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Early Church Conflicts: Arianism and Iconoclasm

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  • 0:05 Threats to the Church
  • 0:35 Arianism
  • 2:54 Iconoclasm
  • 5:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Elam Miller

Jessica has taught college History and has a Master of Arts in History

This lesson explores two conflicts that occurred in the early church: Arian Christianity, which taught a taboo belief regarding the Holy Trinity, and iconoclasm, which was the destruction of religious images.

Threats to the Church

Map of the Byzantine Empire
Byzantine Empire Map

Every powerful group faces challenges from the outside, but they also have to watch for threats from within. This is true of the early Christian Church, which took roots in the Roman Empire in 312 AD in the form of Catholicism. Roman Catholicism was the dominant religion of the region for over half a millennium, though it faced threats from within itself during that time. We're going to look at two of those threats: Arianism and iconoclasm.

Arianism

The first threat to the church came in the 4th century AD. Although Catholic Christianity was growing in dominance among native Romans at the time, invading Germanic tribes, who moved into Roman territories from surrounding areas after being displaced by the Huns, brought with them a new form of Christianity called Arianism.

One of the key tenets of Catholic Christianity is the Holy Trinity - that the Father (God), the Son (Jesus) and the Holy Spirit are three aspects of the same divine being. On the other hand, Arianism is a form of Christianity in which believers thought that God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit were three separate entities. The name comes from Arius, who created the Arian belief system.

A Roman coin featuring the face of Jesus
Roman Jesus Coin

Basically, Arian Christians believed that God never changed or grew. However, Jesus was born and grew like a human. His changing nature meant that Jesus was not God and couldn't be a divine entity. Instead, God created Jesus. The belief that the Holy Trinity were separate but formed from a similar substance is known as homoiousios. The Catholic belief that all three pieces of the Holy Trinity were formed from the same substance is known as homoousios.

This conflict spread throughout the Christian nation. Arianism was officially condemned after the issuing of the Nicene Creed, which reinforced homoousion as correct. But, as Germanic tribes continued to invade the Roman Empire and converted to the Arian version of Christianity, eventually Arianism was even endorsed officially in some areas of the Empire. The conflict continued between Catholic and Arian Christianity in the Roman Empire until the popularity of Arian Christianity just died out (especially after many Germanic tribesmen reached Rome) and Catholicism became their dominant religion.

At that point, Arianism was basically all but gone in the Roman Empire. However, it continued to be popular among members of the invading Germanic tribes. This would continue to cause some problems with the native Romans up through the 5th and 6th centuries. However, tribesmen would eventually follow suit with the rest of the Romans, and those who remained in the Empire would convert to Catholicism.

Iconoclasm

Another conflict in the early church was that of iconoclasm, or the intentional destruction of a religious image. Conflicts of iconoclasm developed over concerns of how religious images were treated during worship. Some people were concerned that worship may become directed towards the image rather than the person or being that it represented. The basis of this concern is in the Ten Commandments mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible. The Commandments forbid the worship of idols. Directing religious devotion to an image was interpreted by some as idol-worship.

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