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Arianism derives its name from its ideological founder, Arius from around 320 AD. Denounced as heresy by Orthodox Roman Catholicism at the First Council of Nicaea by its chief opponent Athanasius of Alexandria, all that is now known about this variant Roman Catholic belief is the shadows left us of its opponents as none of Arius' original works have survived into the present.


Responding to a very Platonistic presentation of Jesus Christ (in which our and his real entities are somewhere else like a puppet master) by the sect of the Gnostics, Arius presented a very human Jesus Christ: a Jesus Christ that was human "except as the scriptures declare". This means that Jesus Christ had no existence prior to his conception; a Jesus Christ that was human as we are except in ways that were specifically declared by the Scriptures, such as: "No man taketh [my life] from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father."[1]

This belief of Arianism while rejected by the councils, morphed into a system known as Semi-Arianism. While in classic Arianism, Christ had no existence prior to his conception on Earth, in Semi-Arianism Christ was "the only begotten of the Father" in the eternities past and was then incarnated amongst humanity in the person of Jesus Christ.

Historical Context

Arianism across the Roman Empire

As a variant of the then Roman Catholicism, the Arians asserted that they were the true Catholics and that the Athanasians, Nestorians and Eutychians were the real heretics. While defeated at the council, the belief entered its golden age with the death of Constantine the Great and the ascension of his son Constantius II who adopted Arianism and then ordered that all opponents in both the East and West ought to be exiled (including Pope Liberius).

This continued until the next wave of Emperors spread their wings across the empire. Under Julian the Apostate, the next Emperor, all exiled bishops were allowed back, in part to promote infighting among Christians.[2] Arianism's sudden rise dissipated when Valentinian, a trinitarian became Emperor in the West followed a decade later by Theodius, a trinitarian, in the East. Religious uniformity was again restored when another religious council reiterated that Arianism was a heresy (379).

Now faced with new and Arian hostile emperors and never having the numerical support of most bishops, priests or laity to begin with, Arianism died out inside the Empire over the next 150 years, being stimulated by military action.

Arianism amongst the Barbarians

But in a kind of religious accident, Ulfias who codified the Gothic language and translated the Bible into their own language was a priest of Arian persuasion. As such his Bible was given an Arian flavour so that as the tribes accepted Roman Catholicism, they converted to the Arian persuasion of Roman Catholicism.

As the barbarian tribes invaded Rome and caused its fall in 476, these new powers carried Arianism in their wake. These include the Visigoths, Vandals, Burgudians and especially Theoderic the Great and his Ostrogoths. Centuries passed before the trinitarians prevailed in those regions. The 5th Ecumenical Council in 553 ended the last outreaches of Arianism within greater Europe.[3]

Later developments

Arianism died out as an organized force but its ideas were known to theologians. Arianism Unitarianism in Renaissance Europe grew out of the teachings of the Italians Lelio Sozzini, or Socinus (1525-1562), and his nephew Fausto (1539-1604) during the period of the Protestant Reformation. Isaac Newton was an Arian—indeed he modeled himself after Arius—but kept it secret because heresy would cost him his official academic and government appointments.

Unitarian ideas that emerged in England and the U.S. after 1770 have many similarities to Arianism.


  • Barry, William. "Arianism" Catholic Encyclopedia (1905) online
  • Gonzalez, Justo L. A History of Christian Thought: Volume 1: From the Beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon (2nd ed. 1987); excerpt and text search vol 1
  • Williams, Rowan. Arius: Heresy and Tradition (2002) excerpt and text search
  • "Schaff, P. "Arianism" in New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (1911)online


  3. J. Herrin, The Formation of Christendom. (1987)