Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
“I believe … in one Lord Jesus Christ … begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father….”
So read the lofty cadences of the very first creed adopted by the church of our Lord Jesus Christ: the Nicene Creed. It sounds so familiar to us; yet it was born out of fierce and bitter struggle which nearly tore the church to pieces.
Our readers will recall that in an earlier issue we talked about an error in the church promoted by Sabellius. It was an error concerning the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. Sabellius taught that Jesus Christ was only one way, among three different ways, in which the Father revealed Himself. The church did not consider itself ready to formulate a precise statement concerning the doctrine of Christ—although from the beginning of the history of the church, the church confessed without reservation that Christ was divine. And so, in effect, the church said about Sabellius: “We are not sure how to express the truth correctly and according to Scripture; so we are not going to say anything at this time about it. But you are wrong; of that we are sure.” And they condemned him.
God always leads His church to a knowledge of the truth by way of controversy. So it was also in the latter part of the third and the first part of the fourth centuries. And the controversy, lasting over 50 years, was fierce and bitter.
There were many complicating factors.
For one thing, the church had no agreed-upon vocabulary to express the truth, and Scripture itself does not give us such a vocabulary. This lack of a vocabulary confused and complicated the problems, especially because sometimes heretics would confiscate terms which the orthodox could otherwise have used and which they in fact wanted to use.
For another thing, heretics attempting to solve the problem of Christ’s divinity were everywhere spouting their views and gaining a following.
But one of the most influential heretics was a man by the name of Origen. He was a strange man. When he was still a boy his mother had to hide his clothes because, when his father was taken away to be killed for his faith, Origen wanted to be a part of this martyrdom and could be kept in the house only because he was too modest to appear naked in the streets. When he became a young adult he mutilated himself, thinking that in this way he would be obedient to Christ and would become a eunuch for the kingdom’s sake.
He was an extremely brilliant man who, in his theology, was far ahead of his times. But though brilliant, he was also erratic, and many of the heresies which appeared in later years in the church could be traced back to Origen.
He had a direct role to play in the controversy which surrounded Arius. He was a man to whom the orthodox and the heretics appealed — and with justification. The orthodox appealed to him because he taught the absolute divinity of Jesus Christ and insisted that Christ was very God. But the heretics, including Arius, appealed to him because he said that Christ’s generation by the Father, though eternal, was an act of God’s will. This was a serious error because, obviously, this made Christ less than the Father. If Christ was begotten by an act of the Father’s will, then Christ’s will, according to His divine nature, could not be the same will as the Father’s. And so God had at least two wills, something which is a flat denial of the unity of God. Although Origen was the first to speak of eternal generation, he remained the occasion for a heresy that denied the divinity of Christ.
Another factor in the troubles which plagued the church, though not directly related to the doctrinal aspect of the controversy, was jealousy and competition between the two major seminaries in the Eastern part of the church. In the course of the years, two seminaries had dominated in the Greek-speaking church: one in Alexandria, and the other in Antioch. Alexandria was in Egypt; Antioch was in Syria, and was the city from which Paul and Barnabas had been sent in their first missionary journey. Both were prestigious schools, Alexandria because of its important position in the empire; and Antioch because of the prestige of the city in which it was founded.
It may appear somewhat strange, but Alexandria was probably the most orthodox. This was not true when it came to biblical interpretation. Alexandria used the allegorical method of biblical interpretation, which gives direct spiritual meaning to every single part of Scripture and treats Scripture as if it were composed of countless allegories. Antioch, on the other hand, was much more sober, and, in fact, the method of interpretation which we still use today and teach in our seminary was developed early in Antioch’s seminary.
But, whatever the case may be on this matter of biblical interpretation, when it came to the doctrine of Christ, Alexandria was much nearer Scripture than Antioch. This was partly because the outstanding theologian of Antioch, Lucian by name, was a believer in a form of Sabellianism (the heresy which we described in our last article).
This jealousy not only played an important role in the controversy which swirled about the person of Arius, but it was a jealousy which was to affect the church and play a role in her struggles for another 200 years.
Against all this confusion the Arian controversy began, and in the very center of it was the man for whom this heresy is named: Arius.
The Life of Arius
The birthplace of Arius is not known, although it is thought to be the province of Libya in North Africa and bordering on Egypt. Arius first appears on the stage of history in Alexandria, and as a member of the church there. The bishop of the church of Alexandria was a man named Alexander, a firm and unwavering defender of the doctrine of the divinity of Christ.
Even though Arius appears first in Egypt and in the church of Alexander, there is much evidence to suggest that he was under the influence of Lucian from Antioch—so much so that, if it had not been for Lucian’s teachings, Arius would never have thought of his heresies.
Whatever may be the truth of this, Arius was himself not a profound thinker. He was a tall and very thin man with a look of deep asceticism about him; he was learned and eloquent, charismatic in speech and personal relationships; but he was also proud and artful, restless and disputatious, not above devious dealings to attain his ends.
But his more distasteful characteristics were not widely known when he was ordained a deacon in about 311 and when he rose to the position of presbyter (elder) in 313.
His views came to the light of day when he was attending a class of presbyters, other bishops, deacons, and interested laity which was conducted by Alexander. Alexander was speaking at length on and emphasizing as strongly as possible the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. Suddenly, in the midst of the discourse, Arius interrupted his bishop and began to charge him with heresy. In support of this challenge, Arius stated his own views. With an obvious reference to Origen, Arius said that because Christ was Son, He was begotten. Because He was begotten, He had a Father. Because a begetting Father is before a begotten Son, so God was before Christ. Because God was before Christ, Christ could not possibly be equal with God the Father. Because Christ was not equal with God the Father He was less than the Father.
This sort of heresy could not possibly be tolerated, and Alexander called a synod of Alexandrian and Libyan bishops to consider the matter and deal with it. One hundred bishops came together and, in 321, condemned Arius’ teaching, deposed him from office, and excommunicated him.
As is so often the case with heretics, Arius paid no attention to this discipline by the church, but continued to meet with his followers and supporters and to teach at worship services and religious assemblies.
This conduct could not be tolerated either, and so, in keeping with practices in those days, he was driven from Alexandria, while a circular letter was sent to all the bishops in the empire warning all the bishops to beware of the teachings of this heretic.
In spite of these warnings, Arius moved to Palestine and Nicomedia, where he taught his views widely and gained a considerable following—even among some of the most influential bishops in that part of the world. He even incorporated his views into a sort of prose-poem called “The Banquet,” parts of which are still extant in the writings of others who quoted him.
All of this turned the church, especially in the East, into an ecclesiastical battlefield. Bishops were set against bishops, churches against churches, people against people. And in the middle of it all stood the proud Arius, oblivious to the horror of a divided church, intent on having his own way.
His errors became increasingly clear as he wrote in defense of his position. He did not as such deny the divinity of Christ, and was prepared to admit that Christ was indeed divine. But he also insisted that Christ was not eternal, that He was, in fact, created, and that, therefore, there was a time when Christ was not. Arius was prepared to say many nice things about Christ: He was higher than all creatures; He was before time and existed long before the worlds were created; He was divine in a way in which no other creature was divine, the greatest of all under God. But He was not God; He was a creature. He was less than the Father and subordinate to Him. Arius was a dreadful heretic.
Into all this stepped the emperor Constantine.
Constantine had come to the throne of the empire at the beginning of the fourth century. He was supposed to have seen a sign of the cross in the sky just before the crucial battle which gave him the emperor’s throne in the West. The cross was supposed to have had inscribed on it the words: In hoc signo vinces (“In this sign conquer”). Constantine interpreted that sign as an indication of the fact that Christianity would conquer and that he would do well to become a Christian. This he did—although most probably in name only, for even after his “conversion” he committed some atrocious crimes.
But we are not writing about Constantine. Whether the man was a Christian or not, he brought persecution to an end, formally accepted the Christian religion, and proceeded not only to give Christianity his approval, but also promoted it in various ways.
Constantine touches on our narrative because the colossal controversy launched by Arius was a bitter disappointment to Constantine. There is reason to believe that his adoption of Christianity was for political purposes, one of which was to bring unity and some moral energy to a divided, morally bankrupt, and decadent empire. Relying heavily upon Christianity as a political and unifying force in the empire, he now discovered to his astonishment and dismay that even the Christians could not get along, but were fighting fiercely and locked in controversies which threatened to tear the church apart, and with it, the whole fabric of society. His last hope was fading. What to do: that was the question.
Constantine showed his failure to understand Christianity by attempting to heal the rift by diplomacy. If he had known about ecclesiastical affairs, he would have known that church controversies are not settled by diplomacy or political involvement—that, in fact, such interference would only make matters worse.
When finally he realized the hopelessness of treating church matters as if they were matters of state, he decided to call a general council. And that he did.
It was the great Council of Nicea.
But we shall have to talk about that in our next article.