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The bitter division in Alexandria that led to the Council of Nicaea began as a theological dispute between Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, and a significant number of his clergy, including a presbyter Arius, and quickly overflowed into a feud among eastern bishops. “Arianism” was assumed by scholars and theologians to be a coherent set of heretical teachings embraced by a succession of followers. Historians have now identified sets of alliances rather than genealogies as well as the polemical construction of “Arianism” by Athanasius and Marcellus. This separation of Arius from later “Arianism,” together with the continuing lack of consensus with regard to theological or philosophical genealogies as the source of his thought, encourages another look at the particular social and religious context of the initial local controversy. The central issues of monotheism, apophatic theology, incarnation, and changeability in fact map over traditional Christian apologetic theology and the literary and ecclesiastical legacies of the Great Persecution. Arius’s insistence on divine monotheism and transcendence together with his defense of a “living image” may echo the contemporary arguments with Celsus and Porphyry in Eusebius and Athanasius as well as a refutation of polytheism.
Heresiology was the combative theological genre for asserting true Christian doctrine. Rhetorical techniques such as labeling, and literary genres such as intellectual catalogues can be examined in historical context to reveal not only social or religious attempts at expulsion, but also theological negotiation with contemporary cultural problems of multiplicity and difference in Roman society. The increasing classification of error reflected the dynamism of the theological tradition as well as the general codification of Roman life and thought during the later empire. Like many products of late antiquity, heresiology was a hybrid of various local cultural and religious traditions that had been placed in dialogue by the unified Roman empire. The development of handbooks of heresies or the diptychs of holy ancestors were the expansion and public codification of early individual polemical techniques. The demonisation and exaggeration of the teaching of Pelagius theology was part of a means of excluding not only actual teaching, but theological possibilities, from orthodoxy.