Historical Debate

During the early fourth century, Arius was presbyter (elder, priest) in charge of a parish church in Alexandria, Egypt. When the bishop of the city attempted to explain ‘the unity of the Holy Trinity’, Arius dissented, sharing his views with others.  Bishop Alexander called a small synod of presbyters to discuss the question.  Both sides claimed victory and the controversy grew. Two Republics. A.T. Jones p332.   (Bishop Alexander was the Catholic bishop of Alexandria)

Eventually many bishops and clergy agreed with Arius, and they in turn taught the people. Finally Alexander called a council of 100 bishops, most of whom supported his view. 

At the council, Arius was commanded to abandon his views and adopt the beliefs of Alexander. He refused, and was excommunicated, with all who believed as he did.

The Arian bishops and clergy sent a statement of their views to other bishops, asking for support to be received back into communion. Bishop Alexander also sent circular letters to the bishops.

Arius began to write songs that set forth his views, putting them in a book entitled ‘Thalia’, meaning ‘Songs of Joy’. This book became so popular, it was not long before hundreds were singing his songs.

Thus the controversy spread.

The main difference in belief was the relationship of the Son to the Father.

Bishop Alexander said: “We believe, as is taught by the Church, in an  only  unbegotten  Father,  Who of His being  has no cause

immutable and invariable… and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten not out of that which is not, but of the Father… 

And He is Father from the continual presence of the Son… for He did not beget His only Son in time, or in any interval of time, nor out of that which had no previous existence.” Ecclestiastical History, Theodoret. Bk 1. Ch iv. Written by Bishop Alexander.

Arius said: “But we say and believe… that the Son is not unbegotten… and that before He was begotten, or created, or purposed, or established, He was not. For He was not unbegotten. We are persecuted, because we say that the Son has a beginning, but that God is without beginning…” Ibid Bk 1. Ch 4. Written by Bishop of Nicomedia, an Arian.

The dispute became a debate as to whether the Son was of the same substance of the Father, or of like substancewith the Father. 

A council was called in AD325 at Nicaea, composing 318 bishops, of whom eighteen were Arian. After much noisy disputing and argument, the controversy was resolved by the addition of the Greek word homoousion to a creed. The word, meaning ‘same substance’ or ‘consubstantial’, expressed the Catholic belief in more than one person inhabiting the same substance without division or separation. This became the original Nicene Creed. (Another word that expressed the belief of Arius more clearly was homoiousion, ‘like substance’, although the difference was certainly not absolute)

The Arian bishops were asked to sign the corrected creed; seventeen refused, but when commanded under penalty of banishment, twelve succumbed. Eusebius of Caesarea, a favourite counsellor of Constantine, and also an Arian, consulted the emperor to explain the meaning of homoousion.  

The emperor quietly told him that it could be understood as homoiousion. Those in the council who heard the reply, mockingly called Constantine a heretic, bringing laughter to the lips of many. Eusebius signed, believing the emperor’s explanation. 

The number gradually dwindled down to four who refused to sign, but when banishment was clearly the alternative, two yielded. The other two absolutely refused, and were banished with Arius. 

However, the Council of Nicaea did not solve the problem. 

Those believing the teaching of Arius grew and multiplied. At the request of his dying Arian sister, Constantine restored Arius, and the two others banished with him. 

Alexander died a few months after Nicaea and was replaced by Athanasius, zealous to carry the flag of his predecessor.

Eventually, the Arians split into a third faction, the Anomeans, meaning ‘different’ -- the Son was in everything unlikethe Father. There were now the Arians, Semi-Arians, and these ‘extreme’ Arians, the Anomeans.

After the death of Constantine, his three sons – Constantius II, Constantine II and Constans -- took over the empire, each acquiring a region. In AD340, Constantine II and Constans clashed over the western provinces, leaving Constantine II dead.  Ten years later, Constans was assassinated, leaving Constantius II to rule the empire. Wikipedia.

Constantius had been an Arian, but he changed his view to the Semi-Arian understanding that Jesus was like His Father in nature, in existence, essence, substance, and in every other way.  The Arians had come to believe the Son was like His Father by grace rather than nature, and Constantius could not accept this. It appears that the Arians had changed their belief, as the Nicaean debate was not over the Son being like His Father by grace alone.


Constantius planned to unite the empire according to his belief, and called a council in AD355 at Milan. He was able to give full expression to his Semi-Arian sympathies, and it was at this council he planned to condemn Athanasius, the champion of the Trinitarian debate.  

It was reported by Athanasius that Constantius said, “Let, whatsoever I will, be that esteemed a canon.”  Coming from Athanasius, it may not be accurate, but certainly gives a picture of the attitude of Constantius. Cambridge Journals Online. 

All who refused to sign the document of faith, were threatened with exile.

In AD359, he called another council at Rimini in the Summer, where more than 400 bishops assembled; of these 80 were Semi-Arians. Another 160 bishops assembled at Seleucia in the Autumn, of whom 105 were Semi-Arians and 40 were Arians; the remainder were Catholics.

The five Semi-Arian bishops at Emperor Constantius’ residence drew up a creed which was sent to the council at Rimini; all the Semi-Arians readily agreed to sign. But the 320 Catholics proclaimed dissent with loud voices, declaring that any new formula was wholly unnecessary; that the Council of Nicaea had done all that was necessary in regard to the faith. 

Taking everything into their own hands, they unanimously approved the Nicene Creed, especially the homoousion, declaring the emperor’s creed heretical. They pronounced a curse upon each point of the Arian belief, finally pronouncing a curse upon all heresies in general and Arius in particular.

“The majority of bishops at Ariminum (Rimini) were orthodox and accepted the faith of Nicaea, but the Arian minority included skilled diplomats who successfully undid the orthodox decision of the majority when it reached the emperor. The orthodox bishops remaining at Ariminum were then forced to recant and subscribe to an Arian creed drawn up at Nice in Thracia.” http://universalium.academic.ru/257279/Ariminum,

At Seleucia, there were three distinct parties, the Anomeans, the Semi-Arians, and the Catholics. Both the Catholics and the Semi-Arians opposed the Anomeans. 

When the creed of Constantius was presented, there was “such utter confusion, tumult, bitterness, that after four days of angry debate, in which the prospect became worse and worse, the imperial officer declared that he would have nothing more to do with the council, and told them they could go to the church if they wanted to, and indulge in this vain babbling there as much as they pleased.” History of the Popes. Archibald Bower. par 28. The Two Republics. A.T. Jones p381.

They dispersed and the parties met separately, denouncing, condemning, and ex-communicating one another. The council sent their deputies to Constantius, who spent a whole day and most of the night securing their signatures. 

“Many who till then had been thought invincible, were overcome, and complied with the times.” Ibid.

The document was published throughout the whole empire, and all bishops were commanded to sign, under penalty of exile if they refused. 

Not one orthodox bishop was left --- Arianism was now entirely orthodox. Jerome said, “The whole world woke up astonished to find itself Arian.” www.newadvent.org (The statement does not distinguish between the different groups – all are seen as Arians)

The triumphs were however, transitory, for when Constantius died the following year, the Western part of the empire returned to the faith of Athanasius. 

You are probably thinking – I am glad I was not part of all that debate and argument. 

We would all agree. 

Whether Arius was a Christian we cannot say, but there is no question the majority of the Catholics involved in the debate were not Christians; it is also clear the Arians were not either.