The Authority of the ekklesia I Arius and Arianism

The case of Arius and Arianism is profoundly instructive in any study of the exercise of early Church authority and the establishment in that age of what were perceived to be 'right doctrines'. The Arian heresy bestraddled and challenged such concepts with powerful force.

Maurice Wiles has rightly drawn attention to the real difficulties inherent in any quest for the historical Arius: 'It may be that, in view of the nature of [the] sources, the historical Arius will always remain as elusive a figure as the historical Jesus'.74 In a Preface to a book about the latter, E. P. Sanders notes that the majority of scholars who have written on antiquity have felt it necessary to warn their audiences that knowledge about the ancient world is never total and that we can rarely achieve certainty. He notes, furthermore, that New Testament scholars have fluctuated between stressing that hardly anything can be known of the historical Jesus to a reactive confidence which has produced a rash of unproven hypotheses.75 Whatever the relevance and application of the last remark, it is certainly true that we need to treat the totality of our information on the life of Arius with caution. It is thus a brief and cautious biography which follows.

According to the evidence of Epiphanius, cited and accepted by one of today's most respected Arius scholars, Rowan Williams, Arius appears to have been born in Libya at a date before ad 280.76 We know little of his philosophical education, but it is possible that he absorbed some of the contemporary trends in Aristote-lianism and Neoplatonism.77 However, from 313 we are able to write with a little more certainty about his life, focusing on his ministry in a major church in Alexandria, where he may or may not have become involved in the Melitian schism.78 On balance, Rowan Williams believes that 'the Melitian Arius, beloved of several modern scholars, appears to melt away under close investigation'.79

A certain Alexander became Bishop of Alexandria in 313, and his episcopacy saw a major theological 'falling out' between Arius and Alexander, with public, mutual theological repudiations and a gradual schism.80 Arius was formally excommunicated by a synod in Alexandria but launched an appeal to a variety of prelates, one of whom, Eusebius of Nicomedia, attempted to have Arius reinstated. A synod in Palestine supported Arius, and Bishop Alexander wrote an exposé of Arius's behaviour and alleged heresy.81

Finally, the Council of Nicaea met in 325: the Emperor Constantine I (reg. 306-37) himself presided over the Council, drawing unto himself a kind of dual secular and spiritual authority. Arius was excommunicated, and exiled by the Emperor.82 Williams comments that this dual ecclesiastical and civil punishment set 'an ominous precedent' since 'it sowed the seeds of endless bitterness and confusion in the years that followed ... although the emperor could rescind his own legal decisions, he could not on his sole authority reverse ecclesiastical rulings. The two systems were to be seldom in step after 325.'^

During a chaotic and complex series of events between the end of the Council and the sudden death of Arius in 336, Arius returned from exile with an emended creed which was presented to, and accepted by, Constantine; however, he became embroiled with the successor of Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, the redoubtable Bishop Athanasius, who refused in 328 the Emperor's request to restore Arius.

Constantine, in receipt of Arius's complaints and yet another creed, then turned against Arius in 332 or 333, probably on the assumption that Arius was contemplating schism. But the emperor later changed his mind once again. The sudden death of Arius, which according to tradition occurred in a public lavatory, put an end to the Emperor's vacillating and wavering.84 Rowan Williams wryly concludes:

Arius' death, like most of his life, is surrounded by uncertainties, and is yet at the same time an unmercifully public affair. His life and death were not easy material for a conventional hagiography, and (if we can judge by Philostorgius) he was never unequivocally a hero for the parties associated with his name.85

So what exactly was Arianism? Maurice Wiles puts it in a nutshell: following Athanasius, he states that the primary feature of this heresy was 'that the status of the Son is not one of essential Godhead. The Son is not eternal or immutable; he has no exact vision, understanding, or knowledge of the Father. Put more positively, he is a creature brought into being from nothing.'86 Of course, as Wiles confirms, the logical corollary of all this is that the Father cannot always have rejoiced in that epithet.87

For Kelly, 'the fundamental premiss' of the system adumbrated by Arius 'is the affirmation of the absolute uniqueness and transcendence of God, the unoriginate source (agénnetos apkhe) of all reality'.88 Athanasius proclaimed:

Their heresy has no ground in reason and no clear proof in Holy Scripture, so they are always resorting to shameless subterfuges and plausible fallacies. And now they have ventured to slander the Fathers.89

Williams holds that Arius cited scripture to establish three fundamental theological points: (1) the Son is a created being and was produced by the will of God; (2) the actual word 'son' must be understood metaphorically rather than literally; (3) the very status of the Son, like the existence, is a product of the will of God.90

In Arianism we have not just a dispute about correct dogma and issues of religion but one which challenged both the ecclesiastical and secular authorities of the day. 'The fifth-century church historian Socrates thought that "all theological disputes were to be treated as a mere figleaf for contentions about power and authority".'91 And there were in Arianism at least four major challenges to power, authority and what was perceived to be 'right doctrine' : there was the challenge to ecclesiastical and religious tradition; there was the challenge to the local Church and the Universal Church; there was the challenge to the authority of an ecumenical Council; and there was the (albeit often implicit) secular challenge to the authority of the emperor himself. The presence of the emperor at the Council of Nicaea in ad 325 is a marvellous semiotic indicator of the consolidation of all those ecclesiastical and secular points in the one powerful figure who was, nonetheless, much more than a mere figurehead.

The opponents of Arius, like Bishop Athanasius (who lived c. 296-373, and was Patriarch of Alexandria from 328), perceiving a challenge to the authority of tradition, themselves appealed to tradition. In the twentieth century, a would-be latter-day Athanasius by the name of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (1905-91) would later clothe himself in the same garb of tradition, as we shall see, in his energetic efforts to keep at bay those whom he regarded as the hounds of heresy and falsehood.

Athanasius claimed that the doctrine which he espoused 'had been handed down from father to father' whereas the Arians could not cite 'a single respectable witness to theirs'. The faith propagated by Nicaea was only what had been taught and accepted by Christianity from its earliest days. Nicaea was nothing but a ratification of Christ's teaching, preserved and handed down by the Apostles and Fathers of the Church. Deviants from the traditional Truths forfeited the right to call themselves Christians.92

Arianism challenged not just theological tradition but the ekklesia itself and its magisterium. This second challenge was linked to the first by Kelly:

Against the Arians [Athanasius] flung the charge that they would never have made shipwreck of the faith had they held fast as a sheet-anchor to the skopds ekklesiastikos, meaning by that the Church's peculiar and traditionally handed down grasp of the purport of revelation.93

Arius's quarrels with the custodians or propagators of that skopds ekklesiastikos, especially with Bishop Alexander of Alexandria in the early days, and later with Bishop Athanasius, have been much commented upon.94 Yet Arius was well aware of the need for episcopal authority and support. He won the support, for example, of Eusebius of Caesarea, who was later provisionally excommunicated.95 And scholars debate as to the exact number of the bishops who supported Arius at the commencement of the Council of Nicaea.96

Of course, Arius's opponents were not blameless in their exercise of due legal, canonical or theological authority. The latter could easily slip into pure authoritarianism - as happened with Athanasius, who must have alienated many by his severity, even if his opponents were not, strictly speaking, Arians in the sense that they identified totally with what Arius taught.97 All in all, Williams's own reading of the sources emphasises a variety of conflicts in the early Alexandrian Church (and, one might add, in the broader Universal Church) which were not just theological but which carried a heavy - and heady - baggage of meditation on the nature of hierarchical authority and what that meant for a local (Alexandrian) Church as well as a Universal one (centred on Rome).98

The challenge to the Church's magisterium produced a major ecumenical Council, the Council of Nicaea in 325, which established what was to be regarded as 'right doctrine'. One could become Nicene and 'orthodox', or one could challenge both the Council and its stance and remain Arian and 'heterodox.' Nicaea itself became, within a few years, a living part of the established tradition. As Kelly so neatly and succinctly puts it: 'A century later ... the Nicene council and its creed enjoyed the prestige of unimpeachable authorities'.99 Arianism was officially condemned;100 Arius was 'officially excommunicated';101 and the Nicene Creed, as a result, 'has come to be seen as the primary symbol of Christian orthodoxy'102 and 'the primary norm of Christian orthodoxy'.103

Finally, Arianism constituted a challenge to, and a vexation for, the secular authorities, epitomised most especially in the person of the Emperor Constantine himself. Williams notes how the Arian crisis was bound up with issues of how far the ruler could or should interfere in matters ecclesiastical.104 And interfere, for whatever secret or overt motivations, the emperor certainly did. It was clear to him that doctrinal disunity might very well be a prelude to political disunity.105 Here, it is perhaps no exaggeration to say that Constantine had the mindset of an early Islamic khalifa who wished to preserve the unity of the Islamic Community, the umma, and thus the Islamic Empire, whatever his own personal piety.

Thus the ecumenical Council of Nicaea met at Constantine's instigation,106 and some of its credal and theological vocabulary owed something to the emperor himself.107 With Christianity as the official religion of the Empire, the emperor became a kind of secular guardian of religious doctrine,108 whether or not he was theologically minded and whether or not he was a supporter or opponent of the Nicene formulations.109 Wiles notes: 'In the words of B. J. Kidd, when [the Emperor] Valens fell on the field of Adrianople [in ad 378], "Arianism fell with him".'110

It is interesting that the Emperor Valentinian II (reg. 375-92) clashed dramatically with Ambrose (c. 340-97) the Bishop of Milan, over a Basilica in 385-6 - and the clash illustrates an ongoing tension between civic and ecclesiastical authority which would vex many another age, whether that of Canossa111 or Henry II112 of England (reg. 1154-89) or, indeed, Henry VIII (reg. 1509-47). Valentinian claimed authority over all property, whether civil or ecclesiastical, which came 'under his jurisdiction'.113 Ambrose's view, on which he based a flat refusal of the emperor's wishes, was that the churches over which he had ecclesiastical authority ultimately were God's and not the emperor's; he therefore declined to yield the basilica to the emperor. The latter unsuccessfully attempted the use of force. This later conflict over a basilica mirrors an earlier one between Ambrose and the preceding Emperor Gratian (reg. 367-83).114

How, then, should Arianism best be viewed and summarised from the comparative aspect of this volume? Certainly, there is a perennial danger of considering Arius and Arianism through the polemics engendered by Athanasius.115 Indeed, with Rowan Williams, we may wish to be somewhat wary in our usage of the very term 'Arianism'.116 Whatever our reservations, however, it is a useful portmanteau concept or category,117 and it is with this in mind that the following concluding remarks are offered.

Following Williams, we note that Arius was a true son of Alexandria in his predilection for negative theology.118 He cannot, and should not, be characterised as a real philosopher.119 In theology, he must rightly be labelled a conservative.120 But he followed a path which ineluctably led him into 'isolation'.121 What he sought was 'for a way of making it clear that the doctrine of creation allows no aspect of the created order to enter into the definition of God'.122 There are parallels of emphasis, at least, to be drawn here with the Islamic doctrine of the oneness of God, tawhid.

The traditional view of Arianism, implicit or explicit in the writings of many scholars, deploys the classical vocabulary of orthodoxy and authority. Thus Rowan Williams begins his magisterial work on Arius with the statement: '"Arianism" has often been regarded as the archetypal Christian deviation, something aimed at the very heart of the Christian confession'.123 A scholarly stereotype has been perpetuated whereby Arius is perceived as an 'arch-heretic', someone who precipitated on purpose an oppositional trend to theological orthodoxy.124 This tradition of conspiracy, blame and, indeed, paranoia goes right back to the fourth-century heresiographer, Epiphanius, who spoke of Arius and the Arians as having ignited a huge fire which devoured practically the whole Roman empire of the day.125

By contrast with this mainstream polemic, it is salutary to discover that some in eighteenth-century Britain, including many notable scientists like Sir Isaac Newton FRS (1642-1727), actually embraced Arianism, regarding 'Athanasian orthodoxy' as 'the archetypal heresy' and perceiving the 'Arianism' of antique horror and distaste as a genuine form of 'primitive Christianity'.126

Since, in scholarship, 'old certainties have given way to new lines of inquiry',127 it may well now be opportune to jettison the label 'Arian' altogether and explore a new, perhaps more 'heterodox', vocabulary.128

In a tantalising comment in his Postscript (Theological) to the volume Arius: Heresy and Tradition, Archbishop Rowan Williams concludes: 'In many ways - and here is a still stranger paradox - [Arius's] apophaticism foreshadows the concerns of Nicene theology later in the fourth century, the insights of the Cappodocians, or even Augustine'.129 And so it is to Augustine that we shall now turn.

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