The earliest conciliar debate on Christology stemmed from the teachings of the Alexandrian priest Arius. In defending the exalted nature of the divinity of God, he taught that it was impossible for the Man Christ Jesus to be truly the uncreated God. While Christ’s essence could be said to be quite similar in essence (homoiousios) to that of the invisible God, Arius would not agree that Christ as Son of God and God the Father had the same essence (homoousios). Like subsequent controversies, it can be argued that Arius was coming at Christology from a good motivation of defending the holiness of God, but he had neglected to appreciate the Incarnation as the mystery that it is. Others might defend the divinity of Christ to the exclusion of fully embracing His humanity, but ultimately the challenge of Arianism was to believe that one born of a Virgin could not also be the eternal God. He failed to see that the immortal God could become Man and die as a mortal man. By examining the debate over Arianism and seeing its ripples down to the present day, we will see the importance of the Incarnation not merely for theological accuracy and rigor, but in order to appreciate our salvation which is achieved through theosis.
O’Collins’ Christology lays out the topic of Arianism with a Scriptural and historical perspective that puts the debates about Christ into context. He notes that Athanasius, in writing against the Arians, provides a snapshot of the key texts in the Bible which were used to question whether the Son of God was truly God, as Orthodox teachers such as Athanasius held. O’Collins then goes on to discuss some of the pivotal references to Scripture that the Orthodox used to counter the passages found in Contra Arianos, both in Athanasius’ day and later as new Christological controversies emerged. First, let us consider the key passages used to support Arius and his followers’ claims. From the Old Testament, we have Christ foreshadowed as the Wisdom of God who says of Himself in Proverbs 8:22, ‘the Lord created/begot/possessed me at the beginning of his work’. The Hebrew is clearly somewhat ambiguous (hence the multiple English words placed as potential ways to translate ‘begot’) but if Christ is truly the Wisdom of Proverbs, and if begetting includes an act of creation, Christ would be created.
Further, the New Testament references appealed to by the Arians seemed to place Christ in the light of being created. Acts 2:36 states God “has made Jesus…both Lord and Christ”, implying that Jesus became something that He was not, when He was made Lord and Christ by God’s act. Hebrews 1:4 points out that Christ has “become so much better than the Angels”, again hearkening to words of change and growth. Colossians 1:15 echoes the idea of Christ as created by calling Him the “firstborn over all creation”. The word firstborn was used to advocate that His existence as begotten made Him not eternal, but created. The Church would ultimately convene at Nicea in 325 and at the council profess that Christ is “begotten, not made, one in essence [homoousios] with the Father”. But we have also seen that the Scriptures cited above might seem to cast doubt on this. How did the Orthodox teachers combat those Scriptures? O’Collins argues that it is largely through the full context of Scriptures not quoted by Arians.
One chief aspect of the Scriptures that points to Christ as uncreated deals with the clause in the Symbol of Faith that comes just after the famous homoousios profession, in that we state it is Christ “through whom all things were made”. The Creed codifies this from a dogmatic perspective, but the Scriptures are the foundation of the Creed and they testify to this creative aspect of Christ in passages such as 1 Corinthians 8:6 which says that all things exist through Christ, and it is through Him that we live. Of His humility which would be pointed out by Arians in passages such as John 14:28 which says that ‘The Father is greater than I’, the Orthodox teachers would point out that this was speaking of His human nature. To support their position, they would refer to Philippians 2:9-11, which says that He humbled Himself despite not considering it robbery to be equal with God. His subordination was willing, because he took the form of a bondservant. And even more importantly, Athanasius and his followers would ask the Arians to explain how it is that Christ was made equal to God multiple times in Scripture, particularly with the Gospel of John when Christ says things such as ‘I and the Father are one’ in John 10:30.
Taken together, the Orthodox position against the Arian view would see the Father and the Son as ultimately one, but that in becoming Man Christ humbled Himself in an act of self-emptying, which is the word kenosis in Greek. The Arians were stressing the passages of Scripture that spoke of kenosis in becoming Man and suffering, to the exclusion of the passages which upheld His unchanging divinity. Athanasius and his successors in the Orthodox faith embraced all of the Scriptures in professing Christ to be truly God and Man. Synthesizing these references and arguments together, we can return to the Symbol of Faith and see how eloquent it is when it speaks of Christ in His being as “One Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God the only-begotten, born of the Father before all ages. Light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in essence with the Father; through whom all things were made”.
Once the Creed was completed at the First Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 381, this did not eliminate controversies over whether Christ is truly God (not to mention all of the other controversies). Arians persisted in parts of the world as a formal sect out of communion with the Orthodox Catholic Church, but of course we can turn from history to consider Arianism as it exists in the world today. First, we can consider those sects not linked through succession from Arians, but they would agree with the tenet that Christ was created and is not God, being one of the Holy Trinity, glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Key examples of this include Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, Islam, and more. It is true that particularly with the groups above which call themselves Christians, there will be much of the same Scriptural argumentation about Christ subordinating Himself to the Father, and the like. To counter them we can follow the lead of Fathers such as Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria. But are there other ways in which Arianism still exists outside the bounds of formal doctrinal disagreements? Is there such a thing as ‘functional Arianism’? I would argue that this is indeed the case.
One example of Arianism comes to us from semantic sloppiness. For example, many times I have heard Christians who may say that they believe in the Trinity but then say that the Father is God, the Son is the Son of God, and the Spirit is something or some One completely unknown to them. Calling the Father God is not the problem, it is when the divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit is somewhat secondary to the divinity of the Father. How can this be dealt with? Byzantine spirituality is one key way to unsettle any notion of unintentional Arianism. Our prayers so often say things such as “May Christ, Our true God…”, or “O, Christ God, bless the food”. I even once had Roman Catholics try to ‘correct’ a blog post because I wrote “Christ God” in the context of a sentence. The principle of lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of praying is the law of believing) shines out in the light of the way that we continually emphasize Christ as God in Byzantine prayers.
Perhaps even more challenging to us is a form of Arianism that comes to us from the heart. We may sing the Symbol of Faith with gusto but there are many times that we look at the world and despair, as though nothing can be done to change the way things are. If we saw the world with eyes of faith, that would not be the case. But if we see Christ as only a man as functional Arians do, there is a sense in which we have lost the meaning of who God is. If God is not both divine and human in my own life, what hope for change is there? Again, to see Christ as God with our hearts, we need the prayer of the heart. The Jesus Prayer is one central aspect to finding our way and not losing hope. By continually invoking Him as Lord and Son of God, Jesus Christ will have mercy on us and on the whole world. This element of ‘Arianism’ is subtle and while not a formal heresy, may be the most important aspect of understanding who Christ is. We may profess what is true with our lips but if our hearts are not in harmony with our words, the beauty of Truth will not fully permeate our being. By meditating on the Arian controversy, we see the magnificence of God and His love for us as he became Man. By praying as Orthodox Christians, that glory of divinity can enter our lives. Glory to Jesus Christ!
O’Collins SJ, Gerald. Christology: A Biblical, Historical and Systematic Study of Jesus. Oxford University Press, 2009 pp 165-168.