The Arian Heresy and Its Relation to Our Present Age

By Joseph Tamayo


     Today with most people the word “Heresy” translates to bygone and forgotten quarrels or an old prejudice against rational examination.  Heresy is therefore thought to be of no contemporary interest.  Interest in it is dead because it deals with matter no one now takes seriously.  If a man speaks of heresy and that it has a great effect on history, and still does, he will be hardly understood.  Despite the common attitude of indifference heresy in general is of the highest importance to the individual and to society and heresy in its particular meaning ( which is that of Christian Doctrine) is of special interest if one wishes to understand Europe, the story of Europe and the history of the Church.

     What is a Heresy?  According to Webster’s Dictionary a Heresy is a.)  adherence to a religious opinion contrary to Church Dogma b.)  denial of a “Revealed Truth” by a member of the Roman Catholic Church(1).  Heresy can also be defined as the dislocation of some complete and self supporting scheme by a novel denial of some essential part of the belief system (2).  The word “Heresy” comes from the Greek word (Haireo) which is first meant to mean “I grasp or seize” then came to mean “I take away”(3).   

     There are two types of heresy these are Material Heresy and Formal Heresy.  In Catholic Theology a Material Heresy refers to an opinion objectively contradictory to the teaching of the Church which as such is heretical but is uttered by a person without knowledge of it being so.  In Formal Heresy the person believing or teaching the falsehood which is contrary to Catholic Doctrine with full knowledge and for thought.

     Arianism was the first of the great Christological heresies to seriously threaten the Church.   Arianism proposed the position that Jesus, as the Son of God, was created by God.  It was proposed early in the 4th Century by the Alexandrian priest named Arius.  Arianism is often considered a form of Unitarian theology that stresses a belief in God the Father as the expense of the Trinity, the doctrine of three distinct persons in one Godhead.  The Bible says in John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son”(4).  The problem with Arius and the other heretic Bishops was they misinterpreted “begotten”.  In the original Greek translation “begotten” means “Unique relationship” but in English it changes to “gives his nature” almost like a human being but Arius and the other heretic bishops made the mistake of imposing “Time” on God, forgetting that God lives outside of time.  They believed like humans that the Father existed before the Son. 

     Arius was a Greek speaking African cleric.  He was originally a student at the Exegetical School in Antioch.  The school in Antioch was a school of Sophists who were known for studying Greek philosophy.  St. Cardinal John Henry Newman said the educational system at Antioch was the birthplace of Heresy (5).  Arius studied under Lucian the Martyr.  Early in the 4th Century Arius began to teach his heresy.  He was excommunicated in 311AD by the bishop of Alexandria but his successor Achilles readmitted him to Christian communion in 313AD.  He was made a priest of the Baucah’s district in Alexandria.  Arius became famous as a religious force some years before the Roman Emperor Constantine’s victories which freed the Christians from persecution.  Arius was a man of great eloquence and driving power.  Like all heresiarchs there was a great deal of ambition, rationalism and arrogance.  Arius went over from Egypt to Ceasarea in Palestine spreading his rationalizing and Unitarian ideologies with zeal.   

     Arianism was named after him because he was the agent of it and it would be a difficult warping of our Catholic faith if left unchecked.  Arianism declared that Our Lord was as much of the Divine Essence as was possible for a creature but that he was none the less a creature.  It sprang from the desire to visualize clearly and simply something which is beyond the grasp of human vision and comprehension namely three Divine persons , all uncreated in one Godhead, the Triune God(6).  It inevitably would have led in the long run into mere Unitarianism and the treating of Our Lord at last as a prophet but none the less a prophet(7).  According to Arianism’s opponents, especially St. Athanasius, Arius’s teachings reduced the Son to a demigod, reintroduced polytheism (since worship of the Son was not abandoned), and undermined the Christian concept of redemption, since only he who was truly God could be deemed to have reconciled humanity to the Godhead (8)  This also would eventually make room for allowing him to have a sinful nature or leaving room for the possibility of sin in his life.  We are seeing examples of this today.  The denial of Christ’s divinity.  We have leaders in regions of our Church declaring homosexuality normalized, cohabitation justified, divorced and remarried allowed to receive Communion.  We have examples of Syncretism where all religions are treated as inspired by God. These heresies must be rejected by the faithful as our Early Church Fathers and their predecessors have done.  

PART 2    The Council of Nicaea

     Arius was propagating his ideas in earnest and began to canvass for support among the clergy and lay people on Alexandria and beyond.  In 321AD a local Synod council of Bishops in Egypt and Libya deposed Arius and his allies but this didn’t stop him.  In 325AD the Emperor Constantine convened the 1st Ecumenical Council at Nicaea to deal with this severe crisis.  The council excommunicated Arius, banished him and condemned his teachings.  The council created The Nicaean Creed which states that the Son (Jesus) is “homousion to Patri” Greek translated to “of one substance with the Father”.  The Greek word “homousion” is important because it perfectly means “of the same substance; same essence, same in every respect; not different in one IOTA!!

     During this time another great figure appeared, St. Athanasius of Alexandria.  St. Athanasius was born in 296AD.  He was learned in philosophy and neoplatanism but his special interest was for the Holy Scriptures.  He was courageous and unflinching in the face of danger or adversity.  St. Gregory the theologian called him the “the pillar of the Church”.  In 325AD St. Athanasius served as the secretary to the Bishop of Alexandria at the Council of Nicaea.  St. Athanasius wrote many letters and documents under the Bishop condemning the Arians.  Another great figure at this time was St. Hosius of Alexandria and he helped propose the idea for “homousion” for the Creed.  He also wrote letters to the Emperor Constantine to help put his opinion in favor of the Orthodox bishops.  

     Under Constantine the Council of Nicaea founded the Creed the phrase “begotten Not made, Consubstantial with the Father” became a Dogma of the Church.  Some time after the Council St. Athanasius succeeded St. Alexander and became bishop of Alexandria.  In 327 Constantine died, those Church leaders who had supported Arius, as well as Arius himself, attempted to return to their churches and Sees and to banish their enemies.  They were very successful.  The Empire was divided under 2 rulers at this time.  The Anti Arian Emperor Constans ruled in the west and the west remained mostly Orthodox while Pro Arian Constantius II ruled in the east.  At a Church Council at Antioch in 341AD affirmation of the faith that OMITTED the “homoousion” clause was issued.  Under Constantius in the east the Arians gained power and influence.  In 325 AD a synod council of 60 bishops (Arian) accused St. Athanasius of rebellion, sedition, murder, sacrilege and had him exiled.  St. Athanasius suffered 5 exiles and several excommunications totaling some seventeen years out of his 46 years as Bishop of Alexandria.  St. Athanasius gained notoriety all over Egypt & Libya his Orthodoxy.  His courage and earned him the loyalty of his clergy and monastics and the undying respect of the lay people.  This same ill treatment of Athanasius was experienced by many of his loyal bishops. 

     While under the Arian Constantius the extreme Arians declared that the Son was “Anomoios”(Greek meaning “Unlike” the Father).  The writing and rewriting of the Creed went back and forth.  The Moderate Arians or Semi Arians presented the term “homoiousious” which means “of SIMILAR substance”.   During this time it estimated that %75 of the Eastern bishops were Arian or Semi Arian but St. John Newman said there is reason to suspect up to %90 were under heresy.  The Semi Arian term “homiousios” was approved at Constantinople in 361AD.  After Constantius II died in 361AD the Orthodox majority in the West consolidated their position under Valentius.  The persecution of the Orthodox Christians by the Pro Arian Emperor Valens (364 -378AD) in the East and the success of the teaching of St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Gregory of Nazianius led the Semi Arian Majority in the east to a fundamental agreement with the Orthodox Party.  When Emperor Gratian and Theododius 1st  took up the defense of the Orthodox Nicaean Party, after Valens death, Arianism was crushed.  In 381 the 2nd Ecumenical Council approved the Nicaean Creed declaring Christ “homosoosion” or “Consubstantial” once and for all time.

PART 3   The Political and Theological Connection, THE ARMY. (9)

     After the Edict of Milan in 313AD the left over pagan upper class, many who filled the ranks of the military, loved their dominance over society.  Many of the left over governing (Political Class) body clung to their pagan traditions from the older world, traditions not religious but intellectual, social, moral, literary, etc.  A great number of old noble families were reluctant to accept the social revolution implied by the triumph of the Christian Church.  They naturally sided with a movement which they instinctively felt to be spiritually opposed to the life and survival of that Church and which carried with it an atmosphere of “social superiority” over the populace.  Many intellectuals felt the same. They maybe didn’t have pride of social wealth and position but they had pride of culture and remembered with regret the former prestige of the Pagan Philosophers.  They all felt this great revolution from Paganism to Catholicism would destroy the old cultural traditions and their own cultural positions. 

     Arianism had yet another ally, a very subtle ally.  It had for an ally the tendency of government in an absolute monarchy to be half afraid of the emotions present in the minds of the people, and especially the poorer people (Laymen), emotions which if they spread and became enthusiastic and captured the masses might become too strong to be ruled and would have to be bowed to (surrendered to).  

     The other ally Arianism had was the Army.  It is necessary to discuss the military political power of the Army because much of the Arian heresy revolved around it.  The Army was the binding force, support and material self of the Roman Empire.  The Roman Empire was a military state not a civilian state.  The Army’s commander in chief (the Emperor) was the absolute monarch of the whole state.  The Army went solidly Arian.  The Army went Arian because if felt Arianism to be the destructive thing which made it superior to the civilian masses.  The soldiers were sympathetic with Arianism for the same reason the old upper class pagans and intellectuals did.  There arose a feud between the Army chiefs on one hand and the Catholic bishops on the other.  Certainly there was a division between Catholics in the towns, the Catholic peasantry in the country and the almost universally Arian soldiers.

     Bishops and Clerics at this time found it beneficial to “their careers” to go along with the “Powers that be”.  It appears the same political and theological connection is occurring today.  Many governments are accepting the IGBT culture and supporting them in their laws.  Divorce and Cohabitation are also common place as well as the rejecting Judeo Christian values as the basis to their legal structure.  The theological left and political left are forming a bond and looking to force it’s heterodoxy on the Catholic faithful and the world.

     PART 4    The Unsung Heroes, The Catholic Lay People

     The episcopate (Bishops) whose action was so prompt and concordant at Nicaea on the rise of Arianism did not, as a class or group of men, play a good part in the troubles consequent upon the Council; and the Laity did.  The Catholic people, in length and breadth of Christendom, were the obstinate champions of Catholic truth, and the bishops were not!   Of course there were great illustrious exceptions; First St. Athanasius, St. Hillary, St. Eusebius the Latin(Not Eusebius of Nicodemia), St. Phobadius, after that St. Basil the Great, the two Gregories and St. Ambrose.  A few others Bishops Eustathius, Paulus, Dionysius and the Egyptian bishops, whose number in proportion was small to the great powers controlling the Eastern Church.  On the other hand I must say there were exceptions to the Christian heroism of the Lay People, especially in some of the great cities.  Again in speaking of the Laity, I speak inclusively of the parish priests, at least in most places but on the whole speaking historically, we are obliged to say that the governing body of the Church came short and the governed (Lay People) wer pre-eminent in faith, zeal, courage and constancy.(10)

      In the city of Alexandria one of the most infamous of Arian bishops, George, made his appearance and took control.  He arrived during the Great Feast with a large group of soldiers.  He immediately attacked the people and attempted to force the Orthodox Christians to take an oath of Arianism.  After his scourging and torture of the people some of them died.  He also later renewed the violent persecutions.  He unleashed the military on many Orthodox Christians who were worshipping in cemetery chapels instead of the churches that commemorated him.  Many were killed and others banished.

     This similar situations happened in other areas of Alexandria and the other cities under Emperor Constantius2nd  in the East.  At a church in Quininis the bishop there, backed by soldiers, attacked herdsmen and young people in an effort to get them to submit.(12)  The Orthodox bishops Paulines and St. Hillary were banished.  During this time the Pro Orthodox Emperor Constans died and the Pro Arian Emperor Constantius became emperor of both east and west.  He managed with extreme pressure from Arian bishops to manipulate Pope Liberius to sign the heretical Arian Creed denying Christ’s divinity.(13) Constantius later banished him.  When Liberius returned after banishment rescinding the Arian Creed he was shunned by fellow clergy and the people because he was looked upon as weak.  By the way when St. John Henry Newman recorded this incident in his 19th century article he was black listed by the Vatican as a possible heretic.  As writer Michael Kearney notes: apparently Newman’s assertion that the Arian heresy was extinguished by a few God fearing Bishops and Pious Lay People not by the “infallible pronouncements” of the Roman Pope did not fit the model of 19th century Roman Catholic ecclesiology.(14)

     With the death of Constantius2nd  the Empire in the West fell to Valentine1st  who protected the Orthodox but his brother Pro Arian Valens ruled in the East and subjected Athanasius and the Orthodox lay people to a severe persecution.  At the Portan Basilica, City of Edessa, St. Ambrose was teaching the people the Creed but the Emperor’s wife intended to take control of in the Arians.  The people hearing this gathered at the church and blocked its’ entrances and seized the Arian bishop.  The Roman commander dispatched soldiers and arrested many people who were fined and thrown into prison(15).  There was a great hermit named St. Anthony of Alexandria, a lay person and considered founder of the eastern monastic system, who was highly respected by the people and a good friend of St. Athanasius.  The Arian bishops tried to use St. Anthony in their favor but he left the solitude of the desert and went about the city of Alexandria condemning the Arians and their heresy and telling the people that the doctrines of the apostles were preached only by St. Athanasius.(16,17)  St. Athanasius and his fellow Orthodox bishops were hunted down and exiled.  St. Athanasius was constantly being moved to protect him mostly being protected by the faithful lay people.   Christendom as a whole followed St. Athanasius but the persecutions continued.  St. Basil says “about the year 372 the lay people are sound in faith and avoid places of worship which they consider schools of impiety; the people have left their houses of prayer and assemble in the deserts, pitiable sight women and children and old men amid rain, storms and winds.(18)  When the Pro Arian emperor Valens was killed in 379AD Pro Orthodox emperor Theodosius took over in the east and Pro Orthodox emperor Gratian in the west.  The Arians were crushed and the 2nd Ecumenical Council of Constantinople approved our current Nicaean Creed.  St. John Newman said “The 4th Century is an age of Doctors illustrated by Saints Athanasius, Hillary, the two Gregories, Basil, Chrysostom, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, etc, nevertheless less in that very day the Divine Tradition committed to the infallible Church was proclaimed and maintained far more by the people than by the Episcopate(Clergy)”.(19)   Again Newman says “but I mean still that in that time of confusion the Divine Dogma of Our Lord’s divinity was proclaimed, enforced, maintained, and (humanly speaking) preserved in their duty to their baptismal vows far more by the Ecclesia Docta(the unlearned, simple lay people) than by the Ecclesia Docens (Clergy, the Learned, the Teachers).(20)  Again he says “While on the other hand it was the Christian people, who, under providence were the Ecclesiastical Strength of Athanasius, Hillary, Eusibius of Vercellae, and the other great solitary confessors who would have simply Failed without them…….”.(21)


      What do we promise through our God parents in baptism?  We promise though our God parents to denounce the devil, sin and live according to the teachings of Christ and of his Church.(22)  Our Lord said “I am the way THE TRUTH and the Life”.(23)  Again Our Lord said “I came into this world to give witness to the TRUTH, all who love the TRUTH listen to me”.(24)  Our fidelity at baptism is made to Christ which is the Deposit of the Faith and the Perennial Teachings of the Church.  Our Catholic lay brothers and sisters understood this in the 4th Century and driven by the Holy Spirit rose up to their baptismal vows and saved the Church.  What did Venerable Fulton Sheen say in 1972 echoing the words of St. John Henry Newman some 140 years later?  He said “who is going to save the Church?  Not our bishops, not our priests and religious!  It is up to you, THE LAY PEOPLE!  You have the minds, the eyes, the ears to save the Church!  Your mission is to see that your priests act like priests, bishops like bishops and your religious act like religious!”(24)   Father Bill Casey said at his talk, Called to Battle, “Maybe we can’t change this culture but we can go down on record at least trying”, then he quotes St. Mother Theresa “God doesn’t ask us to be successful just faithful”!

     St. Athanasius, the other Saints and the faithful Catholic Laity put everything on the line to protect the Deposit of the Faith!  Are we willing to do the Same?


  1. Webster’s Dictionary
  2. The Great Heresies by Hillaire Belloc
  3. IBID
  4. Catholic Duey Rhaims Bible: John 3:16
  5. Arians of the 4th Century by St. John Henry Newman
  6. The Great Heresies by Hillaire Belloc
  7. IBID
  8. Article; “Arianism” Webster’s Encyclopedia Britannica published July 25, 2019
  9. The Great Heresies by Hillaire Belloc
  10. The Arians of the 4th Century p. 358 by St. John Henry Newman
  11. IBID p. 445
  12. IBID
  13. IBID
  14. St. Athanasius and the Arian Controversy by Metropolitan Ephraim of Boston 1996 conference
  15. Arians of the 4th Century by St. John Henry Newman
  16. St. Athanasius and the Arian Controversy by Metropolitan Ephraim of Boston 1996 conference
  17. Arians of the 4th Century 
  18. IBID
  19. IBID
  20. IBID
  21. IBID
  22. Baltimore Catechism article 326
  23. Catholic Bible John 14:6
  24. Catholic Bible John 18:37
  25. Venerable Bishop Fulton Sheen address to the Convention of the Knights of Columbus in June, 1972

Miscellaneous References

Catholic Answers, Wikipedia, Catholic Encyclopedia, 

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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  1. “It is not possible to have Sacramental Communion without Ecclesial Communion”, due to The Unity Of The Holy Ghost; It Is “Through Christ, With Christ, And In Christ, In The Unity Of The Holy Ghost”, that Holy Mother Church exists.

    By denying The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, they deny The Divinity Of The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, and thus the fact that The Ordered Communion Of Perfect Love, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, Is The Author Of Love, Of Life, And Of Marriage, which is Apostasy.

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