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In 325 CE, following the defeat of Arius at the Council of Nicea, Emperor Constantine the Great went on a campaign of book burning to eradicate all memory of Arius and his beliefs:

After the First Council of Nicea (325 CE), Roman emperor Constantine the Great issued an edict against nontrinitarian Arians which included a prescription for systematic book-burning:

"In addition, if any writing composed by Arius should be found, it should be handed over to the flames, so that not only will the wickedness of his teaching be obliterated, but nothing will be left even to remind anyone of him. And I hereby make a public order, that if someone should be discovered to have hidden a writing composed by Arius, and not to have immediately brought it forward and destroyed it by fire, his penalty shall be death. As soon as he is discovered in this offense, he shall be submitted for capital punishment....."[3]

According to Elaine Pagels, "In AD 367, Athanasius, the zealous bishop of Alexandria... issued an Easter letter in which he demanded that Egyptian monks destroy all such unacceptable writings, except for those he specifically listed as 'acceptable' even 'canonical'—a list that constitutes the present 'New Testament'".[4] (Pagels cites Athanasius's Paschal letter (letter 39) for 367 CE, which prescribes a canon but does not explicitly order monks to destroy excluded works.[5][original research?]) Heretical texts do not turn up as palimpsests, scraped clean and overwritten, as do many texts of Classical antiquity. According to author Rebecca Knuth, multitudes of early Christian texts have been as thoroughly "destroyed" as if they had been publicly burnt.[6]

The great Alexandrian library was destroyed under mysterious circumstances around that time.

So my thought is that it might be impossible to get my hands on Arius' writings. Is it? Or have any of his words survived?

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  • There is a neat summary and some of his writings at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arius Note that the above decrees were almost certainly not fully implemented. Constantine's son was Arian, and Athanasius was expelled shortly after when Arius was reinstated. That popular opinion flip-flopped for bout a century or more after Nicaea.
    – user43409
    Commented Mar 21, 2019 at 21:14
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    Yeah, I was concerned about Wikipedia citing Pagels, author of 'The Secret Gospel of Thomas'... lying about Athanasius ordering monks to burn Arian works. The biased author clearly wasn't concerned about truth. They literally say, 'this happened, says someone [SOURCE??]' what kind of article is that. Citing Wikipedia is not very useful. The primary sources are all that matter. What "The great and victorious Constantine Augustus" does is of little surprise or import or relationship to the Catholic position on the matter. Commented Mar 22, 2019 at 0:06
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    Do not add unnecessary pejorative language to your question. This site is not for petty insults. Commented Mar 22, 2019 at 12:59
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    @ruminator, I doubt anybody has intentionally hidden that the circumstances around Constantine choosing not to go with Arianism were a strange moment in history, I read this in my daughter's history book (which has a very Catholic bent). But this site, it is important to remember, is a Q&A site, not a place for the airing of grievances.
    – Peter Turner
    Commented Mar 22, 2019 at 13:14
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    @Ruminator, You use the interesting term "nontrinitarian Arians." What do you mean? Are some Arians "trinitarian?" Arius most certainly Arius did believe in the trinity, but he did not believe that they are equal or that share share the same substance. For example, “Certainly there is a Trinity ... their individual realities do not mix with each other, and they possess glories of different levels” (Richard Hanson, The Search, page 14).
    – Andries
    Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 15:46

2 Answers 2

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Yes. As St. Alphonsus of Liguori writes in "Article 2: The Arian Heresy" §8 of his The History of Heresies p. 56:

Noel Alexander says that these errors [of Arius] are taken from an impious work he wrote, called Thalia, and from an Epistle of his to St. Alexander, referred to by St. Athanasius, and from the Synodical Epistle of the Council of Nice, quoted by Socrates, St. Epiphanius, and Theodoret.

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  • From your link, "Fragments of this work survive in two writings of his opponent Athanasius." We do have some of his words, but not in context as he presented them.
    – Bit Chaser
    Commented Mar 22, 2019 at 13:20
  • fourthcentury.com/arius-thalia-intro
    – Ruminator
    Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 15:50
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Introduction

The Arian “crisis of the fourth century was the most dramatic internal struggle the Christian Church had so far experienced” (RW, 1). 'Arianism', which is named after Arius, “has often been regarded as … aimed at the very heart of the Christian confession” (RW, 1). “Arius himself came more and more to be regarded as a kind of Antichrist … a man whose superficial austerity and spirituality cloaked a diabolical malice, a deliberate enmity to revealed faith” (RW, 1).

Arius' theology was discussed and rejected at Nicaea in 325. Nevertheless, ‘Arianism’ dominated the church after Nicaea for more than 50 years.

Sources

This article quotes from the following authors:

RH = Bishop RPC Hanson - The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381 (1981)

RW = Archbishop Rowan Williams - Arius, Heresy & Tradition, 2001

Both are highly respected scholars who have made in-depth studies of the Arian Controversy of the fourth century.

Documents that Survived

As far as Arius’ own writings go, we only have:

  • The confession of faith he presented to Alexander of Alexandria,
  • His letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia, and
  • The confession he submitted to the emperor. (RH, pages 5-6; RW, 95)

“The Thalia is Arius' only known theological work” (RH, 10) but “we do not possess a single complete and continuous text” (RW, 62). We only have extracts from it in the writings of Arius’ enemies, “mostly from the pen of Athanasius of Alexandria, his bitterest and most prejudiced enemy” (RH, 6). (Arius’ friends never quoted him, as far as we know.)

These extracts in the writings of Arius’ enemies “are … very far from presenting to us the systematic thought of Arius” (RW, 92). “We can never be sure that his statements are transmitted correctly” (RW, 92). “Athanasius, a fierce opponent of Arius, certainly would not have stopped short of misrepresenting what he (Arius) said” (RH, 10). For example, “the quotations from the Thalia in Orationes con. Arianos I.5-6 are full of derogatory and hostile editorial corrections clearly emanating from Athanasius” (RH, 11). “Athanasius is paraphrasing rather than quoting directly, and in places may be suspected of pressing the words maliciously rather further than Arius intended” (RH, 15).

Why so little survived

So, if Arius was such an important person, why did so little of his writings survive?

The usual explanation is that Constantine gave instructions that all of Arius’ writings must be destroyed, but that is not the real reason. The church remained ‘Arian’ for more than 50 years after the Nicene Council. If Arius had that much support, his supporters would have kept copies of his writings despite Constantine’s edict.

The real reason is that Arius was not the hero or leader or founder of an ‘Arian’ sect in the church:

“The bishops at Antioch in 341 declare … that they were not 'followers of Arius; for how could we as bishops be followers of a presbyter?’ They meant … that they … did not look on him as a factional leader, or ascribe any individual authority to him.” (RW, 82-83)

“Arius’ role in ‘Arianism’ was not that of the founder of a sect. It was not his individual teaching that dominated the mid-century eastern Church.” (RW, 165)

“Arius evidently made converts to his views … but he left no school of disciples.” (RW, 233)

The Two Parts of the Arian Controversy

To understand this, we must realize that the events of the Nicene Council divided the Arian Controversy into two parts:

In the first part of the Nicene Council, Arius’ theology was presented and very soon rejected:

“It became evident very early on that the condemnation of Arius was practically inevitable” (RW, 68).

This made an end to the first part of the Arian Controversy, namely of support for Arius' theology.

But then the Nicene Council, by stating in the Creed that the Son is homoousios (of the same substance) as the Father, created a new and different problem. The word homoousios is based on the Greek word ousia (substance) which is a concept from philosophy and does not appear anywhere in the Scriptures. It was mentioned in the debate before Nicaea but to bring it into a formal creed of the church was an innovation:

Williams justified the term as follows: “It was … impossible … to pretend that the lost innocence of pre-Nicene trinitarian language could be restored. ... to reject all innovation was simply not a real option; and thus the rejection of homoousios purely and simply as unscriptural or untraditional could no longer be sustained.” (RW, 234-5)

Therefore, Williams refers to “the conservative anti-Nicene response.” (RW, 236).

The inclusion of ousia (substance)-words in the Creed caused the second phase of the Arian Controversy:

“The radical words of Nicaea became in turn a new set of formulae to be defended” (RW, 236).

Various alternatives were proposed in the years after Nicaea, such as "like in substance" and “different in substance,” and/or attributes, but eventually the church settled on a Homoean creed which did not refer to substance and put a ban on the use of substance-language.

The Homoeans made “attempts in the credal statements of conservative synods in the 350s’ to bracket the whole Nicene discussion by refusing to allow ousia-terms of any kind into professions of faith” (RW, 234).

The point is that, in this second and main phase of the 'Arian Controversy', the Arius-problem was long forgotten. 

“We have no knowledge of later Arian use of the Thalia … which suggests that it was not to the fore in the debates of the mid-century, and represented a theological style no longer acceptable in Arian circles” (RW, 65).

Consequently:

“The expression 'the Arian Controversy' is a serious misnomer.” “The name “Arian” is not appropriate” because “Arius was not accepted as leader of a new movement. He did not write anything worth preserving. … Arius was only the spark that started the explosion. He himself was of no great significance.” (RH, xvii-xviii)

“There is the growing sense that 'Arianism' is a very unhelpful term to use in relation to fourth-century controversy. There was no single ‘Arian' agenda, no tradition of loyalty to a single authoritative teacher. Theologians who criticized the Creed of Nicaea had very diverse attitudes to Arius himself.” (RW, 247).

There was no such thing in the fourth century as a single, coherent 'Arian' party. Those who suspected or openly repudiated the decisions of Nicaea had little in common but this hostility ... certainly not a loyalty to the teaching of Arius as an individual theologian” (RW, 233).

Why is it called the Arian Controversy'?

Since the word "Arian" is derived from Arius' name, and if Arius' theology was a minority view during to the second and main phase of the 'Arian Controversy', why is it called the 'Arian Controversy'? The reason is that:

“The textbook picture of an Arian system … inspired by the teachings of the Alexandrian presbyter, is the invention of Athanasius’ polemic” (RW, 234).

“'Arianism' as a coherent system, founded by a single great figure and sustained by his disciples, is a fantasy … based on the polemic of Nicene writers, above all Athanasius” (RW, 82).

Why did Athanasius do this?

“'Arianism’ is the polemical creation of Athanasius above all, who was determined to show that any proposed alternative to the Nicene formula collapsed back into some version of Arius' teaching, with all the incoherence and inadequacy that teaching displayed” (RW, 247).

Athanasius quotes Arius because he “relies on such texts being a positive embarrassment to most of his opponents” (RW, 234).

'Arians' was a derogatory name which Athanasius coined to insult his opponents:

“'The Arians', (and a variety of abusive names whereby he [Athanasius] distinguishes them” (RH, 19).

Unfortunately, Athanasius' title "Arians" became generally accepted in the church because the history was written by the winner:

“The accounts of what happened which have come down to us were mostly written by those who belonged to the school of thought which eventually prevailed and have been deeply coloured by that fact.” (RH, xviii-xix).

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  • 1
    I really began with the intension of writing a short article but, having recently read these two books, I felt the need to explain why so little of Arius' writings remained. But then I also had to explain why we still talk about an 'Arian Controversy'. Perhaps I should have added that these insights are fairly recent. The source documents only became properly organized in the 20th century and this resulted in much research after the war. Williams has a nice overview of the history of the interpretation of Arius' theology.
    – Andries
    Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 17:30
  • +1 Very interesting stuff. It would not surprise me at all if Arius' own views were only 1 among many opposed to the Nicene camp. As is usual with early Church history, things were probably more complicated than most people appreciate (including myself). Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 18:22
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    "Apparently a fairly large percentage of the delegates were not theologically trained, but among those who were, three basic "parties" were discernible: (1) Arius and the Lucianists, led by Eusebius of Nicomedia; (2) the Origenists, led by Eusebius of Caesarea, already highly reputed; and (3) Alexander of Alexandria, with his following." God in Three Persons, Millard J. Erickson, p82-85 ()
    – Andries
    Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 2:46

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