Arius and the Council of Nicaea

Author: Valentine Long

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 Council.


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.)


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.[1]

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."[2]

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.[3] 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 episcopal residence.

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.[4]

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 anew.

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.[5]

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 influence.

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 Alexandria.

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 archbishop.

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."[6]

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