The Christological Heresies: Arianism

Continuing in my examination of the early church heresies concerning Christ, in this post I want to consider the Arian heresy.

That Christ was human was, to the earliest church father, fairly self-evident. But, was Christ just human? Was he also divine? And if he was divine, how divine was he? And how did this square with the Jewish concept of monotheism? This was the question of the earliest theologians of the church.

During the first century, the church dealt with different heresies concerning this question: on the one side, an early Jewish sect of Christianity, Ebionitism, posited that Jesus was not divine at all; He was simply an Old Testament prophet. On the other side, Docetism (akin to Gnosticism) taught that Christ was only divine, and that his human nature was only apparent, but not real.

The earliest fathers knew to reject these extreme positions. But their Christology was still being developed. We can see this by looking at Justin Martyr. An early church apologist, Justin was the first to write on Christ’s divine nature. He taught that Jesus Christ was the incarnation, or revelation, of the eternal Logos (knowledge) known from Platonism.  

Alister McGrath explains:

Justin developed… the idea of the “Logos”, current in both Stoicism and Middle Platonism of the period. The Logos (logos is a Greek term usually translated as “word” — eg, as it is found at John 1:14) is to be thought of as the ultimate source of all human knowledge. The one and same Logos is known by both Christian believers and pagan philosophers; the latter, however only have partial access to it, whereas Christians have full access to it, on account of the manifestation in Christ. Justin allows that pre-Christian secular philosophers, such as Heraclitus and Socrates, thus had partial access to the truth, on account of the manner in which the Logos is present in the world.

An idea of especial importance in this context is that of the logos spermatikos (seeds of the Word), which appears to derive from Middle Platonism. The divine Logos sowed seeds throughout human history; it is therefore to be expected that this “seed-bearing Logos” will be known, even if only in part, by non-Christians. Justin is therefore able to argue that Christianity builds upon and fulfills the hints and anticipations of God’s revelation which is to be had through pagan philosophers. The Logos was known temporarily through the theophonies (appearances of God) in the Old Testament; Christ brings the Logos to its fullest revelation… (Historical Theology, 42)

After this, another church father, Origen, borrowed and completed Justin’s thoughts:

It is in the writings of Origen that the Logos-Christianity appears to find its fullest development. In the Incarnation, the human soul of Christ is united to the Logos. On account of the closeness of this union, Christ’s human soul comes to share in the properties of the Logos. Nevertheless, Origen insists that, although both the Logos and the Father are coeternal, the Logos is subordinate to the Father. (ibid, 42)

The Logos-Christology is insufficient: it fails to answer questions concerning the unity of God, and the nature of how the Logos relates to God the Father. However, this helps give context to the Arian controversy. We can observe that the church fathers were wrestling with how exactly to call Christ divine. Justin and Origen opted to use Platonistic categories, explaining Christ as this eternal “Logos” which was only partially known until his full revelation in Christ.

During this time of wrestling, Arius emerged with a view of his own that would proved very controversial. It must be noted that historians know very little about Arius and his life. Even more, we have access to his views only through his opponents.

Generally, however, we know that Arius regarded Christ as being a created being. He is known for saying “there was when he was not” of Christ. God is the only uncreated being. Christ, the Son, is a created being who, while being pre-existent and higher than other beings, is still below the Father.

Alister McGrath explains:

The Father is regarded as existing before the Son…This decisive affirmation places the Father and Son on different levels, and is consistent with Arius’ rigorous insistence that the Son is a creature… There is a distinction of rank between the Son and other creatures, including human beings. [However], Arius has some difficulty in identifying the precise nature of this distinction. The Son, he argues, is “a perfect creature, yet not as one among other creatures; a begotten being, yet not as one among other begotten beings”… (ibid, 44)

So while the Son does pre-exist other creatures, and is perfect above them, he is still created and thus below the Father. For Arius, this explained the balance of scripture: Christ was above all other creation, but distinct from the Father.

How did the early church respond to this position? And what was wrong with Arius’ position?

Saint Athanasius wrote a critique of the Arian position called Against the Arians. McGrath explains Athanasius’ critique:

For Athanasius, the affirmation of the creaturehood of the Son had two decisive consequences, each of which had uniformly negative implications for Arianism. First, Athanasius makes the point that it is only God who can save. God, and God alone, can break the power of sin, and bring us to eternal life. An essential feature of being a creature is that one requires to be redeemed. No creature can save another creature. Only the creator can redeem the creation. Having emphasized that it is God who can save, Athanasius then makes the logical move which the Arians found difficult to counter. The New Testament and the Christian liturgical tradition alike regard Jesus Christ as Savior. Yet, as Athanasius emphasized, only God can save…

The second point that Athanasius makes is that Christians worship and pray to Jesus Christ. This represents an excellent case study of the importance of Christian practices of worship and prayer for Christian theology. By the fourth century, prayer to and adoration of Christ were standard features of the way in which public worship took place. Athanasius argues that if Jesus Christ is a creature, then Christians are guilty of worshipping a creature instead of God (ibid, 44-45)

God is the only Savior — if Christ is Savior, then he is God. Only God deserves worship — if Christians are called to worship Christ, then he is God!

The debate over the Arian controversy came to a close with the formulation of the Nicene Creed, which declared that Christ was “homoousios” of the Father. This is a Greek term which means that Christ is “of the same substance” of the Father. Or, put another way, Christ is the same nature, equal to the Father. This of course logically leads to an affirmation of one divine being with distinct persons — the Trinity!

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