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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The Role of Tradition in the Early Church

Above, St. Irenaeus of Lyons

If the scriptures are the Word of God, how does tradition play a role in the church without undermining the uniqueness of the scriptures? How does it benefit the church without undermining biblical study? Many Protestants today take the approach of rejecting altogether any extra-biblical tradition. But is this healthy or safe?

Tradition has always been around ever since the conception of the church. And in fact, it was very important during the first five centuries of the early church. To understand the importance and role of tradition, it’s important to get a glimpse of how the early church fathers understood tradition.

Alister McGrath, in his Historical Theology, says this about the early church:

A movement known as Gnosticism emerged as a major threat to the Christian church during the [first century], partly on account of the fact that its teachings were similar to those of Christianity itself.Many Gnostic writers argued that salvation was achieved through access to a secret teaching, which alone ensure that believers would be saved. The “secret knowledge” in question, for same Gnostic writers, was almost like a form of “cosmic password”. When someone died, their spirit was liberated from its physical prison, and it was free to begin its long and complex journey to its final and glorious destination. To get there, it needed to get past series of potential obstacles, for which the “secret knowledge” was required.

Some Gnostic writers argued that this secret oral teaching had been passed down from the apostles, and that it was to be found in a “veiled” form in the Bible. Only those who knew about the Bible in a certain way would gain access to this knowledge, which was not publicly available…. (pg 37)

So within the first few decades of the church, Gnosticism had emerged which threatened orthodox teaching. And the problem was that they claimed to have a secret interpretation of the scriptures which they had received from the apostles. Something which was novel and different from the teaching of the other churches. How was the early church to combat this?

McGrath explains:

In response to the threat from Gnosticism, a “traditional” method of understanding certain passages of the Scripture began to develop. Second-century patristic theologians such as Irenaeus of Lyons began to develop the idea of an authorized way of interpreting certain texts of Scripture, which he argued went back to the time of the apostles themselves. Scripture could not be allowed to be interpreted in any arbitrary or random way: it had to be interpreted within the context of the historical continuity of the Christian church. The parameters of its interpretation were historically fixed and given. “Tradition” here means simply “a traditional way of interpreting Scripture within the community of faith”…

[Specifically], Irenaeus…argues that the living Christian community possessed a tradition of interpreting Scripture which was denied by heretics. By their historical succession from the apostles, the bishops ensure that their congregations remain faithful to their teachings and interpretations (pg. 38)

Irenaeus’ argument was that there was an historical, orthodox interpretation of the scriptures that went back to the apostles, and was passed down to the bishops of that time. One cannot simply have their “own interpretation” of scripture. Novelty is no friend of the church. It must go back to the traditional interpretation of the apostles and bishops. In this way, “tradition” is seen as a historically “verified” interpretation of scripture, passed on to the bishops and so on from the apostles. An interpretation which could be trusted.

And Irenaeus wasn’t the only which argued this. McGrath also cites Tertullian, saying:

A similar point is made by the Roman theologian Tertullian, in an early third-century analysis of the sources of theology dedicated to demonstrating the weaknesses of the heretical position. Tertullian here lays considerable emphasis upon the role of tradition and apostolic succession in defining of Christian theology. Orthodoxy depends upon remaining historically continuous with and theologically dependent upon the apostles. The heretics, in contrast, cannot demonstrate any such continuity (pg 39)

McGrath quotes Tertullian who says,

If the Lord Jesus Christ sent out apostles to preach, no preachers other than those which are appointed by Christ are to be received, since “no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son has revealed him”, and the Son appears to have revealed him to no on except the apostles who he sent to preach what he had revealed to them. What they preached…ought, by this ruling, to be established only by those churches which those apostles founded by their preaching and, as they say, by the living voice, and subsequently through their letter (pg. 39)

Tertullian says that only teaching which proceeds from the Father, to the Son, to the apostles, and to those sent by the apostles, is to be accepted as orthodox. That is, only biblical interpretation which follows this historical line is to be considered orthodox. Again, tradition is this historically verified interpretation passed on by the apostles.

As time went by, into the fifth century, another theologian Vincent of Lerins developed this thought on “apostolic tradition”. McGrath says:

Writing in the aftermath of the Pelagian controversy, Vincent of Lerins expressed his belief that the controversies of that time had given rise to theological innovations, such as new ways of interpreting certain biblical passages…But how could such doctrinal innovations be identified? In response to this question, he argues for a triple criterion by which authentic Christian teaching may be established: ecumenicity (being believed everywhere), antiquity (being believed always), and consent (being believed by all people). This triple criterion is often described as the “Vincentian canon”, the word “canon” here having the sense of “rule” or “norm”…

The problem that Vincent hopes to resolve is: how are authentic Christian teachings to be distinguished from those of heretics? (pg. 40)

So Vincent had this triple criterion: believed everywhere, always, and by everyone. One cannot simply just come up with a novel interpretation. It must find itself in line that rule of faith.

So then, tradition was the historical interpretation of the scriptures passed from the apostles down throughout the centuries. And when verifying a correct interpretation of scripture, all one need do is ask: is this believed everywhere, always, and by everyone?

In this light, tradition is not in competition with the scriptures, but actually protects them! But even more important, no Christian should approach the scriptures a-historically. Meaning, Christians today find themselves in this big saga called the Christian church, with smarter and godlier men and women before us. We must approach the scriptures, standing on their shoulders, depending on the apostles and the churches after them.