Christian Churches of God

No. 167z



Arianism and Semi-Arianiam


(Edition 1.1 19960608-19991206)

There is a tendency among Trinitarians to confuse Unitarianism and Arianism. The purpose of this paper is to delineate as simply as possible the difference between the Unitarian and Arian positions and also the semi-Arian position.



Christian Churches of God




(Copyright ã 1996, 1999 Wade Cox)

(Summary by John Pierce, Ed. Wade Cox)

This paper may be freely copied and distributed provided it is copied in total with no alterations or deletions. The publisher’s name and address and the copyright notice must be included. No charge may be levied on recipients of distributed copies. Brief quotations may be embodied in critical articles and reviews without breaching copyright.

This paper is available from the World Wide Web page: and



Arianism and Semi-Arianism

There is a tendency among Trinitarians to confuse Unitarianism and Arianism as the same theological viewpoint.

The claims of the Trinitarians are confined to the fourth century, to the concerns of the Councils of Nicaea (325 CE) and Constantinople (381 CE). The other problem is that we are dependent upon the descriptions and terms of the Athanasian faction for the records of the so-called Arian or Eusebian faction at Nicaea.

The purpose of this paper is to show the difference between the Unitarian and Arian positions and also the semi-Arian position. The terminology of this group, from 362 CE, came to be known as Macedonian, after Macedonius whom the Arian court-party had driven from the chair of Constantinople.

The Arian view was not that of the early Unitarian subordinationists. The School of Lucian of Antioch, which is the origin of the view, had two fundamental differences to Unitarianism (if the Athanasians can be trusted in their records).

The Arians did not understand the role of the Spirit. They made it a creature of the Son, when in fact the Holy Spirit was the means by which Christ could achieve his divinity. This is the fundamental distinction between Unitarianism and the view that is attributed to Arianism. The semi-Arians acquiesced in the question of the co-eternal co-equal son, but held the Holy Spirit to be a creation of both. Thus, neither faction understood the early position of the Spirit as the power of God. These doctrines were as crippling to the faith in the same way as Trinitarianism. The failure of the Arians to accept Revelation in the canon from the School of Lucian of Antioch no doubt contributed to their theological failure.

The semi-Arians are sometimes viewed as the first Binitarians. There were no early Binitarian

groups in the church. Those that existed were originated by, and allied with, the Gnostic elements that sought to eliminate the Old Testament and the Law, making Christ equal to God and superseding Him. The view that these semi-Arians were the first Binitarians thus places the doctrine in the fourth century.

The problem with this view is that it was flawed and was an accommodation of the Trinitarian view as developed from Nicaea. Neither view was correct. All three factions from Nicaea to Constantinople (325-381 CE) were thus wrong. The Council of Constantinople lost the semi-Arians in a walk out and thus the appeasement failed.

It must be remembered that the doctrines of these factions were wrong and they themselves, including the Athanasians (now Catholics), were unsure of what exactly the position was. As late as 380 Gregory of Nazianzen (or Nazianzus), one of the Cappadocians who advocated and developed the Trinity, made the remarkable statement:

Of the wise among us, some consider the Holy Spirit an influence, others a creature, others God [H]imself (oi de theon) and again others know not which way to decide, from reverence, as they say, for the Holy Scripture, which declares nothing exact in the case. For this reason they waver between worshipping and not worshipping the Holy Spirit, and strike a middle course which is in fact, however, a bad one (see also Schaff, fnn 5,6, p. 664). Basil in 370, still carefully avoided calling the Holy [Spirit] God, though with the view of gaining the weak. Hilary of Poietiers (sic) believed that the Spirit, who searches the deep things of God, must be divine, but could find no Scripture passage in which he is called God, and thought that he must be content with the existence of the Holy [Spirit] which the Scripture teaches and the heart attests (De Trinitate, ii, 29; and xii, 55; cf. Schaff, ibid.).

Schaff continues in this matter as follows:

But the church could not possibly satisfy itself with only two in one. The baptismal formula and the apostolic benediction, as the traditional trinitarian doxologies, put the Holy Ghost on an equality with the Father and the Son, and require a divine tri-personality resting upon a unity of essence. The divine triad tolerates in itself no inequality of essence, no mixture of Creator and creature. Athanasius well perceived this, and advocated with decision the consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit against the Pneumatomachi or Tropici (as the Macedonians were also called)

The real problem was that the doctrine had not been established. This view of Athanasius was adopted also by Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Didymus and Ambrose (Schaff, ibid.). This doctrine was established from the Council of Alexandria in 362 CE, in Rome in 375 CE and finally in Constantinople in 381 CE.

Constantinople in 381 CE saw the exit of the thirty-six semi-Arians, Macedonians or Pneumatomachi. The council, after that exit, consisted of only 150 bishops (Schaff, op. cit., p. 639). It was thus unrepresentative of much of Christianity at the time. Schaff makes an assumption regarding the Nicaean Creed being ratified there (ibid.). It is, however, the first time that it appeared.

We can reasonably conclude that the Trinitarians were a Binitarian group that were manipulated by the Cappadocians to the next logical phase. Binitarianism is thus seen as the precursor to Trinitarianism and logically collapses to that doctrine over time. In these years, the new doctrine emerged from the effects of Gnosticism and Modalism on the church over the preceding centuries until it formed into the disputes of the fourth century.

The early and original position of the church was Unitarian and, hence, Subordinationist. There is ample evidence and all of the evidence is Unitarian or heretical Modalist or Gnostic. The evidence precludes any Binitarian position among the apostolic or early church.