History of the Arians

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An Arianizing creed was therefore presented by a score or so of bishops, headed by the courtier Eusebius of Nicomedia. They soon found their mistake. The Lord's divinity was not an open question in the churches. The bishops raised an angry clamour and tore the offensive creed in pieces. Arius was at once abandoned by nearly all his friends. This was decisive. Arianism was condemned almost unanimously, and nothing remained but to put on record the decision. But here began the difficulty. Marcellus and Athanasius wanted it put into the creed, but the bishops in general saw no need of this.

A heresy so easily overcome could not be very dangerous. There were only half a dozen Arians left in the council, and too precise a definition might lead to dangers on the Sabellian side. At this point the historian Eusebius came forward. Though neither a great man nor a clear thinker, he was the [Pg 26] most learned student of the East. He had been a confessor in the persecution, and now occupied an important see, and stood high in the Emperor's favour.

With regard to doctrine, he held a sort of intermediate position, regarding the Lord not indeed as a creature, but as a secondary God derived from the will of the Father.

This, as we have seen, was the idea then current in the East, that it is possible to find some middle term between the creature and the highest deity. To a man of this sort it seemed natural to fall back on the authority of some older creed, such as all could sign. Had the council been drawing up a creed for popular use, a short and simple document of this kind would have been suitable enough. The undecided bishops received it with delight. It contained none of the vexatious technical terms which had done all the mischief—nothing but familiar Scripture, which the least learned of them could understand.

So it was accepted at once. Marcellus himself could find no fault with its doctrine, and the Arians were glad now to escape a direct condemnation. But unanimity of this sort, which really decided nothing, was not what Athanasius and Marcellus wanted. They had not come to the council to haggle over compromises, but to cast out the blasphemer, and they were resolved to do it effectually. Hardly a more momentous resolution can be found in history. The whole future of Christianity was determined by it; and we must fairly face the question whether Athanasius was right or not.

Who were the Arians? Early medieval Christianity

Would it not have been every way better to rest satisfied with the great moral victory already gained? When heathens were pressing into the church in crowds, was that a suitable time to offend them with a solemn proclamation of the very doctrine which chiefly kept them back? It was, moreover, a dangerous policy to insist on measures for which even Christian opinion was not ripe, and it led directly to the gravest troubles in the churches—troubles of which no man then living was to see the end.

It was the decision of Athanasius which made half the bitterness between the Roman and the Teuton, between Christianity and Islam to this day. Even now it is the worst stumbling-block of Western unbelief. Many of our most earnest enemies would gladly forget their enmity if we would only drop our mysticism and admire with them a human Christ who never rose with power from the dead. But we may not do this thing. Christianity cannot make its peace with this world by dropping that message from the other which is its only reason for existence.

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Athanasius was clearly right. When Constantine had fairly put the question, they could not refuse to answer. Let the danger be what it might, they could not deliberately leave it open for Christian bishops the creed was not for others to dispute whether our Lord is truly God or not. Those may smile to whom all revelation is a vain thing; but it is our life, and we believe it is their own life too. If there is truth or even meaning in the gospel, this question of all others is most surely vital.

Nor has history failed to justify Athanasius. That heathen age was no time to trifle with heathenism in the very citadel of Christian life. Fresh from the fiery trial of the last great persecution, whose scarred and mutilated veterans were sprinkled through the council-hall, the church of God was entering on a still mightier conflict with the spirit of the world. If their fathers had been faithful unto death or saved a people from the world, their sons [Pg 29] would have to save the world itself and tame its Northern conquerors.

Was that a time to say of Christ, 'But as for this man, we know not whence he is'? Athanasius and his friends made a virtue of necessity, and disconcerted the plans of Eusebius by promptly accepting his creed. They were now able to propose a few amendments in it, and in this way they meant to fight out the controversy. It was soon found impossible to avoid a searching revision. These were serious defects, and the bishops could not refuse to amend them. After much careful work, the following was the form adopted:—.

It will be seen that the genuine Nicene Creed here given differs in almost every clause from the so-called Nicene Creed of our Communion Service. Leaving, however, the spurious Nicene Creed till we come to it, let us see how the genuine Nicene Creed dealt with Arianism. Its central phrases are the two which refer to essence. Now the essence of a thing is that by which it is what we suppose it to be. We look at it from various points of view, and ascribe to it first one quality and then another.

Its essence from any one of these successive points of view is that by which it possesses the corresponding quality. About this unknown something we make no assertion, so that we are committed to no theory whatever. Thus the [Pg 31] essence of the Father as God for this was the point of view is that unknown and incommunicable something by which He is God. If therefore we explain St.

John's 'an only-begotten who is God' [1] inserting 'that is, from the essence of the Father,' we declare that the Divine Sonship is no accident of will, but belongs to the divine nature. It is not an outside matter of creation or adoption, but so to speak an organic relation inside that nature.

Again, if we confess him to be of one essence with the Father, we declare him the common possessor with the Father of the one essence which no creature can share, and thus ascribe to him the highest deity in words which allow no evasion or reserve. The two phrases, however, are complementary. From the essence makes a clear distinction: of one essence lays stress on the unity.

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The word had a Sabellian history, and was used by Marcellus in a Sabellian sense, so that it was justly discredited as Sabellian. When the later Nicenes, under Semiarian influence, came to give the word another meaning, the check was wisely removed. Upon the whole, the creed is a cautious document.

Though Arianism is attacked again in the clause was made man , which states that the Lord took something more than a human body, there is no attempt to forestall later controversies by a further definition of the meaning of the incarnation. The abrupt [Pg 32] pause after the mention of the Holy Spirit is equally significant, for the nature of his divinity was still an open question. Even the heretics are not cursed, for anathema in the Nicene age was no more than the penalty which to a layman was equivalent to the deposition of a cleric.

It meant more when it was launched against the dead two hundred years later. Our accounts of the debate are very fragmentary. Eusebius passes over an unpleasant subject, and Athanasius up and down his writings only tells us what he wants for his immediate purpose. Thus we cannot trace many of the Arian objections to the creed. Knowing, however, as we do that they were carefully discussed, we may presume that they were the standing difficulties of the next generation.


The Council of Nicea and the Arian Controversy

These were four in number:—. This objection was a difficulty in the East, and still more in the West, where 'essence' was represented by the materializing word substantia , from which we get our unfortunate translation 'of one substance. This was true; and the defenders of the word did not seem to care if it was true. Marcellus almost certainly used incautious language, and it was many years before even Athanasius was fully awake to the danger from the Sabellian side. The words 'essence' and 'of one essence' are not found in Scripture. This is what seems to have influenced the bishops most of all.

This also was true, for the word had been rejected as materializing by a large council held at Antioch in against Paul of Samosata. The point, however, at present raised was not that it had been rejected for a good reason, but simply that it had been rejected; and this is an appeal to church authority in the style of later times. The question was one of Scripture against church authority.

Both parties indeed accepted Scripture as supreme, but when they differed in its interpretation, the Arians pleaded that a word not sanctioned by church authority could not be made a test of orthodoxy. If tradition gave them a foothold and none could deny it , they thought themselves entitled to stay; if Scripture condemned them and there could be no doubt of that , Athanasius thought himself bound to turn them out. In this case he argues that if the disputed word is not itself Scripture, its meaning is.

This was quite enough; but if the Arians chose to drag in antiquarian questions, they might easily be met on that ground also, for the word had been used or recognised by Origen and others at Alexandria. The council paused. The confessors in particular were an immense conservative force. If Hosius and Eustathius had been forward in attacking Arianism, few of them can have greatly wished to re-state the faith which had sustained them in their trial. Now the creed involved something like a revolution.

The idea of a universal test was in itself a great change, best softened as much as might be.

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The insertion of a direct condemnation of Arianism was a still more serious step, and though the bishops had consented to it, they had not consented without misgiving. But when it was proposed to use a word of doubtful tendency, neither found in Scripture nor sanctioned by church authority, it would have been strange if they had not looked round for some escape. Yet what escape was possible?


Scripture can be used as a test if its authority is called in question, but not when its meaning is disputed. If the Arians were to be excluded, it was useless to put into the creed the very words whose plain meaning they were charged with evading. Athanasius gives an interesting account of this stage of the debate. It appears that when the bishops collected phrases from Scripture and set down that the Son is 'of God,' those wicked Arians said to each other, 'We can sign that, for we ourselves also are of God.

History of the Arians History of the Arians
History of the Arians History of the Arians
History of the Arians History of the Arians
History of the Arians History of the Arians
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