CHURCH FATHERS (22): Heresy versus orthodoxy in Alexandria

Rev. José Mario O. Mandía

The School of Alexandria flourished with the religious freedom that ensued from the Edict of Milan. But it was also in Alexandria that Arianism was born.

The rise of Arianism is attributed to Arius (256-336) who was actually formed in another theological school, that of Antioch (cf. Church Fathers, 17). There he studied under Lucian (240-312) who espoused subordinationism. Lucian believed that the Logos, the Word, was a mere creature, but was the Creator of all other beings. Other than this heterodox position, Lucian was a man of exceptional virtue and, in fact, died as a martyr under the Emperor Maximinus Daza.

Arius moved to Alexandria where he was ordained priest. In 318, he started to preach a theological doctrine that followed the teachings of Lucian. Arius taught that God is not only uncreated but also unbegotten. Following this logic, the Son cannot be God, because he is begotten. Arius said that the Logos is the first of God’s creatures and was an instrument for creating others. In turn, the first creature of the Logos is the Holy Spirit, who is inferior to the Logos. Furthermore, Arius did not believe in the union of two natures (human and divine) in the Person of Christ. Rather, he said that the Logos took the place of the soul in the man Jesus Christ, contrary to Church teaching that Jesus had a truly human soul, just as he had a truly human body.

Arius’ doctrine “is a typical product of theological rationalism. It satisfied superficial minds to a high degree because it gave a simple and easy answer to the very difficult question of the relation existing between God the Father and God the Son. It saved Arius and his followers the trouble of investigating God’s inner life because it denied all internal divine relations” (Quasten III, p. 8).

Alexander, who was bishop of Alexandria when the Arian controversy arose, “first tried kindness and fatherly admonition and attempted to win him [Arius] back by showing that his views were contrary to tradition” (Quasten III, p. 14). Arius and his followers refused to retract, however. Alexander, with around a hundred bishops, convened a synod (318) which condemned the heresy and excommunicated Arius and those who followed him. This synod did not seem to solve the problem.

So the Emperor Constantine (still a pagan at the time) convened the Council of Nicea (325 – the first ecumenical council in church history; an ecumenical council is a meeting of bishops of the whole Church whose decisions represent the universal Church) which confirmed the conclusions of the 318 synod.

If we want to contrast the positions of Arius and of the Church, we can say that it was the difference between two very similar terms: homoiousios (‘similar’) and homoousios (‘same substance’). The ‘i’ changes the meaning completely. The Council confirmed Church teaching 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 (homoousios) with the Father…” To be consubstantial means to have the same nature: the Son is God just as the Father is God. The Nicene Creed also confirmed that the Holy Spirit is God: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified.”

With Alexander’s defense of the divine nature of Jesus Christ, he also taught that Mary is not only Mother of Christ but Mother of God – Theotokos.