History of Christianity

Photinus: Know Your Heretics

Photinus: Know Your Heretics

Questioning the Trinity

After the Council of Nicaea in 325, the orthodox understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity as three persons sharing one divine essence was not universally agreed upon. One theologian who disagreed was Photinus, the Bishop of Sirmium and the disciple of Marcellus.

 

Did God Choose a Man to Become His Son?

The theology of Photinus veered close to adoptionism by suggesting that the man Jesus was chosen by God to be his Son when he was in Mary’s womb. Photinus denied the doctrine of the pre-existence of the Son.

Photinus elevates man to the place of Son…

Ambrose described Photinus’ theology in his De Fide: “We say that God is One, not as does Photinus, holding that the Son first came into existence in the Virgin’s womb.”

Hilary of Poitiers also spoke of the theology of Photinus in his De Trinitate:

Sabellius denies that there is a Son of God; against him Photinus elevates man to the place of Son. Photinus will hear nothing of a Son born before the worlds… Our present adversaries are ranted in the matter of the Divine nature of the Son… Photinus is convicted of ignorance, or else of falsehood, in his denial of the Son’s birth before the worlds…Photinus maintains His manhood, though in maintaining it he forgets that Christ was born as God before the worlds.

In other words, Photinus did not believe that the second person of the Trinity—the divine Word, the Son of God—existed with the Father in eternity past. He believed there is no second person of the Trinity that existed before the human person Jesus of Nazareth.

 

The Word Was With God in the Beginning

The most straightforward response to this denial of the pre-existence of the Son is found in John 1:1-3. This passage explicitly expresses the fact that the Word, Jesus—who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14)—existed from before creation with the Father. Indeed, it was through him that all things were created.

Hilary of Poitiers cites John 5:17-19 to show that the works of the Father are often executed by the Son. Hilary argued that because the Son has the power to do the same things as the Father, he must have the same nature.

The Word existed from before creation with the Father

Contrary to Photinus’ teaching, the Father and the Son co-existed in complete equality from eternity past, and it was the second, eternally-existing person of the Trinity who took on flesh and became incarnate in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

 

Contemporary Relevance: Jesus Is Fully God

The error of Photinus is important for several reasons. If the Son did not exist eternally with God the Father, then he cannot be fully and completely God. If the Son is merely a man chosen by God to be his son, then Jesus cannot be fully God and fully man.

This error would obliterate the doctrine of the atonement. The reason that Christ can satisfy the wrath of God is that he is fully God, and the reason that he can represent humanity is that he is fully man. Without the doctrine of the pre-existence of the Son, Jesus is merely a man who lived a good life as a spiritual teacher here on earth but can in no way be the savior of the world.

 

The Connection Between Halloween & Reformation Day

The Connection Between Halloween & Reformation Day

Why did Martin Luther nail his famous 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church door on October 31, 1517? He was confronting two religious observances that promoted false saintliness and exploited people’s fear of judgment and purgatory. There’s a curious connection between Halloween and Reformation Day, and it’s more than just proximity on the calendar.

Halloween

Halloween (October 31) is celebrated by millions each year with costumes and candy. Halloween’s deepest roots are decidedly pagan, despite its Christianized name. Its origin is Celtic and has to do with summer sacrifices to appease Samhain, the lord of death, and evil spirits. Those doing the pagan rituals believed that Samhain sent evil spirits abroad to attack humans, who could escape only by assuming disguises and looking like evil spirits themselves. Christians tried to confront these pagan rites by offering a Christian alternative (All Hallows’ Day) that celebrated the lives of faithful Christian saints on November 1. In medieval England the festival was known as All Hallows, hence the name Halloween (All Hallows’ eve) for the preceding evening.

All Saints’ Day

All Hallows’ Day or All Saints’ Day (November 1) was first celebrated on May 13, 609, when Pope Boniface IV dedicated the Pantheon in Rome to the Virgin Mary. The date was later changed to November 1 by Pope Gregory III, who dedicated a chapel in honor of all saints in the Vatican Basilica. In 837, Pope Gregory IV (827-844) ordered its church-wide observance. Its origin lies earlier in the common commemorations of Christian martyrs. Over time these celebrations came to include not only the martyrs, but all saints. During the Reformation the Protestant churches came to understand “saints” in its New Testament usage as including all believers and reinterpreted the feast of All Saints as a celebration of the unity of the entire Church.

All Souls’ Day

All Souls’ Day or the Day of the Dead is normally celebrated, primarily by Roman Catholics, on November 2. This is a day dedicated to prayer and almsgiving in memory of ancestors who have died. People pray for the souls of the dead, in an effort to hasten their transition from purgatory to heaven by being purged and cleansed from their sins.

Reformation Day

Reformation Day (October 31) commemorates Luther’s posting of his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517. This act triggered the Reformation, as they were immediately translated and distributed across Germany in a matter of weeks. The Protestant Reformation was the rediscovery of the doctrine of justification—salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone—and the protest against the corruption within the Roman Catholic Church. The century before the Reformation was marked by widespread dismay with the venality of the leaders in the Roman Catholic Church and with its false doctrines, biblical illiteracy, superstition, and corruption. Monks, priests, bishops, and popes in Rome taught unbiblical doctrines like the selling of indulgences, the treasury of merit, purgatory, and salvation through good works.

Treasury of Merit

Spiritually earnest people were told to justify themselves by charitable works, pilgrimages, and all kinds of religious performances and devotions. They were encouraged to acquire this “merit,” which was at the disposal of the church, by purchasing certificates of indulgence. This left them wondering if they had done or paid enough to appease God’s righteous anger and escape his judgment. This was the context that prompted Luther’s desire to refocus the church on salvation by grace through faith on account of Christ by imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us. To those spiritually oppressed by indulgences and not given assurance of God’s grace, Luther proclaimed free grace to God’s true saints:

    God receives none but those who are forsaken, restores health to none but those who are sick, gives sight to none but the blind, and life to none but the dead. He does not give saintliness to any but sinners, nor wisdom to any but fools. In short: He has mercy on none but the wretched and gives grace to none but those who are in disgrace. Therefore no arrogant saint, or just or wise man can be material for God, neither can he do the work of God, but he remains confined within his own work and makes of himself a fictitious, ostensible, false, and deceitful saint, that is, a hypocrite (Luther W.A. 1.183ff).

Instead of the treasury of merit that was for sale, Luther protested, “The true treasure of the Church is the Most Holy Gospel of the glory and the grace of God” (Thesis 62). In celebration of Reformation Day, you should seriously read all 95 Theses—they’re really good.

Eutyches: Know Your Heretics

Eutyches: Know Your Heretics

Eutyches (378-454) was in charge of the monastery at Constantinople and was second in command, only lower than the Bishop, in terms of authority there.

Is Jesus a Blend of God & Man?

The early church taught that Jesus Christ was one person with two natures—a divine nature and a human nature.

Eutyches was guilty of over-emphasizing the fact that Jesus Christ was one person and blurred the distinction between his divine and human natures. This was opposite of Nestorius’ heresy.

About Eutyches, church historian Stephen Nichols writes: “To him Christ was a third thing (the Latin expression is tertium quid)….One new and different person fashioned out of two natures is how he liked to put it. That is a theological way of saying yellow and blue makes green.”

When asked by Florentius if he believed there were two natures in Christ, Eutyches argued that there was only one nature in Christ after the incarnation:

Florentius

    : “Do you or do you not admit that our Lord who is of the Virgin is consubstantial [with us] and of two natures after the incarnation?”

Eutyches

    : “I admit that our Lord was of two natures before the union, but after the union one nature.”


Orthodox Response: Jesus Is Fully God & Fully Man

In his Tome, Leo the Great offers a beautiful response to the thought of Eutyches: “For just as the God [deity] is not changed by his compassion, so the man [manhood] is not swallowed up by the dignity [of the Godhead].” The human nature and the divine nature in Christ remain distinct and unmixed in the incarnation so that Jesus is truly God and truly man.

Flavian, who was the Bishop of Constantinople, called a synod that met at Constantinople in 448 at which the teachings of Eutyches were deemed heretical.  In the Chalcedonian Creed there are phrases directed toward Eutyches: Christ is “to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one person and one subsistence, not parted or divided in two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Jesus Is Our Representative

Stephen Nichols clearly describes the problem with Eutyches’ teachings: “The problem with stressing the unity without the counterbalance of the two intact natures, as Eutyches does, is that Christ loses his human and divine identity. As such, he is not truly our representative. The Christ of Eutyches falls short of Paul’s teaching of Christ as the last Adam (Rom. 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:42-49).”

The orthodox theologians of the first several centuries saw an intimate connection between the incarnation and the atoning work of Christ.

This is why Leo the Great writes:

    Without detriment therefore to the properties of either substance which then came together in one person, majesty took on humility, strength weakness, eternity mortality; and for the paying off of the debt belonging to our condition, inviolable nature was united with passible nature, and true God and true man were combined to form one Lord, so that, as suits the needs of our case, one and the same Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, could both die with the one and rise again with the other.

 

Know Your Heretics: Marcion

Know Your Heretics: Marcion

The Most Formidable of Heretics

Marcion is one of the most significant heretics in Christian history. His teachings captivated many for centuries after him. Henry Chadwick called Marcion “the most radical and to the church the most formidable of heretics.”

Marcion’s Two Gods and Gutted Bible

Marcion taught that there were two Gods: Yahweh, the cruel God of the Old Testament, and Abba, the kind father of the New Testament. Because of this belief, he eliminated the Old Testament as Scriptures and kept only 10 letters of Paul and two-thirds of Luke’s gospel for his version of the New Testament. He also deleted all references to Jesus’ Jewishness. Marcion’s “New Testament”—the first to be compiled—forced the church to decide on a core of what was considered Scripture: the four Gospels and the letters of Paul.

Making the Bible “More Spiritual”

Marcion’s heretical teachings destroyed the humanity of Christ and assaulted the Christian Scriptures. Because Marcion interpreted Christianity through the lens of a Gnostic philosophy that saw all created things as evil, he wanted to dismiss anything from the Bible that was concerned with the earthly realm. This caused him to cut from the Bible most of the Old and New Testament birth narratives. In his book Antitheses he made a list of what he saw as contradictions between the Old and New Testaments. He saw the God of the Old Testament as the creator of a miserable world, as the author of evil, and as nothing like the Father of Jesus. Because of his disdain for the material world, Marcion argued that any divine redeemer could not be born of a woman. For this reason, he rejected the story of Jesus’ birth.

Tertullian and Irenaeus Lead the Charge Against Marcion

Marcion’s heresy prompted the church to push back and officially recognize the Old Testament as Scripture. Furthermore, his rejection of the humanity of Jesus energized the church to develop a complete defense of it. Tertullian did exactly this in his work Against Marcion in 207-208. Tertullian saw Marcion’s denial of Christ’s humanity as detrimental to Christianity: “The sufferings of Christ will be found not to warrant faith in him. For he suffered nothing [if he] did not truly suffer; and a phantom could not truly suffer. God’s entire work therefore is subverted. Christ’s death, wherein lies the whole weight and fruit of the Christian name, is denied.” Irenaeus also challenged Marcion, saying,

    He mutilated the Gospel according to Luke, removing all the narratives of the Lord’s birth, and also removing much of the teaching of the discourses of the Lord wherein he is most manifestly described as acknowledging the maker of this universe to be his father. Thus [Marcion] persuaded his disciples that he himself was more trustworthy than the apostles, who handed down the Gospel; though he gave to them not a Gospel but a fragment of a Gospel.

Irenaeus writes, Marcion “says that salvation will be of our souls only, of those souls which have learned his teaching; the body, because… it is taken from the earth, cannot partake in salvation.” While Marcion was excommunicated from the church in Rome in 144, because he was a wealthy man, he was able to establish quite a following through the next several centuries.

Marcion’s Views Alive Today

Marcion is relevant today because some contemporary wacky teachings about Jesus and the Bible are merely a restating of his ancient heresies. In his book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins writes,

    The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

This view is quite similar to that of Marcion and still wreaks havoc in the church today. Tertullian was right that if Christ was not truly human then he could not truly suffer, and if he did not truly suffer, then he cannot be the one who has identified with us as fallen human beings, winning our salvation by his atoning death and life-giving resurrection.

Monothelitism: Know Your Heretics

Monothelitism: Know Your Heretics

Did Jesus Have a Human Will?

After the Nicene (325) and Chalcedonian (451) declarations of classical, orthodox, dual-nature Christology, a stream of thought known as Monophysitism (the belief that there is only one nature in Christ) still existed, based on the ideas of Apollinarius. In the seventh century, there was a misguided attempt to reconcile the Monophysites with orthodox thought. This view proposed that “while Christ had two natures, he had only a single ‘activity’…or, better, only a single, divine will” (Henry Chadwick, The Early Church). This belief, known as Monothelitism, was proposed by Vigilius and unfortunately accepted by Honorius I (the Pope from 625-638). It was not until the Lateran Council in Rome in 649 and then later at the sixth ecumenical council at Constantinople in 680-681 that Monothelitism was condemned as heretical.

The Monothelitist View of Jesus

Monothelitism, most staunchly defended by Sergius I of Constantinople, is the teaching that Jesus Christ had only one will. After Chalcedon, the Monothelites were worried that those who posited two wills in Christ (Diothelitism) were guilty of edging ever-so-close to Nestorianism (the belief that there are two persons in Christ, as opposed to simply two natures). If Jesus had both a divine will and a human will, it is difficult, said the Monothelites, to see how he is not indeed two persons—a teaching condemned by Chalcedon. So the Monothelites argued that Jesus had no human will of his own, but was controlled by a divine will from above

.

The Fight for the Humanity of Jesus

During the period when Monothelitism was accepted by the church, many wondered whether the teaching remained faithful to the Chalcedonian formula. One theologian, however, stood against much opposition and eventually gave his life for the orthodox teaching of the New Testament as stated at Chalcedon. His name was Maximus the Confessor (c. 580-662). According to Maximus, the Monothelite error provided (like Apollinarianism) a weak view of the human nature. If normal human persons have a rational will, then Christ too—if he is fully human—must have a rational will. He saw Chalcedon as rightly maintaining the scriptural balance of the divinity and humanity of Christ while allowing the mystical union of the human and divine to exist in Christ. Maximus was imprisoned and tortured for his view, and this punishment eventually led to his death.  Yet, his stand for orthodoxy in the face of intense opposition was later vindicated. According to the Sixth Ecumenical Council of the Church in Constantinople (AD 680-681), there are two wills and two centers of action in Christ, but not two persons:

We likewise declare that in him [Christ] are two natural wills (dyo physika theleseis) and two natural operations (dyo physikas energeias) indivisibly, inconvertibly, inseparably, inconfusedly, according to the teaching of the holy Fathers. And these two natural wills are not contrary the one to the other (God forbid!) as the impious heretics assert, but his human will follows and that not as resisting and reluctant, but rather as subject to his divine and omnipotent will. (Oliver Crisp, Divinity and Humanity)

Why Jesus’ Human Will Matters

While the primary relevance of this discussion concerns Christology, there is also practical relevance for the Christian life wrapped up in this nuanced debate. Namely, how are we to understand the activity of Jesus in the Gospels? “Did the Lord to whom and through whom Christians pray, pray himself?” (The Early Church)

If Jesus had only one divine/human will, he would seem to have no use for prayer. On the other hand, if Jesus had a truly and completely human will alongside of his divine will, prayer would take on a significant importance for the person of Christ. In the foreground, moreover, rings Gregory of Nazianzus’ maxim that that which he did not assume he did not redeem. Once again, if Jesus is the one eternal Son of the Father who for us and our salvation became man, then he must be fully man if he is to serve as the one mediator between God and men.

The Judaizers: Know Your Heretics

The Judaizers: Know Your Heretics

The Rise of the Judaizers

A problem arose in the early church when the apostles took the gospel of Jesus to Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles. When Gentiles responded to the gospel, a conflict arose that threatened to divide the church. A group called the Judaizers opposed Paul and Barnabas at the Council of Jerusalem (AD 50) in Acts 15. They were uncertain that the benefits of the covenant people of God were to be extended to the Gentiles, thus doubting their conversion by the gospel. Paul’s response assures them that the Gentiles had indeed been made partakers in the blessings of the covenant, namely, the Holy Spirit: “And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:8-9).

The Judaizers’ View of Salvation

The Judaizers were teaching that God still required everyone to observe certain rituals and statutes in order to be accepted by him as Father. Paul, in recounting his confrontation of Peter before the Judaizers, gives us an insight into the teaching of this group (Gal. 2:14). Apparently, the Judaizers were attempting to force Gentile Christians to live under the regulations of the Mosaic Law. They are also called the “circumcision party” (Gal. 2:12), because one of the specific elements of the Law that the Judaizers were forcing the Gentile Christians to live by was the practice of circumcision. Peter had withdrawn himself from eating with Gentile Christians, fearing the opposition that would come from the Judaizers who would never do such a thing out of fear of acidentally eating unclean food. However, Paul said Peter’s conduct was “not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14).

The Orthodox Response

Paul’s response is given in Galatians 2:16: “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” Paul’s other response is found in Galatians 5:12: “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!” He suggests self-castration for those who require circumcision for others. Paul made his point clearly. According to Paul and the response drafted at the Council of Jerusalem, the Gentiles were not obligated to follow the restrictions of the Law. They were free in Christ, who had fulfilled the demands of the Law. Paul exhorted the Gentiles to abstain from practices associated with pagan idol worship, not to earn their salvation, but as a response to the life-changing message of the gospel and in gratitude for God’s gift of salvation.

Why Does All This Matter?

While the heresy of the Judaizers was put to rest by the Apostle Paul, the idea behind their erroneous belief still permeates the church today. The issues are no longer circumcision or ceremonial uncleanness, but the question of how the law relates to salvation—or how works relate to righteousness—is still something that many Christians remain confused about today. Paul’s exhortation to the Judaizers remains as important as ever. It is not by works that we are saved, but solely by the grace of Christ. In fact, to add anything to the work of Christ for salvation actually negates God’s grace. Paul says, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if justification were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Gal. 2:21).

Sabellius: Know Your Heretics

Sabellius: Know Your Heretics

The Historical Background

Sabellius, a third-century theologian and priest, was a proponent of modalism. Modalism is a non-Trinitarian heresy claiming that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are simply different modes of God and not distinct persons within the Godhead. Little is known about Sabellius, who was excommunicated in 220 AD, but the teaching attached to his name became infamous and is still with us today.

Sabellius’ View of God

The modalists were rightly concerned with maintaining the oneness of God as well as the full deity of Christ. However, this led them to the error of seeing any suggestion that the Son was a distinct person from the Father as creating a duality within the Godhead. Early historian Hippolytus summarized the modalist position as one in which the names “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit” did not stand for real distinctions in the Godhead, but rather mere names that described the actions of the one God at different times in history. In other words, “Father,” “Son,” and “Spirit” are merely adjectives describing how the one divine Being acts and is perceived. Sabellius used the analogy of the sun to explain his position. In the same way that the sun gives off both light and heat, so also the single divine being radiates in history in different fashions. In creation, the divine Being acts as Father; in redemption, as Son; in the lives of believers, as the Holy Spirit.

The Orthodox Response

The orthodox response to the heresy of Sabellius (and other modalists) came from Tertullian, the African theologian. In Against Praxeas, Tertullian argued that Scripture reveals that the Godhead is three who are at the same time one. He rightly considered this an essential doctrine of Christianity. In the Sabellian modalist view, the three are not anything real, but rather just different manifestations of the one. Therefore, Tertullian proposed that we speak of the Godhead as “one substance (substantia) consisting in three persons (persona).” This terminology would serve as the basis for future Latin theology, and it is from Tertullian’s pen that the important Christian word “Trinity” (trinitas) was first inked.

Why Does All This Matter?

Sabellianism is one of the heresies in Christendom that keeps appearing again and again in different forms. Anyone who has sat in a Sunday School class and heard that God’s Tri-unity is like water in that it appears to us in three forms (liquid, steam, and ice) has been exposed to a contemporary variation of modalism. God is not one person that exists in three different forms at three different times, but three distinct persons concurrently sharing one common essence.

Modalism also reared its ugly head in the classic liberal theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher, and it is even seen today in the “Oneness” sect of Pentecostalism, which clearly denies the doctrine of the Trinity. What is at stake in the debate is not merely fancy theological terminology, but our understanding of God himself. For example, if Sabellian modalism were true, the intimate relationship that existed between the Father and the Son from all eternity (John 17) would be irrational. Modalism undercuts the atoning work of Jesus Christ, as well. If there is only one God who works in different modes of being throughout history, one must question whether Jesus Christ was truly a man, or if he only appeared to be such, as the heresy of Docetism declares. If Jesus Christ is not fully God and fully man, then he cannot be the one mediator between God and man. It is for this reason that the heresy of Sabellian modalism must be rejected, and the biblical doctrine of the Trinity must be affirmed.

Apollinarius: Know Your Heretics

Apollinarius: Know Your Heretics

 

Historical Background

In the years following the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., the church was wrestling with many questions about the person and work of Christ. At Nicaea, the deity of Christ was established as orthodox Christian teaching, but many questions concerning the person of Christ remained. Apollinarius, named the Bishop of Laodicea in 362 A.D., is responsible for Apollinarianism. This view compromises the full humanity of Jesus by suggesting that the eternal logos (Word) replaced the human soul of Jesus and served as the life-giving principle in the body of Christ.

Apollinarius’ View of Jesus

Apollinarius says, “The flesh, being dependent for its motions on some other principle of movement and action…is not of itself a complete living entity, but in order to become one enters into fusion with something else. So it united itself with the heavenly governing principle [the Logos] and was fused with it…Thus out of the moved and the mover was compounded a single living entity—not two, nor one compound of two complete, self-moving principles” (Apollinarius, “Fragment 107”).

J.N.D. Kelly, a prominent scholar of doctrinal history, writes, “The presupposition of this argument is that the divine Word was substituted for the normal human psychology in Christ.” Put differently, the humanity that was assumed in the incarnation was not a complete humanity but lacked a significant component of personhood. Apollinarius believed, then, that Jesus was only partially human.

The Orthodox Response

The teaching of Apollinarius was condemned at Antioch in 378 and 379 and by the Council of Constantinople in 381. The primary defender of theological orthodoxy was Gregory of Nazianzus, a 4th century Eastern theologian and the Archbishop of Constantinople. He saw Apollinarius as compromising the saving work of Jesus: “If anyone has put his trust in him as a man without a human mind, he is really bereft of mind, and quite unworthy of salvation. For that which he has not assumed he has not healed; but that which is united to his Godhead is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also; but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten, and so be saved as a whole” (“To Cledonius Against Apollinarius”). In other words, if all of Adam was lost and ruined by the Fall, then Christ, the second Adam, must put on all that Adam possessed in order to restore human nature and live the life that Adam failed to live. These issues regarding salvation motivated Gregory to articulate a Christology faithful to the Bible.

Why Does All This Matter?

If Apollinarius is right and the “Word” replaced the human soul of Jesus, we are left wondering how Christ can be fully human. Far from lacking a normal human psychology, the Gospels depict Jesus as being completely human in the way he experienced sorrow, pain, and other genuinely human experiences. Certainly Jesus Christ was fully God, as the council of Nicaea maintained, but he was also fully man. And it was his deity—as well as his humanity—that allowed him to be our perfect substitute, the mediator between God and humanity for us and for our salvation.

Arius: Know Your Heretics

Arius: Know Your Heretics

 

Historical Background

Arius (256-336 A.D.) is the most famous heretic of Christian theology. He was born in Libya and died in Constantinople. Arius held a prominent position as a priest in the Church of Alexandria when he started a theological controversy in 318. Arius denied the eternal deity of Christ and his equality with the Father. He argued that Christ was created by the Father. Since the age of the Apostles, Jesus had always been considered divine by his followers, but his precise relation to the Godhead had not yet been defined. Thanks to Arius, the Trinitarian controversy regarding the status of Jesus Christ erupted.

Arius’ View of Jesus

Arius did not believe that the Father and the Son were of the same substance. Instead, he believed in the eternal functional and ontological subordination of the Son to the Father—that the Son was a lower being than the Father. According to Arius, the Son was created before time. In other words, he was not co-eternal with the Father. As he put it, “Before he was begotten or created or appointed or established, he did not exist; for he was not unbegotten” (Letter to Eusebius). Furthermore, the Son was not of one divine substance with the Father. He was rather of a similar substance with the Father (homoiousios). On this view, the divine qualities of the Son are given to him by the Father. Arius claimed that when the Scriptures speak of Jesus as the “Son” of God, it is merely a title of honor—a title given to Jesus as the one on whom the Father had lavished a special grace. Thus, Arius says, “He is not God truly, but by participation in grace…He too is called God in name only” (Early Christian Doctrines).

Orthodox Response

The theology of Arius became so controversial that Constantine intervened in 325, calling the Council of Nicaea. Athanasius, the leading defender of Nicene orthodoxy and the most prolific writer of orthodox Trinitarian doctrine in the fourth century, saw a major flaw in the writings of Arius and called his heresy the “forerunner of the Antichrist” (Athanasius, Or. Ar. 1:1).

According to Athanasius, the Son was eternally begotten from the Father such that he can be said to be of the same essence (homoousios) with the Father: “The Son is other in kind and nature than the creatures, or rather belongs to the Father’s substance and is of the same nature as He.” (Athanasius, Contra Arianos, III).

Why Does All This Matter?

There are some today who repeat Arius’ views. However, Jesus claimed to be God and the Christian tradition has held that there is an intimate connection between salvation and the deity of Christ. We are saved from God by God. Only a divine Savior can bear the weight of God’s wrath in atonement. Only Jesus as the God-man can satisfy the enormous debt and penalty caused by human sin against God. No mere human could bridge that gap. Only a divine Savior can pay the costly price of redeeming us from our bondage to sin and death. Only the God-man can conquer all his people’s enemies. Our salvation rests on the infinite capacities of our savior, Jesus Christ.