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First Nicene Council: Rise And Decline Of Aryanism

Author:      Von Mosheim, Johann Lorenz


A.D. 325




     Controversies in the Christian Church concerning the mystery of the

Trinity began in the second century, prior to which the word trinity - a term

not found in the Scriptures - had scarcely been used in Christian writings.

It was prominently introduced by theologians of the second century, who

employed new metaphysical methods in their attempts to explain the divine

nature.  The dispute turned upon the questions whether Christ was God or man

or an intermediate being, whether or not he was created, and like inquiries.

Arius, a deacon of Alexandria, early in the fourth century, held that Christ

was a created being, though superior to all other created beings.  The Son,

he maintained, is of a nature similar to - not the same as - that of the

Father, to whom the Son is subordinate.  This heresy obtained such currency

in the Church that, in 321, a provincial synod at Alexandria excommunicated

Arius, who in his learned writings had set them forth since 318.  Once

started among the people, the controversy begun in the schools became very

bitter, and in many of the churches partisans of the heretical view equalled

in number those of the orthodox.  Meanwhile Arius continued to publish his



     The emperor Constantine, having become the patron of Christianity,

conceived that the controversy might be settled by an assembly of the whole

Church, and in the year 325 he convoked the first council of Nicaea, which

was also the first ecumenical or general council.  At this council, before

which Arius defended his views, over three hundred bishops were in

attendance, and pronounced in favor of the orthodox doctrine - that of the

equality of the Son with the Father - and condemned the Arians to exile and

their books to be burned.  This council also promulgated the Nicene Creed in

its early form.  The chief opponent of the Arians was Athanasius, the "Father

of Orthodoxy," whose name was given to a modified creed later adopted into

the Greek, Roman, and English services.  The Arian heresy, however, continued

to spread in the East, and had the strong support of Constantine and his son

Constantius.  The controversy was renewed again and again, and for a long

time Arianism was an important factor in theological and political affairs.

Some phases of its peculiar doctrine have reappeared in various teachings and

sects of modern times.  But the orthodox doctrine affirmed at Nicaea has

prevailed in the great branches of the Christian Church, and the acceptance

of its fundamental principle - that of the Incarnation - in the

post-apostolic age was destined to have an incalculable influence upon the

development of individual and national life, civil as well as religious,

throughout the world.


     In the year 317 a storm arose in Egypt which spread its ravages over the

whole Christian world.  The ground of this controversy was the doctrine of

three persons in the Godhead, which during the three preceding centuries had

not been in all respects defined.  The doctors explained this subject in

different ways, and gave various representations of the difference between

the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, without offence being taken.


     Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria - it is uncertain on what

occasion - expressed himself very freely on this subject in a meeting of

hispresbyters, and maintained, among other things, that the Son possesses not

only the same dignity as the Father, but also the same essence.  But Arius,

one of the presbyters, a man of an acute mind and fluent, at first denied the

truth of Alexander's positions, on the ground that they were allied to the

Sabellian errors, which were condemned by the Church; and then, going to the

opposite extreme, he maintained that the Son is totally and essentially

distinct from the Father; that he was only the first and noblest of those

created beings whom God the Father formed out of nothing, and the instrument

which the Father used in creating the material universe, and therefore that

he was inferior to the Father both in nature and in dignity.  No one of the

ancients has left us a connected and systematic account of the religion

professed by Arius and his associates.


     The opinions of Arius were no sooner divulged than they found very many

abettors, and among them men of distinguished talents and rank, both in Egypt

and the neighboring provinces.  Alexander, on the other hand, accused Arius

of blasphemy before two councils assembled at Alexandria, and cast him out of

the Church.  He was not discouraged by this disgrace; but retiring to

Palestine he wrote various letters to men of distinction, in which he labored

to demonstrate the truth of his doctrines, and with so much success that he

drew over immense numbers to his side, and in particular Eusebius, bishop of

Nicomedia, who was a man of vast influence.  The emperor Constantine, who

considered the discussion as relating to a matter of little importance and

remote from the  fundamentals of religion, at first addressed the disputants

by letter, admonishing them to desist from contention.  But when he found

that nothing was effected by this measure, and that greater commotion was

daily rising throughout the empire, he in the year 325 summoned that famous

council of the whole Church which met at Nice in Bithynia, to put an end to

this controversy.  In this council, after various altercations and conflicts

of the bishops, the doctrine of Arius was condemned, Christ was pronounced to

be of the same essence with the Father, Arius was sent into exile in

Illyricum, and his followers were compelled to assent to a creed or

confession of faith composed by the council.


     No part of church history, perhaps, has acquired more celebrity than

this assembly of bishops at Nice to settle the affairs of the Church; and yet

it is very singular that scarcely any part of ecclesiastical history has been

investigated and explained more negligently.  The ancient writers are not

agreed as to the time and year, nor the place, nor the number of the judges,

nor the president of this council, nor as to many other particulars.  No

written journal of the proceedings of this venerable tribunal was kept - at

least none has reached us.  How many and what canons or ecclesiastical laws

were enacted is not agreed on by the Eastern and Western Christians.  The

latter tell us they were only twenty in number, but the orientals make them

far more numerous.  From the canons universally received, and from the other

monuments of the council, it appears not only that Arius was condemned, but

that other things were decreed, with a view to settle the affairs of the

Church.  In particular, the controversy respecting the time of celebrating

Easter, which had long perplexed Christians, was terminated; the jurisdiction

of the greater bishops was defined, and several other matters of a like

nature were determined.


     But the passions of men were more efficient than either the decrees of

the Nicene Council or the authority of the Emperor; for there were those who,

though they did not fall in with the doctrine of Arius, yet were dissatisfied

with some things in the decrees and the creed of the council, and the Arians

left no means untried to free themselves from the evils inflicted on them by

those decrees.  And the issue was favorable to their wishes; for in a few

years after the Nicene Council an Arian presbyter whom Constantia, the

Emperor's sister, at her death had recommended to the care of her brother,

succeeded in persuading Constantine the Great that Arius had been wrongfully

condemned from personal enmity.  Accordingly, in the year 330, the Emperor

recalled Arius from exile, rescinded the decrees passed against his

associates and friends, and permitted Eusebius of Nicomedia, the principal

supporter of Arius, and his powerful faction, now thirsting for revenge, to

persecute the defenders of the Nicene Council.  They assailed no one more

fiercely than Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria.  When he could in no way

be brought to restore Arius to his former honors and ecclesiastical standing,

Athanasius was first deprived of his office, in a council held at Tyre, A.D.

335, and then banished to Gaul, while in the same year, by a numerous council

held at Jerusalem, Arius and his friends were solemnly admitted to the

communion of the Church.  But by none of these proceedings could the

Alexandrians be induced to receive Arius among their presbyters.  Accordingly

the Emperor called him to Constantinople, in the year 336, and ordered

Alexander, the bishop of the city, to open the doors of his church to him.

But before that could take place Arius died at Constantinople in a tragical

manner; ^1 and the Emperor himself closed life shortly after.


[Footnote 1: Some of the old writers declared that Arius died by the falling

out of his bowels, as if by a miracle.  The matter became a subject of much

controversy.  Mosheim thinks it most probable that Arius was poisoned by his

enemies.  Most recorders of the present day are content to say simply that

"he died suddenly."]


     After the death of Constantine the Great, one of his sons, Constantius,

the Emperor of the East, with his wife and his court, was very partial to the

Arian cause, but Constantine and Constans supported in the western parts,

where they governed, the decisions of the Nicene Council.  Hence the broils,

the commotions, the plots, the injuries had neither measure nor bounds, and

on both sides councils were assembled to oppose councils.  Constans died in

the year 350, and two years afterward a great part of the West, particularly

Italy and Rome, came under the dominion of his brother Constantius.  This

revolution was most disastrous to the friends of the Nicene Council; for this

Emperor, being devoted to the Arians, involved the others in numerous evils

and calamities, and by threats and punishments compelled many of them to

apostatize to that sect to which he was himself attached.  The Nicene party

made no hesitation to return the same treatment as soon as time, place, and

opportunity were afforded them, and the history of Christianity under

Constantius presents the picture of a most stormy period, and of a war among

brethren which was carried on without religion or justice or humanity.


     On the death of Constantius, in the year 362, the prosperous days of the

Arians were at an end.  Julian had no partiality for either, and therefore

patronized neither the Arians nor the orthodox.  Jovian espoused the orthodox

sentiments, and therefore all the West, with no small part of the East,

rejecting Arian views, reverted to the doctrines of the Nicene Council.  But

the scene was changed under the two brothers Valentinian and Valens, who were

advanced to the government of the Empire in the year 364.  Valentinian

adhered to the decisions at Nice, and therefore in the West the Arian sect, a

few churches excepted, was wholly extirpated.  Valens, on the contrary, took

sides with the Arians, and hence in the eastern provinces many calamities

befell the orthodox.  But when this Emperor had fallen in a war with the

Goths, A.D. 378, Gratian - who succeeded Valentinian in the West, in the year

376, and became master of the whole empire in 378 - restored peace to the

orthodox.  After him Theodosius the Great, by depriving the Arians of all

their churches and enacting severe laws against them, caused the decisions of

the Nicene Council to triumph everywhere, and none could any longer publicly

profess Arian doctrines except among the barbarous nations, the Goths, the

Vandals, and the Burgundians.  That there were great faults on both sides in

this long and violent contest no candid person can deny, but which party was

guilty of the greatest wrong it is difficult to say.


     The Arians would have done much more harm to the Church if they had not

become divided among themselves, after the Nicene Council, and split into

sects which could not endure each other.  Unhappily the Arian contests

produced, as was very natural, some new sects.  Some persons, while eager to

avoid and to confute the opinions of Arius, fell into opinions equally

dangerous.  Others, after treading in the footsteps of Arius, ventured on far

beyond him and became still greater errorists.  The human mind, weak and

subject to the control of the senses and the imagination, seldom exerts all

its energies to comprehend divine subjects in such a manner as to be duly

guarded against extremes.  In the former class I would reckon Apollinaris the

Younger, bishop of Laodicea, though otherwise a man of great merit, and one

who in various ways rendered important service to the Church.  He manfully

asserted the divinity of Christ against the Arians, but by philosophizing too

freely and too eagerly he almost set aside the human nature of the Saviour.

This great man was led astray, not merely by the ardor of debate, but

likewise by his immoderate attachment to the Platonic doctrine concerning a

twofold soul, from which if the devines of the age had been free they would

have formed more wise and more correct judgments on many points.  The

doctrine of Apollinaris met the approbation of many in nearly all the eastern

provinces, and, being explained in different ways, it became a source of new

sects.  But as it was assailed by the laws of the emperors, the decrees of

councils, and the writings of learned men, it gradually sunk under these

united assaults.


     At the head of those whom the contests with Arius led into still greater

errors may undoubtedly be placed Photinus, bishop of Sirmium, who in the year

343 advanced opinions concerning God equally remote from those of the

orthodox and those of the Arians.  The temerity of the man was chastened not

only by the orthodox, in their councils of Antioch in 345, of Milan in 347,

and of Sirmium, but also by the Arians in a council held at Sirmium in 351.

He was deprived of his office, and died in exile in the year 372.  After him

Macedonius, bishop of Constantinople, a distinguished semi-Arian teacher,

being deprived of his office by the Council of Constantinople, in the year

360, in his exile founded the sect of the Pneumatomachi.  He openly professed

that the Holy Spirit is a divine energy diffused throughout the universe, and

not a person distinct from the Father and the Son.  This doctrine was

embraced by many in the Asiatic provinces; but the Council of Constantinople,

assembled by Theodosius the Great, in the year 381, and which is commonly

considered as the second ecumenical council, early dissipated by its

authority this young and immature sect.  One hundred and fifty bishops

present in this council defined fully and perfectly the doctrine of three

persons and one God, as it is still professed by the great body of

Christians, which the Nicene Council had only in part performed.  They also

anathematized all the heresies then known.


     In the fifth century the Arians, oppressed and persecuted by the

imperial edicts, took refuge among those barbarous nations who gradually

overturned the Roman Empire in the West, and found among the Goths, Heruli,

Suevi, Vandals, and Burgundians a fixed residence and a quiet retreat.  Being

now safe, they treated the orthodox with the same violence which the orthodox

had employed against them and other heretics, and had no hesitation about

persecuting the adherents to the Nicene doctrines in a variety of ways.  The

Vandals, who had established their kingdom in Africa, surpassed all the rest

in cruelty and injustice.  At first Genseric, their king, and then Huneric,

his son, demolished the temples of such Christians as maintained the divinity

of the Saviour, sent their bishops into exile, mutilated many of the more

firm and decided, and tortured them in various ways; and they expressly

stated that they were authorized to do so by the example of the emperors, who

had enacted similar laws against the Donatists in Africa, the Arians, and

others who dissented from them in religion.


     At the beginning of the sixth century the Arians were triumphant in some

parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe.  Not a few of the Asiatic bishops favored

them.  The Vandals in Africa, the Goths in Italy, many of the Gauls, the

Suevi, the Burgundians, and the Spaniards openly espoused their interests.

The Greeks indeed, who approved of the Nicene Council, oppressed and also

punished them wherever they were able; but the Arians returned the like

treatment, especially in Africa and Italy.  Yet this prosperity of the Arians

wholly terminated when, under the auspices of Justinian, the Vandals were

driven from Africa and the Goths from Italy.  For the other Arian kings,

Sigismund, king of the Burgundians, Theodimir, king of the Suevi in

Lusitania, and Receared, king of Spain, without violence and war, suffered

themselves to be led to a renunciation of the Arian doctrine, and to efforts

for its extirpation among their subjects by means of legal enactments and

councils.  Whether reason and arguments or hope and fear had the greater

influence in the conversion of these kings, it is difficult to say; but it is

certain that the Arian sect was from this time dispersed and could never

after recover any strength.

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