{6}           Arianism & church councils

ERA 2 << Early Church (2): Stability (AD 300–600) >> SESSION 2

Reference: Gonzalez, volume 1, chapters 16-18, appendix

        6.1.1  The problem of traditors

·         Traditors: These were the Christians who gave up copies of the Scripture to persecutors. Later, when they wanted to returned to the church, the confessors would rule on how they would be treated.

        6.1.2  Controversy & Struggles

·         Theological arguments: The bishop of Carthage was consecrated by someone who was accused of being a traditor. The Donatists, led by Donatus, declared that the consecration was not valid. So they elected a rival bishop [311] and caused a schism. A synod at Rome decided that the validity of a sacrament does not depend on the character of the one administering the sacrament. The schism continued until around 400.

·         Circumcellions: This was a group of Donatist peasants who were religious fanatics. They desired to be martyrs. The attacked rich travellers and disrupted trade. Roman authorities resorted to force through massacres.

6.2  Arianism & Conflicts

        6.2.1  Dealing with controversies

·         Major Christological heresies: The early church spent much time in the first 5 centuries against 4 heresies concerning Christ. The Chalcedon Definition “one person in two natures”defends: [1] true deity—against Arianism, [2] full humanity—against Apollinarianism, [3] indivisibility united in one person—against Nestorianism, and [4] without confusion—against Eutychianism.

·         Appeal to the emperor: Previously, the issues were properly settled through debates among Christian leaders. After the conversion of Constantine, the empire had a vested interest in the unity of the church so it used its power to force theological agreement. The belief of the emperor became the deciding factor.

        6.2.2  Arian Controversy

·         Arianism: Bishop Alexander of Alexandria clashed with Arius (256–336) on whether the Word was God. Alexander held that the Word existed eternally with the Father and was not created (John 1). Arius argued that the Word was created by God and that He had a different (heteros) essence or substance from the Father.

·         Conflict: Alexander called a synod which condemned Arius’ teaching. Arius appealed to the people of Alexandria and bishops in the Eastern church. Constantine called a council of bishops from the whole empire.

        6.3.1  The Council of Nicea [325]

·         Athanasius: He was the chief exponent of the orthodox view. He insisted that Christ had existed from all eternity with the Father, and was of the same essence (Latin homoousios) as the Father, although He was a distinct person. He believed that if Christ was less than God, He could not be the Saviour of men.

·         Compromise rejected: Eusebius of Caesarea proposed a compromise that Christ was begotten of the Father before time in eternity. Christ was of a “similar” substance or essence as the Father (Latin homoiousios). But the compromise was rejected.

·         Decision: They first sought to use passages from the Scripture to reject Arianism but found it difficult. The council decided to agree on a creed that would express the faith of the church rejecting Arianism.

        6.3.2  Nicene Creed

·         Definition of creed: A creed is a statement of faith for public use; it contains articles needful for salvation and the theological well-being of the church. Creeds have been used: [1] to test orthodoxy, [2] to recognize fellow believers, and [3] to serve as a convenient summary of the essential doctrines of faith.

·         Details: The Nicene Creed was later finalized in the Council of Constantinople [381]. It is the most universally accepted Christian creed, accepted by almost all churches, including the Orthodox churches.

o        The main concern of the creed was to reject any notion that the Son was less divine than the Father.

o        The phrase “of one substance (homoousios)” or “same substance/essence” was a clear refutation of the Arian belief.

o        The phrase “begotten, not made” was to assure that the Son was not created. The term “only begotten” (Greek monogenes) (John 1:14; 3:16) caused lots of theological discussion in the early church. Discoveries of papyri records in the 1970s showed that “only begotten” is better translated “one and only kind”.

·         The Apostles’ Creed: It is the oldest summary of essential doctrines. It was likely developed in 2nd-c [c.150]. It is used only in the churches of Western origin—the RCC, and the Protestant churches.

        6.3.3  Aftermath of Nicene

·         Ascent & decline of Arianism: The council did not end the controversy. The influence of Arianism rose and declined with different emperors. Even Constantine was baptized on his deathbed by an Arian bishop. Arianism continued until 7th-c.

·         Athanasian Creed: The creed was not written by Athanasius but was originated in 5th-c. It is a masterly summary of the doctrine of Trinity. It affirms 3 main elements of the doctrine of Trinity: [1] There is one God. [2] Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are God. [3] The Father is not the Son is not the Holy Spirit.

        6.4.1  The two natures of Christ

·         Question: After the question of the divinity of Christ (and of the Holy Spirit) had been settled, the next main issue was the question of how divinity and humanity are joined in Jesus Christ.

·         Apollinarianism: This heresy emphasized Jesus’ divinity and taught that Jesus had a physical body and did not have a human intellect. It was condemned in the Council of Constantinople [381]. The council also confirmed the deity of the Holy Spirit, condemning the Macedonians.

·         Nestorianism: This heresy, led by Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople, emphasized Jesus’ humanity and taught that was in effect only a perfect man who was morally linked to deity. It was condemned in the Council of Ephesus [431]. The council went further and called Mary the “bearer of God”.

·         Eutychianism: This heresy again emphasized Jesus’ divinity and taught that the two natures of Christ were fused into one nature, the divine. It was condemned in the Council of Chalcedon [451]. The council held that Christ was “complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man.” This became the orthodox view. The Tertullian formula “two natures in one person” was affirmed.

        6.5.1  Augustine against Pelagius

·         Pelagius (369–420): Pelagius believed that each man has the power to choose good or evil because there is no original sin. He saw Christian life as a constant effort to overcome sin and attain salvation.

·         Augustine’s opposition: Augustine insisted that regeneration is exclusively the work of the Holy Spirit. Man’s will is totally depraved by original sin, unable to choose salvation. Salvation is only for those whom God has elected or predestined to salvation. Pelagianism was condemned at the Council of Ephesus [431].

·         Semi-Pelagianism: John Cassian (360–435) tried to find a compromise position by which the human will and the divine will could cooperate in salvation. He taught that all men are sinful because of the Fall and their wills are weakened but not totally corrupted. This view was condemned at the Synod of Orange [529].


[1] treasure our heritage

Creeds are precious Christian heritage with many uses.

[2] appreciate God’s providence

The influential Arianism did not win over the church.

[3] avoid past errors

Solving theological issues must not involve political authorities.

[4] apply our knowledge

Christians should learn the issues debated in the early church.

[5] follow past saints

Athanasius suffered repeated exiles for persisting in orthodoxy.