Arius was a presbyter of the early fourth century who is considered to be a heretic by the Orthodox Church. His heresy originated in his teaching that the Son of God was not eternal, but was rather a created being, subordinate to God the Father. This belief, called Arianism, was condemned by the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea as a heresy. However, the controversy over Arius' heresy continued long after the Council, as its proponent eventually returned to the Emperor's favor. Only Arius's' unusual death, followed a year later by the death of Constantine, temporarily overshadowed the controversy.
Arius was apparently of Lybian and Berber descent, born about 250 in North Africa. His father is known as Ammonius. Arius grew up in Alexandria, Egypt; at the time the city was the center of Christian scholarship. He was a pupil of Lucian of Antioch, a celebrated Christian teacher and martyr. These were the times when a theological explanation of the relationship between the Father and Son was being developed, and Arius' teachings became one of the views proposed during these Christological controversies.
In 306, Arius sided with Meletius, another Egyptian schismatic, against the Bishop of Alexandria, Peter. But their dispute was soon reconciled, and Peter ordained Arius a deacon. Later, having fallen out again with Peter, Arius gained the friendship of Peter's successor, Achillas, who ordained Arius a priest in 313, thus giving him an official status. It was under Bishop Achillas that Arius first became controversial, as reported by the historian Socrates Scholasticus. This occurred when Arius presented his syllogism :If the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence. From this it is evident that there was a time when the Son was not. It therefore necessarily follows that he had his substance from nothing.
The Arian controversy
In 318, Arius entered into a dispute with Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, who had succeeded Achillas, over his teachings about God's divine Sonship and substance. While Arius developed a following among some Syrian prelates, an Alexandrian synod of some 100 bishops condemned him in 321. He was excommunicated and fled to Palestine. There he entered into a friendship with Eusebius of Nicomedia. Arius, a proficient writer, produced many compositions, in both prose and verse defending his belief, including a poem that he called the Thalia. Most of these writings were destroyed as being heretical, though portions of the Thalia and a few other Arian texts survive.
In opposition to Arius, Alexander of Alexandria presented his case to Alexander of Constantinople and Eusebius of Nicomedia, where the emperor was in residence. The arguments continued and became a powerful divisive force within the Roman empire, such that the emperor Constantine could no longer ignore it. To settle the dilemma, he called a council with delegates drawn from all the empire. The purpose of this, the First Council of Nicea, was to determine as far as possible what had been taught from the beginning. The Council met in Nicea, near Constantinople in 325. Here the confession of faith presented by Arius was cut to pieces. Then, under the guidance of Constantine, the Council developed a creed, the Nicene Creed for use in catechetical instruction and at baptisms, that rendered Arius' language heretical.
With this decision, Arius and his followers were deposed and sent into exile. Yet, much concern remained over the use of the word homoousios that was used in formulating the case against Arius. The early, ill-defined definitions of homoousios were part of the arguments used in deposing Paul of Samosata in 269, which at the time were considered to have Sabellian tendencies. In his arguments against Arius, Alexander of Alexandria refined the definition to mollify the earlier objections. However, not all of his contemporaries agreed with Alexander's approach.
So, the decision at Nicea almost immediately came under attack, and after Alexander died in 327 many of Arius's supporters were allowed to returned to their old positions. This allowed Eusebius of Nicomedia again to influence Constantine. Even Arius himself was allowed to return to Alexandria in 331. Many of the proponents of the Nicene decision began to be deposed, as they found it impossible to defend the decision without apparently falling into Sabellianism. Eustathius of Antioch, Marcellus of Ancyra, and others—who were supporters of St. Anthanasius of Alexandria—were among them.
Later years and death
With Constantine now favoring Arius, he commanded Anthanasius to readmit Arius to communion. This Anthanasius refused, leading to charges of treason against the emperor and exile to Trier. With their acceptance by the emperor, the supporters of Arius began disturbances in Alexandria toward gaining power. The emperor then directed Alexander of Constantinople to receive Arius into communion. Opposed to the reinstatement of Arius, Alexander asked his supporters to pray for removal of either him or Arius from this world before Arius was re-admitted to communion. And, the day before Arius was to receive communion, he died suddenly. That was 336.
The death of Arius and then that of Constantine a year later led to a lull in the controversy, but the Christological controversies would continue for several more centuries. Arius is still considered by the Orthodox church (and most of the rest of Christianity) to be one of its greatest heretics; in icons of the First Ecumenical Council, he is usually portrayed lying prostrate beneath the feet of the Lord and/or the bishops.