Arius was born in Libya, on the southern coast of the Mediterranean in a cottage beside the sea. He was taught by his Christian parents to love the Lord even before he had learned the alphabet.
Every day passages of the New Testament were read and repeated by Arius. Even before he could read, the young child had memorised a whole Gospel.
“After he grew older his father taught him both to speak and write the Latin and Hebrew equivalent of every word in the Greek text; so that Arius acquired the three languages together.” 1
At twelve years of age, Arius was tall and slender. He had a shaggy head of hair and dark, tender eyes.
The boy shared the farm labour, and took a bath in the little bay each day. He loved to wander along the beach, or through the wooded mountains that rose up from the water’s edge.
At night, father, mother and son read and discussed the Scriptures in the three languages. Occasionally the boy was made to stand up and repeat a creed.
As he recited, a peculiar note came into his voice, his right hand waved in an easy, vibrant motion, and his head moved backwards and forwards. His dark eyes dilated and lit up. He made an impressive appearance with such a distinct manner of speaking. Every word was clear and straight-forward.
While being diligent in training his son, the father was not less anxious to place in his mind the spirit of faithfulness and diligence in understanding the difference between the teachings of Jesus and the renowned philosophical teachers.
At twenty years of age Arius had grown very tall. He was still thin, but of a striking appearance. His eyesight was weak, which often made him downcast. His demeanour and dress was of a rigid ascetic, and his hair hung in a tangled mass on his head. At times his limbs trembled as if he was suffering from an internal complaint. His voice was gentle and sweet.
Arius left his home by the sea to attend the Bible School in Antioch. He would take a four-year study course for the priesthood. After his ordination in AD311, 24-year-old Arius travelled to Alexandria to take up his duties as a priest.
A short time after his arrival, Bishop Peter was martyred, and the following year, Bishop Alexander took his place.
Arius soon becomes a popular preacher. His innovative and engaging analysis of the New Testament attracts a large following. He is a quiet speaker. At times he breaks out in great excitement, but there is always a sweetness in his voice. He has a winning, earnest manner that fascinates all who hear him.
In AD318, Bishop Alexander has an informal discussion with his presbyters about the Trinity.
Archdeacon Athanasius is among them. He is 25 years old, short and dark-skinned, commonly known as the ‘black dwarf.’ He is well-educated and well versed in grammar and rhetoric, educated at the Catechist School of Alexandria. 2
During the discussion, Arius asks, ‘How can the Son be a Son if He is eternal like the Father?’
‘You must not question the Trinity’, replies the bishop.
‘I am not questioning the Trinity, but it doesn’t make sense to have a Son as eternal as the Father.’
‘Stop this’, commands Alexander.
‘I believe the Son was begotten of the Father’, continues Arius.
‘Of course he was’, replies the bishop.
‘But you can’t have an eternal Son and be begotten at the same time.’
The bishop is angry. ‘Lucian is to blame for these thoughts of yours. They are heresy.’
‘No, Lucian did not teach me. I can think for myself, and I believe the Son was not always.’
Later the Russian historian called Lucian “the Arius before Arius.” 3
Arius by no means intended to lower the dignity of Christ by ascribing to him a beginning of existence. He still believed He was God, but begotten of the Father.
The differences at Alexandria might not have gone any further if the bishop had decided to ignore the comments of his priest, but Bishop Alexander preached a sermon on the Trinity.
This agitated the subject. Arius responded to the challenge, and so the controversy grew.
Hosius of Cordova was a bishop of the Western Church and venerated for his wisdom. He had heard vague rumours of events taking place in the East and spoke to Bishop Alexander about it. Quickly he decided the Emperor must be warned at once as the Alexandrian Church had become a battlefield. 4
The Faith was imperilled -- it was a time for vigorous action.
Alexander sent letters to all the bishops, warning them of the teachings of Arius. In AD321, he convened a synod at Alexandria where 100 Egyptian and Libyan bishops were in attendance. At this council the bishop challenged Arius. 5
‘Gentlemen, Arius is teaching heretical doctrines that will destroy Christianity and the Trinity. He does not believe the Son is the eternal God, but believes He was created by God’.
Alexander explains the position of the church. “The Son is immutable and unchangeable, all-sufficient and perfect, like the Father, differing only in this one respect, that the Father is unbegotten. The Son is the exact image of His Father. Everything is found in the image which exists in its archetype….
But let no one be led from this to the supposition that the Son is unbegotten, as is believed by some who are deficient in intellectual power: for to say that he was, that he has always been, and that he existed before all ages, is not to say that He is unbegotten.” 6
Arius is then permitted to speak. “We are persecuted because we say that the Son had a beginning, but that God was without beginning. This is really the cause of our persecution, and likewise, because we say the Son is from nothing.” 7
“We acknowledge One God, alone Ingenerate, alone Everlasting, alone Unbegun, alone True, alone having Immortality, alone Wise, alone Good, alone Sovereign; Judge, Governor, and Providence of all, unalterable and unchangeable, just and good, God of Law and Prophets and New Testament; who begat an Only-begotten Son before eternal times, through whom He has made both the ages and the universe; and begat Him, not in semblance, but in truth; and that He made Him subsist at His own will, unalterable and unchangeable; perfect creature of God, but not as one of the creatures; offspring, but not as one of things begotten… as Manichaeus taught that the offspring was a portion of the Father… or as Sabellius, dividing the Monad (single unit)… nor as Hieracas, of one torch from another, or as a lamp divided… or as the Manichees adopting a material notion of the divine substance, considering that it was divisible, and that a portion of it was absorbed by the power of darkness...
Nor do we agree with Monarchians who held that the Word became the Son upon His incarnation, such as Marcellus… Also the Macrostich says, ‘We anathematize those who call Him the mere Word of God, not allowing Him to be Christ and Son of God before all ages, but from the time He took on Him our flesh…” 8
Bishop Alexander finds it difficult to sit quietly while Arius speaks. He looks at Athanasius who is close by his side.
Arius continues, “If the Father begat the Son, He must be older than the Son, and there was (a time) when the Son was not; from this it further follows that the Son has His subsistence [hypostaaie] from nothing…” 9 “If they coexist, how shall the Father be Father and the Son be Son? or how the One first, the Other second? and the One ingenerate and the Other generate?” 10
The bishop insists before the assembly that the Son is as eternal as the Father. Arius openly opposes, ‘Then you have an unbegotten begotten Son, and if I have error, you teach Sabellianism.’ 11
Arius is excommunicated.
He takes refuge with Eusebius at Nicomedia, who begins a letter-writing campaign to the bishops of Asia Minor in support of Arius.
Arius has strong friends in Eusebius of Caesarea in Palestine, Paulinus of Tyre, Gregory of Berytus, Aetius of Lydda, and other bishops who either share his view, or at least consider it innocent. 12
He appeals to Eusebius of Caesarea and others to secure his reinstatement as presbyter. Writing to Eusebius of Nicomedia concerning Alexander he says, “… the bishop oppresses and persecutes us most severely, and that he causes us much suffering. He has driven us out of the city as atheists, because we do not concur in what he publicly preaches; namely, that the Father has always been, and that the Son has always been. That as the Father, so is the Son; that the Son is unbegotten as the Father; that he is always being begotten, without having been begotten; that neither by thought, nor by any interval, does God precede the Son, God and the Son having always been; and that the Son proceeds from God…” 13
He then speaks of others who have heretical opinions. “One of them says that the Son is an effusion, another that he is an emission, the other that he is also unbegotten. These are impieties to which we could not listen, even though the heretics should threaten us with a thousand deaths…” 14
Arius was continually accused of making God’s Son a created being, but his writings show the words ‘created’, ‘made’ and ‘begotten’ all in relation to one another.
Today our thinking of creation is usually ‘ex nihilo’, a Latin phrase that means ‘out of nothing’, but any dictionary or thesaurus will show that the word ‘create’ includes ‘birth, bring forth, beget, pro-create, conceive, generate, germinate…’ as well as ‘build, manufacture, construct, chisel, fabricate’; and ‘blossom, lay, spawn, sprout …’
Eusebius of Caesarea wrote a letter to Paulinus, asking him to write to Bishop Alexander, in the hope he will understand the position of Arius. “We have never heard of two unbegotten beings, nor that one has been divided in two. We have neither been taught, my lord Paulinus, nor do we believe that the Divinity has ever undergone any change of a temporal nature; but we affirm that there is one who is unbegotten, and that there also exists another who did in truth proceed from him, yet who was not made out of his substance, and who does not at all participate in the nature or substance of him who is unbegotten. We believe him to be entirely distinct in nature and in power, and yet to be a perfect likeness, in character and in power, of Him from whom he originated.
We believe that the mode of his beginning cannot be expressed by any words; and that it is incomprehensible, not only to man, but also to orders of beings superior to man. These opinions we advance, not as having derived them from our own imagination, but as having deduced them from Scripture; whence we learn that the Son was created, established, and begotten in the same substance, and in the same immutable and inexpressible nature as the Maker; and so the Lord says, ‘God created me in the beginning of His way; I was set up from everlasting; before the hills was I brought forth [Prov viii.22-26].
If He had proceeded from Him or of Him, as a portion of Him, or by an efflux of His substance, it could not be said that he was created or established; and of this you, my lord, are certainly not ignorant. For that which proceeds from Him who is unbegotten, cannot be said to have been created or founded, either by Him or by another since He has been begotten, from the beginning…
There is, indeed, nothing which partakes of His substance; yet, everything which exists, has been called into being by His will, for He verily is God. All things were made in His likeness, and in the future likeness of His Son, being created according to His will. All things were made by the Son, and through God. All things are of God.” 15
Eusebius also wrote a letter to Alexander, saying he had done Arius an injustice, and if he would rightly understand him, he would find no difficulty in coming to an agreement.
The same year Alexander convened another general council at which the excommunication of Arius was confirmed. He names Lucian as being the originator of the heresy.16
While in Palestine, where he settled with friends, Arius wrote a Confession of Faith and sent it to all the bishops in Christendom asking them to endorse his position.
Hedefended his views by argument and maintained the right to think for himself. Other Arians took up the arguments with more ambitious motives. Soon these went far beyond the guidance of Arius.
At this time, Hosius as representative of the Emperor, presided over an anti-Arian council in Antioch. The council condemned Eusebius of Caesarea for being an Arian sympathizer. During the council, a doctrinal creed was formulated infavour of Alexander’s theology.
In AD324 Emperor Constantine wrote a letter to Alexander and Arius exhorting them to repent of their attitudes. The letter was entrusted to Hosius, who was to deliver it personally to Alexander. 17
Constantine’s letter said, “I understand… that when you Alexander, inquired of your presbyters what each thought on a certain inexplicable passage of the written Word, rather on a subject improper for discussion; and you, Arius, rashly gave expression to a view of the matter such as ought either never to have been conceived, or when suggested to your mind, it became you to bury it in silence. This dispute having thus been excited among you,
Communion has been denied; and the most holy people being rent into two factions, have departed from the harmony of the common body.
Wherefore let each one of you, showing consideration for the other, listen to the impartial exhortation of your fellow-servant. And what counsel does he offer? It was neither prudent at first to agitate such a question, nor to reply to such a question when proposed: for the claim of no law demands the investigation of such subjects, but the idle useless talk of leisure occasions them. And even if they should exist for the sake of exercising our natural faculties, yet we ought to confine them to our own consideration, and not incautiously bring them forth in public assemblies, nor thoughtlessly confide them to the ears of everybody….
Now, I say these things, not as compelling you all to see exactly alike on this very insignificant subject of controversy, whatever it may be; since the dignity of the communion may be preserved unaffected, and the same fellowship with all be retained, even though there should exist among you some dissimilarity of sentiment, and one covenant of the Godhead; but those minute investigations which ye enter into among yourselves with so much nicety, even if ye should not concur in one judgment in regard to them, should remain within the sphere of your own reflection, kept in the secret recesses of the mind.
Resume mutual friendship and grace; restore to the whole people their accustomed familiar embraces; and do ye yourselves, on the strength of having purified your own souls, again recognize one another.” 18
But it was in vain.
Bishop Alexander would not let it go, and his priest was by this time sharing with many others. People were asking questions.
Arius was a proficient writer, and he began producing many compositions in both prose and metered verse defending his beliefs. These he contained in a book called Thalia, which meant ‘Songs of Joy’, or ‘A Banquet’. The songs were sung in everyday life, and they proved extremely popular. Soon the teachings of Arius spread far and wide. 19
Sailors, millers and travellers all sang the disputed doctrines at their occupations or on their journeys. Everywhere voices were heard in the streets, the market-places, the drapers, the money-changers, the victuallers.
The songs gave enthusiasm to the followers of Arius, making the movement a very real success.
Discussions took place on every corner and every alley way.
When a man asked the cost of a bag of fruit -- ‘How many oboli’, he received the answer, ‘The Son is subordinate to the Father.’ If enquiring the price of bread, a woman was told, ‘The Son is generated from the Father.’ Ask if the bath is ready, and you were told, ‘The Son arose out of nothing.’
The followers of Arius were given the name of madmen – the Ariomaniacs or the Ariomania. Perhaps they were not wise in their methods of sharing. Many were accepting the doctrine, and it was impossible for Arius to instruct all his flock.
Much character-assassination took place. When his antagonists saw the strange movements Arius made when speaking, they called him a snake. Yet even they said there was a sweetness about him.
The Libyan was mocked and derided. His enemies called him many names. Some, taken from their writings, are listed below.
He was a villain
He was truly an adviser of evil
He was a mediator of wild beasts
He was described as mad and clearly raving
He did not conclude that God is present in Christ
He talked disgracefully
He brought punishment upon himself
He had no faith in Christ
He did not follow the law that God's law is Christ
He was a fellow full of absurd insensibility
He hastened to disturb the whole world by his impieties.
He was a witty and sweet-voiced fellow
He sang evil songs of unbelief
He was quite fittingly subverted by the Devil
He was a wicked person
He was a destructive evil.
He engaged in folly.
He claimed the masses acted with him.
He did not understand his folly
He was clearly mad
He wrote letters to Constantine with a pen of madness
He was not really blameless
He did not perish even when surrounded by great horror
He was known for his wits - they were not dull
He was a profane person
He undermined the truth
He was a sick and helpless soul 20
A modern Catholic writer said of Arius. “Arius was no dissenter or reprobate bent on destroying the Church. He was known as an ascetical and articulate leader of the Christian community of Alexandria. His contemporaries described him as tall, handsome, earnestly religious, and eloquent in his arguments.” 21
Edward Gibbon, the well-known historian on the Roman Empire stated that the “most implacable enemies of Arius have acknowledged the learning and blameless life of that eminent presbyter…” 22
In AD325, Arius received an invitation in the mail. It was from Emperor Constantine inviting him to a council in Nicaea. Not being a bishop, he could not have a delegated seat, but would be brought in for questioning.
Arius was now 69 years of age, and happy to accept the invitation.