A Primer on Arius and His Heresy

Arius is a major figure in church history, and rightfully so—it was his theology that led to one of the most defining moments in the development of the doctrine of the Trinity. Largely thanks to Arius, the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325 was called to clarify his error about the divinity of the Son of God. This landmark council led to the rejection of Arianism and the first step toward solidifying the Trinitarian doctrine all orthodox Christians now affirm.

In David Wilhite’s new book, The Gospel According to the Heretics, he lays out the major views and situations surrounding the major heretics/heresies of the early church. In regards to Arius, we actually know very little. Most of our information about him and his theology is found in the works of his opponents. Wilhite’s chapter on Arius (pp. 105-128) helpfully distills what we know about him and his teaching:

Biography and Background

  • He was reportedly a tall man.
  • His teachings were often delivered in song, using plain language to convert commoners to his views. This does not mean, however, that his theology was not philosophically rigorous. Indeed, it was.
  • His teachings had spread far and wide, especially in the East.
  • In AD 318, an old man to this point, he heard Alexander describe the Trinity in a sermon, and took exception to both the content of his teachings and the language he deemed as “too philosophical.” This launched his public dispute with the proto-orthodox leaders.
  • Word of his dispute spread to Emperor Constantine, who called together the meeting in Nicaea to hash out the debate and come to a consensus.
  • He was supposedly slapped across the face by Saint Nicholas at the council meeting, but this is largely considered dubious by historians. This should not stop us from sharing this awesome meme.

Theology

Arius’s views were rather straightforward:

  • Jesus preexisted as the Son of God, but was subordinate to the Father, as any son is to his father.
  • The Son must have been created at some point (since he was begotten), and therefore lesser than the uncreated and eternal Father.
  • In trying to hold to monotheism without denying the Son’s divinity, he argued that Jesus is either sort of God or a second God. This led to the Nicaean distinction between homoiousios (the Father and Son share a similar substance—Arius) and homoousios (they share the same substance—orthodox Trinitarians).
  • He argued that the Trinitarians dabbled in modalism, because that was the only logical explanation for their insistence that there is one God, and yet the Son can be equal with him.
  • He also charged Trinitarians with overly allegorizing the Scriptures, instead of taking the “plain meaning” of the texts, which make clear that the Son is subordinate to the Father.

The Trinity is a mystery to us in many ways, but Scripture and tradition give us language and concepts that allow us to affirm the doctrine. Though Arius was (rightly) condemned as a heretic at Nicaea, we should take our cue from him in working diligently to understand and clarify the doctrine of God. If our doctrine of God falters, everything else begins to falter with it. We saw that with Arius, and we see it still today.

When God the Son Became Like Us

Perhaps the most beautiful hymn in Scripture is not found in the Psalms, but in Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus,

who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death — even to death on a cross. For this reason God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow — in heaven and on earth and under the earth — and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
(Phil. 2:5-11, CSB)

This Christmas, we will sing hymns about Immanuel, “God with us.” We will sing of the virgin birth, the nativity scene, and the wise men. We will remember his perfect life and praise him for his sacrificial death. We know that his becoming a man was crucial for our salvation, and we’ll rightly worship him for the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. But the passage above—commonly called the “Christ hymn”—gives us a look at what it really means for God to be with us.

As Christians, we affirm the Trinity, and thus we affirm the divinity of God the Son. Jesus was no mere man, we know that. But Paul explains the depths of this truth to the Philippians. He tells them that Christ existed “in the form of God” and yet “did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited.” Instead, “he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity.” As the God-man, he didn’t take advantage of his God-ness; rather, “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death — even to death on a cross.”

In short, God the Son became a Son of Adam. Christ becoming obedient in the incarnation is crucial because God became man, a New Adam, to undo the curse of Adam that we all inherit (Rom. 5:12:-21). Adam’s sin touches every atom of creation and poisons us in a way that would make cyanide blush. We’re not obedient, no matter how hard we try. But the Son of God’s fleshly subjection and obedience to God the Father in the incarnation secures for us the subjection and obedience we reject in our flesh. The Son was not already in subjection to the Father, but rather became a servant in love.

The incarnation itself was a loving sacrifice—not merely because Christ died for us, but because he put himself in the position to die in the first place. As Hebrews 12 tells us, he went to the cross with joy. He could’ve called “twelve legions of angels” to help him escape arrest or to pull him down off the cross (Matt. 26:53), but he didn’t. As God, he has the power to still the waves and cast out demons—no piece of Roman tree could stop him. He doesn’t lay down his life when a Roman executor tells him to—he does so when he wants to (John 10:18). And he did just that, with joy.

God the Son didn’t simply carry eternal obedience with him into the world. He is an eternal Son, but he was not an eternal servant. He holds the same authority and power as the Father, because both are eternally God. He was sent into the world not because he’s been God’s servant for eternity, but because the triune God is not at odds with himself. The Father, Son, and Spirit are always in one accord. And their inseparable will is simple: to make all things new and to unbreak what Adam and Eve broke. So, in love, he became obedient to the Father, doing nothing apart from him (John 5:19-24).

Praise Jesus, Immanuel, for his truly indescribable grace. Lift your eyes to his throne. But remember that Christ left that throne to become something he’d never been, an obedient and perfect flesh-and-blood human being, because you and I are disobedient and imperfect people. God the Son for the first time experienced his own Father’s wrath, felt the excruciating pain of nails driven into his hands and feet, and even spent three days in a grave—not to condemn the world, but to save it (John 3:16-17).

Stages of Development in Early Trinitarian Theology

The first chapter of my dissertation deals with the usefulness of Revelation for Trinitarian theology, with some of the major Church Fathers as part of my justification. So, over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading the early church’s use of the Book of Revelation in their discussions on the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As I’ve been working through the development of early Trinitarianism, I’ve identified what I consider three stages of development:

1. Incipient Trinitarianism (ca. AD 30-96)

This stage of Trinitarianism is the most infantile, basic, and messy. This stage happened between the resurrection of Jesus and the end of the writings of the biblical canon. In the case of John or Paul, for example, the language for the Trinitarian persons is not systematized or always terminologically consistent. However, the biblical writers clearly understood that their view of monotheism needed to be reimagined in light of Jesus’s resurrection and the sending of the Holy Spirit. This can be seen in biblical authors’ tying Jesus and the Spirit to the identity of YHWH in the OT through titles, exegesis of passages, doxologies, and logical explanations. See, for example, John 1:1-14; 1 Cor 8:6; 1 Pet 1:2; Rev 1:4-18.

2. Proto-Trinitarianism (ca. AD 96-325)

This stage of Trinitarianism refers to the post-biblical era which stood as a precursor to the Nicene/Nicene-Constantinopolitan creeds. This type of Trinitarianism begins to deal with the ingredients provided by biblical-canonical data. Similar to Incipient Trinitarianism, this is not a fully systematized doctrine of the Trinity, but it is more advanced because writers in the period began to grapple with the ideas of ontology and economy in God’s being. For example, Irenaeus and Origen’s theologies have hints of Trinitarianism, but they’re especially not precise in how God is both one in essence and three in personhood.

3. Nicene-Constantinopolitan Trinitarianism (ca. AD 325-381)

This stage of Trinitarianism is the fully systematized, orthodox version that we confess today. Given the development and diversity of early Christian theologies of the Father, Son, and Spirit, these councils/creeds gave precise language to the biblical data in a way that preserved orthodoxy for the future of the church and weeded out the philosophical hoop-jumping of early heretics.

In an article I published with the Criswell Theological Review, I conflated the terms “incipient” and “proto-” (among other things I’d like to change, but such is publishing life). I like this taxonomy better, given the standard definitions of the terms. This could change one day, too, but this type of framing seems to be a helpful way to categorize the stages of early Trinitarianism.[1]

[1] Michael Bird uses a similar taxonomy, though he applies both the “incipient” and “proto-“ categories to biblical texts in order to demonstrate a level of diversity within the biblical data itself; Cf. Michael F. Bird, Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2015), 106-13.

The Good News of Holy Saturday

In Protestant American churches, and particularly in evangelical ones, Easter, along with Christmas, is the highlight of the church year. Pastors exhort their congregations to invite their neighbors, the worship leader may prepare some special music, and families will gather together afterward to eat some/a lot of New Covenant ham. In between these two poles of celebrating Christ’s birth and resurrection, though, many evangelical congregations have lost a sense of the rest of the Christian calendar. Even when a pastor mentions Holy Week, the most an evangelical church might do is have a Good Friday service.

One day in particular that suffers from this apathy towards the traditional church calendar among evangelicals is Holy Saturday. While Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and some mainline Protestants still practice the Holy Saturday evening liturgy, both the practice and theological impact of the Great Sabbath have been lost in many evangelical churches. So what does Holy Saturday mean? Why is it important not only that Christ “died, and was buried,” but also that “he descended to the dead”?

First, when I affirm that Christ descended to the dead, what I mean – and what I think the Bible teaches – is that Jesus experienced the fullness of death as the incarnate Son. In other words, his human body went down to the grave, his human soul went to the place of the dead (and more particularly, the place of the righteous dead, Paradise), and both of these occurred while his human nature was all the while hypostatically united to the divine nature of the Son. So the God-man experiences death – not just in a moment, but the state of death, remaining dead for three days. I think, then, we can point to at least three aspects of Christ’s time in the tomb that are good news – part of the gospel.

  1. Holy Saturday is Jesus’ Sabbath rest. Jesus declares on the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30), and, as the Triune God rests after the work of creation is finished, so Jesus rests after his work of new creation is finished. Saturday is the seventh day, the day of rest, and Jesus is resting after completing his work of redemption. Of course, we’re still waiting on the resurrection – without Easter Sunday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday mean nothing. But Jesus’ mission is effectively completed when he gives up his spirit at the crucifixion.
  2. Holy Saturday is when Jesus experiences death for us. The Nicene Creed declares that Jesus came “for us and for our salvation,” and his time in the tomb is part of what he does for us. As the God-man, Jesus experiences death. He has not just died for a moment and then received life again, nor did he revive after being placed in the tomb and then just chill until Sunday morning. Jesus remained dead. I think this is particularly comforting for those facing death, or who have loved ones facing death – Jesus has experienced this with us and for us. We have nothing to fear because Christ our Brother has faced and experienced the same death we all face.
  3. Holy Saturday is Jesus’ victory over death. Again, we’re still waiting on the consummation of Christ’s victory over death in his resurrection on Easter Sunday, but in a very real sense the fact that Jesus remains dead for three days is in itself defeating death. He doesn’t just experience death for us; by experiencing it as the God-man, he also defeats it for us. Death therefore has no sting or victory anymore (1 Cor. 15:55). In the early church, Holy Saturday was when Jesus declared his victory to all the dead, righteous and unrighteous, since he was in the place of the dead with them. So we can say on Saturday Jesus’ announced victory and on Sunday he demonstrated it.