The Trinity in the 4th Century-Part 1

The Trinity in the 4th Century-Part 1

by David Burke

By the 4th Century AD, Christian speculation about the nature of Christ had resolved into three basic camps: those who believed Jesus was a mortal human raised to immortality at his resurrection,[1] those who saw him as a pre-existent being created by the Father before all things,[2] and those who worshipped him as true deity.[3] The first of these positions was now marginal to the point of extinction, while the second and third vied for predominance. At this stage disputes over doctrine were addressed at a local level, since no individual or institution had authority to define orthodoxy for the entire church.[4] But the conversion of Constantine the Great in AD 312 precipitated a dramatic change. Constantine sought unity through uniformity, and the process was rapidly politicized as opposing factions vied for control of a newly empowered Christian hierarchy.[5]

The seeds of this development were inadvertently sown by a Libyan presbyter in AD 318. His name was Arius. He led a congregation in the wharf quarter of Alexandria, confessed a traditional Alexandrian Christology inherited from his mentors,[6] and lived a life of strict asceticism. Arius’ Christology may be summarized as follows:

  • Jesus is a divine being created (or ‘begotten’) by God
  • He occupies a unique place between God and the rest of creation[7]
  • He is immortal but not eternal, existing by the will of the Father
  • During his earthly life he was subject to the weaknesses of mortal men
  • He is not true Deity,[8] but may be called “god” in a qualified sense

Arius’ sermons often contained explicit references to this Christology, which differed from that of his bishop, Alexander of Alexandria. Concerned by these teachings Alexander invited the presbyter to clarify his position in a private forum, where Arius is alleged to have stated, “Before he [Christ] was begotten, he was not.”[9] This reference to a finite Christ became the defining feature of Arianism.

Alexander responded moderately at first. Arius was asked to abandon his Christology and desist from teaching it. Yet popular support was on his side and he continued to preach as before. Shocked by this defiance, Alexander convened a local church council which ruled that Arius should be deposed from office and excommunicated with his clerical adherents. But if he believed excommunication would marginalise Arius, Alexander was wrong. Support for Arianism continued to grow and its influence began to spread beyond Alexandria. Even the bishops of Ptolemais and Marmarica were persuaded by Arian Christology. Correctly noting that the church still lacked a universal Christology, Arius refused to recognize his excommunication and sent a letter of protest to Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, detailing his confrontation with Alexandria. This deprived the dispute of its local limitations and forced Alexander to take more decisive action. He immediately summoned a general council of all Egypt, at which one hundred bishops renounced the “Arian heresy” and re-affirmed the excommunication of Arius and all his defenders in the Egyptian and Libyan clergy.


[1] The default position of Adoptionists and other Unitarians.

[2] A view known as Subordinationism. “Most Christians rejected the Gnostic idea of intermediate beings, but that Christ is a divine being somewhat below the highest divine principle and that He derives His existence from it appealed to some, especially Origen. Some see Subordinationist tendencies in Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Clement of Alexandria.” J. D. Douglas et al., The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978), 938.

[3] A belief common to Sabellians and other proto-Trinitarians.

[4] “In A.D. 318 there was no universally recognised orthodox answer as to the question of how divine Christ is (e.g., Origen and Tertullian). The frontiers of orthodoxy were not so rigidly demarcated as they later became, and important currents of thought flowed outside the main channel. This is one of the reasons why the controversy lasted for so long. Of course certain positions were declared untenable, for example Sabellianism, and adoptionism. But within these very broad limits no doctrine could properly be said to be heretical...” McDowell, John C, Arius: A Theological Conservative Persecuted?, 1994, retrieved 22.06.11:

[5] “It was the misfortune of the fourth-century church that it became engrossed in a theological controversy at the same time as it was working out its institutional organisation. The doctrinal disagreements quickly became inextricably associated with matters of order, discipline, and authority.” Chadwick, Henry, The Early Church, Pelican Books 1984, p.133.

[6] “His surviving letters, and the poem called Thalia, show that he thought of himself as a conservative, treading in the footsteps of pious teachers, and following the doctrine of his bishop.” Hall, Stuart G, Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church, SPCK, 1994, pp.121-1.

[7] “...a perfect creature, yet not as one among other creatures; a begotten being, yet not as one among other begotten beings.” McGrath, Alister E, Christian Theology: An Introduction, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, p.275.

[8] “He held that there is ‘one God, alone unbegotten, alone everlasting, alone unbegun... (Letter to Alexander, New Eusebius 326) and that the Son of God makes his father known by being different: ‘We call him [the Father] Unbegotten because of the one in nature begotten; we raise hymns to him as Unbegun because of the one born in time.’ (Thalia, II 3-5 [New Eusebius 330.]” Hall, Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church, pp.121-1.

[9] The authenticity of this quote is disputed. “Modern theologians have read into Arianism whatever views they themselves particularly abominate. Our ancient sources reveal other problems. First, what we have of Arius’ own writing is meagre, and even these documents are preserved by his critics, and selected to be damaging, if not actually misquoted or misconstrued. Secondly, his critics often attribute to him views which he never stated: the most famous is, ‘There was once when he [the Son] was not.’ There can be no doubt that if he had ever written that, he would have been quoted direct.” Hall, Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church, pp.121-1.

David Burke is a Christadelphian pastor with 25 years of experience in public speaking, formal debating, and teaching biblical exegesis.