Who was Arius?
Arius was a prolific religious figure of early Christianity from Libya. A presbyter and ascetic, he was a priest in Baucalis in Alexandria, Egypt. Arius imparted teachings on a created, finite nature of Christ as opposed to equal divinity with God the Father. This theological doctrine came to be known as Arianism, and he was castigated for propagating what the early church considered major heresy. Arius garnered a large group of followers due to his message uniting Neoplatonism, which underlined the absolute oneness of the Divinity as the highest perfection, with a literal, rationalist interpretation of the New Testament texts. In ‘Thalia’ (“Banquet”), which he put out sometime around 323, he discussed these views in poetic verse. In the ensuing years, labourers and travellers composed popular songs based on his verses and performed them all over the region. In May 325, the Council of Nicaea dubbed Arius a heretic after he declined to agree to the notion that Christ was of the same divine nature as God. He had the support of his colleagues in Asia Minor and Constantia, the sister of Emperor Constantine I, who helped him secure a return from exile and readmission into the Church after accepting a compromise formula. However, Arius passed away prior to the formal reconciliation.
Childhood & Early Life
Not much information is available on his life. The efforts of reconstructing it, along with his doctrine, have turned out to be arduous work. This is because all of his works are now lost. On Emperor Constantine’s orders, they were burned while Arius was still alive. The few that still remained after this cleansing were completely purged by Arius’ Orthodox enemies.
He was believed to have been born in 256 in Ptolemais, Cyrenaica, Roman Empire. His family was of Berber ethnicity. According to sources, his father was a man named Ammonius. It is possible that he studied at the exegetical school in Antioch, where he was taught under Saint Lucian.
After coming back to Alexandria, Arius, as one source relates, supported Meletius of Lycopolis in his contention over the readmission of those who denied that they were Christians fearing Roman persecution. He was subsequently made a deacon by the other man. This action, however, had consequences.
Bishop Peter of Alexandria excommunicated him in 311 but he was brought back into the Christian communion by Achillas, who succeeded Peter, and was appointed presbyter of the Baucalis district in Alexandria in 313.
Despite the fact that his character had been constantly attacked and ridiculed by his detractors, Arius emerges as a man of high principles, dedicated convictions, and personal ascetic achievement.
While these detractors alleged that he was too liberal and independent in his approach to theology, often committing heresy, some historians hold the view that Arius was actually conservative, and he severely criticised what he considered to be the mingling of Christian theology and Greek paganism.
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The Dispute About Arianism
Throughout the ensuing centuries, Arius has remained an important figure in Christian theology because of the Arian controversy, which was a fourth-century theological dispute that culminated into the convening of the first ecumenical council of the church.
The main issue of the dispute was the nature of the Son of God, and his exact relationship with God the Father. There were multiple competing Christological ideas prior to the Council of Nicaea. The church deplored many of these ideas but did not recognise a uniform formula. The Nicaean formula emerged as a quickly deduced solution to general Christological debate.
According to the Trinitarian historian Socrates Scholasticus, Arius ignited the dispute by condemning a speech by Alexander of Alexandria, Achillas’ successor, on the similarity of the Son to the Father, as a revival of Sabellianism.
His main argument was that “If the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence: and from this it is evident, that there was a time when the Son was not. It therefore necessarily follows, that he [the Son] had his substance from nothing."
As with many other Christian scholars of the third century, Arius was deeply affected by the works of Origen, generally recognised as the first great theologian of Christianity.
Both of them agreed on the superiority of the Father over the Son, and Arius garnered inspiration from Origen's theories on the Logos. However, they differed on the beginning of the Son. While Arius clearly thought that there was a time when the Son did not exist, Origen held the view that both the Son and the Father were eternal.
Arius accentuated the supremacy and uniqueness of God the Father, theorising that no one except the Father is infinite and eternal and almighty. One of the initial responses to his theories was his exile to Illyria by the Bishop of Alexandria after a council of local priests. However, he had several influential supporters, who were very vocal in his defence.
The Christological dispute became so significant that it could not be restricted with the Alexandrian diocese any longer. By the time the Bishop of Alexandria made a move against Arius, his doctrine had found adherents far beyond his own see and turned into a major issue for the entire church.
A synod was subsequently set up under Hosius, Bishop of Córdoba, by Emperor Constantine to look into the Arian controversy and find a solution if possible. After his investigation, the bishop suggested that the emperor should call a council. Held in 325, this came to be known as The First Council of Nicaea.
One of the major arguments against Arius’ doctrine stemmed from the notion that the creation of the Son is one of the characteristics of the Father, which is an eternal entity.
This means that that there has not been a time when the Father was not a Father, and the existences of both the Father and the Son have been eternal, equal, and consubstantial. The Logos was, according to the contra-Arian theory, “eternally begotten”, or without any beginning.
The council decided that the Son was true God, has always co-existed with the Father, and was sired from His same substance. This became the Creed of Nicaea, which would serve as the foundation for what came to be known as the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.
Later Years & Death
The triumph of the Homoousian party did not last long. The Christian world was still predominantly divided between Arians and Trinitarians. Emperor Constantine had grown more tolerant towards the people who had been exiled by the council.
Urged by his sister, Constantia, the emperor issued a decree that ended the exile of Arius and many of his followers. However, he imposed some conditions, including that Arius must redefine his Christology to leave out the problematic parts.
Bishop Alexander passed away in 327. After him, Athanasius became the bishop of Alexandria. However, he was sent into exile in 335. Arius was brought back into communion by the Synod of Jerusalem in 336. The emperor instructed Bishop Alexander of Constantinople to greet Arius, though the bishop protested against it.
According to Socrates Scholasticus, who was one of the most rabid opponents of Arius, a day before his reconciliation, on a Saturday of 336, Arius fell and passed away after suffering “a violent relaxation of the bowels” on the streets of Constantinople.
The event Socrates Scholasticus describes is quite graphic. Many post-Nicene Christians believed that his death was caused by the divine judgement for his heretical views. However, it is a likely possibility that Arius had been poisoned by his enemies.