The KNOW Series: Know the Heretics, Know the Creeds and Councils

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Transcript of The KNOW Series: Know the Heretics, Know the Creeds and Councils

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    CHAPTER 7

    ARIUS Jesus Is a Lesser God

    Historical BackgroundSudden chaos overtook Alexandria in 318. A riot broke out and people streamed into the street chanting, There was a time when Christ was not! Meanwhile, another large group of Chris tians stood their ground with the bishop against this movement, insisting that Christ is the eternal God along with the Father. Eventually this con-flict spilled over to the rest of the empire and threatened to break apart the unity of the church. What began this crisis? It really came down to one man Arius (ca.256 336).

    Arius was a presbyter in Alexandria, the home of the brilliant theologian Origen (184 230). He came under the influence of Lucian of Antioch, a headmaster at a Chris tian school, and went to school with Eusebius of Nicomedia, who eventually became an important and influential bishop. Arius eventually went on to become a presbyter in Alexandria. Like most in Antioch, all three erred on the side of emphasizing the humanity of Christ rather than his divinity. They firmly rejected Sabelliuss Modalism (see chapter6), because that would imply that God the Father died and was crucified on the cross. And lest they put their respective church positions in jeopardy, they knew they could not publicly embrace Paul of Samosatas

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    Adoptionism (the idea that a human person named Jesus was adopted into divinity). A new solution needed to be developed. Based partly on Origens teachings on the Trinity, Arius developed a theory of the nature of God that firmly separated Jesus from the Father.

    Since part of Ariuss responsibility as presbyter was to direct a school of biblical interpretation for priests and laypersons who wished to teach, his theories quickly gained traction with the next generation of Chris tian leaders. Over time he began to openly criti-cize Alexander, bishop of Alexandria. Alexander has been described in history as a gentle and tolerant soul who did not relish conflicts. Nevertheless, the bishop took the field against Arius and insisted that the Son is just as much God as the Father. Arius then accused Alexander of being sympathetic to Sabelliuss Modalism.

    A time came when the Arian movement became so popular that Alexander could no longer fight Ariuss criticism with mere sermons and correspondences. He called a synod of bishops to discuss whether Ariuss views were orthodox. Before they made a decision, Arius ral-lied his followers to pour out into the streets to add pressure to the leaders. Ariuss sympathizers wrote songs to fire up the working class. The mob got caught up in the passion of the slogans, songs, and Ariuss personality, but they did not necessarily grasp the theological issues. In response, Alexanders supporters likewise marched in the streets against Arius. When the two groups met, a riot broke out.

    But the synod went on. More than a hundred bishops from various parts of the eastern Roman Empire listened to Alexander critique Ariuss teachings. He accused Arius of resurrecting Paul of Samosatas Adoptionism in a more sophisticated way. It did not mat-ter whether the Logos was created before or after time began, Alex-ander argued. The difference was slight. The fact of the matter was that Arius denied the deity of Christ, which is why Paul of Samosatas teaching was rejected. Alexander insisted that salvation depends on Gods uniting himself with humanity in the person of Jesus Christ so that we can be saved. After hearing this, the synod decided that Ariuss view was heretical and forced him to leave the city.

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    Heretical TeachingArius was not trying to start a crisis; he thought that the relationship between God and Jesus was simple and needed to be freed from overcomplication. After all, Trinity was not a common term at the time, and it had not yet been precisely defined. The word Trinity is not found in Scripture (it was first used by Tertullian), and it is best described as shorthand for all the teachings of Scripture on the nature of God. Since the age of the apostles, Jesus had always been considered divine in at least some sense, but his precise relationship to the Godhead had not yet been articulated. Yet the church still had an unspoken sense of what the Trinity isnt. This was why Sabel-lius was rejected for teaching that God is sometimes the Father, at other times the Son, and then at another time the Spirit, but never all at once (Modalism). Paul of Samosata, likewise, was rejected, because he taught that Jesus started out as a mere man who was adopted by God to become the Son of God (Adoptionism). Those early explanations were deemed incompatible with Scripture and therefore heresies.

    Ariuss own conceptions of the Trinity can be traced back to Origen (184 253), a brilliant and imaginative Egyptian theologian.1 Two streams of thought flowed in Origens teachings concerning the Son, and followers gravitated to one of the two streams. In one stream, Origen strongly affirmed that the Son is equal to the Father. In the other stream, Origen wrote that the Son is eternally subor-dinate to the Father. The implication of the second stream com-municated to some that the Son is somehow a lesser being than the Father, though Origen did not elaborate.2 The lack of a fuller explanation of the second stream of Origens thought left the door wide open for further suggestions.

    To understand Ariuss theory, we must mention two common presumptions about God that were derived from the logic of Greek philosophy. First, God does not change (immutability). Change implies imperfection. For good or bad, if God changes, then he

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    cannot be deemed absolutely perfect because he has either improved or regressed. God is already at the peak of perfection, so there is no room to grow, and he is fixed at that peak of perfection, so he cannot regress. Second, the other presumption is that God cannot suffer; he is passionless (impassibility). Most early theologians believed in these two attributes of God.

    Arius and his followers exploited these two attributes to advance their argument that the Son is not coeternal with the Father but is the supreme creation. He acknowledged that everyone believed that Jesus Christ is the incarnation of the Logos (the Word). No problem there. The problem lay with the following: If the Logos is divine in the same sense that God the Father is divine, then Gods nature would be changed by the human life of Jesus in time and God would have suffered in him.3 The implication that God changes and suf-fers seemed blasphemous! So it must be then, Arius concluded, that only God the Father is without beginning. The Son came into exis-tence through the will of the Father. To avoid charges of Adoption-ism, Arius taught that the Logos was begotten timelessly4 that is, before Genesis 1:1. In the beginning, the Logos was created and was given all things from the Father to share.5 With this solution it was not God the Father who grew up and eventually suffered on the cross but only the Logos experienced this on behalf of God and humanity. Thus, when the Scriptures speak of Jesus as the Son of God, this is merely a title of honor a title given to Jesus as the one on whom the Father had lavished a special grace.

    Arius believed that the Father and the Son are two separate beings and that the biblical model for their relationship is one of eternal subordination: the Father is the one who decides matters and the Son is the one who obeys. That the Son would yield to the Fathers preferences was a natural conclusion, since in Ariuss model the Son is simply a loyal creature serving his creator.

    Arius explained the sharpness of his division in reasonable terms: For God to implant His substance to some other being, however exalted, would imply that He is divisible and subject to change,

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    which is inconceivable. Moreover, if any other being were to par-ticipate in the divine nature in any valid sense, there would result a duality of divine beings, whereas the Godhead is by definition unique.6 According to Arius, if the Father and the Son were of the same essence, it is difficult to see how in the incarnation the Father would not become passible.

    Arius argued that the Son was created before time. He is not coeternal with the Father. As he put it, Before he was begotten or created or appointed or established, he did not exist; for he was not unbegotten.7 Furthermore, the Son is not of one divine substance with the Father. He is rather of a similar substance with the Father (Greek homoiousios). On this view, the divine qualities of the Son are derivative (contingent, not essential), given to the Son by the Father. As Arius described Jesus, He is not God truly, but by participation in grace . . . He too is called God in name only.8

    Orthodox ResponseThe Arian division caught Emperor Constantines attention. Although Chris tian ity was not the official religion, Constantine hoped to use Chris tian ity as a glue to hold the already shaky empire together. As Chris tian ity went, so went the empire. Thus, he called the Council of Nicaea in 325 to resolve the situation.9 After dramatic rounds of