Arius was a layman from Alexandria who was ordained a priest by Achillas the Bishop of Alexandria. By all accounts, he was an eloquent, learned and holy man with a skill in disputation that surpassed many of his contemporaries. He likely could have been a father or doctor of the church except for his flawed belief about the divinity of Jesus. He promoted a theological position that viewed Jesus as a created and not eternal being, separate from the father. Alexander, the successor to Achillas demanded that Arius retract his position and Arius refused.(1) This was the beginning of the first great theological controversy in the history of the Church.
In response to the censorship of Alexander, Arius wrote to Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia and kinsman of Constantine. In his letter to Eusebius sent via Ammonius he declares his opposition to Bishop Alexanders statements that there was, “always a God, always a Son;” “as soon as the Father, so soon the Son [existed];” “with the Father co-exists the Son unbegotten, ever-begotten, begotten without begetting;” “God neither precedes the Son in aspect or in a moment of time;” “always a God, always a Son, the Son being from God himself.”(2)
With the help of Eusebius, Arius continued his promotion of what many western bishops knew to be a heretical doctrine. Writing to many bishops throughout the eastern portions of the Roman Empire using scripture texts from Matthew 27, Mark 13 and John 14 Arius won many converts.(3) Tensions rose as more an more bishops sided with Arius. In 320 AD Bishop Alexander gathered all the bishops in his region to a synod in which they universally condemned Arius. Arius persisted and Alexander excommunicated him. It was a battle of wills.(4)
Arius left Egypt and headed East to Palestine then to the Nicomedia obtaining converts all along his path. In many cases disagreements turned to violence and Constantine, having just taken control of the entire Roman Empire by defeating the Eastern augustus Licinius took notice of the problems being cause in Alexandria and throughout the Eastern portions of his Empire. Taking an unprecedented step, Constantine convoked a council of all the bishops of the Roman Empire. Previously smaller councils would be convoked by local or regional bishops. This was the first universal council and it was declared by the Emperor himself.(5)
|16th-century fresco depicting the Council of Nicaea|
The council convened in the City of Nicaea in 325 AD so Constantine himself could participate.(6) Bishops from all over the Christian world we invited and attended. Notably absent was the Bishop of Rome, Sylvester, struggling from illness he sent two emissaries.(7) Somewhere between two and three hundred Bishops attended and all but two voted for what is known as the Nicene Creed, vindicating Alexander and condemning Arius and his followers. Their declaration read...
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten of his Father, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten (γεννηθέντα), not made, being of one substance (ὁμοούσιον, consubstantialem) with the Father. By whom all things were made, both which be in heaven and in earth. Who for us men and for our salvation came down [from heaven] and was incarnate and was made man. He suffered and the third day he rose again, and ascended into heaven. And he shall come again to judge both the quick and the dead. And [we believe] in the Holy Ghost.
And whosoever shall say that there was a time when the Son of God was not (ἤν ποτε ὅτε οὐκ ἦν), or that before he was begotten he was not, or that he was made of things that were not, or that he is of a different substance or essence [from the Father] or that he is a creature, or subject to change or conversion — all that so say, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them.(8)
(1) Laux, Fr John. Church History. Rockford:Tan Books and Publishers, Inc, 1989. p107
(2) Letter of Arius to Eusebius of Nicomedia, http://www.fourthcentury.com/urkunde-1/
(3) Schreck, Alan. The Compact History of the Catholic Church Cincinnati:Servant Books 2009 p25
(4) Laux p108
(5) Wilken, Robert L. The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity. New Haven: Yale University Press 2012. p91
(7) ibid, and Laux p109