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Arian Christianity (the Father is Greater than the Son)
A Precursor to Modern Christianity

By Vexen Crabtree 2008

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1. Arianism: A Developed Christianity

#judaism

Arianism describes the pre-trinitarian doctrine of a holy, but not a godly, Jesus. It is not always adoptionism and not always monotheistic, either. It was defined by a negative principal (that logically Jesus can't be God and still suffer on the cross). If Jesus was God (i.e., perfect), Arians realized, what chance would any Human have of imitating him? Although Arian-sounding theologies existed from the second century onwards, it only became a wide point of contention after the third century. In the third century Origen of Alexandria, the greatest theologian of his time, had declared that the Father was Greater than the Son1. This principal was later named after its principal proponent and most articulate defender, Arius (256-336CE). It was opposed by Athanasius, who became a Nicene Christian from 325CE. Because of its popularity and its clear non-trinitarian view of Jesus, trinitarian Christians such as the Nicenes/Cappadocians have considered Arianism to be highly dangerous2. In the Roman Empire, Arian Christianity was supplanted by intolerant Nicene Christianity by the 5th century, but remained the most popular form of Christianity amongst the tribes surrounding the empire, until the 8th century.

The first Christians were Jewish converts to Christ, known as Ebionites. They followed Jewish laws, and accepted Jesus as the prophesized Jewish saviour. As a religious group, they are closest to the religion of Jesus himself. But Judaism has strict laws, and the Greek Christianity that arose through Roman contact with Jews was to drop all of the Jewish elements of Christianity, and create a religion that was easier to follow. But in doing so, they realized a problem. If Jesus wasn't just the Jewish messiah, then, what was he? Moses preached a strict monotheism, and on this even the early Greek converts to Christianity agreed. There was one god. But Jesus had a special relationship with this one god. They took the Jewish belief that Jesus was a prophet, and extended the idea to coincide with prevalent Greek ideas about the relationships between gods and men: Jesus was the son of God, another divine god-man like Dionysus, and a saviour like Mithras.

But Christians in the Western half of the empire had been swayed by the arguments of Athanasius, who was to become the arch-enemy of Arianism. He divided Christianity into two by making stark contrasts between Arians and Nicenes; he called all those who did not agree with him satanic devil-worshippers and enemies of Christ. He believed in the older pagan ideas of a dying-and-resurrecting god-man. Athanasius, despite defending pagan ideas, calls Arian Christianity 'pagan'. Arians explain the opposite:

Athanasius argues that God the Father is also God the Son. He says God actually became Jesus despite the fact that, throughout the Gospels, the Son describes himself as being other than the Father and less than Him. He ransacks the New Testament for evidence to support his position, but the only texts that he can find are two lines from the Book of John: "I and the Father are one," and "He who has seen me has seen the Father." But it is perfectly clear from the context of these statements that Christ is talking about representing God, not about being him. [...]

Can He choose to be evil or ignorant? Could He be the devil - or nothing at all? No, the Christian God is the Eternal God of Israel, Creator of the Universe. Athanasius maintains that this utterly transcendent God transformed Himself into a man, suffered, died, and then resurrected Himself! Doesn't this mixture of Creator and creature sound pagan? [Athanasius Christians say] that God did not create Jesus, as the Arians believe, or adopt him as His Son, but that he "begot" him out of his own nature. As he says, the idea of God fathering offspring with human beings by natural means is too disgusting for any Christian to contemplate.

"When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity During the Last Days of Rome" by Richard E. Rubenstein (1999)3

Both forms of developing Christianity contained pagan ideas, because Roman and Greek converts were ex-pagans who still saw the world in terms of pagan (non-christian) philosophies and idea. The idea that God has a son is thoroughly pagan (it certainly didn't arise from Judaism). Once you developed Christianity from the original Ebionite Jews, there was no escaping paganism either in Athanasius Christianity or Arian Christianity.

Book CoverOne underlying question was this: To what extent were the values and customs of the ancient world still valid guides to thinking and action in a Christian empire? Some Christians, among them Arius and Eusebius of Nicomedia, had a stronger sense of historical continuity than others. Those whose ideas and social relationships were still shaped to a large extent by the optimistic ideals and tolerant practices of pagan society, and for whom Christianity seemed a natural extension of and improvement on Judaism, tended to be Arians of one sort or another. By contrast, the strongest anti-Arians experienced their present as a sharp break with the past. It was they who demanded, in effect, that Christianity be "updated" by blurring or obliterating the long-accepted distinction between the Father and the Son.

"When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity During the Last Days of Rome" by Richard E. Rubenstein (1999)4

We shall see that although the Emperor initially supported the "blurred" view of Jesus and God, the actions of the anti-arians soon changed his mind as to which side of the debate he considered more Christian.

2. Constantine's Arian Empire of the 4th Century, to Tribes in the 8th

By the beginning of the fourth century theologians distinctions between those who believed in Jesus as a separate person to God were being challenged by those who no longer considered Jesus to be a Jewish man. Eusebius of Nicomedia was bishop of Nicomedia from 317CE and bishop of Constantinople from 337CE; he voiced Arianism and was a principal organizer of the Arians. By these dates, Christianity had flowed into a junction, with many in the West thinking more of a complex, pagan god-head with a saviour who was a god in disguise, and those in the East thinking of Jesus as a saviour who showed humankind 'the way' to salvation through his actions.

2.1. The Nicene Council of 325CE

Emperor Constantine initially favoured the anti-Arians because to him, Arianism sounded like anyone could raise themselves up, through moral effort, to be saved. The proto-Nicene division, on the other hand, held that Jesus was God, and that essentially, it was still the central divinity that done the saving. If the State and the Church were to unite the people, then salvation had to come from the center, not from the individual. Therefore, the empire would be held together better if people looked to the Alexandrian Bishop for saving, not to themselves. To keep people in the system, for the good of the empire, Arianism had to give way.5. In 325 the Emperor tabled a council of Christian Bishops, with the intent of enforcing Alexandrian Christianity on the Arian Christians, by getting them all to sign an anti-arian creed. The council was heavily weighted against the Arians by the Emperor. Many Arian bishops did not turn up, let alone debate against the Emperor himself.

The Nicene Creed of 325 was signed by most. Some Arians signed it because its ambiguous wording could still be interpreted in an Arian fashion6. Many others were forced to sign it. Although 250 bishops attended this council, that still left half of all bishops in non-attendance.

The Council of Nicaea, then, was not universal. Nevertheless, it is everywhere considered the first ecumenical (or universal) council of the Catholic Church. Several later gatherings would be more representative of the entire Church; one of them, the joint council of Rimini-Seleucia (359), was attended by more than five hundred bishops from both the East and West. If any meeting deserves the title "ecumenical", that one seems to qualify, but its result - the adoption of an Arian creed - was later repudiated by the Church.

"When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity During the Last Days of Rome" by Richard E. Rubenstein (1999)7

This forced council enjoyed, as we saw above, only a short-lived authority, and later much more representative councils repeatedly affirmed that Arianism was the true Christianity. On street-level, the Roman populace was equally divided between Arian and Nicene Christianity3. Nicene Christianity was only forced (ineffectually) upon the Empire for 10 years before the greater will of the Christian church triumphed. In the interim, sectarian fighting amongst Christians had been gradually increasing. Normal roman citizens, who had previously, as pagans, tolerated each other's widely varying choice of gods, were now Christians engaged in mob violence against one-another based on technical theological differences.

2.2. Arian Christianity No Longer Oppressed

#italy #spain

In little more than a decade, Christianity had been transformed from a persecuted sect into the religion of the imperial family. [... Constantine's true goal] was to unite the empire's diverse, quarrelling peoples in one huge spiritual fellowship. Paganism was now clearly decadent, but once upon a time it had served this purpose. Why shouldn't the new religion play an equally vital and creative role? [...]

This unseemly doctrinal squabble between Eastern bishops and priests would have to end, and end quickly. [...] The emperor made it plain that he considered the escalation of doctrinal conflict among high-ranking Christians not only disruptive of Church unity, but disreputable and almost certainly unnecessary. Christ's enemies rejoiced at this disorder. Pagans openly taunted Christians about their internal battles. Now that Christianity had finally emerged into the light - now that it might well be on the way to becoming the Roman religion - it seemed absurd that the unity of Christendom should be fractured by squabbling theologians.

Clearly, the emperor saw the quarrel jeopardizing his own dreams. His plan from the start, he wrote, had been "to bring the diverse judgments formed by all nations respecting the Deity to a condition... of settled uniformity," [...]. Why put all this at risk by fighting about abstract, technical questions that nobody could answer with real certainty? One side said Christ was "begotten"; the other said "created." One declared him "divine by nature" and the other "divine by adoption." These differences were essentially trivial. Christian thinkers should imitate the Greek philosophers, who had tolerated disagreements far more profound than this without calling each other devils or organizing factions to suppress each other's opinions. [...]

The Emperor had taken the position that the Arians should be readmitted to the Church because, theological niceties aside, they were Christians at heart. Their subordinationist views were traditional in the East and shared by a great many devout Christians, including a large number of bishops.

"When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity During the Last Days of Rome" by Richard E. Rubenstein (1999)7

Arians had accepted the principal of sharing Christendom with Athanasius's Nicene Christianity. The anti-Arians, led by Athanasius, were the sectarians: when Athanasius was commanded by the Emperor to allow exiled Arian priests back to their churches, Athanasius said that Arians were "enemies of Jesus Christ" and that the Church had no place for them. Athanasius commanded small armies of riotous mobs to do his bidding including beatings, church burnings and murder. Emperor Constantine had to put up with constant complains and frequent court cases to do with this bishop's immoral behaviour. The Nicene fundamentalists were revealed as the more disruptive faction, and the Emperor no longer tolerated them.

Arian Christianity replaced the openly revolting and divisive Nicene Christianity for two generations. It had made itself distinct from Jewish Christianity through its declaration of Jesus' special relationship with God, and yet still didn't accept any of the prevalent pagan ideas about gods fathering human children, nor about gods having multiple personalities. It officially declared itself to wish to share Christianity with those Christians who did think of God such half-Christian, half-pagan terms as such people were still 'Christians at heart' like the Emperor had said. But the anti-arians continued to take part in violent street clashes with the Arians.

Not only was Arianism the natural development in the Eastern half of the empire, but, surrounding tribes were also converted to Arianism. The Visigoths remained Arian Christians for the next two centuries. Other tribes converted, including the Ostrogoths, Burgundians, and Vandals8. Arian kingdoms survived in Spain, Africa and Italy9. The Gepidae, Heruli, Alans and Lombards joined the Goths as Arians, and such tribes remained variously Arian until the 8th century9.

3. The Demise of Arian Christianity

Arianism was supplanted by a new form Cappadocian Christianity. How did the religion of the Roman Empire suffer such a fate? It began with the death of Constantine in 337CE.

Political and social events, and the outcomes of war, ended the power of Arianism with the Roman Empire. Three Cappadocian friends were set to write a new theology for the Christianity church, fusing a new idea into the existing godhead of the Son and the Father: The Holy Trinity arrived on the scene. The clever theologians arranged problematic Greek words into a Creed that was to form the basis of the Roman Catholic Church (and also cause the Eastern church to eventually split off as the Orthodox Church).

4. The Victory of the New Cappadocian Nicene Christianity

From November 380CE, the new Emperor of the East, Theodosius, came out as a staunch Nicene Christian. The intolerant nature of the Nicene attitude shone through, and aggressive, strict, and heavily anti-Arian doctrines emerged that expelled Arians, forbid them to meet each other, and made ownership of Arian texts illegal. Over the decade such decrees got more and more severe. The great "heresy" hunt had begun anew, and opinions and thoughts that were not sanctioned by the church were now thoroughly illegal. Inquisitors were set up to investigate groups' beliefs, all pagans were forbidden to practice their own religions, and other Christians such as the remaining Manicheans were also oppressed and killed. The Emperor ceased punishing mob violence if it happened to be against non-Nicene Christians. Jews and 'heretics' were both fair game.14

A long wave of religious violence followed. Bands of wandering monks attacked synagogues, pagan temples, heretics' meeting places, and the homes of wealthy unbelievers in Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt, Palestine, and North Africa. Theophilus, the fire-breathing bishop of Alexandria, incited local vigilantes to destroy the Temple of Seraphis, one of the largest and most beautiful buildings in the ancient world, with a library donated by Cleopatra. Alexandrian Christians whipped up by Bishop Cyril rioted against the Jews in 415, and then murdered Hypatia, a wise and beloved Platonic philosopher.

"When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity During the Last Days of Rome"
Richard E. Rubenstein (1999)15

The eventual victory of the Cappadocian Nicene faith from 380CE meant that as the Empire collapsed, the Christianity that was left behind was the dark, violent, centralized type that did not tolerate dissent. By the late fourth century, a recognizable Roman Catholic Church had emerged. The doctrine of the Trinity had been created, and the vengeful violence of Nicene Christianity was in full, open, bloody view. Anti-semitism was given its official sanction. The edited Nicene Creed was the only form of belief that was to be tolerated. Inquisitors began reviewing religious beliefs, condemning victims to imprisonment, torture and public execution for failing to believe the right things. This state of affairs persisted and plunged Christian societies into a 1000-year long dark ages. If the Arians had survived the onslaught and been the religion that the Empire left behind, we would have been left with a Christianity that would have left a glowing legacy of Jesus. Instead, the Nicene's violence and intolerance won out, and the 'ages of faith' that resulted darkened humanity from the fifth until the fifteenth century.

5. Biblical References

Many scholars and academics have noted, sometimes with worry, sometimes with glee, that there is no certain comment in the New Testament and certainly not in the gospels, that give weight to the idea that Jesus is part of the godhead. Conversely, there are numerous occasions when Scripture says otherwise, and many more times when it could have easily affirmed the trinity, but, specifically didn't. Alfred Reynolds devotes the first two chapters of his "Jesus Versus Christianity" (1993) to these facts.

Current edition: 2008 May 16
http://www.vexen.co.uk/religion/christianity_arianism.html
Parent page: Types of Christianity in History: Who Were the First Christians?

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References: (What's this?)

The Bible (NIV). The NIV is the best translation for accuracy whilst maintaining readability. Multiple authors, a compendium of multiple previously published books. I prefer to take quotes from the NIV but where I quote the Bible en masse I must quote from the KJV because it is not copyrighted, whilst the NIV is. Book Review.

The Catholic Encyclopedia. 15 volumes were produced between 1907 and 1912. Updates occurred in 1914 (an index) and 1914 (supplementary volumes). Published by the Robert Appleton Company, New York, USA (later renamed to The Encyclopedia Press). Reproduced on newadvent.org.

Mackenzie-Hanson, Rev Dr
(2005) On www.arian-catholic.org, accessed 2008 May 12.

Reynolds, Alfred
(1993) Jesus Versus Christianity. Paperback book. Originally published 1988. Current version published by Cambridge International Publishers, London UK.

Rubenstein, Richard E.
(1999) When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity During the Last Days of Rome. Paperback book. First Harvest edition, 2000. Published by Harcourt, Inc. Orlando, USA.

Footnotes

  1. Rubenstein (1999) p53.^
  2. Reynolds (1993) p81-3.^
  3. Rubenstein (1999) p7.^^
  4. Rubenstein (1999) p73-74.^
  5. Rubenstein (1999) p64-5. Reynolds (1993) p140.^
  6. Rubenstein (1999) p80-84.^
  7. Rubenstein (1999) p46-50, 105.^^
  8. Rubenstein (1999) p170.^
  9. The Catholic Encyclopedia (1907) entry "Arianism" by W. Barry. Date last accessed 2008 May 09.^
  10. Rubenstein (1999) p194-5.^
  11. Rubenstein (1999) p141-2.^
  12. Rubenstein (1999) p219.^
  13. Reynolds (1993) p77-78.^
  14. Rubenstein (1999) p221.^
  15. Rubenstein (1999) p226.^

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