Arius and the Council of Nicaea
In the year 318, a priest of Libya named Arius began to preach a
false doctrine about the Son of God. He denied that the Son is God
in the same sense that the Father is God. According to Arius, the
Son is not eternal nor of the same substance with the Father, but
is a creature.
His bishop condemned Arius and excommunicated him and his
followers, but the error spread like wildfire and soon there were
Arians in every part of the world. In the year 325, the Emperor
called all the bishops of the Church together at Nicaea. It was the
Emperor who summoned them with the consent of Pope Sylvester.
Altogether three hundred eighteen bishops were present and, with
the representative of the Pope presiding, they held a General
THE COUNCIL OF NICAEA
A general council is a meeting of all the bishops of the world for the
purpose of defining the teachings of the Church, and of adopting
measures for her government. Besides general councils there are
also national councils, which are meetings of all the bishops of a
particular nation, and provincial councils, which are meetings of the
bishops of an ecclesiastical province.
The Council of Nicaea was a general council. It defined the true
doctrine concerning the Son and His relation to the Father. It drew
up a profession of Faith which we know as the Nicene Creed, and
which is recited by the priest at Mass. It proclaims Jesus Christ as
True God, "God from God, light from light, True God from True
God, begotten, not made, of the same substance as the Father, by
Whom all things were made."
As a result of the decree of the Council of Nicaea, Arius and his
followers were exiled. Later on, Arius was allowed to return.
During his lifetime, and for centuries after, his false doctrines
continued to be a source of great trouble to the Church. Some of the
emperors favored the Arians for political reasons; others, faithful to
the Church, opposed them and tried to drive them out of the
Empire, but even in exile they continued to spread their heresy, and
many of the barbarian tribes became converts to Arian Christianity.
(The following is taken from the book, Upon This Rock, by Father
Valentine Long O.F.M.)
ARIUS- THE "NEW THEOLOGIAN" OF HIS DAY
THE priest who started the century-long turmoil in the Church, as
described in the foregoing chapter, received but a passing notice
when his vile importance deserves a complete treatment. It shall
receive that now. It is of the utmost practicability to us, since Arius
set or at least confirmed the precedent of double-talking many into
believing his denial of Christ's divinity to be a new insight into it.
Isn't that what the modernist theologian is also doing? If through a
duplicity of speech Semi-Arianism, when not Arianism, misled
more than three-fourth of the hierarchy of that era, has not
Modernism by means of the same technique done the same to a
woeful percentage of clergy and laity alike?
Yet, let it be repeated for the comfort it brings the modernist
theologian has no more misled in our day than Arius did in his day
the Roman Pontiffs. The Holy See has been and remains adamant in
defense of true doctrine. Arianism did not intimidate Pope St.
Sylvester and Semi-Arianism did not intimidate Pope St. Julius into
silence. Nor has the present onslaught against the Faith discouraged
an outspoken condemnation in current encyclicals.
Arius was not long a priest in the Egyptian diocese of Alexandria
when he began preaching his denial of Christ's divinity. He was not
easily silenced. He was not silenced at all--until his death. His
bishop tried at first to dissuade him gently; too gently, many think;
but St. Alexander, the patriarch of Alexandria, had hopes of
softening the obdurate. It was a grievous miscalculation. The
mischief which ensued from his misplaced meekness was
considerable" writes Newman. And well known is St. Jerome's
lament that, because as a spark in Alexandria he was not put out,
Arius became a conflagration that laid waste the world.
The slick dialectician who would reduce the Second Person of the
Trinity to sheer creaturehood continued to talk out suavely,
fluently, and with a duplicity in praise of Christ our Lord that
placated the unwary while ever careful not to concede his divinity.
If the Son is a subordinate to the Father, Arius would argue,
remember that he remains the first of subordinates through whom
the Father created all the others. If he is not co-eternal with God, at
least he of all creatures came the nearest to being so, and enjoys the
status of a demigod who may even be called God since he preceded
the ages of time. It was so much double talk, which confused many.
It did not confuse Patriarch Alexander. Even while he was still
dealing patiently with Arius, he clearly saw the heresy for what it
was. He pleaded with his difficult priest. He warned the faithful. In
a pastoral to his churches throughout Egypt and Libya he
reproached the Arians for teaching that "God was not always a
Father" since "the Word of God has not always existed, but was
made out of nothing."
His patience worn out from years of fruitless leniency, the
metropolitan now took action. He invoked a synod of his suffragan
bishops to review the Arian argument and to pass judgment. It was
clear to them what in conscience they must do and to the presiding
prelate, after their vote of condemnation, what he must do. Inviting
his wayward priest once again to reconsider, but still to no avail,
Patriarch Alexander of Alexandria then excommunicated him.
Arius defied the synod of bishops, ridiculing their censure, and fled
beyond the range of their jurisdiction into Palestine. The exile did
not pine away in silent loneliness. He was not lonely, nor silent. The
tall, soft-spoken dialectician, whom St. Epiphanius describes as
'downcast in visage, with manners like a wily serpent," set to work
arguing his fallacy anew in his new environment. He aimed
through his subtleties to convey the impression that to agree with
him was to belong to the culturally elite. This anything but bashful
man, while having little success with the general run of the laity, did
gain the support of high society and of the military and, sadder to
relate, of certain influential members of the hierarchy. Eusebius of
the imperial Nicomedian See (not to be confused with his namesake
of Caesarea) even granted the denier of God the Son a home at his
As the guest of so influential a bishop, Arius now felt secure enough
to begin writing his Thalia, an admixture of prose and light verse,
intended to promote the advancing heresy. The handbook, read
aloud at banquets and other merry gatherings, caught the fancy of
the revelers. They were the socialites of the day, who somehow did
not find obnoxious the boast that "I, the famous among men, the
much-suffering for God's glory, and taught of God--I have gained
wisdom and knowledge." But it may not be said of Arius, as it may
of the Montanist, that being taught of God meant to him having a
private line of communication with the Holy Spirit. Convinced that
only the Father is God, he could no more believe in the divinity of
the Third than in the divinity of the Second Person of the Trinity.
Despite the gravity of an error that would demolish the Triunity of
God if it could, the Nicomedian patriarch pretended not to
understand why Arius had been condemned. He ascribed the action
to the ignorance of the judges. He could only believe, or so he said,
that Alexander and his suffragan bishops were incapable of
following the subtleties of a superior mind. Eusebius who had
before favored Arianism more or less secretly, now with the other
Eusebius of Caesarea openly espoused a modified form of it. This
would prolong the life of the heresy, rendering it more palatable to
the many who could not see through the tricky shiftiness of Semi-
Arianism. Arius himself made the most of the opportunity.
Less than twenty years before, following the emperor's victory at
Milvian Bridge and the consequent Edict of Milan, the Church had
emerged from the suppression of centuries into what promised to
be an era of unmolested peace. Lactantius caught the sentiments of
the faithful in his appeal to them: "Let us observe the victory of the
Lord with songs of praise, and honor him with prayer day and
night, so that the peace which we have received may be preserved
to us." It looked as if it would be. It was not. Arius had seen to that.
He stirred up a turmoil in the Church, to produce a worse kind of
anxiety than ever the old persecutions had done.
This doctrinal threat to the peace of his empire, which was growing
rampant, alarmed Constantine. He urged the two pivotal bishops,
Eusebius of Nicomedia who sided with Arius and Alexander of
Alexandria who took the orthodox stand against Arius, to come to
an agreement. Both refused. Bishop Hosius of Cordova had
accepted the role of go-between in the hope of resolving the
differences in favor of sound doctrine. It was a foolhardy attempt.
Possibly advised by the same Hosius, Constantine now called
together an ecumenical council. Pope Sylvester would not attend it
because of age, but over its proceedings his legate would preside.
So it came about in mid-year of 325, that upward of three hundred
bishops assembled in the imperial summer palace at Nicaea to form
the First Ecumenical Council. The emperor himself was there,
delivered an introductory address in Latin, then sat by to allow
Bishop Hosius as the papal legate to preside over the theological
discussions. Patriarch Alexander, who had brought with him from
Alexandria a helpful young deacon named Athanasius, went to the
rostrum to insist on the divine coequality of the eternal Son with his
eternal Father. Granted a hearing, Arius still disagreed. He aroused
a predominant reaction of dismay. He did not, of course, lack
outspoken defenders. But they were few, however tenacious, and it
was easy to see at an early stage of the proceedings that the
condemned priest was going to be overwhelmingly condemned
For the present, a creed must be drawn up and so formulated as to
defeat any insidious attempt at misunderstanding. Could a key
word be found to that purpose? Yes, a voice in the hall was even
now announcing one. Though the minutes of the council have been
lost, we know from a reliable source that it was Bishop Hosius of
Cordova who proposed that precisely right word. Athanasius, the
deacon who was there from Alexandria, would in his future writing
give unstinted credit to the presiding chairman, the representative
of the Holy See, for introducing to the assembly the all-important
term consubstantial. The idea promptly went into the Nicene Creed
in the definitive phrase one in substance with the Father.
The Nicene Creed met the approval of all but five, and then two, of
the attending bishops. These two alone refused to sign the
formulary of faith. Surprisingly, or perhaps expectedly in view of
his devious character, Eusebius of Nicomedia was not one of the
two. He signed. So did Eusebius of Caesarea sign. In due order the
many signed. But the first to put their signatures to the document
were the president and his assistants direct from Rome Victor and
Vincentius. The assistants though only priests signed immediately
after Bishop Hosius of Cordova and before all the other prelates.
The trio enjoyed priority as emissaries of Pope Sylvester.
The council condemned Arianism anathematized Arius with the
two dissenting bishops, and closed in a burst of applause. It was
applause for the divinity of Jesus Christ vehement and prolonged. It
sounded as though the happy delegates didn't want their applause
ever to stop. When it did stop, Emperor Constantine thanked them
for having reached their decision promised for the sake of unity in
the empire to respect that decision, and forthwith made good his
promise by ordering Arius into exile. And not only Arius. He
included in the banishment Eusebius of Nicomedia because this
troublesome bishop, who had indeed affixed his signature to the
Nicene Creed, withheld it from the supplementary anathema. With
Arius, he left Nicaea in disgrace.
By contrast, Patriarch Alexander went back to Alexandria a
rejoicing old man. Possibly too lenient toward the ugly heresy at
first, once he decided to act he fought it vigorously from then on.
He could die in peace now. And five months later, breathing his
Nunc Dimittis, he did.
Alexandria soon had a new patriarch, whom Alexander had
recommended for the see, his deacon-secretary at the council, his
protégé who would outdo the venerable prelate in the defense of
truth. l like to believe and do believe he was God's response to the
crying need of the hour. Athanasius contra mundum suggests the
heroic tenacity of his courage; he would withstand the world rather
than budge an inch. Arius, once out of exile, was going to learn that
to his chagrin.
Eusebius came out of exile first. He had engineered his release. In a
letter to the emperor he pleaded that Semi-Arianism had not been
properly understood at the council and that really the Semi-Arians
were not unwilling to profess the consubstantiality of God the Son
with God the Father and would in their way adopt the Nicene
Creed. It was sheer pretense, as their later equivocations would
show. But it worked. The emperor, with no mind for dialectic
niceties, wavered. Then at the urging of his sister Constantia, who
favored the expelled bishop he yielded. He recalled Eusebius from
exile. Back in Nicomedia, where Constantine still held court before
his move to Constantinople, the master of ambiguities again had
easy access to the sovereign and a good chance to exert his
Within a year's time he had talked the emperor into recalling Arius
from exile too. Constantine received Arius at court, listened to his
ambiguous profession of faith and was satisfied with it, and then
sent off a stiff mandate to Patriarch Athanasius to admit the
excommunicated priest to full communion in the cathedral at
Alexandria. Standing beneath the labarum after his decisive battle at
Milvian Bridge, Constantine had resolved to serve the Holy,
Catholic and Apostolic Church. At the Edict of Milan he ensured it
freedom from persecution. At the Council of Nicaea, which he had
arranged, he knew and kept his place as a passive observer. But of
late under the new influence in his life, he had become an
ecclesiastical meddler, overreaching his authority, usurping the role
of supreme pontiff.
Athanasius refused the mandate. Rather than reinstate an
excommunicated priest, who had never retracted his heresy he
would prefer whatever penalty the emperor might impose--be it
even death by torture. The great champion of Christ's divinity was
not misled as were so many others by a double talk that tried to
hide without withdrawing the denial. For Arius with a solemn face
would admit that Christ Jesus is very God and then add "because he
was made such." This evasive causality might come upon the
unwary ear as a high-sounding choice of words without malice. It
did not deceive Athanasius who could catch in it the hidden
contradiction: "Accord to Christ the title of God, if you will, so long
as you remember he had to be created to become the Son and
therefore did not share the Father's unbeginning eternity." The
shiftiness, which would allow in one breath that Christ is truly God
and insinuate in another that he is not quite God, was intended to
suggest a discriminating mind of genuine insights. It suggested to
Athanasius nothing better than a shameless quibbler.
Athanasius sent his refusal to Constantine in a letter explaining why
he would not restore Arius to good standing at Alexandria. Simply,
the heretic had not repented his heresy. If with the Semi-Arians he
was now using orthodox terms, this made him the more dangerous,
for he only used them in order to twist a false meaning out of them.
But aside from that, by what right did a civil ruler dictate to a
primate in a matter of doctrine? Let it be said in his praise, the
emperor humbly accepted the rebuke. He withdrew his mandate.
Arius did not obtain reinstatement in his native diocese of
If the emperor was disposed to let well enough alone, Eusebius in
the imperial city was not. He arranged a synod of mostly Arian
bishops at Caesarea to have them pass sentence on Athanasius for
an alleged crime. It was a gravely serious one: namely, that
Athanasius had killed a certain Bishop Arsenius of Meletia and that,
not content with just a murder, amputated a hand from the corpse
to take to his cathedral for magical purposes. The insanity of the
accusation against the absent "murderer" came to light when into
the synod, by a quirk of circumstance, walked none other than
Bishop Arsenius with both hands still firmly attached to his living
body. Naturally, the emperor could not be expected to take action
against a crime so dramatically proven not to have happened: and
the Alexandrians for the time being retained their beloved
The bizarre accusation, which the Arians might have known would
be refuted, rather indicates their present self-security in the empire.
They could dare to be reckless because they felt they had the
doctrinally confused emperor at a disadvantage. It was a correct
judgment. They did have. An aggressive party with an enormous
inclusion of Semi-Arians and the benefit of a co-operative army,
they posed a threat to the peace of the empire if not humored. But
we must not be too severe on Constantine, a layman, when a
rapidly increasing number of bishops set him the bad example of
either accepting or silently tolerating Arianism.
How did it happen? How did Arius, once but a spark in Alexandria,
produce a conflagration? He first attracted around him a clique of
theologians from the priesthood and the episcopate to help him
spread the error. "This mere handful of divines," Newman did not
hesitate to say, "unscrupulously pressing forward into the highest
ecclesiastical stations, set about them to change the conditions of the
churches thus put into their power."
Arius himself, bearing the anathema of the council, the clique did
not get restored to favor. But through their influence on the
wavering emperor, which Eusebius at Nicomedia was in a perfect
position to exercise, they did manipulate other unfit priests into
bishoprics after the imperial army had ousted the orthodox prelates.
Moreover, the saintly old stalwarts of the hierarchy who had so
admirably acclaimed the divinity of the Son of God at Nicaea had
one by one gone to their eternal reward only too often to be
replaced by undesirables who in their confusion of mind lacked
certitude of faith.
Thus did the aggressive Arians and Semi-Arians gain control of
diocese after diocese.
Meanwhile, as the faithful old bishops from the Council of Nicaea
had been dying off, Arius enjoyed an ever sturdier health that
promised him many more years on earth. It was not to be. The
scoundrel's influence would continue to dominate--only a few years
longer. Then, maybe by a stroke of Providence, the arch heretic met
a drastic and unexpected death.
1. Cardinal Newman: The Arians of the Fourth Century. Ch. 3 Sect.
1. Longmans Green & Co. London, 1895
2. Ibid., Ch. 2, Sect. 5.
3. St. Epiphanius in his treatise on heresies, Panarion, 69, 3.
4. Lactantius: De mortibus persecut. P.L. VII 52.
5. Denzinger 54.
6. The Arians of the Fourth Century, Ch. 2, Sect. 2.
Copyright (c) 1996 EWTN