Resistance to Christianity

Chapter 19: Arianism and the Church of Rome

The Council of Nicaea, convened on the orders of Constantine in 325, marked the birth of orthodoxy and, consequently, heresy. At that time, the tortuous line of the dogma that took centuries to make precise its immutable truths arrogated for itself the privilege of a rectitude that people like Eusebius, Epiphanius, Augustine, Jerome and their cohorts extended back into the past, as far as Jesus, the chosen founder of Catholic invariance.

The Church pushed cynicism to the point of claiming for itself a Christianity that condemned the following successive manifestations as heresies: Nazarenism, Elchasaitism, Marcionism, anti-Marcionism, Christian Gnosticism and the New Prophecy.

In the Third Century, the notion of hairesis – questionable choices, subject to polemic – became a weapon thanks to which the bishops defended their privileges against all contestation. In the hands of emperors and then popes, heresy was legally identified as a crime of high treason. When the popes uprooted from the declining Empire the ecclesial authority that they had arrogated for themselves, they perpetuated in law the old Roman legislation that had formerly been used against the Jews and the Christians, who had been defined as “rebels” against the State and “perverts” contravening moral order.

By imposing himself as emperor by divine right, Constantine successfully led a political enterprise in which his predecessors had only fared poorly. The party of collaborators, which the Christian lapsi had formed, encountered the aims of Constantine, who – having vanquished Maximinus and Licinius – wanted to consolidate the unity of the Empire. Nourished by the conception of an ecclesial monarchism that erected Rome as the New Jerusalem, national security [la raison d’Etat] presided over the birth of Catholicism, the triumph of which remained burdened by the memory of the Christianities that founded it and that it treated as bastards and abortions.

The polemics of the first three centuries concerned freedom of choice. The Council of Nicaea defined religious truth and, from then on, inaugurated the permanence of the lie: the forgery of gospels, the falsification of writings, the destruction of heterodox works, and the fabrication of an official history to which the majority of scholars and historians still subscribe today.

Constantine was touched by grace? Here we go. I borrow the following lines from a Catholic historian, Henri Guillemin: “Constantine did not believe in ‘Jesus-Christ’ in any fashion; he was a pagan and he would only convert (if he ever did so) upon his death in 337. When he ordered the meeting at Nicaea in 325, he was only being shrewd, a realist, and ‘pragmatic,’ and, when faced with the growing numerical importance in his Empire of the sectarians of ‘Krestos,’ he drew from this fact the consequences that imposed themselves concerning the well-being of his government.”[1]

Around the deathbed of the Emperor one found the true father of Catholicism: Eusebius of Caesarea.

Eusebius of Caesarea

In his commentary on Eusebius of Caesarea’s Life of Constantine, Jacob Burkhardt describes Eusebius as the “first totally dishonest and unjust historian of ancient times.”[2]

To understand the necessity that caused Eusebius to fabricate an Ecclesiastic History, canonical texts and a direct line of descent from the apostles out of the scattered pieces of a three-century-long puzzle, it is fitting to recall that he was, above all, the first theorist to “introduce a rational conception of imperial power into the interior of a coherent ideology and metaphysics.”[3]

For Eusebius, “the terrestrial kingdom was in the image of the celestial kingdom.” The task of the sovereign was that of the Logos: to make the law rule over the here-below. “Carrying the image of the celestial kingdom, eyes fixed on heaven, he led and governed mortals on the model of the archetype fortified by imitation of monarchal power (that of the Logos).”[4]

Eusebius’s history of the Church logically had to lead to the theology that he developed and that was nothing other than the justification of the power of Constantine, the incarnation of the Logos by the grace of God, whom he was duty-bound to serve:

“God the Father, whom he called the Supreme Emperor, had certainly created the world. After having created it, he enclosed it in the reins of divine wisdom by making it submit to the constraints of time and the cycle of the years. But he entrusted this world, once created, to his only son, the Word. Eusebius of Caesarea made him ‘the eminent moderator of the world,’ the ‘common conserver of all things’; the Cosmos produced him so that he could govern it; ‘God entrusted him with the reins of this universe.’ ‘He received from the infinitely good Father a hereditary role’; ‘he rules what is inside as well as outside of the vault of heaven,’ and imposes harmonization on all things.

“The Logos is thus the governor of the Cosmos, the one who maintains order in creation. It makes a harmony among all things, added Eusebius of Caesarea. He [the Son] was not a viceroy totally exterior to the ensemble that he governed. He was like the soul and spirit of the world. In fact, Eusebius of Caesarea described his functions in a characteristic passage: ‘The Divine Word,’ he said, ‘is not composed of parts and is not constituted from contraries, but is simple and indivisible. In a body, the parts and members, the viscera and the intestines are multiple in their assemblage, but a single soul, a single spirit, indivisible and incorporeal, is spread throughout the ensemble; likewise, in the universe, the world itself is one, everything being combined from multiple parts, but the Divine Word, endowed with an immense and all-powerful force, also single, deployed throughout the universe, does not stray here and there, but spreads through all things and is the cause of all that happens therein.’”[5]

Thenceforth, theology furnished its privileged framework to [gainsay] the risks of ecclesial politics and imperial power, always in solidarity despite violent rivalries. Theology thus seized upon two doctrines that offered neither novelty nor anything religiously shocking: Donatism and Arianism. The first inscribed itself in the line of the New Prophecy and Novatian; the second revived Gnostic-Christian speculations on the relations between God and his messiah.


Although his name was invested with a glory propagated by the artifice of an alleged Arian party, neither Arius’ life nor his works justified the celebrity with which he was rewarded. Born in Libya or Alexandria around 260, he studied with Lucien of Antioch and lived in Alexandria, where Peter, the bishop of the city, executed in 311, mentioned him for the first time. He belonged to the category of priests who eagerly awaited honors and preeminence. A partisan of Meletius of Lycopolis, a rival of the deceased Peter, Arius acceded to the priesthood under Achillos, the successor to the martyred bishop, and was then elevated in rank under the bishopric of someone named Alexander. Extolling asceticism, Arian’s popularity grew among the faithful who were still receptive to the old influence of Montanism, renewed by Novatian.

In 318, Arius opposed his bishop, reproaching him for having attributed an equal eternity to the Father and the Son in a sermon. For Arius, the Son was neither eternal nor equal to the Father. Created according to the principle of all things, the Son only received his divine nature once he was invested with his mission as savior on earth. The first opinion resembled Jewish, Essenean and Nazarenean Gnosticism, according to which Adam, or the new Adam erected as the redeemer messiah, was the co-creator of the world. The second revived Montanism: the messiah was a man, sharing in the vicissitudes of common human existence, but the Divine Spirit was incarnated in him at his birth, since he was the son of Sophia or Mary. The two [opinions] were part of the evolution of the Christianity of the first two centuries.

A synod of a hundred bishops, convened around 318 or 319, excluded Arius and his partisans from the Christian community; he was refused communion, which marked belonging to the congregation. He left Alexandria and went to Nicomedia, where he enjoyed the support of Bishop Eusebius, despite having written a verse and prose pamphlet called Thalia (the Banquet) that had a great popular success. [Bishop] Alexander retorted through a detailed report on the quarrel. The hostility of Licinius to the Christians and his war against Constantine relegated these debates to a secondary level of preoccupations, but once he was master of the Empire (after the defeat of Licinius), Constantine triumphantly acceded to double sovereignty, spiritual and temporal, and – at the request of Arius’ friends – convened a council at Nicaea, not far from Nicomedia.

In 325, Constantine, circumvented by his councilor Hosius of Cordova, who’d been won over to the party of Bishop Alexander, convinced three hundred bishops to take up positions against Arius.

The credo of Nicaea resulted from an imperial opinion that was hostile to Arius’ theory, according to which “God existed when the Son did not,” and “he [the Son] didn’t exist before birth.” The credo held that the Son was a “true God issued from the true God and forming the same substance with the Father,” which translates the Greek term homoiousios [consubstantiality].

Arius obeyed and renounced his doctrine. In 328, Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicaea, exiled along with their friend Arius, regained their positions. In 335, the synod of Tyr rehabilitated Arius. Constantine, whose sole desire in excluding them was to assure the unity of the young universal Church, had been preparing to reintegrate him [Arius] into the clergy of Alexandria when the unfortunate protestor died in 336. (The official Christian version of his death shot at him the last arrow of polemical elegance by propagating the rumor that he had unexpectedly died while satisfying an urgent need. The abbot [François-André-Adrien] Pluquet, following other heresiologues, rejoiced in such brilliant proof of divine wrath.[6])

From this shallow quarrel – in which only the authority of the emperor, elevated to the dignity of pontifex maximus (sovereign pontiff), was important – the theologians drew an enormous jumble of implications that were as thunderous as they were empty. Underneath the legalisms of this Arian party, artificially swelled in order to give importance to the negligible, there raged a power struggle between Rome and the Eastern Churches, and an unceasing combat between the West and Byzantium.

From a speculative point of view, it was easy to brandish the reproach of dualism, nay, even Marcion’s concept of “two Gods” against Bishop Alexander and his thesis of the “Eternal God, Eternal Son.” The credo of Nicaea recognized a single God to parry Marcionism, which the Manichean religion would claim for itself.

After the death of Constantine I, reconciliation seemed to rule. Nevertheless, quite soon after that, his successor, Constant, supported the party of Nicaea, while in the East Constantine II gave his support to the Arians. After the death of Constant in 350, Constantine II, maneuvering through the intervention of several councils, attempted to Arianize the West and hunt down Arius’ enemies.

Nevertheless, dissent was born from the sudden victory of Arianism. Three factions emerged: the Anomeans affirmed that the Son was not similar (anomoios) to the Father; the semi-Arians (or homoiousians) stated that the Son shared the same substance (homoiousios) as the Father; and the homoeians believed that the Son was like (homoios) the Father.

In fact, such doctrinal positions were only pawns on the chessboard of rival influences: Valens, emperor from 364 to 378, inclined in favor of the homoeians. Gratian and Theodosius the First defended Nicaea. (Note that Theodosius imposed on all Christians an orthodox faith to which he brought the repressive firmness that thenceforth prevented deviation from [the interests of] national security [la raison d’Etat]. In the strict sense, he was the founder of Catholic orthodoxy.) The decrees of 380 and 381 condemned Arianism, chased its partisans from the Church and foreshadowed many executions, the first victims of orthodoxy before Priscillian. In 381, the Council of Constantinople reaffirmed the credo of Nicaea and condemned the semi-Arians (the homoiousians).

With the emergence of a State religion, the episcopatus aemulatio – the race for Episcopal honors (which Tertullian mocked and labeled the “mother of all schisms”) – was run more easily because the destiny of the martyr was no longer dreaded.

Born in Cilicia around 300, Aëtius was a rhetorician based in Antioch. He was a disciple of Arius before he founded the Anomean party and created his own doctrine by discerning dissimilarity between the Father and the Son, in whom the Logos or Holy Spirit was incarnated. A friend of Emperor Gallus, Aëtius used certain opportunities to make his views triumph, but his fate was tragic. Condemned to exile upon the fall of Gallus (354), he aroused the reprobation of the Councils of Ancyra (358) and Constantinople (360). Summoned by Emperor Julian and named bishop, he canceled his functions upon the death of the last tolerant emperor (the one whom the Church named the Apostate because he wanted to restore religious freedom). Aëtius participated in the revolt of Procopius (cousin of Julian), barely escaped capital punishment, and died soon thereafter in Constantinople, where his secretary, Eunomius, developed a doctrine according to which the Father and the Son, though dissimilar in essence, were united by the same will.

Athanasius, Alexander’s successor, combated the theses of Arius and Aëtius, reinforced the Nicene party and invented the Arian party in his Discourse Against the Arians; he portrayed Arianism as a power that threatened faith and Arius himself as the very spirit of heresy.

From such theological hyperbole – under which banal rivalries for power between the notables of Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Constantinople were played out – burst forth an Arian missionary vocation that almost carried off the laurels of orthodoxy by winning the sympathy of the new rival powers in Rome.

Constantine had only condemned Arius because he wished to protect the unity of the Church and the unity of the Empire. Arius had threatened their stability and order to the extent that his influence had not affected the vast majority of the people. Constantine was not unaware that, when he exiled Arius, he condemned his principal enemy, Athanasius, to the same fate. Likewise, Constantine II – [working] in the uncertainty in which orthodoxy was still situated – also kept Athanasius and Aëtius aside. Everything could have capsized at any moment. Weakened by the edict of tolerance issued by Emperor Julian (361-363), both parties experienced a kind of victory. The Nicaeans carried off the West; the Anomean missionaries converted the Goths, who, after invading Spain and North Africa, imposed Arianism on them. As far as Byzantium, whose hostility with respect to Rome did not cease to grow, it gave its schism a theological pretext by rejecting the post-Nicaea formula that was born in Spain during the Seventh Century: “The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son,” a quarrel that was called Filioque (and of the Son).

The rivalries between Arian, anti-Arian and pseudo-Arian factions rallied a good number of individuals who were in search of social promotion or animated by simple opportunism. (Note that the schismatic Lucifer, the Bishop of Cagliari in Sardinia, laid the bases for an anti-Arian Church so that he himself could profit from it.) Was not Acacius, a bishop and the successor of Eusebius of Caesarea, successively Arian under Constance, Nicaean under Jovian, and Anomean under Valens? Such was the case with many.

More interesting was Aerius, the priest of Pontus, ordained by Eustathius, the Bishop of Sebaste, against whom he entered into conflict and reproached for abandoning the ascetic conduct to which he subscribed before attaining dignity.

Aerius became part of the counter-current of Nicaea and the religious establishment of State control by advancing the opinion that no difference in rank between priests and bishops should exist. He condemned the ostentation of the ceremonies multiplied by the Church and judged useless the prayers for the dead, which were a source of revenue for the clergy. Finally, according to him, Easter did away with Jewish superstition. Epiphanius of Salamis – who used a procedure that was popular among the inquisitors of the Middle Ages, that is to say, intentional confusion – associated Aerius with the Arians, to whom he thus imputed hostile feelings for the [Church] hierarchy.

[1] H. Guillemin, L’Affaire Jésus, Paris, 1962, p. 75.

[2] R. L. Wilker, Le Mythe des origines chrétiennes, Paris, 1971, p. 58.

[3] J. Jarry, Hérésies et factions dans l’Empire byzantin du IV au VII siècle, Cairo, 1968, p. 189.

[4] Ibid., p. 192.

[5] Ibid., pp. 190 et 191.

[6] Abbé Pluquet, Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire des égarements, Besançon, 1817, article “Arianism.” [Translator: this work is also known under the title Dictionnaire des hérésies, des erreurs et des schisms (“Dictionary of heresies, errors and schisms”) and seems to have been first published in 1762.]

(Published by Fayard in 1993. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! May 2013. All footnotes by the author, except where noted.)

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