Early Christian History

Heresies: Arianism

The doctrine known as Arianism actually began early in the 3rd century, and was the product of speculation into the nature of Christ. It became one of the hottest issues in the early Church — even more than Gnosticism, as Arianism many adherents, and was closer in nature to the “orthodox” Literalism of the time.

The Nature of Christ

Almost from the start, Christianity was a Hellenistic movement, and attracted Hellenized followers, of various ethnicity. Many early Christians were highly educated, according to classical Greek standards, schooled in logic, rhetoric, philosophy, geometry, etc.

It was inevitable, then, that Christian thinkers would attempt to more thoroughly understand the nature of Christ, using Greek analytical methods. How is it, they asked, that God could be human? How could God so alter Himself as to have a human form and a human life? Furthermore, if He had died for humanity's sins, how precisely did this happen? Can God die at all and remain God?

These are just a few of the questions that vexed the earliest Christian theologians. (By the way, some of these questions are still being asked!)

For a long time, these questions were asked in a less-than-serious manner. For a very long time, Christianity did not have a solid doctrine, per se, so any such speculation made little difference. After a while, however, when the episcopal synods began — slowly and in piecemeal fashion — to hammer out a single doctrine, the answers to all of these speculations began to matter. Some were acceptable, others were not.

Paul of Samosata

One of the people who tackled the nature of Christ, as a doctrinal matter, was Paul of Samosata (in eastern Anatolia) who became Patriarch of Antioch. He eventually concluded that Jesus Christ was a created being, not uncreated as God was. This determination meant that Christ was less than fully divine.

For quite some time, this idea was known as the Samosatene Doctrine, after its first major proponent (though it may actually have predated Paul of Samosata). It created consternation, once word of it was passed around. One of the building-blocks of Christianity (as many saw it) had been the divinity of Christ. For Christ's divinity to come under attack, was a threat to the very foundations of the faith; that is came from inside the nascent Church, only made matters worse.

Still, it was a sensible answer to the many questions posed above, and was seen as a very logical conclusion, even by those who opposed it. Paul of Samosata was popular at first, but eventually, was driven from office. Without his episcopal pulpit from which to explain it, Paul and his doctrine faded from view.

Arius of Alexandria

A presbyter from Alexandria, Arius, dusted off the Samosatene doctrine, and presented it to the Church once more. He was a more adamant champion of it, and a far more eloquent and persuasive speaker. The Christian community of Alexandria became sharply divided over the Samosatene Doctrine. Arius was in the minority but still had a significant following; his own patriarch, Alexander, stood against him. Alexander called a council of Egyptian bishops, who denounced Arius and his doctrine.

The differences between the two sides grew ever more severe. The Samosatenes were convinced that the Alexandrians (that is, the Christian followers of Patriarch Alexander) were blaspheming, by elevating Christ to Godhood, when He was not divine. The Alexandrians were convinced the Samosatenes were blaspheming, by denying the divinity of Christ. Eventually, the conflict elevated to fisticuffs.

At this point, having been denounced, and with Alexandrian Christians almost at war with one another. Arius was no longer safe in Alexandria. He fled to the Patriarch of Jerusalem, with whom he had had a correspondence, and who supported him. Arius managed to convert many in Palestine and Syria. He was already elderly, by this time, but hale enough to traverse the Levant in favor of his teachings.

Arius At Nicæa

When Constantine called for the Council of Nicaea, among the issues discussed was the Samosatene Doctrine. Arius spoke eloquently, as usual, for his doctrine, arguing both its reasonableness and logic, as well as its spiritual value. Athanasius, another Alexandrian presbyter who was a protege of Alexander, argued against the Samosatene Doctrine, in favor of the absolute divinity of Christ. He argued that belief in Christ meant nothing, if He were not fully divine; hence the only reasonable course was to condemn the Samosatene Doctrine.

The majority of bishops at Nicaea decided to condemn the Samosatene Doctrine. They also condemned and excommunicated Arius. They did not, as is commonly assumed, adopt the “Trinity” at that time. The doctrine of the Trinity was developed over the next couple of decades, begun by Athanasius but ratified at the end of the 4th century in the Councils of Chalcedon and Constantinople. (The creed which came of these Councils is known as the Nicene Creed, however, this is a misnomer, as the Council of Nicaea adopted no creed whatsoever.)

Arius On the Run

Arius returned to Palestine as quickly as could be arranged, however, it was no longer safe, as support for him in Palestine waned, after the Council. He was forced to leave Asia entirely, crossing the Bosporus and seeking shelter with the forces of Emperor Constantine, in Dacia (modern Bulgaria or Romania).

Constantine had been furious over the results of the Council he'd requested. His goal had been to unify, not divide, Christianity. Instead, three Christianities emerged: "Orthodox," Arian, and Gnostic. Thus, when Arius showed up looking for asylum, the Emperor was only too happy to oblige; he could think of no better way to display his chagrin over the proceedings at Nicaea.

Arius died a couple of years later, but others picked up the banner of the Samosatene Doctrine (which became known as Arianism, after the presbyter's death). Arianism found something of a second home in the western part of the Roman Empire in its waning days. Partly, this is because Christianity was less sophisticated, there, and the notion of orthodoxy wasn't strictly enforced (since there were fewer people who understood doctrine well enough to tell the difference between orthodoxy and heresy!). Also, Arianism seems to have coincided more neatly with the "mystery religions" that were practiced in the west.

Despite this, small pockets of Arianism remained in the east. Over time, they blended into Monophysitism, another later heretical movement, which the Byzantine Emperors finally stamped out.

Arianism Among The Barbarians

In the fouth century the barbarians who lurked at Rome’s margins, and who later plundered it and established new kingdoms of their own in place of the western Roman Empire, were largely converted to Arian Christianity rather than orthodox or Catholic Christianity, thanks to the efforts of missionaries such as Ulfilas (who also famously translated parts of the Bible into the Gothic language), as well as the Germanic tribes’ acquisition of Roman captives, most of whom happened to come from primarily-Arian parts of the Empire.

Among the barbarians, Arianism took on a life of its own. Christianity in its Arian form became somewhat unique, distinct even from native Roman Arianism. The new kingdoms also became religiously-layered, with the Germanic aristocracy being Arian with the majority Roman population being Catholic (with a minority of Arians among the Romans). This chagrined the Catholic hierarchy, and they feared repression. But generally the barbarian kings tolerated the Catholics in their lands; they did, however, intervene when the Catholics targeted Arianism. The kings often sheltered outspoken Arians, giving this heresy something of a haven and allowing it to persist even in places they did not control.

By the 5th century and later, Arianism had diverged from Catholic Christianity in many more ways than merely Christological doctrine. They had a separate liturgy and rites, and most of their clergy were married, whereas marriage was uncommon among Catholic clergy. Their selection of sacred texts was also different, although to what extent is not known since there was never any specific “Arian canon.”

After their conversion to Arianism the Goths split (into the western Goths or Visigoths, and the eastern Goths or Ostrogoths). The Ostrogoths, who settled into almost-wholly-Catholic Italy, gradually shed Arianism over a period of time. The Vandal kingdom was defeated by Emperor Justinian and his general Belisarius in the early 6th century and was won over to eastern Catholicism. Where they settled in Spain, the Visigoths retained Arianism until the late 6th century when their king, Reccared I, converted to Catholicism, inspiring most of the rest of his Arian subjects to do the same, and suppressing a revolt by a minority who did not.

The Primacy of Rome

That the barbarian kingdoms had been a refuge for Arianism, had an interesting effct: By the 6th century most all of the Arians in the former Roman Empire were living in these kingdoms; Arianism had lurked in pockets throughout the central and western Empire, but these had largely dried up outside of the Vandal and Gothic kingdoms. When these regions went over to Catholicism, this had the effect of virtually wiping out Arianism.

Since then, some Protestant Christian denominations have asserted the humanity of Christ over His divinity, and some go so far as to deny the Trinity entirely. So, while Arianism was dead for most of the Middle Ages, it has re-emerged. While still a rare notion, some current Christians owe their views of Christ's nature to Paul of Samosata and Arius of Alexandria.

Arianism is often mistaken for a form of Gnosticism; but at no time did Paul of Samosata, Arius of Alexandria, or any of their successors teach a secret, mystical doctrine of the Gnostic style. Arianism was a form of Literal Christianity (as opposed to Gnostic). About the only thing the Arians had in common with Gnostics was their inclusion of Docetism in their doctrines. Otherwise, they were completely different, and in fact, Arians had a hand in suppressing Gnosticism — in spite of the fact that they, themselves, were under attack!

Go back to Early Christian History menu.