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Apparently, the terms “Arian,” “Arianism,” and “Arian Controversy” were derived from the name of Arius, who was in charge of one of the churches in Alexandria, and whose dispute with his bishop Alexander began the Arian Controversy.

This implies that Arius was a very important person. It implies that Arius’ theology continued during that entire period of the Arian Controversy, namely:

From AD 318, when Arius publicly criticized his bishop Alexander for teaching ‘erroneous’ doctrines about the nature of Christ,

Until AD 380, when the emperor outlawed all 'Arian denominations’ through the Edict of Thessalonica.

However, recent scholars on the Arian Controversy claim that Arius was neither the leader of ‘Arianism’ nor regarded by the 'Arians' as a significant theologian. For example:

“Arius … was never unequivocally a hero for the parties associated with his name” (RW, 82). And, again, “Arius … was not an obvious hero for the enemies of Nicaea.” (RW, 166)

“It was not just ecclesiastical protocol which made the bishops at Antioch in 341 declare … that they were not 'followers of Arius … They meant exactly what they went on to say, that they had accepted Arius as orthodox, but did not look on him as a factional leader, or ascribe any individual authority to him.” (RW, 82)

“Those who suspected or openly repudiated the decisions of Nicaea … certainly (did not have) a loyalty to the teaching of Arius as an individual theologian” (RW, 233).

“The people of his day, whether they agreed with him or not, did not regard him (Arius) as a particularly significant writer” (RH, xvii).

“Arius’ own theology is of little importance in understanding the major debates of the rest of the century.” (LA, 56-57)

“Those who follow his theological tradition seldom or never quote him.” (RH, xvii) And, again, “the heirs of his theological tradition hardly ever quote him.” (RH, 6)

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

“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 was not accepted as leader of a new movement.” (RH, xvii-xviii)

“Arius was only the spark that started the explosion. He himself was of no great significance.” (RH, xvii-xviii)

Authors

RH = Bishop RPC Hanson The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God - The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

RW = Archbishop Rowan Williams Arius: Heresy and Tradition, 2002/1987

LA = Lewis Ayres Nicaea and its legacy, 2004 Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology

So, if Arius was of no great significance in the fourth-century controversy, why is it called the ‘Arian’ Controversy?

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Arius is important because his views stimulated a controversy that brought about the first Ecumenical Council, involved the Roman Emperor in church policy for the first time, and began a see-saw battle between Arian and Orthodox parties that lasted well after his death. In terms of his leadership, sources are not in agreement, but it seems he held considerable sway among the populace and important bishops and, at times, the Emperor himself.

Epiphanius of Salamis, an opponent of Arius described him as tall and lean, of distinguished appearance and polished address. Women reportedly doted on him, charmed by his beautiful manners, touched by his appearance of asceticism. Men were impressed by his aura of intellectual superiority... Contemporary accounts of the debates surrounding the ideas of Arius suggest that shopkeepers and bath-attendants and money changers were all discussing the issues. Source

Although Arianism was soundly defeated at the Council of Nicaea, it soon re-emerged, as Arian or semi-Arian bishops were reinstated and emperors became convinced that Nicaea's formula was inadequate to the task of creating unity in the empire. The First Synod of Tyre in 335 exiled Arius' primary opponent, Athanasius, to Trier, effectively exonerating Arius. After this, Constantine's son Constantius II, actively encouraged Arianism under the guidance of Eusebius of Nicomedia, who was appointed Bishop of Constantinople. Arianism fared less well in the West, where the popes at Rome consistently opposed it. However, the forces that sacked Rome were led by Arian Christians who had been converted by the Arian missionary Ulfias. Although these did not impose their theological views on the Roman church, Arianism remained influential among the Germanic peoples well into the 7th century. note

In summary, Arius' views and the Orthodox reaction against them set in motion a centuries long struggle that deeply marred the first centuries of Christian rule in the Roman Empire.

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  • This sounds like Arius was simply the charismatic front for the movement. Similar to how Rosa Parks was selected to reenact Claudette Colvin's case in order to proved a more acceptable and sympathetic victim to the public. Commented May 16, 2023 at 12:15
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Why is Arius important?

It is not so much why is Arius is important, that is in question. Of more importance to Trinitarians is the fact that Arianism was considered the most serious heresy, historically anyway.

Arianism: Arianism is named after Arius (c. 250 - c. 336), a priest in Alexandria. This is considered the most serious heresy. Jesus Christ was thought of as a special creation by God for man's salvation. Arianism was the form of Christianity that the Goths adhered to, and it was popular in all the areas they conquered, including Italy, Spain, and Africa.

Arians have been called the “archetypal” Christian heretics; accusations of Arianism have been made in almost every century since the fourth. Taking its name from an Egyptian priest, Arius, this heresy holds that Jesus, while the son of God, is neither eternal nor as fully divine as God the father. - Top 10 Heresies in the History of Christianity

His notoriety is most probably due that he came into conflict with the greatness of St. Athanasius of Alexandria. Arianism took it’s spark from Arius himself.

The Trinitarian historian Socrates of Constantinople reports that Arius sparked the controversy that bears his name when Alexander of Alexandria, who had succeeded Achillas as the Bishop of Alexandria, gave a sermon stating the similarity of the Son to the Father. - Arius

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Purpose

The ‘Arian’ Controversy began in the year 318; only five years after the end of the “great persecution.” It began with a dispute between Arius, who was in charge of one of the churches in Alexandria, and his bishop Alexander. That Controversy continued until Emperor Theodosius made an end to it in 380; 62 years later.

The term ‘Arian” is derived from the name Arius. This implies that Arius was the founder and teacher of ‘Arianism’, which dominated the church for most of the fourth century. However, "in the first few decades of the present (20th) century … seminally important work was … done in the sorting-out of the chronology of the controversy, and in the isolation of a hard core of reliable primary documents." (RW, 11-12) Consequently, "the four decades since 1960 have produced much revisionary scholarship on the Trinitarian and Christological disputes of the fourth century." (LA, 11) On this basis, this article shows that Arius, in himself, was of no great significance, and continues to explain why it is called the ‘Arian’ Controversy:

Summary

The First Seven Years

Arius was of some significance during the first 7 years of the Controversy until the Nicene Council in 325 decidedly rejected his theology. However, his importance was limited. He was not the founder or leader of ‘Arianism’:

“Arius was part of a wider theological trajectory; Many of his ideas were opposed by others in this trajectory: he neither originated the trajectory nor uniquely exemplified it.” (LA, 2)

“Many of the issues raised by the controversy were under lively discussion before Arius and Alexander publicly clashed” (RH, 52). Arius “was the spark that started the explosion. But in himself he was of no great significance.” (RH, xvii)

“Many of Arius' earliest supporters appear to have rallied to him because they, like him, opposed Alexander's theology” (LA, 14).

The Next 55 Years

During the next 55 years of the ‘Arian Controversy’, Arius and his theology were no longer of any significance. The Controversy of those 55 years was not caused by Arius. It was caused by the inclusion in the Nicene Creed of "new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day." (RH, 846) The Controversy revolved specifically around the term homoousios, meaning “same substance.” This was a new and different dispute. As discussed in another article:

The Homo-ousians, with Athanasius on the forefront, defending the term against the anti-Nicene majority, argued that the Son’s substance is identical to the Father’s.

The homo-i-ousians claimed that His substance is similar to the Father’s, but not identical.

The hetero-ousians (the Neo-Arians) said that the Son’s substance is different from the Father’s.

The homo-ians refused to talk about God's substance because the Bible does not say anything about it.

The point is that “Arius’ own theology is of little importance in understanding the major debates of the rest of the century” (after Nicaea) (LA, 56-57):

“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)

“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)

Athanasius invented Arianism.

So, if the word "Arian" is derived from Arius' name, and if Arius "in himself ... was of no great significance" (RH, xvii), why is it called the 'Arian Controversy'? The reason is that, while the anti-Nicenes sometimes accused Athanasius and the Nicene Creed of Sabellianism, Athanasius invented the term ‘Arian’ "to tar" his opponents with the name of another theology that was already then formally rejected by the church:

“'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)

But, since Athanasius' opponents were NOT followers of Arius:

“Theologians who criticized the Creed of Nicaea had very diverse attitudes to Arius himself.” (RW, 247)

‘Arianism’ is a serious misnomer.

Since the term 'Arianism' implies “a coherent system, founded by a single great figure and sustained by his disciples” (RW, 82), Hanson concludes that "the expression 'the Arian Controversy' is a serious misnomer” (RH, xvii-xviii):

“This controversy is mistakenly called Arian.” (LA, 13)

“If Athanasius’ account does shape our understanding, we risk misconceiving the nature of the fourth-century crisis.” (RW, 234)

             END OF SUMMARY

Authors / Sources

This article series is based largely on the books of three world-class scholars who are regarded as specialists in the fourth-century Arian Controversy, namely:

RH = Bishop RPC Hanson The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God - The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

RW = Archbishop Rowan Williams Arius: Heresy and Tradition, 2002/1987

LA = Lewis Ayres Nicaea and its legacy, 2004 Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology

Little of Arius’ writings survived.

Arius' Own Writings

“As far as his own writings go, we have no more than three letters, (and) a few fragments of another" (RH, 5-6). The three are:

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

The Thalia

“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)

Why did so little survive?

If Arius was such an important person that the whole Fourth Century Controversy was named after him, why did so few of his writings survive?

Constantine destroyed Arius’ writings.

The usual explanation is that, a few years after the Nicene Council in 325, when Emperor Constantine thought that Arius threatened to split the church, he gave orders that all copies of the Thalia be burned so that "nothing will be left even to remind anyone of him." He even commanded that those who do not immediately destroy Arius' writings must be put to death (Constantine's Edict) (Fourthcentury.com. 23 January 2010.)

Arius was not a great theologian.

But that is not the real reason. The church remained ‘Arian’ for about 55 years after the Nicene Council. If Arius had that much support that his teachings would continue to dominate the church for another 55 years, then his supporters would have kept copies of his writings despite Constantine’s severe warnings.

The real reason is that Arius was not a great theologian and that not even his fellow 'Arians' regarded his writings as worth preserving. For example:

"It may be doubted ... whether Arius ever wrote any but the most ephemeral works.” (RH, 6)

“The people of his day, whether they agreed with him or not, did not regard him (Arius) as a particularly significant writer.” (RH, xvii)

“He did not write anything worth preserving.” (RH, xvii-xviii)

The Arian Controversy had two phases.

To explain Arius’ relevance in the Arian Controversy, we must realize that the events of the Nicene Council in the year 325 divided the Arian Controversy into two parts:

The first phase focused on Arius.

The first part began with the dispute between Alexander and Arius in the year 318 and came to an end when the Council of Nicaea discussed and very soon rejected His theology:

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

The second phase focused on Homoousios.

But then the Nicene Council, by inserting "new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy of the day" (RH, 846) into the Nicene Creed, particularly the word homoousios, saying the Son is of the same substance as the Father, caused a new and different problem and caused the second and main phase of the Arian Controversy:

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

These words were heard in debates before Nicaea but very infrequently. They were not part of the standard Christian language or confession and they were never before used in any Christian profession of faith. But since they were key words in Greek philosophy, Hanson describes them as "new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy." (RH, 846)

Williams, as a Trinitarian in good standing, accepts these words but he admits that these words were not used before Nicaea and they are an untraditional innovation:

“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)

This second phase lasted for a further 55 years after Nicaea. The point is that the controversy now no longer was about Arius’ theology but about the word homoousios.

The word Homoousios divided the church into four main branches.

To show further that Arius was irrelevant in the second and main phase of the Arian Controversy, we need to understand that, in the 50+ years of the second phase of the Arian Controversy, there was no such thing as a single Arian movement. The church was divided into a number of branches; similar to our denominations today:

The homo-ousians were the pro-Nicenes. They accepted the statement in the Nicene Creed that the Son is homoousios (of the same substance) as the Father. The anti-Nicenes were divided as follows:

The homo-i-ousians claimed that the Son’s substance is similar to the substance of the Father but not the same.

The hetero-ousians said that the substance of the Son is different from the Father’s.

The homo-eans rejected all uses of the word ousia (substance), including homoousios and homoiousios because these words are not Scriptural. For example:

  • 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).

For the most part, Arius was irrelevant.

So, Arius was important in the first 7 years of the Controversy, but in the second and main part of the Controversy, which raged for another 55 years, the focus was on the new words from pagan philosophy. In this phase, Arius was irrelevant. The following is further evidence of this:

His theology was irrelevant.

“Arius’ own theology is of little importance in understanding the major debates of the rest of the century.” (LA, 56-57)

“Those who suspected or openly repudiated the decisions of Nicaea … certainly (did not have) a loyalty to the teaching of Arius as an individual theologian” (RW, 233).

The so-called ‘Arians’ opposed Arius.

“Arius was suspect in the eyes of the Lucianists and their neo-Arian successors.” (RW, 234)

“Arianism (was) the … long-lasting hostility to or unease with Nicaea among those who would have found the Thalia puzzling and none too congenial” (RW, 167).

“Holger Strutwolf (1999) … concludes that Eusebius initially misunderstood Arius as saying something similar to himself, and then distanced himself more and more from the Alexandrian as he realized his error, while still opposing the theology … advanced by Alexander” (RW, 261).

The so-called ‘Arians’ never quote Arius.

“The Arians could and did appeal to great names in the past ... but not Arius!” (RH, 828).

“We have no knowledge of later Arian use of the Thalia [Arius’ book] … which suggests that it was not to the fore in the debates of the mid-century.” (RW, 65)

“He may have written a lot of works … but (not even) … his supporters … thought them worth preserving. Those who follow his theological tradition seldom or never quote him.” (RH, xvii)

Bishops supported Arius because they opposed Alexander.

Arius was supported by several bishops; not because they agreed with Arius, but because they opposed also Alexander:

“Many of Arius' earliest supporters appear to have rallied to him because they, like him, opposed Alexander's theology” (LA, 14).

“Arius gained support from some bishops …  Although these supporters may have been wary of some aspects of Arius' theology ... they joined in opposition to Alexander.” (LA, 17)

Eusebius of Caesarea “thought the theology of Alexander a greater menace than that of Arius.” (RW, 173)

Arius was not the leader of the 'Arians'.

“We are not to think of Arius as dominating and directing a single school of thought to which all his allies belonged.” (RW, 171)

“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)

“The bishops at Antioch in 341 … did not look on him as a factional leader, or ascribe any individual authority to him.” (RW, 82-83, cf. 166)

“Arius … was not an obvious hero for the enemies of Nicaea.” (RW, 166)

Arius was an academic.

“Arius, like his great Alexandrian predecessors, is essentially an 'academic'.” (RW, 87)

“He (Arius) is not a theologian of consensus, but a notably individual intellect.” (RW, 178)

He did not leave behind a school of disciples.

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

“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)

“The later 'neo-Arians’ of the mid-century traced their theological ancestry back to the Lucianists rather than Arius” (RW, 31).

Arius was part of a wider theological trajectory.

“Arius was part of a wider theological trajectory; many of his ideas were opposed by others in this trajectory: he neither originated the trajectory nor uniquely exemplified it.” (LA, 2)

Arius was only the spark.

“Many of the issues raised by the controversy were under lively discussion before Arius and Alexander publicly clashed” (RH, 52).

“The views of Arius were such as … to bring into unavoidable prominence a doctrinal crisis which had gradually been gathering. … He was the spark that started the explosion. But in himself he was of no great significance.” (RH, xvii)

“In the fourth century there came to a head a crisis … which was not created by … Arius.” (RH, xx)

The fuel for the Controversy has been gathering over the previous centuries as writers expressed conflicting views about how the Son relates to the Father. Before Christianity was legalized, Christians were simply too busy just trying to survive to do much wrestling on this topic. But, as soon as the persecution came to an end, this explosion was inevitable. And Arius, as Hanson stated, was only the spark that ignited the fire.

Why, then, the name ‘Arian’?

If the word "Arian" is derived from Arius' name, and if Arius "in himself ... was of no great significance" (RH, xvii) during the second and main phase of the 'Arian Controversy', why is it called the 'Arian Controversy'?

Athanasius invented Arianism.

The only reason we today use the terms “Arian” and “Arianism” is because:

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

“'Arianism’ is the polemical creation of Athanasius above all.” (RW, 247) (Athanasius was the main defender of Nicene theology against the anti-Nicene majority.)

“'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)

What was Athanasius' purpose?

Athanasius' purpose was to create the impression that, although the various anti-Nicene views seem to differ, they all constituted a single coherent system; all based on Arius' teachings. For example:

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

“Athanasius’ controversial energies … are dedicated to building up the picture of his enemies as uniformly committed … to a specific set of doctrines advanced by Arius and a small group of confederates” (RW, 82-83).

“The professed purpose of Athanasius … is to exhibit the essential continuity of Arianism from first to last beneath a deceptive appearance of variety, all non-Nicene formularies of belief really lead back to the naked ‘blasphemies of Arius’.” (RW, 66)

“Athanasius ... 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' purpose, therefore, was to argue, since Arius' theology was already formally rejected by the church, that all opposition to the Nicene Creed was also already rejected.

Athanasius defended against accusations of Sabellianism.

After Nicaea, the anti-Nicenes accused Alexander, Athanasius, and the Nicene Creed of submitting to Sabellianism; a theology which was already formally rejected during the previous century. For example:

“The so-called Semi-Arians in particular objected to this Greek term homoousios on the grounds that it has a Sabellian tendency."[St. Athanasius (1911), "In Controversy With the Arians", Select Treatises, Newman, John Henry Cardinal trans, Longmans, Green, & Co, p. 124, footn.]

It was to counter this accusation, and "to tar" his opponents with the name of another theology that was already rejected, that Athanasius referred to his opponents as ‘Arians’.

“Heresiological labels enabled early theologians and ecclesiastical historians … to tar enemies with the name of a figure already in disrepute. Most famously some participants in the debate described loosely related but clearly distinct thinkers as Arians.” (LA, 2)

The term 'Arian' was intended to insult.

Athanasius was fond of insulting his opponents by calling them all sorts of names. (See Tuggy's podcasts 169, 170, 171.) The name 'Arian' fits this pattern:

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

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

A Serious Misnomer.

There was no single, coherent 'Arian' party.

The term “Arian” creates the impression that there was only one anti-Nicene view. However:

As already shown above, the term homoousios divided the church into several different branches, including several very different anti-Nicene views.

“‘Arianism,’ throughout most of the fourth century, was in fact a loose and uneasy coalition of those hostile to Nicaea in general and the homoousios in particular” (RW, 166).

“Scholars continue to talk as if there were a clear continuity among non-Nicene theologians by deploying such labels as Arians, semi-Arians, and neo-Arians. Such presentations are misleading.” (LA, 13-14)

“There was no such thing in the fourth century as a single, coherent 'Arian' party.” (RW, 233)

Arius was not the dominant teacher.

Furthermore, the term “Arian” creates the impression that Arius was the dominant teacher of the 'Arian' movement and that his disciples propagated his theology later in the century. However:

“No clear party sought to preserve Arius' theology. Many ... are termed Arian ... (but) their theologies often have significantly different concerns and preoccupations.” (LA, 13)

“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)

“The fourth-century crisis … is very far from being a struggle by 'the Church’ against a 'heresy’ formulated and propagated by a single dominated teacher” (RW, 234).

“It is virtually impossible to identify a school of thought dependent on Arius' specific theology.” (LA, 2)

A Serious Misnomer

Since Arius was not the dominant teacher but, actually, a relatively unimportant person, and since there was no single 'Arian' party, our authors concluded that:

"The expression 'the Arian Controversy' is a serious misnomer.” (RH, xvii-xviii)

“'Arianism' is a very unhelpful term to use in relation to fourth-century controversy.” (RW, 247)

“This controversy is mistakenly called Arian.” (LA, 13)

Rowan Williams concluded, “I was still, in 1987, prepared, even with reservations, to use the adjective 'Arian’ in a way I should now find difficult” (RW, 248).

And Lewis Ayres said, “For these reasons some scholars now simply refrain from using the term Arian other than as an adjective to describe Arius' own theology and I shall follow that practice.” (LA, 14)

Unfortunately, StackExchange limits space and does not allow me to capture the full article. See here for more.

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  • This is way too long, and circular. You should be able to edit this down to at most a quarter of its current length, to clearly focus on the single question that was asked.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Jun 20, 2023 at 6:18
  • @curiousdannii I see your point. However, I have a summary at the top. If somebody reeds only the summary, that should suffice. Only when a person does not understand or agree, he or she needs to read the detail. In the past I have captured only the summary and then somebody complained that I need to substantiate my conclusions. Any advice on what I can cut out will be appreciated.
    – Andries
    Commented Jun 21, 2023 at 7:38
  • @curiousdannii Why do you say it is circular? Circular logic? Where?
    – Andries
    Commented Jun 21, 2023 at 7:40
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    Not circular logic, circular as in it seems like you circle back to talk about every sub-point 4 times.
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Jun 21, 2023 at 7:41
  • @curiousdannii Okay - will check. Can you give me one example of something I repeat four times? I have an overview of about half a page, then a summary of about 3 pages. The body is about 12 pages. Under each heading, I provide a list of quotes but also summarize the quotes. So, perhaps that gives you the 4 repetitions. But please indulge me. What I write is very contrary to orthodoxy and I must make sure I provide adequate evidence for every point.
    – Andries
    Commented Jun 22, 2023 at 8:45

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