Arius the Libyan: Heretic as Hero

In 1884 the Appleton publishing company in New York released an anonymous novel with the title Arius the Libyan.  Its titular main character is the fourth-century arch-heretic Arius, who is cast as a moral example, a spiritual giant, and a tireless fighter for the simple gospel of the primitive church versus the sinister schemes of Constantine and the sophistry of Athanasius.

The author of this novel was Nathan Chapman Kouns (1833-1890s), an opinionated Missouri lawyer and librarian with journalistic ambitions and socialistic opinions. Arius the Libyan sold briskly, and was reprinted several times, complete with the author’s name printed on the title page in subsequent editions, well into the 20th century.

I bought a copy for a few dollars at a library book sale about ten years ago. Being as big a fan of Athanasius and as loyal a partisan of trinitarian theology as you’re likely to find, I can’t be considered the ideal audience for this century-old historical fiction. But I read the whole thing with considerable profit, and I’d like to share my thoughts on this “quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.”

In this blog post, I’ll give an extended summary of the book, emphasizing the doctrine that emerges gradually as the plot develops. I’m not sure the book is worth reading, but I hope this summary is. In a later post I’ll give some background on the author and his motivation, and then draw some conclusions.

That Old Time Religion

The subtitle of Arius the Libyan is “An Idyll of the Primitive Church.” The literary word idyll primarily means a short poem about country life, or in an extended sense it can mean a vignette or episode of such romantic, rustic charm that it qualifies as the subject of such a poem. Kouns means it in that extended sense, and the first half of the novel is devoted to sketching the life of the third-century Christian community in Egypt, a life of agrarian simplicity, where “practically the faith of Jesus had broken down all ethnic, social, and political barriers among those who professed it.”

In a chapter entitled “How Men Lived in the Kingdom of Heaven,” Kouns summarizes this idyllic life of the primitive community.

In short, all and far more than modern ‘poor-laws,’ … and eleemosynary associations … have been enabled to do toward the amelioration of the condition of the unfortunate, was far more perfectly accomplished by these Christian communities, that recognized as a matter of faith the principle of all human charity which extends beyond mere alms-giving, that the average prosperity of the community should extend to each individual thereof when overtaken by any misfortune– a redeeming principle which Jesus and his apostles taught in its most perfect and effective form as the ‘communion of saints,’ the partnership or fellowship of the holy (koinonia ton hagion); community of property and rights among all who believe…

First of all, that is Kouns’ rather dreadful prose style when he gets didactic; the dramatic parts of the book are somewhat less painful to read. Second, eleemosynary is a real word, and it means charitable. Third and most important, though, take note of the doctrine that Jesus supposedly taught:  that the claim which poor believers have on wealthier believers is not a right to receive alms from out of their private property, but a claim to share their goods in common. To this doctrine Kouns assigns the name “the communion of saints,” which he interprets to mean the common ownership of all property by all the holy ones, resulting from the spiritual abolition of private property. “Communion of the saints,” in other words, means “communism of the saints.”

But the term “communism” was already so loaded with negative connotations that Kouns carefully disentangled it from them. The principle of “from all in common according to the common wealth, to each according to his need,” is

a principle which good men have been vainly seeking to restore in some form ever since the subversion of Christianity, in the fourth century, by the agency of numberless nugatory statutes and associations; a divine truth which in its Christless forms of ‘communism,’ ‘socialism,’ and ‘Nihilism,’ now threatens the very existence of law and order throughout Christendom; a system perhaps impossible to any government which recognizes the legality of private-property rights, and is therefore committed to Mammon-worship.

A Vehicle for Economic Critique

Kouns spends considerable time in the first half of the novel developing this portrait of the economic life of the first Christians. The Christian community of the region of Baucalis is not formally organized on the strict communistic model of the earliest Jerusalem church, mainly because the principle of “communion of the saints” has so informed their common life for generations that there are no poor Christians and no need to convert property into cash for charity. This total commonality of property in principle allows for social organization much more centered on the nuclear family structure, the household, than the strict communism of Jerusalem, which had been a kind of emergency measure on the way to setting up the sustainable kingdom we see in Baucalis.

As Kouns’ early Christians see it, the love of money is indeed the root of all sorts of evil, because once you admit the right to own private property, you must establish a central government to enforce the protection of the owners. This is what causes wars. Kouns’ early Christians knew this instinctively:

For they had been taught from the beginning that the essential difference between the kingdom of heaven and every other kingdom established upon earth consisted in the fact that human governments recognize private property‑rights in estates, ranks, offices, prerogatives, and seek to enforce these legal, fictitious rights by temporal penalties, contrary to reason and justice; while Jesus denounced all such private rights as Mammon‑worship, and all statutes enacted to enforce them as lies of the Scribes and Pharisees; and never fixed, and never authorized his apostles to fix, any temporal penalties whatever.  They understood perfectly well that the necessary and inevitable result of all law‑and‑order systems is to produce a ruling class at the top of every political fabric to whom all of its benefits inure, an oppressed or enslaved people at the bottom upon whose weary shoulders rest all of the burdens and the waste of life, and between these extremes ecclesiasticisms and an army (always on the side of the ruling classes and against the multitudes) seeking to adjust their mutual legal rights and duties by the agency of bayonets and prayer ‑‑a system of laws creating fictitious rights, creating legal offenses by the disregard of these pretended rights, and denouncing legal penalites.

Indeed, he goes on, “Our Lord designed to abolish all private property, and with it all the unjust laws and penalties by which the worship of Mammon is maintained.”

Christianity also relativizes slavery so radically as to abolish it in principle. Since nobody can own anything, of course slavery –owning another person– is impossible for Christians. But just as these propertyless families dwell in homes and care for gardens, they can maintain domestic servants in the same free, communal spirit.

Kouns shows us the dialectic involved through the character of Old Thopt, an Egyptian domestic servant. When her mistress converts to Christianity, Thopt is granted freedom. But Thopt knows nothing about freedom, she only knows that her race has always served the aristocratic race of Egypt, and she neither wants nor understands anything else. She remains in the service of her mistress permanently. And the fact that Christianity threatens to abolish the primal bond between slave and master so offends Thopt that it is only with difficulty that she can accept the Lordship of Jesus and at least nominally convert to Christianity. The position here is anti-slavery, but it recognizes some kind of complex situation in which the forms of domestic service can remain intact in a utopian setting. Remember that Arius the Libyan was written in America in 1884. The author, Nathan Kouns, was a Missouri native who had fought, fact, for the Confederacy. Curiouser and curiouser.

A Very Special “Trinity”

As for the worship and doctrine of Kouns’ early Christians, simplicity is the key. Knowing these economic truths, the Christians of the little community live a life of hard work, love, and simple faith: the four gospels and acts were widely used, but not Paul, Peter, Jude, Hermas, Irenaeus, Polycarp, etc., which were considered “utterances of wise and pious men.” In theological discussions, these early (red-letter?) Christians would cite the gospels against any epistles that seemed wrong to them. “The wilderness of creeds and dogmas which in later times grew up out of these epistles was entirely unknown to primitive Christianity,” says Kouns.

Thus the first half of the book, the most successful, is spent entirely in the little town called Baucalis. Does anything happen? Yes, Arius is born in the kingdom of heaven, grows up to be an admirable young man training for the priesthood, and befriends an old woodland hermit, Am-nem-hat. There is a shipwreck on the Mediterranean which throws a wealthy family on the shore; the father dies, the mother is in shock for some time, and the young girl, named Theckla, becomes friends with Arius. While the hermit and the shipwrecked family are staying with the parents of Arius, they are all converted to Christianity by the powerful witness of holy lives, gospel preaching, and miracles. Miracles, or thaumaturgy, occur frequently in this kingdom. We see a dramatic healing of a man blind since his youth, which causes profound thanksgiving to God, but nothing like shock or surprise, since the community sees such miracles so often.

The wealthy young girl Theckla converts to Christianity from a silly and somewhat nominal Egyptian superstition. It is her first real encounter with a god worthy of the name, rather than with deified livestock. But the hermit Am-nem-hat  has been a high priest of the mysteries in Egypt, and has left that office on a quest for the primal religious truth behind all paganisms. He believes he has found the primal truth in a certain three-fold structure of God: God is one being who is sexually dual, who in a moment of supreme world-historical significance brings forth a son to complete the holy family. Am-nem-hat explains to young Arius:

unless the… divine being is spiritually hermaphrodite, having a double spiritual sexhood… the only act possible to God would have been creation, not generation; and thy faith in ‘the only‑begotten Son’ must have been false… If it were not so, my son, thy faith in God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, would be merest polytheism, for three are not one, nor is one three; but the three may be one divine nature and family. For the one God was always conceived of by the primary faiths as a dual being, possessed of both elements of spiritual sexhood perfectly; and ‘begotten’ is a proper thing to say of one side of the dual God, and ‘conceived’ is a proper thing to say of the other…

By this point you may be wondering what happened to all that “simple gospel of the kingdom” stuff. Whenever Am-nem-hat gets the microphone, we get paragraphs of this mystical doctrine:

scriptures teach us that the one God is a divine dualism, a double spiritual Being, the Father-Ghost, and that the Christian trilogy is completed by the generation of a son of this  Father-Ghost which is one double God; and that as far as sex-hood can be predicated of a spiritual nature, Christ, the Son, is a spirit begotten and conceived of God his Father-Mother, by whom the words were made, and who was afterward manifested in the flesh by assuming human nature. This is what thy scriptures teach me: I know not whether it be true; but it is a glorious statement of that which was the original faith of all primitive peoples before mankind lapsed into idolatry…

Am-nem-hat has learned all of this from exhaustive study of all paganisms of all nations, and he reads the Jewish and Christian scriptures as saying the same thing in their own way. He knows the dual God will bring forth, begetting and conceiving, an offspring who is known as Hapi, the concealed one, to save the world. His only question is about the identity of this Hapi, and his conversion to Christianity takes place when he becomes convinced of something too good to be true: the Jesus Christ preached by Arius is this long-sought after desire of nations, Hapi the concealed one, begotten of the Father and conceived by the Mother.

The Ladies Love the Gnosticism

Am-nem-hat’s understanding of Christianity as the bisexual fulfillment of all religions includes one other element: the ennoblement of women. When Theckla refuses to pray for dinner, because as a woman she was forbidden under Egyptian religion to interact with God so freely, Am-nem-hat (not yet converted to Christianity) sings the praises of this Christian faith as an equalizing force:

the religion of the Christians alone maintains the absolute equality of the Godhead, by maintaining the Holy Ghost, the Mother of Nature, to be consubstantial with the Father, and hence it alone elevates woman to her true position, and endows her with responsibility, respect and honor, rights and duties; so that, although all men on earth should reject and curse the Christ, every woman, who is true to herself and to her sex, should cleave unto him in spite of pain and even death itself….  Forget not these truths, Theckla!  for, whether it be true or false, Christianity alone hath ever done justice to womanhood, wifehood, maternity; and the woman who does not love and follow Jesus betrayeth herself and her sex.

After the conversion of Theckla and Am-nem-hat, the final plot development in part I is that Arius gets engaged to Theckla, then goes away to seminary for two years. Theckla begins making arrangements for the day when he returns as a priest, and they marry. She sells her Eyptian property, builds a church in Alexandria, and then single-handedly over the course of two years, makes a copy of the entire Bible for Arius as an ordination present. She puts this codex in a box and sends it to him.

Then tragedy strikes: through a conflict with her pagan family, Theckla and Am-nem-hat become the focus of anti-Christian rioting in the city, and they are burned at the stake for confessing Christ and departing from Egyptian religion: martyred. This is the event which catapults Arius into a life of selfless Christian service, rigorous asceticism, and conspicuous holiness in reliance on his savior. For the duration of his long ministry, he cherishes his Bible, from the hand of his late fiancée, the martyr Theckla. Kouns goes on:

And this great manuscript, which was the offering of Theckla’s love unto him, hath survived the lapse of ages, bearing yet upon its priceless pages the indorsement of Arius. It is known throughout Christendom as the “CODEX ALEXANDRINUS”  ‑”A” of the British Museum, although some later writings have been blended therewith, and some of the manuscripts  prepared by Theckla have been lost.

Theckla, by the way, had somehow become the owner of the autograph copy of the letters of John, which she used in making the Codex. And now you know the rest of the story. Except you don’t because it’s totally fabricated.

Arius Contra Mundum!

Book II of Arius the Libyan is not as well realized as Book I. It turns to the world stage, to the rise of Constantine and the council of Nicaea. Kouns paints Constantine not only as a great villain, but as the evil one of the Apocalypse:

John… foresaw the mighty pagan in his real character, and depicted him in words of scathing denunciation and rebuke which the prostituted Church then failed to understand when the things were transacted before her eyes ‑‑a prophetic and apocalyptic view of Constantine and Constantinople which becomes of easier interpretation as the centuries glide away, revealing more and more clearly what things John foretold, that were to follow upon the subversion of Christianity by the most potent human enemy that Jesus ever had, and locating the seat of Antichrist upon seven hills above the sea to which the commerce of the world resorted ‑‑ a description inapplicable to any capital on earth except the city of Constantinople.

“But,” Kouns continues, “he realized the life‑long ambition of his soul, the restoration of the unity of the Roman Empire under his own authority; and did it by the aid of the Christian Church, which he bribed, corrupted, and secularized, until it acknowledged him to be king instead of Jesus Christ.”

Eusebius of Caesarea is portrayed as a dupe who hands the church over to Constantine, thinking that he is accomplishing the peace of the church and the triumph of the faith, and then realizes too late that he has been used and outmaneuvered by the emperor. Athanasius is not duped, because he is the consummate ecclesiastical politician, a cynical user who knows what he wants, and who venerates Constantine as the one who can deliver it.

In some of the least plausible tracts of the book, Kouns depicts Constantine’s decisive military victories as resulting directly from a churchly conspiracy involving false prophecy, invented doctrinal disputes, and forged manuscripts. The pivot point of all this is that the entire church capitulates to Constantine’s manipulations, except for Arius.  Somehow this Alexandrian presbyter single-handedly stands in the way of Constantine’s plans: “But for that one man I would have the East in my hand to‑day!”

The problem Arius poses, Constantine explains, is that “In a word, he still rigidly adheres to that primitive Christianity, the prevalence of which would soon render all goverment over the people unnecessary if not impossible, and which, as thou knowest, it was so difficult for us to guide to right and reasonable action even in Rome and in other parts of the West.” Thus Arius is an obstacle precisely as a representative of the agrarian communism of the primitive Church. It is his economic and political stance that puts him on a collision course with empire. The charge of heresy is trumped up to get him out of the way, and a minor doctrinal issue is promoted to a church-dividing crisis in order to move Arius aside.

Kouns portrays a situation in which many views of the relation of the Son to the Father were available in the third century, including Am-nem-hat’s view of the androgynous God. The least acceptable view is the neo-Sabellian view of Alexander and Athanasius, but it is promoted as the doctrinal litmus test in order to exclude Arius. Constantine likes the Athanasian view because it so identifies Jesus with the Father that it puts him in heaven and leaves the stage of earth clear for Constantine to exert his own power. Arius’ low Christology, then, supposedly underwrites his agrarian communism, the kingdom of heaven on earth, where Christ rules in person. Athanasius’ high Christology juggles Christ away and evaporates the kingdom into a celestial haze, while the terrestrial kingdom belongs to the emperor, mammon-worship, and the force of arms.

Perhaps sensing that this was not quite coherent, Kouns stages a scene at Nicaea where Arius refuses to sign the creed because it does not contain the phrase “communion of saints.” To keep Arius from grandstanding about this, the real issue at stake at Nicaea, Athanasius inserts the word homoousios as a red herring to distract all present from the social and economic debate. Kouns manages to keep the Nicaea narrative tense and dramatic even though it lasts for days. One of the most striking moments, though again not very plausible, is when the whole debate hinges for a moment on I John 5, “these three are one,” and the council is split over which text is accurate: the old one without that passage, or the new ones paid for by the Emperor, in which the comma johanneum has suddenly appeared. It’s a dramatization of what Barth Ehrman calls “the orthodox corruption of scripture,” just one of the showpieces of Arius the Libyan.

The fictive Arius invented by Kouns can do no wrong. His birth was narrated in a chapter entitled “unto us a child is given, unto us a son is born,” and at the conclusion of the book he dies in a chapter entitled “well done, good and faithful servant.”