The Divinity of Christ, part 3—The Arian Controversy

Mar 19, 2014

While some may distinguish between the divinity and the deity of Jesus Christ, in this series, I use them interchangeably, and Webster’s 1828 dictionary agrees. Of course, there are other meanings to divinity nowadays—after all, divinity is also a type of candy, isn’t it?

The divinity of Christ is not some minor issue on the level of women’s haircuts and skirt lengths. It is one of the very fundamental foundations of the Christian faith. It is one of the most pivotal doctrines in all of Christianity. As we proceed in this study, I believe I can show you that if Christ is not God, then our faith in the resurrection from the dead into immortality is void and meaningless. It is that important!

We are going to spend much time in this study actually comparing Scripture with Scripture to demonstrate to you the truth of the Godhood of Christ. But before we get into the detailed Scripture study, it is necessary that I give you some historical background on this doctrine.

Speaking in general, it is a sad fact that the Christian people in America today are so ignorant of church history that they could correctly be labeled as illiterate in that area. As George Santayana remarked—and he was only paraphrasing others—Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

This is applicable in the church as well. If Christians were well-versed in church history, they would then recognize that what they think are new revelations or new doctrines are, in fact, just ancient heresies dressed up in 21st century verbiage. Gnosticism comes to mind. It is very prominent—even pervasive in America today, but seldom under that name, and hence it goes unrecognized for what it is.

So I am are going to spend several essays, at the very least, presenting the history of the controversy surrounding the deity of Christ. As you will see, it was not necessarily as cut-and-dried in the early centuries as we today might see it. As I have stated several times now, this questioning the divinity of Christ Jesus is nothing new.

Upon Jesus’ resurrection, we find the gospel account tells us in Matthew 28 that the chief priests and unbelieving elders among the Jews paid a large sum of money to the soldiers guarding the tomb so that they would spread the lie that our Lord’s disciples came secretly by night and stole away His corpse. (This is part of Dr. Hugh Schonfield’s fable, The Passover Plot, as well.)

Matthew 28:11 Now when they were going, behold, some of the watch came into the city, and shewed unto the chief priests all the things that were done.

12 And when they were assembled with the elders, and had taken counsel, they gave large money unto the soldiers,

13 Saying, Say ye, His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept.

14 And if this come to the governor’s ears, we will persuade him, and secure you.

15 So they took the money, and did as they were taught: and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day.

Thus, if Jesus did not rise from the dead, that would be proof certain that He was not God. But all of the early church did believe in His resurrection. It actually took over two and a half centuries for this issue of the Savior’s divinity to really come front and center. Why do you think it took that long?

It was because of the persecutions. Believers were much too busy staying alive from day to day than to have the leisure time and the luxury of fighting amongst themselves over what we now recognize as the great and foundational doctrines of our faith. The divinity of Christ was just one of these doctrines.

By about 250 AD, Rome was reaching the milestone marking the end of the first millennium of her history. The empire was wracked with both internal and external threats and attacks upon its stability. The Emperor Decius felt that the only way to preserve its classical culture was with an iron fist.

Christians were singled out as a primary threat because of their rapidly growing numbers and their seeming desire to set up a state within a state. So Decius issued an edict in the year 250 which required that everyone in the empire offer an annual sacrifice to the Roman gods.

Many Christians refused, of course, and paid the price. Later, a vicious persecution was endured under the Emperor Valerian, but the worst period was that under Emperor Diocletian. He came to the throne in 284 following an era where the last four emperors before him had been murdered in quick succession. You must understand that playing “king of the hill” in the real world is a very risky business.

Diocletian also ruled with an iron fist, but later in his reign he saw the wisdom of sharing power. Nonetheless, before his retirement in 305 AD, Diocletian had initiated the most intense period of all the persecutions.

The early church historian Eusebius (263-340) was an eyewitness to many martyrdoms in his home area of Caesarea during the persecutions ordered by Diocletian in the year 303. This persecution lasted 10 years and was ended by the Emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313.

Those of you on our CD Ministry will recall that in our recent study of God’s Unchangeable Purpose with Israel, we learned that Constantine was not a Roman at all. (See Note #1 below.) He wasn’t even Italian. He was a Briton who was a direct descendant of King Arviragus of the Royal British Silurian dynasty.

These were the same Israelite Britons who had fought the best legions of the Roman Empire to a stand-off for nine years and then they were betrayed. But as captives in Rome, this royal family, which had been converted to Christ through Joseph of Arimathea, established the first Christian church in Rome.

We learned that it was to them that Paul addressed his epistle to the “Romans.” 

Some people think that the Emperor Constantine was about the most rotten scoundrel that ever lived, and others have a very high opinion of him. Regardless of one’s opinion, he was a pivotal player in the fourth century, a man whose judgments affected the world for centuries to come.

Going back to the year 256, there was a person born in either Libya or Alexandria—no one knows for sure—but his name was Arius and he became the catalyst for the great debate in the church on the doctrine of the deity of Christ. It is now known as the Arian heresy, or Arianism.

The teachings of Arius, and as later modified by his followers, spread widely in the church—especially in the east, and the struggle lasted from the fourth to the seventh centuries.

It was part of what led to and eventuated in the split between the eastern orthodox and the church in the West, ultimately, over the famous Latin phrase called the filioque clause. More on that later perhaps.

Unfortunately, we have very little material from the mouth of Arius himself and therefore most of our information comes from his opponents who were the victors in the battle for what constitutes orthodoxy as concerning the deity of Christ.

I find it so fascinating to observe the way that God uses the faults and failings of men to bring about His purposes. You see, the whole issue seems to have been ignited by envy and jealousy on the part of Arius.

He was a presbyter; i.e., a priest, in Egypt—and this was in the centuries before what became the Roman Catholic church was to mandate celibacy for its priests.

The year is 313. The horrendous persecution of Diocletian is concluding—and it would be the last of the persecutions under the Roman Empire. In Alexandria, Egypt, Arius had become a very popular priest both among the women and among the dock workers, for whom he had written theological tracts.

He had the gift of eloquence and oratory, but he also had a very argumentative and contentious spirit. So when Achillas, the bishop of Alexandria, passed away, Arius thought that he had a lock on the job. But, another priest, Alexander, was named as the bishop instead.

It is said that from that point forward the envious Arius took every opportunity to oppose the new bishop. Eusebius, who is known as the father of church history, was a contemporary of Arius. I tell you of him at this point because he is mentioned in the following quote from The Nicene Fathers: Speaking of Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, it says:

QUOTE: The virtues of this prelate, which Eusebius has passed over entirely without mention, [emphasis mine—JWB] other ecclesiastical writers have greatly extolled. For on all sides he is styled “the staunchest upholder of evangelical doctrine,” “the patron and protector of apostolic doctrine;” and “that bishop of divine faith, full of wisdom and of zeal enkindled by the Holy Spirit.”

He was the first to detect and to condemn Arius; and taking his stand upon passages of Holy Scripture, as Theodoret remarks, he taught that the Son of God was of one and the same majesty with the Father, and had the same substance with the Father who begat Him. END QUOTE

Well, there was a reason why Eusebius totally ignored Bishop Alexander, and we will come to that shortly.

It happened on a particular occasion—some say the year was 317, others say it was 318, that Alexander was teaching his priests, expressing himself freely that the Christ the Son possessed not only the same dignity as God the Father, but also that He was of the same essence as the Father.

Upon hearing that, Arius accused Alexander of being a Sabellian. Sabellianism had recently been declared heresy. So what was Sabellianism? Well, Sabellius had taught that God is only and always one—which doesn’t sound bad, does it? After all, the Scriptures clearly say that

Deuteronomy 6:4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD:

…or if you prefer using the holy name,

Deuteronomy 6:4 Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God is one, Yahweh.

But Sabellius went further. He contended that there was only a single divine substance which took on different forms in succession. There was the initial monad, the silent God, the simple divine substance.

But then it evolves and unfolds into the Son and later into the Spirit. But all along the way, God is only one—meaning that when it unfolds into God the Son, then the Son is all there is; there is no Father or Holy Spirit simultaneously.

Sabellianism was partially revived in the 19th century by the German theologian Schleiermacher and a form of Sabellianism finds manifestation today in the Pentecostal Oneness groups, along with the sect or cult called The Way International.

But understand this: the Oneness groups do not deny the deity of Christ, as the Jehovah’s Witnesses do. The Oneness groups simply have a unique way of defining the one deity. Such that, as I explained, when the Son is active as God, He is all there is.

So when Arius heard Alexander saying that the Son was of the same essence as the Father, Arius falsely charged him with being a Sabellian.

In opposing Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, Arius not only denied the truth of Alexander’s statement, but he went to the opposite extreme to declare that the Son is entirely distinct from the Father, and that He is of a totally different essence as the Father.

Let me now quote to you from the only thing we have from Arius himself, aside from some few fragmentary excerpts in the writings of Athanasius. This is the pertinent portion of a letter Arius wrote to Eusebius.

This was not addressed to Eusebius, the church historian—although Arius counted him among his friends, as well—but this was Eusebius, the bishop of Nicomedia, who was a very prominent, powerful and influential voice of the church in the East. Arius wrote:

“As to what we say and believe, we have taught, and still teach, that the Son is not unbegotten, nor a portion of the unbegotten, in any manner: nor was he formed out of any subjacent [under, but not directly below–JWB] matter, but that, in will and purpose, he existed before all times and before all worlds, perfect God, the only begotten, unchangeable; and that before he was begotten, or created, or purposed, or established, he was not; for he was never unbegotten.

“We are persecuted, because we say; the Son had a beginning, but God was without beginning. We are also persecuted, because we say; that he is from nothing; and this we say, in as much as he is not a portion of God, nor formed from any subjacent matter. Therefore we are persecuted. The rest you know. I bid you adieu in the Lord.”

Within a few years after this incident, Bishop Alexander convened a synod of about a hundred bishops from all over Egypt and Libya and they declared Arius a heretic and required that he be exiled.

Looking for a place to go, Arius wrote this letter, which I just quoted from, to Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia in the hope of being granted permission to stay with him.

Nicomedia, by the way, is a city in northwest Asia Minor near the Bosporus Strait in present-day Turkey. Emperor Diocletian had chosen it for the capital of his Eastern Roman Empire, but it was soon superseded by Byzantium, i.e., Constantinople.

In any event, Eusebius made his residence in what was formerly the palace of Diocletian, so Arius may have soft-pedaled his views to have a better chance of being taken in by Eusebius. He may have not been fully forthcoming in the letter insofar as the true extent of his views on the deity of Christ.

The views of the orthodox are, of course, readily available, so we can conclude that both the Arians and the orthodox considered the Son of God as being of derived existence and as generated by the Father.

However, there were two main particulars where they differed:

1. The orthodox held that the Son’s generation was from eternity, so that He was coeval with the Father. (Coeval means “of the same age, from the same time in antiquity,” and in this case, it denotes they both existed from eternity past.) The Arians, on the other hand, contended that there was a time when the Son was not.

2. The orthodox believed that the Son was derived of and from the Father, so that he was of the same essence with the Father. But as the letter from Arius tells us, he and his followers believed that the Son was formed out of nothing by the creative power of God.

But now listen to this carefully: even despite those significant differences, both the Arians and the orthodox agreed in calling Him God and in ascribing to Him divine perfection.

From that, we can see that the Jehovah’s Witnesses and others who today teach that “Jesus is not God,” that they are even further off the reservation than Arius was…at least according to the words of his letter.

However, according to the orthodox opponents of Arius, they would have charged that he had indeed been holding back from divulging his true beliefs when writing to Eusebius. According to Alexander, Arius believed that the Son was only the first and most noble of those created beings whom the Father formed out of nothing.

And even though the Son was the agent of the Father in creating the material universe, nonetheless, He was inferior to the Father both in nature and in dignity. As we have noted, it was Bishop Alexander who first engaged Arius in doctrinal battle. But as time went on, it was Athanasius who became Arius’ greatest doctrinal opponent.

Arius did find asylum with Eusebius and within a few years the whole Eastern church was in an uproar over the Arian controversy. It became so widespread that the Emperor Constantine was called upon to mediate.

Constantine first sent letters to Alexander and Arius, and when that proved insufficient, he sent a court priest by the name of Hosius to Egypt to attempt to mediate between the two sides.

(This series on The Divinity of Christ to be continued.)

Click here for part 2 of this series.

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