This post is a companion to the Heretics podcast found on the Podcast tab at the top of this page; and a continuation in our series of looks at the ancient heresies of the church and a refutation of them using good theology and hermeneutics.
Today we get a look at perhaps the most notorious heretic in church history; a man so entrenched in Biblical heterodoxy, that even the man who would be Santa Claus punched him in the face. While that story may or may not have happened; it does serve to illustrate the illicit fame of today’s subject: Arius.
He was born in Ptolemais, which is in modern day Libya in 256, and died under interesting circumstances in 338 in Constantinople which; according to the song is now Istanbul. If you have no idea what I just said, shame on you; look it up, it’s a fun song. In between those two dates, Arius was a presbyter, an ascetic, and a priest. All in all, he was a devoted teacher of theology.
Arius was a controversial figure for the majority of his ministry owing to his associations, stances, and teachings. He was part of the forerunners of the Donatist controversy as a cohort of Melitius of Lycopolis, and Arius was excommunicated from and reinstated to the Church several times during his life. Even his death is controversial, as depending upon which side of the fight you were on; he was either murdered by his opponents or righteously judged and killed by God. His death is recorded for us in Socrates Scholasticus’ Church History in chapter 38 as follows:
It was then Saturday, and Arius was expecting to assemble with the church on the day following: but divine retribution overtook his daring criminalities. For going out of the imperial palace, attended by a crowd of Eusebian partisans like guards, he paraded proudly through the midst of the city, attracting the notice of all the people. As he approached the place called Constantine’s Forum, where the column of porphyry is erected, a terror arising from the remorse of conscience seized Arius, and with the terror a violent relaxation of the bowels: he therefore enquired whether there was a convenient place near, and being directed to the back of Constantine’s Forum, he hastened thither. Soon after a faintness came over him, and together with the evacuations his bowels protruded, followed by a copious hemorrhage, and the descent of the smaller intestines: moreover portions of his spleen and liver were brought off in the effusion of blood, so that he almost immediately died. The scene of this catastrophe still is shown at Constantinople, as I have said, behind the shambles in the colonnade: and by persons going by pointing the finger at the place, there is a perpetual remembrance preserved of this extraordinary kind of death.
What teaching could possibly lead to such animus and division? I’m glad you asked. The easiest way to catalogue Arius’ teaching is to quote it as directly as possible. In order to do that, we must rely on his opponents as much of Arius’ writings were burned or otherwise destroyed during various purges by orthodox believers and teachers. A quality summation of the Arian teaching appears to be: if the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence: and from this it is evident, that there was a time when the Son was not. It therefore necessarily follows, that he [the Son] had his substance from nothing.
That is earth shattering teaching as it says in summary; the Son, who is Jesus, had a beginning. Jesus is therefore not eternal, and must therefore be of some substance other than God.
Why would that view, as held by the Arians, be considered heretical? I’ll take silly questions for one thousand Alex. For starters, Arius’ teaching presents an aberrant view of Christ Himself. This view rejects the Biblical testimony and infers a logical definition based upon human categories of existence and being. I think Arius was attempting to formulate a logical definition of Christ, and while that may sound good; spoiler alert: it isn’t.
I take this line of definition, because I truly believe Arius sought to be faithful; you can hear his concern and conviction in his letter to Eusbeius of Nicomedia: Some of them say that the Son is an eructation [which is a burp], others that he is a production, others that he is also unbegotten. These are impieties to which we cannot listen, even though the heretics threaten us with a thousand deaths. But we say and believe and have taught, and do teach, that the Son is not unbegotten, nor in any way part of the unbegotten; and that he does not derive his subsistence from any matter; but that by his own will and counsel he has subsisted before time and before ages as perfect as God, only begotten and unchangeable, and that before he was begotten, or created, or purposed, or established, he was not. For he was not unbegotten. We are persecuted because we say that the Son has a beginning but that God is without beginning.
You can see clearly the distinction in Arian theology between the Father and the Son. You can also hear the passion with which Arius taught and believed. This is not a man who has forsaken God, but it is a man who has forsaken Godly definitions based upon Scripture alone. Arius is a heretic because he has moved his foundation away from the word of God and to some other source. So what is the testimony of Christ, according to Scripture that makes Arius’ view of Jesus sub-Biblical?
For starters, Jesus and God are one in the same according to John 1:1, and extended really throughout the first chapter of the Gospel of John. John gives you his thesis statement for his Gospel in John 20:30 – 31; that you would know and believe. Know what; specifically the proof that John is offering which is the deity of Christ. That is why the Gospel is presented the way it is, from declaration in chapter 1, to proof in chapter 2, to exposition in chapter 3, to dominion in chapter 4, to testimony to these truths in chapter 5, to demonstration of the power in chapter 6, and so on to the end of the book. You have in John 8:58 – 59, and John 10:31; the same outcome of all of this: the people understood Jesus’ claim and sought to put Him to death for blasphemy. What was Jesus’ blasphemy in their minds? Jesus’ claiming of equality with God: power, authority, etc.; in alignment with who He is.
Arius and his teaching and influence is the reason that Council of Nicea was called, and their official report on the nature of Christ is the final nail in the coffin for the Arian point of view. The Nicene Creed was later amended by the Council of Constantinople in 381; but the core of the 325 creed was left intact and unaltered; primarily because it is the creedal definition of Biblical truth. So what did that original formulation say? It said, And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God,] Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father, and it further declared: But those who say: ‘There was a time when he was not;’ and ‘He was not before he was made;’ and ‘He was made out of nothing,’ or ‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’ or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’— they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.]
That is unmistakable, because the Bible is unmistakable. Writing at the end of both his life and career as an apostle of Christ, Peter begins his second letter with an introduction grounded in the truth of Jesus and His identity. Peter calls Jesus: God and Savior in verse 1:1, and equates Jesus with God in verse 2. He concludes his introductory sentence in verse 3, by proclaiming Jesus as having His own divine power that has been granted to believers through knowledge of Jesus.
Nicea is orthodox, not because it is Nicea; but because it is a faithful and consistent declaration of Biblical truth. Arius is a heretic, not because he rejects Nicea; but because he rejects the clear Biblical truth contained within the Nicene formulation of the revelation of God found in Scripture. That leads us to how we should refute this heretical idea.
Our starting point in all of these things, and the goal of the Heretics Podcast, is to build up and upon a Biblical worldview. Our goal is to follow the sage wisdom and Godly council of 2 Corinthians 10:6, and bring every thought and idea to the foot of Christ in obedience and submission. We wish to cast aside the wisdom of the world, and therefore of ourselves; and agree with Isaiah 5:21 to not be wise in our own eyes. That means our starting point is always Scripture; we seek to be informed by the Bible, not the other way around.
This is the catastrophe that Arius fell into: seeking to be faithful; he went beyond the Scripture in an attempt to understand and explain God and Christ. Once again, who is Christ? He is the One who was and is equal, but for a time emptied Himself in obedience to the plan of God; just as Philippians 2:5 – 11 gives testimony. That means the redemptive plan of Yahweh required one of the persons of Yahweh, in this case the Son; to be obedient and dependent upon another person of Yahweh, the Father, through the work of the Spirit.
Jesus is fully God, and fully man. I say that, not because I am comfortable with it, or because I even truly and fully understand it. I say it, because that is how the Bible portrays God. Jesus undoubtedly claims the divine authority; just as we mentioned above. But He further claims it in places like Revelation 1:8; again, not because Jesus is divisive; but because He was God. This was the point of Peter’s first sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2; we know Yahweh approved of Jesus, because otherwise; Jesus would still be in the grave.
Beyond this self-designation, we get the testimony of the Old Testament. We’ve covered before, and probably will again, the Daniel vision of chapter 7:13 – 14, where the Son of Man receives the power and dominion of God. God will not share His glory with another as Isaiah 42:8 makes clear; so this Son of Man, must be capable of wielding and holding God’s power: He must therefore BE God. Likewise, what other King could rule eternally in fulfilment of the promise of 2 Samuel 7:13. And what other King could bring judgment and wrath against the nations, save for the eternal God as presented in Psalm 2:10 – 12. This is the clear presentation and understanding of Scripture; and can only be rejected through either ignorance of the teaching of Scripture, or open-eyed defiance of the clear meaning of the text.
Scripture paints a crystal clear picture; this is Trinitarian theology at work. We have one God, in three persons; which does not make logical sense to finite, physical beings, in time. But this is the presentation of God in Scripture: He is one as Deuteronomy 6:4 plainly states, yet we worship, and honor three as the command of Matthew 28:19 – 20 also makes clear.
This last point matters because of where the Bible comes from. 2 Peter 1:21 is our hallmark, as also 2 Timothy 3:16 – 17 should be; that the Bible comes from God. Within that book there are descriptions of beings and ideas that I do not and cannot understand. That is why, as a faithful believer, it is incumbent upon me to study and teach what Scripture presents and teaches; not what I think is best.
To fail to do this is to fall into the original trap of Satan from Genesis 3:1, and answer wrongly the question: Did God really say? Yes, yes He did clearly say; and I will not walk the path of the apostate as in Isaiah 29:13, and Matthew 15:8 by elevating my thoughts and doctrines to that of God. Instead, I will follow Hebrews 12:1 – 2, and follow after Christ, as He is presented in Scripture. Do I understand it fully; no. Am I okay with that; yes. Because that is the marvelous God who has saved me; and that is the wonderful God who will complete His work in my heart, mind, and life.