Did Arianism Help the Church?

Church History

AriusOne of the greatest theological disputes of the early 4th Century church revolved around the question of Christ’s divinity as it related to his humanity and suffering. Arius was the voice being opposed, and was confronted under the leadership of Alexander of Alexandria. Alexander led the initial charge against Arius who, along with his companions, was eventually condemned as a heretic by the synod of Alexandria. However, while arguing for orthodox Christology largely after the death of Arius, Athanasius is most often credited with the refutation of Arius’ claims. The charges of heresy against Arius were a serious matter, but they positively served the church in the establishment of a biblical Christology and a well defined trinitarianism.

Arius was an Alexandrian cleric born around 256 in Libya. While Arius was still a young man, the issue of modalism was still being settled, and even though modalism was suppressed, the underlying issue of subordinationism was yet unresolved. Around 319, what is known today as the Arian heresy came to the attention of Alexander. [1] Although more complex and nuanced, Arius’ concern was how God could be one (The singularity of God) and how simultaneously the Son could be God. “This is an authentic theological concern, and one that had been percolating in the early church for a long time… If God was one, then the Son, Arius concluded, could not possibly be God and, therefore, he must be a creature.” [2] In other words, Arius denied the full divinity of the Son. As a successful propagandist, Arius invented catchy jingles to convey his point, the most famous of which became, “There was a time when the Son was not.” In Arius’ mind, so long as it was to be said that the Father begat the Son, the conclusion must be that the Son had a birth, or a beginning, which denied his immutability and eternality as the supposed divine. Therefore, embedded in Arius’ claims was the belief that an immutable God could not become man, and the divine cannot become passible. The Arian heresy threatened the trinitarian monotheism of the early Christian church.

In a rather short period of time, Arius was formally excommunicated by an Alexandrian synod around 320. Immediately following his excommunication, Arius made an appeal to Eusebius, the bishop of Nicomedia who was the most sympathetic prelate to Arius’ theology. Eventually Arius and some of his supporters found their way to Nicomedia and began what became an “epistolary battle” involving a Palestinian synod, Arius, and Alexander. Alexander eventually took to writing a series of letters, “spelling out the exact nature not only of Arius’ heresy but of his behaviour and that of his supporters in Alexandria.” [3]

Alexander sought to make his case against Arius from the Scripture and taught that “the Son of God was of one and the same majesty with the Father, and had the same substance with the Father who begat Him.” [4] Alexander’s criticisms of Arius were strong and clear, leaving no room for the assumption that there might be areas of agreement among them:

For since they call in question all pious and apostolical doctrine, after the manner of the Jews, they have constructed a workshop for contending against Christ, denying the Godhead of our Saviour, and preaching that He is only the equal of all others. And having collected all the passages which speak of His plan of salvation and His humiliation for our sakes, they endeavour from these to collect the preaching of their impiety, ignoring altogether the passages in which His eternal Godhead and unutterable glory with the Father is set forth. [5]

One of Alexander’s greatest concerns was that Arius and his supporters were seeking to deceive the simple-minded through lengthy and complicated letters. Based upon the sheer volume of letters, two synods of the bishops of Egypt, and the eventual convening of the council at Nicea, the Church was deeply concerned with Arius’ claims and sought to either confirm or deny their validity on several occasions.

The Claims of Arianism

Unfortunately, most of what is known about Arianism comes not from Arius, but rather from those who sought to refute his claims. Several historians have suggested that Arius himself was rather insignificant and nowhere near the insurrectionist that modern historical accounts portray him to have been. All that remains of the writings of Arius are three letters, a fragment of a fourth, and a scrap of a song, the Thalia. [6] M.R. Barnes comments:

Perhaps the most central finding in the last fifteen years of renewed research… has been to show how peripheral the person of Arius was to the actual debates which occupied the church for most of the century… Arius himself, therefore, had only a minor role in the theological debates which were reputed to be a conflict over his views and which eventually bore his name…few Greek polemicists, even if they are clearly pro-Nicene, bother to refute Arius. [7]

Whether Arius was significant to the issues leading up to Nicea or not, his name is forever attached to the controversy, and the historical record seems to accurately indicate that his views were indeed consistent with that which was being refuted. However unfortunate, it is very likely that “his name is simply a term of theological abuse.” [8]

Arius’ claim to the emperor Constantine was that he wished nothing more than to be loyal to the Scripture and the faith of the Catholic church, avoiding “unnecessary issues and disputations.” [9] Nevertheless, Arius lays out his primary claims to both the Antiochene Council of 325 and Constantine which clearly contradict the faith of the Catholic church. Arius’ theology of the Trinity, and more specifically his Christology, was as follows:

  1. God is transcendent and inaccessible, but has providential governance of the universe; He is Lord of the Law, the Prophets, and the New Covenant;
  2. The Son of God exists alēthōs (truly) and is, like the Father, “unchangeable, inalienable,” yet not agennētos (unbegotten); [10]
  3. The Son had an origin ex nihilo (Created out of nothing). There was a time when he did not exist. Since the Son was begotten of the Father, he was created, existing by the will of God; [11]
  4. When God wanted to create, He made a person (Word, Spirit, Son) who was an intermediary;
  5. The Word is mutable and remains good through the exercise of freewill, so long as he chooses to remain good;
  6. The ousiai (primary substances) of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are divided and differ from one another. The Father is the Son’s origin, and the Son’s God. There are two wisdoms, one that existed eternally with God, the other the Son who was brought into existence in this wisdom. Thus, there is another Word of God besides the Son, and it is because the Son shares in this that he is called, by grace, Word and Son. [12]

At the heart of early Arianism was the desire to harmonize the clear indications from Scripture that Jesus was a man and creator, while simultaneously upholding the orthodox positions of God’s immutability and impassibility. Arius argued that a creature could suffer and die in a way that the creator could not (viz. How could an impassible God experience passibility?). Letham writes, “The ‘Arians’ (for want of a better word) wanted to protect God from involvement in creation, from human experiences and suffering. Jesus’ human limitations showed that he was inferior to God. So he should not be worshiped. In the Incarnation, the Son took on a human body, but not a human soul or mind.” [13] To have a suffering savior while simultaneously holding to an immutable, impassible God, gave need to a god of lesser status than the Father, one that was less divine.

Refutation of Arianism

Alexander was the first major opponent of Arius and took the most significant measures toward refuting the Arian claims:

Wherefore without delay, brethren beloved, I have stirred myself up to show you the faithlessness of these men who say that there was a time when the Son of God was not; and that He who was not before, came into existence afterwards, becoming such, when at length He was made, even as every man is wont to be born. For, they say, God made all things from things which are not, comprehending even the Son of God in the creation of all things, rational and irrational. To which things they add as a consequence, that He is of mutable nature, and capable both of virtue and vice. And this hypothesis being once assumed, that He is “from things which are not,” they overturn the sacred writings concerning His eternity, which signify the immutability and the Godhead of Wisdom and the Word, which are Christ. [14]

The Christological significance of Arius’ claims were of immense concern to the early church. If the Savior is not God, it destroys our salvation. Emperor Constantine thought the ongoing debate was a matter of semantic disagreement and sought to gather the opponents for a discussion to settle the matter, thus resulting in the council of Nicea in 325. However, the theologians involved knew the issue was not mere semantics; the difference was between pure Christian orthodoxy and heresy.

After the Nicean Council met, the most prominent voice in opposition to Arianism because Athanasius even though Arius had since died and been condemned as a heretic. One of the primary concerns of Athanasius was the co-essential nature of the Father and the Son and the inability of some to understand what was decided at Nicea. There were those who opposed the findings of Nicea altogether, thus siding with Arius. On the side of orthodoxy, Athanasius described the anti-Arian bishops as follows:

But the bishops who anathematized the Arian heresy, understanding Paul’s craft, and reflecting that the word ‘Co-essential’ has not this meaning when used of things immaterial, and especially of God, and acknowledging that the Word was not a creature, but an offspring from the essence, and that the Father’s essence was the origin and root and foundation of the Son, and that he was of very truth his Father’s likeness, and not of different nature, as we are, and separate from the Father but that, as being from him, he exists as Son indivisible, as radiance is with respect to light, on these grounds reasonably asserted on their part, that the Son was ‘Co-essential.’ [15]

How Did Arianism Help the Church?

Not all controversy in the church has an adverse effect, especially in the early years of Christianity. Arianism forced the Church to solidify its Christology. Beginning with Nicea and following through the arguments of Athanasius, the church was able to defend and articulate the orthodox understanding of Christ’s divinity and eternality. Furthermore, the hypostatic union was defined thus answering the questions of the heretics about immutability and impassibility. The church’s trinitarianism was more narrowly defined, highlighting the divine mystery, yet emphasizing the unique personhood of each member of the Trinity while maintaining strict monotheism.

21st Century Christians ought to be thankful for God’s providential design in the Arian controversy. While many “Arians” exist today (e.g. Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses), orthodox Christian believers can rightly worship Christ, not as a co-existent man, but as a sufficient Savior and mediator. Additionally, Christians can joyfully recite the Nicene Creed knowing it is a true statement of Christian belief having come through the fires of controversy to defend the true divinity and personhood of the Son of God. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

—–

1. Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2004), 109.
2. Thomas G. Weinandy, Does God Suffer? (Notre Dame: Notre Dame Press, 2000), 33.
3. Rowan Williams, Arius: Heresy & Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 49.
4. James B. H. Hawkins, Alexander of Alexandria: Translator’s Introductory Notice, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume VI: Fathers of the Third Century: Gregory Thaumaturgus, Dionysius the Great, Julius Africanus, Anatolius and Minor Writers, Methodius, Arnobius (Buffalo: Christian Literature Company, 1886), 290.
5. Ibid., 291.
6. Letham, The Holy Trinity, 109.
7. M.R. Barnes, introduction to Arianism After Arius: Essays on the Development of the Fourth Century Trinitarian Conflicts, ed. M.R. Barnes (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993), xvii.
8.Letham, The Holy Trinity, 110.
9. Opitz, U.30, 64.20-1.
10. Williams, Arius, 96.
11. Letham comments, “The logic here is that since everything created came into being out of nonexistence, and the Word of God is a creature, so the Word of God also came into being out of nonexistence. Thus, God was not always Father, for before he created the Son he was solitary” in Letham, The Holy Trinity, 112.
12. Athanasius, “De Synodis”, tr. by John Henry Newman and Archibald Robertson from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Vol. 4, ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Buffalo: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1892), accessed on August 9, 2013 http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/.2817.htm.
13. Letham, The Holy Trinity, 113.
14. Hawkins, Alexander of Alexandria, 292.
15. James Stevenson and B.J. Kidd, eds., Creeds, Councils, and Controversies: Documents Illustrative of the History of the Church A.D. 337-461 (New York: Seabury Press, 1966), 44.

(By: Nick Kennicott)

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6 thoughts on “Did Arianism Help the Church?

  1. More seriously though, great article. It is interesting to note that

    1. The Lord has often used controversy and challenges to refine the biblical understanding of His church. While that wouldn’t make us contrarian, it should also make us aware that controversy isn’t always sinful and wrong. Sometimes it is for our providential purification and refinement.

    2. The Historic creeds are not scholastic attempts to go beyond Scripture, they are orthodoxy’s defense against those who seek to solve what they see as logical fallacies in God’s Word. Typically, the creeds are simply preserving mystery and paradox against the onslaught of those who can’t humbly live with it.

    From one Church History geek to another, thanks for your work on this.

    1. Thank you for bringing us back to the serious, we know how hard that is for some people.
      Anyway, I appreciate your statement about the creeds because I think the confessions from the Reformation and Post Reformation period serve the same purpose. All the more reason for churches today to adopt a solid confession of faith.

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