Egypt’s Bishop Alexander and his Pastor Arius

Egypt’s Bishop Alexander and his Pastor Arius October 16, 2014

Sean Finnegan is a friend of mine in the Biblical Unitarian Movement. (I prefer to call myself a One God Christian because I think there is less confusion with it than the label Biblical Unitarian.) Sean and I believe alike about God being numerically one, the Father, and therefore Jesus not being God. Thus, we believe post-apostolic, institutional church fathers–all of them Gentiles and many of them influenced by Greek philosophy–erred in deciding that Jesus is God and eventually that God is a trinity of persons. Yet Sean and I believe everything else the ancient church taught about Jesus, including his Virgin Birth, sinlessness, miracles, atoning death, resurrection, heavenly ascension and exaltation, and his coming again. Sean has been writing a history of the Catholic Church’s development of the doctrine of the Trinity. The following is an excerpt, but without his many reference footnotes:

Trinity History Part 2: Arius

by Sean Finnegan

Did Jesus have a beginning or has he always existed? This simple question was at the heart of the controversy that broke out between Christians in Egypt in the early fourth century. Alexander, the powerful bishop of Alexandria, began teaching Jesus was eternal like the Father, while a number of his clergy strongly disagreed with him and argued that the Son was begotten and thus had a beginning. Before long, the dispute in Egypt spilled over into the surrounding regions of the eastern half of the Roman Empire and continued to escalate until the Roman government officially endorsed one perspective while outlawing all others in a.d. 381. Although most informed Christians are taught that it was Arius that caused all the trouble, in fact, the historical record reveals a quite different perspective. To better understand what happened back then, we need to acquaint ourselves with Arius and the early years of the struggle before the emperors started getting involved.

Born around a.d. 256 in Libya, Africa, Arius was a highly intelligent and devout Christian. Very little about his early life survives, and what we know was written by his enemies. Epiphanius calls him “unusually tall,” and said he “wore a downcast expression” but admits he “was pleasant in his speech…forever winning souls” (Pan. 69.3.1). Another historian, Socrates of Constantinople, said Arius was “possessed of no inconsiderable logical acumen” (H.E. 1.5). Essentially, Arius was remarkably brilliant, extremely disciplined, and very persuasive. He may have studied under Lucian of Antioch for a time. When he was in his late forties, he was ordained a deacon by Peter, the bishop of Alexandria. Peter’s successor Achillas made him a presbyter when Arius was in his mid-fifties whereupon he began pastoring a church in the Baucalis district in Alexandria. By the time the controversy with Alexander broke out, he was already sixty-two years old and highly respected by everyone. This is evidenced by the fact that when he was excommunicated, seventy virgins, seven presbyters, and twelve deacons immediately left with him (Pan. 69.3.2, 5).

Arius is typically painted as an outsider who endeavored to push upon the Christians of his time progressive ideas about God and Christ based on his philosophical sensibilities. Nothing could be further from the truth of the matter. Arius had already given his life in service to the church. He was not young and impulsive, nor was he progressive or liberal. His concern was to retain the faith he had received and that was already accepted, especially by his own bishop, Alexander. In a letter to Alexander after his banishment, Arius claimed that his faith was “received from our forefathers and learned from you as well.” He goes on to detail the faith he learned from Alexander that there is “one God, the only ingenerate, the only eternal, who alone is without beginning, the only true God…He has begotten him [Christ] not in appearance but in truth and brought him into being by his own will” (Pan. 69.7.3-4). He continues, “But God is before all as a unit and the first principle of all. And thus he is also before Christ, as we have learned from you when you have preached in the church” (Pan. 69.8.2). So, Arius clearly did not think he was inventing anything new and had no problem saying so right to the man who was persecuting him.

So what happened? How did Arius end up fired by his overseer? Apparently at some big meeting of Alexander’s, he made a public declaration. Socrates [Scholasticus] reports the following: He [Alexander], in the fearless exercise of his functions for the instruction and government of the church, attempted one day in the presence of the presbytery and the rest of his clergy, to explain, with perhaps too philosophical minuteness, that great theological mystery—the unity of the Holy Trinity.” (H.E. 1.5). [H.E. refers to Socrates’ book entitled Ecclesiastical History, published in about 439].

Upon hearing Alexander’s exposition, Arius thought Alexander was teaching Sabellianism (an idea that the Son was the Father, popularized by Sabellius a century earlier (H.E. 1.5). Before long, word of Arius’ disagreement got back to Alexander who asked Arius to meet with him (Pan 3.5). Once it was clear that he could not convince Arius, Alexander called together a council of presbyters and some bishops to officially examine him (in a.d. 318). Arius and many others (including some bishops) refused to sign the confession of “orthodoxy,” so the council, led by Alexander, publicly excommunicated nearly one hundred of their brothers and sisters in Christ. Upon this devastating turn of events, some of them travelled to other areas to seek help. The only way they could hope to regain fellowship with their home churches was to convince enough other bishops to confront Alexander. Quite a few bishops responded including Eusebius of Caesarea, the famous church historian, and the influential Eusebius of Nicomedia.

Because Arius did not have the benefit of institutional support in his native Alexandria and the government was still uninvolved in Christian matters, his only recourse was to persuasion. He distilled his faith statement down to a short slogan, “There was when he was not” and popularized this truth as much as he could. Arius was no fool: he knew he had Scripture and logic on his side, and he was not about to submit to Alexander’s heavy-handed tactics just because he held the title “bishop.” Arius’ only theological work that partially survives is called the Thalia, which means “Festivity.” He wrote it sometime between a.d. 318 and 321, during the tumultuous years leading up to the council of Nicea in a.d. 325. Here is how it begins

“In accordance with the faith of the elect of God, God’s sage servants Holy and orthodox, who had received God’s holy Spirit, I learned these things from participants in wisdom, Skillful, taught by God in every way and wise. In their steps came I, stepping with the same opinions, The notorious, the one who suffered much for God’s glory; Having learned from God I myself know wisdom and knowledge.

“God then himself is in essence ineffable to all. He alone has neither equal nor like, none comparable in glory; We call him Unbegotten because of the one in nature begotten; We raise hymns to him as Unbegun because of him who has beginning. We adore him as eternal because of the one born in time.

“The Unbegun appointed the Son to be the beginning of things begotten, And bore him as his own Son, in this case giving birth. He has nothing
proper to God in his essential property, For neither is he equal nor yet consubstantial with him.”

This poem goes on, but Arius’ primary point derives from a rock-solid confession in the fact that the Father begat the Son. Arius said, “If the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence: and from this is evident that there was a time when the Son was not” (H.E. 1.5). Arius grounded this belief on biblical, grammatical, and logical grounds. Although his opponents, even today, sometimes accuse him of twisting Christian doctrine to fit with Greek philosophy, R.P.C. Hanson [a Trinitarian scholar], the author of a massive near thousand-page [history] book on the subject, writes: “It is not just to dismiss him [Arius] as one wholly preoccupied with philosophy. The very fact of his eclecticism suggests that he has some ultimate purpose for which he is using the tools of philosophy, but which itself is not philosophical but theological. He was in his way attempting to discover or construct a rational Christian doctrine of God, and for this his chief source was necessarily not the ideas of Plato or Aristotle or Zeno, but the Bible.”

Naturally, Alexander was enraged by Arius’ efforts to popularize his message in Alexandria and abroad. As a result he sent a circular letter to seventy bishops (Pan. 69.4.3), slandering his enemy. The tone of Arius’ Thalia and Alexander’s letter could not be more opposite. Rather than focusing on the issue, Alexander lambasted Arius calling him wretched, deranged, cantankerous, idiotic, ignorant, and impious. Alexander thundered, “Christ’s undivided cloak, which the executioners did not even wish to divvy up, they have dared to rip apart.” Alexander was intent to exculpate himself while accusing Arius of divisiveness. However, it was Alexander’s rash excommunication of Arius and the others that caused their outreach. In fact, before this time, many Christians who disagreed on this matter had no problem getting along. By making belief in the eternality of the Son a requirement for fellowship, Alexander began the polarization process that eventually ripped the church apart.

Upon receiving the letter, some bishops refused Arius and his friends fellowship while others continued supporting them. Before long (a.d. 319), Eusebius of Nicomedia and a number of other bishops held another council in Bithynia (northern Turkey) at which Arius was vindicated as orthodox. They sent a letter to Alexander demanding Arius’ restoration. Around this time, Eusebius of Caesarea wrote to Alexander protesting how he was treating Arius. A couple of years later (between a.d. 321 and 322), Eusebius of Caesarea called for a second council in Palestine at which Arius was once again supported, and Alexander once more was entreated to reinstate Arius. After this, the whole issue was tabled for a while because the eastern emperor, Licinius, banned the meeting of bishops. But, once Constantine defeated Licinius in a.d. 324 and became the sole emperor of both east and west, the issue came before him.

Constantine wrote to Alexander and Arius urging them to reconcile. He condemned Alexander for asking his presbyters what each one thought on an “inexplicable passage” of the Bible that is “improper for discussion” (H.E. 1.7). He reproves Arius for rashly answering rather than burying his thoughts in silence. Essentially, Constantine argued that such subjects are too complicated to handle and that they are of “least importance.” In one sense, Constantine was right—it is far better to deal with doctrinal differences within the church through respectful and patient investigation rather than dividing over them and thereby destroying the witness of unity to the world. However, in another sense he was dead wrong; this issue was not unimportant. Alexander’s theological speculation had nudged the church down a trajectory that would culminate in a full-blown Trinity doctrine, complete with so many abstract conceptualizations that few could adequately explain it. As one might imagine, Constantine’s letter was completely ineffective in persuading Alexander to lift the ban on Arius. Even if Constantine’s initial foray into this controversy proved entirely ineffective, he was not one to give up easily.

Where was this all heading? Will the bishops in the north successfully convince Alexander to readmit Arius? Will the emperor ignore the issue and focus on other matters? Will the question of whether or not the Son is eternal blow over? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding “No!” Alexander remained unyielding as ever, the emperor decided to stick his nose right into the issue, and the eternality question continued to fester and divide Christians for at least sixty more years. Next time, we will turn our attention to Constantine and the world-wide council of bishops he called at Nicea to decide on the issue once and for all (or so he thought).


To see a list of titles of 130+ posts (2-3 pages) that are about Jesus not being God in the Bible, with a few about God not being a Trinity, at Kermit Zarley Blog click “Chistology” in the header bar. Most are condensations of my book, The Restitution of Jesus Christ. See my website, which is all about this book,  with reviews, etc. Learn about my books and purchase them at I was a Trinitarian for 22 years before reading myself out of it in the Bible.

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  • David Kemball-Cook

    Thanks. Very interesting.
    Please keep these extracts coming!

    • kzarley

      Thanks for the encouragement, David.