Monday, December 20, 2004

Athanasian Exclusivists Failed, Arianism Still Lives!

"Beg your pardon!?" - you ask?

You may not have heard the word, but the teachings of all the major traditional Christian churches are Athanasian. While the actual beliefs of many of their followers are innately Arian. So what are these? To understand, you first have to throw out the schoolbook version of the history of Christianity - i.e. that dogmatic purity was achieved at the Council of Nicea (Nicean Creed), which already set the winner, and that thereafter there were only ocassional usurpers ('heretics').

Christianity was legalised in the Roman Empire in AD 313, by Emperor Constantine's Edict Of Milan. Soon after, the dogmatic disputes that already went on before errupted. The two largest fractions collided head-on in Alexandria: the view that Jesus is God was championed by bishop Alexander, while the view that Jesus was separate, a special man was represented by Arius (whom Alexander defeated in the bishop election). In AD 318, Alexander succeeded in banishing Arius.

When the Emperor got enough of disputes and called the Council of Nicea to work out a united Creed, Arian of course couldn't come but was represented by Eusebius of Nicomedia. Alexander sent his trusted secretary and later successor, Athanasius - who got his party a victory, and Eusebius too was banished. Schoolbook history ends here. In the real world, the banished could return two years later, and Arians gradually became the dominant party: in 335, it was Athanasius's turn to be banished, and Constantine The Great was baptised on his deathbed (AD 337) by Arians. Most of his immediate followers, too, were Arians, and persecuted pagans and other Christian sects in Arianism's name!

The turn of luck came with the duo Gratian (Western Roman Emperor 375-383) & Theodosius (Eastern, later all Roman Emperor 378-395). Tough neither can be said to have lived an exemplary Christian life (one could argue that maybe they just appeased the real fanatics, to have a relatively pliant background while they battled Goths, Alemanns and separatists), Gratian fell under the influence of Ambrosius, Athanasian bishop of Milan - and so did Theodosius, a fanatic whom they picked as Eastern Emperor in the first place. A year after the joint declaration of Christianity as the sole religion of all their subjects, the two Emperors called the (First) Council Of Constantinople. There, Arianism was banned, and with the addition of the Holy Spirit to Alexander's Father-Son, the Holy Trinity dogma was created. (BTW, there was also debate on which books are canonical and which apocryphal - but canonical haggling didn't end here.)

End of the story? Far from it. For the German tribes that carved up the Western Roman Empire were mostly Arian Christians at this time! Meanwhile, the Eastern Roman Empire recovered somewhat in almost a century of relatively tolerant times.

Three rulers played a central role in building Athanasian hegemony again. I first mention Byzantine Emperor Justinian (ruled AD 527-565). He was kind of a second coming of Theodosius: he took upon himself to root out the rest of hellenism, paganism and 'heresy' (and this time there was strong focus on Jews too), at the same time reconquered large parts of the onetime Western Roman Empire - emptying the treasury and causing famine in the process. (Procopius, an official historian, privately wrote "Secret History", a book released only after Justinian's death, in which he described the Emperor as the worst-ever ruler on Earth.) After Justitian's death, the newly conquered territories were lost, the Empire almost disappeared.

The center of Western Christianity was finally Athanasianised half a century later. Theodelina, the Bavarian widow of Lombardian king (AD 584-590) Autharia, turned into a strong woman - she ruled for a year, then took a husband and made him - a weak - king (Agilulf, AD 591-616), and after his death ruled again for a decade as regent for her son. She used this time to root out Arianism and lesser sects, pagans.

Finally: there was a German tribe which tough wasn't central at this time, had the potential to change the situation again - when they later conquered much of Western Europe - but Clovis, king of the Franks, let himself be baptised by Athanasian Christians already in AD 496.

However, after the Church failed to put down Protestants like previous 'heretics', and the ascent of Enlightement, religious freedom returned - and with it, Arianism-like interpretations of Christianity re-appeared. In fact, I would say Arianism is now the unofficial dominant religion in Europe (commanding similar numbers as non-believers who include me).

12 Comments:

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Thank you soooo much for this article I love spanish history, I was reading about societyand the author kept talking about arians and athanasians, however I didnt know who they were. You have enlightened me, I cant believeI didnt know this, it's sooo amazing

 
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