Why Did Arius Die Such a Death?

Author: Fr. Valentine Long




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The vengeance of God is to be taken seriously and by the wise will be taken seriously.


It was a mysterious death. No thug had attacked the theologian to lay him low. No sadist had slit open his body. No weapon in human hand did the deed. It just seemed to happen.

Might it have been the direct vengeance of God? The historian Socrates was inclined to think so. Cardinal Newman, who even quoted Gibbon as not ruling out the likelihood, unreservedly thought so. But, not to be swayed by their verdict, suppose we review the turbulent career that ended so tragically and judge for ourselves.

Arius, the name of the theologian in question, 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 coeternal with God, at least he of all creatures came the nearest to being so. It was so much double talk, which confused many.1

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 through 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 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 revelers.

So it came about in the midyear 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. Bishop Hosius of Cordova proposed that precisely right word, the all-important term "consubstantial." The idea promptly went into the Nicene Creed in the definitive phrase "one in substance with the Father."

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.2

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 chosen. It was Athanasius. "Athanasius contra mundum" suggests the heroic tenacity of his courage; he would withstand the world rather than budge an inch. Arius, eventually recalled from exile by the emperor, was going to learn that to his chagrin.


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.

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.

The Arians, knowing that Constantine would not allow Arius to go back to Alexandria, did not take their frustration passively. Under the guidance of Eusebius at Nicomedia they tried another expedient. They cajoled the emperor into exerting pressure on the old patriarch of Constantinople to grant Arius a welcome to his cathedral, which would no less dramatically serve their purpose. A victory for them in the Metropolis, perhaps better than at Alexandria, would show the world who had control of the Catholic Church. But again they miscalculated. They wanted to think the patriarch a pushover after their experience with Athanasius, and so indeed did think him, mistaking his quiet manner for a craven timidity.

The venerable metropolitan received the mandate to open his cathedral to Arius with a shock. It meant lifting from the unrepentant priest the "anathema," and restoring him to duty. It was an outrage. It defied the Council of Nicaea. It insulted the Blessed Trinity. He would not obey the immoral mandate. He, who did not have the Athanasian competence to force a fight with the Arians, would not back away from it when they brought it to him. He would rather die. Only, it was not he who would die in this bitter contest of wills. Arius would.


There now followed a quick exchange of letters between patriarch and emperor. The patriarch implored the emperor to cancel the injunction to readmit Arius to the sanctuary, for under existing circumstances it would not be carried out. The emperor sent back his refusal, setting the date for the unholy invasion of Constantinople's cathedral. Having but eight days left, the distraught patriarch from an urge of hope within him knew what to do. He started a campaign of prayer in the cathedral. Day after day he and his parishioners prayed together there, day after day they fasted in their homes, in their appeal to a higher court. On the day before the dreaded date, at three in the afternoon the patriarch threw himself prostate on the sanctuary floor to offer his Eucharistic Lord a final petition. The attendants around saintly old Alexander heard his words distinctly.

This in brief and in essence was the petition: "Jesus my Savior and my God, if Arius communicates here tomorrow, first take your servant out of the world, I implore. But if you care for your Church, as I know you do, take Arius away."3

On that same Saturday, in the evening, Arius with a noisy following came marching through the streets of Constantinople, all of them defiantly merry in anticipation of his forced entrance to the cathedral sanctuary tomorrow, the Lord's day. They held a rally at Constantine Square, where of a sudden Arius felt ill, excused himself and went off alone. The others, suspecting nothing serious, took for granted he would soon return. He did not.

They found his body lying dead, its underbelly split open and the entrails scattered about. The body lay unattended on the ground floor of a building. The building became a metropolitan curiosity, Socrates relates. Passersby would point to it and lower their voices to speak awesomely of the death. Perhaps they were remembering that another, whom no knife touched, "burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out" (Acts 1:18).

The next day in the crowded cathedral, instead of an Arian takeover, the patriarch was thanking God for having prevented it. Not a word of contumely against Arius did the congregation hear from their venerable bishop; there was no gloating; there was rather an undertone of awe in this thanksgiving from the second canonized anti-Arian Alexander.


The emperor, who had less than a year to live, reacted in his own way to the mysterious death. During the interval left to him, he reflected on the meaning of it and came to understand that Athanasius must be restored to Alexandria. He decided upon recalling the maltreated saint from exile, making his decision known, but died before writing out the rescript. Emperor Constantine II ratified his father's behest: and the foremost hero in the struggle to preserve to the Faith the coequality and coeternity of God's only Son received from Alexandria a tumultuous welcome back.

Arianism, which corrupted most of the hierarchy while the laity and a minority of bishops resisted it, threatened the integrity of the Faith during three fourths of a century. It did not die with Arius when his body burst open and the entrails fell out. Its unabated fury raged on into the reign of Julian the Apostate, who in withdrawing state support from it weakened it until the 381 Council of Constantinople could stifle it. The enormity of the harm which an arrogant priest thus originated predetermines the answer to the query: Why did Arius die such a death? One may as well ask, for the answer would not much differ:

Why did Judas Iscariot?

The question invites a further question. Why did the tongue of Nestorius rot away in his mouth to cause an ignominious death? St. Alphonsus Liguori tells why: it was the tongue that scornfully declared Mary's Baby not the Son of God at all, but no more than a human Christ. St. Cyril of Alexandria, in turn, does not restrain his indignation toward the supercilious heretic for denying the Virgin Mary's virginity.4

The vengeance of God is to be taken seriously and by the wise will be taken seriously. From a wealth of examples in Scripture, consider this one. Ananias, because of his heinous lie, which Peter calls a lie to the Holy Spirit, drops dead at the Apostle's feet. About three hours later, Sapphira, the wife and accomplice of Ananias, comes upon the scene to meet the same fate. She also drops dead at the Apostle's feet (Acts 5:1-10).

The dancing daughter of Herodias, in an irony of history, will supply our conclusion. In Scripture, let it be recalled, she requests and receives on a platter the head of John the Baptist. The evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, do not give us her name. But Josephus, the Jewish historian, does. It is Salome.

How did she die? Constant Fouard tells us. He writes: "As she was crossing a frozen stream, the ice opened under her feet, and she was held fast up to her neck in water, her shoulders pinioned in the crevice. Very soon the cold paralyzed her limbs, and a mass of ice striking her head, severed it from her body."5

She, who had successfully wanted John the Baptist beheaded, was now herself beheaded.


1. Encyclopaedia Britannica: "Arius. A History of the Church" by Philip Hughes. Ch. VII "The Arians" in "Bible History with a Compendium of Church History," by Rt. Rev. Richard Gilmour, D.D.

2. Denzinger 54, 55, 56, 57.

3. "The Catholic Encyclopedia," Vol. 1. Patriarch Alexander of Byzantium [later Constantinople] supported his younger namesake against Arius, participated in the Council of Nicea, and refused to admit Arius to his cathedral.

4. Cf. "Studies in Church History" by Rev. Reuben Parsons, D.D. Vol. 1, Ch. XXVI "Nestorianism," and the Council of Ephesus, the Third General Council. "A History of the Church" by Philip Hughes, Ch. IX.

5. "The Christ, the Son of God," by Constant Fouard (Longmans, Green and Company, New York).