A fresh approach to Arianism

Q & A with Marilyn Dunn, author of Arianism

Why write a new book about Arianism?

Because we need to take into account recent developments and discoveries.  I use new ways of looking at religion and challenge many myths to achieve a more in-depth view of Arianism, both as early Christian heresy and also as the Christianity of the Visigoths, Vandals, Sueves, Burgundians and Ostrogoths who established barbarian-ruled states in the Western Roman Empire.

What myths have you challenged?

First, the assumption that early Arianism is all about difficult theological concepts!   I argue that Arius, for whom Arianism is named, was an early fourth century Alexandrian cleric who attempted  to counter the spread of Gnostic Christianity and Manichaeism, the major rivals to ‘mainstream’ Christianity in his time: to get some idea of the importance of the latter, remember that later in the same century St Augustine of Hippo was a Manichaean believer before converting to what we would understand as standard Christianity.  Arius wasn’t a radical innovator who produced a theology subordinating God the Son to God the Father.  This is a myth created by his contemporary Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, one of the greatest but also one of the most controversial leaders of the early Church.  Following Arius’s excommunication at the Council of Nicaea in 325 for things he didn’t actually say, Athanasius – who had indirectly contributed to this condemnation –  invented factions and conspiracies by ‘Arians’ and their associates in an attempt to explain away his own deposition and exile for misconduct between 335 and 337.  He also invented an ‘Arian’ theology that was actually taught by no-one.  He was instrumental in stigmatising the  official creed of the Roman Empire between 361 and 381 – and subsequently followed by the Goths and other ‘barbarian’ peoples – as ‘Arian’ because its original promoters had been involved in his condemnation and deposition.  He is even responsible for the myth that Arius died in the lavatory!

Arian Baptistery, Ravenna:  Baptism of Christ

What new ways of looking at religion have you used?

Previously (The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons c.597-c.700; and Belief and Religion in Barbarian Europe c. 350-700), I’ve developed insights offered by the Cognitive Science of Religion (CSR) to show how Christianity had to adapt to make sense to groups it aimed to convert. I do the same here:  CSR helped me see how the Goths have been treated as if their previous religious beliefs and intuitions had no relevance to the way they were Christianized or the type of Christianity they followed.  (I suspect that anyone trying this approach to modern conversions would soon get into trouble!)  It wasn’t the case that Gothic tribes simply accepted Arian Christianity because the emperor when they were permitted to settle in imperial territory in 376 happened to be Arian. The ‘Arian’ (properly Homoian) Creed of 361 was pioneered by two bishops on the Danube frontier of the Empire to convey to the Goths – whose pacification and conversion was vital to Emperor Constantius II – a picture of the Christian God and afterlife that resonated with their intuitions of divinity and of the dead, in what I call ‘entry-level Christianity’.  Ulfila, the famous missionary to the Goths, was in tune with the creed’s objectives and died on his way to Constantinople in 383 in the (vain) hope of reversing its replacement and the effective outlawing of Arianism in the Empire two years earlier.

How do you see Arianism in the barbarian kingdoms?

Initially, it gave advantages to some barbarian leaders and underpinned the formation of barbarian-ruled kingdoms.  But its status as a heresy was a hindrance to any ruler ambitious to play a part in the wider world of the late Roman Empire.  Current views don’t address the question of how it was spread: I argue that as well as being an ‘entry level Christianity’ making conversion from paganism easier, it was used by the Visigoths to establish hegemony over the leaders of other peoples.   Within the emergent kingdoms, it played a significant part in linking warrior groups to leaders and accompanied the establishment of military landholdings: these military-political aspects would have implications for the religion of barbarian women.   Arian Churches in the barbarian kingdoms certainly weren’t copies of indigenous Catholic Churches: their liturgy and Bible were in Gothic; they were organized differently; and Catholics were sometimes re-baptised as Arians for political ends.  The Arian practice of re-baptism would become a major issue in the Vandal kingdom of North Africa in 484: as a result of violent political convulsions, a substantial proportion of  Romano-African individuals, bishops and communities became Arians under duress, giving the Vandal Arian Church a unique Latin section!   But we shouldn’t accept the modern myth that that there were still Latin Arian Churches in sixth-century Italy – or that the Ostrogoths of Italy only became Arians when threatened with invasion by the East Roman Empire. Several Arian states – Visigothic Southern France, Burgundy, Ostrogothic Italy – disappeared in the sixth century as a result of conquest. Others survived in the Iberian peninsula, where occasional attempts by Visigothic rulers to make Arianism acceptable to their Catholic populations gave way to the more decisive option of abandoning it altogether. This was potentially risky on account of Arianism’s military and social aspects: but the Sueve rulers of Gallaecia declared for Catholicism in the 550s, as did the Visigothic king Reccared in 589.  By the time the Lombards arrived in Italy in the late sixth century, Arianism was no longer a realistic option: this religiously diverse and often militarily disunited group was slowly manoeuvred into Catholicism by its rulers.

I notice you don’t use the labels Arian and Catholic in the book itself …

Yes: I explain the more accurate alternatives employed throughout the book at the end of its Introduction.

Finally, how do you see the future study of Arianism?

I hope I’ve paved the way for future cross-disciplinary work, especially projects incorporating recent archaeological findings and even developments in a DNA research.  I’ve suggested a few ideas at the end of the book.  Enjoy!

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