because it taught that Jesus Christ is not truly divine but is instead a created being of exalted status. Arius attracted a large following through a very successful publicity campaign featuring his poem entitled Thalia (banquet) and a number of Arian popular songs written for the common people.

Arius’ fundamental premise was that God alone is self-existent and immutable. Though Jesus Christ is called the Son of God in scripture, Arius did not see him as self-existent. Arius appears to have integrated elements of mainstream Christianity with Neoplatonism, which accented the absolute oneness and perfection of the Creator. Arius combined this Neoplatonist view of God with a literalist approach to the New Testament texts. He taught that Christ was the most perfect of material creatures who was “adopted” by God as a son but who remained a dependant creature, known as “the Logos”. As such he is substantially unlike the eternal, uncreated Father and is subordinate to his will. Because God is unique, he cannot be identified with the Son; because God is immutable (unchanging), the Son, who is represented in the Gospels as subject to growth and change cannot be God. Therefore, the Son must be a creature.

According to the opponents of Arius, his teaching put Jesus on the level of a Greek demigod and undermined the gospel, since only a fully divine Christ could he redeem the entire world. In reaction to the heated debates between Arians and mainstream Christians in the years 323-324 AD, the emperor Constantine, in May of 325, summoned an ecumenical (whole church) council at the city of Nicaea. The council’s purpose was to settle what Constantine termed as “a fight over trifling and foolish verbal differences”.

The outcome of Nicea was the defeat and banishment of Arius as a heretic and the issuing of a creed by the mainstream bishops to safeguard orthodox Christian belief. The Nicean Creed states that the Son of God is “of one substance with the Father”, thus declaring him to be, by nature, all that the Father is.

Although the Council of Nicea seemed to settle the controversy, it was actually only the beginning of a centuries-long dispute. After Constantine’s death in 337, the co-emperor of the eastern portion of the Empire, Constantius II announced his sympathies with the Arian doctrines. When he became sole emperor in 350, Constantius began a suppression of the Nicean policy until his death in 361. The struggle for supremacy continued until the end of the Fourth Century when the emperor Theodosius took up the Nicean position and Arianism collapsed. Although this was the end of the Arian heresy within the empire, its doctrines continued among certain Germanic tribes (notably the Goths) until the end of the Seventh Century.

In more modern times, the Unitarian doctrine of God is very similar to Arian teachings. Likewise, the teaching of Jehovah’s Witnesses about Christ is very much like Arian concepts. Both of these groups deny that Jesus had a fully divine nature, but teach on the other hand, that he was greater than a human being.

Michael Bogart