Heresies – Arianism

Our Church history is rich and extensive, and with the harvest of wheat comes the tares. Such is the case concerning sound doctrine versus heretical teachings. I wanted to start a mini-series of short, but concise posts of heresies that have cropped up in the history of the Church. They will not necessarily be in chronological order, nor will they be exhaustive, but they will serve as an introduction and quick reference to these heresies.

I would like to start with one of the earliest and notorious heresies of the early church — Arianism. Arius (256-336) plagued the church with his heretical teaching claiming  God the Father is God alone and Jesus is a created being and does not share in God’s essence, therefore denying Christ’s deity. This came to be known as the Arian heresy, or Arianism.

J.N.D. Kelly summarizes Arius’ teaching in this way:

The fundamental premiss of his system is the affirmation of the absolute uniqueness and transcendence of God, the unoriginate source of all reality. So the authoritative, though diplomatically worded, profession of faith…opens with the uncompromising statement, ‘We acknowledge one God, Who is alone ingenerate, alone eternal, alone without beginning, alone true, alone possessing immortality, alone wise, alone good, alone sovereign, alone judge of all, etc.’ Since it is unique, transcendent and indivisible, the being or essence of the Godhead cannot be shared or communicated. For God to impart His substance to some other being, however exalted, would imply that He is divisible and subject to change, which is inconceivable. Moreover, if any other being were to participate in the divine nature in any valid sense, there would result a duality of divine beings, whereas the Godhead is by definition unique. Therefore whatever else exists must have come into existence, not by any communication of God’s being, but by an act of creation on His part, i.e. must have been called into existence out of nothing. (Early Christian Doctrines, pg. 227)

In Arius’ mind, God the Father was an uncreated being from which all things originated (which is true); the “Son” was created (not true). Therefore, the Son cannot have direct communion or knowledge of His Father because He was created. In other words, he believed Christ was merely a human being sharing no divine essence with the Father. If the Son was a created being like the rest of mankind, then Arius would be correct. But we know from Scripture that Christ is divine and of one essence with the Father, and the Spirit, for that matter.

Kelly’s summary of Arianism reveals the striking similarity of the theology of Islam, Mormonism, Jehova’s Witnesses, and others. As we start to understand this heresy, we will be quick to identify it in other religious systems that stand in contrast to orthodoxy . As poisonous heresies cannot survive long within pure, orthodox doctrine, it is purged from the body only to be consumed by the unorthodox.

As the persecution of Christians began to decrease little by little, the attacks from within were becoming more prominent. Arianism was plaguing the church in the early fourth century and had much of the church in confusion. By this time, Emperor Constantine had put an end to worldwide persecution of Christians which allowed the church to find relative peace from her enemies. However, the church began to experience more discord from within, via Arius, and it was Constantine who summoned hundreds of bishops to gather in Nicaea to finally resolve the argument. This led to what was known as the Council of Nicaea in which the Nicene Creed was produced. The creed essentially dealt with forming the theological creed on the deity and personhood of Jesus the Messiah.

The Council of Nicaea (325) officially condemned Arianism. The Creed penned down at the council emphatically stresses the deity of Jesus Christ the Son of God and the Holy Spirit and Father as co-existent. I like how the Orthodox Study Bible described this council:

The first Church-wide, or Ecumenical, Council met in Nicaea in AD 325 to address this issue. Some 318 bishops, along with many priests, deacons and laymen rejected the new teaching of Arius and his associates, upholding the apostles’ doctrine of Christ, affirming the eternality of the Son and His consubstantiality with the Father. Their proclamation of the Apostolic teaching concerning Christ included a creed, which, with the additions concerning the Holy Spirit made in 381 at the Council of Constantinople, forms the document we today call the Nicene Creed.

This creed eventually became one of the greatest creeds for the entire Church.

For your reference here is the Nicene Creed:

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, begotten of the Father, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; he suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

And in the Holy Ghost.

The Nicene Creed was later expanded at the Council of Constantinople in AD 381 in which the Holy Spirit’s divine essence needed to be emphatically addressed. This I will cover in a later post.

Featured image taken from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arius#/media/File:Arius_püspök.jpg

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2 comments

  1. Arius also argued for a subordination of the son to the father; one that is often taught in our churches today because of the gender roles; teaching as it’s possible for Jesus to be subordinate to the Father and not be diminished in any capacity, so too can women submit to their husbands and not be diminished. Heresy to one is another’s valid teaching, it seems.

    1. Great comment Jamie. That is true. It also includes the whole homoousion debate which was part of the council in 381. I will address subordination in one of my later posts. Thanks!

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