History of Doctrine: What a Difference a Letter Makes

The tall, charismatic figure moved with charm and skill. He was dressed in the garb of a hermit, giving the appearance of an ascetic. The calm with which he carried himself belied the whirlwind of problems he caused for his own generation and for many to come. He was the progenitor of the A team. Fittingly, his name began with the letter A. His name was Arius.

He was a “pastor” in the city of Alexandria in the early part of the fourth century. He had studied under Lucian of Antioch, a man whose teachings were open to some question concerning his view of the person of Christ. Like many students, Arius went further in his teaching, and moved more aggressively in his heresy, than did his teacher.


In 319 AD, Arius began teaching that the Father begat the Son. This meant that the Son had a beginning of existence. He taught that there was a time that “the Son was not.” To make his teaching consistent and logical, he was forced to teach and proclaim that God was not always a Father; he taught that the Word did not always exist. This meant that the “Father cannot be described by the Son, for the Word does not know the Father perfectly and accurately.”

Although Arius gave a high and exalted place to Christ, he insisted that he did not possess deity but was a created being, below the Father, but above man. He was of like-substance or “homoiousios” but not the same-substance or “homoousios.” On the distinction between the two words, different by one mere letter, not only doctrinal orthodoxy, but also the basis for eternal salvation rested.


Alexander of Alexandria was a faithful, devout man who was the bishop of the city. He called together all the elders of the city, including Arius, and began to teach what the Word of God had to say about the eternal deity of the Son of God. He called upon Arius to repent and to change his teaching. To this request Arius refused. Alexander patiently tried to work with the stubborn Arius and to show him the error from the Scriptures. Eventually Alexander, due to the refusal of Arius to bow to the demand for repentance, had no choice but to carry out discipline and excommunicate Arius.

But the matter did not end that soon or that quietly. With Absalom-like skill, Arius had ingratiated himself into the favor of many. Women admired his ascetic, handsome appearance. Some of the other bishops sided with his doctrine. He had also been successful in charming the masses by putting his main doctrines into song which the common people could easily sing and learn. In this manner, the following began to increase behind Arius.

The controversy spread. The difference in one letter, the same-substance or like-substance argument, was dividing not only the leaders of the church, but also the people. Fights broke out between the adherents of the different teachings. Blood was shed in the streets as men fought to support their view.


In 312 AD, Constantine emerged as the ruler of the West when he defeated Maxentius at the battle of Milvian Bridge, north of Rome. In 313 he declared religious toleration for the Christians as a result of a vision he received from the God of the Christians which had promised him victory in battle.

Word reached him about the great controversy which the teaching of Arius had occasioned. Constantine had a great desire for peace and harmony in his realm. He had a greater desire for peace than for doctrinal correctness. He viewed the doctrinal differences between Alexander and Arius as “idle cobwebs of contention spun by curious wits,” and “unimportant differences.” He had no insight into the significance of the teaching.

In his pursuit of peace and unity in every branch of his kingdom, he decided to impose unity. To this end he called together a council of the entire “church” to deal with the problem.

About three hundred bishops responded to his appeal and came from all parts of the empire to meet in Nicea in 325. Hundreds of lay people and lesser clergy also came. From Alexandria, Alexander and his young earnest secretary, Athanasius, came. Arius and his followers were also there.

The council was formally opened by an address from Constantine himself, dressed in all his royal attire, “high heeled scarlet buskins, a purple silk robe blazing with jewels and gold embroidery, and …. jewels embedded in his diadem.”

When permission to begin discussion was given, violent controversy began between the two sides. The Arians and anti-Arians were soon locked in bitter debate and struggle. Arius actually sang his doctrine and beliefs to the king, having put his teaching to music to appeal to the common people.

The peace and harmony which Constantine had hoped to impose on these church leaders seemed as distant as a foreign land. Controversy and bitterness were evident. Unity seemed elusive and impossible. From whom would wisdom and Scriptural insight be found to settle the controversy?