John Henry Newman

The Arians of the Fourth Century

Chapter I
Section 2

Table of Contents

Catalogue of Titles

Logos Virtual Library


John Henry Newman (1801-1890)

The Arians of the Fourth Century

Chapter I:
Schools and Parties in and about the Ante-Nicene Church, Considered in Their Relation to the Arian Heresy

Section 2: The Schools of the Sophists

As Antioch was the birthplace, so were the Schools of the Sophists the place of education of the heretical spirit which we are considering. In this section, I propose to show its disputatious character, and to refer it to these Schools as the source of it.

The vigour of the first movement of the heresy, and the rapid extension of the controversy which it introduced, are among the more remarkable circumstances connected with its history. In the course of six years it called for the interposition of a General Council; though of three hundred and eighteen bishops there assembled, only twenty-two, on the largest calculation and, as it really appears, only thirteen, were after all found to be its supporters. Though thus condemned by the whole Christian world, in a few years it broke out again; secured the patronage of the imperial court, which had recently been converted to the Christian faith; made its way into the highest dignities of the Church; presided at her Councils, and tyrannized over the majority of her members who were orthodox believers.

Now, doubtless, one chief cause of these successes is found in the circumstance, that Lucian’s pupils were brought together from so many different places, and were promoted to posts of influence in so many parts of the Church. Thus Eusebius, Maris, and Theognis, were bishops of the principal sees of Bithynia; Menophantes was exarch of Ephesus; and Eudoxius was one of the Bishops of Comagene. Other causes will hereafter appear in the secular history of the day; but here I am to speak of their talent for disputation, to which after all they were principally indebted for their success.


It is obvious, that in every contest, the assailant, as such, has the advantage of the party assailed; and that, not merely from the recommendation which novelty gives to his cause in the eyes of bystanders, but also from the greater facility in the nature of things, of finding, than of solving objections, whatever be the question in dispute. Accordingly, the skill of a disputant mainly consists in securing an offensive position, fastening on the weaker points of his adversary’s case, and then not relaxing his hold till the latter sinks under his impetuosity, without having the opportunity to display the strength of his own cause, and to bring it to bear upon his opponent; or, to make use of a familiar illustration, in causing a sudden run upon his resources, which the circumstances of time and place do not allow him to meet. This was the artifice to which Arianism owed its first successes. It owed them to the circumstance of its being (in its original form) a sceptical rather than a dogmatic teaching; to its proposing to inquire into and reform the received creed, rather than to hazard one of its own. The heresies which preceded it, originating in less subtle and dexterous talent, took up a false position, professed a theory, and sank under the obligations which it involved. The monstrous dogmas of the various Gnostic sects pass away from the scene of history as fast as they enter it. Sabellianism, which succeeded, also ventured on a creed; and vacillating between a similar wildness of doctrine, and a less imposing ambiguity, soon vanished in its turn. But the Antiochene School, as represented by Paulus of Samosata and Arius, took the ground of an assailant, attacked the Catholic doctrine, and drew the attention of men to its difficulties, without attempting to furnish a theory of less perplexity or clearer evidence.

The arguments of Paulus (which it is not to our purpose here to detail) seem fairly to have overpowered the first of the Councils summoned against him (A.D. 264), which dissolved without coming to a decision. A second, and (according to some writers) a third, were successfully convoked, when at length his subtleties were exposed and condemned; not, however, by the reasonings of the Fathers of the Council themselves, but by the instrumentality of one Malchion, a presbyter of Antioch, who, having been by profession a Sophist, encountered his adversary with his own arms. Even in yielding, the arts of Paulus secured from his judges an ill-advised concession, the abandonment of the celebrated word homoüsion (consubstantial), afterwards adopted as the test at Nicća; which the orthodox had employed in the controversy, and to which Paulus objected as open to a misinterpretation. Arius followed in the track thus marked out by his predecessor. Turbulent by character, he is known in history as an offender against ecclesiastical order, before his agitation assumed the shape which has made his name familiar to posterity. When he betook himself to the doctrinal controversy, he chose for the first open avowal of his heterodoxy the opportunity of an attack upon his diocesan, who was discoursing on the mystery of the Trinity to the clergy of Alexandria. Socrates, who is far from being a partisan of the Catholics, informs us that Arius being well skilled in dialectics sharply replied to the bishop, accused him of Sabellianism, and went on to argue that “if the Father begat the Son, certain conclusions would follow,” and so proceeded. His heresy, thus founded in a syllogism, spread itself by instruments of a kindred character. First, we read of the excitement which his reasonings produced in Egypt and Libya; then of his letters addressed to Eusebius and to Alexander, which display a like pugnacious and almost satirical spirit; and then of his verses composed for the use of the populace in ridicule of the orthodox doctrine. But afterwards, when the heresy was arraigned before the Nicene Council, and placed on the defensive, and later still, when its successes reduced it to the necessity of occupying the chairs of theology, it suffered the fate of the other dogmatic heresies before it; split, in spite of court favour, into at least four different creeds, in less than twenty years; and at length gave way to the despised but indestructible truth which it had for a time obscured.

Arianism had in fact a close connexion with the existing Aristotelic school. This might have been conjectured, even had there been no proof of the fact, adapted as that philosopher’s logical system confessedly is to baffle an adversary, or at most to detect error, rather than to establish truth. But we have actually reason, in the circumstances of its history, for considering it as the off-shoot of those schools of inquiry and debate which acknowledged Aristotle as their principal authority, and were conducted by teachers who went by the name of Sophists. It was in these schools that the leaders of the heretical body were educated for the part assigned them in the troubles of the Church. The oratory of Paulus of Samosata is characterized by the distinguishing traits of the scholastic eloquence in the descriptive letter of the Council which condemned him; in which, moreover, he is stigmatized by the most disgraceful title to which a Sophist was exposed by the degraded exercise of his profession. The skill of Arius in the art of disputation is well known. Asterius was a Sophist by profession. Aetius came from the School of an Aristotelian of Alexandria. Eunomius, his pupil, who re-constructed the Arian doctrine on its original basis, at the end of the reign of Constantius, is represented by Ruffinus as “pre-eminent in dialectic power.” At a later period still, the like disputatious spirit and spurious originality are indirectly ascribed to the heterodox school, in the advice of Sisinnius to Nectarius of Constantinople, when the Emperor Theodosius required the latter to renew the controversy with a view to its final settlement. Well versed in theological learning, and aware that adroitness in debate was the very life and weapon of heresy, Sisinnius proposed to the Patriarch, to drop the use of dialectics, and merely challenge his opponents to utter a general anathema against all such Ante-Nicene Fathers as had taught what they themselves now denounced as false doctrine. On the experiment being tried, the heretics would neither consent to be tried by the opinions of the ancients, nor yet dared condemn those whom “all the people counted as prophets.” “Upon this,” say the historians who record the story, “the Emperor perceived that they rested their cause on their dialectic skill, and not on the testimony of the early Church.”

Abundant evidence, were more required, could be added to the above, in proof of the connexion of the Arians with the schools of heathen disputation. The two Gregories, Basil, Ambrose, and Cyril, protest with one voice against the dialectics of their opponents; and the sum of their declarations is briefly expressed by a writer of the fourth century, who calls Aristotle the Bishop of the Arians.


And while the science of argumentation provided the means, their practice of disputing for the sake of exercise or amusement supplied the temptation, of assailing received opinions. This practice, which had long prevailed in the Schools, was early introduced into the Eastern Church. It was there employed as a means of preparing the Christian teacher for the controversy with unbelievers. The discussion sometimes proceeded in the form of a lecture delivered by the master of the school to his pupils; sometimes in that of an inquiry, to be submitted to the criticism of his hearers; sometimes by way of dialogue, in which opposite sides were taken for argument-sake. In some cases, it was taken down in notes by the bystanders, at the time; in others committed to writing by the parties engaged in it. Necessary as these exercises would be for the purpose designed, yet they were obviously open to abuse, though moderated by ever so orthodox and strictly scriptural a rule, in an age when no sufficient ecclesiastical symbol existed, as a guide to the memory and judgment of the eager disputant. It is evident, too, how difficult it would be to secure opinions or arguments from publicity, which were but hazarded in the confidence of Christian friendship, and which, when viewed apart from the circumstances of the case, lent a seemingly deliberate sanction to heterodox novelties. Athanasius implies, that in the theological works of Origen and Theognostus, while the orthodox faith was explicitly maintained, nevertheless heretical tenets were discussed, and in their place more or less defended, by way of exercise in argument. The countenance thus accidentally given to the cause of error is evidenced in his eagerness to give the explanation. But far greater was the evil, when men destitute of religious seriousness and earnestness engaged in the like theological discussions, not with any definite ecclesiastical object, but as a mere trial of skill, or as a literary recreation; regardless of the mischief thus done to the simplicity of Christian morals, and the evil encouragement given to fallacious reasonings and sceptical views. The error of the ancient Sophists had consisted in their indulging without restraint or discrimination in the discussion of practical topics, whether religious or political, instead of selecting such as might exercise, without demoralizing, their minds. The rhetoricians of Christian times introduced the same error into their treatment of the highest and most sacred subjects of theology. We are told, that Julian commenced his opposition to the true faith by defending the heathen side of religious questions, in disputing with his brother Gallus; and probably he would not have been able himself to assign the point of time at which he ceased merely to take a part, and became earnest in his unbelief. But it is unnecessary to have recourse to particular instances, in order to prove the consequences of a practice so evidently destructive of a reverential and sober spirit.

Moreover, in these theological discussions, the disputants were in danger of being misled by the unsoundness of the positions which they assumed, as elementary truths or axioms in the argument. As logic and rhetoric made them expert in proof and refutation, so there was much in other sciences, which formed a liberal education, in geometry and arithmetic, to confine the mind to the contemplation of material objects, as if these could supply suitable tests and standards for examining those of a moral and spiritual nature; whereas there are truths foreign to the province of the most exercised intellect, some of them the peculiar discoveries of the improved moral sense (or what Scripture terms “the Spirit”), and others still less on a level with our reason, and received on the sole authority of Revelation. Then, however, as now, the minds of speculative men were impatient of ignorance, and loth to confess that the laws of truth and falsehood, which their experience of this world furnished, could not at once be applied to measure and determine the facts of another. Accordingly, nothing was left for those who would not believe the incomprehensibility of the Divine Essence, but to conceive of it by the analogy of sense; and using the figurative terms of theology in their literal meaning as if landmarks in their inquiries, to suppose that then, and then only, they steered in a safe course, when they avoided every contradiction of a mathematical and material nature. Hence, canons grounded on physics were made the basis of discussions about possibilities and impossibilities in a spiritual substance, as confidently and as fallaciously, as those which in modern times have been derived from the same false analogies against the existence of moral self-action or free-will. Thus the argument by which Paulus of Samosata baffled the Antiochene Council, was drawn from a sophistical use of the very word substance, which the orthodox had employed in expressing the scriptural notion of the unity subsisting between the Father and the Son. Such too was the mode of reasoning adopted at Rome by the Artemas or Artemon, already mentioned, and his followers, at the end of the second century. A contemporary writer, after saying that they supported their “God-denying apostasy” by syllogistic forms of argument, proceeds, “Abandoning the inspired writings, they devote themselves to geometry, as becomes those who are of the earth, and speak of the earth, and are ignorant of Him who is from above. Euclid’s treatises, for instance, are zealously studied by some of them; Aristotle and Theophrastus are objects of their admiration; while Galen may be said even to be adored by others. It is needless to declare that such perverters of the sciences of unbelievers to the purposes of their own heresy, such diluters of the simple Scripture faith with heathen subtleties, have no claim whatever to be called believers.” And such is Epiphanius’s description of the Anomśans, the genuine offspring of the original Arian stock. “Aiming,” he says, “to exhibit the Divine Nature by means of Aristotelic syllogisms and geometrical data, they are thence led on to declare that Christ cannot be derived from God.”


Lastly, the absence of an adequate symbol of doctrine increased the evils thus existing, by affording an excuse and sometimes a reason for investigations, the necessity of which had not yet been superseded by the authority of an ecclesiastical decision. The traditionary system, received from the first age of the Church, had been as yet but partially set forth in authoritative forms; and by the time of the Nicene Council, the voices of the Apostles were but faintly heard throughout Christendom, and might be plausibly disregarded by those who were unwilling to hear. Even at the beginning of the third century, the disciples of Artemas boldly pronounced their heresy to be apostolical, and maintained that all the bishops of Rome had held it till Victor inclusive, whose episcopate was but a few years before their own time. The progress of unbelief naturally led them on to disparage, rather than to appeal to their predecessors; and to trust their cause to their own ingenuity, instead of defending an inconvenient fiction concerning the opinions of a former age. It ended in teaching them to regard the ecclesiastical authorities of former times as on a level with the uneducated and unenlightened of their own days. Paulus did not scruple to express contempt for the received expositors of Scripture at Antioch; and it is one of the first accusations brought by Alexander against Arius and his party, that “they put themselves above the ancients, and the teachers of our youth, and the prelates of the day; considering themselves alone to be wise, and to have discovered truths, which had never been revealed to man before them.”

On the other hand, while the line of tradition, drawn out as it was to the distance of two centuries from the Apostles, had at length become of too frail a texture, to resist the touch of subtle and ill-directed reason, the Church was naturally unwilling to have recourse to the novel, though necessary measure, of imposing an authoritative creed upon those whom it invested with the office of teaching. If I avow my belief, that freedom from symbols and articles is abstractedly the highest state of Christian communion, and the peculiar privilege of the primitive Church, it is not from any tenderness towards that proud impatience of control in which many exult, as in a virtue: but first, because technicality and formalism are, in their degree, inevitable results of public confessions of faith; and next, because when confessions do not exist, the mysteries of divine truth, instead of being exposed to the gaze of the profane and uninstructed, are kept hidden in the bosom of the Church, far more faithfully than is otherwise possible; and reserved by a private teaching, through the channel of her ministers, as rewards in due measure and season, for those who are prepared to profit by them; for those, that is, who are diligently passing through the successive stages of faith and obedience. And thus, while the Church is not committed to declarations, which, most true as they are, still are daily wrested by infidels to their ruin; on the other hand, much of that mischievous fanaticism is avoided, which at present abounds from the vanity of men, who think that they can explain the sublime doctrines and exuberant promises of the Gospel, before they have yet learned to know themselves and to discern the holiness of God, under the preparatory discipline of the Law and of Natural Religion. Influenced, as we may suppose, by these various considerations, from reverence for the free spirit of Christian faith, and still more for the sacred truths which are the objects of it, and again from tenderness both for the heathen and the neophyte, who were unequal to the reception of the strong meat of the full Gospel, the rulers of the Church were dilatory in applying a remedy, which nevertheless the circumstances of the times imperatively required. They were loth to confess, that the Church had grown too old to enjoy the free, unsuspicious teaching with which her childhood was blest; and that her disciples must, for the future, calculate and reason before they spoke and acted. So much was this the case, that in the Council of Antioch (as has been said), on the objection of Paulus, they actually withdrew a test which was eventually adopted by the more experienced Fathers at Nicća; and which, if then sanctioned, might, as far as the Church was concerned, have extinguished the heretical spirit in the very place of its birth.—Meanwhile, the adoption of Christianity, as the religion of the empire, augmented the evil consequences of this omission, excommunication becoming more difficult, while entrance into the Church was less restricted than before.

Chapter I
Section 1

Chapter I
Section 3