Christian thought and understanding, as many know it today, didn’t just happen within one supernatural moment in time. Nor did it mature within the context of an ivory tower where a group of intellectuals engaged in some sort of Socratic dialogue involving an expert who would expound the truths of God in order to promote critical thinking. Christian thought and understanding developed over a prolonged period that involved a serious level of discernment and faithfulness in relation to Biblical truth. The early Christians had to develop a set of correct beliefs (orthodoxy) to combat incorrect beliefs (heterodoxy). However, the difficulty resided in the very thing that they were trying to develop, that is, what was to be considered orthodox and what was to be deemed as heretical? Among the many historical heresies that Christianity had to contend with, Arianism was one of the more prominent. Arianism challenged the person of Christ on various levels, which forced the church to develop a more focused understanding of the Trinity. Understanding the implications that this particular Christological heresy attempted to put forth should reveal just how significant the doctrine of the Trinity is to Christianity. This paper will explain the development and claims of Arianism, while, at the same time, reveal the theological weaknesses within those claims by showing how the church responded directly to Arianism through the Creed of Nicaea (A.D. 325).
Prior to jumping headlong into Arianism, there are several significant points that need to be made in order to maintain a proper and neutral perspective on the person behind the teaching. Arianism originated sometime around 318 A.D. in Egypt through the teachings of Arius (c. 256-336), a presbyter of the church in Alexandria. In an effort to protect monotheism, Arius set out to correct the prevalent belief that Christians believed in three gods or three distinct divine persons. This may seem quite peculiar to modern Christianity; however, it is important to note that the Church, at this period in her history, did not have any formal spelled out writing on God’s triunity. It is also equally important to recognize early on that Arius, in his efforts to protect the belief in one God, did not set out to teach a heretical message. Quite the contrary, Arius and his followers identified themselves as Christians who believed that their Christological doctrine was correct. In fact, it was the highly influential teachings of Arius, and those who opposed his teaching, that fueled the great controversy over the Trinity that ultimately led to the Nicene Creed. Considering this, an explanation of Arius’ teachings can now be presented.
Arius’s teaching was centrally focused on the relationship between God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son, which, in turn, ended up affecting the Holy Spirit as well. Arianism has its roots within Origen’s teachings: The Father is greater than the Son, who in turn is greater than the Holy Spirit; however, Arius brought a radical monotheism to Origen’s system. Rather than being of the same substance (homoousios) as God, Arius asserted that the Word (Logos) who took on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ was created by God and therefore, had a different nature than God the Father. In essence, Jesus Christ was separate from God, yet similar (homoiousios) to God. At the same time, however, Arius maintained a somewhat exalted view of Jesus Christ by teaching that God the father created the universe through the Son, but nonetheless he was a creature who God made out of nothing (ex nihilo).
By saying that God created Jesus Christ out of nothing, Arius removed the belief that Jesus Christ was eternal with the father by giving him a beginning – ‘There was once when he was not.’ Of course, this teaching communicated a message about the Holy Spirit as well because if Jesus Christ is not equal with God the Father then nor is the Holy Spirit equal. Like his teaching on Christ, Arius taught that the Holy Spirit was also created by God the Father. Ultimately, Arius placed Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit in a subordinate position to God the Father, which causes Arianism to fall under the umbrella of subordinationism.
There are several theological pitfalls that exist in Arianism that stand out for modern Christians; however, it must be remembered that Arianism was a new school of Christological thought that many assented to. Not everyone saw the error in Arianism. For example, Arius made Christianity easier to understand by leading some to think of Christ as a sort of divine heavenly being. Arius accomplished this by elevating Christ above human beings and the angels, but at the same time he kept Christ one step lower than the eternal and almighty God. Regardless, this would mean that there were at least two gods in view, which surprisingly, Arius affirmed. Arius found his way around this error by teaching that when Christians referred to Christ as God they were merely accepting that he was deity only in an approximate sense (a heavenly being). This allowed Arius to maintain his strict belief and understanding of monotheism by concluding that the Father alone is God. In other words, everything else is apart from the Father and because of the separation, everything else has a beginning, including the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Through his Christological teaching Arius was able to gain a significant following. Although he was vehemently opposed by his bishop Alexander, Arius looked elsewhere and found acceptance among other bishops in the East, as well as a number of Origenists, such as his friend Eusebius of Nicomedia, who he wrote a letter to concerning the approval of his teaching. The emperor Constantine, in an effort to unify the empire through the church, called the first official ecumenical council of the Christian church, which met in the ancient city of Nicaea. This event is known as the Council of Nicaea.
Addressing the Creed of Nicaea (325)
The Creed of Nicea met in response to the teaching of Arius in June 325. What resulted from the Council was an anti-Arian creed known as the Creed of Nicaea. The Creed of Nicaea is simply the original version of the Nicene Creed, which was revised later at the Council of Constantinople (381) to further define the doctrine of the Trinity. The first point of interest in the Creed of Nicaea is the phrase ‘begotten of the Father’ and it deservers careful attention.
There is a sharp contrast between Arian and Christian orthodoxy on how the term “begetting” is understood. On the one hand, the Arians embraced an empirical interpretation of Sonship, which resulted in a literal reading of those passages in Scripture that called Christ – God’s only begotten Son. Naturally, the Arians leaned heavily on passages such as John 1:14; 3:16, and 1 John 4:9 in order to strengthen their arguments. To the Arians, “begotten” must mean that Jesus Christ was brought into existence by God the Father. Their understanding of the word relied heavily on anthropomorphic interpretation: the word “beget” in human experience refers to the father’s role in conceiving a child. Their interpretation implied inferiority because human begetting meant that the infant was inferior to the parent. The Cappadocian Father Basil, addressed this issue years after the first council occurred by showing that generation (the process of being begotten) was eternal. He accomplished this by appealing to analogies such as the sun’s rays, “There never was a time when the sun existed without its rays (radiance).” Nevertheless, the Arians remained unconvinced and they continued to maintain their stance on the term “begetting.”
On the other hand, the church interpreted the term “begetting” theoretically, which forced them to be in direct opposition to Arian belief over Jesus Christ’s relationship with the Father. The church upheld the belief that Christ was fully and completely God and argued that the phrase “only begotten” was not just a mere substitute for the word created. Thus, the Creed of Nicea states, “begotten, not made.”
There are several other phrases within the Creed of Nicea that address Arian Christology, all of which were covered previously in this reading. If one were to recite the Creed at this point, the individual should find that certain keywords and phrases are obvious anti-Arianism statements. Phrases such as ‘begotten of the Father’ and ‘begotten not made’ should signal that Jesus Christ is eternal. The phrase that states Jesus Christ is ‘true God from true God’ is a response to the Arian belief that only the Father is ‘true God’ (radical monotheism). One would also notice that the extrabiblical Greek word homoousios (of one substance) is used rather than homoiousios (similar). And finally, the included anathemas at the end of the Creed should signify to the reader that the Church recognized just how vital it was to affirm the full deity of Christ.
After Nicaea, the Church was one step closer towards developing a solid Christian orthodox in regards to the doctrine of the Trinity. However, the battle against Arianism was far from over. Nicaea inadvertently split the church into two major theological groups that had varying differences in their Christological doctrine regarding the Trinity: The Nicene party (the West) who were clear on the full deity of Christ, and the Origenists side who Arius appealed to. It is important to note that the Origenists did not fully assent to Arianism. The Origenists did not see Jesus Christ as a creature made out of nothing; however, they failed to understand how Christ was equal to God the father. For this reason, after the formation of the first Creed, those who didn’t assent to the full deity of Jesus Christ were considered semi-Arians. This meant that Arius, although condemned, still had a foot in the door and he maintained a subtle voice that the emperor Constantine, who leaned heavily towards semi-Arianism, permitted in order to achieve unity within the empire.
Among the many adversaries who carried on the fight against Arianism was Athanasius of Alexandria (Alexander’s successor) who argued for the full deity of Christ. Understanding Athanasius’s argument will dismantle several of Arianism’s claims with one magnificent sweep.
Athanasius argued several theological points against Arianism; however, his strongest argument was soteriological. For Athanasius, “If the Son of God is not “truly God” in the same sense as the Father, then salvation as re-creation is impossible. Only God can undo sin and bring a creature to share in the divine nature.” In another statement, Athanasius put forth the following question, “And how, were the Word a creature, had He power to undo God’s sentence and to remit sin, whereas it is written in the Prophets, that this is God’s doing?” Athanasius maintained that to save humankind Jesus Christ needed to be fully God and fully human. Furthermore, to be fully God, Jesus Christ needed to be eternal with God the father and without a beginning. Recall, that Arianism reduced Jesus Christ to a creature that God made out of nothing. According to Athanasius, this ultimately robs the Son of his exalted status as a deity, which results in Jesus Christ to be a mere creature who is incapable of reconciling humankind back to God the Father. Therefore, Athanasius concluded that salvation is dependent upon Jesus Christ being of the same (homoousios) substance as God.
The Arian argument continued and eventually the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa) joined in the controversy. During the middle and late decades of the fourth century a viral and aggressive form of Arianism known as Eunomianism began to take hold. Eunomianism claimed that “full Trinitarianism denied the unity and immutability of God and was a disguised form of paganism.” In addition, they revitalized the argument surrounding the word begot, but from a different angle. They claimed that the Son was subordinate to the Father because the Son was “begotten” while the Father’s very essence was “unbegotteness.” This distinction meant that the Son was not equal to the Father. Momentarily, it must have seemed that Athanasius’ efforts were all for naught; however, Basil successfully argued against the Eunomians by declaring that “God’s essence was incomprehensible because God is holy and his ways are not our ways and his thoughts are not our thoughts.” In other words, to claim to know the very essence of God, who is incomprehensible, is sinful pride. Basil and the two others ultimately protected the mystery that the Eunomians were trying to simplify and comprehend.
The Cappadocian fathers addressed many of the issues that the Council of Nicaea neglected to address. For example, with so much focus placed on the relationship between the Father and the Son – the Holy Spirit, which was in clear view during first century Christianity, became somewhat of an afterthought. It was the arguments of the Pneumatomachians (also known as the Macedonians) that spurred the Cappadocian fathers to clarify the person of the Holy Spirit. The Pneumatomachians subordinated the Holy Spirit to the Father and Son, arguing that the Spirit was a created being – a force from God, sent from the Father through the Son. The Cappadocian fathers appealed to Scripture and reason in order to refute the Pneumatomachians. They successfully showed, with clarity, that God can be and is one united being.
Scholars agree that without the work of the Cappadocian fathers, it is quite possible that an Arian or semi-Arian creed might have eventually been accepted by the majority of bishops and by a powerful emperor. If that were the case, then, Christianity would be an entirely different religion than what it currently is. Fortunately, the Council of Constantinople of 381 put the Arian heresy to rest. The Nicene Creed came into its full form at the second ecumenical council and from that point forward it has been accepted as Christian orthodox.
It should be clearly seen now that Arianism challenged the person of Christ on various levels, which forced the church to develop a more focused understanding of the Trinity, which culminated in the Doctrine of the Trinity as seen in Nicene Christianity. Luther is credited for saying, “One never knows when God might strike a heavy blow with a crooked stick.” Arianism was definitely a heavy blow from a crooked stick and Athanasius and the Cappadocian Fathers dealt with it magnificently. In all reality – We think because they first thought for us.
Contemporary Reflection & Significance
At its very core, Arianism denied the deity of Christ, which ultimately removed his ability to be a savior for human kind. The result of such a low view of Christ is perilous because it leaves mankind inevitably attached to Adam. Today, Arianism rears its head wherever Jesus Christ is not claimed to be both fully God and fully human. Although they don’t confess Arianism, the modern Jehovah’s Witnesses fall into the same exact Christological heresy as the Arians. Rather than confess that Jesus Christ is fully God they believe that he was the incarnation of the archangel Michael. To this matter, theologian Roger Olson claims “all Christians have Athanasius to thank that the theology of Jehovah’s Witness is not the ‘orthodoxy’ of most of Christendom.” In other words, Christians today can be thankful that the Christians then thought first for us and developed what has been widely accepted as orthodoxy.
The question remains: What can Christians today glean from the false Christological teachings of Arius? If anything, Arius shows that it is not enough just to have a high view of Christ rather Christians need to have a high-view coupled with correct understanding. In addition to a high and exalted view of Christ, Christians in all times must rightfully affirm that Christ is fully God and fully human, which Athanasius and the Cappadocian Fathers correctly showed.
Finally, Christians today live within the context of Post-Modernism where everything is placed under the microscope of subjectivity. Even the question of the existence of truth is a part of the current discussion. This is where the Nicene Creed can offer Christians something to cling to. Through its many precise statements, The Nicene Creed, as interpreted by the Chalcedonian Definition, gives a clear and concise orthodoxy of Trinitarian belief. It holds together all of the relationships within the Trinity in an eternal state with no beginning or end while at the same time it combats contemporary Christological and soteriological heresies that arise in order to explain away what God has deemed should be mystery. The Nicene Creed gives Christians a solid truth proclamation that protects them against current Christological and Trinitarian discussions that were closed so long ago. In that sense, then, the Nicene Creed is both an answer to the then and the now, and therefore, it has contemporary significance. Again, and this can’t be stressed enough – we think the way we do because so many who came before us thought first. In closing, then, may we continue to think in such a way that will cause those after us to find strength in what we thought.
. Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 4th ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 107.
. Roger E. Olson, The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity & Diversity (Downers Grove, Il.: Intervarsity Press, ©2002), 137.
. Olson, 137.
. Ibid., 142.
. Ibid., 144.
. Anthony N.S. Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought. Completely rev. and expanded ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, ©2006), 28.
. Shelley, 107.
. Larry Hart, Truth Aflame: Theology for the Church in Renewal, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, ©2005), 127.
. Lane, 28.
. Hart, 127.
. Olson, 142.
. Shelley, 107.
. Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, Documents of the Christian Church, fourth ed. (Oxford, NY.: Oxford University Press, ©2011), 41-2.
. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, 149.
. Lane, 29.
. Dennis E. Groh and Robert C. Gregg. Centrality of Soteriology in Early Arianism (Anglican Theological Review 59, no.3: ATLA Religion Database with ATLA Serials, EBSCOhost, 1977), 263.
. Grudem, 243.
. Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, ©1994), 243.
. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, 181.
. Grudem, 243.
. Lane, 30.
. Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, ©1999), 163.
. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform, 169.
. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, 175.
. Ibid., 175.
. Ibid., 181.
. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, 181.
. Ibid., 21.
. Olson, The Mosaic of Christian Belief, 235.
. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, 160-1.
Bettenson, Henry, and Chris Maunder. Documents of the Christian Church. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Gregg, Robert C, and Dennis E Groh. 1977. “Centrality of soteriology in early Arianism.” Anglican Theological Review 59, no. 3: 260-278. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed November 3, 2016).
Grudem, Wayne A. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, ©1994.
Hart, Larry. Truth Aflame: Theology for the Church in Renewal. Rev. ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, ©2005.
Lane, N.S., Anthony, A Concise History of Christian Thought. Completely rev. and expanded ed. Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Academic, ©2006.
Olson, Roger E. The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, ©2002.
Olson, Roger E. The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, ©1999.
Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language. 4th ed. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013.
This is quite impressive. I just completed a class in early church history and loved it. Thanks for this very important teaching!
You’re quite welcome Saleama. Thank you for your comment.