The Arians of the Fourth Century, by John Henry Newman

The Arians of the Fourth Century, by John Henry Newman

Peter Westmore

by John Henry Newman

(Gracewing, 2002, 510pp, $69.95. Available from AD Books)

Newman's study, The Arians of the Fourth Century, first published in 1833, was undoubtedly the work which led the most distinguished member of the Oxford Movement to write his later work, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, which in turn led him into the Catholic Church.

This book acquires greater significance in that its foreword is written by the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and so we are given a brief introduction to his thought on some of the great issues which Newman addressed in his book.

The Arians of the Fourth Century describes the events which surrounded the resolution of the divisions caused by Arius in the fourth century AD.

Church history tell us that Arius was a priest in Alexandria, who formulated the doctrine that God created, before all things, a Son who was the first creature, but who was neither equal to nor coeternal with the Father.

They further tell us that these doctrines were condemned by the Council of Nicaea (325AD), which formulated the Nicene Creed, the profession of faith which, in slightly amended form, is still recited at Mass as the most comprehensive summary of Christian belief.

As Newman shows, the Arian heresy was much more important than that. Even after the Council of Nicaea, the heresy, subtly modified to make it less offensive to Catholic ears, divided the Christian world - at one stage, most of the bishops were Arian, the Roman Emperor Constantius II was Arian, and it seemed that the Church would be utterly transformed by the new doctrine.

However, after St Athenasius, Bishop of Alexandria and outspoken opponent of Arius, was exiled to Rome, the forces of orthodoxy rallied.

In the West, Pope Julius I, St Hilary of Poitiers and in the East, St Basil the Great, St Gregory Nazianzen, and St Gregory Nyssem continued to defend and interpret the Nicene creed.

By 364, the West had a Catholic Emperor in Valentinian I, and when the Catholic Theodosius I became Emperor of the East (379), Arianism began to decline.

Much of Newman's book is devoted to a discussion of how the Catholics defeated the theological challenge of Arianism, contrasting the zeal of the heretics, and the timidity of many of those who were charged with the defence of orthodoxy.

Nothing changes

Rowan Williams' introduction puts Newman's work into the context of debates within 19th century Anglicanism, and while recognising the importance of this work in the development of Newman's own thinking, rejects it as a historical or theological record of events at the time.

With respect, I think Newman may have been closer to the truth than Dr Williams.

In any event, his criticisms seem to miss the point that Newman's work has great relevance to the present time, when Arian doctrine - that Jesus is an exemplary man, but not God - has deeply infected both secular and religious thought in the Western world, as when Jesus is put alongside Gandhi, Martin Luther King, JFK or Nelson Mandela.

Newman's book shows how such ideas nearly destroyed the Church in the past. They could do so again.

We are indebted to Gracewing for republishing this work.

Peter Westmore is the National President of the National Civic Council.

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