Life & Soul Life and Soul

Heretic of the week

Arius: his teaching swept the world (Wikimedia)

Arius (AD 250 or 256–336) was a North African priest who taught that Christ was not God. Although his teaching was condemned by the Council of Nicaea in 325 – where St Nicholas famously slapped him – after Emperor Constantine the Great’s death subsequent emperors adopted it and persecuted the orthodox. Even Pope Liberius was forced to sign a semi-Arian creed. Only five bishops of the thousands then sitting stood up for the Divinity of Christ, and St Jerome declared that “the world woke, and groaned to find itself Arian”.

Although Emperor Theodosius the Great suppressed the heresy for the most part within the Roman Empire in accordance with the decrees of the First Council of Constantinople in 381, it did not die there. Arian missionaries had converted Germanic tribes such as the Goths and Vandals. They, in turn, reintroduced Arianism to Spain, Italy and North Africa in the 400s as they carved out provinces of the failing Empire for themselves. It wouldn’t be until the 8th century that the remaining Arians would be converted.

One may well wonder about the significance of Arianism today. But three very influential groups – all of whom we shall cover in more detail in subsequent columns – have come up with Arian teachings about Christ more or less on their own. Unitarianism actually called itself Arian at the time of its 18th- and 19th-century New England origins. Through such figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Thomas Jefferson, it has influenced American society and culture out of all proportion to its size.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses are also considered Arian insofar as they consider Christ to have been St Michael before His Incarnation. But beyond any doubt, the most successful Arian community is, in fact, Islam.