Arianism is a heresy that emerged in the early 4th century and eventually led to one of the most important and well-known ecumenical councils in church history: The Council of Nicaea in AD 325. The Arian heresy, started by an elder of the Alexandrian church named Arius, was the belief that only the Father holds the title of God. Jesus, while a divine being, was created. Arius gained quite a large backing and at one point, Alexandria’s laypeople largely became Arian. The aforementioned Council of Nicaea affirmed and stated Orthodoxy within the ecumenical church by affirming that Jesus is truly God in the famous Nicene Creed, which claims Jesus is “begotten from the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father.” Still, so pernicious was Arianism that it was not until a later council that this heresy was truly ended in the early church. Arianism was a dangerous early heresy, but it is not only history; it still exists today in Christian offshoot cults such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses.


Arius was born around AD 256, likely in Libya.1 He was most likely a pupil of Lucien of Antioch.2 He was a tall man, serious and proud, intelligent but (according to critics) not creative or intuitive.3 Peter of Alexandria, North Africa, was bishop between AD 300 and 311; he raised Arius to deaconship in the city.4 Arius had “association” with the Melitians and was excommunicated, only to be restored to his position by the next bishop–Achillas–and given pastorship of a church in Baucalis.5 He was a very popular preacher and nearly became the next bishop of Alexandria after Achillas died.6 Arius was able to write “jingles” that the laypeople of Alexandria could sing and spread his views.7 Arius and the new bishop, Alexander, came into conflict around AD 318 over the nature and deity of Jesus.8 This conflict would quickly grow to encompass the entire church and shape Christianity forever.

Alexander and Arius continued their dispute over the nature of Jesus for several years. Eventually a truce was attempted in AD 324, but Alexander attacked Arius personally and Arius refused the truce.9 Arius was then condemned in February of AD 325, and three months later, the Council of Nicaea met under orders from Emperor Constantine and formulated the orthodox beliefs about Jesus’ deity, condemning Arius in the process.10 Arius was banished to Illyricum where he continued to preach Arianism until Emperor Constantine was satisfied with a confession of orthodoxy, and Arius was to be restored to communion in AD 336.11 The night before his restoration however, Arius suddenly died at over 80 years old, leading some opponents to interpret it as an act of God.12


Despite Arius’ death and the proclamation at the Council of Nicaea, the Arian controversy continued for several more decades, and indeed, strains of it exist today in some heretical Christian cult denominations.

Arius seems to have started with Origen’s teachings of Jesus as subordinate to the Father because of eternal generation by the Father, but departed by separating the Son from the Father in nature.13 Arius stated that Jesus as the Son must have entered existence before both conceivable time (yet in time)14 and the world, but as a created being.15 This means that only the Father is truly God; God is one in the Unitarian sense. Influenced by Greek rationalism,16 Arius saw God as infinitely far from man and far from physical creation.17 God therefore created the Logos, Jesus, to create physical creation, because for the Father to create matter would be defiling.18 The Holy Spirit was an even lesser being, and this created a hierarchy between the members of the Trinity, not a unity.19 This account of the Father is reminiscent of Gnosticism, in which the “spiritual”, and therefore God, is opposed to the evil physical world. Jesus is only metaphorically God according to Arianism; he is a sort of deity, yet not of the same kind as the Father.20 Whereas Orthodoxy would arrive at the Greek homousious, that Jesus was of the same substance as the Father, Arius used the Greek homoiousios, that Jesus was a like substance to the Father.21 Later, more extreme Arians would say that the Son was anomoios, of an essentially different substance than the Father.22

Arius used his system to explain verses such as Mark 13:32: “But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”23 Since, under Arianism, the son is a different kind of deity, a sub-deity, compared to the Father, this sort of language would be expected. He saw further support in passages such as Proverbs 8:22-2524, Acts 2:36, and Colossians 1:15. They used passages such as Mark 13:32, and especially John 14:28, to show how Jesus’ growth in knowledge and maturity surely meant he could not be God in the Trinitarian sense, but only in the subordinate sense.25 Arians believed that the Son could not perfectly reveal God, because he could not know God fully himself.26

For quite some time, it seemed that Arianism would triumph and orthodoxy fall after Constantine and Nicaea. The emperor’s court, beginning with Constantius, favored Arianism. Champions of orthodoxy, such as Athanasius (see below, “Athanasius”) were often subject to the favor of the current emperor and his leanings.

Opposition and Orthodoxy

To briefly refute the Arian reading of Mark 13:32, Sanders and Issler point out that in Hebrews 5, we learn that Jesus set aside his deity while on Earth, and therefore, based on his human nature, would not have known everything.27 He was God, but he “accepted the limitation or restriction of the expression of certain of his divine attributes”28, while acting under the anointing of the Holy Spirit.

Further, to move away from the idea that Jesus and the Father are the “same” substance requires a move away from monotheism and into a polytheistic framework. It could not still be monotheistic, with only the Father as divine, because Arians worshipped Jesus in the same way as orthodox Christians.29 Jesus must become a sort of demigod, and Christianity becomes no different than other pagan religions. Furthermore, the crucial question must be asked: how can the death of a less-than-God Jesus atone for the sins of the world?30 This is the question the primary defender of orthodoxy, Athanasius, would raise.

The Council of Nicaea

The first ecumenical council, the Council of Nicaea, was brought together and presided over by the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine, in AD 325, primarily to settle the Arian Controversy. John Frame notes that many of the 318 delegates “were wounded and disfigured, tortured for Christ–wounded warriors, as we would say today.”31 These delegates concluded with a formal condemnation of Arianism and affirmed orthodoxy thusly:

“(We believe) in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only begotten, i.e. of the essence of the Father, ἐκ τῆς ουσίας τοῦ Πατρός, God of God], Light of Light, very God of very God (Θεὸν ἀληθινὸν ἐκ Θεοῦ ἀληθινοῦ), begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father (γεννηθέντα, οὐ ποιηθέντα, ὁμοούσιον τῷ Πατρί); by whom all things were made [in heaven and on earth]; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate, and was made man; he suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; from thence he cometh to judge the quick and the dead.”)32


Athanasius was the successor to Bishop Alexander in Alexandria. He attended the Council of Nicaea as an assistant to Alexander, and after succeeding Alexander, he fought for Orthodoxy in the troubled city. Over the next 50 years, Athanasius was “banished no fewer than five times” as Emperor Constantine’s successors each looked more, or less, favorably on Arianism.33 He is often considered the greatest theologian of his time, but his work was more pastoral and responsive than systematic.34 Nonetheless, he was an intelligent man who focused on the unity of the Father and the Word, and on the fact that only if Jesus is truly God may his work on the cross save mankind.35

Athanasius was a fierce defender of the “same” substance wording in the Nicene creed and fought vigorously against the semi-Arians who sought to alter it to say a “similar” substance, which would have sunk Christianity into polytheism.36 The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology notes that Athanasius’ consistent argument was that “only God, very God, truly God Incarnate could reconcile and redeem fallen humankind.”37 Frame notes that Athanasius’ further argument was that if Arianism were true, worship of Jesus would be blasphemy of the highest degree.38 Athanasius didn’t focus on the philosophical arguments, he focused on the biblical, emphasizing the unity of the Trinity and the “directness of God’s relationship with the world.”39

J.F. Johnson notes that, “He maintained the essential character of Christianity in his struggles with Arians and emperors.”40 It is possible that without Athanasius, Arianism would have become orthodoxy.

The Triumph of Orthodoxy

Thanks to the tenacious efforts of defenders of orthodoxy such as Athanasius, in 381 the Council of Constantine revised and confirmed the Nicene Creed and orthodox belief that Jesus is the eternal Word and a member of the triune God. After this council, the Roman emperors threw their weight behind Orthodoxy and Arianism was largely defeated, though it lived on well into the 7th century.41 Largely defeated, but not forgotten, as we would find out in the modern age.

Arianism Today

Today, strains of Arianism can be found in Christians cults that deny the orthodox Christian conception of the Trinity such as Mormonism, Unitarianism, and most especially, the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Jehovah’s Witnesses

Frame notes that “the Arian terminology, and the arguments for using it, is very similar to those of the Jehovah’s Witnesses sect in the modern period.”42 The Jehovah’s Witnesses are a major Christian cult, perhaps the largest (depending on how you classify Mormonism), with over four million members. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have their roots in a Christian sectarian movement started by Charles Taze Russell in the 1870s.43 He started a magazine, Zion’s Watchtower and in the early 1900s, and established a headquarters in Brooklyn, New York.44 The Jehovah’s Witnesses also have their own translation of the Bible written in 1950, the New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures and the New World Translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, but it seems possible that it is a pseudo-translation from existing Christian Bible translations into one that aligns more closely with their own theology.45 Like Mormonism, another Christian sect established in the 1800s, the Jehovah’s Witnesses put a heavy emphasis on rationalism and on synthesizing science and faith.46

Jehovah’s Witness theology has some resemblance to ancient Arianism. Walter Martin writes, “It is upon this theological myth (Arianism)…that Jehovah’s Witnesses unsteadily base their whole system.”47 In expounding upon Jehovah’s Witness doctrine, Martin notes that they believe:

  1. In one solitary God, Jehovah.
  2. That Jesus was the only being created exclusively by God, who then used the spirit being, Jesus, to create all physical creation.
  3. Jesus could ransom us because of his perfect human life.
  4. Jesus was resurrected as a spirit creature.
  5. Jesus was given authority in heaven in 1914 and Jesus cast Satan and his angels to earth in that year, causing chaos on earth since then.48

These beliefs appear dependent on Arianism. They both consistently reject the Trinity and affirm that Jesus was a created being. Jehovah’s Witnesses even carry over the distinct strain of Gnosticism in which God cannot, or at least does not, create physical creation directly. Instead he creates a spirit being, Jesus, to create it for him. Furthermore, the ultimate goal of being a Jehovah’s Witness is to become of the 144,000 allowed to reign in heaven with God, while others will live in bliss on earth. Orthodox Christianity believes that God will create a new heavens and earth, and Christians will all be physically resurrected. But the ultimate goal of Jehovah’s Witnesses is to escape physical reality to the spiritual “heaven,” echoing ancient Gnostic heresies.


Arianism is a pernicious, insidious heresy that has dogged the Christian church for 1700 years. Arius sought to rationalize Origen’s concept of the “eternal generation” of Jesus and instead went into heresy, claiming that Jesus was a created being and merely semi-divine. This heresy had the potential to trample orthodoxy early on, but due to the efforts of church fathers such as Athanasius, the orthodox conception of the Trinity survived. The Arian heresy has experienced a resurgence in the last two centuries, especially in the rise of the Jehovah’s Witnesses with four million adherents worldwide. Christians must all understand that a high Christology is essential to our salvation; we must take our cue from those early church fathers to lovingly and clearly expound Biblically that the triune God is the God of the Bible.

  1. Philip Schaff, A Dictionary of Christian Biography, Literature, Sects and Doctrines, ed. William Smith and Henry Wace (London: John Murray, 1877–1887), s.v. “Arius”, Logos Edition. 

  2. V.L. Walter, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed., ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), s.v. “Arius, Arianism”. 

  3. Schaff, “Arius.” 

  4. Walter, “Arius, Arianism.” 

  5. Ibid. 

  6. Schaff, “Arius.” 

  7. Bruce L. Shelly, Church History in Plain Language, 4th ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 107. 

  8. Schaff, “Arius.” 

  9. Walter, “Arius, Arianism.” 

  10. Ibid. 

  11. Ibid. 

  12. Schaff, “Arius.” 

  13. Walter, “Arius, Arianism.” 

  14. Philip Schaff, ed. William Smith and Henry Wace, A Dictionary of Christian Biography, Literature, Sects and Doctrines (London: John Murray, 1877–1887), s.v. “Arianism”, Logos Edition. 

  15. Fred Sanders, Klaus Issler,  Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2007), 18. Kindle Edition. 

  16. Walter, “Arius, Arianism.” 

  17. Schaff, “Arianism.” 

  18. John M. Frame, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2015), 105. 

  19. Ibid. 

  20. Ibid. 

  21. Walter, “Arius, Arianism.” 

  22. Ibid. 

  23. Sanders, 183. 

  24. They claimed the Proverbial Wisdom as the Logos, the Son, and used Wisdom’s supposed creation to claim that therefore the Son was created as well. 

  25. Schaff, “Arianism.” 

  26. Schaff, “Arianism.” 

  27. Sanders, 183. 

  28. Sanders, 183. 

  29. Walter, “Arius, Arianism.” 

  30. Ibid. 

  31. Frame, 105. 

  32. Schaff, “Arius”. All marks original, bracketed parts removed or altered at the AD 381 Council of Constantinople. An anathema against Arianism specifically was likewise omitted in the AD 381 revision. 

  33. Shelly, 110. 

  34. J.F. Johnson, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed., ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), s.v. “Athanasius”. 

  35. Ibid. 

  36. Ibid., 110-111. 

  37. Walter, “Arius, Arianism”. 

  38. Frame, 107. 

  39. Ibid., 107-108. 

  40. Johnson, “Athanasius”. 

  41. Walter, “Arius, Arianism”. 

  42. Frame, 105. 

  43. I. Hexham, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed., ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), s.v. “Jehovah’s Witnesses”. 

  44. Ibid. 

  45. Ibid. 

  46. Ibid. 

  47. Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults, ed. Ravi Zacharias, rev. ed. (Bloomington, MN: Bethany House), 87.

    Parenthesis mine. 

  48. Ibid., 69-72.