Be careful what you sing… Arian music and the battle for the masses.

Like many churches in this strange year, the Tron Church up in Glasgow has been producing a series of advent videos, and a few days ago released a video chatting to former Anglican minister Dick Lucas. The video is a lovely short conversation and well worth a watch. You can do so just below.

Lucas is talking about singing truth in our hymns, because when we sing in church there is such an opportunity to fill our mouths and our hearts with good, biblical truth. At one point, Lucas illustrates the power of song and message combined by talking about the fourth century presbyter, Arius. Arius caused one of the great crises of the first few centuries of Church History when he suggested that Christ was subordinate to and not of the same eternal nature as the Father. This heretical teaching led to a huge schism, and nowhere was this more prevalent than the huge metropolitan city of Alexandria, in modern day Northern Egypt.

The church in Alexandria fractured into Arian and Orthodox factions, and the two sides fought bitterly, both theologically and physically, for many years. The crisis had huge repercussions beyond the city, but Alexandria, where Arius was a presbyter, was very much the focal point of events. Many believers fell under Arius’ teaching, and as Lucas points out in this video, one of the most successful methods of spreading this false teaching was through song.

Arian Music: Popular Success

Arius taught his heretical views against the wishes of the Alexandrian churches. The leaders of the church in Alexandria, first Alexander and then his successor, Athanasius, set about doing their best to quash the heresy. Despite fierce theological and physical conflict, the heretical teaching spread. Within a few years Arius was confident enough of his support to claim (with a slight note of exaggeration), in a letter to the Emperor Constantine, that “the whole of Libya” was on his side. In the wake of the famous Church Council in Nicaea in 325, Alexander tells us in a letter that “all have cast them [the Arians] forth from the congregation of the Church which adores the Godhead of Christ.”

Cast out of the congregations of Christian believers in Alexandria, these Arian believers began to meet in separate congregations, and the Christian population of the city divided. Alongside the ongoing clerical contest, the popular battle lines were drawn up. Arius relied upon popular support for his success, and this soon gave rise to a culture of Arian music. Arius is known to have written many hymns, but only his Thalia survives, preserved in the writings of Athanasius. Athanasius tells us that many similar hymns were written, and it is a fascinating text. There is not space here to repeat it all, but it is a hymn full of theological teaching and doctrinal slogans. Arius uses the hymn to reinforce what he taught, and makes his teaching clear through it. The Classicist Martin West analysed the surviving text, and concluded that it scanned closely with the meter of contemporary popular songs. Arius was using hymns like the Thalia to spread his teachings among the masses. Through the combination of both popular meter and engaging lyrics, Arius could harness the pagan ideal of mass musical appeal in an Arian hymnology.

His composition seems to match the metrical scheme of popular Roman songs such as the Hymn to the Rhodian Winds or Sailors of the Deep Waters, which were frequently sung as men and women worked in the ancient world. And so a picture of the intention of these songs emerges. Arius was not simply designing music for the church, it was music for the masses. Alexandria, a bustling, commercial, working town, would have been full of musical opportunities. Sailors at the docks would hum or sing as they worked, merchants in the waterways would pick up the tune, traders coming in and out of the city gates would sing as they travelled. An anonymous text, a contemporary Life of Constantine tell us that “[Arius] resorted to composing psalms… and ballads for sailors and millers as well as songs of the kind that the donkey drivers are accustomed to sing on their journeys.”

Why did he do this? Because music is powerful. Arius recognised that in creating catchy and entertaining melodies, and filling them with the teachings of his new beliefs, he could spread his message. Arian and Orthodox Christians opposed one another fiercely in the streets of Alexandria, frequently resorting to violence and intimidation to try and press their case. It was vital that both sides were well equipped with their message, and Arius reinforced that, as Lucas so aptly comments, not through academic lectures, but through popular songs. As the men and women of ancient Alexandria sung their Arian hymns as they went about their day, they taught themselves, and others, the message that Arius was so keen to spread.

So what should we sing?

The lesson of Arius is clear: music has great potential. How often we forget the words of the pastor, yet can gladly sing the words of the hymn! We read in contemporary histories of the crisis that the orthodox Christian leaders of Alexandria were enraged at how many folk were turning to follow Arius, clearly his methods were effective. Clearly his well-written, catchy musical tunes were having an impact.

When we sing in church, we have a wonderful opportunity to remind one another, and ourselves, of good truths as we worship our God. The purpose of music in church is not by any means merely to teach and learn, and I don’t want to suggest that it is. But as we collectively gather to worship God through song, we can delight in the truths of him that we are singing.

Lucas points out that many of our more recent Christian songs have lost something of the meaty truth of hymns of old. I think he may be right. There are so many wonderful hymns out there, let’s not forget them. Music has great potential to both reinforce unhelpful ideas and beliefs, or encourage our hearts as we sing. Let’s use it to do the latter.


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