The Arian Heresy and the Council of Nicea

In 380 C.E., the very year he arrived in Constantinople to assume power, Theodosius issued an edict at Thessalonica hoping to quell a longstanding doctrinal debate called Arianism. The sum of the edict (Codex Theo-dosianus 16.5.5) was that all the people of Constantinople were to accept the doctrines handed down from the apostle Peter and practiced by Pope Damasus of Rome. These and only these were orthodox. Without mentioning him by name, Theodosius had denounced Arius and his heresy, called Arianiam.

Arius (256-336 C.E.) had been a presbyter, "church leader," in the city of Alexandria. He openly disagreed with his bishop's teaching on the relationship between God the Father and his Son Jesus. His bishop, Alexander, taught that Jesus, the Son of God, was begotten from eternity of the same essence with Father. The Greek term for this relationship is homoousios, meaning "of the same substance." Arius, however, disagreed. He wrote to Alexander outlining his position. To Arius, the Son was the offspring of God the Father but not coeternal with him, which meant that he had a beginning and that there was a time when he did not exist. He was subordinate to the Father, of a similar but not the same substance as the Father. The Greek term for this relationship is homoiousios, "of a similar substance." Arius also postulated that there was a time when God was not a Father and that his Word (his Son) was not from eternity and therefore was mutable. Alexander was furious and in a letter to several bishops excommunicated Arius, that is, he "excluded [him] from taking part in the Eucharistic communion."

Arius immediately fled to Nicomedia where his teachings were approved by a synod, a council of church members. Further, his doctrine was declared orthodox, "correct," which meant that there could be no other understanding of the relationship between the Father and the Son except as Arius had expressed it. As the controversy festered, bishops and churchmen on both sides sought to promote one or the other of these doctrines, either homoousios or homoiousios. Constantine wanted to settle the dispute. To him, these matters were almost frivolous and they obstructed his plan for a universal and unanimous empire-wide worship. He urged reconciliation between Alexander and Arius. When the situation continued to deteriorate, however, Constantine convened an ecumenical council to meet at Nicea in Asia Minor in 325 C.E., when Arius was already close to seventy years old. An imperial postal service was put at their disposal and over 250 bishops met from all over the east and west. Under considerable pressure from Constantine, they (almost unanimously) repudiated Arius and his teaching. They formally declared that God the Father and his Son were homoousios, that is, "of the same substance," rather than homoiousios, "of a similar substance." This doctrine has come to be called the Nicene Creed.

The decision taken at the Council of Nicea lasted only until Constan-tine's death in 337 C.E. As his sons divided the empire and promoted different doctrines, the debate raged anew. Constans (337-350 C.E.), in the west, was orthodox and Constantius II (337-61 C.E.), in the east, was Arian. Add to the mix the politically unscrupulous and doctrinally single-minded Athanasius (300-373 C.E.), the new bishop of Alexandria, an inflexible supporter of the decision of the Council of Nicea, and we have some idea of how unsettled the debate remained. During his forty-five year reign, Athanasius was exiled from his see for a total of almost sixteen years, but for the ten-year period between 346 and 356 C.E. he was the undisputed leader of the church in the east. During that time, Arianism was reduced to a minority and Athanasius and the Nicenes prevailed. In 355 C.E., Constantius II convened councils at Arles (353 C.E.) and Milan (355 C.E.) hoping to overturn the decision taken at Nicea and to displace Athanasius. In 356 C.E., the emperor's troops surrounded Athanasius' church to find that their attack had been anticipated and that Athanasius already was safely lodged among the remote monasteries in the deserts outside of Alexandria. For the moment the Arians had won.

The pagan Julian (363 C.E.) assumed the throne at the death of Con-stantius II and immediately recalled all exiled ecclesiastics from both sides of the argument, even as he actively promoted a revitalization of the pagan cults and temples. While his pardon may seem to have been motivated by a spirit of toleration, in fact, it allowed the various factions to regroup and take up old hostilities. Athanasius convened a council in 362 C.E. at which some twenty-one bishops condemned Arianism, and the Nicenes were again ascendant. Under the religiously tolerant Valentinian I (364 C.E.), however, strong Arian bishops in the west were not ousted, although when they died they were replaced with Nicenes; in the east, the doctrine of consubstantiality was extended to include not just God the Father and his Son but also the Holy Spirit.

With the accession of Gratian (375 C.E.) and Theodosius (379 C.E.), there were still a number of different Christologies that coexisted all over the empire. As a consequence, their attempts to eradicate Arianism met with only limited success, at least until 382 C.E., when two things happened. In the east, Theodosius secured peace with the Visigoths after long years of constant warfare. In the west, Gratian removed the western imperial court from Trier to Milan. It was then that Gratian and, soon after him, Theodosius fell under the opinionated and politically astute Bishop Ambrose of Milan, with grave consequences for the religious traditions and pagan heritage of Rome.

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