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The Arian Controversy

The Arian Controversy is the pivotal event in the history of Christian theology. For it was the beginnings of the complete deification of Jesus. Here we will trace it's development from beginning to end:

The Origins of the Controversy

This controversy was named after the eventual loser, the Alexandrian priest, Arius (c250-336). [1] Of course, it suited the winning party to name (and implicitly blame) the controversy on the heretic for orthodoxy by their definition could not have raised a controversy. It will be shown here that both parties were introducing new and innovative theological ideas into the debate. The leader of the opposing party was Athanasius (c296-373), who, at the beginning of the controversy, was the secretary to the Bishop of Alexandria, Alexander (d328). [2]

The condemnation of the teachings of Sabellius and Paul of Samosata, both of whom said that the Son was merely a manifestation of the Father, had forced "orthodoxy" to take the stance that the Father and Son were two distinct persons. [3] This distinctness of the Father and Son, never part of any clear-cut apostolic pronouncement, was "orthodox" teaching at the beginning of the fourth century.

Trouble began brewing around 319 when Arius denounced his bishop, Alexander, for saying that the Father and Son is of one substance (Homoousion: Greek for "of one substance"). Arius, or so he himself must have thought, was merely echoing orthodoxy when he told his bishop that "the Son is totally and essentially distinct from the Father". He accused his bishop of Sabellianizing, that is, bringing back an heretical teaching. [4] The gauntlet was thrown and the battle lines were drawn.

Arius found many followers and defenders. Arianism, as his teaching came to be called, had its center in the city of Antioch. He taught that Jesus, while divine, was not eternal and was created by God. [a] He argued that there could only be one God, and if Jesus was God then there would be two gods; which would make Christianity a polytheistic religion, no different from the pagan religions they detest. [5]

On the other side, Athanasius defended his superior's position. He argued that Jesus Christ, as God's son, was truly God. He used the Greek word, homoousios (of one substance), a word not to be found anywhere in the Bible, to describe the doctrine that the Father and Son is of the same substance. Athanasianism had its center in the city of Alexandria. [6]

Here again, it is worth noting that both parties considered themselves as defenders of orthodoxy and accused the other side of being the heretic, the innovator. Arius, the eventual loser and the one who got stuck with the title "innovator" for posterity, had every reason to consider his teaching orthodox. He was deeply influenced by Origen, who by this time was already considered an orthodox church father. And Origen, as we have shown was a subordinationist. Indeed, traditional Christian writing had always stressed the uniqueness and transcendence of the Father, who alone was eternal, wise, good and unchanging. Every other being is second in place to God. Arius simply took this traditional view and formulated it in a clearer and less ambiguous language. Because of Arius' traditional stance, his teaching had a wide following in the Eastern half of the Roman Empire. [7]

In fact when Alexander called a synod of a hundred bishops from Egypt and Libya which excommunicated Arius, the latter found refuge in the east and had local synods in Bithynia and Palestine reversed the excommunication of the earlier synod. [8]

The early Christians, just as they are today, believed that the ultimate arbiter of any theological arguments is the scriptures; that somehow an unambiguous solution would be found in it. Both Arius and Athanasius thought the same. The Arians quoted a text from Proverbs to support their view:

Proverbs 8:22
The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old.

To the modern scholar, the "me" refers to the mystical Wisdom, but to the Arians and Athanasians alike, all the Old Testament had references to Jesus; and this passage, they agreed, referred to Jesus. The difference comes in their interpretation of the meaning. The Arians claimed that this passage shows that Jesus was created by God, as the text explicitly states. The Athanasians, equal to the challenge, argued that the word "create" does not mean "coming into being". To them, the passage refers to the creation of all mankind through the resurrection of Jesus. [9]

Another passage the Arians quoted was from the gospel of Luke which referred to the growth of the child Jesus:

Luke 2:52
And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.

Now, the Arians argued, God obviously could not have "increased in wisdom and stature" for he is a perfect being. Jesus, because he could increase in wisdom and stature, could not be God. The Athanasians countered by saying that the scriptures contain a "double account" of Jesus Christ. Some passages refer to Jesus as man, and others refer to him as God. The passage from Luke above obviously refers to the part of Jesus that is a man; so says the Athanasians [10]

Absurdity is challenged by absurdity. Nothing was resolved by the debates. It is obvious, even from the two examples, that the issues cannot be resolved by debate. It was around this time that a general council of Christian bishops was called to settle the issue. The man who ordered the council was a newly converted Christian, the Roman Emperor Constantine (c274-337). Before looking into the council, it is worthwhile to first take a closer look at Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor of Rome. [b]

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Several incidents prior to his ascendency to the throne of the Roman Empire in AD324 had convinced Constantine of the efficacy of the Christian religion. Earlier, he had utilized the cross (a symbol shared by Christianity and Mithraism) as the symbol of his army. He won four successive battles with that and as a result took complete control of Italy by the year 312. [12] He attributed his success to the Christian God and, as a token of his indebtedness, gave the Christian clergy annual allowances, exempted the Christian church from municipal burdens and gave the Christian bishops legal power to enforce their decision in Christian disputes. [13] It was under Constantine that Christianity really took off as a religious force which was to eclipse and eliminate all others.

Constantine's behavior was to be a preview to subsequent behaviors of prominent Christians, once they had gained political power. To become the sole emperor, he strangled Lucius, the emperor of the eastern half of the Roman Empire, after promising to spare his life. When he became emperor, by then definitely a convinced Christian, Constantine put to death his son Crispus, a nephew and his wife Fausta. Through all this, it should be noted that the Christian church, rejoicing in its new found prominence, did not raise a single word of criticism against the emperor's behavior. [14] To top it all up, Constantine was openly accepted by the Christians as the head of the Church on earth. [15] This then, was the man who called a general council in the year 325 to settle the dispute regrading Jesus' divinity.

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The Council of Nicaea

The council was held in the city of Nicaea (today the town of Iznik in North Western Turkey). The attendance of the council was not as ecumenical as modern Christians would like to pretend. Of the at least 1800 bishops in the Christian Church, only about 300 attended. [16]

At Nicaea, Eusebius of Nicomedia expounded the Arian position, while Athanasius defended his own teachings. As with all theological debates, the council reached a deadlock; no formula appeared to be agreeable to both parties in the dispute. It was at this point that Constantine stepped in and sided with Athanasius. He argued that everyone present should sign the formula that Jesus was of the same essence (Homoousios) as the Father.[c]

Constantine's desire to deify Jesus was not in the least surprising. It was a natural carry over from his pagan past when he had his father, Constantius, deified. It is thus natural that he would want to see the founder of his new religion put in the same pedestal as well.

Constantine added that whoever agreed to sign the formula will be invited to his twentieth anniversary celebrations. To this announcement the Emperor added that anyone who refused to sign the formula would face immediate banishment. [17] As a result of this announcement, all but seventeen die-hard Arians signed the homoousion formula. With the signatures, willing or otherwise, of many of Christendoms most important bishops the die was cast for Arianism. Although it was to experience a brief resurgence, Arianism never stood a chance once the Nicene Creed was agreed to by the bishops. One can only speculate how many of the bishops signed due to Constantine's threat. We do know that many of the bishops who agreed to the formula initially due to the emperor's threat withdrew their signatures upon returning to their own cities. [18] Thus Eusebius, one of the signatories to the formula, wrote (on behalf of himself and two other bishops) to Constantine upon return to Nicomedia:

We committed an impious act, O Prince, by subscribing to a blasphemy for fear of you. [19]

Whatever may be the reaction of the bishop who signed the formula unwillingly, the emperor was quick to act. He ordered the banishment of Arius and the burning of his writings. The leading Arian bishops were also deposed.

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The Demise of Arianism

However, more and more people started recanting the Nicene formula and Arianism actually experienced a brief resurgence. By the year 329 Arianism had such widespread support that Constantine became persuaded that his earlier decision was a mistaken one. He recalled Arius from exile and restored the Arian bishops. Athanasius, who became the Bishop of Alexandria in 328 was deprived of his office in the council of Tyre in 335 and was banished to Gaul (modern France). Constantine himself, just before his death, was baptized by an Arian bishop. The success of Arianism obviously led to animosity between the two Christian groups. Arius himself, died in AD336, very possibly from poisoning. [20]

After the death of Constantine in 337, his son Constantius became the new emperor and openly embraced Arianism. Many eastern councils accepted the Arian formulas. However, its success was to prove its downfall as well. The Arians split into three factions: the Anomeans, the extreme party which stressed the difference between Father and Son; the Homoeans, which simply affirms that the Son is similar to the Father "in accordance with the scriptures"; and the Semi-Arians which favoured the term homoiousion (Greek for "of like substance") as expressing both the similarities and the differences between Father and Son. In 359 two simultaneous councils were held; one for the eastern bishops (in Seleucia) and one for the western bishops (in Ariminum). Both councils adopted the Homoean formula. However, this victory for Arianism frightened the Semi-Arians back into the ranks of the Athanasian fold. The death of Constantius in 361 also deprived the Arians of political support and they began to lose ground to the Athanasians. [21]

In the year 381, a council of the eastern bishops was held in Constantinople. The Nicene creed was again upheld and Arianism condemned. [22] The die was cast for Arianism, it gradually died out. We find remnants of Arianism among the northern European peoples such as ther Goths, the Burgundians, the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths, the Lombards and the Vandals. These peoples were eventually assimilated in Catholicism and by around the seventh or eighth century Arianism was no more. [23]

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It is worth pondering on this controversy. The crucial issue was decided by an emperor who was still imbued with paganism, who had no qualms about deifying his father, murdering his relatives and using threats to force the many bishops in Nicaea to sign the homoousion formula. Because of this man, a Galilean Jew who died three centuries before the fateful council, was put on the path to deification.

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a.The reader will note that this teaching simply echoes the teaching of the earlier church fathers such as Origen and Tertullian. Arius was only teaching what he believed to be the orthodox position.
b.Constantine obviously considered himself Christian when he became emperor. He was however not baptized until the year 337 towards the end of his life. This does not constitute any religious hesitation on his part. In fact it was considered bad economy to be baptized too early. For baptism washes away all your previous sins, but not your subsequent ones. So it makes sense to delay baptism for as long as possible. [11]
c.The so-called Nicene creed reads thus:
Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten not made, by the Father as his only Son, of the same substance (Homoousios) with the Father, God of God, Light of Light.


1.Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p34
2.Ibid: p38
3.Robertson, A Short History of Christianity: p89
4.Ibid: p89
5.Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p32
Wilken, The Myth of Christian Beginnings: p88
Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence: p138
6.Wilken, The Myth of Christian Beginnings: p88
7.Ibid: p179-180
8.Christie-Murray, A History of Heresy: p46
9.Wilken, The Myth of Christian Beginnings: p90-92
10.Ibid: p92-93
11.H.A.L. Fisher, A History of Europe Vols I & II, Fontana, London 1932: p114
Robertson, A Short History of Christianity: p85
12.Fisher, A History of Europe: p114
13.Robertson, A Short History of Christianity: p86
14.Ibid: p85
15.Ibid: p85
Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence: p137
16.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p317
Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p356
Robertson, A Short History of Christianity: p89
17.Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence: p142
18.Craveri, The Life of Jesus: p317-318
19.Robertson, A Short History of Christianity: p89
Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence: p142
20.Robertson, A Short History of Christianity: p89
21.Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church: p33
22.Ibid: p128
23.Christie-Murray, A History of Heresy: p55
Wilson, Jesus: The Evidence: p142

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© Paul N. Tobin 2000

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