Soundings

Arianism

Dec 2013    

Among the many heresies related to the person of Christ, arguably the most threatening was Arianism, named after its founder Arius (d. 336), a dynamic and popular presbyter in the Church of Alexandria.

Adhering to a strict monotheism, Arius and his followers felt compelled to reject the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity because they were unable to subscribe to the doctrine that the Son is of the same essence as the Father. To hold this view, they argued, is to introduce a division into the very being of God.

As the Patristic scholar J.N.D. Kelly puts it: “The fundamental premise of his (Arius’) system is the affirmation of the absolute uniqueness and transcendence of God, the unoriginate source of all reality.”

On the basis of this fundamental and inviolable assumption, Arius developed his theology of the Son that was partly influenced by Greek philosophy and partly due to his idiosyncratic interpretation of certain passages of Scripture. Arius listed a number of passages from both the Old and New Testaments that suggested to him that the Son was a creature that the Father had brought into being.

For example, many early Christian writers associated wisdom in Proverbs with the Son of God. Yet, as Arius pointed out, in Proverbs 8:22, wisdom declares that “The Lord fathered (LXX: ‘created’) me at the beginning”. Turning to the NT, Arius argued that Paul in Colossians 1:15 made the same point when he unequivocally asserted that the Son was the “first-born of all creation”. Arius therefore taught that the Son was a creature that God had brought into being out of nothing. This has at least two important implications, namely, that the Son is not self-existent and that he has a beginning. Thus, in response to his orthodox detractors, Arius protested: “We are persecuted because we say that the Son has a beginning whereas God is without beginning.”

As creature, the Son also does not have direct knowledge of God. Neither does he enjoy direct communion with the Father. “The Father”, wrote Arius, “remains ineffable to the Son, and the Word can neither see nor know the Father perfectly and accurately …” The presbyter also employed the word “begotten” which the orthodox Fathers had used to refer to the Son to support his theory. He argued that to describe the Son as begotten of the Father is to suggest that he had a beginning.

For Arius, however, the Son is the most splendid of God’s creatures. He is a perfect creature that must be distinguished from the rest of God’s creation. Arius even suggested that the Son was created at a special “time” between eternity and time as we know and experience it. Most significantly, Arius argued that God the Father worked through the Son to bring the world into being. And the Son continues to serve as the agent for God’s continuing work of providence and governance.

As Kelly perceptively points out, Arius’ teaching has in effect reduced the Son to a demigod. But, despite the excellences of his being, for Arius and his followers, the Son is but a creature. He is therefore not co-equal and co-eternal with God, the Father.

When the Arian controversy reached the ears of Emperor Constantine, he called a great council of bishops in an effort to prevent a schism in his empire. More than three hundred bishops attended the council that was held in the city of Nicaea in 325. It produced one of the most important theological statements in the history of the Church – the Nicene Creed.

The fathers of the council opposed the teachings of Arius and his followers and upheld the deity of the Son. In the words of the Creed, the Son was “begotten, not made, of one substance (Greek: homoousios) with the Father”. The Creed therefore insists that the Son is to be worshipped and glorified together with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

Through the Creed the Church anathematises anyone who does not hold that the Son is co-eternal and co-equal with the Father and the Spirit. Apart from its clear statements about the deity of the Son, the Nicene Creed also confesses the Church’s faith in the mystery of the triune God.

Picture of Michaelangelo’s painting “The Creation of Adam” by savcoco/ Bigstock.com

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands

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