Origen was so outstanding a mind, so radiant a spirit, and so stimulating a teacher and author, that for more than a century after his death he profoundly moulded the minds of Christian thinkers, especially in the eastern portions of the Roman Empire. From those who came after him and who were deeply indebted to him, two main streams of thought issued which came into conflict with each other and which late in the third and through much of the fourth and fifth centuries led to the most serious division which the Catholic Church had thus far experienced. The streams were not always clearly defined, and so abounding in energy was the rapidly expanding Church of the day that each had varied currents and branches which at times appeared to intermingle.
The two streams could both claim reinforcement from Origen. As we saw, Origen taught that Christ was the only-begotten Son of God, and that since God the Father had always existed, He could never have existed, even for a moment, without having generated the Son. The Son, therefore, is coeternal with the Father and existed before all worlds. Origen had taught that "his generation is as eternal and everlasting as the brilliancy which is produced by the sun." One of the two streams stressed the conviction that Christ is the Son of God, Wisdom and the Logos (Word) of God, and had always been, and that the Logos was, accordingly, equal with the Father. Yet, as we have said, Origen seemed also to say that Christ is a creature, and that as the image of the Father he is secondary to the latter and subordinate to Him. The other stream made much of this subordination of the Son to the Father.
The second of these streams was represented by a pupil of Origen, Dionysius, head of the catechetical school in Alexandria and bishop in that city around the middle of the third century. He seems to have been a man of scholarly competence, moderate and conciliatory. He found Sabellianism very influential in his diocese and preached against it. In making clear his dissent from that school of theology which, it will be recalled, regarded Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as aspects or modes of God, he stressed the distinctness of the Son as a person and in doing so used language which appeared to imply that the Father had created the Son, that there had been a time when the Son was not, and that the Son was subordinate to the Father. His friend, another Dionysius, Bishop of Rome, wrote him urging that he be more careful in his use of language and that he make it clear that the Son was (opoouoiov , homoousion), namely, of the same essential being or substance with the Father and not simply (opoiouoiov; homoiousion), of similar substance with Him. Dionysius of Alexandria answered that, while he did not find homoousion in the Scriptures, he was in agreement with the idea which it contained. The lines of controversy had not yet hardened.
The second of the streams also had an important channel through Antioch. At Antioch there was a presbyter, Lucian by name, a contemporary of Origen, who was an influential teacher and who perished in 312, a victim of the last great persecution before Constantine brought toleration. Among his students who became famous were Arius of Alexandria and Eusebius of Nicomedia (to be distinguished from Eusebius of Cssarea, the Church historian). Lucian was an earnest student of the Bible and of theology and was one of those who saw in the Logos a way of expressing the relation of Christ to God. Yet he seems to have taken the position which was soon to make Arius a storm-centre.
Conflict between the two streams broke out over Arius. Arius was a presbyter in the Alexandrian Church. Tall, handsome, ascetic, earnestly religious, an eloquent preacher, he gave the impression of being arrogant. He protested against what he believed to be the Sabellianism of his bishop, Alexander. Alexander, so he said, taught that "God is always, the Son is always," and the Son "is the unbegotten begotten." In contrast, Arius maintained that "the Son has a beginning but that God is without beginning" and that the Son is not a part of God. The controversy between the two men became so sharp that Alexander called a synod in Alexandria and had Arius and his friends condemned and deposed. Arius sought and found refuge with his friend. Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, and carried on a correspondence maintaining his views, while Alexander wrote to numbers of his fellow bishops giving his side of the story. The conflict was chiefly in the eastern part of the Empire and seriously threatened to divide the Catholic Church in that region.
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