Constantine and the Arian Heresy

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Constantine burning Arian books, illustration from a compendium of canon law, c. 825.

When both parties of the Arian controversy appealed to Constantine, the emperor convened a council at Nicaea and participated in the deliberations ending the crisis.

Although the Christian population represented a minority of people following Constantine’s Edict of Toleration in 313, the emperor identified with the movement. According to Church Historian Roland Bainton, Constantine referred to himself as, “a bishop, ordained by God to oversee whatever is external to the church.” In this role, Constantine injected himself into the theological debates that were tearing apart Christianity. One of the best examples was the Arian heresy.

Arian Conflict with Orthodox Doctrine

Arianism, named for the priest Arius of Alexandria, rejected church teachings that Christ was truly God, i.e. a rejection of the Trinity. Arius taught that only “The Father” is true God and that Christ, the “Logos” had a beginning but was the first and most perfect of all beings. He took his teachings, in part, from Colossians, in which Paul refers to Christ as, “the first born of all creation.”

Arius gained many supporters, including bishops. His greatest adversary, however, was Athanasius of Alexandria. Athanasius accused Arius of disputing official church teaching. A council of bishops met in Alexandria and condemned Arius. When internal church efforts at reconciliation failed, both parties appealed to Constantine.

The Council of Nicaea

The “First Ecumenical Council” was held in Nicaea (modern day Iznik in Turkey) and attended by 318 bishops, although different sources suggest differing numbers. Convened May 20, 325, the council was lavishly hosted by Constantine, who took an active part in the deliberations.

The first task of the council was to evaluate the theological position of Arius. Although some bishops accepted the Arian position, a great majority did not and Arius was condemned. The second task was to produce a uniform creed that posited the core beliefs of all Christians. These efforts resulted in the Nicene Creed.

A key element of this early creed was the use of the term “consubstantial” to describe the relationship between God and Christ. Arians who could not accept this, like Arius himself, were promptly exiled. The Nicene Creed formalized the belief in the triune nature of God.

Continued Belief in Arianism after Nicaea

Like the Donatists, Arian belief persisted, notably in the Eastern Empire. This was particularly true after the death of Constantine in 337, one year after the death of Arius. Arius had been recalled from exile in Greece, returned to Alexandria only to renew the conflict with Athanasius.

Yet another council was held in Tyre in 335 but this time the assembly was packed with Arian bishops. Athanasius and his Egyptian bishops were refused a hearing. Traveling to Constantinople, Athanasius demanded justice from the emperor. His enemies, however, brought forward false charges against Athanasius to the effect that he had interrupted grain shipments.

An enraged Constantine exiled Athansius to Gaul. Arianism was strongest in the East where it influenced barbarians like the Goths. Spread to the West by these tribes, Arian Christianity became a chief threat to the missionary activities of Latin Christianity. The impasse was eventually resolved when Clovis, king of the Franks, rejected Arian Christianity after a dream or vision very similar to the one that had persuaded Constantine to embrace Christianity.

Contemporary Arianism

A number of pseudo-Protestant groups or sects still adhere to the Arian principle that Christ was a created being, albeit a “son of God.” Like the 4th Century Arians, they can call Christ the true “Son of the Father,” yet reject the “consubstantial” view brought forth at Nicaea.

Sources:

  1. Roland H. Bainton, Christianity (New York: American Heritage Library, 1985)
  2. James Carroll, Constantine’s Sword: the Church and the Jews (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001)
  3. Giuseppe Ricciotti, The Age of Martyrs: Christianity from Diocletian to Constantine (Marboro Books, 1992)
  4. Gustav Schnurer, Church and Culture in the Middle Ages Volume I 350-814 (Paterson, NJ: St. Anthony Guild Press, 1956)