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Arian Baptistery, Ravenna

Arianism (not to be confused with Aryanism), in Christianity, is the Christological (concerning the doctrine of Christ) position that Jesus, as the Son of God, was created by God. It was proposed early in the 4th century by the Alexandrian presbyter Arius and was popular throughout much of the Eastern and Western Roman empires, even after it was denounced as a heresy by the Council of Nicaea (325).


In 325 the Council of Nicaea was convened to settle the controversy. The council condemned Arius as a heretic and issued a creed to safeguard “orthodox” Christian belief. The creed states that the Son is homoousion tō Patri (“of one substance with the Father”), thus declaring him to be all that the Father is: he is completely divine. In fact, however, this was only the beginning of a long-protracted dispute. From 325 to 337, when the emperor Constantine died, those church leaders who had supported Arius and had been exiled after the Council of Nicaea attempted to return to their churches and sees (ecclesiastical seats) and to banish their enemies. They were partly successful. From 337 to 350 Constans, sympathetic to non-Arian Christians, was emperor in the West, and Constantius II, sympathetic to the Arians, was emperor in the East. At a church council held at Antioch (341), an affirmation of faith that omitted the homoousion clause was issued. Another church council was held at Sardica (modern Sofia) in 342, but little was achieved by either council. In 350 Constantius became sole ruler of the empire, and under his leadership the Nicene party was largely crushed. The extreme Arians then declared that the Son was “unlike” (anomoios) the Father. Those anomoeans succeeded in having their views endorsed at Sirmium in 357, but their extremism stimulated the moderates, who asserted that the Son was “of similar substance” (homoiousios) with the Father. Constantius at first supported those homoiousians but soon transferred his support to the homoeans, led by Acacius, who affirmed that the Son was “like” (homoios) the Father. Their views were approved in 360 at Constantinople, where all previous creeds were rejected; the term ousia (“substance” or “stuff”) was repudiated; and a statement of faith was issued stating that the Son was “like the Father who begot him.” After Constantius’s death (361), the non-Arian Christian majority in the West largely consolidated its position. The persecution of non-Arian Christians conducted by the Arian emperor Valens (364–378) in the East and the success of the teaching of St. Basil the Great of Caesarea, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus led the homoiousian majority in the East to a fundamental agreement with the Nicene party. When the emperors Gratian (367–383) and Theodosius I (379–395) took up the defense of non-Arian theology, Arianism collapsed. In 381 the second ecumenical council met at Constantinople. Arianism was proscribed, and a statement of faith, the Nicene Creed, was approved. That did not, however, end Arianism as a viable force in the empire. It maintained favour among some groups, most notably some of the Germanic tribes, to the end of the 7th century. The Polish and Transylvanian Socinians of the 16th and 17th centuries propounded Christological arguments that were similar to those of Arius and his followers. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Unitarians in England and America were unwilling either to reduce Christ to a mere human being or to attribute to him a divine nature identical with that of the Father. The Christology of Jehovah’s Witnesses is also a form of Arianism, for it upholds the unity and supremacy of God the Father.[1]

Germanic or Gothic Arianism

Arianism was the first form of Christianity to make major inroads with the "barbarian" Germanic tribes, and many of the Vandals who conquered Rome were actually Arian Christians. It was only common among East Germanic peoples, who largely ruled as minority over a Catholic population. They had adopted Christianity in the 4th century due to the efforts of bishop Ulfilas, who leaned towards “Arianism” (a derogatory term used for everybody who did not accept the credo of the Council of Nicaea). After the end of the Burgundian and Vandal kingdoms the last Arian nation was the Kingdom of the Visigoths in Spain, which adopted Catholicism in 589.

Arianism gradually lost importance among the local population of the Roman Empire by the turn of the 4th and 5th century but gained a new lease of life thanks to being the form of Christianity embraced by a large part of the Germanic Tribes during the Migration Period. Instrumental in bringing Arian Christianity to them was Ulfilas . The reasons for the success of Arianism among the Germanic Tribes is not entirely clear, the missionary fervour of Gothic neophytes is one possible reason, the support from crypto Arians among the Romans another, but the most likely factor would be the impact of the Bible, translated into a Germanic language. Arianism also played an important role as an element of self-identification for the Germanic peoples settled among the Catholic inhabitants of Gaul, Italy and Africa. It became the dominant religion of the Gepids, Goths, Vandals and it is possible that prior to his Catholic baptism Clovis, king of the Franks, had not been a pagan but an Arian Christian. The fact that Germanic Tribes were followers of Arianism would get in the way of their assimilation in the Mediterranean world. The conflict between the Arian Vandal elite and the local Catholic population was most acute in Africa where, in the reign of Huneric (477-484), the latter were brutally persecuted but with time the pressure eased off. King Thrasamund (496-523) even personally led theological disputes to prove the superiority of Arianism. The intervention of the armies of Justinian I (533) put an end to the Vandal kingdom and to African Arianism. Similarly, the conquest of the kingdom of the Ostrogoths (552/553) meant that Arianism would disappear from Italy. Among the Langobards, who ruled Italy starting from 568, Arianism was not a fully dominant religion. The last Arian Langobard ruler was Rothari (636-652).[2]

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