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Challenges to the Christian Faith in Jesus Christ
The full divinity of Jesus Christ as it was witnessed in the Scriptures (both Old and New Testament) came to be undermined in the beginnings of the fourth century. This conflict which made Christ less than God came to be known as Arianism since it was propagated by Arius, a pious priest of Alexandria, yet one who had unfortunately swayed in his teaching on Christ as the Theanthropos (that is, Christ as both divine and human). Indeed, his theology had caused such turmoil in Alexandria and the Empire at large, that the Emperor Constantine was compelled to convene a council in Nicaea in 325AD (which subsequently came to be known as the First Ecumenical Council) to deal with this matter so as to establish doctrinal unity in the Church.
However, in order to appreciate fully the reasons which led Arius to such false teachings regarding the person of Christ it is necessary firstly to consider some earlier theological expressions which had been formulated by proponents of two great schools of theology – that of Alexandria and the other from Antioch. The most notable representative of the former was Origen (ca 185-254) whilst Paul of Samosata (d. 272), a bitter opponent of Origen came from the Antiochian school of theology. In their emphasis of different aspects of the person and work of Christ, these two schools were important since they offered different perspectives to the profound and inexhaustible mystery of Christ. Yet when taken to their extreme, the Christology, which representatives of these schools put forward could lead to dangerous and heretical Christological conclusions.
It would be the council of Chalcedon in 451 which would successfully reconcile the two schools of thought in its teaching that Jesus Christ was 'perfect in Godhead and perfect in humanity, truly God and truly human… acknowledged in two natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably'. Therefore, before discussing and evaluating the teaching of Arius, who coming from Alexandria was still influenced by the Antiochian school of thought, a basic survey of the two great catechetical schools will be presented as they provide the context for understanding the christological conflicts of the time.
Before Chalcedon, however the patristic debates over the person of Christ basically centred on affirming either the divinity of Christ (also called Logos [Word] – cf Jn 1:1) or his genuine humanity. Whilst most early fathers took the humanity of Christ as a given, what required further elucidation was Christ's divinity. Later on, it would be the human nature of Christ which came to be undermined requiring the Church to express accurately its experience of the genuine humanity of the Word incarnate. That is, the early Church had to articulate precisely the relationship of Christ to his heavenly Father – was he fully divine and therefore akin to the Father or was he a creature separated by an unbridgeable gap. The early Christian Church had to find terms to express the reality of Jesus Christ as both human and divine whilst remaining monotheistic (belief in one God), that is, not being seen to fall into any form of pagan polytheism. Specifically, they had to express in what way the incarnate Word was related to God yet also distinct from God the Father.
The Schools of Alexandria and Antioch
The two great catechetical schools of theology – that of Alexandria and Antioch – which had arisen in the Church emphasised different aspects of the twofold inexhaustible and mystical character of Christ. Whilst the Alexandrian school, from which Arius came stressed the incarnation of the Word – that is, the Son of God who had become 'flesh' (Logos-sarx Christology) the Antiochian emphasised the human side of Christ (Logos-anthropos). Strongly soteriological in character, the Alexandrian school rightly believed that Jesus Christ was the redeemer of the world taking the human person into the very life of God. In order to achieve this, the eternal Son of God, they claimed, was united with human nature thereby enabling it to share in the very life of God. That is to say, the Son of God became human so that humanity might be united with divinity. Far from simply dwelling within humanity, the eternal Logos became flesh (cf Jn 1:14) by assuming human nature in order that He may redeem it.
At the time of Arius, it was bishop Alexander of Alexandria who, representing this school spoke not only of the co-eternity of the Son of God with the Father but also his eternal generation (anarchos gennesis) from, and unity with, God. Indeed for bishop Alexander both God and His Son were inseparable from one another. The danger of this school was that they could be led to dismiss the humanity of Christ and see Him purely as God (as did a group known as the Monophysites in the fifth century) or, in their concern for divine redemption, reject Jesus Christ since a 'human being' (which by definition was created) surely could not be in a position to save another creature. Arius could not see how God could mingle with the historical and limited condition and therefore thought that he should remain in his complete transcendence.
Before Arius, Origen had also proclaimed that the Son of God was subordinate to the Father thereby reducing the Son to a creaturely status. And so, Arius, coming out of this same school (which in and of itself was not a bad thing) but taking certain peculiar teachings of Origen to their extreme underlined the human side of Christ but at the same time denied his divinity. That is to say, he affirmed the absolute uniqueness of God but in so doing denied that the Son of God was co-eternal with the Father.
The school of Antioch, on the other hand was known for its stress on the human nature of Christ and the absolute uniqueness of God. Founded by the martyr Lucian (d. 312), one of its famous pupils, however was Paul of Samosata. Upon being consecrated to the bishopric, Paul of Samosata very quickly aroused much suspicion regarding his teaching on Jesus Christ. Indeed several synods were held, which finally condemned him in 268 (it was the synod of Antioch). Many scholars believe that Arius was influenced to a great extent by the theological principles of this school as well. Even though Arius would have claimed to be a representative of the great school of Alexandria, one can see nonetheless that in wanting to stress the distinctiveness of Christ's human nature (in his case, at the expense of the divine), he was most certainly influenced also by the school of Antioch as well.
In wanting to safeguard the humanity of Jesus, Paul of Samosata went too far by claiming that Jesus was simply 'an ordinary man in nature' in whom the Spirit of God had only later come to dwell – he taught that Jesus was 'adopted' and raised by God to be the Son of God at his baptism. Indeed the union between the man Jesus and the eternal Logos was described by Paul in terms of 'indwelling' (enoikesis) or 'inspiration' (empneusis) thereby reducing Christ to an inspired prophet whose body God 'rented' in order to make His Logos manifest. The danger of his thought was that the one person of Christ was in danger of being thought of as two distinct persons – the man Jesus as opposed to the divine Son of God.
The teaching of Arius
Born in Libya in 256, Arius was formally educated within the Alexandrian tradition and became a priest to a major congregation in Alexandria. In opposition to bishop Alexander of Alexandria, who believed that the Son was eternally generated from God the Father and therefore divine, Arius affirmed the absolute uniqueness and transcendence of God and thereby taught that the Logos was dissimilar from the Father. Arius defended God's absolute uniqueness in a letter he sent to bishop Alexander:
We acknowledge one God, who is alone ingenerate, alone eternal, alone without beginning, alone true, alone possessing immortality, alone wise, alone good, alone sovereign…
From this he was led to conclude that the Word of God was a creature (ktisma) or a demigod and not of the same 'essence' with God. The term 'essence' is a word coming from the Latin word esse meaning 'to be'. Therefore by essence was simply meant the 'being' or nature of God (i.e. the 'what' of God). It was therefore believed that Christ shared the same divine nature as the Father from whom He was begotten. Indeed he taught that Christ's essence (or being) was 'alien from and utterly dissimilar to the Father's essence and individual being'. Yet if the Son was not divine with exactly the same divinity as the Father he could not save or redeem the world.
Undoubtedly, Arius' motive for such a belief was his concern to protect the transcendence (or absolute otherness) of God. Even though the Eastern Orthodox tradition claims that the 'essence' of God is entirely unknowable, impalpable and ineffable, it nevertheless asserts that the Son of God shares the same divine existence as God, His Father. Indeed the famous catch-phrase of Arius regarding the Logos was "there was a time when he [i.e. the Son of God] was not" . In this way, Arius taught that the Son of God had a beginning and was therefore not co-eternal with God. Finally, this led Arius to state that since the Son of God was a creature then he was also liable to change and indeed even to falling into sin. Not only did this reduce Christ to a mere creature - even though, according to Arius an exalted one at that - but it also introduced a radical distinction between the two person of the Holy Trinity which led Arius to argue that the Son of God "who has a beginning is in no position to comprehend or lay hold of the one who has no beginning". One can see that Arius had reduced the Christian message to Hellenistic philosophy which separated, at all costs the transcendent God from the world, or in the specific case of Arius, a radical separation of God from His Son, Jesus Christ.
The Nicene Response
In opposition to Arius, the Council in Nicaea underscored the divinity of Jesus Christ and His equality with the Father in no uncertain terms. Specifically, certain fathers of the church, such as Athanasius of Alexandria, and later on Basil the Great, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory the Theologian of Nazianzus affirmed that the Son and Word of God - incarnate in human form as Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, the Christ of Israel - was not a creature, but truly divine with the same divinity as God the Father. Far from being the result of speculation, the fathers of the Church were motivated purely out of soteriological concerns – if Christ was anything less that 'true God from true God' then He could not save the world since only God can save and redeem.
It was precisely this reason which led the Patristic tradition to affirm that Jesus was God incarnate. In order to find an accurate term, which could adequately depict the precise nature of the relation between the Father and the Son the term 'homoousios' (of the same essence) was suggested and ultimately it prevailed. That is to say, the fathers of the Church claimed that Jesus Christ was of the same essence as God the Father. Therefore 'of the same essence' meant the kind of substance common to the Father and the Son – that is, in the sense of a generic unity. The term 'homoiousios' (of a similar essence) – note the subtle difference [indeed a variation only of one letter in the Greek] had also been proposed as a compromise since it declared the close proximity between the Father and the Son without precisely speculating on the nature of that relation. This however was rejected since the Scriptures explicitly witness to the divinity of the Word of God.
The doctrine of Christ as consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father preserved for the Church of all ages the faith that Jesus is indeed the divine Son of God, of one essence with the Father. The definition of the First Ecumenical Council which was approved on 19 June, 325 and signed by the 318 bishops who were present reads as follows:
We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of all things, visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten from the Father, that is from the essence of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one essence with the Father, through whom all things were made, both those in heaven and those in earth; for us and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate, became human, suffered and rose up on the third day, went up into the heavens, is coming to judge the living and the dead.
And in the Holy Spirit.
But as for those who say, there was when He was not, and before being born He was not, and that He came into existence out of nothing, or who assert that the Son of God is from a different hypostasis or essence, is created, or is subject to alteration or change – these the catholic Church anathematizes.
Firstly it is important to note that the above Creed of Nicaea is slightly different to the 'Nicene Creed', as we know it today. The Nicene Creed, as it is known today is the result of certain emendations and additions (the five extra articles, for example on the Holy Spirit) which were made to the above creed at the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople (in 381AD). Nonetheless the above definition made it clear that the Son of God was 'begotten' (i.e. born or generated) from the Father and not simply created like the world was created from he will of God. It would be the Council of 381 which would add begotten 'before all ages' to make it absolutely clear that the Son of God was born before the commencement of time and was therefore co-eternal with the Father.
Thus, not only was there never a time when the Son of God was not but also the Son of God was generated from the very same being and nature as God the Father. Besides this was simply the Scriptural witness of Christ as we have it in the Gospel according to St John:
He [the Son of God] was in the beginning with God [the Father]. (Jn 1:2).
Indeed the verse continues by stating that the Son of God was with the Father in the original act of the creation of the world:
All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being. (Jn 1:3).
And so the Father is maker of heaven and earth but the Son of God was the One who accomplished His Father's will. Furthermore this was also St Paul's teaching:
For in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Col 1:16-17).
Thus, in line with the biblical witness, the Son of God was confessed as One 'through whom all things were made'. Later the Patristic tradition would declare that the Holy Spirit is the perfecting cause of the world.
The Creed of Nicaea continued by emphasising that the Son of God who always existed with the God Father is essentially the same as the Father in all attributes. Therefore if the Father is 'light' so is His Son, if the Father is 'God' so is His Son. Just as God was considered to be ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, ever-existing, eternally the same and loving, so too was His Son. Indeed the Son of God was defined as being of the same essence with God – that is, possessing exactly the same divinity as God, His Father. Just as human persons, for example, give birth to human persons, so too God gave birth to His Son, the only-begotten of the Father who was consubstantial with Him. The divinity of the Son was further emphasized in the Credal phrase, 'came down from heaven' which simply meant that the origin of the Son of God is not the created world but the divine existence of God which is outside the bounds of time and space. Clearly the council declared and proclaimed that Jesus Christ was God in the same sense that the Father is God.
1. Arius was a devout person who could not see how God could be seen to mingle with the historical and limited condition and therefore believed that God should remain in His complete transcendence. It was out of a deep respect and awe for the greatest abyss of God which led Arius not to accept the divine nature of Christ.
2. Whilst founded by Clement of Alexandria (d. 215), the greatest theologian of the school of Alexandria was Origen (ca. 185 – 254). Indeed, before Origen there is little serious theological reflection on the person of Christ.
3. The Definition of Chalcedon.
4. The Greek text reads, 'allelon achorista pragmata duo', cited in J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 225.
5. Even though there is much debate regarding the theological education of Arius where some place him within the Antiochian tradition under Lucian, in his classic work entitled Christ in Christian Tradition Grillmeier placed him within the Alexandrian school of theology.
6. Cited in J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 227.
7. J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine, 225-30.
8. Interestingly by essence the early Church meant the kind of substance common to several persons or things that exist within the same class and not the numerical unity of substance. By homoousios the fathers of the Council of Nicaea underscored in an explicit way their belief that the Son shared the same divine essence as His Father and was thus fully God. It did not connote substantial unity of the Godhead as the term 'essence' later came to be used – i.e. three Persons, one essence.
9. Cited in Athanasius, Against the Arians, 1,6.
10. Cited in Athanasius, Against the Arians. The original Greek reads as follows: 'en pote oti ouk en'.
11. Cited in Athanasius, Ep. Encyc., 10.
12. Cited in Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), 284.
13. Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, vol. 1: Nicaea I to Lateran V, ed. Norman P. Tanner (Washington: Georgetown University Press, 1990), 5.
Philip Kariatlis< Back to the articles list