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Arius (ərīˈəs, ârˈē–), c.256–336, Libyan theologian, founder of the Arian heresy. A parish priest in Alexandria, he advanced the doctrine famous as Arianism and was excommunicated locally (321). He was declared orthodox in Asia Minor, where he had fled (323), but he was anathematized by the Council of Nicaea (see Nicaea, First Council of) and banished by Roman Emperor Constantine (325). But in the reaction after Nicaea, he came into imperial favor. The emperor had ordered the Athanasians (see Athanasius, Saint) at Alexandria to receive him at communion when he suddenly died.
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(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

Christian doctrine that is now considered traditional usually did not arrive on the scene fully developed. At one point, controversy surrounded much of what is accepted and cherished today. A study of controversies, debates, church councils, and resulting creeds reveals an evolving process of what has come to be known as systematic theology. Because the losers were usually declared heretical, many of their arguments have been lost to the general churchgoing public. But a few votes one way or another at critical times in the councils of church history might have completely changed the way Christian doctrine is understood today. Although by modern standards some of these debates may seem quite trivial and inconsequential, at the time people were willing to, and often did, put their lives on the line.

An example of this process is seen in an early but significant debate sparked by the teaching of Arius, one of the most prestigious and popular presbyters, or Christian leaders, of the city of Alexandria. Now called the Arian controversy, it led directly to the first great ecumenical, or universal, council of the church. Meeting in Nicea, a city in Asia Minor, a council of, according to some records, 318 bishops met in 325 CE. As a result of its debate, the council drafted the famous Nicene Creed, still used regularly as a statement of faith in many churches. Its specific declaration sounds stilted to modern ears, but it was a very exact and debated point:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, begotten of the Father from all time: God from God, Light from Light, very God from very God, begotten, not made, one in being with the Father. Through Him all things were made.... He was crucified for us.... He suffered, died and was buried... He descended into hell... He arose on the third day.... He entered into heaven and is seated on the right hand of the Father... From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

The debate began with controversy over the logical consequences resulting from biblical interpretation. The text that best illustrates the controversy is found in the Gospel of John, chapter 1:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him and without Him was not anything made that was made. In Him was light, and the light was the life of men... and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

When the first Christians began to preach their message, Roman intelligentsia often considered them ignorant atheists because they had no visible gods. Christians countered these claims with arguments of the Greek philosophers. The apostle Paul once argued that the Greek "unknown god," the god believed to be above the Cosmos, was in fact the Christian God (Acts 17). This no doubt appealed to the Athenians. But it was a dangerous argument because it removed from theology the argument of revelation preached by the prophets and other biblical writers. It moved the discussion about the nature of God to the field of analytical argument. Since Greek philosophy postulated perfection as immutable, impassable, and fixed, these attributes came to be accepted as the God of scripture.

So where does "the Word" of John's Gospel fit in? Arius's view, phrased in his words, said, "there was when He was not." In other words, first and always came the immutable God, then, proceeding from God, came "the Word." Since "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us," it logically follows that "the Word," the voice of God, was Jesus. So there must have been a time when Jesus "was not."

Alexander, Bishop of Egypt, decreed this heretical. He taught that Jesus existed eternally with the Father. It is important to understand that both sides believed "the Word" existed before the incarnation. Arius, however, believed that "the Word" was the first creation of God, made before anything else.

Put simply, if asked to build a fence between God and Creation, Arius would put "the Word" on the Creation side of the fence, while his opposition would place "the Word" on the side of the eternal Father.

Both sides, of course, had proof texts and logical arguments. But Arius lost, and the result was what now is understood as the doctrine of the Trinity. Arius believed such a result violated the concept of one God—monotheism. Those who came to be known as Trinitarians believed they had answered the question by pointing out that God is one, expressed in three "persons"—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit— separate, equal, and one.

This is the concept the bishops tried to express in the Creed of Nicea, composing in detail the awkward but specific description of Jesus Christ as "begotten of the Father" but "from all eternity." He was "very God from very God" and "one in being with the Father," but "through Him all things were made." In other words, Jesus, the second entity of the Trinity, existed before Creation, and is, indeed, God.

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.


?250--336 ad, Greek Christian theologian, originator of the doctrine of Arianism
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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