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Arianism in the Fourth Century

Arianism

It is popularly believed Arius was born in Libya, in 270 A.D.  He is credited with having started one of the most deadly heretical sects to attack the Early Church that of Arianism.  It has continued assaulting the Church until today, under many titles. 

 

 

Our first encounter with Arius is somewhere between 300-311 A.D., when he joined up with a group of heretics called Meletians.  Evidently, he did not find what he was searching for; he left them. 

He then managed to get himself ordained a deacon of the Catholic Church by Peter of Alexandria who was Bishop at the time.  Evidently his loyalties were still with the Meletians, because when they were censured, he bitterly criticized the Church, and came out against her.  He was excommunicated by the same Bishop who had ordained him deacon, Bishop Peter of Alexandria!

Arius later regretted his outburst against the Church.  Mother Church not only forgave him and accepted him back into the Church, he even maneuvered himself into being accepted into the priesthood!  This was done by Bishop Peter's successor Bishop Achillas.  Then Bishop Achillas' successor, Bishop Alexander, thought so highly of Arius, he assigned him his own parish!

A killer kills; a heretic spouts heresy; a dissenter dissents.  Arius became involved with another heretic called Lucian.  Since God will ultimately reveal, we find Arius again in hot water.  He just could not resist spouting his new mentor's (Lucian) errors.  The dogma he was preaching not only brought him in conflict with his Bishop, the very one who had entrusted him with his own church, it created a tidal wave that threatened to sink the ship of the Church.

Arius drew many to him and his false concepts.  The enemy is so clever!  In our time, in the sixties, the Satan of drugs came into the lives of our young through music.  He has been able to induce the innocent into every form of perversion and act of violence through music. It's nothing new! 

Arius came upon a scheme to use many to spread his lies.  Use music!  He tirelessly substituted his words (heresies in direct conflict with the teachings of the Church) and set them to popular music of the day.  He cut quite a figure as he went about, the troubadour priest, singing catchy lyrics to tunes everyone had already been humming.  He had a slick delivery.  He would sing and then speak.  He even accompanied himself with a musical instrument as he spoke.  Dramatic!  What a charismatic figure!  He was passionate!  He was zealous!  He was a pied piper!

Before you knew it, his doctrines were being sung by priests, fishermen, storekeepers, and farmers; mothers were caroling these little ditties to their children on their knees; everyone was singing, but it wasn't the Lord they were praising.  And most of them didn't even know what they were doing or Who they were betraying.

Arianism denied the divinity of Christ.  It taught that Jesus was not God the Son, that He was created out of nothing; He did not exist with the Father together with the Holy Spirit before the beginning of time.  By its nature, it also had to deny the Trinity.

This is a serious heresy.  Our Church teaches that Christ always was, is and always will be.  "Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be world without end.  Amen!" 

We believe that Christ, being One with God the Father, is One with the Creator.  Now Arius was careful to say that Christ was not just a creature like other creatures, but that He was the highest creature; He was God, but He was not the One True God; He taught that Jesus was a lesser God. 

If, as Arius was saying, Jesus, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity is not equal with God, The First Person of the Holy Trinity, or is subordinate (or subservient) to God the Father, then why could there not be other gods like this, as in pagan days of yesterday and today?  In these, possibly the last days, there are those who are promoting just that, that we are gods.  As Catholics, part of our Judeo-Christian belief which goes back to Genesis, is that there is only one God.  How can Christ be God and not be One and equal with God our Heavenly Father?  Surely Arius had to be digging up the old heresy denying the Trinity, that of Subordinationism!  In saying that Christ was not the One true God, was he not denying Jesus, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity?  Exactly! 

He also dared to teach that Christ became a part of the Divine Nature of God as compensation for having died for our sins, or in repayment for having redeemed the world.  This tied in with his other heresies that stated Jesus was not of one Nature with God, He did not exist before the creation of the world, and would not be with us till the end of the world.  In other words, Jesus was not immortal like God the Father; He had a beginning and an end.

Not only had he deceived the faithful at large, but he had hoodwinked a powerful hierarchy, mainly from the East and to a small degree from the West.  It got so bad that the Emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicea in 325 to bring about peace and unity once and for all. 

We have to remember that Constantine was not that spiritual.  He really inherited this whole problem from his father, and he wanted it over.  At the beginning of the Fourth Century, his father, the monster Emperor Diocletian had attempted to wipe out all Christianity, whether by torture, death or intimidation.  But violence has a way of backfiring.  The terror he spread throughout his kingdom blew up into the possibility of widespread insurrection.  In an attempt to avert civil war, he stepped down from the throne.  His empire was split between the East and the West. 

"The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray."  The war which Diocletian wished to deter was to be waged for the next twenty years.  That was how Constantine ultimately inherited the West from his father.  But in those days, as for all time, people envy and covet, and are never satisfied.  Power is a demon whose thirst cannot be quenched.  Therefore, neither Constantine nor Maxenthius were satisfied with the share of the kingdom they had inherited from their fathers.

Constantine converted to the Catholic Faith.  However he did not give up his pagan gods; he continued worshiping Apollo (or Helios the sun god).  He just believed that the Christian God was more powerful and through Him, he (Constantine) would triumph over his enemies.  Bishop Eusebius later wrote that Constantine had a vision where he saw a Cross in the sky with the words: "By this conquer." 

Therefore, although Constantine did not understand the reason for the devastating breakdown of the Church that was resulting from Arianism, for political reasons, he called the first Ecumenical (universal) Council.  He gathered Bishops from all parts of his empire, from the East and the West.  The Council convened in Nicea, in 325 A.D.  For Constantine, the first Ecumenical Council, or as it is also known The Nicean Council, might have been for worldly reasons, but for the Church, it was called to bring about unity and most specifically to combat the heresy of Arianism.  The Council proclaimed for all time that "Christ shared the same Divine Nature as His Father." 

The Council condemned Arianism; it gave us the Nicene Creed, our Pledge of Allegiance to the Church, which we continue to pray every week.  Everything was fine for about three years until an Arian Bishop, Eusebius, returned from exile, and insisted that Arius be reinstated in the Church.  The whole thing started all over again.  Arianism gathered strength in Egypt.  Constantine, who had called the Council in the first place, now went against it, and supported Arianism.  Again, to give him credit, he was not being vindictive, nor had he switched loyalties.  He wanted peace and unity in a very large kingdom.

Constantine supported Arianism militarily, forcing this heresy where the faithful would not acquiesce.  Bishops loyal to the Church, who did not buckle under the pressure, were relieved of their Sees; and some died martyrs' deaths rather than betray their Lord.  St. Athanasius was banished five times because of his undaunted courage in writing and preaching against this deadly heresy.  St. Hilary of Poitier lost his See and was exiled for many years.  The See of Constantinople was held by an Arian for forty years.  And, we do not understand the danger we are in, today? 

We sometimes grieve, meditating on the waste of talent and effort by some very gifted people who insist on using their God-given gifts to fight God, instead of defending Him!  Arius was so deviously convincing, in 336 A. D., he was able to manipulate Emperor Constantine into believing he was, and had always been authentically teaching the true dogmas of the Church.  You may ask how was he able to accomplish this, what with all the censures that had been placed on Arius, by Bishop after Bishop, over and over again?  His silver tongue got him by once more, as he met with Constantine, privately.  The emperor issued an order; Arius was to be re-instated in the Church. 

Arius strutted triumphantly back towards his quarters. Having failed to use the toilet facilities at the emperor's castle, he decided to relieve himself in the streets of Constantinople.  As he was so doing in back of the Forum, suddenly his bowels burst, and he died the ugly, disgraceful death, indicative of the life he had led.

Although Arius was dead, his heresy continued to flourish while Constantine was in power.  After Emperor Constantine's death the following year 337, Arianism started to lose some of its support.  When Emperor Theodosius condemned Arianism in 380, you would have thought that was the end of it, but it is like a boil that stays below the surface until it can erupt once more.  It was the national religion of the Germanic nations for one hundred and fifty years. 

This heresy was adopted by Hitler who set himself up as god, completely outlawing Christianity, imprisoning, torturing and killing bishops, priests, and religious who would not deny Christ.  The "Heil Hitler" replaced the Heil Jesus and the Heil Maria.  Hitler told the people they were a master race, an Arian race.  And the world did not know how deadly this title and philosophy would be.  It is frightening when you contemplate how close Hitler came to dominating the whole world.  It has been said, only the fact he was anti-semitic stopped him from using the Atom Bomb, because it was developed by a Jew!

The Church fights back!

Now, many of the Bishops had been won over by Arius.  But, thank God, there were those who remained faithful to the Church.  Whenever there has been an attack, there has always been a remnant of the true fabric of the Church who will follow the Pope and the Magisterium.  A battle ensued between bishops loyal to the Church and those bishops who were in heretical accord with Arianism. 

When Arius came out with his heresy that Jesus was not equal to the Father, the Lord raised up a defender and a future Saint and Doctor of the Church, St. Athanasius.  He defended the Church against the Arians, arguing: "If Jesus and God the Father were not One, eternal and unchangeable, then all is futile."  We are lost!  He cited the opening of St. John's Gospel: 

"In the beginning was the Word;

the Word was in God's presence,

and the Word was God. 

He was present to God in the beginning.

Through Him all things came into being,

and apart from Him nothing came to be.

Whatever came to be in Him, found life,

life for the light of men.

The light shines on in darkness,

a darkness that did not overcome it."

The Arians fought back brutally.  There was such an uproar that it spilled over from the hierarchy of the Church to the man in the streets!  There was a steaming anger brewing.  The Arians instigated even dock workers at the waterfronts.  It was the same as it had been, in the days of Jesus, when Pilate asked the crowd who to spare, and the few well placed rabble rousers swayed the masses against our Lord.  The history of the world has always been the same, from the mob turning on Caesar right up to today, the few dissenters stronger than the many faithful. 

It looked as if the controversy between Arianism and the Church would not only split the Church but pull down the state, as well.  And this, the emperor could not allow.  That's when he stepped in.  At first, he tried to resolve matters between the Arians and the followers of St. Athanasius, peacefully.  And when that did not look as if were to come about, he used force, to no avail.  Those for, and against the Church would not budge!  The battle continued!

The Council of Nicea (or the Nicene Council) had clearly stated the position of the Church as far as this heresy was concerned.  Yet, with the support of many of the Bishops, twenty years later Arianism had spread throughout much of the Roman Empire.  After Emperor Constantine's death, not only had Arianism gained tremendous strides in the Church, it had affected and infected every aspect of life.  The world had stepped in and because of the wide support of those in political power, Arianism was choking the life out of the faithful.

Satan wasn't satisfied with the progress Arianism was making.  He would deal the death blow to the Council of Nicea and its creed, or so he thought.  In around the year 350 A.D. the Nicene Creed was accused of contradicting Holy Scripture.  But we know, as powerful as we humans allow Satan to become, God always has a quarterback there on the sidelines, prepared to enter the game at the eleventh hour, and win for the Lord and his Church.  St. Athanasius wrote a powerful defense of the Nicene Creed!  He said:

"God creates by calling into existence that which did not exist, requiring nothing in order to do it; but men work with some existing material, first praying and obtaining the ability of making, from that God who fashioned all things through His own proper Word...men have no capacity for self-existence, are in fact, circumscribed in place, and exist at the pleasure of the Word of God...God, however exists of Himself, transcends all things, and is circumscribed by none." 

When, between the years 340 and 370 A.D. the disease of Arianism turned into a wide spread plague, God called upon another champion, St. Jerome.  St. Jerome cried out that which I fear will happen someday in the not too distant future, "The whole world awoke and groaned in astonishment to find itself Arian."  Although the Church was suffering the wounds of division, with the many who were following the false teachings of Arianism, St. Jerome wrote the following to Pope St. Damasius:

"I am joined in communion with your Holiness, that is with the chair of Peter; upon the Rock I know the Church is built.  Whoever eats the Lamb outside of that house is a profane person.  Whoever is not in the ark, shall perish in the flood...Whoever gathers not with you, scatters; he who is not Christ's belongs to Antichrist...Order me, if you please, what I should do."

As with today, and as with all those periods in history when whole nations left the Church, it was not the desire of majority of the people.  The laity have always been faithful to the Church, and all too often have been sacrificial lambs through the hands of those they have trusted.  Heresy and division have always spread through either religious who had gone astray or those in power using dissension within the Church for their own personal gains.  In all war, whether between principalities or nations, the end result is always the same; the innocent suffer!  In the past, it was because we were not educated.  But today, the Lord is gathering together an army of St. Jeromes, St. Athanasius', St. Hilarys, St. Ambroses, St. Augustines and on and on.  The names are different but the hearts are the same, those immersed in the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of His Mother.

The Lord raised up another defender of the Faith, St. Ambrose.

"...Milan was being torn apart by dissensions between Catholics and Arians.  Surprise you?  Arianism had been gaining a foothold in the East and had spread to Milan.  Bishop Ambrose had the difficult and unpopular mission of maintaining unity within the Church and peace in the city, and all this, without compromising the Faith. 

"The Church was in danger.  The forces of hell were being waged against her, and she was calling upon our Lord for a Saint.  That Saint was, at this time and in this place, St. Ambrose.  Our precious Church was being split in two by schism, and was bleeding.  Empress Justine, who once belonged to the Arian sect, demanded that Bishop Ambrose turn the church, attended by Catholics (believed to be the Cathedral of Milan), over to the Arians.  St. Ambrose refused!  The Empress sent in troops to forcibly take over the Cathedral.  She and they were not ready for what they encountered; St. Ambrose was preaching to a church full of worshipers.  As some would leave to go home to their families, they were quickly replaced by others.

"Tribunes came with a summons for the Bishop to relinquish the Church to them.  His important reply was a lesson to us,

`If the emperor demanded what belonged to me, even though everything I own belongs to the poor, I would not refuse.  But the things of God are not mine.  If anyone wants my patrimony (legacy), let him take it!  If anyone wants my body, let him seize it!  Do you want to put me in chains and lead me to death?  I shall obey, and shall not allow my people to defend me.  I shall not kiss the altar, begging for life.  I prefer to be immolated on the altar.'

"Nothing shook Ambrose.  He sang the Psalms with his people and order was maintained." 

By 370 A.D. through the faithfulness of many unsung heroes and heroines who remained with the Church, often at a great price, the Church was victorious.  In 381 A.D. the Council of Constantinople convened to reaffirm the Council of Nicea, and to reinstate the rightful bishop of Constantinople.  The Council restated Jesus' Divinity.  In answer to a heresy (an offshoot of Arianism), which attacked the Holy Spirit, the Council not only confirmed our belief in the Holy Spirit as the Third Person in the Holy Trinity, but added to the Nicene Creed  "with the Father and the Son He is worshiped and glorified." 

The Pope and his faithful Bishops hoped this Council would unify the Church which had been split apart by Arianism.  At times, we judge ourselves hopeless and helpless to combat the evil that is spreading throughout the world and throughout our Church.  The bad news is, it's happening and has happened on and off for two thousand years.  But the good news is, we're still here.  Jesus and Mary always triumph! 

When we are confused, when we find we cannot read a teaching of one theologian that does not contradict that of another, we have only to recall that it all happened before, and we survived.  When in doubt as to what to believe, just follow what a Priest faithful to the Pope said recently: "When you do not know who or what to believe, you can rely on the headship that Jesus left us, a succession of Popes guided by the Holy Spirit and the Magisterium."

Endnotes:

heresy stating Jesus was not equal to the Father

who had inherited his portion of the kingdom from his father

"The Church Teaches-Jesuit Fathers- TAN Publications

John refers to Jesus as the Word

Pg 323 -  Sec 754 - St. Athanasius - The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol 1, W. A. Jurgens, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN

St. Jerome-doctor of the Church.  Learned in Holy Scripture, he translated the Bible into the everyday speech "vulgate" of the people of Rome which was Latin.  He also translated the New Testament and the Psalms and wrote countless books on our Faith for which he was declared one of the Four foremost doctors of the Church.  The Vulgate Bible of St. Jerome is considered the official Latin version of the Bible in the Roman Catholic Church.

from "The Proper Context: An Introduction by the Author-from the book "Report from the Synod" by Richard Cowden-Guido

Magisterium is the authority passed down by Jesus to the Church, in communion with infallibility with which the Church teaches authentically Holy Scripture, carrying and upholding through tradition the truths of our salvation.(Catholic Encyclopedia-Broderick) 

It is also the teaching authority of the Church by which the College of Bishops, in union with the Pope, are guided by the Holy Spirit in defining the doctrines and discipline necessary for the good of souls.

About the Authors:

Bob and Penny Lord are renowned Catholic authors of many best selling books about the Catholic Faith. They are hosts on EWTN Global Television and have written over 25 books. They are best known as the authors of “Miracles of the Eucharist books.” They have been dubbed, “Experts on the Saints.”

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