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Arianism
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Arianism

This article is not about the ethnic concept of Aryanism.


Arianism was a Christological view held by followers of Arius in the early Christian Church, denying that Jesus Christ and God the Father were of the same fundamental essence, seeing the Son as a created being, inferior to the Father. The belief grew rapidly, so much so that it was the majority view of all Christians for a time. The First Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.) condemned this doctrine, after much controversy, and declared it heretical; similar views, and in some cases revival of the name, have recurred.

Table of contents
1 Fourth century
2 Survival and eventual disappearance
3 Reformation, Enlightenment and Unitarianism
4 Modern parallels
5 See also

Fourth century

The letter of Auxentius, a 4th-century (C.E.) Arian bishop of Milan, regarding the missionary Ulfilas, gives the clearest picture of Arian beliefs on the nature of the Trinity: God the Father ("unbegotten"), always existing, was separate from the lesser Jesus Christ ("only-begotten"), born before time began and creator of the world. The Father, working through the Son, created the Holy Spirit, which was subservient to the Son as the Son was to the Father.

The conflict between Arianism and the Trinitarianism that has since become dominant was the first important doctrinal difficulty in the Church after the legalization of Christianity by Emperor Constantine I. At one point in the conflict, Arianism held sway in the family of the Emperor and the Imperial nobility, and, because Ulfilas was the apostle to the Goths, the Ostrogoths and the Visigoths arrived in western Europe already Christians, but Arians.

Arius was a Christian priest in Alexandria, Egypt. In 321 he was denounced by a synod at Alexandria for teaching a heterodox view of the relationship of Jesus Christ to God the Father. Arius and his followers agreed that Jesus was the son of God, but denied that they were one substance (Greek: homo-ousios). Instead, they viewed God and the Son as having distinct but similar substances (Greek: homoi-ousios). The difference in Greek was literally one iota (reflected in the English letter I) of difference. The apparently trivial nature of this difference led Edward Gibbon to remark that "the profane of every age have derided the furious contests which the difference of a single diphthong excited between the Homoousians and the Homoiousians". Jesus is, for Arianism, inferior or subordinate to God the Father. A specific summary statement that came to be at issue was that "there was a stage when Jesus Christ was not"; this statement implied Jesus to be a created being, rather than one coeternal with the Father, and thereby denied the doctrine of the Trinity as it is generally understood today.

Because Arius and his followers had great influence in the schools of Alexandria — counterparts to modern universities or seminaries — their theological views spread, especially in the eastern Mediterranean. By 325 the controversy had become significant enough that Emperor Constantine I called an assembly of bishops, the First Council of Nicaea (modern Iznik, Turkey), which condemned Arius's doctrine, largely by excluding those bishops who accepted it.

The trinitarian arguments that prevailed at Nicaea were formulated in the Nicene Creed, which is still recited in Catholic, Orthodox, and some Protestant services. The Athanasian Creed is less often used but is a more overtly anti-Arian statement on the Trinity. Constantine ordered all Arian books burned and Arius exiled. Arius died in 336 without having recanteded.

Despite the decision of the Council of Nicaea, Arianism not only survived but flourished for some time. The patronage of members of the imperial family allowed Arian bishops to sit in many sees. Having never converted any sizable group of the laity, Arianism had died out inside the Empire by the 380s; it was debated and rejected again by the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople in 381.

Survival and eventual disappearance

However, during the time of Arianism's flowering in Constantinople, the Goth convert Ulfilas (later the subject of the letter of Auxentius cited above) was sent as a missionary to the Gothic barbarians across the Danube. His initial success in converting this Germanic people to an Arian form of Christianity was strengthened by later events. When the Germanic peoples entered the Roman Empire and founded successor-kingdoms, many of them used their Arian religion to differentiate their people from the local inhabitants and maintain their group identity against the Catholic population. See: Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals, Burgundians, Lombards. By the 8th century assimilation had ended any surviving Arian churches. Only the Franks among the Germanic peoples entered the empire as pagans and converted to Catholic Christianity directly.

Reformation, Enlightenment and Unitarianism

The name Arians was widely applied to Unitarian Christian sects, initially in Poland to the Polish brethren (Frater Polonorum). They invented radical social theories and were precursors of the Enlightenment.

Modern parallels

"Arianism" has been commonly applied since, to several modern nontrinitarian groups. Despite the frequency with which this name is used, groups so labelled typically do not follow Arian beliefs, and reject the name for their self-description, although they all deny the trinitarian formulations.

For example, the modern Jehovah's Witnesses have similar beliefs. However, Jehovah's Witnesses, unlike Arians, deny belief in a disembodied soul after death, eternal punishment of the unrepentantly wicked, and episcopacy: doctrines to which the Arians did not obviously object. In some respects, there is a closer analogy to Socinianism, than to Arianism, in Jehovah's Witness theology (Socinians similarly were called "Arians" by their detractors See also: Unitarianism). Jehovah's Witnesses, unlike Arians, do not direct prayers to Jesus.

The doctrine of the Godhead, according to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is similar to Arianism. The LDS doctrine of the unity of the Godhead is reminiscent of the Arian explanation of the unity of the Son with the Father: Jesus is seen as subordinate to God the Father, in that Jesus acts only according to his Father's will. They are "one" in the sense that there is no possibility of a disagreement between them, and they are both perfected and sinless. The LDS also believe, similar to the Arians, that the Christ is a separate being, but "co-eternal" with God the Father, and yet that there is only one (capital "G") God. However, the LDS is unique in believing that there are many exalted beings, or gods; and in their belief that three distinct beings comprise the Godhead. This agreement and close intimacy of three distinct beings according to LDS doctrine, is properly labelled tritheism compared to Trinitarian definitions of monotheism, which the LDS disputes. LDS themselves do not object to their Godhead being referred to as a kind of Trinity, but assert that it's merely a very different idea of the Trinity as compared to most of the rest of the Christian world.

Archbishop Dmitri of the Orthodox Church in America has identified Islam as the largest descendant of Arianism today. There is some superficial similarity in Islam's teaching that Jesus was a great prophet, but very distinct from God, although Islam sees Jesus as a human messenger of God without the divine properties that Arianism attributes to the Christ. There is also a plausible historical connection given Arianism's persistent survival up to the time of Mohammad and beyond.

See also

Christology