The Ghost of Arianism in the Church Today

 Heresies are like weeds. They keep coming back. The thing is, they come back in different guises. In the fourth century Arianism was part of the great debate over the divinity of Christ and therefore the definition of the Holy Trinity.

In the course I am teaching at Avila Institute on How St Benedict Changed the World we spent part of Monday night’s first session discussing the heresy of Arianism. The heresy began with the teaching of Arius in the mid third century, and spread throughout the Empire. Missionaries from the Eastern part of the empire went North and the Gothic tribes were converted to Arianism. In our discussion of Benedict we pointed out how, when he was a young man studying in Rome around the year 500, Italy was ruled by the Gothic king Theodoric the Great who was Arian.

Arianism developed into not just a theological problem, but a major schism. The Arians had their own churches, their own bishops and their own temporal powers,  like Theodoric, supporting them. At the core of Arianism was a denial of Nicene christology. Put simply, they believed that Jesus was the “Son of God” but he was not the second person of the holy and undivided Trinity who took human flesh of his blessed mother. He was, instead, a created being–a demi god and therefore subordinate to God the Father.

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Deep Roots in a Whirlwind World

Today’s memorial for Sts Timothy and Titus is a lesson in apostolic succession. St Paul ordains the next generation and hands his apostolic authority on to Timothy and Titus. This should remind us of the astonishing fact of the continued existence of the Catholic Church. Apart from the survival of the Jews, the survival of the Catholic Church is one of history’s most amazing realities.

Of course I realize that there are other ancient religions. Buddhism goes back to the sixth century BC and Hinduism is even older, but both religions have existed at a cultural level rather than a formal institutional level. Catholicism is not just a cultural and spiritual entity, but is also an institutional entity. It has buildings and canon law, a hierarchy, a formal structure and is composed of a whole integrated system of philosophy, morals, liturgy, spirituality, economics and ethics.

I often think of this as I am vesting to say Mass. I wear the alb, don the stole, pull on the chasuble and think how odd and wonderful it is that I am a man in America in the 21st century donning the robes of a Roman patrician from two thousand years ago. We are blessed to worship in a beautiful new Romanesque church which echoes the basilica churches of Rome and as such we worship in continuity with the past in a way that is real, solid and substantial.

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