THE GREAT HERESIES
by Hilaire Belloc
The Arian Heresy
Arianism was the first of the great heresies.
There had been from the foundation of the Church at Pentecost A.D.
29 to 33 a mass of heretical movements filling the first three
centuries. They had turned, nearly all of them, upon the nature of Christ.
The effect of our Lord's predication, and Personality, and
miracles, but most of all His resurrection, had been to move every one who
had any faith at all in the wonder presented, to a conception of divine
power running through the whole affair.
Now the central tradition of the Church here, as in every other
case of disputed doctrine, was strong and clear from the beginning. Our
Lord was undoubtedly a man. He had been born as men are born, He died as
men die. He lived as a man and had been known as a man by a group of close
companions and a very large number of men and women who had followed Him,
and heard Him and witnessed His actions.
But_said the Church_He was also God. God had come down to earth
and become Incarnate as a Man. He was not merely a man influenced by the
Divinity, nor was He a manifestation of the Divinity under the appearance
of a man. He was at the same time fully God and fully Man. On that the
central tradition of the Church never wavered. It is taken for granted
from the beginning by those who have authority to speak.
But a mystery is necessarily, because it is a mystery,
incomprehensible; therefore man, being a reasonable being, is perpetually
attempting to rationalize it. So it was with this mystery. One set would
say Christ was only a man, though a man endowed with special powers.
Another set, at the opposite extreme, would say He was a manifestation of
the Divine. His human nature was a thing of illusion. They played the
changes between those two extremes indefinitely.
Well, the Arian heresy was, as it were, the summing up and
conclusion of all these movements on the unorthodox side_that is, of all
those movements which did not accept the full mystery of two natures.
Since it is very difficult to rationalize the union of the
Infinite with the finite, since there is an apparent contradiction between
the two terms, this final form into which the confusion of heresies
settled down was a declaration that our Lord was as much of the Divine
Essence as it was possible for a creature to be, but that He was none the
less a creature. He was not the Infinite and Omnipotent God who must be of
His nature one and indivisible, and could not (so they said) be at the
same time a limited human moving and having his being in the temporal
Arianism (I will later describe the origin of the name) was
willing to grant our Lord every kind of honour and majesty short of the
full nature of the Godhead. He was created (or, if people did not like the
word "created'' then "he came forth'') from the Godhead before all other
effects thereof. Through Him the world was created. He was granted one
might (say paradoxically) all the divine attributes_except divinity.
Essentially this movement sprang from exactly the same source as
any other rationalistic movement from the beginning to our own time. It
sprang from the desire to visualize clearly and simply something which is
beyond the grasp of human vision and comprehension. Therefore, although it
began by giving to our Lord every possible honour and glory short of the
actual Godhead, it would inevitably have led in the long run into mere
unitarianism and the treating of our Lord at last as a prophet and,
however exalted, no more than a prophet.
As all heresies necessarily breathe the air of the time in which
they arise, and are necessarily a reflection of the philosophy of whatever
non-Catholic ideas are prevalent at that moment they arise, Arianism spoke
in the terms of its day. It did not begin as a similar movement would
begin today by making our Lord a mere man and nothing else. Still less did
it deny the supernatural as a whole. The time in which it arose (the years
round about A.D. 300) was a time in which all society took the
supernatural for granted. But it spoke of our Lord as a Supreme Agent of
God_a Demiurge_and regarded him as the first and greatest of those
emanations of the Central Godhead through which emanations the fashionable
philosophy of the day got over the difficulty of reconciling the Infinite
and simple Creator with a complex and finite universe.
So much for the doctrine and for what its rationalistic tendencies
would have ended in had it conquered. It would have rendered the new
religion something like Mohammedanism or perhaps, seeing the nature of
Greek and Roman society, something like an Oriental Calvinism.
At any rate, what I have just set down was the state of this
doctrine so long as it flourished: a denial of Our Lord's full Godhead
combined with an admission of all his other attributes.
Now when we are talking of the older dead heresies we have to
consider the spiritual and therefore social effects of them much more than
their mere doctrinal error, although that doctrinal error was the ultimate
cause of all their spiritual and social effects. We have to do this
because, when a heresy has been long dead, its savour is forgotten. The
particular tone and unmistakable impress which it stamped upon society
being no longer experienced is non-existent for us, and it had to be
resurrected, as it were, by anyone who wants to talk true history. It
would be impossible, short of an explanation of this kind, to make a
Catholic from Bearn today, a peasant from the neighbourhood of Lourdes
where Calvinism, once prevalent there, is now dead, understand the savour
and individual character of Calvinism as it still survives in Scotland and
in sections of the United States. But we must try to realize this now
forgotten Arian atmosphere, because, until we understand its spiritual and
therefore social savour, we cannot be said to it really at all.
Further, one must understand this savour or intimate personal
character of the movement, and its individual effect on society, in order
to understand its importance. There is no greater error in the whole range
of bad history than imagining that doctrinal differences, because they are
abstract and apparently remote from the practical things of life, are not
therefore of intense social effect. Describe to a Chinaman today the
doctrinal quarrel of the Reformation, tell him that it was above all a
denial of the doctrine of the visible church, and a denial of the
special authority of its officers. That would be true. He would so far
understand what happened at this Reformation as he might understand a
mathematical statement. But would that make him understand the French
Huguenots of today, the Prussian manner in war and politics, the nature of
England and her past since Puritanism arose in this country? Would it make
him understand the Orange Lodges or the moral and political systems of,
say, Mr. H. G. Wells or Mr. Bernard Shaw? Of course it would not! To give
a man the history of tobacco, to give him the chemical formula (if there
be such a thing) for nicotine, is not to make him understand what is meant
by the smell of tobacco and the effects of smoking it. So it is with
Arianism. Merely to say that Arianism was what it was doctrinally is to
enunciate a formula, but not to give the thing itself.
When Arianism arose it came upon a society which was already, and
had long been, the one Universal Polity of which all civilized men were
citizens. There were no separate nations. The Roman empire was one state
from the Euphrates to the Atlantic and from the Sahara to the Scottish
Highlands. It was ruled in monarchic fashion by the Commander-in-Chief, or
Commanders-in-Chief, of the armies. The title for the Commander-in-Chief
was "Imperator''_whence we get our word Emperor_and therefore we talk of
that State as the "Roman Empire.'' What the emperor or associated emperors
(there had been two of them according to the latest scheme, each with a
coadjutor, making four, but these soon coalesced into one supreme head and
unique emperor) declared themselves to be, that was the attitude of the
empire officially as a whole.
The emperors and therefore the whole official scheme dependent on
them had been anti-Christian during the growth of the Catholic Church in
the midst of Roman and Greek pagan society. For nearly 300 years they and
the official scheme of that society had regarded the increasingly powerful
Catholic Church as an alien and very dangerous menace to the traditions
and therefore to the strength of the old Greek and Roman pagan world. The
Church was, as it were, a state within a state, possessing her own supreme
officials, the bishops, and her own organization, which was of a highly
developed and powerful kind. She was ubiquitous. She stood in strong
contrast with the old world into which she had thrust herself. What would
be the life of the one would be the death of the other. The old world
defended itself through the action of the last pagan emperors. They
launched many persecutions against the Church, ending in one final and
very drastic persecution which failed.
The Catholic cause was at first supported by, and at last openly
joined by, a man who conquered all other rivals and established himself as
supreme monarch over the whole State: the Emperor Constantine the Great
ruling from Constantinople, the city which he had founded and called "New
Rome.'' After this the central office of the Empire was Christian. By the
critical date A.D. 325, not quite three centuries after Pentecost, the
Catholic Church had become the official, or at any rate the Palace,
Religion of the Empire, and so remained (with one very brief exceptional
interval) as long as the empire stood.
But it must not be imagined that the majority of men as yet
adhered to the Christian religion, even in the Greek speaking East. They
certainly were not of that religion by anything like a majority in the
Latin speaking West.
As in all great changes throughout history the parties at issue
were minorities inspired with different degrees of enthusiasm or lack of
enthusiasm. These minorities had various motives and were struggling each
to impose its mental attitude upon the wavering and undecided mass. Of
these minorities the Christians were the largest and (what was more
important) the most eager, the most convinced, and the only fully and
The conversion of the Emperor brought over to them large and
increasing numbers of the undecided majority. These, perhaps, for the
greater part hardly understood the new thing to which they were rallying,
and certainly for the most part were not attached to it. But it had
finally won politically and that was enough for them. Many regretted the
old gods, but thought it not worth while to risk anything in their
defence. Very many more cared nothing for what was left of the old gods
and not much more for the new Christian fashions. Meanwhile there was a
strong minority remaining of highly intelligent and determined pagans.
They had on their side not only the traditions of a wealthy governing
class but they had also the great bulk of the best writers and, of course,
they also had to strengthen them the recent memories of their long
dominance over society.
There was yet another element of that world, separate from all the
rest, and one which it is extremely important for us to understand: the
Army. Why it is so important for us to understand the position of the Army
will be described in a moment.
When the power of Arianism was manifested in those first years of
the official Christian Empire and its universal government throughout the
Graeco-Roman world, Arianism became the nucleus or centre of many forces
which would be, of themselves, indifferent to its doctrine. It became
the rallying point for many strongly surviving traditions from the older
world: traditions not religious, but intellectual, social, moral, literary
and all the rest of it.
We might put it vividly enough in modern slang by saying that
Arianism, thus vigorously present in the new great discussions within the
body of the Christian Church when first that Church achieved official
support and became the official religion of the Empire, attracted all the
"high-brows,'' at least half the snobs and nearly all the sincere
idealistic tories_the "die-hards''_whether nominally Christian or not. It
attracted, as we know, great numbers of those who definitely
Christian. But it was also the rallying point of these non-Christian
forces which were of such great importance in the society of the day.
A great number of the old noble families were reluctant to accept
the social revolution implied by the triumph of the Christian Church. They
naturally sided with a movement which they instinctively felt to be
spiritually opposed to the life and survival of that Church and which
carried with it an atmosphere of social superiority over the populace. The
Church relied upon and was supported at the end by the masses. Men of old
family tradition and wealth found the Arian more sympathetic than the
ordinary Catholic and a better ally for gentlemen.
Many intellectuals were in the same position. These had not pride
of family and old social traditions from the past, but they had pride of
culture. They remembered with regret the former prestige of the pagan
philosophers. They thought that this great revolution from paganism to
Catholicism would destroy the old cultural traditions and their own
The mere snobs, who are always a vast body in any society_that is,
the people who have no opinions of their own but who follow what they
believe to be the honorific thing of the moment_would be divided. Perhaps
the majority of them would follow the official court movement and attach
themselves openly to the new religion. But there would always be a certain
number who would think it more ",'' more "the thing'' to profess
sympathy with the old pagan traditions, the great old pagan families, the
long inherited and venerable pagan culture and literature and all the rest
of it. All these reinforced the Arian movement because it was destructive
Arianism had yet another ally and the nature of that alliance is
so subtle that it requires very careful examination. It had for ally the
tendency of government in an absolute monarchy to be half afraid of
emotions present in the minds of the people and especially in the poorer
people: emotions which if they spread and became enthusiastic and captured
the mass of the people might become too strong to be ruled and would have
to be bowed to. There is here a difficult paradox but one important to be
Absolute government, especially in the hands of one man, would
seem, on the surface, to be opposed to popular government. The two sound
contradictory to those who have not seen absolute monarchy at work. To
those who have, it is just the other way. Absolute government is the
support of the masses against the power of wealth in the hands of a few,
or the power of armies in the hands of a few. Therefore one might imagine
that the imperial power of Constantinople would have had sympathy with the
popular Catholic masses rather than with the intellectuals and the rest
who followed Arianism. But we must remember that while absolute government
has for its very cause of existence the defence of the masses against the
powerful few, yet it likes to rule. It does not like to feel that there is
in the State a rival to its own power. It does not like to feel that great
decisions may be imposed by organizations other than its own official
organization. That is why even the most Christian emperors and their
officials always had at the back of their minds, during the first lifetime
of the Arian movement, a potential sympathy with Arianism, and that is why
this potential sympathy in some cases appears as actual sympathy and as a
public declaration of Arianism on their part.
There was yet one more ally to Arianism through which it almost
In order to understand how powerful such an ally was we must
appreciate what the Roman Army meant in those days and of what it was
The Army was, of course, in mere numbers, only a fraction of
society. We are not certain what those numbers were; at the most they may
have come to half a million_they were probably a good deal less. But to
judge by numbers in the matter would be ridiculous. The Army was normally
half, or more than half, the State. The Army was the true cement, to use
one metaphor, the framework to use another metaphor, the binding force and
the support and the very material of the Roman Empire in that fourth
century; it had been so for centuries before and was to remain so for
It is absolutely essential to understand this point, for it
explains three-fourths of what happened, not only in the case of the Arian
heresy but of everything else between the days of Marius (under whose
administration the Roman Army first became professional), and the
Mohammedan attack upon Europe, that is, from more than a century before
the Christian era to the early seventh century. The social and political
position of the Army explains all those seven hundred years and more.
The Roman Empire was a military state. It was not a civilian
state. Promotion to power was through the Army. The conception of glory
and success, the attainment of wealth in many cases, in nearly all cases
the attainment of political power, depended on the Army in those days,
just as it depends upon money-lending, speculation, caucuses, manipulation
of votes, bosses and newspapers nowadays.
The Army had originally consisted of Roman citizens, all of whom
were Italians. Then as the power of the Roman State spread it took in
auxiliary troops, people following local chieftains, and affiliated to
the Roman military system and even recruited its regular ranks from up and
down the Empire in every province. There were many Gauls_that is
Frenchmen_in the Army, many Spaniards, and so forth, before the first one
hundred years of the Empire had run out. In the next two hundred
years_that is, in the two hundred years A.D. 100-300, leading up to the
Arian heresy_the Army had become more and more recruited from what we call
"Barbarians,'' a term which meant not savages but people outside the
strict limits of the Roman Empire. They were easier to discipline, they
were much cheaper to hire than citizens were. They were also less used to
the arts and comforts of civilization than the citizens within the
frontiers. Great numbers of them were German, but there were many Slavs
and a good many Moors and Arabs and Saracens and not a few Mongols even,
drifting in from the East.
This great body of the Roman Army was strictly bound together by
its discipline, but still more by its professional pride. It was a long
service army. A man belonged to it from his adolescence to his middle age.
No one else except the Army had any physical power. There could be no
question of resisting it by force, and it was in a sense the government.
Its commander-in-chief was the absolute monarch of the whole state. .
That is the capital mark of the whole affair. But for the Army,
Arianism would never have meant what it did. With the Army_and the Army
wholeheartedly on its side_Arianism all but triumphed and managed to
survive even when it represented a little more than the troops and their
It was true that a certain number of German troops from outside
the Empire had been converted by Arian missionaries at a moment when high
society was Arian. But that was not the main reason that the Army as a
whole went Arian. The Army went Arian because it felt Arianism to be the
distinctive thing which made it superior to the civilian masses, just as
Arianism was a distinctive thing which made the intellectual feel superior
to the popular masses. The soldiers, whether of barbaric or civilian
recruitment, felt sympathy with Arianism for the same reason that the old
pagan families felt sympathy with Arianism. The army then, and especially
the Army chiefs, backed the new heresy for all they were worth, and it
became a sort of test of whether you were somebody_a soldier as against
the despised civilians_or no. One might say that there had arisen a feud
between the Army chiefs on the one hand and the Catholic bishops on the
other. Certainly there was a division_an official severence between the
Catholic populace in towns, the Catholic peasantry in the country and the
almost universally Arian soldier; and the enormous effect of this junction
between the new heresy and the Army we shall see at work in all that
Now that we have seen what the spirit of Arianism was and what
forces were in its favour, let us see how it got its name.
The movement for denying the full Godhead of Christ and making Him
a creature took its title from one Areios (in the Latin form Arius), a
Greek-speaking African cleric rather older than Constantine, and already
famous as a religious force some years before Constantine's victories and
first imperial power.
Remember that Arius was only a climax to a long movement. What was
the cause of his success? Two things combined. First, the momentum of all
that came before him. Second, the sudden release of the Church by
Constantine. To this should be added undoubtedly something in Arius' own
personality. Men of this kind who become leaders do so because they have
some personal momentum from their own past impelling them. They would not
so become unless there were something in themselves.
I think we may take it that Arius had the effect he had through a
convergence of forces. There was a great deal of ambition in him, such as
you will find in all heresiarchs. There was a strong element of
rationalism. There was also in him enthusiasm for what he believed to be
His theory was certainly not his own original discovery, but he
made it his own; he identified it with his name. Further, he was moved to
a dogged resistance against people whom he thought to be persecuting him.
He suffered from much vanity, as do nearly all reformers. On the top of
all this a rather thin simplicity, "commonsense,'' which at once appeals
to multitudes. But he would never have had his success but for something
eloquent about him and a driving power.
He was already a man of position, probably from the Cyrenaica (now
an Italian colony in North Africa, east of Tripoli), though he was talked
of as being Alexandrian, because it was in Alexandria that he lived. He
had been a disciple of the greatest critic of his time, the martyr Lucian
of Antioch. In the year 318 he was presiding over the Church of Bucalis in
Alexandria, and enjoyed the high favour of the Bishop of the City,
Arius went over from Egypt to Caesarea in Palestine, spreading his
already well-known set of rationalizing, Unitarian ideas with zeal. Some
of the eastern Bishops began to agree with him. It is true that the two
main Syrian Bishoprics, Antioch and Jerusalem, stood out; but apparently
most of the Syrian hierarchy inclined to listen to Arius.
When Constantine became the master of the whole Empire in 325,
Arius appealed to the new master of the world. The great Bishop of
Alexandria, Alexander, had excommunicated him, but reluctantly. The old
heathen Emperor Licinius had protected the new movement.
A battle of vast importance was joined. Men did not know of what
importance it was, violently though their emotions were excited. Had this
movement for rejecting the full divinity of Our Lord gained the victory,
all our civilization would have been other than what it has been from that
day to this. We all know what happens when an attempt to simplify and
rationalize the mysteries of the Faith succeeds in any society. We have
before us now the ending experiment of the Reformation, and the aged
but still very vigorous Mohammedan heresy, which may perhaps appear with
renewed vigour in the future. Such rationalistic efforts against the creed
produce a gradual social degradation following on the loss of that direct
link between human nature and God which is provided by the Incarnation.
Human dignity is lessened. The authority of Our Lord is weakened. He
appears more and more as a man_perhaps a myth. The substance of Christian
life is diluted. It wanes. What began as Unitarianism ends as Paganism.
To settle the quarrel by which all Christian society was divided,
a council was ordered by the Emperor to meet, in A.D. 325, at the town of
Nicaea, fifty miles from the capital, on the Asiatic side of the Straits.
The Bishops were summoned to convene there from the whole Empire, even
from districts outside the Empire where Christian missionaries had planted
the Faith. The great bulk of those who came were from the Eastern Empire,
but the West was represented, and, what was of the first importance,
delegates arrived from the Primatial See of Rome; but for their adherence
the decrees of the Council would not have held. As it was their presence
gave full validity to these Decrees. The reaction against the innovation
of Arius was so strong that at this Council of Nicaea he was overwhelmed.
In that first great defeat, when the strong vital tradition of
Catholicism had asserted itself and Arius was condemned, the creed which
his followers had drawn up was trampled under-foot as a blasphemy, but the
spirit behind that creed and behind that revolt was to re-arise.
It re-arose at once, and it can be said that Arianism was actually
strengthened by its first superficial defeat. This paradox was due to a
cause you will find at work in many forms of conflict. The defeated
adversary learns from his first rebuff the character of the thing he has
attacked; he discovers its weak points; he learns how his opponent may be
confused and into what compromises that opponent may be led. He is
therefore better prepared after his check than he was at the first
onslaught. So it was with Arianism.
In order to understand the situation we must appreciate the point
that Arianism, founded like all heresies on an error in doctrine_that is
on something which can be expressed in a dead formula of mere words_soon
began to live, like all heresies at their beginning, with a vigorous new
life and character and savour of its own. The quarrel which filled the
third century from 325 onwards for a lifetime was not after its first
years a quarrel between opposing forms of words the difference between
which may appear slight; it became very early in the struggle a quarrel
between opposing spirits and characters: a quarrel between two opposing
, such as human personalities are: on the one side the
Catholic temper and tradition, on the other a soured, proud temper, which
would have destroyed the Faith.
Arianism learned from its first heavy defeat at Nicaea to
compromise on forms, on the wording of doctrine, so that it might
preserve, and spread with less opposition, its heretical spirit. The first
conflict had turned on the use of a Greek word which means "of the same
substance with.'' The Catholics, affirming the full Godhead of Our Lord,
insisted on the use of this word, which implied that the Son was of the
same Divine substance as the Father; that He was of the same Being: i.e.,
Godship. It was thought sufficient to present this word as a test. The
Arians_it was thought_would always refuse to accept the word and could
thus be distinguished from the Orthodox and rejected.
But many Arians were prepared to compromise by accepting the mere
word and denying the spirit in which it should be read. They were willing
to admit that Christ was of the Divine essence, but not fully God; not
uncreated. When the Arians began this new policy of verbal compromise, the
Emperor Constantine and his successors regarded that policy as an
honest opportunity for reconciliation and reunion. The refusal of the
Catholics to be deceived became, in the eyes of those who thought thus,
mere obstinacy; and in the eyes of the Emperor, factious rebellion and
inexcusable disobedience. "Here are you people, who call yourself the only
real Catholics, prolonging and needlessly embittering a mere
faction-fight. Because you have the popular names behind you, you feel
yourselves the masters of your fellows. Such arrogance is intolerable.
"The other side have accepted your main point; why cannot you now
settle the quarrel and come together again? By holding out you split
society into two camps; you disturb the peace of the Empire, and are as
criminal as you are fanatical.''
That is what the official world tended to put forward and honestly
The Catholics answered: "The heretics have accepted our main
point. They have subscribed to an Orthodox phrase, but they interpret that
phrase in an heretical fashion. They will repeat that Our Lord is of
Divine nature, but that he is fully God, for they still say He was
created. Therefore we will not allow them to enter our communion. To do
so would be to endanger the vital principle by which the Church exists,
the prin ciple of the Incarnation, and the Church is essential to the
Empire and Mankind.''
At this point, there entered the battle that personal force which
ultimately won the victory for Catholicism: St. Athanasius. It was the
tenacity and single aim of St. Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria, the
great Metropolitan See of Egypt, which decided the issue. He enjoyed a
position of advantage, for Alexandria was the second most important town
in the Eastern Empire and, as a Bishopric, one of the first four in the
world. He further enjoyed popular backing, which never failed him, and
which made his enemies hesitate to take extreme measures against him. But
all this would not have sufficed had not the man himself been what he was.
At the time when he sat at the Council of Nicaea in 325 he was
still a young man_probably not quite thirty; and he only sat there as
Deacon, although already his strength and eloquence were remarkable. He
lived to be seventy-six or seventy-seven years of age, dying in A.D. 373,
and during nearly the whole of that long life he maintained with
inflexible energy the full Catholic doctrine of the Trinity.
When the first compromise of Arianism was suggested, Athanasius
was already Archbishop of Alexandria. Constantine ordered him to re-admit
Arius to Communion. He refused.
It was a step most perilous because all men admitted the full
power of the Monarch over Life and Death, and regarded rebellion as the
worst of crimes. Athanasius was also felt to be outrageous and
extravagant, because opinion in the official world, among men of social
influence, and throughout the Army, upon which everything then reposed,
was strong that the compromise ought to be accepted. Athanasius was exiled
to Gaul, but Athanasius in exile was even more formidable than Athanasius
at Alexandria. His presence in the West had the effect of reinforcing the
strong Catholic feeling of all that part of the Empire.
He was recalled. The sons of Constantine, who succeeded one after
the other to the Empire, vacillated between the policy of securing popular
support_which was Catholic_and of securing the support of the Army_which
was Arian. Most of all did the Court lean towards Arianism because it
disliked the growing power of the organized Catholic Clergy, rival to the
lay power of the State. The last and longest lived of Constantine's sons
and successors, Constantius, became very definitely Arian. Athanasius was
exiled over and over again but the Cause of which he was champion was
growing in strength.
When Constantius died in 361, he was succeeded by a nephew of
Constantine's, Julian the Apostate. This Emperor went over to the large
surviving Pagan body and came near to reestablishing Paganism; for the
power of an individual Emperor was in that day overwhelming. But he was
killed in battle against the Persians and his successor, Jovian, was
However, the see-saw still went on. In 367, St. Athanasius, being
then an old man of at least seventy years of age, the Emperor Valens
exiled him for the fifth time. Finding that the Catholic forces were now
too strong he later recalled him. By this time Athanasius had won his
battle. He died as the greatest man of the Roman world. Of such value are
sincerity and tenacity, combined with genius.
But the Army remained Arian, and what we have to follow in the
next generations is the lingering death of Arianism in the Latin-speaking
Western part of the Empire; lingering because it was supported by the
Chief Generals in command of the Western districts, but doomed because the
people as a whole had abandoned it. How it thus died out I shall now
It is often said that all heresies die. This may be true in the
very long run but it is not necessarily true within any given period of
time. It is not even true that the vital principle of a heresy
necessarily loses strength with time. The fate of the various heresies has
been most various; and the greatest of them, Mohammedanism, is not only
still vigorous but is more vigorous over the districts which it originally
occupied than is its Christian rival, and much more vigorous and much more
co-extensive with its own society than is the Catholic Church with our
Western civilization which is the product of Catholicism.
Arianism, however, was one of those heresies which did die. The
same fate has overtaken Calvinism in our own day. This does not mean that
the general moral effect or atmosphere of the heresy disappears from among
men, but that its creative doctrines are no longer believed in, so that
its vitality is lost and must ultimately disappear.
Geneva today, for instance, is morally a Calvinist city, although
it has a Catholic minority sometimes very nearly equal to half its total
numbers, sometimes actually becoming (I believe) a slight majority. But
there is not one man of a hundred in Geneva today who accepts Calvin's
highly defined theology. The doctrine is dead; its effects on society
Arianism died in two fashions, corresponding to the two halves
into which the Roman Empire_which was in those days, for its citizens, the
whole civilized world_fell.
The Eastern half had Greek for its official language and it was
governed from Constantinople, which was also called Byzantium.
It included Egypt, North Africa, as far as Cyrene, the East Coast
of the Adriatic, the Balkans, Asia Minor, Syria as far (roughly) as the
Euphrates. It was in this part of the Empire that Arianism had sprung up
and proved so powerful that between A.D. 300 and A.D. 400 it very nearly
The Imperial Court had wavered between Arianism and Catholicism
with one momentary lapse back into paganism. But before the century was
over, that is well before the year A.D. 400, the Court was definitely
Catholic and seemed certain to remain so. As I explained above, although
the Emperor and his surrounding officials (which I have called "the
Court'') were theoretically all powerful (for the constitution was an
absolute monarchy and men could not think in any other terms in those
days), yet, at least as powerful, and less subject to change, was the army
on which the whole of that society reposed. And the army meant the
generals; the generals of the army were for the most part, and
When the central power, the Emperor and his officials, had become
permanently Catholic the spirit of the military was still in the main
Arian, and that is why the underlying ideas of Arianism_that is, the doubt
whether Our Lord was or could be really God_survived after formal Arianism
had ceased to be preached and accepted among the populace.
On this account, because the spirit which had underlain Arianism
(the doubt on the full divinity of Christ) went on, there arose a number
of what may be called "derivatives'' from Arianism; or "secondary forms''
Men continued to suggest that there was only one nature in Christ,
the end of which suggestion would necessarily have been a popular idea
that Christ was only a man. When that failed to capture the official
machine, though it continued to affect millions of people, there was
another suggestion made that there was only one Will in Christ, not a
human will and a divine will, but a single will.
Before these there had been a revival of the old idea, previous to
Arianism and upheld by early heretics in Syria, that the divinity only
came into Our Lord during His lifetime. He was born no more than a man,
and Our Lady was the mother of no more than a man_and so on. In all their
various forms and under all their technical names (Monophysites,
Monothelites, Nestorians, the names of the principal three_and there were
any number of others) these movements throughout the Eastern or Greek half
of the Empire were efforts at escaping from, or rationalizing, the full
mystery of the Incarnation; and their survival depended on the jealousy
felt by the army for the civilian society round it, and on the lingering
remains of pagan hostility to the Christian mysteries as a whole. Of
course they depended also on the eternal human tendency to rationalize and
to reject what is beyond the reach of reason.
But there was another factor in the survival of the secondary
effects of Arianism in the East. It was the factor which is called today
in European politics "Particularism,'' that is, the tendency of a part of
the state to separate itself from the rest and to live its own life. When
this feeling becomes so strong that men are willing to suffer and die for
it, it takes the form of a Nationalist revolution. An example of such was
the feeling of the southern Slavs against the Austrian Empire which
feeling gave rise to the Great War. Now this discontent of provinces and
districts with the Central Power by which they had been governed increased
as time went on in the Eastern Empire; and a convenient way of expressing
it was to favour any kind of criticism against the official religion of
the Empire. That is why great bodies in the East (and notably a large
proportion of the people in the Egyptian province) favoured the
Monophysite heresy. It expressed their dissatisfaction with the despotic
rule of Constantinople and with the taxes imposed upon them and with the
promotion given to those near the court at the expense of the
provincials_and all the rest of their grievances.
Thus the various derivatives from Arianism survived in the Greek
Eastern half of the Empire, although the official world had long gone back
to Catholicism. This also explains why you find all over the East today
large numbers of schismatic Christians, mainly Monophysite, sometimes
Nestorian, sometimes of lesser communities, whom not all these centuries
of Mohammedan oppression have been able to unite with the main Christian
What put an end, not to these sects, for they still exist, but to
their , was the sudden rise of that enormous force, antagonistic
to the whole Greek world_Islam: the new Mohammedan heresy out of the
desert, which rapidly became a counter-religion; the implacable enemy of
all the older Christian bodies. The death of Arianism in the East was the
swamping of the mass of the Christian Eastern Empire by Arabian
conquerors. In the face of that disaster the Christians who remained
independent reacted towards orthodoxy as their one chance for survival,
and that is how even the secondary effects of Arianism died out in the
countries free from subjugation to the Mohammedans in the East.
In the West the fortunes of Arianism are quite different. In the
West Arianism died altogether. It ceased to be. It left no derivatives to
carry on a lingering life.
The story of this death of Arianism in the West is commonly
misunderstood because most of our history has been written hitherto on a
misconception of what European Christian society was like in Western
Europe during the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries, that is, between the
time when Constantine left Rome and set up the new capital of the Empire,
Byzantium, and the date when, in the early seventh century (from A.D. 633
onwards), the Mohammedan invasion burst upon the world.
What we are commonly told is that the Western Empire was overrun
by savage tribes called "Goths'' and "Visigoths'' and "Vandals'' and
"Suevi'' and "Franks'' who "conquered'' the Western Roman Empire_that
is, Britain and Gaul and the civilized part of Germany on the Rhine and
the upper Danube, Italy, North Africa, and Spain.
The official language of all this part was the Latin language. The
Mass was said in Latin, whereas in most of the Eastern Empire it was said
in Greek. The laws were in Latin, and all the acts of administration were
in Latin. There was no barbarian conquest, but there was a continuation
of what had been going on for centuries, an infiltration of people from
outside the Empire into the Empire because within the Empire they could
get the advantages of civilization. There was also the fact that the army
on which everything depended was at last almost entirely recruited from
barbarians. As society gradually got old and it was found difficult to
administer distant places, to gather the taxes from far away into the
central treasury, or to impose an edict over remote regions, the
government of those regions tended to be taken over more and more by the
leading officers of the barbarian tribes, who were now Roman soldiers;
that is, their chieftains and leaders.
In this way were formed local governments in France and Spain and
even Italy itself which, while they still felt themselves to be a part of
the Empire, were practically independent.
For instance, when it became difficult to govern Italy from so far
off as Constantinople, the Emperor sent a general to govern in his place
and when this general became too strong he sent another general to
supersede him. This second general (Theodoric) was also, like all the
others, a barbarian chief by birth, though he was the son of one who had
been taken into the Roman service and had himself been brought up at the
Court of the Emperor.
This second general became in his turn practically independent.
The same thing happened in southern France and in Spain. The local
generals took over power. They were barbarian chiefs who handed over this
power, that is, the nominating to official posts and the collecting of
taxes, to their descendants.
Then there was the case of North Africa_what we call today
Morocco, Algiers and Tunis. Here the quarrelling factions, all of which
were disconnected with direct government from Byzantium, called in a group
of Slav soldiers who had migrated into the Roman Empire and had been taken
over as a military force. They were called the Vandals; and they took over
the government of the province which worked from Carthage.
Now all these local governments of the West (the Frankish general
and his group of soldiers in northern France, the Visi-gothic one in
southern France and Spain, the Burgundian one in southeastern France, the
other Gothic one in Italy, the Vandal one in North Africa) were at issue
with the official government of the Empire on the point of religion. The
Frankish one in north-eastern France and what we call today, Belgium,
was still pagan. All the others were Arian.
I have explained above what this meant. It was not so much a
doctrinal feeling as a social one. The Gothic general and the Vandal
general who were chiefs over their own soldiers felt it was grander to be
Arians than to be Catholics like the mass of the populace. They were the
army; and the army was too grand to accept the general popular religion.
It was a feeling very much like that which you may see surviving in
Ireland still, in places, and which was universal there until quite
lately: a feeling that "ascendency'' went properly with anti-Catholicism.
Since there is no stronger force in politics than this force of
social superiority, it took a very long time for the little local courts
to drop their Arianism. I call them little because, although they
collected taxes from very wide areas, it was merely as administrators. The
actual numbers were small compared with the mass of the Catholic
While the governors and their courts in Italy and Spain and Gaul
and Africa still clung with pride to their ancient Arian name and
character, two things, one sudden, the other gradual, militated against
both their local power and their Arianism.
The first, sudden, thing was the fact that the general of the
Franks who had ruled in Belgium conquered with his very small force
another local general in northern France_a man who governed a district
lying to the west of him. Both armies were absurdly small, each of about
4,000 men; and it is a very good example of what the times were like that
the beaten army, after the battle, at once joined the victors. It also
shows what times were like that it seemed perfectly natural for a Roman
general commanding no more than 4,000 men to begin with, and only 8,000
men after the first success, to take over the administration_taxes, courts
of law and all the imperial forms_over a very wide district. He took over
the great mass of northern France just as his colleagues, with similar
forces, took over official action in Spain and Italy and elsewhere.
Now it so happened that this Frankish general (whose real name we
hardly know, because it has come down to us in various distorted forms,
but best known as "Clovis'') was a pagan: something exceptional and even
scandalous in the military forces of the day when nearly all important
people had become Christians.
But this scandal proved a blessing in disguise to the Church, for
the man Clovis being a pagan and never having been Arian, it was possible
to convert him directly to Catholicism, the popular religion; and when he
had accepted Catholicism he at once had behind him the whole force of the
millions of citizens and the organized priesthood and Bishoprics of the
Church. He was the one popular general; all the others were at issue with
their subjects. He found it easy to levy great bodies of armed men because
he had popular feeling with them. He took over the government of the Arian
generals in the South, easily defeating them, and his levies became the
biggest of the military forces in the Western Latin-speaking Empire. He
was not strong enough to take over Italy and Spain, still less Africa, but
he shifted the centre of gravity away from the decaying Arian tradition of
the Roman army_now no more than small dwindling groups.
So much for the sudden blow which was struck against Arianism in
the West. The gradual process which hastened the decay of Arianism was of
a different kind. With every year that passed it was becoming, in the
decay of society, more and more difficult to collect taxes, to keep up a
revenue, and therefore to repair roads and harbours and public buildings
and keep order and do all the rest of public work.
With this financial decay of government and the social
disintegration accompanying it the little groups who were nominally the
local governments, lost their prestige. In, say, the year 450 it was a
fine thing to be an Arian in Paris or Toledo or Carthage or Arles or
Toulouse or Ravenna; but 100 years later, by say, 550, the social prestige
of Arianism had gone. It paid everybody who wanted to "get on'' to be a
Catholic; and the dwindling little official Arian groups were despised
even when they acted savagely in their disappointment, as they did in
Africa. They lost ground.
The consequence was that after a certain delay all the Arian
governments in the West either became Catholic (as in the case of Spain)
or, as happened in much of Italy and the whole of North Africa, they were
taken over again by the direct rule of the Roman Empire from Byzantium.
This last experiment did not continue long. There was another
body of barbarian soldiers, still Arian, who came in from the
north-eastern provinces and took over the government in northern and
central Italy and shortly afterwards the Mo hammedan invasion swept over
North Africa and ultimately over Spain and even penetrated into Gaul.
Direct Roman administration, so far from surviving Western Europe, died
out. Its last effective existence in the South was swamped by Islam. But
long before this happened Arianism in the West was dead.
This is the fashion in which the first of the great heresies which
threatened at one moment to undermine and destroy the whole of Catholic
society disappeared. The process had taken almost 300 years and it is
interesting to note that so far as doctrines are concerned, about that
space of time, or a little more, sufficed to take the substance out of the
various main heresies of the Protestant Reformers.
They, too, had almost triumphed in the middle of the sixteenth
century, when Calvin, their chief figure, all but upset the French
monarchy. They also had wholly lost their vitality by the middle of the
1. For the discussion on the date of the Crucifixion,
Resurrection and Pentecost I must refer my readers to Dr. Arendzen's clear
and learned work, ``Men and Manners in the time of Christ'' (Sheed and
Ward). From the evidence, which has been fully examined, it is clear that
the date is not earlier than 29 A.D., and may possibly be a few years
later, while the most widely accepted traditional date is 33 A. D.
2. It is not easy to establish the exact point after which the
Official Religion of the Roman State, or even of the Empire, is Christian.
Constantine's victory at the Milvian bridge was in the autumn of 312. The
Edict of Milan, issued by himself and Licinius, which gave toleration to
the practice of the Christian religion throughout the Empire, was issued
early in the following year, 313. When Constantine had become the sole
Emperor he soon lived as a Catechumen of the Christian Church, yet he
remained head of the old Pagan religious organization as Pontifex Maximus.
He was not baptized until the eve of his death, in 337. And though he
summoned and presided over gatherings of Christian Bishops, they were
still but a separate body in a society mainly Pagan. Constantine's own son
and successor had sympathies with the old dying Paganism. The Senate did
not change for a lifetime. For active official destruction of the
lingering Pagan worship men had to wait till Theodosius at the very end of
the century. The whole affair covers one long human life: over eighty