Introduction to Arius
By the time Constantine took power the Church had not as yet clearly defined the nature of its belief in the divinity of Christ. Yes, of course, from the very beginning the Church believed and taught he was the divine Son of God. But, the Gnostics had twisted Christian doctrine into making Jesus an ethereal messenger, not really possessing human flesh, not really being human and dying, not really being divine.
Obviously, many of the ancient people had a difficult time coming to terms with the Incarnation. It was not unheard of in the ancient world that a god could become man. Hercules did it, but he had to sacrifice his divinity in the process. It was difficult to imagine that God could become Man and still remain God.
Yet, that is what the earliest Church believed. Jesus was True God and True Man. But explaining the mystery remained, well, a mystery. And as long as it did so, well-intentioned but off-base teachers and thinkers emerged who began to assert other notions about Jesus without really thinking through the implications of what they were saying.
Such a person was Arius. At stake in all of this was the monotheism of Christianity, and the Christian concept of God and the identity of Christ and the Holy Spirit within this relationship.
In beginning to speak about Arius we need to grab some background information.
Bishop Meletius of Lycopolis
The first person in the drama leading to Arius is the Bishop of Lyocpolis named Meletius.
While the Donatist bishops were causing a schism in Carthage, Meletius, another rigorist bishop who formed a schismatic church during the persecution of Diocletian, was causing problems in other parts of Africa, particularly in Alexandria.
Meletius presumed to roam to dioceses that were not his own and ordain priests. This violated a long-standing Church tradition and law preventing bishops from doing exactly that. No bishop possessed the authority to ordain a priest in another bishop’s diocese without that bishop’s permission. That is still the case. One of the priests Meletius ordained in Alexandria without permission was a tall, thin Libyan named Arius who had already been excommunicated by Bishop Peter for his teaching about Jesus.
Meletius did not care because he was particularly critical of the Bishop of Alexandria, Peter, who not only had gone into hiding during Diocletian’s persecution, but who also was very lenient about allowing apostates back into the Church. It didn’t matter that Peter sent letters to Christians in prison giving them encouragement or that he undertook severe penances for the sake of the Church suffering during that time.
At any rate, after the Eastern Emperor Galerius and Maximinus resumed the persecution of Christians in 308 a.d. in the East, Bishop Peter did suffer martyrdom (in 311 a.d.) and at the same Church where St. Mark also suffered martyrdom, the Church at Baucalis. (Tradition holds that he was the very last Christian martyred during the persecutions of Diocletian and Galerius.) After Bishop Peter’s death many African bishops wrote letters demanding that Meletius stop ordaining.
Bishop Achillas of Alexandria
Succeeding Peter as the new Bishop of Alexandria was Achillas, who welcomed all the priests previously ordained by Meletius and “normalized” their ordinations. That normalization included the previously excommunicated Arius. And Arius received the pulpit of the prestigious Church of the Baucalis! There he enjoyed the presence of an audience where he preached his views on the nature of Christ, and he also began promoting himself as the next bishop. Achillas died in 313 a.d. and the man selected as his successor was named Alexander.
Soon, Bishop Alexander of Alexandria began hearing about a priest who had some strange notions about Jesus, and who, in promoting his teaching, was beginning to develop quite a following. Soon he invited Arius to a public discussion concerning his ideas to which Arius consented.