Origen: Athanasian or Arian?

It is obligatory to note upfront that Origen was and is a controversial figure. The debate over accepting his views as orthodox or useful is ongoing, including the veracity of the number of times he was anathematized, whether or not he actually taught some of the doctrines he was accused of teaching, the extent to which he influenced Arius, and whether one should be posthumously anathematized without the opportunity to recant. Some of these debates are discussed in following footnotes.

Despite this caveat, given his enormous (and positive) impact on early Trinitarianism, it is interesting to consider how his teachings influenced Trinitarian history. Most notably, he seemed to wrestle more fully than his predecessors with the ontological implications of the shared substance of the Father, Son, and Spirit that would later define the orthodox Trinitarian affirmations. This is not to say that Origen was ultimately as clear on ontology as the Nicenes or even in agreement with them—only that he wrestled with ontological implications more than his predecessors.

So, was Origen an Athanasian or an Arian?

Holmes asserts, “It is fair to say that, by the beginning of the fourth century, many or most theologians leaned to one or the other of Origen’s tendencies” in reference to Origen’s tendencies to discuss both the unity and difference between the Father and Son.[1] Anatolios notes similarly that Origen influenced the Alexandrians with his idea of eternal generation and the Arians with his idea of real distinctions within the Trinity.[2] Wellum says plainly, “in terms of Trinitarian and Christological thought, many later orthodox theologians were highly indebted to him, particularly Athanasius and the Cappadocians—Basil and the two Gregorys.”[3] Moreover, as Rebecca Lyman notes,

Origen’s attempt to explain the incarnation of the Logos in terms of a pre-existent human soul was one of the first constructive Christologies, and anticipated many problems in later theology regarding the proper union of divine and human nature.[4]

Ayres acknowledges this point, while contending: “Origen directly denies that that the Son can come from the Father’s ousia, as this would imply a material conception of the divine generation.”[5] However, Ayres also admits that Athanasius may have been influenced by Origen’s emphasis on “the closeness of Son to Father.”[6] Holmes agrees with the charge of subordinationism: “Origen … seemingly finds it impossible to speak of God’s activity in the creation without lapsing into subordinationist language.”[7]

Rutherford says that Origen believed Jesus was “begotten of the Father before all creatures” and “became incarnate while remaining God,” and that “the Holy Spirit is associated in dignity and honour with the Father and Son” and clearly not made or created.[8] For example, in his commentary on the Gospel of John, he considers the multitude titles given to Jesus. He challenges the idea that “Son of God” is special or unique in relation to all of Jesus’s biblical titles, and instead aims to consider how all of the biblical titles paint Jesus not merely as “an expression of the Father occurring in syllables” but in regard to “what manner he has essence.”[9] Though she appears to lean toward Origen believing that the Holy Spirit was divine in some sense, Rutherford is careful to show that there is a debate surrounding whether Origen thought the Spirit was actually a creature or, if not, whether he was subordinate to the Father. Holmes has been more forceful regarding the ambiguity: “[For Origen,] the theological question of the Trinity is not whether to worship Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but how to understand the triune life of God.”[10]

While it is fair to question whether his Trinitarian thought was a form of subordinationism, his wrestling with divine essence and hierarchy of origin and function was in many ways ahead of his predecessors, as well as a precursor for his contemporaries and successors. This does not mean that he was not engaged in language contemporary with his time, such as the use of angelomorphic Christology. However, Origen seemed able to distinguish between the various ways “angel” or “messenger” is used in the Bible as a title or designation and the idea of Christ having an angelic nature stricto sensu.[11] Gieschen notes that Origen sometimes refers to angels in the Bible as Christ or the Holy Spirit, but Gieschen’s point does not require of Origen a belief in “angel Christology.”[12]

Was Origen an Athanasian or an Arian? Since he predated them, technically neither. However, due to his proto-Trinitarian wrestling with ontology and economy, both sides of the Nicene debate found a resource in him.

[1] Holmes, The Quest for the Trinity, 83.

[2] Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea, 17.

[3] Wellum, God the Son Incarnate, 276.

[4]  Lyman, Christology and Cosmology, 69.

[5] Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy, 24.

[6] Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy, 47.

[7] Holmes, The Quest for the Trinity, 80.

[8] Rutherford, “The Alexandrian Spirit: Clement and Origin in Context,” in The Holy Spirit in the Fathers of the Church, 41-43.

[9] Origen, Comm. Jn. 1.151.

[10] Holmes, The Quest for the Trinity, 75.

[11] Bucur, Angelomorphic Pneumatology, xxvi-xxvii.

[12] Gieschen, Angelomorphic Christology, 195-96.

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.

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.

My 5 Favorite Books of 2017​

It’s become a somewhat annual tradition for me and many others to write a post like this. But people love books lists as they consider last-second Christmas gifts or are looking for ways to spend their Amazon gift cards.

There are a few reasons why I’ve compiled this list. First, I love reading and I love to share what I’m reading. Second, I’m also always encouraged by others’ thoughts and their lists often help me pick out a few last books for my Christmas wish list. Third, I get a lot of books from publishers, and while I don’t review or share books I don’t end up liking, I’m always willing to recommend a good book if it is, in fact, good.

In no particular order, here are my five favorite books that I read in 2017. Check out my 2015 list and 2016 list at my old Patheos blog.

Hengel Son of GodThe Son of God by Martin Hengel

Published in 1975, this book was one of many in which Hengel dismantled and reconstructed Christological debates in the mid-20th century, arguing that Christians believed in the divinity of Christ very early on. In this book, Hengel explains the role the title “Son of God” played in that early development of divine Christology. Only coming in at around 100 pages, Hengel still does some significant Christological heavy lifting.

Way of the Dragon StrobelThe Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb by Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel

Of all the books I read this year, this one was the most impactful on me personally. It proved to be the final straw that broke my social media camel’s back. I deleted all my social media accounts soon after finishing it.

Through biblical exegesis, personal reflections, and interviews with men like J. I. Packer and Eugene Peterson, Goggin and Strobel lay out the case for a view of ministry and leadership (and indeed, life) that resembles the way of the Lamb—generosity, self-sacrifice, wisdom in speaking truth, love, etc. Too often, we fall into the way of the dragon (Satan himself)—selfishness, pride, vitriol, hate, etc. And where I saw myself falling into the way of the dragon the most was on social media and the struggle of “platform.”

On God and Christ NazianzusOn God and Christ by St. Gregory of Nazianzus

I’ve read this book several times, and reading it again in 2017 reminded me of its beauty. Simply put, it is one of the most important books (originally a set of sermons) in the history of the Christian church due to its formative impact on Trinitarian theology and Christology. If the Trinity debate made you scratch your head or piqued your interest in the subject, this is a must-read. We’d all do well, actually, to read the Fathers on the Trinity before we get too far down the Trinitarian road.

Sojourners and Strangers AllisonSojourners and Strangers by Gregg Allison

Over the past year, I’ve been in the eldership process at my local church. Since it’s been nearly two years since I served in a church staff position and about five years since I was a pastor, I decided to read this book over the summer to brush up on my ecclesiology and to solidify (or challenge) some of my core beliefs. I was not disappointed. Allison masterfully deals with every topic in ecclesiology—from how theology proper trickles down, to the qualifications of elders and deacons, to the sacraments/ordinances, and much more—without avoiding thorny issues or over-simplifying complex matters. And though it is an ecclesiological tour de force, it’s written accessibly and from a pastoral heart.

Tyndale House Greek NTThe Greek New Testament, Produced at Tyndale House

I received a copy of this only a few weeks ago, but I love it more than I thought I would. Obviously, I’ve not read the entire NT in Greek in the past few weeks, but I’ve found this edition to be my go-to for casual reading or reference since the day I cracked it open.

It’s simplified—almost like a Greek “reader’s Bible”—but still contains basic textual notes. It’s not something I’m using in my doctoral work (it’s not built for that level of analysis), but it’s a perfect on-the-go Greek NT for someone like me, who needs as many practice reps in Greek as he can get!