Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Arians are Not Skinheads

Hey, everyone. Before we get started with the new post I wanted to mention something. Since this blog started, some friends and relatives have subscribed who have other things to do than study theology. So what I'm going to do is use the fancy theological lingo for the budding theologians among us and then translate it into street-speak for the normal people. So here we go!
In the fourth century, a real ruckus broke out between the popular deacon Arius, and his bishop Alexander. The fireworks started down around Alexandria (Egypt, not Louisiana). Like so many of the day, Arius wanted to protect the monarchy of the Father (mone-arche, "one principle"). That is, there is only one divine principle of Deity in the Godhead, and that is the Father. To say that the Son was divine would split up the Godhead, or so they thought, so they naturally agued that the Son was less than fully divine, sort of a subprime version of deity. Arius argued that the Son was a creature, a created being like the rest of us, yet he gave the nod to the Son's greatness by conceding that he was the first and greatest among creatures. To sum up his insistence that the Son was created and hence did not eternally exist, Arius maintained that "there was a time when he was not." Arius must have been very popular, for in Alexandria, riots broke out as his followers marched in the streets, carrying signs saying, "There was when he was not." (I'm not making this up!) Even in the pubs, people made up drinking songs in tribute to Arius' teaching. You have to give Arius credit: How many of us preachers and teachers have had people write drinking songs about what we have to say?
Now, I don't want to make the Arians out as bad guys. I doubt they were. The traditional text book view of them, however, is that they were Jesus-haters who couldn't accept his divinity. But recent scholarship says that ain't so. Arius' concern was primarily soteriological (having to do with human salvation). He thought that in order to be saved, we had to submit to the will of the Father in the same way the Son did. In other words, for Arius salvation meant imitation, doing what Jesus did just the way he did it. In order for that to be possible, the Son had to be a creature (a created being) like the rest of us, else we didn't stand a chance of imitating his submission to the Father's will. Where Arius got off on the wrong foot, however, is that he saw salvation as a matter of performance (imitation). We get saved if we perform well. Apparently, grace was something he did not understand, so he advocated a salvation by works. So that let's us in on the soteriological concerns that drove the Arians. Face it: His followers didn't riot in the streets because they were concerned with theological hair-splitting. They mistakenly thought their salvation hinged on the incarnate Son being a less than fully divine creature capable of imitation. But let's move on.
What were the philosophical and theological presuppositions that drove the Arians (and to a certain extent, the orthodox party)? Here's the deal: At the root of the Arian controversy was subordinationism, the view that Christ and the Spirit, in deriving their deity from the Father (as was the prevailing idea of the time), were in some way ontologically (having to do with the essence or being of something) subordinate to the Father. In short, they were less divine than the Father. Subordinationism was all over the place in those days, and here's why: The whole thing was based on Greek (read: pagan) philosophy. Remember, this whole Arian thing got started in Alexandria, one of the premier centers of Hellenistic (Greek) culture. According to Greek philosophers from Parmenides to Plato to Plotinus, the Divine is "immutable," which means, simply, that God does not change (Don't go quotin' script-cha out of context, now.). On the surface that sounds alright, but Baby, there are boo-coo problems with that idea (more in future posts). In academic jargon, the Greeks posited a dualism, an ontological gulf, between Deity and materiality (I like to wax academic occasionally. Ain't it fun!) Although the rest of us live in an imperfect world of constant change, according to Greek thought, Deity is remote, aloof, unmoved (unchanging), and utterly transcendent (way up there all alone by itself). In its static perfection, Deity is immutable; it does not change. Change in the Deity was ruled out from the beginning by Plato's maxim that any change in a perfect being could only be for the worse (We need to talk about that one Plato Baby). That means that the Divine can have no interaction with creation, for to do so would make it somehow conditioned (changed) by creation.
Alright, enuf! To the point: So what's a remote, unchanging Deity to do? You send a less than divine intermediary to deal with that world of dirt down there! So here it comes: The Greek notion of divine immutability, with its correlate that Deity can have no interaction with the world, led some Christian thinkers to assert that the Son (and later the Spirit) is a subordinate deity, that is, a less than fully divine intermediary between the world-transcending Father and creation, sort of a cosmic go-between, if you get my drift. See how that works? If the Big Guy, as fully divine, cannot dirty his hands with materiality (for that would induce change), then he sends the less than fully divine Logos (the preincarnate Son) to do the work for him. In short subordinationism allows the world-transcending Father to keep his hands clean while the ontologically subordinate (less than fully divine) Logos acts as intermediary to engage creation.
Here's another thing, and this is straight from Arius. If the Logos is divine, then the incarnation and suffering of Jesus would mean change in God, and that is a no-no. Therefore, the Logos is not divine. (Unfortunately, the orthodox party held a similar view and the way they handled the problem was not cool. More later.) And one more thing, Arius said that if the Son is begotten of the Father's substance (ousia: being, essence), then the being of God can be divided up (changed). See how it all gets back to the Greek notion of divine immutability? And one more one more thing, Arius argued that if the Son is "begotten" he must have a beginning in time. Hence, the slogan, "There was when he was not." (He didn't get the idea of eternal generation.) So the long of it is this: according to Arius, the incarnate Logos is a less than fully divine, created intermediary between God and the world. The short is this: Jesus ain't God. (Take heart, little ones; Arius was dead wrong!)
Catherine Mowry LaCugna, a Roman Catholic theologian, says that Christian thinking (both orthodox and not) in both the fourth century and today has been severely constrained by the philosophical presuppositions of Greek (pagan) thought. (BTW, many theologians today decry the Greek pagan influence on the "Christian" doctrine of God. Barth, Torrance, Gunton, Jenson, Kruger, Bloesch, Pinnock, Sanders, and many others say the same thing.) Just a note in passing: Some theologians were much more influenced by Greek thought than others (Can you spell A-u-g-u-s-t-i-n-e?).
Moving on: All this fuss, including rioting in the streets of Alexandria (Can you believe it?) threatened the stability of the empire. So Constantine, who was no political dummy (he saw Christianity as the glue that could hold the empire together), convened a great council to settle the Arian controversy, and take care of a few other issues at the same time. That's right: You guessed it, Bubba. I'm talkin' 'bout the first great ecumenical council held at Nicaea in 325 A.D. This is where the Arian party and what would become the orthodox party went at it. To make a long story short, the Arians did not fair well at the convention. Fact is, they were shouted down by the many present who were appalled at some of their teaching. Under the leadership of Alexander of Egypt, and his young but brilliant compadre Athanasius, the Nicene theologians hammered out the words routinely read in churches all over the world. Jesus is God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Of one substance with the Father (homoousios to Patri), Begotten not made (a direct jab at the Arian assertion that the Logos was created). In short, the Nicene theologians asserted the now orthodox view that Jesus is fully God; he shares the divine substance (ousia) equally with the Father. Thankfully, the orthodox party did not allow Greek philosophy, with its notion of divine immutability, to rule the day. Instead, they relied on the biblical witness where Jesus himself says, "I and the Father are one," and "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father." The Council of Nicaea proclaimed the Good News that Jesus really is the full revelation of God. He is not somehow less than or different from the Father. He is not merely like God; he is God. In short, he's the real deal!! In the loving eyes of Jesus, the very one who has united you, me, and the entire cosmos in eternal union with God, we peer deep into the very loving heart of God. Hooray!!
So let's end this post here. Here's the thing to remember: the Arian argument that Jesus was a subprime deity was rooted in the pagan presupposition of divine immutability. The world-transcending God can have no commerce with creation, so he sends a less than fully divine intermediary, the Logos to do the dirty work. The Nicene party (the good guys), however, held to the biblical revelation, relying on the words of Jesus himself rather than the presuppositions of Greek thought, to assert that the incarnate Son is very God. Jesus is the real enchilada!!
P.S. The Arian controversy did not end at Nicaea. It took a lot of work from Athanasius and those wild and crazy Cappadocians to finally put it to rest. But we'll get to that in a later post. Adios!


  1. Great post Martin! I didn't know that an Arian soteriology centered on performance and imitation.

    That's quite a condemnation to a lot of modern evangelical theology which is also deeply rooted in imitating Jesus as the means to holiness - whether it is following his morality or copying his ministry strategies.

    At least Arius recognized the dilemma in his own theology by (wrongly) trying to bring Jesus down to our level. Modern evangelicalism doesn't even see a dilemma, it just blithely goes along correctly claiming Jesus is divine and incorrectly claiming that we are called to imitate him in order to make ourselves into children of the Father. (I'm thinking of the praise chorus that says "He came from heaven to earth/to show the way" when Jesus himself said "I AM the Way!" Jesus came to be the way to the Father, not show us the way to him).

    No wonder modern Christians are burnt out and our society hears this distorted, hamster wheel version of the gospel and says "thanks but no thanks!"

  2. I love wht you said, Jonathan. Jesus doesn't show us the way, he is the way. Man, that let's us relax in the arms of our loving Savior and leave the drivin' to Jesus. What a deal! Say hello to the joy-filled brothers and sisters in Nashville for me. Can't wait to get back up there!

  3. Martin, this is a GREAT POST. I am forwarding it to every protestant pastor un the U.S. Actually, NOT. But I wish I coud.

    Your ability to assimilate with adroit acumen to get to the real point of the matter is refreshing.

    Now my comment. We see this WWJD motto, bracelet, bumber sticker etc all aroung. We obviously know what Jesus DID and He would DO any and everything right and Godly today. But we are NOT Jesus.

    Every time I use WWJD do as a criteria for my decision to DO anything, I always fall short. He can and I can not. ( at least most of the time.)

    This concept of IMITATION of Jesus and His life is IMPOSSIBLE for fallen children of Adam and is supremely DISCOURAGING.

    My concern is NOT WWJD, but WDJD, or What Did Jesus DO! He did it all for all of us. What we NEVER could have done as humans Jesus did perfectely as the Incarnate Son of God.

    He did it TO us and FOR us because He wanted to. He wanted RELATIONSHIP with us inside the life of the Triune God-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Adoption ) He wrapped His giant arms around all of us and took us all into the intimate Holiness of the Relationship He shares with the Father and the Spirit. "He really likes us." He really wants to be with all us forever.

    Martin you and Jonathan make it so clear. Love you guys.

    Paul Kurts
    Madison, Alabama

  4. Thanks Paul,

    The WWJD idea is great in theory but it can lead to shame and guilt when we fail. WWJD is a high bar, one that I fail to reach everyday. To bring in what Jonathan said, the Good News is that Jesus doesn't show us how: he is How! As the New Adam he has done all the WWJD'ing required.

    He left us two commandments (really only one going in two directions, sideways and up): Love God and love your neighbor . . . I can't begin to handle that the way he did but I do try, I really do try. And sometimes I do what appears to be a reasonable job, then I pass by the person with the flat tire and realize, as I keep driving,that I ain't nearly there. Thank you Jesus for loving me like I am and doing for me what I never could.

  5. Wonderful post that will be quoted in a sermon I'm preparing on Jesus as our Mediator. What great news that He is really one substance with the Father, not some lesser being.

    I appreciate the Father's great sense of humor being revealed in your writing!

  6. Thanks Glen,

    I am thrilled to know that you will share some of what I have written with your congregation. That's what this blog is all about. Thanks for the encouragement, Brother!

  7. Wow! There are Trinitarian bloggers everywhere! I sure apprecieated the original post here and all the comments. I, too, did not realize the soteriological implications of Arius' position on the deity of Jesus...that was eye-opening! Thanks! As to the praise song phrase about Jesus coming to earth to "show the way," perhaps we could just sing it with the understanding that He came to Earth to REVEAL "The Way" - The Way: Himself! (enough exclamation marks, you think?) Sidenote: Pastor Jonathan - thanks for allowing Jesus to minister gently to me through you) As far as the Arians being finished, I have to disagree - among various WCG offshoots, there is a group teaching basically the same thing -and my father-in-law is one of their adherents. I gave a sermon a year or so ago, and talked about the Triune God quite a bit (the sermon had the original title of "Love") My mother-in-law had a tape copy of it and recently passed it on to him - he was shocked that I believed in the Trinity! I have never directly challenged him on the issue, as it would NOT have been the loving (or pleasant!) thing to do. But the cat is out of the bag now - we'll see what the Father, Son and Spirit have in mind now.


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