Advent Series – Arianism (2)

This is part one of a series on the Christological Heresies of the 5 centuries of Christianity. Although we can’t cover all of them, we’re going to cover the big four. This week, we take a look at what happens when we fail to recognize the Son as fully God.

As the Church began to see the New Testament as a cohesive whole rather than a collection of authoritative letters, it was forced to struggle with passages which identify Jesus as part of the divine identity along side passages which clearly portray Jesus as a human. In general, the Church was satisfied to affirm that Jesus was truly divine as well as to affirm that he was truly human (the specifics of how that was possible will be covered in week 4 of this series). However, there were dissenting voices.

Arianism – It’s History and Development

Around the year 318, the so-called Arian Controversy broke. Arius, a presbyter serving under Bishop Alexander of Alexandria began to teach that the Son was actually a creature. This, so believed Arius, helped to safeguard the utter uniqueness of the Father as the one and only God. Building extensively upon the theology of Alexandrian theologian Origen, he posited that the Son was the very first creature, and that all other creatures were created by the Son.

This theology was met with significant opposition, and ultimately declared to be heresy at the First Council of Nicaea in 325. Lest anyone believe Dan Brown that this was a close decision… the traditional number of attendees is 318, and of those 318 there were only two dissenters who affirmed the Arian doctrine.

Now, although this heresy seems manifestly wrong on the surface, the struggle was that Arius’ arguments were rooted firmly in Scripture. He argued from various passages that the Son could not be eternal if he is also said to be the firstborn of all creation. He questioned the very idea that a Son could exist without having a beginning… what would it mean for someone to be begotten if not that they started to exist at some point. This is enshrined in Arius’ famous maxim “There was when he was not” which, in point of fact was part of a poem known as the Thalia which was used as a popular jingle by which to spread his ideas.

The response from Alexander and other orthodox figures was to point out that if there was a point where the Father was not the Father, then the unchanging and eternal God at some point underwent a significant change. At the end of the day, the mainstream position was enshrined in the Creed of Nicaea and became orthodoxy.

Systematic Issues

This position presents some serious theological problems that undermine the very fabric of Christian theology. Primarily, if we lose sight of Christ as a divine person we now no longer have a suitable sacrifice for our atonement. A created being cannot pay the infinite price required to reconcile us with God.

This ends up being a very real issue for modern Christians, as one of the most significant sub-Christian cults in existence is the Watchtower Society of Jehovah’s Witnesses. This group is very active in missionary endeavors and because of the shared language they use, are often confused (by Christians and non-Christians alike) with genuine orthodox Christianity. However, like Arius, they argue that the Son is the first and greatest creation (they associate him with the Archangel Michael).