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Arianism and the Council of Nicaea

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Arius (c.290-c.335) was a presbyter in the church in Alexandria who emphasised the characteristic Alexandrian teaching, stressing the distinction between the three members of the God-head. However he took this to extreme, so that he came to believe in one supreme God with two inferior deities. Arius could not accept any distinctions within the divine nature, or, in true Alexandrian tradition, the idea that God could have any contact with creation. He believed that the Son, the Logos, was not eternal, but had been created by the Father to be his agent of creation. In his thinking, because the Son, or Logos, had a changeable nature, and was subject to pain, he could not possibly be equal to God.

Because Arius put his teaching in verse, set to catchy tunes, it became familiar to the wider population, giving him a wide following among the masses. He also supported his teaching with some helpful quotations from Scripture, which gained him support from the educated people. Arianism became a great threat to the unity of the church partly because he was able to make his teaching so popular that it caused division in the church.

The greatest threat to the church came from his theology of the nature of Jesus, which, according to orthodox Christian belief, made the salvation of sinful mankind impossible, thus effectively robbing the church of the Gospel. The greatest opponent of Arius was Athanasius, who insisted that God had to become a human being and to identify fully with mankind to make salvation possible. Therefore Christ had to be fully divine, as well as being fully human. Because Arianism so weakened the doctrine of salvation, it probably became the greatest threat the church has ever known.

The Council of Nicaea was called by the Emperor Constantine and was the first of the ecumenical church councils. These became possible now persecution by the Roman Empire had ceased. Constantine’s motivation for calling the council was mostly determined by his eagerness to maintain the unity of the church, rather than from any great theological understanding of the issues involved.

Following lengthy questioning of Arius, a creed was finally adopted at Nicaea, which excluded Arianism completely. It defined Jesus as equal to, and of the same substance (homoousios) with the Father. Well-known Arian phrases were explicitly condemned, and those who used them were anathematised. Nicaea was the first time that bishops were required to sign a creed as a test of orthodoxy. Arius, together with two bishops, refused to sign, and were excommunicated and exiled. Later, the Nicene Creed was slightly modified, and was included as a statement of faith in the Eucharist, and was included in the Book of Common Prayer used by the Anglican Church. Tragically, the Council of Nicaea did not put an end to Arianism, which returned later in the fourth century to cause even more problems in the church. It is still present in modern times, in groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The Council of Nicaea also dealt with some other issues which had been problems in the church, including an ineffective attempt to deal with the Melitian Schism in Egypt. They ended a long-running controversy by fixing the date of Easter, so it was always celebrated on the Sunday following the Jewish Passover. They also decided some issues of ecclesiastical organisation, modelling the dioceses on the civil organisation of the empire. They also recognised three leading bishops in Rome, Alexandria and Antioch, but made no reference to the universal power of Rome.

The decisions of the Council of Nicaea brought victory to the orthodox position of the full deity of Christ, but defeat, condemnation and excommunication of the Arians, who refused to sign the creed of Nicaea. Unfortunately, the decision of Nicaea did not bring a satisfactory conclusion. This was mostly due to pressure from Emperor Constantine, who had called the council, and then dominated the proceedings, forcing the church to come to a speedy conclusion. It seems that Constantine’s over-riding aim was to maintain the unity of the church, so it could be a strength to his fragile empire. Because of this, not enough time was allowed for a full discussion of the issues. Perhaps if the church had been left to come to its own conclusions without interference from the emperor, the matter would have been settled more conclusively.

Only two years after the Council of Nicaea, Arius presented his statement of faith. It carefully avoided the most controversial points, and was accepted as orthodox by the emperor. Arius was allowed to return from exile, and was re-admitted to the church. This re-started the controversy, as the Arians then went on the offensive, which eventually gave them apparent victory over the Nicaean position.

After the death of Constantine in 337, the empire was split between his three sons. Constans in the centre, and Constantine II in the west were orthodox, but Constantius in the east was Arian. Each emperor appointed bishops who believed in their point of view. So Constantius appointed the Arian Eusebius of Nicomedia as bishop of Constantinople, who had originally been exiled by the Council of Nicaea. Following the death of Constantine II in 340, then the death of Constans in 350, Constantius became the sole emperor. Through a series of church councils, Constantius forced a superficial unity on the church by pressurising the Western Church to accept an Arian creed in 359. To quote Jerome, “The whole world groaned and marvelled to find itself Arian”. Fortunately, the Arian victory was only shallow and did not last, particularly because of the strong stand taken for the Nicaean position by Athanasius. The whole controversy illustrates the problems caused by state interference in the church, and the conflicting interests of church and state.

During the Arian Controversy, there seems to have been considerable misunderstanding and breakdown of communication between the different conflicting parties. It is regrettable that during the Arian Controversy, as so often through history, the opposing groups resorted to name-calling and hurling of anathemas. The parties became more and more polarised, as they accused each other of holding more extreme positions than they actually did, which only served to prolong the argument and make reconciliation more difficult.

Another difficulty was over the translation of the various technical terms from Greek into Latin. This particularly increased the division between the Eastern and Western churches. These were not resolved until the Council of Alexandria in 362, when a translation of the words for ‘substance’ and ‘person’ was agreed.

In his teaching, Arius had not developed his doctrine of the Holy Spirit to any great extent. However, it appears that he taught that the Spirit had a similar relationship to the Son, as the Son had to the Father. This was that the Spirit was the first-born of the Logos, just as the Logos was the first-born of creation by the Father. This position was the logical conclusion of the view held by Origen, which stressed the subordination of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to the Son.

At the Council of Nicaea, the issue of the divinity of the Holy Spirit did not become a major part of the discussions. Only a brief mention was made in the original Creed of Nicaea, consisting merely of a declaration of belief in the existence of the Holy Spirit.

It was not until the Council of Alexandria in 362, that the divinity of the Holy Spirit was first stated as orthodox belief, and when the Arian view that the Holy Spirit was a creature was condemned. Through the first few centuries, there seems to have been a progressive recognition of the divinity first of the Son, then of the Holy Spirit, making equality between the three persons in the God-head. In this way the divinity of the Holy Spirit acted as a bulwark against Arianism, and against the subordination theory.

The three Cappadocian Fathers stated the divinity of the Holy Spirit more strongly. They described the Trinity saying there is one substance (ousia) shared by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but that there are three persons (hypostases). Basil the Great made the first statement of the divinity of the Holy Spirit, and later Gregory of Nazianzus defended Basil's position, stating it in a more complete way.

At the Council of Constantinople in 381, the church made the final statement of the Holy Spirit as orthodox belief. At some time following this council, some changes were made to the Nicean Creed, which re-affirmed the official position on the divinity of the Holy Spirit. This stated that the Holy Spirit is to be worshipped and glorified with the Father and the Son. The Eastern and Western parts of the church continue to differ on the question of the procession of the Holy Spirit. The Eastern view is that the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son, while the Western view is that he proceeds from the Father and the Son.

With the adoption of this creed, the Arian cause was finally and irretrievably lost within the Catholic church.