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Arius (AD 250 or 256 - 336) was a fourth-century Alexandrian presbyter who was formally condemned as a heretic by the Orthodox Church. His heresy, referred to as Arianism, consisted of his teaching that the Son of God was not co-eternal and consubstantial with His Father, but was rather a created being, subordinate to the Father. Arius's belief was condemned by the First Ecumenical Council, at Nicea in 325. The council's decision did not immediately stop Arianism, however, as its proponent quickly returned to the Emperor's favor. Even Arius' death, followed one year later by that of Constantine, did not lay the controversy to rest; that came about—in the Church, at least—through the teachings of the Cappadocian Fathers and the actions of the Second Ecumenical Council in 381. Arianism continued to linger in some Gothic and Vandal kingdoms of the West until it was finally suppressed in the seventh century. Arius's ideas are no longer accepted in toto by any organized entity, though some modern sects like the Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons display Arian tendencies in their doctrine.

Arianism should be clearly distinguished from "Aryanism", which formed the core of Nazi racial ideology during the twentieth century, and which had nothing whatsoever to do with Arius or his teachings.

Early life

Arius was apparently of Lybian and Berber descent, born about 250 (some sources say 256) in North Africa. His father's name was given as Ammonius. Arius grew up in Alexandria, Egypt; at the time, the city was a center of Christian scholarship. He was a pupil of Lucian of Antioch, a celebrated Christian teacher and martyr. This was the era when a theological explanation of the relationship between the Father and Son was being developed, and Arius' teachings became one of the views proposed during these Christological controversies.

In 306, Arius sided with Meletius, an Egyptian schismatic, against the Bishop of Alexandria, Peter. But their dispute was soon reconciled, and Peter ordained Arius a deacon. Having fallen out anew with Peter, Arius gained the friendship of Peter's successor, Achillas, who ordained Arius a priest in 313, thus giving him official status in the Church. Achillas was succeeded by Alexander of Alexandria; it was under this bishop that Arius first ignited the controversy now that bears his name. This argument centered upon the precise nature of the Son of God, and His relationship to God the Father, and it struck at the very heart of the Orthodox Christian faith.

The Arian controversy

According to Church historian Socrates Scholasticus, Arius entered in 318 into a dispute with Bishop Alexander of Alexandria over his teachings about God's divine Sonship and substance. Alexander had attempted to instruct his clergy on the unity of the Holy Trinity, but Arius—whether through misunderstanding, or a "love of controversy", as alleged by Socrates—opposed his bishop's teaching as smacking of Sabellianism.[1] Arius proffered his own syllogism: If the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence. From this it is evident that there was a time when the Son was not. It therefore necessarily follows that he had his substance from nothing. This, of course, denied the essential unity and consubstantiality of the Holy Trinity, and caused an uproar among Arius's listeners that quickly spread throughout the Church, as Arius insisted upon disseminating his ideas.

Although Arianism carries Arius's name, its doctrines did not entirely originate with him. Lucian of Antioch, Arius's teacher and mentor, was accused by Bishop Alexander of being the source for Arius's heretical teachings—not so much that Lucian had taught Arianism per se, but rather that he possessed certain heretical tendencies which he passed on to his pupil, Arius.[2] Indeed, the noted Russian historian Alexander Vasiliev refers to Lucian as "the Arius before Arius".[3]

While Arius developed a following among some Syrian prelates, an Alexandrian synod of some 100 bishops summoned by Bishop Alexander condemned him in 321. He was excommunicated, and fled to Palestine. There he entered into a friendship with Eusebius of Nicomedia. Arius, a proficient writer, produced many compositions in both prose and verse defending his belief, including a poem that he called the Thalia. Most of these writings were destroyed as being heretical, though portions of the Thalia and a few other Arian texts survive.

The Council of Nicea

In opposition to Arius, Alexander of Alexandria presented his case to Alexander of Constantinople and Eusebius of Nicomedia, where the emperor was in residence. Although the emperor sent a legate to resolve the controversy and publically called upon Arius and Alexander to settle their differences, the dispute was of such a nature as to preclude any compromise. Accordingly, the arguments between Arius and his opponents continued, becoming such a powerful divisive force within the Roman empire that Constantine could no longer abide them. To settle the dilemma once and for all, he called a council with delegates drawn from all the empire. The purpose of this, the First Council of Nicea, was to determine as far as possible what had been taught by Jesus Christ and His Apostles. The Council met in Nicea, near Constantinople, in 325. Here, the confession of faith presented by Arius was cut to pieces. Guided by the emperor, the Council developed a creed, the Nicene Creed, for use in catechetical instruction and at baptisms. Arius himself was condemned as a heretic; his deposition from the priesthood and excommunication were confirmed, together with those of all his recalcitrant adherents—who were then exiled, together with Arius. One champion of Orthodoxy to emerge from this council was Athanasius the Great, an Alexandrian deacon who would eventually succeed Bishop Alexander and become one of the Church's greatest warriors against Arianism, authoring one of its most famous Patristic polemicals: Against the Arians.

Although the council seemed to have settled the Arian issue once and for all, concern remained over the use of the word homoousios that was used in formulating the case against Arius. Early, ill-defined definitions of homoousios were part of the arguments used in deposing Paul of Samosata in 269; at the time, these were considered to have Sabellian tendencies. In his polemics against Arius, Alexander of Alexandria refined the definition of homoousios to mollify these earlier objections.

However, not all of his contemporaries agreed with Alexander's conclusions. The decision at Nicea came almost immediately under attack, and after Alexander died in 327, many of Arius's supporters were allowed to returned to their old positions. This in turn allowed Eusebius of Nicomedia to influence Constantine anew; even Arius himself was allowed to return to Alexandria in 331. Many proponents of the Nicene decision began to be deposed, as they found it impossible to defend it without apparently falling into Sabellianism. Eustathius of Antioch, Marcellus of Ancyra, and others—supporters of St. Anthanasius of Alexandria—were among them.

Later years and death

With Constantine now favoring Arius, he commanded Anthanasius to readmit him to communion. Anthanasius refused, leading to charges of treason against the emperor and Athanasius's exile to Trier. Revelling in their new-found acceptance by Constantine, Arius's supporters commenced disturbances in Alexandria aimed at taking control there. The emperor now directed Bishop Alexander of Constantinople to receive Arius into communion; vehemently opposed to this, Alexander asked his supporters to pray for the removal of either him or Arius from the world before Arius could be re-admitted to the Church. Incredibly, one day before Arius was to receive communion, he suddenly died. Socrates Scholasticus reports that while parading through the streets of the Imperial City Arius was suddenly seized with pain in his bowels, barely making it to an outdoor privy before expiring due to loss of blood.[4] While many Orthodox Christians—then and now—regarded his demise as miraculous, some scholars believe that Arius was actually poisoned by some of his enemies.[5]

Although Arius's death and that of Constantine a year later led to reduced debate, the Christological controversies eventually resumed. Ultimately, the Cappadocian Fathers: Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and Gregory of Nyssa, would provide a comprehensive Orthodox answer to the dilemmas raised by Arius, burying Arianism in the Church once and for all. Their doctrines were confirmed by the Second Ecumenical Council in 381. Arius is still considered by the Orthodox church (and most of the rest of Christianity) to be one of its greatest heretics; in icons of the First Ecumenical Council, he is often portrayed as lying prostrate beneath the feet of the Lord and/or the bishops.

Arianism today

Today, a so-called "Holy Arian Catholic and Apostolic Church" in England claims to proclaim Arius's teachings, even "canonizing" him in 2006. However, this body differs with its namesake on several crucial points, including its rejection of the Virgin Birth and Resurrection of Christ, which Arius himself never questioned. The Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormon sects are often accused (especially the former) of being Arian; while both certainly exhibit doctrines which tend toward Arianism—which are rejected by the Orthodox Church as being heretical, along with many other teachings—each sect's Christology differs somewhat from classic Arian doctrine.

No remnant of any of the Arian sects established in Western Europe or elsewhere is known to exist today.


  1. Socrates Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 1, Ch. 5.
  2. Vasiliev, A. Arianism and the Council of Nicaea, from History of the Byzantine Empire, Chapter One. Retrieved on 2010-02-02.
  3. Vasiliev, A. Arianism and the Council of Nicaea, from History of the Byzantine Empire, Chapter One. Retrieved on 2010-02-02.
  4. A Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century A.D., with an Account of the Principal Sects and Heresies by Henry Wace.
  5. Edward Gibbons "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", Chapter 21, (1776–88), Jonathan Kirsch, God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism, 2004, and Charles Freeman, The Closing of the Western Mind: The Rise of Faith and the Fall of Reason, 2002.

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