EWTN Catholic Q&A
Arianism, those involved
Question from hsummer on 11-19-2003:

I was wondering about the time line in and around Arianism. I heard somewhere of a single (now saint) priest that was excommunicated for not "following" the Arian belief and that as much as 80% of the bishops at the time may have been following the belief. Do you have any ref. on this? Also, If it is true that in the history of the church, there could be such a high percentage of heretical bishops/priests, could that not repeat itself in say modern times over something such as "modernism" or a distorted version of ecumenism?

Answer by Matthew Bunson on 11-24-2003:

Arianism was on of the most significant heresies to confront the Church in the first centuries. The heresy took its name from Arius (260-336), the heretical priest of Alexandria who formulated its principles and doctrines. According to the Arians, Christ was not truly divine but was created by the Father to serve as the means of implementing his divine plan; he was like the Father, but, as a created being, Christ was temporal and changeable rather than divine and eternal.

Various efforts were undertaken to end the propagation of the heresy, culminating in the convoking of the Council of Nicaea in 325 where the anti-Arian party, under the guidance of Athanasius, then a deacon of Alexandria, secured an orthodox definition of the faith and the use of the term homoousios (consubstantial; i.e., of the same substance) in describing Christ's nature.

What followed was the gradual reinstatement of the Arian position owing to the political machinations of its adherents. Thus, the aging Emperor Constantine was convinced to permit the return of Arius from exile (he died while en route in 336). Nevertheless, the Arians increased in power not because of the embrace of their erroneous doctrines by the faithful (indeed, their following was always tiny among Christians) but because of the willingness of several emperors to impose their will upon the Church. Under Constantine's successor in the East, Constantius II (r. 337-361), council was held in Antioch in 341 where a majority of Eastern bishops, headed by Eusebius of Nicomedia, accepted several heretical statements on Christ's nature. They did so under threat from the emperor and the Arian minority, and because a number of key orthodox bishops had been exiled.

Opposition was such in the West that both Constantius II and his colleague in the Western Empire, Constans (r. 340-350), convened the Council of Sardica in 343. Fearing defeat, the Arians withdrew from the assembly, although the non-Arians managed to have the oft-banished Athanasius restored to Alexandria and several Arians deposed from their sees.

Constans died in 350 and Constantius became sole emperor, an event that heralded a new outbreak of Arianism and severe persecutions of Catholics in the empire. In 359, the Arians held councils at Seleucia and Ariminum and there issued several alarming decrees that caused St. Jerome to write that “world groaned and wondered to find itself Arian.” Throughout, the Arians succeeded in these brief victories by intimidation and political patronage rather than by wining the hearts and minds of authentic Christians. This shallow and inauthentic Christianity could not last, thanks in large measure to the labors of orthodox Christians in the West and in the East, such as the Cappadocian Fathers (Sts. Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus). Preaching the truth, the orthodox Christians of the Empire laid the groundwork for the final defeat of the Arians at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

The historical lessons of the Arians in terms of your question are found in the political activities of the emperors and their willingness to impose themselves on the Church. As seen, the Arians were a minority in the empire, but they received an exaggerated strength and importance because of the willingness of the political establishment to support them. Arianism never gained a foothold in the West in part because the strength of the Holy See largely prevented the full effects of Caesaropapism to be felt as they had been in the patriarchate of Constantinople and other sees in the Eastern Empire such as Alexandria. It is thus not accurate to claim that the majority of priests and bishops adhered to Arianism – as the suffering of the true majority attested. Rather, a small group was able to secure its own temporary ascendancy.