Athanasius and the Arian Heresy (1)

Rev. Terpstra is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Pella, Iowa.

“Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith; . . . And the Catholic Faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is all one, the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal.”

So reads the opening statement concerning the truth of the Trinity as expressed by the early church in the so-called “Athanasian Creed” (cf. the newly reprintedPsalters, pp. 82ff.). This truth of the Trinity we know to be foundational for our Christian faith and necessary for our salvation. Yet it is a truth which we, the church of our Lord Jesus Christ in the twentieth century, simply assume and, therefore, usually take for granted. Little do we appreciate the fact that the early church struggled and battled for nearly two centuries to defend and develop this doctrine. 

But let us then step back in time once more, and understand that it was again heresy that prompted the Spirit-guided church to a right understanding and creedal expression of this doctrine. The heresy this time was Arianism, named after the fourth century heretic Arius (died 336 A.D.). And the man whom the Spirit of truth chiefly used to battle this heretic and give us the pure doctrine of the Trinity was Athanasius (born c. 296; died 373 A.D.). This heresy and this valiant church father we want to examine in our next two articles.

The Background

While the church in the second century was called to contend earnestly for the doctrine of God in a general way, the church of the third and fourth centuries had to contend for it in a specific way. As we learned in our last two articles, Gnosticism was a general attack upon the biblical truth concerning God, especially God the Father and God the Son. Hence, the truth concerning God was defended and developed on the part of the church only in general terms. Nothing definite was set forth concerning the doctrine of the Trinity. Although Tertullian began to steer the church in the right direction, there were many questions which remained unanswered. Arianism, however, was a specific attack upon the truth of the Triune God. Through this controversy therefore the church came to speak clearly on the truth of the Trinity. 

The early church of course accepted the plain Trinitarian statements of the Bible (e.g., the Baptism formula, Matt. 28:19, and the apostolic benediction, II Cor. 13:14), as well as the simple faith of the Apostles’ Creed concerning the Triune God. Yet she struggled when it came to defining exactly what it means that God is one yet three. This should not surprise us, since the truth of the Trinity concerns the very essence of our transcendent God. It is a mystery the depths of which no man with his finite mind can fathom. But because it is a revealed truth, it can be understood and must be set forth as best it can be. Conscious of these things, the church labored carefully to explain this doctrine. 

In attempting to explain the doctrine of the Trinity, the church fathers experienced a strong tension. On the one hand, they were afraid of denying the unity of God and falling into polytheism by speaking of three Persons. And on the other hand, they were fearful of denying the full deity of Jesus Christ and thus salvation in Him by not speaking of Him as a divine Person but rather as an impersonal creature subordinate to the Father. The focus of the problem was on the Son’s relationship to the Father. The doctrine of the Holy Spirit was involved too, but was not on the foreground initially. 

The result of this tension was that in the third century certain churchmen fell into the heresy known as Monarchianism, so named because its adherents stressed the unity of God—God is one Monarch. Of this heresy there were two types. There were first of all DYNAMIC Monarchians, who held that God is not only one in Being but also one in Person, Christ and the Holy Spirit are only impersonal attributes or powers of God (hence the name “dynamic”). In this way they denied the deity of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Christ, they taught, is called “Son” only because He is adopted by God after He came in the flesh. He is not the Son essentially, i.e., by nature, but only by adoption. For this reason this heresy was also known as “Adoptionism.” 

Secondly, there were the MODALISTIC Monarchians. These too held that God is one in Being as well as in Person. But they tried to maintain the deity of Christ and the Holy Spirit by teaching that God manifests Himself in three different modes (hence its name). Sometimes God acts as Father, sometimes as Son, and still other times as Spirit. In whatever mode God acts and reveals Himself, He is always fully God. But what they did was to deny the Personhood of Christ and the Holy Spirit, and thus the truth of the Trinity. 

Monarchianism, therefore, could not be the solution to the proper formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity. Its errors were rejected in the third century. The question was: Now what? How should the church understand and formulate this truth? She knew what was wrong, but what should she say positively? Enter the Arian controversy. For the sovereign Spirit of truth determined that the heresy of Arianism would be the instrument to spur the church on and lead her to define carefully this cardinal truth.

Arius and His Heresy

Whereas Tertullian was from the Western segment of the church, this churchman grew up and was trained in the great Eastern city of Alexandria, Egypt. Strikingly, this city was known as the home for the doctrine of the deity of Christ, the very doctrine Arius denied and attacked. Arius was an ascetic and a man of no mean ability. G. Fisher states concerning him: “Arius was possessed of logical acumen, was skilful as a disputant, and his austere life helped to draw to him respect and sympathy” (History of Christian Doctrine, p. 135). 

He became a presbyter in the church at Alexandria around 311. It was only shortly thereafter, in 318, that the controversy over his views broke out, so that already in 321 he was deposed and excommunicated from the church. This was not the end of Arius and his views, however, for he was restored, and his error continued in the church for many years (he died in 336 but his heresy went on until 381). Thus was the stage set for the lengthy battle between Athanasius and Arianism. The Arian controversy has a long and complicated history, one which we cannot explore. If you are interested in this, you may consult almost any church history book. 

Arius’ heresy centered on his view of Christ and His relation to the Father, but it included also the Person of the Holy Spirit. While attempting to uphold the unity of God as the Monarchians had done, he went beyond them and said that the Son was not merely a mode of the Father but an altogether different being. He is in fact a creature of God, the first and highest creature, made before the worlds were formed, and the one through whom God made all else. The Gnostic notion of an intermediary between God and the creation was still present in Arius’ teaching. 

He arrived at this position by equating “begotten” with “created.” He would speak of the Father’s generation of the Son, not in the eternal sense as taking place within the divine Being, but in the sense that the Father by an act of His will brought the Son into existence before time. 

This “perfect creature” he termed the Word, Wisdom, or Image of God, following Scripture. This is the Word that became flesh. He assumed a human body not a human soul, and so suffered. And, in the way of His being glorified, Christ, the Word, became divine, i.e., Godlike. Hence, He is called “Son,” and is worthy of veneration, though not, strictly speaking, of worship. 

It was in this way that Arius denied the deity of Christ. According to him the Son is not of the same essence as the Father (consubstantial), and therefore cannot be very God. He is not co-eternal; there was a time when He was not. He is not coequal; He is rather subordinate to the Father. But in speaking of Christ in this fashion, Arius also denied the Father. If there was a time when God was without His Son, then clearly there was a time when He was not Father. 

Furthermore, in undercutting the truth of the deity of Christ, Arius also fundamentally destroyed the doctrine of salvation. If Christ is not God, then what can He do to save men from sin? He can at best only be an example to show men the way to some general moral goodness. Harold O.J. Brown makes this very point in his book Heresies, “The Image of Christ in the Mirror of Heresy and Orthodoxy from the Apostles to the Present”:

“The spiritual-moral motif (of Arius’ theology—CJT) was Arius’ conviction that Christ does not possess deity by nature, but develops into it by virtue of his constant and growing moral unity with Cod. He is our Saviour in that he presents us with divine truth and furnishes the perfect example of commitment to the good. This view hardly differs from adoptionism; its practical consequence is the imitation of Christ, with the implicit hope that other human beings can attain perfection and partake of divinity even as Christ did” (p. 115).

This is precisely what salvation has become to today’s modernists who also deny Christ as the Son of God. 

Finally, this denial of Christ’s deity Arius also applied to the Holy Spirit. Though he did not speak as directly on the Spirit as he did on the Son, he taught that the Spirit too was a creature of God, less important than the Son. Hence, also the Spirit was a different being from the Father, and was subordinate to Him. 

In response to these errors of Arius it was not first of all Athanasius who arose, but Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria. He strongly opposed this heresy by way of letters to other church leaders, and vigorously stated the truth of Christ’s divinity. He also called Arius and his followers to renounce his heresy and submit to the true faith of the church. When Arius persisted in his errors, a synod was convened by Alexander, and he was deposed. At the bottom of a letter addressed to all the ministers of the church, in which Alexander explained the reasons for Arius’ deposition, we find the signature of a significant deacon—Athanasius. To this man and his work of combating Arianism we will turn in our next article.