Archetypal Heresy: Arianism through the Centuries

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Archetypal Heresy: Arianism through the Centuries. By Maurice Wiles. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996. vii + 204 pp. $55.00 (cloth).

Like a dormant volcano that suddenly erupts and then returns to a state of uncertain quiescence, so "Arianism" has erupted onto the landscape of Christian doctrine on three occasions, according to Maurice Wiles, and each time has been pushed into seeming oblivion. Its opening appearance was, of course, in the early fourth century when the Alexandrian presbyter Arius and his episcopal supporters were first labeled "Arians" by Athanasius-a label which marked the beginning of a polemical construction that would be used to tar and feather anyone who sought his deposition. Only later did the label function as a reproach of any anti-Nicene sentiment.

It is in this patristic period where Wiles has already made many important contributions to doctrinal history, especially in analyzing the anatomy of heresy and its relation to what became orthodoxy. Student and specialist alike will find here a useful summary of the central tenets of fourth-century "Arianism," or what the author calls "A Sympathetic Reconstruction" (pp. 5-26). Because Athanasius's denunciation of "Arianism" has so successfully dominated all subsequent opinion, the "Arian" appeal to Scripture, tradition and reason for theological vindication has generally been deemed a "deliberate cloak for other, sinister aims." Wiles seeks to counter-balance this impression by arguing that orthodox doctrine, i.e., pro-Nicene, was developed only in response to Arianism by distorting and misrepresenting it (p. 183). The triumph of the Nicene faith is, therefore, a dubious one at best and no more plausible a resolution of Christian doctrine than "Arianism."

By the sixth century, Gothic Christianity had been catholicized and "Arianism" suffered its "first death." Nevertheless, charges of "Arianism" did not cease to be flung at later unorthodox opponents whose theology has little or nothing in common with the fourth-century phenomenon. In the sixteenth century, doctrinal positions as diverse as Socinianism (which is never defined for the reader), or the unitarianism of Michael Servetus, or modalism, or Anabaptistism or even Calvinism, were sometimes labeled as "Arian," although it was not the teaching of Arius that opponents had in mind as much its representative character. As "Arianism" was "the archetypal heresy and Arius the archetypal heretic" (p. 54), it had become polemically effective, and therefore commonplace, to damn one's opponents by association.

The same methods are found again during the eighteenth century in Britain with the third rise of "Arianism" and the pivotal point of interest for Wiles. Chapter Four, "The Rise and Fall of British Arianism" comprises fully half of the book. Here one discovers why Newman and Gwatkin wrote so vociferously in defense of Athanaius against "Arianism" in the nineteenth century. The Lucasian professor at Cambridge University, Isaac Newton, was a closet "Arian," as was his more outspoken successor, William Whiston. …

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