Much of the common popular modern narrative of the church in the fourth century being overrun by Arian bishops and emperors, with only Athanasius standing in the gap against the onslaught of heresy, is not historically accurate. Certainly, Athanasius played an important role in the trinitarian controversies of the fourth century, and there is much good he contributed. He was certainly one of the strongest and most relentless opponents of Arianism, and enjoyed good success against it. But at no point was the church truly overrun by Arianism, nor were there any emperors who accepted Arius’s teaching or would be willing to call themselves Arian. Rather, a great many church councils in the decades following Nicea which met to deal with trinitarian issues, often overseen by an emperor, fully and unequivocally rejected and condemned Arianism.
This strong rejection, however, did not keep them from getting labeled ‘Arian’ and semi-arian by their more radical counterparts, the minority of bishops committed to the Nicene articulation of the Trinity and especially the word “homoousias’. When we seek to understand the so-called semi-arians, we see that they did not accept Arianism at all, but rather received this derogatory label for their opposition to the word ‘homoousias’- a word which they rejected not because they supported Arianism, which they strongly condemned, but because the word was feared to carry a modalistic meaning. Thus the reaction against the Nicene articulation is best seen not as pro-Arian but anti-homoousian. As we saw in the previous posts mentioned, this led the church at large to find other ways to articulate the same doctrine of the Trinity which Nicea sought to communicate, but in different language which would not be so easily misunderstood.
Understanding this provides us with a much different view of the immediate post-nicene church than is often presented; rather than Arianism running rampant and enjoying both political and theological ascendency, it was roundly condemned by all but a small minority of actual Arians.
The so-called Arian councils, then, were mostly not really Arian. The homoiousian and homoian councils held after Nicea rejected Arianism strongly. We cannot then, on the basis of any historical evidence, conclude that Arianism at its most successful in the Roman empire was but a minority of quickly condemned individuals in the fourth century church. Whats more, it did not even truly flourish prior to Nicea, as some have presented the matter.
Prior to Nicea, Arius began the controversy by accusing his bishop, Alexander of Alexandria, of teaching modalism. Arius began espousing his heresy in response, and was quickly condemned, not just by the church in Alexandria, but by a regional synod which represented the broader African churches. When Arius did not experience success there, he and his small group of associates traveled elsewhere, and were condemned elsewhere. In 325, the year the council of Nicea met, another council met prior to Nicea in Syria which had broad representation of bishops from Syria and the surrounding regions. This council of Antioch condemned Arianism strongly, and called those bishops who supported Arius to repentance. Arius and his followers, then, had already been formally condemned and excommunicated by large portions of the church before the council of Nicea ever even met. When it did meet, the entire church condemned Arius and his heretical teachings. From this we see that Arianism never truly flourished in the established churches of the Roman empire, for as we have discussed above already, the church’s rejection of his false teaching continued through the post nicene era.
One must wonder why then is Arianism so frequently presented as having flourished, and gained ascendency? A brief search of the internet will have you believe that prior to Nicea, Arianism spread throughout the church like wildfire, and that after Nicea nearly the entire Roman empire and the churches within it were unashamedly Arian; and yet the historical evidence, not the least of which are the creeds composed by the church during this era, show that this was not at all the case. Why do so many throughout history since find it important to label so much of the trinitarian teaching of the fourth century church “Arian” when it could not be more explicitly opposed to Arianism?
It would be easy to wonder if this is not in large part because while the councils of the mid-fourth century were not Arian, they were not semi-modalists either. They confess classical trinitarianism in their Creeds, the same trinitarianism we can find in the writings of the Ante-Nicene fathers, and in the holy scriptures themselves. They never make the persons of the Trinity out to be a single person, and didn’t use the term ‘homoousias’, that would later be redefined by the semi-modalists to support their heresy (see The Grievous Error of the Fourth Lateran Council). The Nicene creed the semi-modalists could twist; but the Macrostich leaves them no room to bring in their false teaching. One must wonder how much this motivates them to label the one orthodox and the other Arian, even though they both teach the fundamentally the same doctrine.
Whatever the motivation for the popular narrative is, it has indeed been effective at hiding a large portion of the fourth century church’s official teaching on the Trinity from the majority of Christians for a long time. A person cannot learn Arianism from the Macrostich, the Creed of Sirmium of 351, or the Homoian Creed; but they will learn classical trinitarianism, as the scriptures teach, from such statements of faith. One must wonder then how much the attack on such Creeds and their authors really comes from opposition to Arianism, versus how much is motivated by an opposition to classical trinitarianism itself.
While the real threat Arianism itself posed to the church, then, can be seen to actually have been relatively small, it has done far more damage than perhaps most realize. Arianism never threatened to become the dominant theology of the church; but in a much more indirect way, it has done unspeakably great damage nonetheless. This is because Arianism can really be seen as a catalyst that aided in the widespread acceptance semi-modalism in place of classical trinitarianism in the post-nicene era. Arianism was and is constantly painted as a sort of theological boogeyman, lurking in the dark shadows of church history, which anyone we disagree with on christology must surely be in very near danger of falling into, even if they are not.
By painting Arianism as the opposite end of the spectrum from semi-modalism, any move away from semi-modalism, however legitimate it may be, is easily painted as a move in the direction of Arianism, even when no tenet of Arianism is accepted. Classical trinitarianism in the fourth century can be labeled “semi-arian”, and therefore be so completely discredited that no one will seriously consider that it just might be what scripture teaches. In truth, without the largely imaginary threat of Arianism, semi-modalism may have never have experienced the success it has, for the fear of Arianism was a great factor in its success.
Such fear is can be a powerful tool in pushing people all the way to the opposite end of the theological spectrum, running them away from Arianism right past orthodoxy and into error in the opposite direction, modalism.
Arianism’s acceptance and emphasis of certain doctrinal elements of classical trinitarianism (such as the Father being the “one God”, see I believe in one God, the Father Almighty) served to successfully stigmatize these points of doctrine in such a way that while the church never officially rejected them, they have been greatly de-emphasized from Christian doctrine. This has left holes in the church’s trinitarianism, where important parts of classical and biblical trinitarianism have been left out, and not without dire consequences. Moving forward this left the church with a mutilated trinitarianism, or really, semi-modalism (see Semi-modalism as the Greatest Problem Facing the Church Today).
Because of the role Arianism has played in semi-modalism’s success, it is important for the church to treat the history of Arianism more realistically. Arianism is undoubtedly a great evil and a damnable heresy, but the way its history gets distorted by semi-modalists to promote their own false teaching must be recognized. The church will also greatly be helped by learning from the orthodox fathers of the fourth century who did not accept ‘homoousias’ and yet believed and taught classical trinitarianism using other modes of expression. Finally and most importantly we must not allow Arianism’s acceptance of certain points of biblical doctrine cause us to reject them on the grounds of that association. All heresy blends truth with error, and Arianism is no different. If we allow that blending to cause us to reject part of the truth, we have given the Devil a victory despite our rejection of Arianism.