Arianism

Arianism is a viewpoint held by some in the early Christian Church about the nature of Jesus Christ, declared by the Catholic Church to be a heresy. Arians denied that Jesus Christ and God the Father were one, seeing them as different Divine entities. The letter of Auxentius, a 4th century Arian bishop of Milan, emphatically denying that Ulfilas was a heretic, gives the clearest picture of Arian beliefs on the nature of the Trinity: God the Father ("unbegotten"), always existing, was separate from the lesser God the Christ ("only-begotten"), born before time began and creator of the world. The Father, working through the Son, created the Holy Spirit, which was subservient to the Son as the Son was to the Father.

The conflict between Arianism and traditional trinitarianism was the first important doctrinal difficulty in the Church after the legalization of Christianity took place under Emperor Constantine I, and ended with Arianism being declared a heresy by the first Council of Nicaea. At a point in the conflict, the majority of Christianity followed the Arianistic belief system, and because Ulfilas was the apostle to the Goths, the Ostrogoths and the Visigoths arrived in western Europe already Christians, but Arians.

Arius was a Christian priest in Alexandria, Egypt. In A.D. 321 he was condemned by a synod at Alexandria for teaching a heterodox view of the relationship of Jesus Christ to God the Father. Arius himself died without repudiating his doctrine. Arius and his followers agreed that Jesus was the son of God, but denied that they were one substance (Greek: homo-ousios). Instead, they viewed God and the Son as having distinct but similar substances (Greek: homoi-ousios). The difference in Greek was literally one iota or "letter i" of difference. Jesus is, for Arianism, inferior or subordinate to God the Father. The specific summary statement that was rejected by the councils, is that "there was a time when Jesus Christ was not"; the rejected statement meant that Jesus was a created being, rather than being coeternal with the Father and the Holy Spirit. At issue was the doctrine of the Trinity.

Because Arius and his followers had great influence in the schools of Alexandria - predecessors of modern universities or seminaries - their theological views spread, especially in the eastern Mediterranean. By 325 the controversy had become significant enough that Emperor Constantine I called an assembly of bishops, the first Ecumenical council at Nicaea, (modern Iznik, Turkey) (the First Council of Nicaea). The arguments that prevailed at Nicaea were formulated in the Nicene Creed, which is still recited in Catholic, Orthodox, and some Protestant services. Emperor Constantine ordered Arius exiled and the Arian books to be burned.

Despite the decision of the Council of Nicaea, Arianism not only survived but flourished for some time. The patronage of members of the imperial family allowed Arian bishops to rule in many centers. Having never converted any sizeable group of the laity, Arianism had died out inside the Empire by the 380s; it was debated and rejected again by the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople in 381.

However, during the time of Arianism's flowering in Constantinople a missionary named Ulfilas was sent out to the Gothic barbarians across the Danube River. His 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, many of them used their Arian religion to differentiate their people from the local inhabitants and maintain their group identity against the Catholic population. See: Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals, Burgundians, Lombards. By the 8th century assimilation had ended any surviving Arian churches. Only the Franks among the Germanic peoples entered the empire as pagans and converted to Catholic Christianity directly.

The name, Arians, was widely applied in Poland to the Unitarian Christian sect, the Polish brethren, and it has been commonly applied since, to other Nontrinitarian groups. For example, the modern Jehovah's Witnesses have similar beliefs. However, there are closer analogies from Socinianism to the Jehovah's Witnesses, than from Arianism - because Socinians, like the Jehovah's Witnesses and unlike Arians, denied that Christ ought to be worshipped. Also like the Socinians, they deny belief in a disembodied soul after death, and eternal punishment of the unrepentantly wicked, and reject episcopacy: doctrines to which the Arians did not obviously object.

The tritheistic doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is similar to Arianism. Its doctrine of the unity of the Godhead is reminiscent of the Arian explanation of the unity of the Son with the Father: Jesus is seen as subordinate to God the Father in that Jesus acts only according to his Father's will, there is no possibility of a disagreement between them and they are both perfect and sinless. The LDS also believe, similar to the Arians, that Christ is a separate being, but "co-eternal" with God the Father, and that there is only one God meaning only one Godhead.

Arianism, of course, is not to be confused with Aryanism, the belief that the European "race" is descended from the ancient Aryans who invaded India in the second millennium BCE.

See also Christology.


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