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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.

The Bible

Pages which look at issues relevant to the whole Bible, such as the Canon of Scripture, as well as doctrinal and theological issues. There are also pages about the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha and 'lost books' of the Old Testament.

Also included are lists of the quotations of the OT in the NT, and passages of the OT quoted in the NT.

Old Testament Overview

This is a series of six pages which give a historical overview through the Old Testament and the inter-testamental period, showing where each OT book fits into the history of Israel.

New Testament Overview

This is a series of five pages which give a historical overview through the New Testament, focusing on the Ministry of Jesus, Paul's missionary journeys, and the later first century. Again, it shows where each book of the NT fits into the history of the first century.

Introductions to Old Testament Books

This is an almost complete collection of introductions to each of the books in the Old Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Introductions to New Testament Books

This is a collection of introductions to each of the 27 books in the New Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Old Testament History

Information about the different nations surrounding Israel, and other articles concerning Old Testament history and the inter-testamental period.

New Testament History

Articles which give additional information about the history and culture of the first century, giving helpful background knowledge for the Gospels and Paul's travels.

Old Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for OT studies. These include a list of the people named in the OT and confirmed by archaeology. There are also pages to convert the different units of measure in the OT, such as the talent, cubit and ephah into modern units.

More theological topics include warfare in the ancient world, the Holy Spirit in the OT, and types of Jesus in the OT.

Studies in the Pentateuch (Gen - Deut)

A series of articles covering studies in the five books of Moses. Studies in the Book of Genesis look at the historical nature of the early chapters of Genesis, the Tower of Babel and the Table of the Nations.

There are also pages about covenants, the sacrifices and offerings, the Jewish festivals and the tabernacle, as well as the issue of tithing.

Studies in the Old Testament History Books (Josh - Esther)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the history books. These include a list of the dates of the kings of Israel and Judah, a summary of the kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and studies of Solomon, Jeroboam and Josiah.

There are also pages describing some of the historical events of the period, including the Syro-Ephraimite War, and the Assyrian invasion of Judah in 701 BC.

Studies in the Old Testament Prophets (Is - Mal)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the OT prophets. These include a page looking at the way the prophets look ahead into their future, a page looking at the question of whether Satan is a fallen angel, and a page studying the seventy weeks of Daniel.

There are also a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of two of the books:
Isaiah (13 pages) and Daniel (10 pages).

New Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for NT studies. These include a list of the people in the NT confirmed by archaeology.

More theological topics include the Kingdom of God and the Coming of Christ.

Studies in the Four Gospels (Matt - John)

A series of articles covering various studies in the four gospels. These include a list of the unique passages in each of the Synoptic Gospels and helpful information about the parables and how to interpret them.

Some articles look at the life and ministry of Jesus, including his genealogy, birth narratives, transfiguration, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the seating arrangements at the Last Supper.

More theological topics include the teaching about the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete and whether John the Baptist fulfilled the predictions of the coming of Elijah.

Studies in the Book of Acts and the New Testament Letters

A series of articles covering various studies in the Book of Acts and the Letters, including Paul's letters. These include a page studying the messages given by the apostles in the Book of Acts, and the information about the financial collection that Paul made during his third missionary journey.

More theological topics include Paul's teaching on Jesus as the last Adam, and descriptions of the church such as the body of Christ and the temple, as well as a look at redemption and the issue of fallen angels.

There are a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of five of the books:
Romans (7 pages), 1 Corinthians (7 pages), Galatians (3 pages), Philemon (1 page) and Hebrews (7 pages)

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the study of the Book of Revelation and topics concerning Eschatology (the study of end-times).

These include a description of the structure of the book, a comparison and contrast between the good and evil characters in the book and a list of the many allusions to the OT. For the seven churches, there is a page which gives links to their location on Google maps.

There is a page studying the important theme of Jesus as the Lamb, which forms the central theological truth of the book. There are pages looking at the major views of the Millennium, as well as the rapture and tribulation, as well as a list of dates of the second coming that have been mistakenly predicted through history.

There is also a series of ten pages giving a detailed commentry through the text of the Book of Revelation.

Inductive Bible Study

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study the Bible inductively, by asking a series of simple questions. There are lists of observation and interpretation questions, as well as information about the structure and historical background of biblical books, as well as a list of the different types of figures of speech used in the Bible. There is also a page giving helpful tips on how to apply the Scriptures personally.

Types of Literature in the Bible

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study each of the different types of book in the Bible by appreciating the type of literature being used. These include historical narrative, law, wisdom, prophets, Gospels, Acts, letters and Revelation.

It is most important that when reading the Bible we are taking note of the type of literature we are reading. Each type needs to be considered and interpreted differently as they have different purposes.

Geography and Archaeology

These are a series of pages giving geographical and archaeological information relevant to the study of the Bible. There is a page where you can search for a particular geographical location and locate it on Google maps, as well as viewing photographs on other sites.

There are also pages with photographs from Ephesus and Corinth.

Early Church Fathers

These are a series of pages giving biographical information about some of the more significant early church fathers, such as Irenaeus, Origen and Tertullian, as well as some important groups and events in the first centuries of the church.

Artifacts in the British Museum relevant to Biblical studies

These are a series of pages describing artifacts in each gallery of the British Museum, which have a connection with the Bible.

Biblical Archaeology in Museums around the world

A page with a facility to search for artifacts held in museums around the world which have a connection with the Bible. These give information about each artifact, as well as links to the museum's collection website where available showing high resolution photographs of the artifact.

There is also page of photographs from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem of important artifacts.

Historical documents

These are a series of pages containing historical documents which give helpful information for Biblical studies. These include Hittite suzerainty treaties with a similar structure to the Book of Deuteronomy, different lists of the New Testament books and quotations from Josephus and other ancient writers.

Life Questions

These are a series of pages looking at some of the more difficult questions of Christian theology, including war, suffering, disappointment and what happens to those who have never heard the Gospel.

How to Preach

These are a series of pages giving a practical step-by-step explanation of the process of preparing a message for preaching, and how to lead a small group Bible study.

Information for SBS staff members

Two pages particularly relevant for people serving as staff on the School of Biblical Studies (SBS) in YWAM. One gives helpful instruction about how to prepare to teach on a book in the SBS. The other gives a list of recommended topics which can be taught about for each book of the Bible.