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Trinity Controversy 2: Arius


Did Jesus have a beginning or has he always existed? This simple question was at the heart of the controversy that broke out between Christians in Egypt in the early fourth century. Alexander, the powerful bishop of Alexandria, began teaching Jesus was eternal like the Father while a number of his clergy strongly disagreed with him, arguing that the Son was begotten, and thus had a beginning. Before long, the dispute in Egypt spilled over into the surrounding regions of the eastern half of the Roman Empire and continued to escalate until the Roman government officially endorsed one perspective while outlawing all others in A.D. 381. Although most informed Christians are taught that it was Arius that caused all the trouble, in fact, the historical record reveals a quite different perspective. To better understand what happened back then, we need to acquaint ourselves with Arius and the early years of the struggle, before the emperors started getting involved.

Born around A.D. 256 in Libya, Africa, Arius was a highly intelligent and devout Christian. Very little about his early life survives, and what we know was written by his enemies. Epiphanius calls him “unusually tall,” and said he “wore a downcast expression” but admits he “was pleasant in his speech…forever winning souls” (Pan. 69.3.1)1. Another historian, Socrates of Constantinople, said Arius was “possessed of no inconsiderable logical acumen” (H.E. 1.5).2 Essentially, Arius was remarkably brilliant, extremely disciplined, and very persuasive. He may have studied under Lucian of Antioch for a time. When he was in his late forties, he was ordained a deacon by Peter, the bishop of Alexandria. Peter’s successor Achillas made him a presbyter when Arius was in his mid-fifties whereupon he began pastoring a church in the Baucalis district in Alexandria. By the time the controversy with Alexander broke out, he was already sixty-two years old and highly respected by everyone. This is evidenced by the fact that when he was excommunicated, seventy virgins, seven presbyters, and twelve deacons immediately left with him (Pan. 69.3.2, 5).

“We should not, therefore, imagine Arius as a renegade priest, willfully flouting orthodox theology to spread subversive ideas about the Trinity.” –Bart Ehrman

Arius is typically painted as an outsider who endeavored to push upon the Christians of his time progressive ideas about God and Christ based on his philosophical sensibilities. Nothing could be further from the truth of the matter. Arius had already given his life in service to the church. He was not young and impulsive, nor was he progressive or liberal. His concern was to retain the faith he had received and that was already accepted, especially by his own bishop, Alexander. In a letter to Alexander after his banishment, Arius claimed that his faith was “received from our forefathers and learned from you as well.” He goes on to detail the faith he learned from Alexander that there is “one God, the only ingenerate, the only eternal, who alone is without beginning, the only true God…He has begotten him [Christ] not in appearance but in truth and brought him into being by his own will” (Pan. 69.7.3-4). He continues, “But God is before all as a unit and the first principle of all. And thus he is also before Christ, as we have learned from you when you have preached in the church” (Pan. 69.8.2). So, Arius clearly did not think he was inventing anything new and had no problem saying so right to the man who was persecuting him.

So what happened? How did Arius end up fired by his overseer? Apparently at some big meeting of Alexander’s, he made a public declaration. Socrates reports the following:

He [Alexander], in the fearless exercise of his functions for the instruction and government of the church, attempted one day in the presence of the presbytery and the rest of his clergy, to explain, with perhaps too philosophical minuteness, that great theological mystery—the unity of the Holy Trinity.” (H.E. 1.5)

Upon hearing Alexander’s exposition, Arius thought Alexander was teaching Sabellianism (an idea that the Son was the Father, popularized by Sabellius a century earlier (H.E. 1.5). Before long, word of Arius’ disagreement got back to Alexander who asked Arius to meet with him (Pan 3.5). Once it was clear that he could not convince Arius, Alexander called together a council of presbyters and some bishops to officially examine him (in A.D. 318).3 Arius and many others (including some bishops) refused to sign the confession of “orthodoxy,” so the council, led by Alexander, publicly excommunicated nearly one hundred of their brothers and sisters in Christ. Upon this devastating turn of events, some of them travelled to other areas to seek help. The only way they could hope to regain fellowship with their home churches was to convince enough other bishops to confront Alexander. Quite a few bishops responded including Eusebius of Caesarea, the famous church historian, and the influential Eusebius of Nicomedia.

Because Arius did not have the benefit of institutional support in his native Alexandria and the government was still uninvolved in Christian matters, his only recourse was to persuasion. He distilled his faith statement down to a short slogan, “There was when he was not” and popularized this truth as much as he could. Arius was no fool: he knew he had Scripture and logic on his side, and he was not about to submit to Alexander’s heavy-handed tactics just because he held the title “bishop.” Arius’ only theological work that partially survives is called the Thalia, which means “Festivity.” He wrote it sometime between A.D. 318 and 321, during the tumultuous years leading up to the council of Nicea in A.D. 325. Here is how it begins:

In accordance with the faith of the elect of God, God’s sage servants
Holy and orthodox, who had received God’s holy Spirit,
I learned these things from participants in wisdom,
Skillful, taught by God in every way and wise.
In their steps came I, stepping with the same opinions,
The notorious, the one who suffered much for God’s glory;
Having learned from God I myself know wisdom and knowledge.

God then himself is in essence ineffable to all.
He alone has neither equal nor like, none comparable in glory;
We call him Unbegotten because of the one in nature begotten;
We raise hymns to him as Unbegun because of him who has beginning.
We adore him as eternal because of the one born in time.

The Unbegun appointed the Son to be the beginning of things begotten,
And bore him as his own Son, in this case giving birth.
He has nothing proper to God in his essential property,
For neither is he equal nor yet consubstantial with him.4

This poem goes on, but Arius’ primary point derives from a rock-solid confession in the fact that the Father begat the Son. Arius said, “If the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence: and from this is evident that there was a time when the Son was not” (H.E. 1.5). Arius grounded this belief on biblical, grammatical, and logical grounds. Although his opponents, even today, sometimes accuse him of twisting Christian doctrine to fit with Greek philosophy, R.P.C. Hanson, the author of a massive near thousand-page book on the subject, writes:

“It is not just to dismiss him [Arius] as one wholly preoccupied with philosophy. The very fact of his eclecticism suggests that he has some ultimate purpose for which he is using the tools of philosophy, but which itself is not philosophical but theological. He was in his way attempting to discover or construct a rational Christian doctrine of God, and for this his chief source was necessarily not the ideas of Plato or Aristotle or Zeno, but the Bible.5”

Naturally, Alexander was enraged by Arius’ efforts to popularize his message in Alexandria and abroad. As a result he sent a circular letter to seventy bishops (Pan. 69.4.3), slandering his enemy. The tone of Arius’ Thalia and Alexander’s letter could not be more opposite. Rather than focusing on the issue, Alexander lambasted Arius calling him wretched, deranged, cantankerous, idiotic, ignorant, and impious. Alexander thundered, “Christ’s undivided cloak, which the executioners did not even wish to divvy up, they have dared to rip apart.”6 Alexander was intent to exculpate himself while accusing Arius of divisiveness. However, it was Alexander’s rash excommunication of Arius and the others that caused their outreach. In fact, before this time, many Christians who disagreed on this matter had no problem getting along. By making belief in the eternality of the Son a requirement for fellowship, Alexander began the polarization process that eventually ripped the church apart.

“In Alexandria he [Arius] represented not only a conservative theology, but also a conservative understanding of his presbyteral role vis-à-vis the bishop, and a traditional Alexandrian confidence in the authority of the inspired contemplative and ascetic teacher.” –Rowan Williams

Upon receiving the letter, some bishops refused Arius and his friends fellowship while others continued supporting them. Before long (A.D. 319), Eusebius of Nicomedia and a number of other bishops held another council in Bithynia (northern Turkey) at which Arius was vindicated as orthodox. They sent a letter to Alexander demanding Arius’ restoration. Around this time, Eusebius of Caesarea wrote to Alexander protesting how he was treating Arius. A couple of years later (between A.D. 321 and 322), Eusebius of Caesarea called for a second council in Palestine at which Arius was once again supported, and Alexander once more was entreated to reinstate Arius. After this, the whole issue was tabled for a while because the eastern emperor, Licinius, banned the meeting of bishops. But, once Constantine defeated Licinius in A.D. 324 and became the sole emperor of both east and west, the issue came before him.

Constantine wrote to Alexander and Arius urging them to reconcile. He condemned Alexander for asking his presbyters what each one thought on an “inexplicable passage” of the Bible that is “improper for discussion” (H.E. 1.7). He reproves Arius for rashly answering rather than burying his thoughts in silence. Essentially, Constantine argued that such subjects are too complicated to handle and that they are of “least importance.” In one sense, Constantine was right—it is far better to deal with doctrinal differences within the church through respectful and patient investigation rather than dividing over them and thereby destroying the witness of unity to the world. However, in another sense he was dead wrong; this issue was not unimportant. Alexander’s theological speculation had nudged the church down a trajectory that would culminate in a full-blown Trinity doctrine, complete with so many abstract conceptualizations that few could adequately explain it. As one might imagine, Constantine’s letter was completely ineffective in persuading Alexander to lift the ban on Arius. Even if Constantine’s initial foray into this controversy proved entirely ineffective, he was not one to give up easily.

Where was this all heading? Will the bishops in the north successfully convince Alexander to readmit Arius? Will the emperor ignore the issue and focus on other matters? Will the question of whether or not the Son is eternal blow over? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding “No!” Alexander remained unyielding as ever, the emperor decided to stick his nose right into the issue, and the eternality question continued to fester and divide Christians for at least sixty more years. Next time, we will turn our attention to Constantine and the world-wide council of bishops he called at Nicea to decide on the issue once and for all (or so he thought).

1Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion: Books 2 and 3 (Sects 47-80, De Fide), trans. Frank Williams (Leiden, Brill 1994).

2Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, trans. A. C. Zenos in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Second Series), vol 2 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson 1999).

3For a more detailed chronology see R.P.C. Hanson’s nine-point outline. R.P.C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic 2007), pp. 134-135.

4J. Stevenson, 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).

5Hanson, p. 98.

6Kirchengeschichte Theodoretus, ed. Léon Parmentier and Günter Christian Hansen. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1998. (Translated by Andrew S. Jacobs in Christianity in Late Antiquity 300-450 c.e., Oxford University Press, 2004, pp. 160-166.)

20 Responses to “Trinity Controversy 2: Arius”

  1. on 13 Sep 2012 at 12:00 pmJon T.

    Awesome…the window to the history of Arius’ teaching opens a little more. This fits nicely w/ the book, ‘When Jesus Became God,’ and further peaks my interest in knowing what the now minority side was thinking and teaching back when questioning so called unwritten orthodoxy was frowned upon! Church history sure makes for strange bed fellows w/ all the misinformation out there in “trinitarian land.” In spite of the book burning then and the fear of questions now, the doctrine that God is the only and One true God and that Christ was begotten, created, born, began, continues to push to the forefront in the minds of those who dare seek. For those who seek will find. I am a seeker who has found profound peace and satisfaction w/ the thought that God alone is the only Wise and that His predetermined plan enabled Jesus, his only begotten son, to someday fulfill all the promises to Moses, Abraham, David, National Israel and to the church, in his words, his deeds, his death, his resurrection, his ascension (glorification) and in his highly exalted position at the right hand of his Father, as the Great High Priest over the house of God and Advocate for mankind. Come quickly Lord Messiah Jesus and establish your kingdom!

  2. on 13 Sep 2012 at 1:14 pmSarah

    Hi Jon,

    I couldn’t agree more with your comments. You wrote:

    Church history sure makes for strange bed fellows w/ all the misinformation out there in “trinitarian land.”

    How true this is. I recently went through a period of “shock and awe” when I discovered the extent of that misinformation. But thankfully we now live in the information age, when articles like this one can make significant headway in setting the record straight.

  3. on 13 Sep 2012 at 2:14 pmDoubting Thomas

    Hi Jon T.
    I don’t remember seeing you post before, so welcome to K.R.!!! I agree with everything that you wrote. I think you find that there are a lot of informative and interesting articles on this blog. There is a small group of people that regularly post here. Your thoughts and any other input are welcome… 🙂

  4. on 13 Sep 2012 at 2:48 pmJon T.

    Hi Sarah & Doubting Thomas–Thanks for the kind remarks. It’s great to be able to express myself freely w/ like minded people. Was recently asked by the pastor of our evangelical church to leave for daring to challenge the status quo of traditional church doctrine. I count it a privilege to stand w/ those who continue to push the envelope of esoteric church doctrine that does not fit the intent of the bible’s Jewish authors. Blessings to you…

  5. on 13 Sep 2012 at 3:45 pmSean

    Jon T.,

    I’m sorry to hear you got the “left foot of fellowship” from your pastor. Although it stings when this happens, Jesus tells us to leap for joy, since they persecuted the prophets in the same way. Take courage friend. What city do you live in? We may know someone near by.

  6. on 13 Sep 2012 at 4:23 pmJon T.

    Thanks Sean,

    We live in Newton, Kansas, just north of Wichita. My life-line is my family, my bible and the internet. Of course God is in the mix as well during this time of reformation in our lives. The best part is my wife and kids are following me, ‘eyes wide open,’ in this adventure of faith and learning. There are a few good men and women here who hunger for truth and righteousness. We truly live in exciting times and I believe the best is yet to come for those who pursuit truth and are faithful to God alone.

  7. on 13 Sep 2012 at 5:46 pmtimothy

    Jon T,

    Welcome aboard.

    Many here watched a movie that portrays the cold heart behavior of the church leaders in the early centuries. I am sure you will enjoy this:



  8. on 14 Sep 2012 at 1:54 amTim (aka Antioch)

    Jon T,

    Welcome. I’m curious to hear more about what led you to take a stand against the trinity? Did you ever consider yourself a trinitarian at some point?


  9. on 14 Sep 2012 at 4:04 pmJon T.


    Born and raised in a trinitarian fundamentalist home. Believed in Jesus at an early age (5) and went on to bible college upon graduating high school (’84). Bible college seemed to raise more questions than it could answer, at least to my inquiring mind and satisfaction. It wasn’t until three years ago a friend at work sent me an article titled, “Do you have to believe the trinity to be saved?” by John Shoenheit (sp?). And I was hooked! I began a personal year and a half study into the so called doctrine of the trinity which naturally led to a study of the so called incarnation, dual nature/hypostatic union of Jesus. Since my study, I’ve never looked back. My biggest problem w/ the church today is their requirement of belief in the trinity for membership w/o requiring belief in it for salvation, at least in my experience. I could not change my view on the trinity w/o looking into and being shocked at the amount of biblical information on death, hell, judgment, heaven, resurrection and of course, the kingdom of God/heaven. At the time, my wife, thought I was losing my mind! That’s the short version of it anyway. Thanks for asking.

  10. on 14 Sep 2012 at 4:45 pmtimothy

    Jon T.

    Thank you for sharing your search for the real truth about the trinity.

    John Schoenheit is a great researcher and writer.

    Here is a link to Seans site with an interview of author who has a similar background as your. There is so much more available to unravel where many false doctrine came from.

    Truth Matters Podcast: about the trinity


    Timothy 🙂

  11. on 14 Sep 2012 at 5:20 pmTim (aka Antioch)


    Thanks for sharing. As I wrestle with my own relationship with my church (trinitarian), it is informative to see how others have dealt with it.

    My biggest problem w/ the church today is their requirement of belief in the trinity for membership w/o requiring belief in it for salvation, at least in my experience.

    Amen. If it is not essential for salvation, then it should not be required for membership. Moreover, it should not hinder our fellowship. I’m currently doing periodic lunches with a more enlightened church member who disagrees with me but we are able to have open discussion about it that we both enjoy.

  12. on 14 Sep 2012 at 7:26 pmSarah


    I find it so encouraging that you have been allowed to remain in your church after revealing your position to your pastors. And also that you are now beginning to have open discussions with a member of your church.

    I would really love to see change happen in mainline churches from the inside out. However I know this depends on the heart attitude of individual pastors in terms of whether or not they will allow a dissenter to remain in the fellowship. And, sadly, I also realize your situation is not the norm…but it does give me hope.

  13. on 15 Sep 2012 at 11:03 amTim (aka Antioch)

    Thanks Sarah. I was told I am welcome so long as I keep my views ‘in the closet’. Since I sent my paper, I am greeted cordially but also a bit like I’m radioactive. I keep praying for God, if this is the truth, to have someone else at the church come to that belief as well so that I can have some fellowship. The first gentleman that offered to work with me was a dead end for now, but this latest is more promising, though I realize it takes time. Nobody wakes up one day and flips from Republican to Democrat or vice versa – it is a process and the more one is invested with a doctrine, the longer it takes to undo it. Jon T above said he spent a year and a half. It was two years for me before I put my paper together, and I was a brand new christian when it happened.

  14. on 15 Sep 2012 at 2:58 pmtimothy

    Tim(aka Antioch)

    It is such a blessing to watch your tenacity.

    Psalm 16: (nasb)
    7) I will bless the Lord who has counseled me;
    Indeed, my mind instructs me in the night.

    8) I have set the Lord continually before me;
    Because He is at my right hand, **I will not be shaken**.

    ** http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nUTXb-ga1fo&feature=related

    9) Therefore my heart is glad and my glory rejoices;
    My flesh also will dwell securely.

    10) For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol;
    Nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay.

    11) You will make known to me the path of life;
    In Your presence is fullness of joy;
    In Your right hand there are pleasures forever.

    Will you post your letter or facebook chat.

    Timothy 🙂

  15. on 15 Sep 2012 at 3:17 pmJaco

    Great testimonies

    Evangelical Christianity is a curse. It’s fundamentalist fanaticism having a retrogressive influence on modern humanity. It’s Dark Age Roman Catholicism by any other name. Unfortunately our society wants everything instantly. From instant coffee to instant marriage resolution to instant Christian salvation. Such spirituality is not sustainable and soon this curse will collapse. But it’s good to see how each one of us uses his/her opportunities to witness to those in imaginary Christianity.

    I have some exciting expriences of my own, but I’ll share it when the time is ready. Between fundamentalist Evangelical hysteria and Liberal Christianity, I’ll choose the latter! Much more dignifying and much less sociologically primitive…


  16. on 15 Sep 2012 at 9:10 pmSarah

    Don’t sugar-coat it or anything, Jaco 😀

  17. on 16 Sep 2012 at 7:52 amtimothy


    Do you as a Liberal South African Christian support the same Liberal ideas about marriage as do the Liberal USA Christians?

  18. on 16 Sep 2012 at 9:27 amJaco


    Of course not. I was using hyperbole to make my point.



  19. on 16 Sep 2012 at 11:58 amtimothy


    I didn’t think so either and your language skill is wunderbar.

    GOD bless you.


  20. on 26 Aug 2014 at 5:48 pmChris

    No way we can change the evangelical churches. Just stay faithful and let them be. Only individuals who have no certain opinion about the trinity are open to discussion and change. Dont waste your time debating the trinity with those who strongly believe in it. You are wasting your time.


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