On battling Arianism: then and now
The Church has confronted a dazzling and depressing number of heresies in her long history – Gnosticism, Pelagianism, Jansenism, to name just a few – and one that for a time seemed on the verge of establishing its dark ascendancy over Christianity was Arianism.
At its heart, Arianism proposed that the Son of God was not eternal but was created by the Father from nothing. Christ was thus a changeable creature, his dignity bestowed upon him as Son of God.
The heresy was condemned at the Council of Nicaea in 325 thanks in large measure to the heroic stand by St. Athanasius of Alexandria. But by the cunning of its supporters, it was rehabilitated and forced upon the common faithful by heretical Roman emperors and their ecclesiastical minions. As St. Jerome wrote during the crisis, the world “awoke with a groan to find itself Arian.”
Arianism was finally defeated in 381 at the Council of Constantinople through the unflagging labors of several Fathers and Doctors of the Church, including St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, and St. Gregory of Nyssa.
It would be a mistake, however, to think that heresy – especially the Arian heresy – is a relic of the past that cannot happen again. In fact, we are seeing a resurgence of it today. The great historian and Catholic apologist Hilaire Belloc once observed, “As all heresies necessarily breathe the air of the time in which they arise, and are necessarily a reflection of the philosophy of whatever non-Catholic ideas are prevalent at that moment they arise, Arianism spoke in the terms of its day.”
And our times are a most fertile environment for a kind of NeoArianism. Original Arianism taught that Jesus was a mere creature, while today’s version exists in a therapeutic, materialistic, and secularizing culture that also rejects a Jesus Who is the Son of God and the Second Person of the Trinity. Instead, He is a revolutionary who called for Marxist liberation against existing power structures, or He is a kind of guru or teacher who encourages us toward a journey of spiritual exploration that demands neither repentance nor even an awareness of sin. If He was divine at all it is because He was able to “self-actualize his divine potential,” and He most certainly never intended to establish a Church, because after all, since we are more spiritual than religious we don’t need a Church to limit our freedom with rules and judgement.
Neo-Arians are found in great numbers today even in the Church. As Fr. Dwight Longenecker wrote several years ago in the National Catholic Register, “The difference between Arius and the modern heretics is that Arius was actually explicit in his teaching. The modern heretics are not. They inhabit our seminaries, our monasteries, our rectories and presbyteries. They are the modernist clergy who dominate the mainstream Protestant denominations and who are too many in number within the Catholic Church as well.”
What is the antidote?
It is the same as it was in the 4th century. We begin by deepening our own knowledge of the Faith, by proclaiming Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Second Person of the Trinity. It is also vital to be willing to speak with clarity but with charity with our families, friends, and those we meet about what the Church actually teaches and asks us to believe. In a society where even the words “truth,” “Christ,” “judgment,” “sin,” and “authority” can trigger hostile responses, we should also be prepared to face criticism, ostracism, mockery, and one day soon perhaps persecution for identifying them. Athanasius faced the same challenges and endured five exiles from his beloved Alexandria for speaking out. He was willing to stand against the whole world, and though in the end the true faith triumphed, it came at a high price for him and many others. We are asked to speak and to live the truth. Are we also willing to pay the price?
DR. MATTHEW E. BUNSON serves as EWTN senior contributor and a senior editor for the National Catholic Register. He writes from Washington, D.C.