What Is Arianism and Are You Accidentally Committing This Heresy?
- Alyssa Roat Contributing Writer
- 2021 14 Jan
Many centuries ago, a man named Arius stirred major controversy in the church with his claim: Jesus Christ was created and finite, not of equal divinity with the Father. This became known as the heresy of Arianism.
However, repudiation and rejection of his claim did not come easily. Even today, we may find ourselves falling into Arianism.
What Is Arianism?
The fundamental issue at stake in Arianism is whether or not Jesus the Son and God the Father are coeternal and equal in deity.
Traditional Arianism holds that Jesus was created by God as the first act of creation. A letter from the late fourth century Arian bishop of Milan, Auxentius, states, “One true God… alone unbegotten, without beginning, without end, eternal, exalted, sublime, excellent, most high creator, epitome of all excellence... who, being alone… did create and beget, make and establish, an only-begotten God [Christ].”
In his “Four Discourses Against the Arians,” Athanasius reports that Arius stated, “God was not always a Father… Once God was alone, and not yet a Father, but afterwards He became a Father. The Son was not always… [He was] made out of nothing, and once He was not.”
In simpler terms, Arianism states that Jesus was created by the Father and that He is not of the same substance or nature as the Father (anomoios). Instead, Jesus is a finite, created being.
Where Did Arianism Come From?
Arianism sprang up during the early fourth century in Egypt, during the rule of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, the first Roman emperor to support Christianity.
Arianism is named after Arius, a Christian priest in the late third and early fourth century. Arius supposedly learned his doctrine from a presbyter from Antioch by the name of Lucius.
Arius’ ideas spread in Alexandria where he served as a deacon. Though Arius’ career was rocky, he and his followers had significant influence in the Alexandrian schools, and the ideas soon spread around the eastern Mediterranean. Arius’ theological songs and poems from his book, Thalia, were sung by laborers and travelers, serving to spread his ideas even further.
Prominent church leaders began accepting these beliefs, or ideas similar to them, including Eusebius of Nicomedia, an influential bishop who was a close counselor to Emperor Constantine.
Who Was Arius?
Arius was born sometime around 250 A.D. in Libya. He taught in the area of Alexandria and was appointed as a deacon there by the bishop, Peter. Arius was briefly excommunicated, but he reconciled with Peter’s successor, Achillas, and attained the position of presbyter. True to pattern, Arius fell out with the new bishop, Alexander, and in 321 was denounced in a local synod for heterodox teaching.
However, Arius’ ideas proved so widespread and so worrisome that Emperor Constantine decided the church leaders needed to get together and talk it out. The First Council of Nicaea resulted, in which around three hundred bishops were summoned from throughout the Roman Empire to settle the matter, traveling from as far as the British Isles.
For several weeks in 325 A.D., the bishops discussed—and argued about—various points of doctrine and practice, most prominently about Arius’ teachings. This served as the first ecumenical council.
Finally, they decided upon a creed that they all would sign. The creed stated:
“We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through Whom all things came into being, things in heaven and things on earth...
“But as for those who say, There was when He was not, and, Before being born He was not, and that He came into existence out of nothing, or who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or substance, or created, or is subject to alteration or change—these the Catholic and apostolic Church anathematizes.”
Essentially, Arius’ view was declared anathema. Arius refused to sign the creed and was thus exiled.
However, influential supporters like Constantine’s sister lobbied for Arius’ return from exile. He was allowed to return provided he sign a compromise, but before he could do so, he collapsed and died in the streets of Constantinople in 336.
Why Is Arianism Wrong?
Arianism has been roundly rejected by the Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox churches. But what was so wrong about Arius’ ideas?
Arianism devalued Jesus and demoted Him from full Godhood. There are several passages that refute the ideas of Arianism. We will explore a few below.
John 1:1-3 states, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (emphasis added).
In this passage, Jesus is “the Word.” These verses clearly tell us that Jesus was there in the beginning, not only with God but, in fact, as God. It also states that nothing was made without Him; thus, He could not be a created being. Both of these points refute Arianism.
In John 8:58, Jesus declared, “Before Abraham was born, I am!” This isn’t a case of Jesus using bad grammar. Rather, this Hebrew phrase “I am” was the one God gave as His personal Name to Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3). Jesus was declaring Himself God, the great I Am. Furthermore, through “I Am,” Jesus revealed His eternal “am,” His eternal existence.
Notably, the Jews with Him recognized Jesus’ claim of Godhood and picked up stones to stone Him for blasphemy, but He slipped away.
In yet another example, in John 10:30, Jesus proclaimed, “I and the Father are one.”
Jesus is truly God. Arianism robs Him of the glory and worship He deserves.
Do People Still Believe in Arianism Today?
Official church doctrines in Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox denominations don’t embrace Arianism. However, misunderstandings of the Bible can lead to Arianism.
The topic of the Trinity and the complexity of the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are concepts the wisest theologians have wrestled with for centuries. Due to this, sometimes it can be easier to set apart Jesus and God as two separate beings in our minds and set aside His Godhood. However, this is not accurate to reality.
Religions like Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses also subscribe to Christological ideologies similar to Arianism, reducing Jesus to a lesser being than God the Father.
Because of these possible confusions, the creed created in 325 was expanded in 381 to create what we now call the Nicene Creed:
“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.
Who, for us men for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets.
And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”
Largely because of Arius and his heresy, we now have this succinct and poetic explanation of the Christian faith. Though Arianism no longer plagues the church, it serves to remind us of Jesus’ divine nature, and the true wonder that God would become man in order to save us.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/BrianAJackson
Alyssa Roat studied writing, theology, and the Bible at Taylor University. She is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E., the publicity manager at Mountain Brook Ink, and a freelance editor with Sherpa Editing Services. She is the co-author of Dear Hero and has 200+ bylines in publications ranging from The Christian Communicator to Keys for Kids. Find out more about her here and on social media @alyssawrote.