The so-called great heresies are worthy of examination for a number of reasons, one of which is that they represent the main lines of attack against Biblical Christianity. With the exception of Gnosticism, which begins with the claim to secret knowledge apart from the Bible, they depend on a distortion of the Biblical witness. Modalism distorts the Biblical teaching on the Trinity by making the distinctions mere names and nothing more, masks that one person wears in different roles, giving priority to the texts that speak of the divine unity, but ignoring or downplaying those texts that speak of the reality of the divine persons. Working from a rationalistic basis, it said that Jesus was in some way the same person as the Father.
Like Modalism, Arianism is based on a faulty and partial reading of the Biblical texts through rationalistic presuppositions. While claiming to be Biblically-based, Arianism, like Modalism, smuggles in something other than the Bible to interpret the Bible. The Arian claims to be practising Sola Scriptura, but is in fact doing nothing of the sort.
When we approach the Bible, if we are to be fair, we must approach the Bible as it is and not as we would like it to be. The Bible is not a systematic theology treatise, in which the various doctrines are set out clearly and in order in succession to one another, but is intended to be read and re-read, comparing Scripture with Scripture, thinking things through, and tracing the connections, aided by the Spirit. Attention must be paid to such important matters as historical context (who wrote it, when, and to whom?) and genre (is it poetry, history, or letter?). Attempts to flatten out these things do not end well, because some external principle is always brought in then to arbitrate between “contradictions” created by the false framework of interpretation.
When it comes to looking at the Gospels in particular, we must view them in their proper character as witnesses; the Gospel writers are bearing witness, as John the Baptist “came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.” They are coherent accounts of the person and work of Christ as the disciples experienced him, not mere incoherent collections of traditions and proof-texts in which some texts trump others. And it is here that those heretics who claim to be guided by the Bible go wrong, in privileging certain texts taken in isolation above others, rather than reading the Bible as a coherent whole, and ignoring context.
Arianism, in some ways the most significant of the so-called great heresies, took a different route from Modalism in dealing with what amounted to the same issue, the deity of Christ. Acknowledging the reality of the distinction of the Divine Persons, Arianism attempted to introduce into Christianity the idea of what may be called “levels of divinity,” arguing that while Jesus is called “God,” he is in fact a “lesser god” than the Father, who is the ultimate God. While Arius and his followers concentrated on the question of the person of Christ, the Arian heresy is really one that concerns the Trinity, since the question at hand is the relationship of Father and Son. Like Modalism, it really assumes Unitarianism, but answers the question of the one and the many by denying the full deity of Christ. Arianism led to the first of the so-called Ecumenical Councils, the Council of Nicea in AD 325, and of all the major ancient heresies, is the only one that for any length of time controlled a major portion of the Church.
Arianism arose at the beginning of the 4th century AD; in 312 AD, the Emperor Constantine declared Christianity a legal religion, bringing it out of its previous rather precarious existence on the fringes of the Imperial legal system, always potentially subject to persecution, and into the mainstream of Roman life. Not only that, but Constantine professed conversion to Christianity himself, which tended to make Christianity fashionable, since it was only a matter of course that the co-religionists of the Emperor would be favoured in making appointments at court and in the Civil Service. Constantine came to power over a divided empire, and saw in Christianity a force that could itself unite the Empire. There was only one problem – Christianity itself was divided by a doctrinal dispute over what became known as Arianism.
Arianism is named for Arius, a Presbyter, most likely from Libya, who was minister of a fashionable church in a smart suburb of Alexandria, Egypt, right in the middle of the Empire. Arius was an intellectual, trained in a private academy in Syrian Antioch headed by a man named Lucian, whose theology was in many ways a precursor to that of Arius. Lucian was a gifted teacher, and was eventually put to death during one of the sporadic persecutions. For all his intellect and piety, Lucian had major issues with the idea of an eternal Trinity, and these issues led to his pupil Arius falling into outright heresy.
We know little about Arius’ early life, but he was an old man at the time of his death in 336. He was ordained in 311, and became a Presbyter at a relatively late stage in his life; it is thought by many that before his ordination he was a hermit. A tall man of grave appearance, his reputation for asceticism was almost certainly a major factor in his becoming Presbyter of the church in the fashionable suburb of Baucalis. Arius was tall and handsome, socially adept, with a sweet and attractive voice. He had something of a flair for communication, and was talented in writing poetry, all further factors in his success as a popular clergyman. The problem was that (like many a fashionable clergyman since) what he communicated was not the truth, but a serious error.
Just as Modalism began because of an over-reaction to the Gnostic teaching of a completely ineffable and transcendent God, so Arianism was in part an over-reaction to Modalism’s teaching. While Modalism made the Father and the Son merely different “manifestations” of the same divine person, Arius so emphasised the distinction that he denied any sort of unity of the Father and the Son. The Father, Arius taught, was the true and original God, unipersonal, in himself unknowable. According to the teaching of Arius, the Son was a “created god”, created by, and lesser in essence than, the Father, and the one who reveals the ineffable God. The orthodox faith taught that Christ is God incarnate, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, eternally begotten of the Father, in other words always existing in the relationship of a Son to the Father; Arius thought this to be illogical. A human father, Arius reasoned, pre-exists his son, and is the cause of the son coming into being. Thus, in Arius’ mind, the Son of God must be a created being that came into existence, hence Arius’ catch-phrase, “There was a time when he was not.” Arius taught that the Son was the first created being, through whom all other things were created, and that, properly speaking, he was not God, but only called “god” because of what he does.
Not surprisingly, his teaching soon brought Arius into conflict with his bishop, Alexander, who rightly realised that Arius’ teaching was in complete contradiction to the orthodox faith. Alexander suspended Arius from his functions as Presbyter, and in 321 excommunicated him. There the heresy would have been stayed, had it not been for the fact that Arius had numerous influential friends, among them Eusebius of Nicomedia, one of the leading Bishops in the Empire, and Eusebius of Caesarea, known today for his Ecclesiastical History. Arius managed to persuade these men that Alexander was striking at them as well as him by his edict of excommunication, and thus created a campaign against Alexander. Gifted as a communicator and in public relations, Arius was able to persuade a number of Asian bishops to support him, and, confident in that support, returned to Alexandria and resumed his teaching ministry. The stage was thus set for a showdown between the rogue Presbyter and the Bishop. The division was at least as much political as it was religious, with many of the “Arian” bishops supporting him without really understanding the issues involved. Eusebius of Nicomedia, however, certainly did understand the issues, for he and Arius had studied under the same master, and after Arius died, Eusebius would become the leader of his party.
It cannot be over-emphasised how important the issue actually was; it was over the very nature of God. Alexander insisted that the Father was never without the Son; the Son is “co-eternal” with the Father. Arius, on the other hand, insisted, “there was a time when the Son was not.” There was no middle ground, either Father and Son are co-eternal, or they are not. Alexander understood this, and so would not give any ground at all.
The Council of Nicea
In 325, Constantine, who before this point had been Emperor of the West only, became sole Emperor of the Romans. The division in the Eastern Church between those who supported Arius and those who supported Alexander troubled the Emperor, who regarded them as threatening the potential of Christianity to act as a unifying factor in the troubled Empire. By this point the division had become very deep and very public, to the extent that it was the butt of jokes in the bawdy Roman theatre. Employing as his intermediary a Spanish Bishop named Hosius of Cordova, Constantine sought to reconcile Alexander and Arius, but neither man was willing to budge. Hosius, however, came to an understanding with Alexander, who began to seek to bring other bishops over to his side. Constantine, realising that the attempt at reconciliation had failed, adopted a new approach – he called a council of bishops to deal with the issue. Made up primarily of bishops from the Eastern Empire, where Arianism was strongest, it assembled on 20th May 325 at Nicea, close to the new capital of Constantinople.
These bishops were many of them survivors from the last great persecution under Diocletian, still bearing the scars of torture, tough men who would not be easily cowed, even if there were many whose theological education was decidedly lacking. Constantine hoped that they would be able to reach agreement on their own, but the debate was in fact fierce. While he did what he could to bring the council to an agreement, the agreement reached was that of the bishops, not the Emperor. While most came from the Eastern Empire, there were also representatives from the West, and even bishops from countries outside the Empire, such as India and Persia, in attendance.
A great deal of nonsense is talked about the Council of Nicea today, and it is claimed to have done all sorts of things. Dan Brown, in The Da Vinci Code, repeated the claim that Nicea decided the Canon of Scripture – which it certainly did not, that was not the issue there. In the same book, Brown asserts, following certain psuedo-historians, that Nicea took a vote on whether Jesus was God, and that before Nicea the Church had believed he was merely a man. This is also nonsense, the question before Nicea was not whether Jesus is God so much as what it means to say that Jesus is God, and everyone there believed that he was a supernatural being of some sort. The great question at Nicea was Arianism.
The Arians began with the assumption that they would carry the council, and made the common error of over-confidence in laying out their position too clearly, with a statement of faith that flat-out denied the deity of Christ, horrifying the majority of delegates. Eusebius of Caesarea attempted to pour oil on troubled waters by proposing a creed based more firmly on Scripture, which became the basis for the eventual creed adopted by the Council adopted a Creed, which is the basis for that which today is known as the Nicene Creed, though what is known as the Nicene Creed today is a modified version of that Creed. The original Nicene Creed ran as follows:
“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;
By whom all things were made, both in heaven and on earth;
Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man;
He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
And in the Holy Ghost.
But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’— they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.”
Today the Council of Nicea is regarded as the first Ecumenical Council, but of course this is a retrospective label. The bishops who assembled at Nicea came because they were summoned by Constantine to decide on a serious theological dispute. Contrary to modern conspiracy theories, Constantine did not preside over the Council as a dictator, but acted as an impartial chairman; indeed there are reasons to believe that he may have actually favoured the Arian side. Nevertheless, whatever Constantine’s personal preferences, the Council of Nicea came down in no uncertain terms on the side of orthodoxy; while there are various differing reports of the number of bishops who attended the Council, it was over two hundred and fifty, and only two or three voted for Arianism (so much for Dan Brown’s claim that it was a close-run thing!). These bishops, including Eusebius of Nicomedia, were deposed and excommunicated, and Arius himself (still just a Presbyter and therefore not a participant in the Council), was deposed, and forbidden to return to Alexandria. The imperial power was used to back up this decision – a dangerous precedent, as events would swiftly reveal.
Among those present but not voting at Nicea was an Alexandrian Presbyter called Athanasius, who acted as Alexander’s secretary, and who in 328 succeeded him as bishop of Alexandria. A staunch supporter of the orthodox Nicene faith, he would be called upon to witness and to suffer for that faith. While Arianism lost decisively at Nicea, this was not the end of the matter, as might have been assumed. Politics continued, and Arius and his followers were slowly rehabilitated. Eusebius of Nicomedia was restored to his see in the same year that Athanasius was appointed to Alexandria, and in 335, when he died, Arius was on the verge of being restored to his office. Athanasius, meanwhile, suffered almost constant harassment from Arians, and in 335 Constantine deposed him for alleged harsh treatment of his ecclesiastical subordinates. Despite an appeal to the Emperor, the sentence was upheld, and the bishop of Alexandria was sent into exile in Trier. Constantine died the following year, and was baptised on his deathbed by none other than Eusebius of Nicomedia. It was a sign that Arianism was far from defeated, even though the exiled orthodox bishops were allowed to return to their sees.
Further confusing the matter were the so-called “Semi-Arians,” who wanted to maintain that the Son is “of a similar essence to the Father.” The more astute of the orthodox, such as Athanasius, saw that this was a meaningless phrase, since if the Son is merely of a similar essence to the Father, he is of a different essence, and the whole issue has been conceded to the Arians. It was merely an effort to disguise outright Arianism, since the great issue was, and always has been, whether the Son is true Eternal God or not.
After his death, Constantine’s empire was divided between his sons (while officially it was joint rule, each had a specific jurisdiction), Constantine II, Constans, and Constantius II, and his nephew, Dalmatius, who controlled a small territory in modern-day Greece. Constantius II was based in Constantinople, and controlled the Eastern part of the Empire, while the West was initially divided between Constans and Constantine II. Dalmatius was murdered by his own troops in 337, and so played little part in the events that unfolded, his territory being divided between Constantius II (who was suspected of being behind his death), and Constans. With Constantine II and Constans fighting over the Western Empire, Constantius II was able to concentrate on ruling the East as he saw fit, and one of the things he saw fit was that Arianism should be favoured; as a result orthodox bishops were exiled once again, and Arian clergy preferred. The greatest example of this was that in 339 Constantius appointed Eusebius of Nicomedia Patriarch of Constantinople, replacing the orthodox Patriarch Paul I, who was deposed and sent into exile. Once again Athanasius was exiled, and with him Marcellus of Ancyra, another champion of Nicene orthodoxy.
As long as the Western emperors were distracted by their conflict over territory, the Arians could concentrate their efforts on tightening their grip on the Church without worrying about what orthodox bishops exiled in the West might be doing. In 340, however, the conflict in the West ended with the death of Constantine II in battle, and Constans took sole control.
In 343, Hosius of Cordova presided over a Council in Sardica, called to reconsider the position of Athanasius and Marcellus. Since the Eastern bishops, who tended to favour Arianism, withdrew from the Council, it is not surprising that both men were exonerated and restored to their sees. In 346, Athanasius again returned to Alexandria, where he was greeted with jubilation by a faithful populace. But this peace was not to last, and following a series of anti-Nicene councils, Athanasius was once again exiled in 356. Worse was to follow, with the so-called “Robber Council” of Sirmium the following year. Not only did this council promulgate a creed that insisted the Son was as to his essence inferior to the Father, but Hosius, by now over a hundred years old, was forced to attend, and tortured until he signed the heretical document. There was continued resistance, and even competing councils, but in 360, Constantius at last publicly declared himself Arian, and declared Arianism the official religion of his empire. The victory of Arianism seemed complete.
The Fall of the Arians
But theological victories based on who happens to hold the imperial crown are always precarious, a fact that was made starkly plain when Constantius died the following year. His successor, Julian, has gone down in history with the unenviable epithet “The Apostate” attached to his name. Brought up a Christian, Julian had abandoned that faith completely in favour of the ancient pagan worship, and debates between those he regarded as merely factions of the religion he had rejected were very unimportant to him. He proclaimed a general amnesty, not because he held any respect for the Orthodox, but because he calculated that the controversy would further his desire to bring about the complete collapse of the Church. Athanasius, knowing that his time in Alexandria was liable to be short, sought to explain more fully the Orthodox position, and succeeded in persuading the leaders of a group called the Meletians, who had divided from the Catholics over the question of restoring those who had fallen away under persecution, and a formula was agreed that emphasised the unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, before once again Athanasius was sent into exile in 362.
The following year saw the death of Julian, killed while trying to emulate Alexander the Great’s conquest of Persia. His successor, Jovian, died within a few months, and was succeeded by Valentinus, who held the Nicene faith and sought the peace of the Church. Yet Valentinus was joined in his rule by his brother, Valens, who was an Arian, and so the struggle continued, and Athanasius went into yet a sixth exile. But ultimately, it was not the power of the Emperor, but discussion within the Church, that won the great theological war. Three great allies were won among the Eastern bishops, and their influence swayed the final outcome.
These men, often called the “Great Cappadocians”, were Basil of Caesarea in Cappadocia, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzus. Where they helped most was in breaking a language barrier that had worked to the advantage of the Arians. The West was already using Latin as the language of its theology, while the East used Greek, and it was quite possible for Arians to argue that the Western Latin terminology of one Substantia and three Personae actually meant Modalism, one God playing three different parts. In conference, the Cappadocians translated this into Greek, using language that avoided the suspicion of Modalism. This changed everything; with their support, it was possible for bishop after bishop to be convinced that the Nicenes were orthodox, and it was the Arians who were not.
Valens died in 378, fighting the Goths, and was succeeded by Theodosius, a zealous Nicene. Theodosius appointed Gregory Nazianzus to the see of Constantinople, a city almost completely dominated by Arianism, and from his pulpit, the eloquent and passionate preacher proclaimed the truth boldly. He had a the joy of presiding over the Council of Constantinople, which re-affirmed the Nicene faith, and issued an improved version of the Nicene Creed. The battle for the Church was won.
Arianism After Constantinople
Although the Council of Constantinople marked the end of Arianism as a power, Arianism did not die at once. Arian missionaries, sent out during the period of Arian ascendency, had brought the Goths to embrace the heresy, and these peoples were slow to abandon it, in spite of orthodox missionary work. Nevertheless, by the eighth century organised Arianism had disappeared, and the controversy became a part of history. Arian teaching has, however, cropped up again and again in the Church; in the 18th century, many among the English Presbyterians and General Baptists embraced Arian views of the person of Christ, making it one of the formative beliefs of English Unitarianism, though for the Unitarians it proved merely a stage on the way to full blown Socinianism which taught that Christ was a man and nothing more.
The most prominent group today to hold an Arian view of Christ is that which goes by the name of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which holds to a sort of modified Arianism, but there are also pure Arians around. In particular, what is called the Messianic Jewish movement, and the related Hebrew Roots movement, are vulnerable to Arianism, and there are so-called Arian Messianic Jews who find the idea of Jesus as a lesser being than the Father an attractive one that allows them to distance themselves from historic Christianity, and move closer to Rabbinic Judaism. Arianism is very much alive today, and our examination of it is not merely some antiquarian exercise.
Just as Modalism began in a reaction against Gnosticism, Arianism began in a reaction against Modalism. Where Modalism ultimately taught a God without mystery, Arius, like Gnosticism, began with a transcendent God, unable to directly interact with the world, or even directly to create it. Arius’ conception of the “Word” was that he was a necessary created intermediary through which God both created all other things and interacted with them. Assuming that the Incarnation involves a change in the essence of the one incarnated, he further taught the this meant that the true God, unchangeable in his essence, could not become incarnate, but the Word, as a created being, could change, and therefore become incarnate.
Arius and Scripture
While he claimed to be simply teaching what the Scripture said, in fact Arius had a significant set of philosophical presuppositions, chief among which was an insistence on an absolute correspondence between the way language is used of Christ, and the way that it is used to speak of human experience. If Jesus is the Son of God, he insisted, then it must follow that, as a human son comes into being at a later time than his father, so the Word must have come into being. The analogy, he taught, cannot only be insisted upon at some points, it must be insisted on all the way. Another was that since human experience provides no analogy in the created world for a being that is not unipersonal, the Trinity cannot be true, because the teaching goes against our experience.
When it came to providing a Biblical basis for his views, one of Arius’ favourite texts was Proverbs 8:22-31, in which Wisdom says, “The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was. When there were no depths, I was brought forth; when there were no fountains abounding with water. Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth: while as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the highest part of the dust of the world. When he prepared the heavens, I was there…” Assuming that this was an address by Christ, he used this text to say that the Son had been created before all other things, but that he had been created. It is still a favoured text with those who follow Arius in his errors, I have myself had it presented by the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a proof text for their views.
Another text he appealed to was Psalm 45:7, “Thou lovest righteousness, and hatest wickedness: therefore God, thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows.” This, he asserted, meant that the Son had earned his place as Son and Christ, but that he was a fellow-creature with us. In the New Testament, he appealed to Matthew 19:17, “And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God:” He claimed that here Jesus was disclaiming deity. Did not he say in John 14:28, “my Father is greater than I”? In Colossians 1:15, he pointed to the statement concerning Christ, “who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature.” This, he argued, must mean the first created. With these and other texts, he asserted his claims.
The underlying problem with Arian Biblical interpretation is that it adopts a method that does not allow the Bible to speak for itself, but rather forces the Bible into an artificial, external philosophical framework. This is one of the most common problems with heresy; rather than letting the Bible set the agenda and define language, heresy, often unconsciously, allows something else to define words. An error that must be particularly guarded against is that which Arius fell into, defining God according to human experience.
The Limits of Analogy
This is not in fact possible, at least not consistently. For example,in arguing that since Jesus is called the Son of God, he must have come into existence, Arius is reasoning from the analogy of human parentage – a human son come into existence after his father. Arius stretched analogical language further than it can actually go; not only does a human son come into being later than his father, a human man must have a wife in order to become a father, and a human son is born to a mother. Yet in spite of this, Arius never thought a mother-goddess necessary, but rather taught that the Father alone created the Son from nothing, and so the title of “Father” is after all only analogous to human experience, not identical to it. Analogical language always has, and is intended to have, its limits, and while the orthodox approach asks the Biblical texts what is the limit of the analogy, Arius does not, but applies arbitrary limits.
A further element of this arbitrary rationalism that subjects God to human experience is Arius’ insistence that the doctrine of monotheism requires God to be unipersonal, and necessarily precludes the doctrine of the Trinity. And yet, having asserted the absolute importance of monotheism, by insisting on applying the name of “god” to the Son, Arianism in fact becomes at best a form of henotheism, the idea that there are multiple gods, but that one is superior in nature to the other. The idea of the Son as a “created god” subordinate to the creator god in fact brings in the whole idea of a pagan pantheon by the back door.
God with us
At the same time there is a contradictory presupposition in Arius, namely the absolute transcendence of God, who cannot be involved in this world directly, and so cannot be known directly. Instead, according to Arianism, God works exclusively through the Son, as his created intermediary. Like modern-day Islam, they put a gulf between God and man by nature that not even God can bridge – which is why, incidentally, the Muslim view of paradise is one apart from fellowship with God. In just the same way, Arius denied the possibility of human fellowship with God directly. The trouble is that while God is indeed transcendent, he is also immanent, at work directly in the world at all times by his providence. Since the Son is not a mere created being, but in very truth “God with us,” we can have direct fellowship with God, who made us for that fellowship.
Arius insisted that the immutability of God precludes the Incarnation, since to become incarnate would mean that God undergoes a change, and here too he is followed by the Muslims. A few moments’ reflection however leads to the realisation that this claim is simply not true, since the Incarnation is not the transformation or transmutation of the Divine essence or nature into something it was not, but the taking of a human nature to the unchanged divine nature. Arius was guilty of sloppy thinking, and in fact by his definition of “change,” God can hardly be allowed to do anything, for if we extend this line of thought we are forced to conclude that by creating, God becomes what he was not before, the Creator, by Redeeming, Redeemer, and by adoption, he becomes our Father, which he was not before. Yet in fact none of these are actually changes in God, they are changes that take place outside of God, which create new relationships with and for the unchanging God. A change in relationship is not a change in nature.
The Use and Abuse of the Bible
Arius began with philosophical presuppositions; Athanasius, on the other hand, asked the all-important questions of the Bible. How, we asked, does the Bible use language? What do the Biblical authors mean by the terms that they use?
While Arius in effect privileged certain texts above others, and used his faulty understanding of those favoured texts to “defeat” other texts, Athanasius and the orthodox insisted on the unity of the Bible, adopting in effect the very sensible position that the Bible does not contradict itself, from which it follows that if you think that you have found a contradiction between two Bile passages, you are in fact misinterpreting one, or both. Legitimate questions must also be asked about the texts that Arius favoured; he liked to use Proverbs 8 and Psalm 45, but both are Old Testament texts, and their Christological interpretation must be governed by the New Testament, rather than the New Testament Christology determined by them. To use Old Testament texts as the lens through which the New is read is to put the cart before the horse – after all, Wisdom in Proverbs 8 is personified as female, while the Lord Jesus is a man who was circumcised on the 8th day, according to the Law. We must also understand that both Psalm 45 and Proverbs 8 are poetry, not prose, and so abound in metaphor and imagery, deeply meaningful, but not to be read as though it were flat prose.
While Arius preferred the more obscure Old Testament texts that could be used to make his case, the Orthodox pointed to texts like Luke 10:22, “All things are delivered to me of my Father: and no man knoweth who the Son is, but the Father; and who the Father is, but the Son, and he to whom the Son will reveal him,” in which the unique character of Christ is revealed. He alone has true and perfect knowledge of the Father, yet this the Arians denied, arguing that since the Son was a created being he could not; here was one of their great weak points, where they in fact had to deny the plain teaching of a Biblical text in the interests of their philosophical views. John 20:19-29, in which we have Thomas’ Confession of Jesus, “My Lord and my God,” is another passage urged against the Arians. Thomas does not qualify the deity of Christ, or speak of him as a lesser god, but confesses him Lord and God. It is these plain passages that must interpret the more difficult ones, and not the other way around.
In their handling off Scripture, the Arians commonly engaged in the logical fallacy known as “begging the question,” assuming, rather than demonstrating, their interpretation of texts. Matthew 19:17 is a classic case in point. Yes, Jesus said to the rich young man, “Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God,” but the question to be asked is why he said that. The Arian actually begins with the Arian assumption that Jesus is not eternal God, and so interprets the text on the basis of that – as do all Unitarians. But is that interpretation actually possible? Was Jesus disclaiming deity? If so, then the Arian is left with the further conclusion that Jesus was got good! In fact it is better to see that what Jesus was doing was challenging the young man to think through his words, and to see that Jesus is God. The emphasis is laid on the why.
In Colossians 1:15, the Arians liked the word “firstborn,” which is assumed to mean “first created”. If read in isolation from the rest of the chapter, that interpretation seems plausible, but the orthodox insisted that the whole passage be read, not just one word picked out and interpreted according to Arianism. Paul writes of Christ, “who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: for by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: and he is before all things, and by him all things consist.” The emphasis is clear, all things were created by Christ; Paul piles up language to emphasise this, yet the Arian must, either openly with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, or secretly, add the word “other” to “all things.” So what does “firstborn” here mean? The answer is that it is a matter of status; in a Jewish family the firstborn enjoyed a status of pre-eminence over all others, and it is that status of pre-eminence over the creation that Paul is talking about – which is also why he does not say “first-created,” but rather “firstborn.”
The Apostle John adds his testimony, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:1-3). As in Colossians, 1:15-20, there is considerable emphasis laid on the fact that all created things were made through Christ, meaning that he himself cannot be of that category of created things. Moreover, John wrote, “and the Word was God,” he did not write the the word was like God, but that he was. Nor, in spite of the efforts made by the Watchtower Society, did John say that “The Word was a god.” John was a monotheistic Jew, not a pagan, and it is only by beginning with the conclusion that Jesus is not true eternal God that it is possible to read John as not saying that he is.
Why it Matters
So why does it matter? Whether Jesus Christ is true Almighty God or not matters tremendously, because it is at the foundation of all that it means to be a Christian. It is no exaggeration to say that Arianism is paganism, and not Christianity at all. There are two great issues at stake here.
Does Jesus Reveal God?
Does Christ actually reveal God to us in his own person, or is he ultimately just a messenger sent from the distant God who is not involved in this world? Can we look at Jesus Christ in his person and his work and say, “This is what God is,” or not? Is the Cross the self-giving of God, or not? The Bible tells us in John 1:18, “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him,” and Jesus himself says in John 14:9, “he that hath seen me hath seen the Father.” But the Arian created Son, who is fundamentally not like the Father, and does not share the essence of the Father, simply cannot be such a revelation of the Father, who remains unknown as he is in himself.
It must be emphasised that God giving up a creature separate from him is simply not the same thing as God giving himself. In recent years, certain liberal theologians, such as Steve Chalke, have caricatured Penal Substitution as “Divine child abuse,” and used the false image of the wrathful Father taking out his anger on the innocent Son to create emotional prejudice against the Biblical teaching. Such a caricature ignores the fundamental unity of the Godhead, that the Son is not a separate being from the Father, subordinate by nature, in the way that a human child is. The accusation, however, is quite true of Arianism. Arianism does teach a form of “Divine child abuse,” in that the Arian god takes an innocent dependent created being and punishes him for the sins of men. The witness of the Cross to the love and justice of God is massively obscured in Arianism, then, for the Arian god takes the sins of men and forgives because he has made another creature suffer. There is no divine self-giving.
It has been suggested that part of what made Arianism attractive to power-hungry Romans was that it presented a God who does not serve, but who only makes creatures serve him. If Jesus who is God said, “I am among you as one who ministers,” and “the Son of Man did not come to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life as a ransom for many,” and he is God, he shows us divine condescension. Philippians 2:5-11 is then a revelation of God, of God who freely chooses to serve and to save. But, on the other hand, if the Son is merely a creature, then it is his duty to serve God, and do what God tells him to do. It is not God who stoops to save man, but a dutiful servant of God who does that; the love of Christ is the love of a dutiful servant who loves those he is sent to save, but it is no revelation of the love of God. To Arians, Philippians 2:5-11 is not about one who shared equality with the Father willingly laying aside his majesty and coming in the form of a servant to serve his people, but it is about an obedient being who was always a servant doing his duty. If we may be allowed to express it by analogy, the Arian sees it not as a king who stoops down from his throne and serves his people, but a royal servant who lays aside his glorious livery as the king’s chief butler to become for a time, at the king’s bidding, a more lowly servant. The king himself, however, never lays aside his majesty in any way.
John 3:16, on a Arian reading, tells us that God’s love moved him to send his favourite creature to die for men, yet that creature’s love was greater than the love of God, for “Greater love than this hath no man, that he lay down his life for his friends.” The God of Arianism remained enthroned in the heavens, looking on, but the created god called the Son loved his people and gave himself for them. If Arianism is true (and thank God that it is not), we should love and serve the Son more than the Father, for the Father gave just a creature, but the Son gave himself. The Father is the leader, and so a king or any leader would do best to imitate the Father, in exercise of might, and even sacrificing subordinates for his own ends.
However, if the Trinitarian doctrine is true, then God gave of himself, and the love manifested in Christ is the manifestation of the love of the Father, and we can know for certain that God is love. Rather than a stern despot who sends his servants to do and to die for him, he gives of his own self in Christ Jesus, and therefore Christian leadership is indeed to be modelled on Christ, in self-giving and self-forgetting love. The logic of Arianism promotes a taking leadership, that of Christianity a giving and serving.
The issues of Arianism have a profound impact on worship. If Jesus Christ is a created being, then either the worship of created beings is acceptable, or he is not to be worshipped. The logic is inescapable, and so it has proved in all ages where Arianism has appeared. The tendency has usually been to abandon the worship of Christ, just as the English Arianism of the 18th century eventually ended in full-blown Socinianism, regarding Jesus as nothing more than a prophet. The Jehovah’s Witness cult also reject the worship of Jesus, as do most other modern Arian sects; if the New World Translation of the JWs says, “The Word was a god,” the Witnesses do not treat him as one – largely because they do not in fact have the sort of Henotheistic theology that would enable them to do so. Lacking that theology, worship of the Son as a creature is idolatrous, and must be avoided. In the final analysis, we cannot speak of what a “consistent Arian” position is, because Arianism is not itself consistent, attempting at one and the same time to speak of the Son as a mere creature, and as “a god.”
One of the Biblical teachings on worship is that, as it has been phrased, “we become what we worship.” Because the god of Arianism is a false god, for the reasons laid out above, Arian worship creates a false character in the worshipper. Since the Arian god is not self-giving, but merely gives of that which he has made, his love is fundamentally on a lower level than the true love of God, and thus Arianism presents a lower love for imitation to its adherents if it points to the love of the Father, or, worse, it suggests that the Son is more loving than the Father.
Because of Arianism’s depiction of God as ruler always holding on to his majesty, not serving himself, but sending a created Son to do his dirty work, as it were, Arian worship among leaders tends to create an absolute form of government, a strong imperial monarchy with supreme power vested in a single man who is lord of the people, and not servant. Christianity, on the other hand, holds up Christ serving his people as the great example, not only for those in subordinate positions, but for those in supreme positions, and the worship of the God who is among his people as one who serves tends to cultivate a gracious, gentle, serving ethos in rulers and leaders.
The Arian god is a hard master, one who requires of the obedient created Son a sacrifice to appease his wrath against sinful mankind; he will not pay the price himself, but forces the Son to pay up, bringing in a third party to the issue. The true God is both gracious and just.
In conclusion, we learn from the Arian controversy first and foremost that Christianity rests on the whole Bible, not just selected portions of it, and that we must read the Bible as the unity, the single work that it is.
We must take great care when we are dealing with the interpretation of Scripture not to impose our own framework on the text. Looking at Arius helps us to see how that can happen without our being aware of it; Arius did not begin by carefully creating a grid through which to force the Bible, but he did in fact have one. By not letting figures of speech and analogical language be what they actually are, and by failing to understand the relationship between the Old Testament and the New, he put himself into a position where a poetic passage in Proverbs 8 was one of the most significant texts for Christology, and gave the framework for understanding the New Testament portrait of Jesus – resulting in a distortion of the Bible. We can fall into the same trap if we attempt to enforce a framework that ignores the progressive nature of revelation, and that ignores such basic distinctions as those between poetry and prose. One phrase used in Bible study is, “If the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense.” Applied properly, it is correct, but it can only be so applied if we first know what “the plain sense” is. What is meant is simply that we should ignore forced and fanciful interpretations, such as that which turns the parable of the Good Samaritan into an allegory of the Church and Christ’s Second Advent, and the idea that the locusts in Revelation 9 are in fact helicopter gunships, though defended by Hal Lindsay as “plain sense” is practically the definition of “forced and fanciful.” The plain sense of a passage is understood in context, based on what the author wrote. We must let poetry be poetry, with all its play of language and metaphor, allow symbolism to be symbolic, and listen to what God says in his Word, not break up that Word into isolated texts that we can play games with.
The whole Bible reveals God we cannot comprehend, but whom we can know truthfully, because he has come to us in the Son, who is both the Son of God and God the Son. Jesus is not merely some sort of super-angel, the first of all created beings, but God with us in very truth. There is one God, not many; it is paganism to imagine “gods many and lords many,” “but to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him” (1 Cor. 8:6). We see the fact of God in Jesus Christ, God with us, and we see the love of God displayed in him, God for us, God incarnate,
Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man.
And at the cross we do not just see God making one of his creatures pay the price for the offences of others of his creatures. No, the cross is a far more solemn and wonderful thing than that,
Well might the sun in darkness hide
And shut his glories in,
When Christ, the mighty Maker died,
For man the creature’s sin.
Taken with permission from the current edition of Peace and Truth, 2016:4