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8. Arius |
The Jesus question comes to a head

Arius is drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 210, of Volume Three, By This Sign of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

He was a creature made by God the Father, said the gaunt, spectral Arius, and the big fight began

Arius - The Jesus question comes to a head

Arius - The Jesus question comes to a head
Arius takes the theological debate to the street–or, in this case, to the docks. The songs he composed to ridicule the notion that Jesus is God became highly popular among the Alexandrians. And so did his theological position on the matter.

Never in his entire life had Alexander, the venerable bishop of Alexandria, faced an issue that mattered as much as the one now before him. Never was it so important that he make his point clear, that he assemble all possible support behind him, that he win. Not only did the fate of his diocese and the success of his ministry depend on it. As he saw it, the fate of the whole church depended on it, indeed the fate of his own soul and everybody else’s.

The question at hand was as old as Christianity itself: Who was Jesus Christ? To Alexander, there could be but one answer. Jesus was in every sense of the word the God through whom all things were made, just as he was described in the opening chapter of John’s Gospel. “I and the Father are one,” Jesus had said (John 10:30). Otherwise, Jesus himself must have been made by God, a man and nothing more. And how could the death of one mere man somehow atone for the sins of another mere man, let alone the sins of all other mere men? If Jesus in the end turned out to be a creature made by God, how could his death have the power that Christians attributed to it?

Yet here in Alexander’s own diocese, a movement had begun that was gaining alarming momentum, and spreading to other parts of the empire. It was centered in the church known as the Baukalis, near the port facilities in Alexandria’s downtown business district–the largest congregation and oldest church in the city, a church that was said to contain the tomb of St. Mark. The chief spokesman for this new movement was the church’s pastor, the priest Arius, recognized as the best preacher in the city. He drew huge crowds. He was revered by hundreds. He was formidable in argument, and he taught his adherents to be the same.

Whatever Christ was, they said, he could not be of the same divine essence as God the Father. Christ had been created by God; he had not in some way sprung out of God. He was made, not born of God or “begotten.” Such was the almost instantly popular message of Arius. If it took over the whole church, that would be the end of both the church and the gospel.

So, anyway, reasoned Alexander. He had never been known as a controversialist. He did not specialize in argument. This bishop was essentially a pastor, a shepherd of his flock. He loved his people and they loved him. He was certainly not renowned as a persuasive preacher or an eloquent speaker, a sharp logician or theoretician. But now he was being called upon to be all these things and more.

Whatever Alexander’s limitations in such a conflict, he saw one thing clearly. Only if Jesus was, as John had described him, “God, the Word”–and only if he was “with God” and also “was God”–could his death change the relationship between Creator and creature. Only then could his death make it possible for each of us to be “born again” as a new being, brought into existence by the same God who made us to begin with, the way Jesus had described it to Nicodemus in John’s third chapter. That, reasoned Alexander, was the “good news,” the Christian gospel.

As one Christian teacher would observe sixteen centuries after Alexander, if Jesus was a great moral teacher and nothing more, he is of no practical importance at all. “It’s quite true,” writes the twentieth-century Christian advocate C. S. Lewis in his Mere Christianity, “that if we took Christ’s advice we should soon be living in a happier world. You need not even go as far as Christ. If we did all that Plato or Aristotle or Confucius told us, we should get on a great deal better than we do. And so what? We never have followed the advice of the great teachers. Why are we likely to begin now? . . . If Christianity only means one more bit of good advice, then Christianity is of no importance. There has been no lack of good advice for the last four thousand years. A bit more makes no difference.”

All this seemed obvious enough to Alexander, but not to Arius. He was a strange man, this Arius, a mystical sort of figure, tall, gaunt, emaciated, perpetually melancholy, physically frail, almost ghostly. He “seemed altogether half dead as he walked along,” writes one ancient historian. It was perhaps understandable that he should hold a powerful influence over the hundreds of ascetic Alexandrian women who had committed their lives to Christ with vows of lifetime virginity. But he also held extraordinary appeal to the rabble of the city, the dockworkers, the sailors. They found hilariously funny the popular songs he wrote to ridicule Bishop Alexander’s theology.

This talent for taunt and ridicule reflected the other cast to his character, at least insofar as his contemporary critics would describe it. They portray him as proud, factious, restless, exasperated by opposition, ambitious, insincere and cunning. Twentieth-century historians sometimes seem peculiarly at odds about him. He was a man with “a genius for self-publicity,” writes the French historian Henri Daniel-Rops in his The Church of the Apostles and Martyrs. “There was nothing insignificant about him, neither his intelligence, character, violence, nor ambition.” Notre Dame University’s Charles Kannengiesser in his Arius and Athanasius views him as “not an adventurous intellectual,” but one who “never failed to express his thought in the measured and cautious terms of a man used to silent meditation.” Meanwhile, the British theologian R. P. C. Hanson notes dryly in The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God that “nobody thought his works were worth preserving” because Arius was “not a particularly serious writer.” He just happened to be the spark, says Hanson, that set off the inevitable explosion.1

It’s generally agreed that Arius was born around the year 256 in Roman Libya,2 which would make him about the same age as his adversary, Bishop Alexander. Early on, he moved to Alexandria, where he appears to have reveled in the city’s delicious wealth of theological speculation, so fostered by the great Origen early in the third century. However, as a young man, Arius moved north and became the student of Lucian of Antioch, an experience from which he would never recover.

Neither would many others. Lucian comes down through an assortment of historical records as the preeminent teacher, the man who leaves an indelible stamp on his students. “He inspired a whole generation in Asia Minor and Palestine,” writes Columbia historian John Holland Smith in his biography of Constantine, “not only with his own views on Christianity, but also with intense loyalty to himself and to one another.”

Besides Arius, Lucian had other notable pupils–like Theognis, the future bishop of Nicea, one of two who would one day stand so resolutely behind his old school colleague Arius that it meant certain exile. And there was Maris, the future bishop of Chalcedon, who would champion Arius’s cause through a whole series of church councils that went on for nearly twenty years after Arius’s death. Most significant of all Lucian’s students was Eusebius, the future bishop of Nicomedia and the confidant of the emperor Constantine. Eusebius would take over the whole leadership of the Arian cause long after Arius himself had become virtually irrelevant to it.

Arianism, as the doctrine came to be known, was in fact a reiteration of the views of Lucian. These, in turn, reflected Antioch’s gradually developing answer to the fundamental question posed by Jesus Christ. The question entailed reconciling two assertions, both advanced by Christians as truths: First, there is but one God. Second, the Divine Word that was incarnate in the man Jesus is God, while clearly distinct from the Father.

By the end of the second century, two opposing schools of theological thought were being expressed around the Christian world. One of them, now known as Subordinationism, sought to protect the doctrine that God is One by centering the unity of the Divine Being in the Father, and making the Son and Holy Spirit distinctly subordinate to God the Father. The other, which is called Modalism and came in a number of different variations, saw God as appearing first as Father, then subsequently as Son and finally as Holy Spirit. Both theologies were eventually rejected by the Christians, but the process would take the next 250 years. By the end of the third century, Subordinationism tended to center in Antioch, Modalism in Alexandria.

“The approach to Christianity in Antioch,” historian Smith explains, “was subtly different from that made by the theologians of Alexandria. At Antioch, emphasis was laid on the uniqueness of God the Father, on the humanity of Christ, and the practical aspects of human life as shaped by the Scriptures. At Alexandria, teachers dwelt on the mystical union between the eternal Christ and the Divine Father, the preexistence of the Word of God and the harmony of heaven. Antiochene theology tended to stress the difference between Father and Son, and to grant the Father precedence; Alexandrian to point to what they had in common, and to insist that they shared it eternally.”

Thus Lucian admitted the preexistence of Christ–as a heavenly being created before all visible and invisible creatures. In fact he had created them. But Christ had not existed from all eternity; he was created by the Father out of nothing, and before that he had no existence. It was a doctrine satisfactory to the theological tradition of Antioch, but not at all to that of Alexandria. Arius had learned it well, regarding it not so much as a special doctrine, but as the only rational way of viewing the Trinity. As one historian notes, it led him to the conclusion that the Divine Father was, as it were, the senior partner. Although there is no such thing as “time” in eternity, there was nevertheless “a time when the Son was not.”

Antiochene theology reached its extreme in the 260s when Paul of Samosata, the playboy bishop of Antioch, was deposed, not for being a playboy, but for heresy (see sidebar opposite page). He had taught that Jesus was a human being, although united to the Divine Word. Lucian, the teacher of Arius, was ousted from the church along with Paul, though Lucian’s teachings little resembled Paul’s. The next two bishops of Antioch sustained the condemnation of Lucian; the third readmitted him to the priesthood.

By then, however, the Christians were again under persecution. Lucian was arrested and ordered to appear at Nicomedia before the emperor Maximian. Here, he refused to deny his faith, was jailed and on January 7, 312, was executed. His body was taken to Drepanum on the coast of Bithynia, later named Helenopolis in honor of the emperor Constantine’s mother, who took Lucian as her patron saint. A basilica was erected over his tomb.

Arius returned to Alexandria in time to become embroiled in another controversy that had bitterly divided the Christians there. This one, however, was not about doctrine, but discipline, and it broke out not in church or in a church council, but in one of the disease-ridden, rat-infested, filth-filled prisons of Alexandria. The year was 303, and the prison was packed with Christian clergy, many of them bishops, rounded up and jailed under Diocletian’s Second Edict (described in chapter four).

Up to this point the persecution had been relatively sparing in Alexandria, though there were real horrors to come. However, those who had been imprisoned for life had a lot of time for discussion. One of the topics that could dependably provoke division was the question of what should be done with those countless Christians who had quailed when the edict was proclaimed and in various ways repudiated their faith.

The Christian prisoners soon found themselves divided into two camps, much as they had been during the Decian and Valerian persecutions a half century before. The soft-liners were headed by Peter, bishop of Alexandria, a man whose gentle views no doubt masked his fierce insistence on episcopal authority. To Peter, the circumstances of any apostasy should of course be taken into account when a man or woman seeks readmission to the church. There should be adequate evidence of genuine repentance, a form of penance commensurate with the gravity of the applicant’s capitulation, and he or she should then be welcomed back into the fold.

The hard-liners were headed by Melitius, bishop of Lycopolis, a small settlement on the upper Nile Valley. To Melitius, what Peter was proposing was simply an abandonment of Christian principle. How could he possibly face the widows and orphans of this persecution–one that could very well get much worse before it got better–if he, in effect, had to tell them that the sacrifices made by their kinfolk were regarded by the church as worth no more than a brief fast, or some other almost meaningless act of simulated contrition?

Very rapidly the argument grew bitter. The soft-liners no doubt pointed to the three denials of the apostle Peter, who had been readmitted to the fold by Jesus with nothing more than a thrice-repeated promise of loyalty (John 21:15—18). The hard-liners demanded severe penances, doubtless pointing to the policy of readmission adopted by the Christians in Carthage a half century earlier, in which the lapsed were readmitted only at the point of death after a lifetime of penitence.

It soon became clear from the way the hard-liners were talking, however, that Melitius and his followers were well prepared to go much farther than mere argument. They would quit the church over this issue, they would ordain their own clergy and establish their own church. This directly challenged the authority of Bishop Peter. Not a violent man, but very definite in his view of church authority, he spread a rope across the large room where he and the other Christians were incarcerated. On it he hung a curtain. He did not want to have to look upon Melitius or any of his followers. They should remain on the other side of the curtain, he declared. Historians disagree on how the crowd divided. Some believe most were with Peter, some say they were with Melitius.

In any event, that bizarre curtain in the jailhouse inaugurated the “Church of the Martyrs,” as Melitius called it, which was to survive for another two centuries. The clergy were soon released when Galerius called an end to the persecution. Melitius proceeded to ordain deacons, priests and bishops all along the Nile, including in Alexandria itself. At a synod held between Easter and Pentecost 306, Peter issued an edict setting out the conditions under which the “lapsed” could return to the church. Those who had yielded only after flogging and torture could return after a fast of forty days. Those who gave in after imprisonment must do penance for a year. Those who had capitulated after mere threats, three years. Those who had recanted, but later changed their minds and declared their faith to Roman authorities, immediate pardon. Enraged, Melitius rejected these terms as absurdly lenient and expanded his schismatic activity.

Meanwhile, Arius had been arrested in another roundup of Christians, and turned up in prison with both Melitius and Peter. There, he sided with Melitius. However, when he was released and Peter’s edict appeared, he changed his mind and declared for the “catholic” position, as Peter’s cause was known. Up until then, Arius had been a layman. Peter ordained him a deacon. Next, seeking to put an end to Melitius’s divisive activity, Peter called a synod that excommunicated Melitius and all of his (as Peter saw it) fraudulent clergy. At this, Arius protested. Peter was going too far, being too high-handed, he said. How could the rift ever be healed that way? With that, Peter ousted Arius as well.

Soon, the Roman Empire’s agenda again dictated church events. Daia took over the administration of the part of the empire that included Alexandria and immediately persecuted the Christians far more vigorously than had Diocletian. Urged by his flock, Peter fled the city. That was Melitius’s opportunity. He came into Alexandria, began ordaining his own clergy and declared Peter deposed. Sheer cowardice had caused Peter to abandon the see, said Melitius. Then came another blow. It was suddenly announced that Bishop Peter had been executed. The “coward” had turned out to be a martyr. Unabashed, Melitius kept right on ordaining clergy. Then he, too, was arrested and sent as a slave laborer to the mines at Phaeno, in southern Palestine. In the slave camp, he continued building his church and ordaining new priests and deacons.

Peter’s successor, chosen by the Alexandrian clergy, was Achillas, a man fated to die within a few months. When he took office, Melitius dismissed him as yet another compromiser of the true faith, but Arius responded very differently. No sooner was Achillas installed as bishop than Arius was on his doorstep, seeking readmission to the church. The new bishop was obviously much taken with him. Not only did he return Arius to full membership, but he ordained him as a priest and appointed him to the Baukalis.

Achillas’s precipitous death once again opened the great see of Alexandria to a new candidate, and this time, the man named to the position was Alexander. Ancient historians differ sharply about that episcopal election. Those opposed to Arianism say that Arius himself sought the appointment, was rejected in favor of Alexander, and conceived a “deep hatred” of Alexander as a result. Most others say that the two enjoyed cordial relations for the first six years of Alexander’s episcopate. Then the bomb burst.

The explosion was unforeseen. Arius’s popularity in the Baukalis was well established. To the devout, he was the preeminent local “holy man,” whose austere life and spectral features pretty much guaranteed that God spoke to him. To the mob, he was the great joker who turned out hilarious songs on religion, all of them jibes at Alexandria’s conventional theology–“dinner party songs” is how one ancient opponent acidly described them. He did not, however, enjoy a significant following among the Alexandrian clergy. Sneers the fourth-century anti-Arian historian Epiphanius: “He was the spiritual master of a school that consisted of . . . seven priests, twelve deacons and about seven hundred dedicated virgins.”3

The initial collision with his bishop occurred when one of Arius’s priestly opponents came formally before Alexander and denounced him as a heretic. (The year is debated, but is widely accepted as 318.) The accuser was probably the staunch traditionalist Colluthus, archpriest of Alexandria and Arius’s immediate superior.4 The conciliatory Alexander, loath to have a major theological blowup in his diocese, sought to resolve the problem by holding an exchange of views. He called a hearing at which Arius could explain and defend his position and his opponents could attack it.

To Colluthus and most of the city’s clergy, no doubt smarting for years under Arius’s torrent of ridicule, this was a cowardly compromise. They wanted a synod called immediately and Arius ousted. Colluthus became so infuriated that he declared Alexander deposed by his inability to act, and named himself as Alexander’s successor. So there were now three claimants to the see of Alexandria–Alexander, the legitimate one, as well as a Melitian claimant and Colluthus.

The hearing proceeded, nonetheless, and Alexander opened it by defining his own views on the issue at hand–the relation between the Father and Son in the Trinity. To the bishop’s undoubted consternation, Arius arose and condemned him as a heretic. Alexander’s explanation was pure Sabellianism, he charged. The hearing appears then to have broken up in disorder, so the bishop adjourned it and called another.

Tempers apparently were more controlled this time. Arius stated his case with characteristic eloquence and reason, so that even Alexander found himself admiring the man’s talent with words. But he did not agree with him, chiefly because the biblical evidence against him was too strong. Alexander therefore called a synod of the Egyptian churches, where more than one hundred bishops approved a decree condemning Arius’s theology. Alexander then called Arius, produced a statement of what he considered the church’s position on the issue, and asked Arius to sign it. When Arius refused, Alexander excommunicated him.

Arius–injured, outraged, undoubtedly vengeful–turned immediately to those whom he knew he could count on for support: the other graduates of Lucian’s academy, now very highly placed in the new Christian establishment being assembled by the emperor Constantine. Chief among them was Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia, where the emperor lived, and a close friend of Constantia, the emperor’s sister. Moreover, Nicomedia’s bishop was a colleague of “the other Eusebius,” bishop of Caesarea, the great church historian, now about to write an adulatory biography of Constantine. So Arius was very well connected, and he would now let these illiterate and illogical fools at Alexandria know what that meant.

Describing himself as “the man persecuted unjustly by the patriarch Alexander,” he wrote to both Eusebii (an accepted plural of Eusebius). Eusebius of Nicomedia wrote back, declared his support for Arius, and promptly called a synod of his own bishops to take up the case on Arius’s behalf. Known as the Synod of Nicomedia, it declared Arius’s theology altogether consistent with catholic Christianity, and wrote to the bishop of Alexandria urging that he readmit Arius.

Eusebius of Caesarea wrote back to Arius too, urging him to come immediately to Caesarea. Arius obliged, traveling to Caesarea and possibly on to Nicomedia. Meanwhile, Eusebius assembled a synod of Syrian bishops which likewise approved of his theology, and instructed the Alexandrian church to receive him back.

Alexander’s written response to all this advice and direction from those close to the imperial circle reflects a startling change in his congenial disposition–so startling that many historians view the old bishop’s letter as having been composed by somebody else. They see it, in fact, as the first appearance in the Arian controversy of the man who in the next half century would take on emperors, bishops, police, judges, church councils and every other manner of opponent, and who would finally prevail over them all. His name was Athanasius, and he left to history the model of the lone figure that fights and defeats established authority. Athanasius contra mundum, people would thereafter say, meaning Athanasius versus the world.5 Because of him–or, as he would be quick to say, because of the grace of God working through him–Arianism would crumble and vanish. But it would be a long, hard struggle for Athanasius, one that would take up the rest of his life, and the struggle may have begun with the writing of Alexander’s letter.

The letter, called an “encyclical” or “circular” letter, and probably sent in 319, went to sixty-nine bishops, one of them Sylvester, bishop of Rome. Signed by the bishops around Alexandria in North Africa, it refers to Arius’s teachings as “an evil,” castigates Eusebius of Nicomedia for “putting himself at the head of these apostates,” and charges him with abandoning his former see of Berytus (modern Beirut) in order to acquire the much more prestigious see of Nicomedia, and with trying to “inveigle some of the innocent into this most base heresy which is hostile to Christ.”

He was writing, Alexander’s letter told the bishops, “that you may know who the apostates are, and also the contemptible character of their heresy, and pay no attention to anything that Eusebius should write you.” After setting out a version of Arius’s teachings and the case against it, the letter concludes: “We then, the bishops of Egypt and Libya, being assembled together to the number of nearly a hundred, anathematized Arius for his shameless avowal of these heresies, together with all such as have countenanced them.”

Meanwhile Arius, wholly endorsed by his highly placed friends in the imperial circle, returned to Alexandria and presented himself to Alexander, apparently assuming that he would now be reinstated as a priest. When Alexander refused, Arius loosed against him a vitriolic propaganda campaign. Pamphlets appeared. The bishop was jeered by rowdies in the streets and rioting broke out. Lawsuits were launched against the bishop. Arius’s host of women supporters became particularly active, joining in public protests and holding meetings to vilify the old man.

In 322, Alexander wrote in dismay to a sympathetic bishop in Bithynia that the disturbances threatened to spark another outbreak of persecution. Arius’s people, he said, “are both demolishing Christianity publicly and striving to exhibit themselves in the law courts, and to the best of their ability rousing persecution against us where no persecution was. They are daily stirring up divisions and harassment against us, both troubling the law courts by the pleas of disorderly females whom they have duped, and also discrediting Christianity by the way in which the younger women among them immodestly frequent every public street.” The uproar, of course, did not take long to attract the delighted attention of the pagan world, as Alexander had feared. The crowds razzed the Christians for their internal brawling; new plays in the theaters spoofed the followers of the man who had said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

Arius fanned the flames by coming up with another song, this one far less

ribald, and intended to call attention to his own superior education:

This is what I have learned

From those who possess wisdom,

Well-educated people,

Instructed of God

Skilled in all knowledge,

It is in their footsteps that I walk,

Even I, that I walk as they do.

It was this education, according to the song, that enabled him to serve God as faithfully as he did:

I who am so much spoken of,

I, who have suffered so much,

For the glory of God,

I who have received from God

The wisdom and knowledge that I possess.

The uproar at Alexandria, rapidly spreading throughout the churches of the East, was perceived by the emperor Constantine as a preposterous inconvenience, rooted in the utter irresponsibility of two Christian clergy. He first heard of it as he prepared a state visit to the new provinces in the East that he had acquired with the defeat of Licinius. The news came, no doubt, in a letter from Eusebius of Caesarea, who was then preparing to write the emperor’s biography. Constantine immediately wrote to both Arius and Alexander, gave the letter to Bishop Hosius of Cordoba, his trusted adviser on Christian matters, and dispatched him to Alexandria to make peace between, as he saw them, two problem ecclesiastics.

It is a memorable letter. Constantine begins by deploring the “spirit of madness” that has seized the African church, brought on by the “reckless frivolity” that was dividing the Christians into “sects.” It has caused “a deep wound, not to my ears only, but my heart” to hear of these conflicts which were, “of a truly insignificant nature, quite unworthy of such bitter contention.”

He then addresses his criticism to the two main combatants. “You, Alexander, asked your priests what they thought about certain passages of the law (he meant the Bible) or rather about one insignificant detail of it. And you, Arius, imprudently voiced an opinion which ought never to have been conceived, or, once it was conceived, ought to have been silently buried.”

Such things, he continues, ought never to become a public issue. “Disputes of this kind . . . are promoted by argument in unprofitable idleness, even if they take place as some sort of gymnastic exercise. Still it is our duty to shut them up inside the mind and not casually produce them in public synods, nor incautiously commit them to the hearing of the laity. For how great is any individual that he can either correctly discern or adequately explain the meaning of matters so great and so exceedingly difficult? And even suppose someone manages this easily, how many of the people is he likely to convince? Or who could sustain precise statements in such disputes without risk of dangerous mistakes?

“We must therefore avoid being talkative in such matters. Otherwise, whether because of our natural limitations we cannot explain properly what is propounded, or because with their slower intellect, the audience is incapable of reaching a correct understanding of what is said, one way or the other, the people may be brought inevitably to either blasphemy or schism.” And so, he concludes, “please restore my quiet days and untroubled nights to me, so that the joy of undimmed light and delight in a tranquil life may once again be mine.”

In other words, observes historian Smith, Constantine “displayed an almost twentieth-century impatience with theology.” He was “quite incapable of interesting himself in metaphysical questions,” says Monsignor Louis Duchesne in The Early History of the Christian Church. His impatience “might perhaps have succeeded with Westerners. But with the Greeks, who were born thinkers, talkers and wranglers, it was quite another matter. The question could not be suppressed; it was necessary to decide it.”

So, anyway, Hosius discovered when he arrived at Antioch, called a synod, heard the case of the two disputants, and failed to effect a reconciliation. It was far more than a clash of personalities, he reported to Constantine–it was a major theological issue and it endangered the entire church. Both Arius and Alexander followed Hosius back to Nicomedia, Arius by land to round up his support in Palestine, Syria and other quarters in the East; Alexander direct to Nicomedia by sea. Alexander got there first and to the emperor first, an accomplishment some see as pivotal. Meanwhile, the renowned historian Eusebius of Caesarea ran into trouble at Antioch. An insistent Subordinationist, he spoke his opinions too stridently before an Antiochian synod, and was pronounced a heretic.

Hosius’s mission of reconciliation in Alexandria had not been a complete failure, however. He persuaded the inflammatory Colluthus to stop pretending he was a bishop, and to order the men he had ordained to stop pretending to be priests. Colluthus agreed, so there were now only two claimants to the Alexandrian see. Moreover, a major precedent had been set, though no one seemed to notice at the time. The emperor had authoritatively intervened in a purely ecclesiastical and theological dispute. He had asserted a senior role in the affairs of the Christians and they had accepted it unquestioningly.

He now took a far more significant step. In 324, he summoned a council of all the Christian bishops to be held at Ancyra in Galatia, the old province in Asia Minor where Saint Paul had founded the churches to whom he wrote his epistle. This council would resolve the Arian question, Constantine said, as well as the Melitian question, the question of the date of Easter, and all the other pressing church questions. To Constantine, if Christianity were to serve the empire, its church must be united; and he would take whatever steps were necessary to unite it. Trying to make God a tool of imperial policy was bad theology, however, and dubious political policy as well. Constantine didn’t know that, but he was about to find out.6

Eusebius, meanwhile, appealed his conviction for heresy to the council at Ancyra. Constantine at the last minute switched the venue to Nicea, where, he explained, the weather was far better and the locale more accessible to bishops from the distant West. Historian Frend suspects another reason. Constantine’s friend and biographer Eusebius of Caesarea was far more likely to win an acquittal from a council at Nicea, where the local bishop favored him, than he was at Ancyra where the local bishop did not.

It was now the spring of 325. The palace swarmed with Christians–Hosius, Alexander, both Eusebii, Constantia and possibly the emperor’s mother, Helena, whose patron saint was Lucian. All prayed, conferred, schemed, scribbled letters and sought the ear of the emperor as the great day of the council approached.

This is the end of the Arius category article drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 210, of Volume Three, By This Sign. To continue reading more about Arius from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at