Christian History Home > 2005 > Issue 85 > How Arianism Almost Won
How Arianism Almost Won
After Nicaea, the Real Fight Began
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At the Council of Nicaea, Arius and his ideas lost. But for decades after the council, it appeared that an Arian perspective on the person of Christ would carry the day and the conclusions of Nicaea would disappear in a theological and ecclesial dustbin. Why? The Roman emperors were an important influence. A series of emperors (beginning with Constantine) understood their role to include the right to intervene in the affairs of the church, particularly when division within the church threatened the unity of the Roman Empire itself. Thus, if a Roman emperor was disposed favorably toward Arian ideas—as Constantius and Valens were—bishops supporting the creed formulated at Nicaea could be severely punished, most often by being deposed and exiled. If an emperor favoring Nicaea was in power, Arian believers would suffer.
Yes, the bishops of the church continued to play the major role in interpreting Scripture and constructing theology based on biblical exegesis. Yet behind the bishops and presbyters during and after the Council of Nicaea stood a series of Christian Roman emperors more than willing to intervene in the church's affairs and doctrine. When a series of pro-Arian emperors arrived on the scene, Arianism spread like wildfire.
Take the case of Constantine himself. Concerned over the growing rift within the church over Arius's ideas, Constantine both convened and intervened in the Council of Nicaea. Rowan Williams observes that when Constantine viewed Arius as a schismatic, the emperor penned a letter to Arius "and his supporters which is extraordinary in its venom and abusiveness, dubbing Arius an 'Ares,' a god of war, who seeks to create strife and violence."
Constantine was not averse to taking harsh legal steps to bring wayward theologians back in line. Williams notes that the emperor's acid reply to Arius grouped Arius and his supporters with Porphyry, "the great pagan critic of the church." Constantine ordered "that Arius's works be treated like those of Porphyry: they are to be burnt, and anyone who does not surrender copies in his possession is to be executed."
Within ten years of the Council of Nicaea, though, Constantine became convinced that Arius's ideas fell within the pale of orthodoxy, though the exact details of Arius's position—at least as represented to the emperor in the years following Nicaea—remain somewhat murky. What is clear, though, is that neither Constantine nor later sons such as Constans and Constantius were skilled biblical interpreters or theologians. These Roman emperors were more concemed to preserve the unity of the church than to engage in prolonged debates over what to them often seemed theological nitpicking. Manlio Simonetti, for instance, comments that Constantine was "convinced that religious peace could be assured only by a broad concentration of moderate elements" and "was as averse to some of Arius's more radical opponents as he had been to the radicalism of the Anans." Both Arius and Athanasius experienced Constantine's displeasure. It was Constantine who in A.D. 335 ordered the first of Athanasius's five exiles—the same year Arius regained the favor of the Roman emperor.
Over the 56 years separating the Council of Nicaea and the Council of Constantinople, Roman emperors frequently deposed and exiled bishops and presbyters they deemed schismatic and heretical. These actions created a long-lasting atmosphere of suspicion, intrigue, division, and hatred within the church. Eastern bishops who supported Nicaea suffered severely during the reign of Constantius. After the murder of Constantius's brother Constans in 350, the empire was consolidated under the rule of Constantius. It appeared that the entire Christian world had fallen into Arian hands. Though Constantius died in 361, successors were more concerned with maintaining the unity of the empire than with pursuing theological clarity. When Valens took command in the East in 364, Simonetti says, he behaved "ferociously" against bishops who questioned the Arian position.
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