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Arius and the Outbreak of the Christological Controversy at Alexandria

David Miano

La Jolla, California


Legend has it that John Mark, one-time traveling companion of the apostle Paul, was the first to bring Christianity to Alexandria (Eusebius II, 16). However, it is not until the second century that we have any concrete evidence that there was a Christian community in that city.  Although the Christian faction there remained relatively meager in size up until the fourth century, it was by no means insubstantial. Alexandria, being one of the largest cities in the Mediterranean world and one of diverse cultural and religious traditions, was a city renowned for its pursuit of ideas and philosophy, even before the Christians arrived. It is not surprising then, that the Christian congregation there also began to venture into these areas. A number of Alexandrian Christian leaders, among whom the most famous were Clement and Origen, made a name for themselves as students of philosophy. Their allegorical approach to understanding Scripture set them apart from the Christian teachers in Antioch, who advocated a more literal interpretation of the holy writings.

Up until the fourth century, several ideas about the nature of Christ and his relationship to his Father had been developing side-by-side. Yet controversy over these issues was infrequent, because few ever hastened to become specific in their references to the Father and Son. Phrases drawn from Scripture like “Son of God”, “Lord”, “image of God”, etc., were common expressions referring to Jesus and offended no one because of their generality. Even the term “God” (theos), when applied to Christ, remained ambiguous, because although some would take this to mean he was, in fact, the Almighty, others felt the term simply denoted a powerful spirit, a divine being.  (Keep in mind, there is no indefinite article in Greek, nor rules of capitalization as in English, to make a distinction between “God” and “god.”) So for years this use of non-specific language allowed several understandings about the nature of Christ to develop and gain a foothold in the Church without the eruption of a major ecclesiastical controversy. Only extreme positions were attended to, and these radical groups, of course, lacked sufficient numbers of adherents to make any sort of a difference in the establishment of a consensus. The influence of Greek philosophy, however, stimulated an interest in theological exploration among the educated members of the mainstream church, and more and more of the Christian teachers, particularly in Alexandria, made motions toward specificity with regard to, amongst other things, the divine nature of Jesus Christ (Orthodoxy 147-150).  Suddenly, there came a realization that there existed greater differences of opinion on the matter then was initially thought.  Disputes arose over which of these interpretations represented the understanding of the apostles. Before long, the entire Christian world was caught up in the debate (Life of Constantine II, 61-2).

At the center of the controversy were two former friends, Arius and Alexander. Alexander was the bishop, or city overseer of Alexandria. His position was highly regarded among the Alexandrian Christians, so much so that the name “pope” (meaning “papa”) began to be applied to him in an affectionate way even before the bishop of Rome received that honor (Williams 42). Arius was a presbyter (elder) presiding over the congregation of Baucalis within the city. According to Epiphanius, he was unusually tall, wore a short cloak and a dalmatic, and had a pleasant way of speaking (LXIX, 3:1). We do not know his precise age at the time of the quarrel, but apparently he was already an old man (Epiphanius CLIV, 12).

The date traditionally applied to the outbreak of the dispute is 318. Older historians had taken note of a remark made by Athanasius in his Letter to the Bishops of Egypt (22), where he states that it has been 36 years since the Arians were pronounced heretics. Their chronology is based on the assumption that this letter was written in 356. Counting back 36 years would set the date for the declaration of the Arians as heretics at circa 321. The natural supposition was that in that year the council was held by Alexander whereby Arius was excommunicated. Logically, the controversy must have begun a few years before that council, because some in Alexandria had complained that Alexander took too long to handle the matter. This is the manner in which the date 318 is come by. However, we now know that Athanasius’ letter was written in 361, not 356.  Therefore, the pronouncement of Arius and his supporters as heretics can only refer to the council of Nicea, which took place in 325, and this, of course, makes more sense, since Alexander’s council in 321 was not thought of by many as official (Hanson 129-30).

Where does this leave us? Apparently, Athanasius’ letter does nothing to enlighten us as to the date for the beginning of the controversy. However, Jerome, in his Continuation of Eusebius’ Chronicle may shed some light on the matter. In it he states that the whole affair began 2,337 years after Abraham, and by his reckoning this would give us a date of 320. Whether or not this is a reliable figure is arguable. However since it fits the chronological framework, we can provisionally use 320 as a starting point (Boularand 21-4).

Around this time it came to the attention of Alexander that Arius was publishing a doctrine with which many of the other presbyters were finding fault. At the same time, there were those in positions of authority that expressed agreement with his views (Epiphanius LXIX, 3:5). Alexander immediately sent for Arius and questioned him on the matter. Arius explained and defended his position (Epiphanius LXIX, 3:5,6). The sensitivity of the issue and its complexity initially induced Alexander to let the matter lie. However, the force of the controversy only intensified. Alexander, therefore, saw the need of calling a meeting of the Alexandrian presbytery (Epiphanius LXIX, 3:6-7; Sozomen I, 15).

Presiding as a judge over the affair, Alexander first requested official statements of faith from the contending parties. The following is the credal letter sent by Arius and those of like mind:

“To our blessed pope and bishop, Alexander. The presbyters and deacons in union with the Lord bid you greetings.

Our belief which comes from our forefathers and which we have learned from you as well, blessed pope, is as follows: We are accustomed to one God, who is the only unbegotten one, the only eternal one, the only one without beginning, the only true one, the only immortal one, the only wise one, the only good one, the only Sovereign, the only Judge with the governance and care of all, untransmutable and unalterable, just and good.  This God of the Law and Prophets and of the New Testament has generated an only-begotten Son before eternal times, and through him has made the ages and the rest. He has begotten him not figuratively but in actuality and made him into a distinct entity [hypostasis] by his own will, untransmutable and unalterable; God’s perfect creature, but not like any other creature; an offspring, but not like any other offspring; and not an emanation as Valentinus believed the Father’s offspring to be; nor as Mani represented the offspring as having the same being [homoousion] as the Father; nor like Sabellius, who used the term “Son-Father” to divide the Unit; nor as Hieracas called him a torch kindled from another torch, or a lamp become two; nor previously existent and afterward begotten or created anew as a Son. You yourself, blessed pope, have very often publicly dissuaded those who give these explanations in the congregation and at assemblies. But as we say, he was created by the will of God before the times and ages, who has received his life, being, and glory from the Father, the Father existing side-by-side with him. For by giving him the inheritance of all things the Father did not deprive himself of his possession of ingeneracy in himself, since he is the Source of all things.

Thus there are three distinct entities [treis hypostaseis], and God, who is the cause of all, is the only one without beginning. The Son, on the other hand, who was begotten of the Father (though not in time) and who was created and established before the ages, did not exist prior to his begetting, but was singly begotten before everything by the Father alone, and not in time. Nor is he eternal, or co-eternal, or co-unbegotten with the Father. Nor does he have a being mutually [ama] with the Father’s, as some speak of such things [which are naturally] related to something else, thus introducing two unbegottens. But God is before all as a single Unit and the Source of all things. And therefore he is also before Christ, as we have learned from you when you have preached in the congregation.

Thus, in that the Son has his being from God who has provided him with life, glory, and all things, God is his first cause. For as his God, God is his ruler and – because the Son originates from him – prior to him in existence. And if “from the womb” [Jeremiah 1:5] and “I came out from the Father and have come” [John 16:28] are taken by some to mean that he is of the same being [homooousion] and an emanation, the Father must be composite, divisible, and transmutable. Also, in their opinion the incorporeal God has a body and, for all they care, is subject to the consequences of corporeality.

We pray for your good health in the Lord, blessed pope.  Arius, Aeithales, Achillas, Carpones, Sarmatas, Arius, presbyters; the deacons Euzoeus, Lucius, Julius, Menas, Helladius, Gaius; the bishops Secundus of Pentapolis, Theonas of Libya” (DeSynodis §16; Epiphanius LXIX, 7:2-8:5).

Some date this letter considerably later in the controversy, perhaps after Arius has already left Alexandria.  Recent scholarship has reassessed this dating, however. The letter makes no mention of any excommunication or mistreatment by Alexander, and the list of signatories is made up of those known to be Arius’ earliest supporters. Chronologically it fits best into the early period and is probably an answer to Alexander’s request for a statement of faith (Williams 52).

The signatures of Theonas and Secundus, the two bishops from Libya, at the end of the letter are interesting. As they were in positions of greater authority than Arius, they certainly add weight to his letter. Likewise, the Achillas mentioned may have been the Achillas who was the head of the famous catechetical school in Alexandria (Eusebius VII, 32:30; Williams 45; Barnes 202). He was no insignificant personality. It must have taken Arius a little time to rally support for his argument or insight into the problem, because in those days it could take weeks or months for information to pass back and forth between congregations, and the Libyan bishops were not exactly close by. Still, within the city itself, Arius and his friends had considerable backing. Theodoret describes them as going “from house to house,” apparently in the form of shepherding visits, trying to “draw people over to their sentiments” (I, 2). Whether this was the motive or not remains to be seen. Undoubtedly from Arius’ point of view, he was attempting to curb the influence of what he felt to be an apostate teaching gaining a strong foothold in Alexandria. According to one source, a well-known sisterhood of seventy unmarried Christian women sided with them (Epiphanius LXIX, 3:2).

Many modern histories would place Alexander on the side opposite Arius right from the beginning, but it would appear that this was not the case. Sozomen’s account puts Alexander in an intermediary position. If he requested credal statements from each of the contending parties, this would indicate that he was not at this time directly associated with either side. What is particularly interesting about the letter are the several instances where Arius claims that he is merely teaching the same doctrine as Alexander has in the past.  Although these assertions are brief and stated rather generally, they should not be dismissed without due consideration.  The following statement is noteworthy: “God is before all as a single Unit and the Source of all things. And therefore he is also before Christ, as we have learned from you when you have preached in the congregation.” The concept that God is prior to Christ conflicts with the theology of Alexander as expounded in his later letters. Yet would Arius deliberately fabricate such a claim? This letter is addressed directly to Alexander, and Alexander knew well what doctrines he had published in the past. Why would Arius put words into Alexander’s mouth if Alexander could easily and immediately dismiss those claims as false and thereby call into question Arius’ credibility? This would weaken Arius’ position considerably. One explanation is that Arius is simply misinterpreting a remark that Alexander once had made in one of his sermons. However, would it not be likely that one of the other thirteen men who signed the document would have seen the error and suggested a rewording? We cannot discount the possibility that Alexander had actually been teaching a doctrine of the sort described. His theological position may have been gradually evolving at this time, perhaps under the influence of others. Arius and Alexander had been associates for some years, even friends, and there is no evidence for any quarrels between the two prior to this time. Our first inclination would be to attribute a change in theological convictions to Arius, but we have no evidence whatsoever that Arius ever possessed a different theological stance. With Alexander, the evidence, although marginal, is somewhat greater. Sozomen claims that Alexander was unsure of his position at one point (Sozomen I, 15). It is also well known that he was at this time developing a close friendship with the young deacon Athanasius, his personal secretary, whose strong belief in the equality and eternal generation of the Son made him a vehement opposer of Arius’ teachings early on. Therefore, we can at least suggest the possibility that it was Alexander who was in the process of altering his theological position, not Arius.    

Another interesting document that may belong to this period is the Expositio Fidei or Statement of Belief written by an anonymous author. At one time it was believed to have been composed by Athanasius, but his authorship is now doubted by many. All that can be said about the document is that it is of an early date in the controversy. There is no explicit reference to the Arian party, yet its arguments tackle issues obviously raised by them. Additionally, its untroubled use of the term homousios to describe the Son’s relationship to the Father would indicate a time when this word had not yet been a subject of dispute (NPNF IV,83). It has been said that its doctrine is similar to that of Marcellus, bishop of Ancyra (Hanson 231-2), but attribution to him is purely conjectural.

My reasons for placing the Expositio Fidei at this time are based chiefly on its contents. Space does not permit me to include the entire work, as it is about four times the length of Arius’ own “expositio fidei.”  However, the case set forth in the document tackles the very same issues that were being raised in Alexandria at this time and does not exhibit the complexity of argument that would develop later. In fact, many of the assertions made in the Statement of Faith appear to be rebuttals of the contentions made in Arius’ letter. Note the similarity in the choice of issues:

<-Arius et al                                 Expositio Fidei->


“[The Son is] not an emanation as Valentinus believed the Father’s offspring to be.”


“[The Word is not] an emanation of the Perfect One . . . nor an emission.”


“[He is not] as Mani represented the offspring as having the same being [homoousion] as the Father; nor like Sabellius, who used the term “Son-Father” to divide the Unit.”


“Neither do we teach a “Son-Father” as do the Sabellians, calling him ‘of one being’ [monoousion], rather than ‘of the same being’ [homoousion], and thus quashing the personal existence of the Son.”


“[He is not], as Hieracas called him, a torch kindled from another torch, or a lamp become two…. If ‘from the womb’ [Jeremiah 1:5] and ‘I came out from the Father and have come’ [John 16:28] are taken by some to mean that he is of the same being [homoousion] and an emanation, the Father must be composite, divisible, and transmutable.”


“[He is not] a division of [God’s] unmodifiable nature . . . but he is just like a river that originates from a well.  It is not separate, yet there are, in fact, two visible entities and two names . . . the well is not a river, nor the river a well, but both are one and the same water which is conveyed in a channel from the well to the river, so the Father’s Godship passes into the Son without deviation and without separation, because the Lord says, ‘I came out from the Father and have come.’”


“[He was not] existent beforehand and afterward begotten or created anew as a Son”


“He himself is not a creation . . . however, the body he wore for our sakes is a creation, concerning which Jeremiah says (according to the Septuagint): ‘The Lord created for us, for a planting, a new salvation in which salvation men shall go about’ [Jeremiah 31:22], but according to Aquila the same text runs: ‘The Lord created a new thing in woman’ . . . The salvation, then, from the Savior, being created anew, did, as Jeremiah says, ‘create for us a new salvation,’ and as Aquila renders, ‘The Lord created a new thing in woman,’ that is, in Mary.  Because nothing new was created in woman except the Lord’s body . . . Each text then which refers to the created being is written with reference to Jesus in a bodily sense.”


“In their opinion the incorporeal God has a body and, for all they care, is subject to the consequences of corporeality.”


“[We do not] ascribe to the Father the modifiable body which [the Son] bore for the salvation of the entire world.”


“Thus there are three distinct entities [treis hypostaseis], and God, who is the cause of all, is the only one without beginning.”


“We cannot imagine that there are three distinct entities [treis hypostaseis] separate from one another, as would result from physical nature in the case of men, lest we profess a plurality of gods like the heathen.”


“God is his ruler.”


“All things over which the Father rules and prevails, the Son likewise rules and prevails.”


“We know that one God, . . . the only one true . . . has begotten a Son.”


“[The Son is] true God from true God, just like John says in the universal letters: “We are in union with the true one by means of his Son Jesus Christ.  This is the true God and life everlasting [1 John 5:20].”


“The Son . . . who was begotten of the Father (though not in time) and who was created and established before the ages, did not exist prior to his begetting, but was singly begotten before everything by the Father alone, and not in time. Nor is he eternal, or co-eternal, or co-unbegotten with the Father.  Nor does he have a being mutually [ama] with the Father’s, as some speak of such things, [which are naturally] related to something else, thus introducing two unbegottens.”


“He is forever with the Father, because he is in the Father’s bosom. Never was the Father’s bosom void of the deity of the Son . . . We do not regard as a creation or thing made, or as made out of nothing, God, the Creator of all, the Son of God, He who exists out of He who exists, One out of One, inasmuch as his same glory and power were eternally and conjointly begotten of the Father, because ‘he that has seen the Son has seen the Father’[John 14:9].”


These examples serve to demonstrate the likelihood that the Expositio Fidei is a response to Arius’ credal letter, and was probably composed by one or more Alexandrian presbyters. Indeed, it may be the official statement of the party opposed to Arius at the time of Alexander’s inquisition, and it would not be going too far to say that Athanasius may have had a hand in its composition.

It may seem unusual that Alexander allowed free discussion at the presbyteral meeting instead of immediately putting a stop to any teachings divergent from accepted orthodoxy. However, we must keep in mind that an accepted othodoxy was still in the making. As Colm Luibheid explains:

“What has to be remembered here is that at the start of the Arian controversy the establishment of a consensus on such great problems as the nature of the Trinity, the relationship between the divinity and humanity of Christ, was still in the future.  Some of the major questions were now only about to be put, and in a way which would involve the whole Christian community” (Luibheid 3).

Sozomen seems to agree with that statement when he relates that during the meeting Alexander “deemed it more advisable to leave each party to the free discussion of doubtful topics, so that by persuasion, rather than by force, unanimity might be restored” (I, 15).

Unfortunately, the meeting did not turn out as Alexander had hoped.  Sozomen continues:

“It happened on this occasion, as is generally the case in a strife of words, that each party claimed the victory . . . The council was convened a second time, and the same points contested, but they came to no agreement amongst themselves. During the debate, Alexander seemed to incline first to one party and then to the other; finally, however, he declared himself in favor of those who affirmed that the Son was of the same being as (homousios) and co-eternal with the Father, and he commanded Arius to receive this doctrine, and to reject his former opinions. Arius, however, would not be persuaded to compliance, and many of the bishops and clergy considered his statement of doctrine to be correct” (I, 15).

What course did Alexander then take? There seems to be some confusion on the part of the ancient church historians. All are in agreement that Arius and his supporters were all eventually excommunicated and banished from Alexandria. However, they also tell us that Arius remained in the city for some time, and apparently had some association with those in the church. Epiphanius clearly says that Arius’ excommunication took place some time after the meetings (LXIX, 4:1). Comparing the various accounts, it would seem that Alexander’s first course of action was not to excommunicate Arius, but to relieve him from his position of oversight over the congregation at Baucalis. As Theodoret relates, “He ejected him from the order of the presbytery” (I, 2). Yet it would seem that Arius still had the freedom of association within the congregation, though Alexander had him marked.

At this point Arius and his supporters did their utmost to turn the tables. A massive letter writing campaign was initiated in an attempt to involve other bishops outside Egypt in the affair, initially those in Syria and Palestine. “They sent a written statement of their doctrines to them, requesting them that, if they considered such sentiments to be of God, they would signify to Alexander that he ought not to harrass them; but that, if they disapproved of the doctrines, they would do well to declare what opinions were necessary to be held on the points in question” (Sozomen I, 15). Surprisingly, they found more than just a little support.  Quite a number of bishops were in agreement with the beliefs of Arius, most notably Eusebius Pamphilus, bishop of Caesarea. Letters began flooding in to Alexander, urging him to reconsider his position.

Alexander did not take kindly to Arius’ undermining of his authority. His hostility toward Arius began to increase, and this finally culminated in a hearing which would result in the excommunication of Arius and his associates, as well as Arius' banishment from Alexandria.

Meanwhile, it just so happened that the Roman emperor Constantine was on his way to Alexandria for his first imperial visit, having recently defeated his rival Licinius (in September 324) and taken control of the eastern sector of the Roman empire. He was very favorable towards the Christians and wished to make a special effort to bolster them up. He had no idea, of course, of the controversy raging there. However, after about three-fourths of his journey was completed, the matter was brought to his attention. We are not sure where he received the news or how, but I would venture to suggest that he learned of the matter in Caesarea, through Eusebius Pamphilus. There are several reasons for this: 1) Caesarea is approximately three-fourths of the journey from Constantinople to Alexandria; 2) It is through Eusebius that we have a copy of this letter, and all of the other letters in his Constantinian biography are his own personal copies; 3) in the letter Constantine wrote to Alexander and Arius (Life of Constantine II, 64-72), he takes a very “Eusebian” position regarding the issue. In other words, his main concern is for unity within the church, and the doctrinal issues are secondary. This might indicate that Constantine composed his letter in Caesarea in the presence of and under the influence of Eusebius.

Unfortunately, Constantine’s letter came too late. By the time it was hand-delivered in Alexandria, the excommunication of Arius and his associates had already occurred, and Arius was now on his way to Caesarea to seek communion with Eusebius (Epiphanius LXIX, 4:1). That, however, marks the beginning of the second stage of the controversy, and it is a story I shall leave for another time.



Ancient Works Cited

Athanasius. De Synodis in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers IV; trans. A. Robertson, pp. 448-480, 1891.

Epiphanius. Panarion. trans. F. Williams; Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994.

Eusebius Pamphilus. Ecclesiastical History in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers I; trans. A.C. McGiffert, pp. 81-387, 1890.

——. Life of Constantine in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers I; trans. A.C. McGiffert, pp. 481-559, 1890.

Pseudo-Athanasius. Expositio Fidei in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers IV; trans. A Robertson, pp. 83-5, 1891.

Socrates Scholasticus. Ecclesiastical History. London: Samuel Bagster and Sons, 1842.

Sozomen. Ecclesiastical History.  London: Samuel Bagster and Sons, 1846.

Theodoret. Ecclesiastical History.  London: Samuel Bagster and Sons, 1843.

Modern Works Cited

Barnes, Timothy.  Constantine and Eusebius. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1981.

Hanson, R.P.C. The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God.  Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1988.

——. “The achievement of orthodoxy in the fourth century A.D.”  The Making of Orthodoxy.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.

Hefele, Charles.  A History of the Christian Councils.  Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1872.

Luibheid, Colm.  The Council of Nicaea.  Galway: Galway UP, 1982. 

Stead, Christopher. “The Origins of the Doctrine of the Trinity.”  Substance and Illusion in the Christian Fathers.  London: Variorum Reprints, 1985.

Williams, Rowan. Arius: Heresy and Tradition.  London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1987.

——. “Does it make sense to speak of a pre-Nicene orthodoxy?”  The Making of Orthodoxy.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.


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