The Libyan theologian Arius (died ca. 336) was presbyter of the Christian Church in Alexandria and the first of the great heresiarchs.

Nothing is known of the early life of Arius except that he may have been born in Libya and may have studied under Lucian, the revered teacher and martyr of Antioch. It is certain that he was pastor of the Baucalis church on the Alexandrian waterfront, where he won many supporters by his preaching. He may have aspired to the episcopacy in Alexandria, which went instead to his fellow presbyter, Alexander.

Not until 318, however, did Arius become prominent and then only as a heretic. He began by criticizing the Trinitarian views of Bishop Alexander, accusing him of Sabellianism (an early heresy which did not distinguish clearly between the "Persons" of the Trinity). But when Arius explained his position, he caused greater alarm with his own views, and soon he was condemned and exiled from his diocese.

Arius sought refuge in the East, soliciting the support of his friend Eusebius of Nicomedia. Arius contended that the doctrinal error of which he was accused was his belief that the "Son had a beginning but God [alone] is without beginning." And this view, Arius felt, deserved commendation, not persecution. Arius's doctrine of the Son was radically subordinationist; that is, he claimed the Son to be a "creature" of the Father and that "there was [a time when] he was not." Prior to Arius, some religious thinkers had denied the humanity of Christ and some His divinity, but Arius was the first to deny both.

The Arian controversy grew to surprising proportions, soon involving most of the Church in the East and, later, the Church in the West as well. The recently converted Roman emperor Constantine was anxious to utilize the Church in the interests of political unity within the empire. He sent Bishop Ossius of Cordova, his ecclesiastical adviser, to Alexandria to determine the "facts" of the case and try to resolve the dispute. Constantine was not aware of the true nature of the controversy, as is shown by a letter he sent with Ossius, in which he referred to the Arian affair as an "unprofitable question" resulting from a "contentious spirit." But Ossius soon discovered that settling the dispute would be no simple matter. After his investigation he went to Antioch and presided over a council that provisionally condemned Arius and his followers.

The real debate, however, took place a few months later at the first great ecumenical council of the Church at Nicaea in 325. There, with the Emperor presiding and some 220 bishops attending, Arius was condemned—an action that Constantine equated with "the judgment of God." The council also promulgated a credal statement which declared the Son to be "consubstantial" with the Father. This belief could never be accepted by anyone holding Arian views.

After the council the Arian controversy did not die out but intensified. Arius, in exile in Illyricum, was no longer an active participant. In fact, he sought restoration and even wrote a "confession" which he believed to be acceptable to the terms of Nicaea. Not only was he refused admittance to Alexandria, where the great Nicene champion Anthanasius was now bishop, but in addition Constantine ordered Arius's books burned. Apparently, if Athanasius's account is trustworthy, Arius failed to obtain rehabilitation during his life. Technically it had been granted, but on the eve of the day Arius was to receive communion he died suddenly (ca. 336). It was several decades before Arianism itself was defeated and orthodoxy defined.


Further Reading on Arius

As with most heretics, Arius is known primarily through the eyes of his opponents; only a few letters of Arius himself survive. Modern studies of Arius and Arianism are scarce: Henry Melvill Gwatkin, Studies of Arianism: Chiefly Referring to the Character and Chronology of the Reaction Which Followed the Council of Nicaea (1882; 2d ed. 1900), and John Henry Newman, The Arians of the Fourth Century (1833; 4th rev. ed. 1876), are helpful but prejudiced and outdated. Of general surveys, G.L. Prestige, Fathers and Heretics (1940); Jean Daniélou and Henri Marrou, The Christian Centuries, vol. 1: The First Six Hundred Years (1963; trans. 1964); and Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (trans. 1967), can be consulted with profit.


Additional Biography Sources

Williams, Rowan, Arius: heresy and tradition, London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 1987.

Kannengiesser, Charles., Arius and Athanasius: two Alexandrian theologians, Aldershot, Hampshire, Great Britain: Variorum; Brookfield, Vermont, USA: Gower Pub. Co., 1991.