The Early Unitarians: Arius and His Followers

by Dr. Jan Garrett

Revised 2003; Disclaimer added: April 2007; Disclaimer removed and link corrected: March 2010

Note: The material below on the Arian controversy, along with the basic chronology of events in my summary of that controversy, is derived from sources available through the Ecole Initiative. See Chronology of the Arian Controversy. Students of Arianism and the history of unitarian Christianity are invited to read the chronology article and consult the translations of original documents available through links from the article.

A very readable history of the Arian controversy may be found in the book by Richard E. Rubinstein, When Jesus Became God.

Warning: This webpage is provided as a quick introduction to the Arian controversy for persons interested in the history of unitarian theology and does not pretend to be a refined scholarly study. The author's chief scholarly expertise is in the area of classical Greek philosophy. A Unitarian-Universalist himself with natural interest in the roots of his own religious tradition, he is far from being an expert in the history of Christianity.

Background: Neo-Platonism and Fourth Century Christian Theology

By the fourth century CE Christianity was a religion with many followers, including a large number of intellectuals who wanted a systematic understanding of the meaning of their faith. In seeking such an understanding, they borrowed heavily from ideas found in current Greek philosophy. Probably the most important philosophical influence was Neo-Platonism. The founder of Neo-Platonism was Plotinus (205-270 CE), who was born in Egypt and at one point conducted a philosophical school in Rome, where he gained influence over, or the confidence of, the Emperor Gallienus. Plotinus' works, written in the period 253-269, have come down to us only in a version edited by his pupil Porphyry. (See Philip Merlan, "Plotinus," Encyclopedia of Philosophy [MacMillan, 1967], v. 6.)

In Neo-Platonism, the source of all things is the One, about which we can say only that it is one, undifferentiated, the good, indeed, the object of all desire. Everything else "emanates" or emerges from the One by a kind of "fall" (since the One is most perfect, everything else is less so). First there emanates Mind or Intellect (Nous), in which the eternal ideas (like Beauty, Justice, etc.) are found; since these are more than one, the Mind lacks the pure unity of the One.

Both the One and Mind are eternal, i.e., unchanging, outside of time. Next there emanates Soul. Here for the first time appears the experience of time. We participate in soul to the extent that we undergo changing experiences. From Soul emanates matter, or the material world, which is farthest from the One. At this level we find not only time but also space and matter, material bodies, birth and death.

Many Christian theologians of the fourth century tried to understand the relationship between God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit on the same model. Their understanding of God the Father is modeled heavily on the Neo-Platonic One. Jesus Christ is assigned the same relative position as the Intellect in Neo-Platonism. He is generated (the Christians will say begotten) from God the Father. He is caused by God the Father, but God the Father is uncaused. But all this causation takes place in eternity, outside of time. The Neo-Platonic model would dictate that Jesus Christ, though divine, would be a lesser being than God the Father. On this see Neo-Platonism and Arian Christianity Compared

The Arian Controversy

The name of the Christian presbyter (elder, a rather lowly rank) Arius was given to one side of the controversy regarding the precise nature of Jesus' divinity in the 4th century CE. The main opponents of Arius were Athanasius and his followers, who held that Jesus and God the Father were "of the same substance." We might call them "dualitarians" since the Holy Spirit had not been given the same status yet as a "person" within the divinity; that is, the doctrine of the Trinity had not yet been invented).

Arius and those allied with him insisted that Jesus Christ was substantially distinct from, though of like or similar substance with, God the Father. This view was later called unitarianism, by contrast with the trinitarianism that became official Catholic doctrine with the addition of the Holy Spirit as the third persona of God in 381 CE at the First Council of Constantinople.

The Emperor Constantine, the first pro-Christian emperor of the Roman Empire, convened the Council of Nicaea in Asia Minor in 325 CE. His purpose was to develop a statement of faith that could unify the Christian Church. The view defended by Athanasius, that the Father and the Son were of the same substance, was adopted. This meant that the view of Arius was rejected.

Having lost the theological battle at Nicaea, Arius is exiled to Illyria (north of Greece on the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea). But two years later Arius writes a letter to the Emperor, which attempts to show the orthodoxy of Arius' position. In about 328 CE Constantine recalls Arius from exile. About the same time Athanasius becomes Bishop of Alexandria, a very influential post.

The synod (a sort of council) of Tyre and Jerusalem (apparently meeting at Tyre) restores Arius and his friends into church communion, and Athanasius is deposed. He too appeals to the Emperor, who summons those who had met in the synod at Tyre to discuss in his presence. The Emperor is persuaded that the synod at Tyre was right, and Athanasius goes into exile at Trier. But Arius dies suddenly before he can be restored to his presbyter rank, probably in the same year.

The emperor Constantine himself dies in 337 CE. His empire is divided among his three sons. In 337 one of them orders the return of Athanasius to Alexandria, but the next year a council at Antioch deposes Athanasius and orders him into exile a second time.

The Arian position continues to be influential within the Eastern Mediterranean church while the Western branches of the church lean toward Athanasius' position. The theological controversy is by now thoroughly mixed up with the politics of the Roman empire, which frequently has different rulers in the East and the West. Constans, who supported the Nicenes or Athanasians, is murdered in about 350 CE. After his murder and three years of war, his brother becomes sole ruler in the empire and he works to eliminate the Nicene theology. Hence in 355 Athanasius is again condemned.

About this time a new theological position emerges, that of Aetius; farther from the Nicene position than Arian's position, this view hold that Christ is not only not of the same substance as God the Father but he is not even of like substance with the Father. The Arians now have a position to contend with on both the right and the left. Instead of making common cause with the followers of Aetius and defending their theological liberty, as the American Arian Unitarians like Channing would have done in the religious controversies of the early 1800's, a prominent group of Arians in 359 CE (in the Ninth Arian Confession) condemned the followers of Aetius for their heretical position.

Yet in the Eleventh Arian Confession in 361 CE the position of Aetius seems to have triumphed.

Athanasius dies on May 3rd, probably 373 CE. But within ten years (by 383 CE), for reasons that are not entirely clear to me, the official Church had accepted the view of Athanasius and expanded the doctrine into that of the Trinity.

So far as I have been able to tell, the unitarians in this controversy were not distinguished from their "dualitarian" or trinitarian opponents by anything other than their positions on the question of the nature of God and what kind of eternal being Christ was in relation to this nature. There do not seem to be any ethical differences corresponding to the theological differences. [Richard Rubinstein's account of the controversy will require me to modify the previous two sentences when I have some time.--JG] Both sides tried to get the empire behind them. The empire having thrown in its lot with Christianity, the emperors seem sometimes to look on the controversy a bit bemused by the whole thing, sometimes willing to use the controversy for their own political ends. Constantine called the Council of Nicea and presided over it. Athanasius' view won out there. Yet Constantine recalled Arius from exile in spite of Arius' differences with the Nicene Creed. Maybe Constantine did not completely understand the issues; in fact he did not go so far as to accept Christianity as his personal religion until his deathbed. (Curiously, Constantine is baptized on his deathbed by Eusebius of Nicomedia, a follower of Arius.)

When the Arian unitarian position revives in England thirteen centuries later, in the 17th century, it will occur in a very different context. At that time it will be allied with a special ethical message. In the poet John Milton, Arian unitarianism is allied with a devotion to freedom of speech. In the philosopher John Locke, who influenced many of the founders of the American Republic, Arian unitarianism is allied with an emphasis on tolerance and limiting the province of faith to matters that cannot be resolved by reason alone. Like Channing in America over a century later Locke will hold that the primary thing for Christianity is to live by the ethical message of Jesus and that the special theological position of Jesus is tied to his role as God's most important messenger on moral matters.

Neoplatonism and Arian Theology Compared

Neo-Platonic EntitiesAttributes Arian Christian EntitiesAttributes
The One eternal, one, good, uncaused God the Fathereternal, one, good, uncaused
Mindemanated from the One by a kind of fall into the less perfect; eternal (before time); contains eternal Ideas Jesus Christ (=Logos)eternal, begotten of God the Father, in some sense lesser than God himself
Soulemanates from Mind by a kind of fall; participates in time, change, some particularityHoly Spiritnot a big issue for most of the 4th century Arian controversy
Matteremanates from Soul by a kind of fall; involves space and time, change, matter, birth and deathThe Rest of Creationcreated by God through Christ (and the Holy Spirit?); involves space and time, change, matter, birth and death

The Arians and the Nicene Party: A Brief Comparison

Arius and the Arians (the unitarian Christians) Athanasius and the Nicene Creed ("dualitarians" on their way to becoming trinitarians)
We say that the Son is like the Father (10th Arian Confession, 359 CE) Jesus Christ is of one substance with the Father. (325 CE)
Before He was begotten or created or purposed or established He was not (319 CE) [It is false that] before He was begotten he was not. (325 CE)
God begot an only begotten son before eternal
times . . .
Whosoever shall say that there was a time when He was
not . . . the Church anathematizes them (325 CE)
The Son being created and founded before ages was not [had no existence] before His generation (320 CE)

He is a perfect creature of God

Whosoever shall say that He is a creature . . . the Church anathematizes them (325 CE)
God is without beginning but the Son has a beginning (319 CE) Neither by thought nor by any interval does God precede the Son; always God, always Son. (Views attributed to Athanasians by Arius, 319 CE)

Maintained by Dr. Jan Garrett