- This article is about the theological doctrine of Arius. The Arianism discussed here is a religious movement, and is not related to the terms Aryan or Aryan race, which denote linguistic and ethnic concepts.
Arianism was a Christological view held by followers of Arius in the early Christian Church, claiming that Jesus Christ and God the Father were not always contemporary, seeing the Son as a divine being, created by the Father (and consequently inferior to Him) at some point in time, before which he did not exist. Some historical records indicate that Arius believed, quite simply, that Jesus was an important prophet, but also a man like other men. The First Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.) condemned Arianism, after much controversy, and declared it heretical; similar views, and in some cases revival of the name, have recurred. Arius himself was reported to have been poisoned, and died from "his bowels spilling out" at the very instant before his triumphal return to authority.
The letter of Auxentius, a 4th century Arian bishop of Milan, regarding the missionary Ulfilas, gives the clearest picture of Arian beliefs on the nature of the Trinity: God the Father ("unbegotten"), always existing, was separate from the lesser Jesus 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 the Trinitarianism that has since become dominant was the first important doctrinal difficulty in the Church after the legalization of Christianity by Emperor Constantine I. At one point in the conflict, Arianism held sway in the family of the Emperor and the Imperial nobility, 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 321 he was denounced by a synod at Alexandria for teaching a heterodox view of the relationship of Jesus to God the Father. Arius and his followers agreed that Jesus was the son of God, but denied that they were one substance (Greek: homoousios). Instead, they viewed God and the Son as having distinct but similar substances (Greek: homoiousios). The difference in Greek was literally one iota (reflected in the English letter I) of difference. The apparently trivial nature of this difference led Edward Gibbon to remark that "the profane of every age have derided the furious contests which the difference of a single diphthong excited between the Homoousians and the Homoiousians". Jesus is, for Arianism, inferior or subordinate to God the Father. A specific summary statement that came to be at issue was that "there was a stage when Jesus Christ was not"; this statement implied Jesus to be a created being, rather than one coeternal with the Father, and thereby denied the doctrine of the Trinity as it is generally understood today.
The Council of Nicea and its aftermath
Because Arius and his followers had great influence in the schools of Alexandria — counterparts to 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 Council of Nicaea (modern Iznik, Turkey), which condemned Arius's doctrine, largely by excluding those bishops who accepted it.
The trinitarian arguments that prevailed at Nicaea were formulated in the Nicene Creed, which is still recited in Catholic, Orthodox, and some Protestant services. The Athanasian Creed is less often used but is a more overtly anti-Arian statement on the Trinity. Constantine ordered all Arian books burned and Arius exiled. Arius died in 336 without having recanted.
The Council of Nicea did not end the controversy. Some bishops continued to hold Arian beliefs, and indeed, when Constantine, who had been a catechumen much of his adult life, accepted baptism on his deathbed, it was from an Arian bishop. However, as a result of the Council of Nicaea's strong condemnation of Arius and Arianism, few major theologians inside the Roman Empire professed themselves to be Arians by the middle of the century, and almost all accepted the equality and coeternality of the persons of the Trinity. But the Nicene Creed was by no means universally accepted. For decades, many churchmen continued to use the homoiousios formula to describe the Trinity; others attempted to avoid the dispute by saying only that Jesus was like (homoi) the Father. These non-Nicene theologians would not have identified themselves as Arians; however, their enemies, such as Ambrose of Milan and Gregory of Nazianzus, often did call them just that, and, due to the authority these Nicenes had within the church, the epithet has generally stuck. Several Emperors, including Constantius II and Valens, supported the non-Nicene faction within the Church, but with the accession of the firm Nicene Theodosius I the matter was settled. The Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople in 381 is generally considered the end of this phase of the Arian-Nicene conflict.
Arianism in the early medieval Germanic kingdoms
However, during the time of Arianism's flowering in Constantinople, the Goth convert Ulfilas (later the subject of the letter of Auxentius cited above) was sent as a missionary to the Gothic barbarians across the Danube. 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, most had been Arian Christians for more than a century. The conflict in the 4th century had seen Arian and Nicene factions struggling for control of the Church; in contrast, in the kingdoms these Arian Germans established on the wreckage of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, there were entirely separate Arian and Nicene Churches with parallel heirarchies, each serving different sets of believers. Many scholars see the persistence of the Germans' Arian religion as a strategy to differentiate the Germanic elite from the local inhabitants and maintain their group identity against the local culture.
For more information on these Arian kingdoms, see the articles on the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals, Burgundians, and Lombards. (The Franks were unique among the Germanic peoples in that they entered the empire as pagans and converted to Nicene Christianity directly.) By the beginning of the 8th century, these kingdoms had either been conquered by Nicene neighbors (Ostrogoths, Vandals, Burgundians) or their rulers had accepted Nicene Christianity (Visigoths, Lombards).
Reformation, Enlightenment and Unitarianism
The name Arians was widely (and erroneously) applied to Unitarian Christian sects, initially in Poland to the Polish brethren (Frater Polonorum). They invented radical social theories and were precursors of the Enlightenment.
"Arianism" has been commonly and erroneously applied since, to several modern nontrinitarian groups. Despite the frequency with which this name is used, groups so labelled typically do not follow Arian beliefs, and reject the name for their self-description, although they all deny the trinitarian formulations.
For example, the modern Jehovah's Witnesses have some similar beliefs. However, Arius viewed the Holy Spirit as a person, whereas Jehovah's Witnesses do not attribute personality to the spirit. Jehovah's Witnesses also, unlike Arians, deny belief in a disembodied soul after death, eternal punishment of the unrepentantly wicked, and episcopacy: doctrines to which the Arians did not obviously object. In some respects, there is a closer analogy to Socinianism, than to Arianism, in Jehovah's Witness theology (Socinians similarly were called "Arians" by their detractors; see also Unitarianism). Jehovah's Witnesses, unlike Arians, do not direct prayers to Jesus.
The doctrine of the Godhead, according to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ("LDS Church"; see also Mormon), is similar to Arianism. The LDS 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. They are "one" in the sense that there is no possibility of a disagreement between them, and they are both perfected and sinless. The LDS also believe, similar to the Arians, that Christ is a separate being, but "co-eternal" with God the Father, and yet that there is only one (capital "G") God. However, the LDS are unique in believing that there are many exalted beings, or gods; and in their belief that three distinct beings comprise the Godhead. This agreement and close intimacy of three distinct beings according to LDS doctrine, is properly labelled tritheism compared to Trinitarian definitions of monotheism, which the LDS disputes. LDS themselves do not object to their Godhead being referred to as a kind of Trinity, but assert that it's merely a very different idea of the Trinity as compared to most of the rest of the Christian world.
Archbishop Dmitri of The Orthodox Church in America has identified Islam as the largest descendant of Arianism today. There is some superficial similarity in Islam's teaching that Jesus was a great prophet, but very distinct from God, although Islam sees Jesus as a human messenger of God without the divine properties that Arianism attributes to the Christ. Islam sees itself as a continuation of the Jewish and Christian traditions and reveres many of the same prophets.