Review of Arius: Heresy and Tradition

Cover of Arius

As part of my current PhD work, I have been reading a lot of books on Patristics and 2nd-4th century theology. Occasionally, I hope to post reviews of these works; this is the first. Arius: Heresy and Tradition was ground-breaking when it was first released in 1987. Since its publication, the topic of Arius and 4th century Christian theology has received considerable attention. The 2nd edition of Arius (2001) is not a thorough revision; in addition to a new preface, two appendices are added, including a helpful survey of advances in scholarship on Arius and response to criticisms William’s book received. The 2nd appendix presents the texts of several important creedal documents from the 2nd century. The book itself is difficult, not easy in style, documentation (giving quotes in several languages), nor argument.

Argument of Arius

In Arius, Rowan Williams seeks to look beyond the portrait of Arius and Arianism presented by the pro-Nicene parties, particularly Athanasius. Williams situates Arius and the documents we have that testify to his life and teaching within the events of the 4th century and the philosophical milieu of that time. As John Behr writes, “the great merit of William’s work is that it examines the profile of Arius himself, rather than attempting to discern the essence of ‘Arianism'” (The Nicene Faith Part 1, 134). The portrait that emerges is that of a “conservative” presbyter using the tools of contemporary philosophy to elucidate the contours of the Father-Son Trinitarian relationship as received from his theological predecessors. In the 1st appendix, Williams acknowledges that by limiting himself to theological and philosophical influences discernable in Arius’ surviving writings and those concerning him, he neglects the possible influence of liturgy and popular piety. The historical reconstruction of the events of the Arian controversy and timeline are convincing and have had some staying power in the scholarship up-to and beyond the 2nd edition. However, the philosophical and theological reconstructions of Arius’ thought remain, on William’s own admission, speculative. Williams’ interpretation of Arius’s philosophical heritage has been particularly criticized, as Williams notes in the 1st appendix. In addition to the history of events, another lasting contribution of this volume is its contribution towards dismantling the idea of a concrete school of thought in the 4th century that could be called “Arianism.” Arius shared similar concerns with other anti-Nicene parities but did not gain a theological following. Williams also argues against the reading that pits Arius as an Antiochene literalist and rigorous logician over-against the more spiritually-minded Alexandrians and the position that sees Arius as a simplistic heir of Origen’s thought. Instead, Arius bears continuity with the thought of Origen and other significant scholars of the 3rd century but is not the heir of any one person. Williams argues that Arius, like Origen, exemplifies an “academic” or school-based approach to Christian authority, that attributes authority in spiritual accredited, charismatic teachers, over against the Catholic approach embodied in Nicaea, which places authority in the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

Williams label “conservative” for Arius will appear novel to anyone who has earned that badge in contemporary times; Arius is “conservative” because of his continuity with received tradition. He is not attempting, Williams argues, to present a novel interpretation of Christ but to think through the implications of received theology with the tools available to him, including the Philosophical advances of Neo-Platonism. In this regard, Arius eschews any substantial identity between the Logos and God but sees the former as a product of God’s creative will. The Logos cannot know God fully as He is in Himself but knows Him in part and is able to function as a mediator of that knowledge to the rest of creation. Williams emphasizes the apophatic, or “negative,” theology characterizing Arius approach, an approach for which he has sympathies and which he identifies throughout the theology of the 4th century (cf. his essay “The Nicene Heritage,” in The Christian Understanding of God Today). Williams sees a foreshadow of the firmly Nicene theology of the Cappadocians in Arius’s theological balance of God revealed through Christ yet unknowable in himself. In reflection on his study of Arius, Williams sees Arius as an important contributor to the emergence of Nicene Orthodoxy. Nicaea and Arius both involve conceptual innovation on the tradition they received, in Scripture and the fathers before them, so the debate is ultimately about “what kind of innovation would best serve the integrity of the faith handed down” (235). In this way, by seeing the debate as one over theological explanation and innovation on a tradition that itself does not contain the answers to its own questions, Williams rejects a normative orthodoxy functioning before the emergence of what would become orthodoxy. The Nicene vs. Anti-Nicene controversy is not waged against a norm of orthodoxy but is a battle over what ought to constitute orthodoxy. This expansion upon tradition, its ideas and liturgy, is something Nicaea and its aftermath showed the Church to be necessary (236). It is that task of “making difficult” what is received, acknowledging that “what the gospel says in Scripture and tradition does not instantly and effortlessly make sense” (236) The challenge presented by Arius and the Nicene party is to be conservative and innovative, placing oneself in continuity with the tradition received and yet expanding upon and resolving—”making difficult”—its tensions and ambiguities.


Though the argument of the book itself has merit and will benefit the student wrestling through 4th-century theology and beyond, the reflections Williams offers upon this controversy and the nature of theology itself are untenable and destructive. As our faith, practices, and beliefs are challenged, there is a need for innovation and creativity in theology. However, this innovation is not crafting something new out of the resources received in tradition or ex nihilo from our own reason. Instead, it is an act of engaging with the authoritative Word of God, to learn what God would have us believe and do. That is, we are not without normative authority in this World; God has provided us with His interpretation of human history, the created, order, and His own nature. In the process, we will make genuine applications, saying new things with the Word, but what is new will always be grounded firmly in the words and canonical context of the Biblical text.1 We may also go farther than what is said or implied in the Word by coordinating the truth of God’s Word with natural revelation, yet such exploration will be tentative and open to revision. So, exploration maybe intellectually rewarding but is not a necessary component of robust Biblical faith, a faith sufficient to address the questions and challenges of the daily Christian life. For this faith, God has breathed out a word useful “so that the man of God may be equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:17).

If the Bible is, as it claims, a normative authority for the whole Christian life—and for interpreting and living in God’s whole creation—then we can read Arius and the ensuing controversies as a cautionary tale of being “conservative,” in William’s sense, without being firmly committed to the sufficiency and functional authority of Scripture. Arius, Williams contends, is an exegete of Scripture, as is Athanasius and the Nicene fathers; yet in his formulae, he goes far beyond anything said or implied in Scripture. I would contend that it is because William’s Arius is willing to expand upon the Biblical doctrine of God with philosophical tools that are themselves alien to the Bible that he ends up in trouble. What is missing is a recognition that Greek philosophy—any philosophy—is not a neutral tool that can be wielded effectively, however carefully, by the Christian theologian. Instead, philosophy, as practised by those who are not followers of Christ involves the attribution of God’s character to the created order and the distortion of that character in the process. The god of the philosophers will never be the God of the Bible because knowing that God, they have deliberately suppressed the knowledge of Him and twisted it for their own unrighteous purposes (Rom 1:18ff). If our conservativism means riffing on received tradition, we indeed open ourselves to the dangers Arius encountered, for our traditions were formed in response to and interaction with specific ideas at specific times; they are insufficient to answer the different problems of our times and don’t have the resources in themselves to resolve their own problems. We are forced to improvise and draw on more and more sources to expand that tradition. However, if we engage the Scriptures in light of the tradition, allowing our theological heritage to give us a lens for approaching Scripture and yet let the Bible criticize and answer both our tradition and the questions of our age, the normative authority of Scripture and its God-given sufficiency guarantee that such a spiral will give us the answers we need to love God and serve Him faithfully. These may not be the answers we expected or even hoped for, but they are sufficient for the present time. That should give us confidence in the theological endeavour, the endeavour to bring God’s Word to bear our on beliefs and practices, and the humility that comes from knowing our traditions—past or present—are not perfect yet nevertheless help us to receive and respond to God’s perfect provision. Indeed, they are indispensable for that end.

  1. I expand upon this “newness” in my books The Gift of Reading – Part 1 & Part 2, where I argue that the Bible has meaning potential, the potential to say new things in new contexts but always constrained by the normative context of the Biblical text in its canonical context. []

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