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!
Many years ago, when I was a young man in Bible college, one of my theology professors said to the class, “When I wake up in the morning, ...
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in th...
Ash Wednesday is a fitting day to begin a series of weekly posts on T.F. Torrance’s understanding of the atonement of Jesus Christ. All pre...
Universalism and Limited Atonement Comment: Barth and Torrance are often wrongly "accused" of being universalists. They are not....