A heretical Catholic priest named Arius: the father of Islam

June 29, 2017                                                                                                                               The Solemnity of the Apostles Saints Peter and Paul

During the early eighth century Saint John of Damascus gave us the first extensive description of what the world would come to know as Islam, though he himself uses that word.  This passage comes his work Heresies in Epitome: How They Began and Whence They Drew Their Origin and I have taken it from the following website: http://orthodoxinfo.com/general/stjohn_islam.aspx .  The description he gives of religion of the Arabs at this time and of their prophet is fascinating, especially as it relates to the question of Arianism and its relationship to what we know as Islam:

There is also the superstition of the Ishmaelites which to this day prevails and keeps people in error, being a forerunner of the Antichrist. They are descended from Ishmael, [who] was born to Abraham of Agar, and for this reason they are called both Agarenes and Ishmaelites. They are also called Saracens, which is derived from Sarras kenoi, or destitute of Sara, because of what Agar said to the angel: ‘Sara hath sent me away destitute.’  These used to be idolaters and worshiped the morning star and Aphrodite, whom in their own language they called Khabár, which means great. [100] And so down to the time of Heraclius they were very great idolaters. From that time to the present a false prophet named Mohammed has appeared in their midst. This man, after having chanced upon the Old and New Testaments and likewise, it seems, having conversed with an Arian monk, devised his own heresy. Then, having insinuated himself into the good graces of the people by a show of seeming piety, he gave out that a certain book had been sent down to him from heaven. He had set down some ridiculous compositions in this book of his and he gave it to them as an object of veneration.

He says that there is one God, creator of all things, who has neither been begotten nor has begotten.  He says that the Christ is the Word of God and His Spirit, but a creature and a servant, and that He was begotten, without seed, of Mary the sister of Moses and Aaron.  For, he says, the Word and God and the Spirit entered into Mary and she brought forth Jesus, who was a prophet and servant of God. And he says that the Jews wanted to crucify Him in violation of the law, and that they seized His shadow and crucified this. But the Christ Himself was not crucified, he says, nor did He die, for God out of His love for Him took Him to Himself into heaven.  And he says this, that when the Christ had ascended into heaven God asked Him: ‘O Jesus, didst thou say: “I am the Son of God and God”?’ And Jesus, he says, answered: ‘Be merciful to me, Lord. Thou knowest that I did not say this and that I did not scorn to be thy servant. But sinful men have written that I made this statement, and they have lied about me and have fallen into error.’ …

Moreover, they call us Hetaeriasts, or Associators, because, they say, we introduce an associate with God by declaring Christ to the Son of God and God.

You will notice right there in the middle of the first paragraph that it seemed to Saint John of Damascus that this man who the Arabs thought was a prophet had met and conversed with an Arian monk.  But why would he say this, and what was this Arianism thing that he was talking about?

By the time of Saint John of Damascus Arianism was dead or almost dead within the Christian world, but during its heyday four centuries before it had ranked among the greatest challenges the Church had ever faced.  This thing spread like a cancer throughout the Christian world and threatened to bring the newly emancipated Church to her knees for a time until God raised up Saint Anthanasius and the long and hard road to wiping this disease out had begun.  But what was it?

1) The doctrines of Arius

To understand what Arianism was we have to go back almost to the beginning, to the end of the Apostolic Age.  Saint John, who was then the last living Apostle and whose time on earth was running out, gives the Church both of his day and for all time this stark warning in his second Epistle:

For many seducers are gone out into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh: this is a seducer and an antichrist (2 John 7). 

But what is he talking about here, about them being seducers who do not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh?  Certainly most heretics then and now have publicly confessed in some way, shape, or form the name of Jesus Christ and only a few have denied that whatever false version of Jesus Christ they confess actually came in the flesh.  So what is the Apostle talking about here?

To understand this statement we have to go back to the beginning of that same Apostle’s first epistle:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the word of life: for the life was manifested; and we have seen and do bear witness, and declare unto you the life eternal, which was with the Father has appeared to us (1 John 1-2)

Here we get to the nub of the matter: the Apostle solemnly declares here that Eternal Life Itself took on flesh in the Person of Jesus Christ.  This is a concept that is beyond human (and perhaps even angelic) comprehension.  On our own don’t have the first clue what this really means.  We merely have to accept it and to believe it, but many would fall into error in the centuries after the Apostle wrote these words trying to provide their own definitions and explanations for what they meant.

The priest Arius was one of them.  He was not the first but he proved to be a funnel that channeled the primitive errors of the first Christian centuries into an organized movement that swept the Roman world.  He could not accept this teaching, or rather he strove to provide his own explanation for this great Mystery and he failed; in the process he produced a phenomenal error that continues to plague the Church and the world to this day.

When he deposed and excommunicated Arius and his cohorts in the year 318 AD the Bishop Alexander of Alexandria sent out a letter to the whole Catholic world explaining his reasons for taking this drastic step because Arius and his men were using deceitful tactics to gain the sympathy of many Catholic prelates.  In it he provides to his readers an excellent summary of the beliefs of this new sect that would go on to wreak such havoc:

And the words invented by them, and spoken contrary to the mind of Scripture, are as follows:-

“God was not always the Father; but there was a time when God was not the Father.  The Word of God was not always, but was made ‘from things that are not;’  for He who is God fashioned the non-existing from the non-existing; wherefore there was a time when He was not.  For the Son is a thing created, and a thing made: nor is He like to the Father in substance; nor is He the true and natural Word of the Father; nor is He His true Wisdom; but He is one of the things fashioned and made.  And He is called, by a misapplication of the terms, the Word and Wisdom, since He is Himself made by the proper Word of God, and by that wisdom which is in God, in which, as God made all other things, so also did He make Him.  Wherefore, He is by his very nature changeable and mutable, equally with other rational beings.  The Word, too, is alien and separate from the substance of God.  The Father also is ineffable to the Son; for neither does the Word perfectly and accurately know the Father, neither can He perfectly see Him.  For neither does the Son indeed know his own substance as it is.  Since He for our sakes was made. that by Him as by an instrument God might create us; nor would He have existed had not God wished to make us.

Some one asked of them whether the Son of God could change even as the devil changed and they feared not to answer that He can for since He was made and created, He is of mutable nature.”

These doctrines directly contradict the words of Jesus Christ and of Sacred Scripture in general on more occasions than you can count.  They count the Word by which the world was created as itself a created thing, thus distancing the world from God.  They say that the Son is separate from the Father, thus denying the Trinity.  And if one says that the Son is not God then one de facto denies the Incarnation.  Arius definitely did not lack ambition.  But the upshot of his professed doctrines is to try to accept Jesus Christ as some sort of exalted figure while at the same time denying both the Trinity and the Incarnation.  Where else do we find this?

In the Qur’an.  It is true that the portrayal of Jesus Christ was much more exalted in the mouth of Arius and his compatriots in the early 4th century than what is found in the Qur’an more than three hundred years later, but when you separate yourself from the Truth even in the slightest degree then the distance between you and that Truth will continue to grow over time.

How did Arius respond to these charges?  He wrote in response a letter to the same Bishop Alexander in the same year 318 AD.  In it he expresses some thoughts that are highly relevant to our discussion and I have spliced them together here for your consideration (the Scriptural citations were added by modern authors):

We acknowledge One God, alone unbegotten, alone everlasting, alone without beginning, alone true, alone having immortality, alone wise, alone good, alone sovereign…

And God, being the cause of all that happens, is absolutely alone without beginning; but the Son, begotten apart from time by the Father, and created and founded before the ages, was not in existence before his generation, but was begotten apart from time before all things, and he alone came into existence from the Father. For he is neither eternal nor co-eternal nor co-unbegotten with the Father, nor does he have his being together with the Father, as some speak of relations, introducing two unbegotten beginnings. But God is before all things as monad and beginning of all. Therefore he is also before the Son…

Therefore he thus has his being from God; and glories, and life, and all things have been given over to him; in this way God is his beginning. For he is over him, as his God and being before him. But if the expressions from him [Rom. 11:36] and from the womb [Ps. 109:3 (LXX), 110:3 English] and I came from the Father, and I have come [John 16:28], are understood by some to mean that he is part of him [the Father], one in essence or as an emanation, then the Father is, according to them, compounded and divisible and alterable and material, and, as far as their belief goes, the incorporeal God endures a body.

This is an abject contradiction of almost everything that Jesus Christ said about Himself in the Gospels but Arius also contradicts himself here.  He both asserts that the the Son was not always in existence and that He was created outside of time.  That doesn’t wash.  Time exists because of change.  And the change from non being to being of the Son implies de facto that it was done in time!  All of this is of the utmost importance because far from being a long dead heresy it forms the root and core of the the Islamic conception of the nature of God.

The Libyan priest’s fanatical defense here of the unity and transcendence of God leads him to deny the Trinity and the shared and equal Eternal Life of the Three Sacred Persons that manifests itself in nature and in all human society.  One can say that all society of any kind, whether animal or vegetable or human, is nothing but a very dim and distant reflection of the life of the Trinity but Arius’ prime assertion here is that God is a monad i.e. single and alone, or to put it another way: Allah is one God! (Qur’an 4: 171)

The Catholic Church does assert that the Son is begotten by the Father, but what this means or how it works exactly she has never made any claim to be able to explain since it is beyond natural human capacity to understand these things.  We must simply believe them.

Arius on the other hand in his fanatical defense of the unity of God denies his very Life.  Notice how many times he uses the word ‘alone’ in that first paragraph.  His insistence on God being a solitary Being is a denial of Life itself.  Life is individuals living in community.  Life in the natural world is a result of the communion of two beings to bring a third into being.  Life does not spring from a solitary creature save in the lowest forms of bacteria.  Life is all about communion.  There is no alone in life.

2) The history of Arianism and its historical progression

Arius published his doctrine in Alexandria before 318 AD.  He fled and gained the support Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia which was on the Asian side of the Bosporus, just opposite the then newly founded capital of Constantinople.  His ideas began to spread like wildfire through the empire.  The conflict forced the Emperor Constantine to bring the Bishops together at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 where Arius and his ideas were condemned and Bishop Alexander’s excommunication confirmed.

This condemnation had little effect.  Arianism found a foothold among the upper classes and the imperial family of the Roman Empire because it gave them a way to differentiate themselves from the common people who never were seduced by these heretical doctrines.  There were a couple of Arian emperors after Constantine and it suddenly became difficult to be an orthodox Catholic, and especially an orthodox bishop.

As a result a new class of people came into being called ‘semi-Arians.’  These ones didn’t really have a strong theological opinion one way or the other.  They simply wanted peace, peace with the empire and peace with each other and they were willing to compromise the Truth to get that false peace.

It should be understood that even while Arianism was sweeping the empire there seem to have been very few of what might be called fanatical Arians: that is men who were fanatical for the ideas themselves.  Mainly what the vast majority of the Arians of the 4th century were fanatical about was their position in society and gaining imperial patronage, and they would profess whatever theological opinion that was required to attain to these things.  That is why Saint Athanasius was described as being ‘alone against the world’ during his struggles.  Not because the Arian bishops were theological fanatics, though doubtless some were in that camp, but because they didn’t want Athanasius rocking the boat and messing things up; and oftentimes these folk can be far more dangerous to your life and property than theological fanatics.

But the work of Saint Athanasius did stabilize the situation doctrinally, and the Council of Constantinople was called in 381 AD and once more Arianism was condemned.  But the Church was aided this time by a firmly Catholic emperor Theodosius and Arianism rapidly began to lose favor within the empire.   But because of its connection with the Roman military caste of the time that had grown up during the decades of imperial patronage and the work of some Arian missionaries it gained new life among the barbarian tribes who were beginning to conquer great swathes of formerly Roman territory as the Western Roman Empire fell apart during the fifth century.

So now as the fifth century turned into the sixth the Catholic populations of Italy, Spain, and North Africa (modern day Tunisia and parts of Algeria) all fell under the rule of barbarian tribesmen who were Arian.  These men were not theological fanatics but they oftentimes did persecute the Catholic Church and her clergy and the Church was not generally at peace in those territories.

God however had other plans.  He raised up Clovis, the king of the Franks, in the early 500s and brought him into the Catholic Church.  The Franks began to form a powerful kingdom that was the forerunner of France thus earning for that country the title eldest daughter of the Church which she wore proudly for almost thirteen centuries until the disaster of 1789 from which she has never recovered.  But the Franks were the first of the barbarian tribes to become Catholics en masse and this helped to pave the way for others to come into the Church and when the forces of the Eastern Emperor Justinian reconquered Italy and North Africa and parts of Spain during the middle part of the sixth century these regions lost their Arian rulers and the political power of the Arians began to die out.

3)Arianism and Islam

So now as the 500s turned into the 600s Arianism had long lost its theological force in the Mediterranean world, and now its political support dwindled to nothing.  Open and avowed Arians, especially clergy and/or monks, would no longer have been welcome anywhere in the lands that had once been or still were part of the Empire.  They either would have left the Empire on their own to seek greener pastures or they would have been exiled.  Either way there must have been a deep and stirring dislike or even hatred for both the Empire and the Church that they felt had deprived them of their homeland.

But yet if they left it meant that they did adhere to their beliefs.  There must have been some who really did believe the doctrines of Arius or else the thing would have dissipated long before.

We do not know how the Arians lived their lives in those centuries or how they professed their beliefs.  The writings of Arians were rightfully destroyed by the ecclesiastical and civil authorities because of the lies contained in them so we do not possess any Arian prayer books or the like.  There is an account of a Spanish martyr named Hermengildus, the son of a Gothic king, who suffered his martyrdom during the 580s for refusing to receive communion from the hands of an Arian prelate so we know that there must have been at least when they dwelt in the Christianized provinces of the Empire some sort of a similitude of the Mass.  But we do not know how they understood something like Holy Communion as they denied the Eternity of Christ.  Or maybe this particular case was of a part of the clergy who wanted to profess Arianism for political purposes while maintaining the outward appearances of Catholicism for whatever reason.  Maybe there were many like this, we don’t know.

Nor do we have any idea of how the Arians who were fanatical enough about their beliefs to be exiled to a place like Arabia when things went south for them in the Empire would have lived or expressed those beliefs.  Maybe they would have long since dispensed with the idea of the Mass, after all if you deny the Eternal Nature of the Son of God and his Incarnation then there can be no Eternal Sacrifice can there?  In that case what are you really offering at Mass?  Just some flour mixed with water and baked and a cup of wine.  It really is a wonder why so many priests fell for the stupid theology of Arianism since its very essence tends to talk them out of their jobs.

So put yourself in the place of one of Arius’ ardent followers exiled to the desert and really believing what his spiritual father had cried out almost three centuries before: “We acknowledge One God, alone unbegotten, alone everlasting, alone without beginning, alone true, alone having immortality, alone wise, alone good, alone sovereign…  And God, being the cause of all that happens, is absolutely alone without beginning; but the Son, begotten apart from time by the Father, and created and founded before the ages, was not in existence before his generation”.

Think about this statement and all of its implications and put yourself in the position of that follower of Arius three centuries later who had been dispossessed and driven from his homeland and willing to sacrifice everything he had for his misguided belief.  Could you not imagine such a one as this exiled to the deserts of Arabia, once he had learned the local language, crying out to anyone who would listen something like Lâ ilâha illa illallah: “There is no god but God!”?  And if he did get some disciple, say a local merchant with a well to do wife who had connections throughout the Arabian peninsula, to follow him could you not imagine this follower of Arius teaching that disciple about those accursed Trinitarians, those glorified polytheists up north who only wanted to divide God and to cut him up and create many gods from the one God and who commit the most atrocious blasphemy by associating a creature i.e. Jesus Christ with the Eternal Godhead.  Perhaps this Arian monk told his disciple that if he ever encountered anyone like that then he should speak to them like this:

O People of the Book, exceed not the limits in your religion or speak anything about Allah, but the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, is only a messenger of Allah and His word which He communicated to Mary and a spirit from Him. So believe in Allah and His messengers. And say not, Three. Desist, it is better for you. Allah is only one God. Far be it from His glory to have a son. (Qur’an 4: 171)

This is nothing but an Arian confession of faith.  A gospel according to Arius.

For all we know these may have even been the thoughts of Arius himself, which he expressed to his disciples in one of his more honest moments when he wasn’t trying either to placate or seduce some ecclesiastical authority with his protestations that he thought that the Word was indeed the Son of God, well kind of, or that He was almost eternal, but not quite.  And these words of Arius — I mean Muhammad — I mean Allah– not only found their way into the Qur’an but were also inscribed all along the inside rim of the first great building built by the Arab conquerors in Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock, along with many other interesting things that I hope to get to in the next post.

I think now we have a much better idea why Saint John of Damascus naturally assumed that Muhammad had come into contact with an Arian monk at some point.  I would like to close here with a Benediction that was pronounced over those who had rejected their past belief in the Arian heresy and come into the Catholic Church.  It comes from a copy of a Roman Sacramentary produced at Paris around the year 750 AD but the contents date from a much earlier time closer to the fall of the Western Roman Empire.  I will give it first in the original Latin and then supply my own English translation:

BENEDICTIO SUPER EOS QUI DE ARIANA AD CATHOLICAM REDEUNT UNITATEM

Domine Deus omnipotens, Pater Domini nostri Iesu Christi, qui dignatus es famulos et famulas tuas ab errore et mendacio haeresos Arianae eruere, et ad ecclesiam tuam sanctam catholicam eos perducere, tu, Domine, mitte in eos Spiritum Paraclitum sanctum sapientiae et intellectus, spiritum consilii et fortitudinis, spiritum scientiae et pietatis, et adimple eos, Domine, spiritum timoris Dei, in nomine Iesu Christi salvatoris nostri.  Per quem et cum quo tibi honor et gloria in saecula saeculorum.  Amen.

BLESSING OVER THOSE WHO TURN BACK FROM ARIANISM TO CATHOLIC UNITY

Lord God Almighty, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who have deigned to rescue your servants from the error and lie of Arianism, and to have led them through to your holy Catholic Church; You Lord send to them the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of strength, the Spirit of knowledge and of piety, and fill them Lord with the Spirit of the fear of God; in the Name of Jesus Christ our Savior.  Through Whom and with Whom be honor and glory to You forever and all ages.  Amen.

May a blessing like this be pronounced of a great multitude of Muslims on the day that they are rescued from the lie that started with an heretical Catholic priest named Arius.

Immaculate Heart of Mary pray for us.  Sacred Heart of Jesus have mercy on us.

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