The stereotype of pious, respectful theologians working together to understand and articulate the doctrine of the Trinity looms large in the collective imagination of countless Christians. However, the truth is that defenders of the Trinity doctrine in the fourth and fifth centuries were guilty of hypocrisy, embezzlement, slander, hatred, beatings, kidnappings, and even murder in their herculean effort to force others, content with simpler ideas about God, to believe that Jesus really was on the same level as the almighty, supreme God and that he really was both divine and human at the same time. In the course of this series of articles, we will see bishops and priests act like children, vying for the attention of their emperor in an effort to use their privileged position as their patron’s favorite to undermine, discredit, and exile their theological opponents. As we journey through the historical record, we will look on as myth after myth evaporate like mirages on a desert trek that are convincing illusions when viewed from a distance, but suddenly disappear when one draws near. We will discover why many church history textbooks omit the juicy stories of chicanery, politicking, and megalomania in an effort to cloak this formative period in a conspiracy of silence rather than tell the whole story, warts and all.
We will begin our investigation in the early days of the conflict between Alexander and Arius in A.D. 318 at Alexandria, and end in A.D. 451 when the dual-natures’ doctrine was set in stone at Chalcedon. Along the way, I will not be able to cover every important person engaging in the various issues that arose during the time, but will instead focus my attention on the players who most flagrantly flouted Christ’s command to love their enemies in an effort to bolster and impose their own belief on others. I intend to restore some balance to the current, one-sided version of the events students of church history are typically spoon fed. I contend much of what is out there represents only the most digestible chunk of a very fatty piece of meat, which is often pre-chewed and partially digested. So, rather than focusing on the good, what follows will expose the bad and the ugly so that truth-seekers may find themselves better equipped to make informed decisions about the Trinity idea.
Before delving into the controversy that broke out in Alexandria in A.D. 318 when Bishop Alexander fired Arius, one of his pastors, we must begin with a few words about Alexandria and Alexandrian Christianity. Ever since Alexander the Great founded and gave his name to the port city at the mouth of the Nile delta in 331 B.C., Alexandria was destined for greatness. Not only was it the capital city of Egypt for a millennium (until the Muslims came in A.D. 641), but it survives even today with more than four million inhabitants and is still the largest city on the Mediterranean coast. After Alexander the Great died in 323 B.C., Ptolemy (one of his generals) took possession of Egypt and established a dynasty of Greek rulers in Alexandria that would last until Cleopatra VII, the last autonomous Ptolemaic ruler, finally succumbed to Roman imperialism in 30 B.C. Whether under Greek control or Roman, the city enjoyed a reputation as the sophisticated intellectual center of the Mediterranean world. The famed library of Alexandria—the largest in the ancient world, housing hundreds of thousands of scrolls—stood as a monument to the city’s voracious appetite for knowledge. Even Athens was surpassed by Alexandria as first-class scholars and thinkers flocked there to pursue philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, anatomy, and geography. It was in Alexandria that Ptolemy II commissioned the most famous Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, the Septuagint, in the third century B.C.
A truly diverse society, Alexandria was home to the ruling Greeks and Romans and the largest community of Jews outside of Judea and a huge number of native Coptic Egyptians. At times the city was fraught with eruptions of riots and mob violence and at others viewed as a model of civilization. In fact, Augustus Caesar himself spared no expense upgrading Rome to imitate the jewel of the Nile. The metropolis had a reputation as the light of the world—symbolized by its massive lighthouse, the Pharos—and was also the bread basket of the region. The fertile ground on either side of the Nile river produced vast quantities of grain, far more than Alexandria needed, enriching it immeasurably. In short, Alexandria was one of the major hubs of the ancient world and was a place of incredible influence and importance with regard to agriculture, philosophy, religion, culture, architecture, and, before long, Christian theology as well.
Although Christianity found its way to Alexandria much earlier, it was not until around A.D. 190 that the famed catechetical school—a training ground for new Christians and a center for advanced theological study—came to prominence. Under its founder, Pantaenus, and his successors, Clement and Origen, the school endeavored to combine Christian theology and Greek philosophy in an effort to make the faith intelligible to the educated and elite of the second and third centuries. Over time, Alexandrian Christianity became enormously influential, and a good portion of the most important ecumenical councils resulted from Alexandrian theology, one way or another. Beyond the theological innovations, contributions, and controversies, the city’s bishops played critical roles in the wider Christian world from Demetrius (who began the process of galvanizing episcopal authority) to Dioscorus (whose brazen, thug tactics earned him the distinction of causing the defection of Alexandria from the Catholic communion, a rift that produced the Coptic Orthodox Church). Demetrius, who held sway from A.D. 189 to 232, famously rebuked the bishops of Caesarea and Jerusalem for allowing Origen, a man whose scholarly reputation had by then far surpassed his own, to preach in their churches though he was not ordained as a minister. Later on, while he was sojourning in Caesarea, these same bishops solved the problem by doing what Demetrius stubbornly refused to do—ordain Origen as a priest. When he came home to Alexandria, Demetrius was so appalled at such blatant disregard for his authority that he ran Origen out of Egypt for good. Demetrius and those who inherited his position after him were master politicians; they steadily increased their power locally and abroad until the bishopric of Alexandria was elevated to a position of such eminence that it was second only to Rome, typically expressed with the moniker “second among equals.”
With this background in mind, we can now turn to Alexander, who was bishop of Alexandria from A.D. 313 to 326. Alexander was a well-educated controversialist, who engaged in the debate over the dating of Easter, the removal of Meletius of Lycopolis from office, and, most importantly, the firestorm surrounding whether or not Jesus was on the same level as God. The year was A.D. 318, and Alexander began publicly insisting that the Son and Father were both eternal. This message came as a shock to Arius, the aged and well-respected pastor of an Alexandrian congregation in the Baucalis district. Scandalized by Alexander’s strange and contradictory teaching, Arius protested and asserted that the Son was subordinate to the Father because he was begotten. Alexander called a synod of a hundred Egyptian bishops and not only severely reprimanded Arius, but removed him from office and even excommunicated him. This made it impossible for Arius to receive communion in any of the churches under Alexander’s influence. Furthermore, Alexander was not satisfied with ruining Arius’ livelihood and potential for acceptance in Egypt, he also sent a letter to the bishop of Constantinople.* In this letter he incessantly railed on Arius and labeled him a greedy scoundrel who was driven mad by the devil. He claimed it was Arius who refused to remain under the authority of the church; it was Arius who sowed strife and controversy; it was Arius who went off to gather a gang of fighters to assail the church. Alexander went on to call him wretched, deranged, cantankerous, idiotic, ignorant, and impious. He wanted to be sure that Arius could not find friends in high places, or at least not in the Constantinople. However, Alexander had gone too far this time, and Arius, though already sixty-two years old, had no intentions of taking such bullying lying down. He would fight back, and he was not alone. Even if Alexander had supreme authority over Egypt’s clergy, Arius would soon turn to poetry and song to popularize his message. Before long, Arius’ Thalia was recited and sung by sailors all over the Mediterranean. After all, Alexandria was the most important and busiest port in the region.
Next time, we will turn our attention to Arius in an effort to understand his theology and dispel some of the more pernicious myths that many Christians hold, even today.
*For the text of the letter, consult J. Stevenson’s A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church to ad 337, trans. Stuart Hall, ed. J. Stevenson, rev. ed. W. H.C. Frend (London: SPCK 1987).