Divinity of Christ, part 4— The Arian Controversy, part 2
We left off last time noting that the whole Eastern church was being disrupted over the controversy sparked by Arius’ views on the deity of Christ. The Emperor Constantine first attempted to have a proxy priest by the name of Hosius mediate between Alexander and Arius, but that failed. Then certain bishops suggested that Constantine called a church-wide (i.e., an ecumenical) council to settle the matter, along with other lesser but nonetheless divisive issues, such as when to celebrate Easter.
In 325 AD, 318 bishops met in council at Nicea in the province of Bithynia in northern Asia Minor. This is the first so-called ecumenical council, although personally I think that the one described in the Book of Acts in chapter 15 might actually qualify as the first. The 318 bishops represented about one-sixth of all the bishops in the whole church, with most of the 318 coming from the Eastern portion of the empire. Less than 10 percent were from the western side.
Shockingly, or perhaps at the order of Emperor Constantine, no contemporaneous journals were kept of the proceedings. What is clear is that a young, 30-something archdeacon named Athanasius, who was accompanying Bishop Alexander, put up a brilliant defense of the homoousios position. Homoousios is a Greek wordwhich means that the Son is 100 percent God, not anything less, and of the same substance and dignity as the Father.
There were actually three views set forth at the Nicene Council. In the minority, was Athanasius, who made an impassioned case for the homoousios position. His passion arose from the fact that for him it was a salvation issue. The question was: could Christ save man if He were merely a demigod? Half a God. In other words, was the Son’s sacrifice for sin valid and efficacious if He were anything less than true God. I agree with Athanasius and we will come to the Scriptural basis for that position in due time.
In the opposite corner at the council was Arius and his followers, also in a minority, who contended for the hetero-ousios position. Again, a Greek word, but Greek was the language of the council and momentous decisions hung on these words. Let me take a moment to break them down. We can easily understand them because we can relate them to words we are all familiar with in English. Homosexual refers to one attracted to the same sex. Homo = same.
|Different essence||Similar essence||Same essence|
|Arian heresy||Semi-Arian heresy||Orthodoxy|
Normal people are hetero-sexual. Hetero-means different or another. So,when Arius spoke, he used the word hetero-ousios to describe the essence of the Son. He said the Son was of another or a different essence than the Father.
So we have Arius with his hetero-ousios position and Athanasius with the homo-ousios position—and both held minority viewpoints at the council. Also in attendance at the council was the highly respected church historian, Eusebius of Caesarea.
Eusebius tried to find middle ground. Although he was a friend of Arius and personally leaned towards Arius’ position, he drew up and proposed a statement in which everything was conceded to the party of Alexander and Athanasius, with the single exception of substituting the word homoi-ousios, so as to teach that the essence of the Son is similar to the Father’s, but not the same.
Considerable debate ensued with no solution in sight. Athanasius stood firm. Likewise, Arius. Finally, Emperor Constantine exerted his influence and authority and the victory went to the party of Alexander and Athanasius. Out of the council came what is called the Nicene Creed, the pertinent part of which goes as follows:
“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God[,] begotten of the Father, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance [homo-ousios] with the Father.”
This was an unequivocal declaration. The word homo-ousios could not be perverted to mean anything other than that the essence of the Son is identical with the essence of the Father. This Creed placed the Son on the same level as the Father as an uncreated Being, and recognized the Son as being God Himself.
Now, while I do take the orthodox position, I see a problem there. Do you? I can see why the decree of the emperor settled the matter insofar as where the weight of the state was coming down. But you know that Arius and the gang, and even Eusebius and his cohorts would never in their heart of hearts be in agreement with such results.
Because if the Son is an uncreated Being, then how can the Son have been begotten? Does that not sound contradictory to you? The orthodox position declares that the Son is “eternally generated” by the Father. Can someone explain to me what that means in a way that makes sense?
What the orthodox Nicene fathers meant by it was, in my view, a speculation by which they claimed that eternal generation referred to a perpetual movement, always complete and yet never completed. That is double-mindedness. Do you see why the Nicene Council really did not settle the issue?
Over a thousand years later, John Calvin had trouble with that phrase also. He wrote this: “For what is the profit of disputing whether the Father always generates, seeing that it is foolish to imagine a continuous act of generating when it is evident that three persons have subsisted in one God from eternity.”
You see, in English, as in Greek, or any other language, it comes down to splitting hairs over the meanings of words. In the final analysis, I think that in this present realm of mortality, we just may not have any way to describe or understand fully what is, in essence, the mystery of the Trinity.
I agree with Augustine who wrote a great treatise on the Trinity in which he said that he did not like using the word “Persons” when speaking of the relationships among the three in one, but yet he used the word throughout his work, because, he said, I use it not to express (the relationship), but in order not to be silent.
…Which once again shows that we simply do not have the words to express the divine reality of the trinity. I have never met a Trinitarian—or any Christian for that matter—who believes there are three Gods. There is only One. He is El Elyon, the Most High God, but He is manifested as Yahweh, as Elohim, as Eloah, as Jesus Christ, as the Holy Spirit, etc.
So while I have a problem with some of the difficulties encountered as orthodoxy tries to express the mystery of the Godhead, I see a lot more problems—and much more serious problems—with those who deny the divinity of Christ.
Listen to this summary of the creed of Arianism, as it came to be developed. And listen for contradictions in their creed as well:
“The Father alone is God; he alone is unbegotten, eternal, wise, good, unchangeable. He is separated by an infinite chasm from man. God cannot communicate his essence. The Son of God is preexistent, ‘before time and before the world,’ and ‘before all creatures.’
“He is a middle being between God and the world, the perfect image of the Father, the executor of his thoughts, yea, even the creator of the world. In a secondary or metaphorical sense he may be called. ‘God.’
“But on the other hand, Christ is himself a ‘creature,’—the first creature of God, through whom the Father called other creatures into existence. He is ‘made,’ not of ‘the essence’ of the Father, but ‘out of nothing,’ by ‘the will’ of the Father, before all conceivable time, yet in time.
He is not eternal, and there ‘was a time when he was not.’ Neither was he unchangeable by creation, but subject to the vicissitudes of a created being. By following the good uninterruptedly, he became unchangeable. With the limitation of Christ’s duration is necessarily connected a limitation of his power, wisdom, and knowledge.”
So we see that under Arianism, Christ is not omnipotent, nor omniscient and certainly not omnipresent. It was expressly asserted by the Arians that the Son does not perfectly know the Father, and therefore cannot perfectly reveal Him. Christ is essentially different from the Father. He is hetero-ousios, remember?
I do not doubt the zeal of the players on all sides of the Arian controversy; nor do I doubt that in their hearts, the vast majority of them were sincerely seeking to understand the God of the Bible and our Lord Jesus Christ and the nature of the relationship between them. This Arian Controversy is not even to the point in history yet where the place of the Holy Spirit came front and center. But this entire era is a perfect illustration of how men with intense zeal and good intentions can be led into serious error.
On the one hand, Sabellius was led to deny the Godhead in the Trinity by his zeal to preserve the unity of God. Whereas on the other hand, Arius denied the Trinity and deity of Christ by trying to avoid the danger of polytheism. The enormous challenge for any formulation of the Trinity is how to preserve both the unity and the diversity of God. And so, in 325 AD, God used the Emperor Constantine at the Nicene Council to establish Orthodoxy in the truth on this issue, even if that truth of the Trinity cannot even today be fully expressed in words.
This discussion may seem arcane and confusing at this point, but I remind the reader that such was precisely the outcome of the Nicene Council. Nonetheless, I do believe as we continue this study of the divinity of Christ the reader will be rewarded with remarkable clarity straight from the Word of God! (To be continued.)
Click here for The Divinity of Christ, part 3.