What We Know about Arius and His Heresy

9780801039768Arius is a major figure in church history, and rightfully so—it was his theology that led to one of the most defining moments in the development of the doctrine of the Trinity. Thanks to Arius, the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325 was called to clarify his error about the divinity of the Son of God. This landmark council led to the rejection of Arianism and the first step toward solidifying the Trinitarian doctrine all orthodox Christians now affirm.

In David Wilhite’s new book, The Gospel According to the Heretics, he lays out the major views and situations surrounding the major heretics/heresies of the early church. In regards to Arius, we actually know very little. Most of our information about him and his theology is found in the works of his opponents. Wilhite’s chapter on Arius (pp. 105-128) helpfully distills what we know about him and his teaching:

Biography and Background

  • He was reportedly a tall man.
  • His teachings were often delivered in song, using plain language to convert commoners to his views. This does not mean, however, that his theology was not philosophically rigorous. Indeed, it was.
  • His teachings had spread far and wide, especially in the East.
  • In AD 318, an old man to this point, he heard Alexander describe the Trinity in a sermon, and took exception to both the content of his teachings and the language he deemed as “too philosophical.” This launched his public dispute with the proto-orthodox leaders.
  • Word of his dispute spread to the Emperor Constantine, who called together the meeting in Nicaea to hash out the debate and come to a consensus.
  • He was supposedly slapped across the face by Saint Nicholas at the council meeting, but this is largely considered dubious by historians.

Theology

Arius’s views were rather straightforward:

  • Jesus preexisted as the Son of God, but was subordinate to the Father, as any son is to his father.
  • The Son must have been created at some point (since he was begotten), and therefore lesser than the uncreated and eternal Father.
  • In trying to hold to monotheism without denying the Son’s divinity, he argued that Jesus is either sort of God or a second God. This led to the Nicaean distinction between homoiousios (the Father and Son share a similar substance—Arius) and homoousios (they share the same substance—orthodox Trinitarians).
  • He argued that the Trinitarians dabbled in modalism, because that was the only logical explanation for their insistence that there is one God, and yet the Son can be equal with him.
  • He also charged Trinitarians with overly allegorizing the Scriptures, instead of taking the “plain meaning” of the texts, which make clear that the Son is subordinate to the Father.

The Trinity is a mystery to us in many ways, but Scripture and tradition give us language and concepts that allow us to affirm the doctrine. Though Arius was (rightly) condemned as a heretic at Nicaea, we should take our cue from him in working diligently to understand and clarify the doctrine of God. If our doctrine of God falters, everything else begins to falter with it. We saw that with Arius, and we see it still today.

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