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Arianism is the theological teaching attributed to Arius (ca. AD 250–336), a Christian presbyter in Alexandria, Egypt, concerning the relationship of God to the Son of God (Jesus of Nazareth). Arius asserted that the Son of God was a subordinate entity to God the Father. Deemed a heretic by the Ecumenical First Council of Nicaea of 325, Arius was later exonerated in 335 at the regional First Synod of Tyre, and then, after his death, pronounced a heretic again at the Ecumenical First Council of Constantinople of 381. The Roman Emperors Constantius II (337–361) and Valens (364–378) were Arians or Semi-Arians.
The Arian concept of Christ is that the Son of God did not always exist, but was created by—and is therefore distinct from—God the Father. This belief is grounded in the Gospel of John passage “You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I." (John 14:28)
Arianism is defined as those teachings attributed to Arius which are in opposition to mainstream Trinitarian Christological doctrine, as determined by the first two Ecumenical Councils and currently maintained by the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, the Oriental Orthodox Churches, the Assyrian Church of the East, all Reformation-founded Protestant churches (Lutheran, Reformed/Presbyterian, and Anglican), and a large majority of groups founded after the Reformation and calling themselves Protestant (such as Methodist, Baptist, most Pentecostals), with the exception of such groups as Oneness Pentecostals, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jehovah's Witnesses, Iglesia ni Cristo and Branhamism. "Arianism" is also often used to refer to other nontrinitarian theological systems of the 4th century, which regarded Jesus Christ—the Son of God, the Logos—as either a created being (as in Arianism proper and Anomoeanism), or as neither uncreated nor created in the sense other beings are created (as in Semi-Arianism).
Arius taught that God the Father and the Son did not exist together eternally. Arians taught that the pre-incarnate Jesus was a divine being created by (and therefore inferior to) God the Father at some point, before which the Son did not exist. In English-language works, it is sometimes said that Arians believe that Jesus is or was a "creature", in the sense of "created being". Arius and his followers appealed to Bible verses such as Jesus saying that the father is "greater than I" (John 14:28), and "The Lord created me at the beginning of his work" (Proverbs 8:22). The latter quote has provided some controversy because it is technically speaking of wisdom. However, many people, notably Jehovah's Witnesses, believe that the wisdom in this proverb symbolizes Jesus Christ because he is later described in a similar way. On the contrary, the verse "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30) delivers the Homoousian doctrine. And yet, the same author (John) later states, concerning after the resurrection of Jesus, that Jesus now has the same God that the disciples have, namely the Father (John 20:17). So we see that John 1:1 states Jesus came to us as God, but leaves us having the same God the disciples have, namely His Father. Obviously then, a change in Jesus's nature has occurred. While He is the Christian's Lord and Savior, He no longer is God. Only the Father holds that title.
Of all the various disagreements within the Christian Church, the Arian controversy has held the greatest force and power of theological and political conflict, with the possible exception of the Protestant Reformation. The conflict between Arianism and Trinitarian beliefs was the first major doctrinal confrontation in the Church after the legalization of Christianity by the Roman Emperors Constantine I and Licinius.
Controversy over Arianism arose in the late 3rd century and persisted throughout most of the 4th century. It involved most church members—from simple believers, priests and monks to bishops, emperors and members of Rome's imperial family. Such a deep controversy within the Church during this period of its development could not have materialized without significant historical influences providing a basis for the Arian doctrines. Some historians define and minimize the Arian conflict as the exclusive construct of Arius and a handful of rogue bishops engaging in heresy; but others recognize Arius as a defender of 'original' Christianity, or as providing a conservative response against the politicization of Christianity seeking union with the Roman Empire. Of the roughly three hundred bishops in attendance at the Council of Nicea, only two bishops did not sign the Nicene Creed, which condemned Arianism. However, to minimize the extent of the movement ignores the facts that at least two Roman emperors, Constantius II and Valens, became Arians, as did prominent Gothic, Vandal and Lombard warlords both before and after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
Lucian of Antioch had contended for a christology very similar to what would later be known as Arianism and is thought to have influenced its development. (Arius was a student of Lucian's private academy in Antioch.) After the dispute over Arianism became politicized and a general solution to the divisiveness was sought—with a great majority holding to the Trinitarian position—the Arian position was officially declared heterodox.
Arianism thrived for several decades, even within the family of the emperor, the imperial nobility, and higher-ranking clergy. But, by the end of the 4th century, Trinitarianism prevailed in the Roman Empire. In western Europe, Arianism, which had been taught by Ulfilas, the Arian missionary to the Germanic tribes, was dominant among the Goths and Lombards (and, significantly for the late Empire, the Vandals); but it ceased to be the mainstream belief by the 8th century. It was crushed through a series of military and political conquests, culminating in religious and political domination of Europe over the next 1,000 years by Trinitarian forces in the Catholic Church. Trinitarianism remained the dominant doctrine in all major branches of the Eastern and Western Church and later within Protestantism until modern times.
"In addition, if any writing composed by Arius should be found, it should be handed over to the flames, so that not only will the wickedness of his teaching be obliterated, but nothing will be left even to remind anyone of him. And I hereby make a public order, that if someone should be discovered to have hidden a writing composed by Arius, and not to have immediately brought it forward and destroyed it by fire, his penalty shall be death. As soon as he is discovered in this offence, he shall be submitted for capital punishment....."
— Edict by Emperor Constantine against the Arians
Because virtually all extant written material on Arianism was written by its opponents, the nature of Arian teachings is difficult to define precisely today. The letter of Auxentius, a 4th-century Arian bishop of Milan, regarding the missionary Ulfilas, gives the clearest picture of Arian beliefs on the nature of the Trinity: God the Father ("unbegotten"), always existing, was separate from the lesser Jesus Christ ("only-begotten"), born before time began and creator of the world. The Father, working through the Son, created the Holy Spirit, who was subservient to the Son as the Son was to the Father. The Father was seen as "the only true God". First Corinthians 8:5-8:6 was cited as proof text:
Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth — as in fact there are many gods and many lords — yet for us there is one God (Gk. theos - θεος), the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord (kyrios - κυριος), Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.—NRSV
A letter from Arius to the Arian Eusebius of Nicomedia succinctly states the core beliefs of the Arians:
Some of them say that the Son is an eructation, others that he is a production, others that he is also unbegotten. These are impieties to which we cannot listen, even though the heretics threaten us with a thousand deaths. But we say and believe and have taught, and do teach, that the Son is not unbegotten, nor in any way part of the unbegotten; and that he does not derive his subsistence from any matter; but that by his own will and counsel he has subsisted before time and before ages as perfect as God, only begotten and unchangeable, and that before he was begotten, or created, or purposed, or established, he was not. For he was not unbegotten. We are persecuted, because we say that the Son has a beginning, but that God is without beginning.—Theodoret: Arius's Letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia, translated in Peters' Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe, p. 41
In 321, Arius was denounced by a synod at Alexandria for teaching a heterodox view of the relationship of Jesus to God the Father. Because Arius and his followers had great influence in the schools of Alexandria—counterparts to modern universities or seminaries—their theological views spread, especially in the eastern Mediterranean.
By 325, the controversy had become significant enough that the Emperor Constantine called an assembly of bishops, the First Council of Nicaea, which condemned Arius' doctrine and formulated the original Nicene Creed of 325. The Nicene Creed's central term, used to describe the relationship between the Father and the Son, is Homoousios (Ancient Greek: ὁμοούσιος), or Consubstantiality, meaning "of the same substance" or "of one being". (The Athanasian Creed is less often used but is a more overtly anti-Arian statement on the Trinity.)
The focus of the Council of Nicaea was the divinity of Christ (see Paul of Samosata and the Synods of Antioch). Arius taught that Jesus Christ was divine and was sent to earth for the salvation of mankind but that Jesus Christ was not equal to the Father (infinite, primordial origin) and to the Holy Spirit (giver of life). Under Arianism, Christ was instead not consubstantial with God the Father  since both the Father and the Son under Arius were made of "like" essence or being (see homoiousia) but not of the same essence or being (see homoousia). Ousia is essence or being, in Eastern Christianity, and is the aspect of God that is completely incomprehensible to mankind and human perception. It is all that subsists by itself and which has not its being in another, God the Father and God the Son and God the Holy Spirit all being uncreated. According to the teaching of Arius, the preexistent Logos and thus the incarnate Jesus Christ was a created being; that only the Son was directly created and begotten by God the Father, before ages, but was of a distinct, though similar, essence or substance from the Creator; his opponents argued that this would make Jesus less than God, and that this was heretical. Much of the distinction between the differing factions was over the phrasing that Christ expressed in the New Testament to express submission to God the Father. The theological term for this submission is kenosis. This Ecumenical council declared that Jesus Christ was a distinct being of God in existence or reality (hypostasis), which the Latin fathers translated as persona. Jesus was God in essence, being and or nature (ousia), which the Latin fathers translated as substantia.
Constantine is believed to have exiled those who refused to accept the Nicean creed—Arius himself, the deacon Euzoios, and the Libyan bishops Theonas of Marmarica and Secundus of Ptolemais—and also the bishops who signed the creed but refused to join in condemnation of Arius, Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicaea. The Emperor also ordered all copies of the Thalia, the book in which Arius had expressed his teachings, to be burned. However, there is no evidence that his son and ultimate successor, Constantius II, who was an Arian Christian, was exiled.
Although he was committed to maintaining what the church had defined at Nicaea, Constantine was also bent on pacifying the situation and eventually became more lenient toward those condemned and exiled at the council. First he allowed Eusebius of Nicomedia, who was a protégé of his sister, and Theognis to return once they had signed an ambiguous statement of faith. The two, and other friends of Arius, worked for Arius' rehabilitation. At the First Synod of Tyre in AD 335, they brought accusations against Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, the primary opponent of Arius; after this, Constantine had Athanasius banished, since he considered him an impediment to reconciliation. In the same year, the Synod of Jerusalem under Constantine's direction readmitted Arius to communion in AD 336. Arius, however, died on the way to this event in Constantinople. Some scholars suggest that Arius may have been poisoned by his opponents. Eusebius and Theognis remained in the Emperor's favour, and when Constantine, who had been a catechumen much of his adult life, accepted baptism on his deathbed, it was from Eusebius of Nicomedia.
The Council of Nicaea did not end the controversy, as many bishops of the Eastern provinces disputed the homoousios, the central term of the Nicene creed, as it had been used by Paul of Samosata, who had advocated a monarchianist Christology. Both the man and his teaching, including the term homoousios, had been condemned by the Synods of Antioch in 269.
Hence, after Constantine's death in 337, open dispute resumed again. Constantine's son Constantius II, who had become Emperor of the eastern part of the Empire, actually encouraged the Arians and set out to reverse the Nicene creed. His advisor in these affairs was Eusebius of Nicomedia, who had already at the Council of Nicea been the head of the Arian party, who also was made bishop of Constantinople.
Constantius used his power to exile bishops adhering to the Nicene creed, especially St Athanasius of Alexandria, who fled to Rome. In 355 Constantius became the sole Emperor and extended his pro-Arian policy toward the western provinces, frequently using force to push through his creed, even exiling Pope Liberius and installing Antipope Felix II.
As debates raged in an attempt to come up with a new formula, three camps evolved among the opponents of the Nicene creed. The first group mainly opposed the Nicene terminology and preferred the term homoiousios (alike in substance) to the Nicene homoousios, while they rejected Arius and his teaching and accepted the equality and coeternality of the persons of the Trinity. Because of this centrist position, and despite their rejection of Arius, they were called "semi-Arians" by their opponents. The second group also avoided invoking the name of Arius, but in large part followed Arius' teachings and, in another attempted compromise wording, described the Son as being like (homoios) the Father. A third group explicitly called upon Arius and described the Son as unlike (anhomoios) the Father. Constantius wavered in his support between the first and the second party, while harshly persecuting the third.
The debates among these groups resulted in numerous synods, among them the Council of Sardica in 343, the Council of Sirmium in 358 and the double Council of Rimini and Seleucia in 359, and no fewer than fourteen further creed formulas between 340 and 360, leading the pagan observer Ammianus Marcellinus to comment sarcastically: "The highways were covered with galloping bishops." None of these attempts were acceptable to the defenders of Nicene orthodoxy: writing about the latter councils, Saint Jerome remarked that the world "awoke with a groan to find itself Arian."
After Constantius' death in 361, his successor Julian, a devotee of Rome's pagan gods, declared that he would no longer attempt to favor one church faction over another, and allowed all exiled bishops to return; this resulted in further increasing dissension among Christians. The Emperor Valens, however, revived Constantius' policy and supported the "Homoian" party, exiling bishops and often using force. During this persecution many bishops were exiled to the other ends of the Empire, (e.g., St Hilary of Poitiers to the Eastern provinces). These contacts and the common plight subsequently led to a rapprochement between the Western supporters of the Nicene creed and the homoousios and the Eastern semi-Arians.
It was not until the co-reigns of Gratian and Theodosius that Arianism was effectively wiped out among the ruling class and elite of the Eastern Empire. Theodosius' wife St Flacilla was instrumental in his campaign to end Arianism. Valens died in the Battle of Adrianople in 378 and was succeeded by Theodosius I, who adhered to the Nicene creed. This allowed for settling the dispute.
Two days after Theodosius arrived in Constantinople, 24 November 380, he expelled the Homoiousian bishop, Demophilus of Constantinople, and surrendered the churches of that city to Gregory Nazianzus, the leader of the rather small Nicene community there, an act which provoked rioting. Theodosius had just been baptized, by bishop Acholius of Thessalonica, during a severe illness, as was common in the early Christian world. In February he and Gratian had published an edict that all their subjects should profess the faith of the bishops of Rome and Alexandria (i.e., the Nicene faith), or be handed over for punishment for not doing so.
Although much of the church hierarchy in the East had opposed the Nicene creed in the decades leading up to Theodosius' accession, he managed to achieve unity on the basis of the Nicene creed. In 381, at the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople, a group of mainly Eastern bishops assembled and accepted the Nicene Creed of 381, which was supplemented in regard to the Holy Spirit, as well as some other changes: see Comparison between Creed of 325 and Creed of 381. This is generally considered the end of the dispute about the Trinity and the end of Arianism among the Roman, non-Germanic peoples.
However, during the time of Arianism's flowering in Constantinople, the Gothic convert Ulfilas (later the subject of the letter of Auxentius cited above) was sent as a missionary to the Gothic barbarians across the Danube, a mission favored for political reasons by emperor Constantius II. Ulfilas' initial success in converting this Germanic people to an Arian form of Christianity was strengthened by later events. When the Germanic peoples entered the Roman Empire and founded successor-kingdoms in the western part, most had been Arian Christians for more than a century.
The conflict in the 4th century had seen Arian and Nicene factions struggling for control of the Church. In contrast, in the Arian German kingdoms established on the wreckage of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, there were entirely separate Arian and Nicene Churches with parallel hierarchies, each serving different sets of believers. The Germanic elites were Arians, and the majority population was Nicene. Many scholars see the persistence of Germanic Arianism as a strategy that was followed in order to differentiate the Germanic elite from the local inhabitants and their culture and also to maintain the Germanic elite's separate group identity.
Most Germanic tribes were generally tolerant of the Nicene beliefs of their subjects. However, the Vandals tried for several decades to force their Arian beliefs on their North African Nicene subjects, exiling Nicene clergy, dissolving monasteries, and exercising heavy pressure on non-conforming Christians.
By the beginning of the 8th century, these kingdoms had either been conquered by Nicene neighbors (Ostrogoths, Vandals, Burgundians) or their rulers had accepted Nicene Christianity (Visigoths, Lombards).
The Franks and the Anglo-Saxons were unique among the Germanic peoples in that they entered the empire as pagans and converted to Nicene (Catholic) Christianity directly, guided by their kings, Clovis and Æthelberht of Kent.
However, much of southeastern Europe and central Europe, including many of the Goths and Vandals respectively, had embraced Arianism (the Visigoths converted to Arian Christianity in 376), which led to Arianism being a religious factor in various wars in the Roman Empire. In the west, organized Arianism survived in North Africa, in Hispania, and parts of Italy until it was finally suppressed in the 6th and 7th centuries. Grimwald, King of the Lombards (662–671), and his young son and successor Garibald (671), were the last Arian kings in Europe.
The term “Arian” bestowed by Athanasius upon his opponents in the Christological debate was polemical. Even in Athanasius’ Orations against the Arians, Arius hardly emerges consistently as the creative individual originator of the heresy that bears his name, even though it would have greatly strengthened Athanasius’ case to present him in that light. Arius was not really very important to general Arianism after his exile at Nicaea. The efforts to get Arius brought out of exile on the parts of Eusebius of Nicomedia were chiefly political concerns and there is little evidence that any of Arius’ writings were used as doctrinal norms even in the East. Labels such as ‘semi-Arian’ or ‘neo-Arian’ are misleading, for those labelled so would have disavowed the importance of their relation to Arius.
In many ways, the conflict around Arian beliefs in the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries helped firmly define the centrality of the Trinity in Nicene Christian theology. As the first major intra-Christian conflict after Christianity's legalization, the struggle between Nicenes and Arians left a deep impression on the institutional memory of Nicene churches.
Thus, over the past 1,500 years, some Christians have used the term Arian to refer to those groups that see themselves as worshiping Jesus Christ or respecting his teachings, but do not hold to the Nicene creed. Despite the frequency with which this name is used as a polemical label, there has been no historically continuous survival of Arianism into the modern era.
Following the Protestant Reformation from 1517, it did not take long for Arian and other non-trinitarian views to resurface. The first recorded English antitrinitarian was John Assheton who was forced to recant before Thomas Cranmer in 1548. At the Anabaptist Council of Venice 1550, the early Italian instigators of the Radical Reformation committed to the views of Miguel Servet (d.1553), and these were promulgated by Giorgio Biandrata and others into Poland and Transylvania. The antitrinitarian wing of the Polish Reformation separated from the Calvinist ecclesia maior to form the ecclesia minor or Polish Brethren. These were commonly referred to as "Arians" due to their rejection of the Trinity, though in fact the Socinians, as they were later known, went further than Arius to the position of Photinus. The epithet "Arian" was also applied to the early Unitarians such as John Biddle though in denial of the pre-existence of Christ they were again largely Socinians not Arians.
In the 18th century the "dominant trend" in Britain, particularly in Latitudinarianism, was towards Arianism, with which the names of Samuel Clarke, Benjamin Hoadly, William Whiston and Isaac Newton are associated. To quote the Encyclopædia Britannica's article on Arianism: "In modern times some Unitarians are virtually Arians in that they are unwilling either to reduce Christ to a mere human being or to attribute to him a divine nature identical with that of the Father." However, their doctrines cannot be considered representative of traditional Arian doctrines or vice-versa.
The Christology of Jehovah's Witnesses is also generally regarded as Arian, given their views on development of the Trinity. In connection with this Jehovah's Witnesses also believe the Holy Spirit is not an actual person but rather is God’s divine breath, God's power in action, related to another ancient doctrine called Macedonianism, the adherents of which were called pneumatomachi (Greek for "fighters of the spirit").
The Iglesia ni Cristo is one of the largest groups that teaches an essentially Arian doctrine.
Another group that may be considered Arian is the Church of God (7th day) - Salem Conference.
We believe in one true God who is the creator of all. He is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. He sent his son to Earth to be a sacrifice for our sins. He is a separate being from his son, Jesus. The Holy Spirit is the power of God and not a separate being with a separate consciousness. We do not believe in the teaching of the Trinity, in which the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three parts of a single being who is God. We believe the Father and the Son are separate beings with separate consciousnesses and that the Holy Spirit is not a conscious being but instead the power of God.
— FAQs - Does the Church of God (7th Day) believe in the Trinity?
Other groups opposing the Trinity are not necessarily Arian.[why?]
God is unoriginate, unending, eternal, constant, uncreated, unchanging, unalterable, simple, incomplex, bodiless, invisible, intangible, indescribable, without bounds, inaccessible to the mind, uncontainable, incomprehensible, good, righteous, that Creator of all creatures, the almighty Pantocrator.
The inhibiting and paralyzing force of superstitious beliefs penetrated to every department of life, and the most primary and elementary activities of society were influenced. War, for example, was not a simple matter of a test of strength and courage, but supernatural matters had to be taken carefully into consideration. When Clovis said of the Goths in southern Gaul, "I take it hard that these Arians should hold a part of the Gauls; let us go with God's aid and conquer them and bring the land under our dominion", [note: see p. 45 (Book II:37)] he was not speaking in a hypocritical or arrogant manner but in real accordance with the religious sentiment of the time. What he meant was that the Goths, being heretics, were at once enemies of the true God and inferior to the orthodox Franks in their supernatural backing. Considerations of duty, strategy, and self-interest all reinforced one another in Clovis's mind. However, it was not always the orthodox side that won. We hear of a battle fought a few years before Gregory became bishop of Tours between king Sigibert and the Huns, [note: Book IV:29] in which the Huns " by the use of magic arts caused various false appearances to arise before their enemies and overcame them decisively. Medieval Study Guide to Gregory of Tours History of the Franks.—St Gregory of Tours
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