What was the Arian Controversy and the Council of Nicea?

The Arian controversy began in Alexandria when its bishop, Alexander (250-326), clashed with the presbyter Arius (256-336) over matters of theology,

“Although the points debated were many, the main issue at stake was whether the Logos, the Word of God, was coeternal with God. The phrase that eventually became the Arian motto, “there was when He was not,” aptly focuses on the point at issue. Alexander held that the Word existed eternally with the Father; Arius argued that the Word was not coeternal with the Father” (1)

For Alexander, the issues at stake were gravely consequential and ultimately had to do with the divinity of the Word (Jesus). Whereas Alexander believed in the divinity of the Word, Arius, although accepting the preexistence of the Word, claimed that the Word was not God, but the first of all creatures created by God. But in Alexander’s view, the Word was divine and therefore could not be created. It is coeternal with the Father.

Arius argued that Alexander’s view entailed a denial of monotheism. In Alexander’s view, there were two who were divine, and thus there were two gods. Alexander countered that Arius’s position denied the divinity of the Word and therefore the divinity of the Son. He also saw how Arius’s view had grave consequences for the Church’s worship of Jesus by suggesting that it had been worshiping a creature.

The disagreement became public when Alexander used his authority to condemn Arius’s teachings and removed him from all posts in the church in Alexandria. But Arius refused to accept this judgment and appealed to the people of Alexandria and many prominent bishops throughout the Eastern empire who had been his fellow students in Antioch. Many people took to public demonstrations by marching and chanting in the streets in support of Arius and his theology. Many bishops also took to supporting Arius and that his views were correct and that it was Alexander who proposed false doctrine. The disagreement threatened to divide a large part of the Eastern Church.

Emperor Constantine (c. 272-337), who had just defeated and executed his rival Licinius (263-325), became concerned with the dispute and took steps to intervene by sending Bishop Hosius of Cordoba (257-359), his advisor in ecclesiastical matters, to try to reconcile the two parties. Hosius reported back that this was impossible which led Constantine to call a council of Christian bishops from all parts of the empire.

In 325 CE, the bishops gathered in Nicea in what would become known as the First Ecumenical Council. Many scholars doubt ancient reports claiming that 318 bishops attended the council given this number coincides with the number of those circumcised in Abraham’s time. There were probably several hundred bishops who attended. In his Life of Constantine, the Christian historian Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260-c. 339), who was present, describes the atmosphere at the council,  

“There were gathered the most distinguished ministers of God, from the many churches in Europe, Libya [i.e., Africa] and Asia. A single house of prayer, as if enlarged by God, sheltered Syrians and Cilicians, Phoenicians and Arabs, delegates from Palestine and from Egypt, Thebans and Libyans, together with those from Mesopotamia. There was also a Persian bishop, and a Scythian was not lacking. Pontus, Galatia, Pamphylia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Phrygia sent their most outstanding bishops, jointly with those from the remotest areas of Thrace, Macedonia, Achaia, and Epirus. Even from Spain, there was a man of great fame [Hosius of Cordoba] who sat as a member of the great assembly. The bishop of the Imperial City [Rome] could not attend due to his advanced age; but he was represented by his presbyters. Constantine is the first ruler of all time to have gathered such a garland in the bond of peace, and to have presented it to his Savior as an offering of gratitude for the victories he had won over all his enemies” (2).

Much was discussed such as procedures for readmission of the lapsed and the election and ordination of presbyters and bishops, and for establishing the order of precedence of the various episcopal sees. They also decreed that bishops, presbyters, and deacons could not move from one city to another, although this rule was soon ignored. But the Arian controversy proved most challenging as several groups conflicted over the matter. 

There was a small group of Arians led by the bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia (d. 341). Arius himself was not a bishop so could not sit in the council and Eusebius of Nicomedia had to represent him and his theology. This group was so convinced that their position was correct that they expected nothing less than for the council to condemn Alexander’s position and teachings. The Arian position was, however, opposed by another small group of bishops, led by Alexander of Alexandria, who saw his views threatening the faith and subsequently condemned them. One of Alexander’s followers was the deacon Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296-373) who, while not permitted to sit in the council, would become a leading defender of Nicene orthodoxy against Arianism. 

Most of the bishops from the Latin-speaking West, who were content to hold to their view of the Trinity being “three persons and one substance”, did not see the Arian debate as important as others but as a controversy among Eastern followers of Origen. There was a very small group of bishops embracing a view that came close to Patripassianism, the view that the Son and the Father are the same, and that therefore the Father suffered the passion. Although they agreed that Arianism was wrong, their views would also be later rejected in the course of the controversy.

Most of the bishops present at the council did not belong to any of these groups but expressed concern that the Arian controversy threatened to splinter the Church. They hoped the council would find a compromise and then move to other matters.

Nonetheless, the Arian view, as expressed by Eusebius of Nicomedia, that the Word was no more than a creature provoked reactions accusing him and its proponents of heresy and blasphemy. Eusebius was shouted down and the pages of his speech were allegedly snatched from his hands and torn to shreds. This served to embolden the view of most at the council that Arianism needed to be condemned, and that negotiation and compromise were no longer possible.

creed was agreed upon that presented the views of the council that deliberately excluded Arianism. Constantine, either by his own accord or through his ecclesiastical advisor Hosius of Cordoba, suggested that the word homoousios (“of the same substance”) be included in the creed showing that the Son is just as divine as the Father. There was resistance to this theology as some argued it implied that there is no distinction between Father and Son, which led to Patripassianism. The council eventually agreed on a formula that rejected Arianism:  

“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father, that is, from the substance of the Father, God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten, not made, of one substance [homoousios] with the Father, through whom all things were made, both in heaven and on earth, who for us humans and for our salvation descended and became incarnate, becoming human, suffered and rose again on the third day, ascended to the heavens, and will come to judge the living and the dead. And in the Holy Spirit.

But those who say that there was when He was not, and that before being begotten He was not, or that He came from that which is not, or that the Son of God is of a different substance [hypostasis] or essence [ousia], or that He is created, or mutable, these the Catholic church anathematizes.”

This formula, with several additions later, became the basis for the Nicene Creed, which is the most universally accepted Christian creed being acknowledged by Western churches and by those of the East, including Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, and so on. The creed clearly anathematizes Arianism. The notion that the Son or Word was a creature and less than divine than the Father is rejected. It affirms that the Son is “begotten, not made” and begotten “from the substance of the Father.”

The bishops hoped that this agreed-upon creed would end the Arian controversy, but it did not. Some, such as Eusebius of Nicomedia and others, refused to sign their agreement. Those who refused were deemed heretics and, on Constantine’s orders, were banished from their cities perhaps hoping to avoid further unrest. Eusebius of Nicomedia managed to gain favor with Constantine, who then allowed him to return to Nicomedia where Eusebius was able to once again present his case before the emperor. Constantine deemed that he had been too harsh on the Arians, so Arius was recalled from exile and the emperor ordered the bishop of Constantinople to restore him to communion. Arius died while these events were unfolding.

Athanasius succeed Alexander of Alexandria when Alexander died in 328 CE. Athanasius, although not allowed to sit in the council, had been present and soon became the champion of the Nicene cause. But Eusebius of Nicomedia and his followers managed to have Athanasius exiled by order of Constantine. By then, most of the Nicene leaders were also banished. When Constantine asked for baptism on his deathbed, he received it from Eusebius.

Constantine was succeeded by three of his sons: Constantine II, Constans, and Constantius II, each of whom ruled over different territories. The eldest of Constantine’s three sons favored the Nicene cause and recalled Athanasius and the others out of exile. But when war broke out between Constans and Constantine II, Constantius, who ruled the East, found an opportune moment to follow his pro-Arian views. Athanasius was again exiled, only to return when the West was united under Constans after the death of Constantine II. Constantius was forced to follow a more moderate policy.

When Constantius became sole emperor the Nicene leaders had to once again leave their cities. The pressure to capitulate to the Arian cause was so strong that even Hosius of Cordoba and Liberius (the bishop of Rome) (310-366) signed Arian confessions of faith. When Constantius died he was succeeded by his cousin Julian (331-363), later known by Christian historians as the Apostate for his attempts to restore paganism and impede the progress of Christianity.

References and Recommended Readings

González, Justo L. 2010. The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. ‎San Francisco: HarperOne. p. 295-315.

Abogado, Jannel N. 2017. “The Anti-Arian Theology of the Council of Nicea of 325.” Angelicum 94(2):255-286.

1. González, Justo L. 2010. Ibid. p. 299.

2. Foster, John. 1972. Church History. London: S.P.C.K. p. 139.

3 comments

    • I can’t give a specific moment but i’d say in 325 CE, although it underwent various tumultuous moments after that. It was further ratified at the First Council of Constantinople in 381 CE.

  1. I have never been able to accept the Weslian theology that God is three persons in a Trinity. Since We as humans receive the spirit of the father on regeneration; it is to me simply that The Spirit of the Father was in Christ Jesus in his humanity from birth. There is One Spirit in all and over all, the same Spirit that created the universe is in Christ Jesus as now in us born of God.

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