First among the doctrinal disputes which troubled Christians after Constantine had recognized the Church in A. D. 313, and the parent of many more during some three centuries, Arianism occupies a large place in ecclesiastical history. It is not a modern form of unbelief, and therefore will appear strange in modern eyes. But we shall better grasp its meaning if we term it an Eastern attempt to rationalize the creed by stripping it of mystery so far as the relation of Christ to God was concerned. In the New Testament and in Church teaching Jesus of Nazareth appears as the Son of God.
This name He took to Himself (Matt. , xi, 27; John, x, 36), while the Fourth Gospel declares Him to be the Word (Logos), Who in the beginning was with God and was God, by Whom all things were made. A similar doctrine is laid down by St. Paul, in his undoubtedly genuine Epistles to the Ephesians, Colossians, and Philippians. It is reiterated in the Letters of Ignatius, and accounts for Pliny’s observation that Christians in their assemblies chanted a hymn to Christ as God.
But the question how the Son was related to the Father (Himself acknowledged on all hands to be the one Supreme Deity), gave rise, between the years A. D. 60 and 200, to number of Theosophic systems, called generally Gnosticism, and having for their authors Basilides, Valentinus, Tatian, and other Greek speculators. Though all of these visited Rome, they had no following in the West, which remained free from controversies of an abstract nature, and was faithful to the creed of its baptism. Intellectual centers were chiefly Alexandria and Antioch, Egyptian or Syrian, and speculation was carried on in Greek. The Roman Church held steadfastly by tradition.
Under these circumstances, when Gnostic schools had passed away with their “conjugations” of Divine powers, and “emanations” from the Supreme unknowable God (the “Deep” and the “Silence”) all speculation was thrown into the form of an inquiry touching the “likeness” of the Son to His Father and “sameness” of His Essence. Catholics had always maintained that Christ was truly the Son, and truly God. They worshipped Him with divine honors; they would never consent to separate Him, in idea or reality, from the Father, Whose Word, Reason, Mind, He was, and in Whose Heart He abode from eternity.
But the technical terms of doctrine were not fully defined; and even in Greek words like essence (ousia), substance (hypostasis), nature (physics), person (hyposopon) bore a variety of meanings drawn from the pre-Christian sects of philosophers, which could not but entail misunderstandings until they were cleared up. The adaptation of a vocabulary employed by Plato and Aristotle to Christian truth was a matter of time; it could not be done in a day; and when accomplished for the Greek it had to be undertaken for the Latin, which did not lend itself readily to necessary yet subtle distinctions.
That disputes should spring up even among the orthodox who all held one faith, was inevitable. And of these wranglings the rationalist would take advantage in order to substitute for the ancient creed his own inventions. The drift of all he advanced was this: to deny that in any true sense God could have a Son; as Mohammed tersely said afterwards, “God neither begets, nor is He begotten” (Koran, cxii). We have learned to call that denial Unitarianism. It was the ultimate scope of Arian opposition to what Christians had always believed.
But the Arian, though he did not come straight down from he Gnostic, pursued a line of argument and taught a view which the speculations of the Gnostic had made familiar. He described the Son as a second, or inferior God, standing midway between the First Cause and creatures; as Himself made out of nothing, yet as making all things else; as existing before the worlds of the ages; and as arrayed in all divine perfections except the one which was their stay and foundation. God alone was without beginning, unoriginate; the Son was originated, and once had not existed.
For all that has origin must begin to be. Such is the genuine doctrine of Arius. Using Greek terms, it denies that the Son is of one essence, nature, or substance with God; He is not consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father, and therefore not like Him, or equal in dignity, or co-eternal, or within the real sphere of Deity. The Logos which St. John exalts is an attribute, Reason, belonging to the Divine nature, not a person distinct from another, and therefore is a Son merely in figure of speech.
These consequences follow upon the principle which Arius maintains in his letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia, that the Son “is no part of the Ingenerate. ” Hence the Arian sectaries who reasoned logically were styled Anomoeans: they said that the Son was “unlike” the Father. And they defined God as simply the Unoriginate. They are also termed the Exucontians (ex ouk onton), because they held the creation of the Son to be out of nothing.
But a view so unlike tradition found little favour; it required softening or palliation, even at the cost of logic; and the school which supplanted Arianism form an early date affirmed the likeness, either without adjunct, or in all things, or in substance, of the Son to the Father, while denying His co-equal ignity and co-eternal existence. These men of the Via Media were named Semi- Arians. They approached, in strict argument, to the heretical extreme; but many of them held the orthodox faith, however inconsistently; their difficulties turned upon language or local prejudice, and no small number submitted at length to Catholic teaching.
The Semi-Arians attempted for years to invent a compromise between irreconcilable views, and their shifting creeds, tumultuous councils, and worldly devices tell us how mixed and motley a crowd was collected under their banner. The point to be kept in remembrance is that, while they affirmed the Word of God to be everlasting, they imagined Him as having become the Son to create the worlds and redeem mankind.
Among the ante-Nicene writers, a certain ambiguity of expression may be detected, outside the school of Alexandria, touching this last head of doctrine. While Catholic teachers held the Monarchia, viz. that there was only one God; and the Trinity, that this Absolute One existed in three distinct subsistences; and the Circuminession, that Father, Word, and Spirit could not be separated, in fact or in thought, from one nother; yet an opening was left for discussion as regarded the term “Son,” and the period of His “generation” (gennesis).
Five ante-Nicene Fathers are especially quoted: Athenagoras, Tatian, Theophilus of Antioch, Hippolytus, and Novatian, whose language appears to involve a peculiar notion of Sonship, as though It did not come into being or were not perfect until the dawn of creation. To these may be added Tertullian and Methodius. Cardinal Newman held that their view, which is found clearly in Tertullian, of the Son existing after the Word, is connected as an antecedent with Arianism. Petavius construed the same expressions in a reprehensible sense; but the Anglican Bishop Bull defended them as orthodox, not without difficulty.
Even if metaphorical, such language might give shelter to unfair disputants; but we are not answerable for the slips of teachers who failed to perceive all the consequences of doctrinal truths really held by them. >From these doubtful theorizings Rome and Alexandria kept aloof. Origen himself, whose unadvised speculations were charged with the guilt of Arianism, and who employed terms like “the second God,” concerning the Logos, hich were never adopted by the Church – this very Origen taught the eternal Sonship of the Word, and was not a Semi-Arian.
To him the Logos, the Son, and Jesus of Nazareth were one ever-subsisting Divine Person, begotten of the Father, and, in this way, “subordinate” to the source of His being. He comes forth from God as the creative Word, and so is a ministering Agent, or, from a different point of view, is the First-born of creation. Dionysius of Alexandria (260) was even denounced at Rome for calling the Son a work or creature of God; but he explained himself to the pope on orthodox principles, and confessed the Homoousian Creed.