Theology Thursday - Trouble in Alexandria

Athanasius is not amused

On “Theology Thursday,” we feature short excerpts on various areas of systematic theology, from a wide variety of colorful (and drab) characters and institutions. We hope these short readings are a stimulus for personal reflection, a challenge to theological complacency, and an impetus for apologetic zeal “to encourage you to contend earnestly for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3).

The following are excerpts from a 5th century church history by Socrates Scholasticus about the beginning of the Arian Controversy.

The Arian Controversy Begins

After Peter, bishop of Alexandria, had suffered martyrdom under Diocletian, Achillas was installed in the episcopal office, whom Alexander succeeded, during the period of peace above referred to. He, in the fearless exercise of his functions for the instruction and government of the Church, attempted one day in the presence of the presbytery and the rest of his clergy, to explain, with perhaps too philosophical minuteness, that great theological mystery—the UNITY of the Holy Trinity.

A certain one of the presbyters under his jurisdiction, whose name was Arius, possessed of no inconsiderable logical acumen, imaging that the bishop was subtly teaching the same view of this subject as Sabellius the Libyan, from love of controversy took the opposite opinion to that of the Libyan, and as he thought vigorously responded to what was said by the bishop. “If,” said he, “the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence: and from this it is evident, that there was a time when the Son was not. It therefore necessarily follows, that he had his subsistance from nothing.”1

The Heresy Spreads

Having drawn this inference from his novel train of reasoning, he excited many to a consideration of the question; and thus from a little spark a large fire was kindled: for the evil which began in the Church at Alexandria, ran throughout all Egypt, Libya, and the upper Thebes, and at length diffused itself over the rest of the provinces and cities.

Many others also adopted the opinion of Arius; but Eusebius in particular was a zealous defender of it: not he of Cæsarea, but the one who had before been bishop of the church at Berytus, and was then somehow in possession of the bishopric of Nicomedia in Bithynia.

When Alexander became conscious of these things, both from his own observation and from report, being exasperated to the highest degree, he convened a council of many prelates; and excommunicated Arius and the abettors of his heresy; at the same time he wrote as follows to the bishops constituted in the several cities …2

The Bishop of Alexandria Responds

To our beloved and most honored fellow-Ministers of the Catholic Church everywhere, Alexander sends greeting in the Lord …

Know therefore that there have recently arisen in our diocese lawless and anti-christian men, teaching apostasy such as one may justly consider and denominate the forerunner of Antichrist. I wished indeed to consign this disorder to silence, that if possible the evil might be confined to the apostates alone, and not go forth into other districts and contaminate the ears of some of the simple.

But since Eusebius, now in Nicomedia, thinks that the affairs of the Church are under his control because, forsooth, he deserted his charge at Berytus and assumed authority over the Church at Nicomedia with impunity, and has put himself at the head of these apostates, daring even to send commendatory letters in all directions concerning them, if by any means he might inveigle some of the ignorant into this most impious and anti-christian heresy, I felt imperatively called on to be silent no longer, knowing what is written in the law, but to inform you of all of these things, that ye might understand both who the apostates are, and also the contemptible character of their heresy, and pay no attention to anything that Eusebius should write to you.

For now wishing to renew his former malevolence, which seemed to have been buried in oblivion by time, he affects to write in their behalf; while the fact itself plainly shows that he does this for the promotion of his own purposes. These then are those who have become apostates: Arius, Achillas, Aithales, and Carpones, another Arius, Sarmates, Euzoïus, Lucius, Julian, Menas, Helladius, and Gaius; with these also must be reckoned Secundus and Theonas, who once were called bishops. The dogmas they have invented and assert, contrary to the Scriptures, are these:

  1. That God was not always the Father, but that there was a period when he was not the Father;
  2. that the Word of God was not from eternity, but was made out of nothing; for that the ever-existing God (“the I AM”—the eternal One) made him who did not previously exist, out of nothing; wherefore there was a time when he did not exist, inasmuch as the Son is a creature and a work.
  3. That he is neither like the Father as it regards his essence, nor is by nature either the Father’s true Word, or true Wisdom, but indeed one of his works and creatures, being erroneously called Word and Wisdom, since he was himself made by God’s own Word and the Wisdom which is in God, whereby God both made all things and him also.
  4. Wherefore he is as to his nature mutable and susceptible of change, as all other rational creatures are: hence the Word is alien to and other than the essence of God; and the Father is inexplicable by the Son, and invisible to him, for neither does the Word perfectly and accurately know the Father, neither can he distinctly see him.
  5. The Son knows not the nature of his own essence: for he was made on our account, in order that God might create us by him, as by an instrument; nor would he ever have existed, unless God had wished to create us.

Some one accordingly asked them whether the Word of God could be changed, as the devil has been? and they feared not to say, “Yes, he could; for being begotten, he is susceptible of change.”

We then, with the bishops of Egypt and Libya, being assembled together to the number of nearly a hundred, have anathematized Arius for his shameless avowal of these heresies, together with all such as have countenanced them. Yet the partisans of Eusebius have received them; endeavoring to blend falsehood with truth, and that which is impious with what is sacred.

But they shall not prevail, for the truth must triumph; and ‘light has no fellowship with darkness, nor has Christ any concord with Belial.’ Who ever heard such blasphemies? or what man of any piety is there now hearing them that is not horror-struck, and stops his ears, lest the filth of these expressions should pollute his sense of hearing?3

Next time, Arius explains …

Notes

1 Socrates Scholasticus, “Ecclesiastical History,” Book 1, Chapter 5 (1.5), in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, 14 vols., ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, trans. A. C. Zenos (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1890), 2:3.

2 Ibid, 1.6, 2:3.

3 Ibid, 1.6.2-3 (vol. 2:3-4). 

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TylerR's picture

Editor

Bishop Alexander wrote:

Know therefore that there have recently arisen in our diocese lawless and anti-christian men, teaching apostasy such as one may justly consider and denominate the forerunner of Antichrist. I wished indeed to consign this disorder to silence, that if possible the evil might be confined to the apostates alone, and not go forth into other districts and contaminate the ears of some of the simple.

I wonder what today's evangelical "tone police" think of this kind of language! I offer my own translation, filtered through my patented app "Churchy Jell-O Talk" (ver 2.3):

We're writing this letter with heavy hearts about a new teaching we disagree with, being spread by certain brethren in Christ. We love and appreciate Arius, and we all thank God for the fervency with which he serves the body of Christ. We offer this letter in the spirit of Christian love, knowing we are all imperfect sinners, struggling to understand the Scripture as the Spirit of God leads. We hope this letter charitably explains our differences with Bro. Arius, so that brethren in our congregations would be able to make up their own minds on this deep and complex subject (cf. Deut 29:29) . . .

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

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