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Arius the Heretic

By Gail Forsyth-Vail, in Stories in Faith: Exploring Our Unitarian Universalist Principles and Sources Through Wisdom Tales (Boston: UUA, 2007).

Arius, a Libyan priest, lived in the 4th century, a time when the leaders of the Christian church, freed from persecution by the Edict of Milan in 312, were engaging in debates about the nature of humanity and the nature of Jesus. The Roman Empire was in crisis, pressured on many fronts by those who threatened to overrun it. There was a strong need to unify the Christian Church under the sovereignty of a protective savior. The Emperor Constantine viewed uniting the Christian Church as a way to strengthen and unify the Roman Empire and to bring order to the outlying areas. The endless religious debates, often leading to violence between partisans and riots in the street, were a source of significant annoyance to Constantine. In 325 he convened a council at his summer residence at Nicaea, in what is now Turkey, insisting that the bishops agree on a creed that would bring unity to the church. By the close of the Council of Nicaea, the Roman state and the Christian Church had reached a mutual understanding, with the emperor playing a significant role in the church and the church a significant role in the empire.

The priest Arius believed that Jesus was divine but somewhat less so than God. He believed that Jesus' wisdom and teachings were more important than his death and resurrection. Arius believed that human beings could draw closer to God by following those teachings. As the Christian Church solidified and unified in the fourth century and adopted a Trinitarian theology, Arianism became the archetypal heresy for the orthodox.

There came a time when the Emperor Constantine had had it with all the arguing. As head of the vast Roman Empire, he called a halt to the persecutions and killings of those people known as Christians. The Christians were followers of Jesus of Nazareth, a Jewish prophet who had been put to death almost three hundred years earlier. They were known for taking care of one another, and of the poor, the sick, widows, and children in need of help. Constantine was interested in these Christians and their new religion—if only they would stop arguing!

The real trouble was in a place called Alexandria, in Egypt. There was a priest named Arius who was in charge of part of the Christian Church in Alexandria. He was tremendously popular, in part because he was also a poet and a singer. He sometimes taught or preached by putting lessons into poems and songs, which was much more fun and interesting for the people than just plain words. He was a favorite of sailors, dockworkers, and young people. Many flocked to hear him speak. They were convinced that following Jesus would help them to get closer to God. After all, Arius told them that Jesus had started out as a human being who was so holy that God had adopted him as a son.

Alexander, the main bishop of the city, was Arius's superior. He had a different idea about Jesus. He said that Jesus had been one with God since the very beginning, and that when he was on earth, he was God living as a human being. This bishop taught that people were basically sinful and that Jesus had come to earth and lived and died in order to save people from their wrongdoing. He also said that Arius was a heretic, which meant that Arius was preaching things that were different from what most bishops and church leaders believed to be true.

So arguments began and continued. Every day people debated at the market and in the public square. Sometimes there were even fistfights and riots about which view was the right one, Alexander's or Arius's. Word of all this reached the Emperor Constantine, and he wanted the fighting stopped. It wasn't good for the empire if people were rioting in the streets, so Constantine decided to settle it once and for all. He called a council and invited all of the bishops in the empire to spend some months at his summer residence in Nicea, right beside a beautiful lake in what is now the country of Turkey.

And so the bishops arrived in May at this wonderful summer residence. Many traveled for a long time to get there, coming by ship and then overland to Nicea. Everything was ready for their arrival. Servants made sure that the food and drink were prefect and that the guests were truly pampered. The emperor looked resplendent in purple robes with gold adornment. He told the bishops to make up their minds about this question of Jesus. After this council, there was to be no more arguing! He wanted a strong Roman empire with one religion. Constantine meant to enforce whatever the decision was with the power of this empire.

Alexander and his supporters spoke. They presented parts of the songs and poetry Arius had written, to prove he was a dangerous heretic, maybe even an agent of the devil. By the time they had finished, all but two of the hundred bishops were on Alexander's side, condemning Arius. Arius himself was not allowed to speak because he was only a priest, not a bishop. While they spent a few weeks enjoying the delights of the lakeside summer home, the bishops wrote a creed for the Christian Church, a set of beliefs that everyone needed to agree to in order to belong. All were required to sign it. Arius and the two bishops who supported him refused to sign it. They were declared heretics and sent into exile.

There were a few more councils and lots more violence over the next few years. Arius was in and out of trouble during that whole period of time, but he never gave up on what he thought was right and true. On the day he died, quite suddenly, he was with friends and foes, still holding fast to what he believed.

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Last updated on Wednesday, October 26, 2011.

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