What is Arianism?

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By BibleAsk Team


Arianism stands as one of the most significant theological controversies in early Christianity, centered around the nature of Jesus Christ and His relationship to God the Father. Named after its primary proponent, Arius, a presbyter in Alexandria in the early 4th century CE, Arianism posited that Jesus, while divine in some sense, was not co-eternal or consubstantial with God the Father. Instead, Arius taught that Jesus was a created being, albeit the highest and most exalted of all created beings, distinct from and subordinate to God the Father.

This theological dispute led to widespread debate, division, and eventually, the convening of the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, where the orthodox Christian doctrine of the Trinity was affirmed. To understand Arianism, its historical context, theological tenets, and eventual resolution at the Council of Nicaea, we delve into an exploration of this pivotal moment in Christian history.

Historical Context

The rise of Arianism occurred against the backdrop of a tumultuous period in the history of the Roman Empire and the early Christian church. In the 3rd and 4th centuries CE, Christianity underwent rapid growth and expansion, attracting adherents from diverse cultural, social, and intellectual backgrounds. However, alongside this growth emerged theological controversies and doctrinal disputes that threatened the unity and coherence of the fledgling Christian community.

Arianism – Arius and Alexandrian Christianity

Arius, a presbyter in Alexandria, Egypt, emerged as a prominent figure in the theological debates of his time. Influenced by Hellenistic philosophy and drawing on biblical texts, particularly passages that emphasized Jesus’ subordinate role to the Father, Arius developed his distinctive theological framework, which came to be known as Arianism. Central to Arianism was the belief in the subordination of the Son to the Father and the assertion of Jesus’ created nature.

Theological Tenets

Arianism articulated several key theological tenets that set it apart from orthodox Christian doctrine, particularly in relation to the nature of Jesus Christ and His relationship to God the Father:

  1. Subordination of the Son: Arianism emphasized the subordination of Jesus Christ to God the Father, teaching that the Son was a created being who came into existence at a specific point in time. While acknowledging Jesus’ pre-existence and exalted status, Arianism denied His co-eternity and consubstantiality with the Father.
  2. Created Nature of Christ: According to Arianism, Jesus Christ was the first and greatest of God’s creatures, but He was not of the same essence or substance as the Father. Rather than being eternal and uncreated, as orthodox Christianity taught, Arianism posited that Jesus was a distinct and subordinate entity brought into being by the Father.
  3. Divine Sonship as a Title: While affirming Jesus’ divine status as the Son of God, Arianism interpreted the title “Son” in a metaphorical or honorary sense, rather than as indicative of a true ontological relationship between Jesus and the Father. This understanding diminished the equality and unity of the Trinity, positing hierarchical distinctions within the Godhead.

Council of Nicaea

The theological controversy surrounding Arianism reached its climax at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, convened by Emperor Constantine to address the doctrinal divisions within the church. At the council, over 300 bishops from across the Christian world gathered to debate and resolve the issue of Jesus’ divinity and relationship to the Father.

Nicene Creed

The Council of Nicaea produced the Nicene Creed, a seminal statement of Christian faith that affirmed the orthodox understanding of the Trinity and refuted the teachings of Arianism. The Nicene Creed articulated the full divinity and co-eternity of Jesus Christ with the Father, affirming His consubstantiality (homoousios) with the Father as true God from true God, begotten not made, of one essence with the Father.

This council assembled in a.d. 325 to settle the Arian disagreement. Athanasius talked as “the father of orthodoxy,” and taught that Jesus Christ always existed and was from the very same essence as the Father. He designated the term homoousios, “one substance,” to Christ, and the council confirmed that Christ is of one and the same essence as the Father. And the council condemned both Arianism and Sabellianism as unbiblical.

Also, the Nicene Creed stated that the Son is “begotten of the Father [… the essence of the Father, God of God], Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance (ὁμοούσιον) with the Father” (cited in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, vol. 1, p. 29). This creed became the crucial test of Trinitarian orthodoxy.

Condemnation of Arianism

The Council of Nicaea unequivocally condemned the teachings of Arius and his followers, declaring them heretical and incompatible with orthodox Christian doctrine. Arius himself was excommunicated, and his writings were condemned and burned. The council’s decision represented a decisive victory for Nicene Creed.

Response of the Arians

But the Arians rejected the decision of the council and were divided. Apollinaris and Marcellus were the main opponents of orthodoxy following the Council of Nicaea. Thus, these various opinions led to another council in the year 381, at Constantinople. And this council confirmed the Nicene Creed, explained its meaning, and acknowledged the presence of the two real natures in Christ.

In His service,
BibleAsk Team

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