Reformation in the Fourth Century

Dorothy Barker

New Horizons: October 2001

God's Truth Abideth Still

Also in this issue

Reformation in the Sixteenth Century

Reformation Needed Today

Reformed or Reforming?

Arius against Alexander

All of the people who lived in Alexandria recognized the tall, thin figure of Arius as he strode by. Although he was a pastor in the city, he dressed more in the manner of a hermit, wearing just a simple, short tunic with a scarf to serve as cloak. The reason for his fame, however, was not his manner of life. It was his teaching. Everyone was talking about the strange new ideas that he so forcefully set forth. Only the Father is truly God, he said. Jesus Christ is merely the first of the created beings. Christ lived before the creation of the world and was himself active in creation, but he nevertheless had a beginning. He is the perfect image of the Father, but is not of the same essence, and therefore can be called "God" only in a secondary sense.

Arius's bishop, Alexander, was a strong and faithful leader, anxious that the truth be preached as clearly as possible. When he heard what Arius was proclaiming, he was disturbed. The man had to be stopped at once! Immediately the old bishop gathered together all the Alexandrian clergy. "Brothers," he said gently, but with a tone of firmness, "some of you have been telling the people that which is not true. You are in error in your understanding about Christ. Let me instruct you in this matter, so that our preaching might be true to Scripture." Alexander carefully repeated the basic beliefs about Christ and concluded by saying, "Now, brother Arius, I ask you and your followers to renounce your former doctrine and teach this truth. Is that understood?"

The tall figure of Arius stood out in the group, and at Alexander's request it seemed as if he straightened his body to its full height. His proud tones could not be misunderstood: "We here at Alexandria have freedom to preach what we believe. You cannot stop me from preaching as I will!"

Alexander was even more disturbed by Arius's refusal. His teaching was unscriptural, yet he refused to be instructed and appeared to have an exceedingly proud spirit. Further steps had to be taken. Alexander summoned all the bishops of Egypt to a meeting, certain that they would support him against Arius. Instead, Alexander discovered that the controversy was growing. Arius had made a good many friends. Women admired his ascetic appearance and gave him their vigorous support. Arius had put his main ideas into the form of songs, and soon every dock worker and common laborer was singing these melodies and picking fights with those who said they favored Alexander. Recognizing Arius's popularity, the Egyptian bishops were divided in their opinion of him.

Arius took advantage of every opportunity and spent some time in Asia Minor, talking with the leaders of the church and explaining his ideas to all who would listen. Soon the whole eastern half of the Roman Empire was involved in this great debate. Was it any wonder that Arius was a familiar figure?

The Emperor Intervenes

When Emperor Constantine heard about the split in the church, he was dismayed. He favored Christianity—under his rule, persecution had ceased, and the church enjoyed the patronage of the state—but his concern about particular doctrines was much less than his concern for peace and harmony. To him, all this disagreement about the Son—is he the eternal God or the first created being?—was quibbling. "Let's settle this matter one way or another!" was his approach. "Peace we must have."

No sooner said than done. The Emperor wrote a letter and sent copies to both Arius and Alexander, pleading with them to agree like Christian brethren, uniting on essentials and overlooking these "unimportant differences." Neither Arius nor Alexander agreed that the differences were trivial, so Constantine decided that he would call a council of the entire church and somehow dispose of this problem.

The Council of Nicaea

The Council, which met at Nicaea in the year 325, presented a magnificent sight. The emperor himself was present, splendid in his robes of royal purple that glittered with gold and precious stones. Wise and learned leaders of the church came from all parts of the empire. Simple pastors were also included in the multitude. Among the group was Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, accompanied by his secretary, the young and earnest pastor Athanasius, who was very interested in the debates, even though he kept silent because of his youth and relatively unimportant position.

Constantine himself directed the debates. First the Arians presented their views, but the assembly was clearly horrified to hear Christians saying that "there was a time when the Son of God was not." Alexander's condemnation of Arius was upheld. But Constantine was not satisfied that the affair should rest there, for he was still anxious to unite all the church through their agreement on a single statement of faith. Eusebius of Caesarea, who was rather inclined to agree with Arius, proposed the adoption of the baptismal creed of his church, but the assembly could not agree. The Arians wanted the wording to be vague enough so that they could sign without renouncing their views. The friends of Alexander were extremely anxious that the new creed condemn Arianism in clear language.

Another statement was proposed, and finally, after long debates, the Council reached agreement, encouraged no doubt by the fact that the emperor favored the new creed. In this creed, Christ was described as "of the essence of the Father," a phrase that was clearly opposed to Arius's views. At the end of the creed were placed anathemas or curses upon those who said that the Son was a created being. All but two delegates signed the document. At the end of the Council, Constantine held a big feast in honor of his twentieth anniversary in power, and all the rulers of the church experienced the thrill of being entertained by a Roman emperor instead of being persecuted. Constantine was delighted with the results of the Council. He had brought unity to the church. The matter was settled.

Arian Progress

But was Arianism dead? Arius himself was still active, although officially excommunicated by the church, and many of those who had signed the Nicene Creed had done so more to please the emperor than because of their own beliefs. The Arians worked quietly. One by one, the bishops who supported Alexander were removed from office. One man was accused of insulting the emperor's mother. Another was found guilty of heresy. In slow but certain steps, the church in Asia Minor was coming under the control of those who did not accept a triune God.

Even Constantine came under the influence of those who followed Arius. Although the Emperor was interested in doctrine, he was at heart a statesman who considered peace more important than theology. He upheld the Nicene Creed, yet so great was his desire for all to agree, that he several times called Arius to him in an effort to reconcile him to the church. "How could there be real Christian unity as long as this man remained outside the church?" he reasoned.

His perseverance brought success. At length Arius came to court and signed a confession of faith that satisfied the emperor. Only one thing remained. Hastily Constantine sent a letter to Alexandria, informing the bishop that Arius was to be readmitted to the church as a true believer. Old bishop Alexander, the man who had first opposed Arius in Egypt and at Nicaea, was dead. His place had been taken by the young man who had been his trusted aide, Athanasius. No doubt Constantine expected his orders to be obeyed without discussion, for although he privately thought Athanasius was a stubborn man, he could hardly believe that a bishop would set himself against the emperor. So Constantine requested Athanasius to restore Arius to communion in Alexandria. Athanasius refused.


The young bishop was not a man to compromise his beliefs. He had been with bishop Alexander at Nicaea and had heartily agreed with the Nicene Creed, for he recognized that teachings about Christ were at the heart of the Christian message. If Christ is not the Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity incarnate, then our very salvation is lost, for no created being can redeem other creatures. This was a crucial doctrine, and its purity had to be defended regardless of the consequences. Therefore, Athanasius refused to admit to the church someone who denied this basic truth.

The enemies of Athanasius—and they were many in number—were delighted at this turn of events. The Arians had managed to gain control over most of Asia Minor, but they had never been able to get rid of Athanasius, who was the most troublesome of the orthodox bishops. Now that Athanasius was out of favor with the emperor, they seized their opportunity and called him to appear before a synod at Antioch on a charge of murder. Athanasius was supposed to have had a certain bishop named Arsenius murdered and now the dead man's hand, cut off from his body, was supposedly being used for magical purposes. To prove this accusation, his enemies, the Meletians, had as evidence the victim's hand carefully preserved in a box. This was indeed a serious charge, and the emperor appointed his own brother to be present at the inquiry.

Athanasius Defends Himself

Athanasius did not sit calmly by, waiting to be found guilty. He knew that Arsenius was probably still alive, so he gave to his most alert deacon the task of locating the supposed victim. The hunt extended throughout the eastern empire. First the deacon found evidence that Arsenius had been hidden in Egypt, but the man managed to escape and the deacon had to chase him all the way to Tyre before he captured him. The bishop of Tyre swore that this was in truth Arsenius, complete with two hands, and a very embarrassed synod in Antioch disbanded. Constantine wrote a severe letter to the Meletians, warning them against any further such mistakes, but in the interest of peace the emperor forgave the accusers of Athanasius and continued his friendship with Arius.

The Arians continued to plot against Athanasius because he steadfastly refused to admit Arius into fellowship with the church in Alexandria. No doubt they did their best to poison the emperor's mind against Athanasius. "After all," they would say, "if it weren't for that stubborn, troublesome Athanasius, there would be peace in the church." Since peace was Constantine's chief interest, this argument would appeal to him. At any rate, in July 335, he listened to the plea of the Arians for a synod at Tyre, allowed them to organize it in the way they wanted, and then required Athanasius to attend it. Once again, Athanasius was on trial, and this time his enemies had planned every detail of the meeting in order to get rid of their hated foe. The charges were not new. Athanasius had disproved them once before, but the Arians had gathered additional evidence. Whether it was true or false mattered not to them, just as long as they succeeded in convicting Athanasius.

When Athanasius discovered how hopeless his situation was, he secretly fled from Tyre and went right to Constantine. He must have spoken persuasively, for after hearing his story, Constantine told the delegates at Tyre to meet again in Constantinople, under his supervision. Athanasius may have hoped that finally Constantine had seen the uselessness of trying to establish peace without an equal concern for purity of doctrine.

But his hopes were soon crushed. The Arians, discovering that Athanasius had fled and guessing where he had gone, immediately sent some representatives of their side to seek an audience with Constantine. They brought a new accusation: "Athanasius has threatened to prevent the shipment of grain from Egypt to the capital." When Constantine heard this, he was furious. He had been patient long enough with this obstinate bishop! Without giving Athanasius a chance to defend himself, Constantine banished him to Treves (in Gaul). The Arians rejoiced. Their most powerful enemy had been exiled and the king obviously favored them.

Final Results

It might have appeared to an impartial observer that the orthodox cause was lost. Athanasius had been silenced and Arianism actually dominated the church, despite the Nicene Creed. For years the struggle continued. The supporters of Arius made innumerable, though unsuccessful, attempts to change the creed. The emperors, who were governed by political expediency, kept changing sides in the struggle. But against all challenge firmly stood Athanasius. A king could exile him, but could not silence him. Five times he was banished from his church in Alexandria. Once some soldiers actually entered the sanctuary and caused a riot among the worshipers, but through it all Athanasius continued to preach that men must believe in the Trinity and that the church could not admit into fellowship those who denied that Jesus Christ is God.

Athanasius died in the midst of the struggle. Was it all worthwhile? Athanasius never saw the conclusion of the debate. Often during his lifetime, the truth seemed lost; the Arians seemed to dominate completely. Like Elijah on Mount Carmel, Athanasius found himself alone, the world against him.

But just eight years after Athanasius's death, Emperor Theodosius, a man brought up in the orthodox faith and a fervent believer in the truth, removed Arians from their positions of authority in the church and held a council at Constantinople at which the Nicene Creed was reaffirmed and the doctrine of the Trinity clearly set forth. From that time on, Arianism disappeared as an organized force within the church, and the beliefs that Athanasius had so vigorously upheld were completely vindicated. As God had promised, his truth had prevailed.

The author is a member of Grace OPC in Westfield, N.J. Reprinted from New Horizons, October 2001.

New Horizons: October 2001

God's Truth Abideth Still

Also in this issue

Reformation in the Sixteenth Century

Reformation Needed Today

Reformed or Reforming?

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