The Church’s First Great Crisis: Arianism

News: Commentary
by Rodney Pelletier  •  •  December 31, 2016   

The Church has endured — and survived — great trials before

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In 2014, the outspoken prelate, Bp. Athanasius Schneider of Kazakhstan, remarked in an interview with Church Militant that the Catholic Church was in Her fourth great crisis. He identified the present crisis as "relativism reigning inside the Church," exhibiting itself through "doctrinal, moral and tremendous liturgical anarchy."

So many faithful Catholics are scandalized at the action and inaction of members of the Church's hierarchy. It's easy to say the Church weathered the storms of crisis before, and She will survive this one just as Her Spouse promised in the Gospel: "the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it."

There is, however, a confusion that has set upon the Mystical Body of Christ. In fact, confusion is one of the hallmarks of the Church's various crises.

The fourth century saw the rise of the pervasive heresy of Arianism — a vicious denial of Jesus Christ as God. Right now it seems common sense: "Of course Jesus is God! How could any Christian say otherwise?" But from the end of the apostolic age in the early second century and into the fourth century, it was a doctrine the Church enunciated to clear up the confusion of the time.

The Roots of Arianism

Arianism can be seen from the beginning of Christianity itself. Our Lord Himself had to show He was not merely a powerful prophet but a Divine Person. He performed miracles and spoke with an authority unseen in Israel's prophets. After He ascended into Heaven, the Lord's Apostles taught His divinity, from St. Peter's preaching on Pentecost to St. John's Gospel: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

Saint John saw the necessity in writing his Gospel — so noticeably different from the three others — in order to reinforce the doctrine that Jesus Christ is the second Person of the Holy Trinity, true God and true Man, with a human and a divine nature.

This turned out to be a stumbling block for many early Christians. The majority of the early heresies up to the fourth century involved errors in the understanding of the nature of Jesus Christ.

The Arch-Heretic

These errors reached their height in the theology of the priest Arius. He was ordained between 312–313 A.D. in Alexandria, Egypt — one of the great Christian theological centers of the ancient world.

He had a history of adhering to the errant theology of the Lucianist sect and was excommunicated in 319 by St. Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria. He was known for his asceticism and preaching.

At the center of so much controversy was the Greek word ὁμοούσιος (homo-ousios), a word meaning "of the same substance." Arius preferred the word ὁμοιούσιος (homo-i-ousios), meaning "of similar substance" — not equal in dignity or co-eternal with the Father.

Arianism's Advocates

The great Jesuit theologian, Fr. John Hardon, once noted that no heresy ever made it without support from a Catholic bishop, and that was true of Arianism. Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia — the very model of today's politician-bishops — was a favorite of Emperor Constantine and a collaborator with Arius.

Despite the fact Arius was condemned by Bp. Alexander of Alexandria and the synod of Egyptian bishops in 321, Arius appealed to the emperor. This did not stop Eusebius and other bishops from spreading his errors. In just a few years, the blasphemy that Jesus Christ was merely a creature and not God was spreading across the Roman empire.

The Council of Nicaea

Seeing the newly legalized Christians divided over such an important issue, Emperor Constantine sought to bring both the Catholic and the Arian sides together to reach a resolution. In the year 325, he, in union with all the bishops of the known world, called the "ecumenical," or world-wide, council at Nicaea in present-day Iznik, Turkey. Nearly 2,000 bishops, priests and deacons came together for the council.

Many great Catholic minds like St. Athanasius, a deacon at the time, St. Hilary of Poitiers, St. Nicholas and many others, gathered at Nicaea. Although Arius made his claims, the council ruled against him, upholding the constant teaching of Jesus Christ as handed down by His Apostles. Since then, all Catholics in the East and the West have professed Jesus Christ's divinity in the Nicene Creed:

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.

God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through Him all things were made.

Arius and the bishops, who refused to endorse the Nicene Creed, were excommunicated by the council and exiled to Illyria by the emperor.

The End of Arius

Only three years later, Eusebius of Nicomedia wrote a letter to Constantine on Arius' behalf, and the arch-heretic was allowed back. Unlike at the Council of Nicaea, this time the emperor involved himself with religious affairs and made his own ruling on Arius' theology. Arius spent the next seven years in the emperor's favor and made life difficult for Catholics. He held a special hatred for St. Athanasius and conspired to have him thrown out of his dioceses five times.

In 335, Constantine ordered the bishop of Constantinople to give Arius Holy Communion as a symbol of reconciliation. The patriarch, knowing Arius was not repentant, prayed that Arius would die before he give scandal and committed sacrilege by receiving Holy Communion.

This graphic account notes Arius was on his way to Mass when "a terror arising from the remorse of conscience" seized him "and with the terror a violent relaxation of the bowels: He therefore enquired whether there was a convenient bathroom nearby, and being directed to the back of Constantine's Forum, he hastened thither."

The account continues, "Soon after a faintness came over him, and together with the evacuations his bowels protruded, followed by a copious hemorrhage, and the descent of the smaller intestines; moreover portions of his spleen and liver were brought off in the effusion of blood, so that he almost immediately died."

The Confusion Continues

Despite the victory of the Catholics at the council, heresy continued to spread among the bishops and the people. Years later, St. Jerome lamented, "The whole world woke up one morning, lamenting and marvelling to find itself Arian."

The barbarian tribes embraced the heresy and it continued well into the seventh century by Goths, Lombards, Vandals and Visigoths, who took over much of the Roman Empire's lands outside of Italy. By the eighth century, however, they had been converted to Catholicism.

Again, the hallmark of these great crises in the life of the Church on earth is confusion. In the fourth century, the bishops got together to combat the error of the day. But even when they were largely united it took decades to stamp out the immediate effect of Arius.


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