Who were the Arians and what did they believe?

Condemned by orthodox Christianity as an arch heretic but lauded by non-Trinitarians as a brave and enlightened challenger to the theological status quo and its political agendas… Will the real Arius of Alexandria please stand up?

The major problem we have in determining what Arius himself believed is that virtually nothing of Arius’ original writings survive; they were destroyed, and virtually everything we know about him was written by his opponents. “History favours the winners” and the eventual winners of this debate were the orthodox Trinitarian Christians. By the time of the Arian controversy, Christians had been transformed from a despised and often persecuted religio illicita to the most influential religious body in the Roman Empire. The Church was becoming entwined with the State. Two important consequences of this were  the Emperor Constantine’s desire for unity of Christian theology in order to underpin political and social unity, and the new power and influence of the church hierachy.

Prior to Constantine, when the church engaged with heresies  such as Adoptionism, Docetism and Gnosticism, the wider world cared very little. There had been considerable polemical activity during the second and third centuries, largely with respect to different views of the nature of Christ and the Godhead and as yet no commonly accepted complete doctrine. Nevertheless, the extant writings of the early church confirm it was monotheistic and staunchly opposed to Graeco-Roman and Oriental polytheism. Equally, the church recognised that the New Testament ascribed divine Lordship and divine attributes to the Lord Jesus Christ and the church worshipped Christ as God. Exactly how these two aspects of the Godhead; unity and yet also diversity in the divinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit  should be reconciled, had occupied the church since immediate post-apostolic times. The pendulum swung back and forth between doctrines that over-emphasised unity at the expense of the distinctiveness between Father and Son (such as Modalism) and those that seemed to sacrifice monotheism in their exaltation of Christ and the Holy Spirit. But until the Edict of Toleration in 311 and the favouring of Christianity by Constantine, these theological concerns remained internal. Most Christians were preoccupied with simply staying alive, and persevering in loyalty to Christ in the face of a hostile Empire determined to eliminate them and their faith. For most Christians, it was enough to live and die for the proclamation “Jesus is Lord,” and not be overly concerned how to define his Lordship.T

Trying to work out what Arius himself thought and taught is a bit like reading mainstream Christian commentaries on “sects” and “cults” to find out about the beliefs of groups like Christadelphians and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Trinitarian Christians might assume they know what these groups believe, but without access to original writings of these groups they may be grossly misrepresented. Likewise, I respectfully submit, most Christadelphians do not really understand the Trinitarian doctrines with which they vehemently disagree. So the problem of objectively assessing a belief system through the eyes of its opponents persists. Within those limitations, and acknowledging that what we understand of ancient “Arianism” may or may not exactly match the teachings of the man Arius (c256–356), I’d like to explore the potential connection between Arians, Christadelphians and Jehovah’s Witnesses today. Arius’ teachings were alleged to stem from the ideas of Lucian of Antioch and to have been in turn influenced by monarchianist tendencies. But the Arians themselves claimed to be continuing the Alexandrian tradition and had some affinity with Origen’s subordinationist tendencies. However it can be demonstrated that Arianism has at least as many differences as similarities with respect to other schools of thought. Despite Arius’ claim of a Biblical starting point and rejection of Greek philosophical influences on Christian doctrine, he held a number of Platonist preconceptions.

Arius’ starting point was the absolute uniqueness and transcendence of God, the unbegotten beginning (agennetos arche) of all reality. Writing to bishop Alexander, whom he accused of a form of Modalism, Arius allegedly stated, “We acknowledge one God, who alone is ingenerate, alone eternal, alone without beginning, alone true, alone possessing immortality…” The being or essence (ousia) of this Godhead, whom Arius regarded as the Father, is unique, transcendent and indivisible and thus cannot be shared or communicated and cannot be changed. Therefore, anything else in existence must have been created by God out of nothing.

If the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence: and from this it is evident, that there was a time when the Son was not. It therefore necessarily follows, that he [the Son] had his substance from nothing.”

Where Arius agreed with most of his contemporaries and would have disagreed with modern Christadelphians, however, is that he affirmed that the Son had been the agent of creation. So the Son must have been created by God prior to the creation of the cosmos. Nevertheless, prior to his beginning there was a time when the Son “was not.” The Son must be a creature (ktisma) or work (poiema) of God, formed out of nothing (Christadelphians would disagree). Hence for Arius, “begettal” was to be understood figuratively, in the sense of “make” (poiein). The Son is however a perfect creature, superior to the rest of creation, but not self-existent and owing his being entirely to the Father’s will. Arius was persecuted, so he claimed, “because we say the Son had a beginning whereas God is without beginning.” He also wrote, “[The Son] came into existence before the times of the ages… born outside time… prior to his generation he did not exist.” This was the basis of the popular slogan that summed up Arianism in the day; “There was when he was not.”

Another point of difference with Arius’ orthodox contemporaries was his conclusion that the Son could have no communion with and no direct knowledge of the Father. Not being part of God’s Word and Wisdom in the sense of being part of God’s essence, he was himself “alien from and utterly dissimilar to the Father’s essence and individual being.” Being finite, the Son cannot comprehend the infinite God.

The Father remains ineffable to the Son, and the Word can neither see nor know the Father perfectly and accurately… but what he knows and sees, he knows and sees proportionately to his capacity, just as our knowledge is adapted to our powers.”

Finally, Arius taught that as a creature, the Son must be able to change and even to sin. Although the Son was intrinsically able to sin, God in his providence foreknew that he would remain sinless by his own resolution and bestowed his grace on him in advance. Could the Son then be called “God,” as he evidently is in scripture? Arius wrote that, “Even if he is called God, he is not God truly, but by participation in grace… he too is called God in name only.” In fact, it is by grace that he is designated as Son. This is not quite Christadelphianism either, although it has some affinity with their belief that Christ was only exalted to a form of divinity after his resurrection, nevertheless Christadelphians assert his Sonship from conception.

To support his case, Arius drew on passages that suggested the Son was a creature (Prov 8:22; Acts 2:36; Rom 8:29; Col 1:15; Heb 3:2) passages representing the Father as sole God (John 17:3) and passages supporting inferiority and subordination of the Son to the Father (e.g., John 14:28). All these passages will be familiar to the anti-trinitarian arguments of groups such as Christadelphians and Jehovah’s Witnesses. But each of these passages and concepts also support the complete Trinitarian understanding, as has been demonstrated elsewhere. Arius supported the participation of the Son in creation, as do the Jehovah’s Witnesses, although this is rejected by Christadelphians. Christadelphians do not view the Son as a creature, but as the product of a special conception in Mary’s womb by an act of the Holy Spirit, resulting in a true “begettal.” God is the Father of Jesus Christ, and Mary is his mother. Thus Christ was fully human, and did not exist in any way before his conception, except in the mind and purpose of God.

The dispute between Arians and orthodox came to a head in the Council of Nicea in June 325 AD, under the sponsorship of Constantine. The outcome of the Council was a condemnation of Arius and Arianism and the formulation of the Nicene Creed. They key term in this creed was homoousios, “same essence,” underlining that the Son is of the same divine substance of the Father, intrinsically divine and therefore not a creature.

One Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance (homoousios) with the Father, through whom all things came into being, things in heaven and things on earth…”

With an appended anathema; “But as for those who say, There was when he was not, and, Before being born he was not, and that he came into existence out of nothing, or who assert that the Son of God is from a different hypostasis or substance, or is created, or is subject to alteration or change — these the universal (katholike, “according to the whole”) church anathematises.”

It would be over a century before the church fully and clearly expressed what was understood regarding the union of the divine and human in Christ, and the divinity and personality of the Holy Spirit, which has been discussed elsewhere. Suffice it to say that the Arian controversy did not disappear post-Nicea but resurged periodically, especially in the Western empire after the invasion of barbarians who had been converted to an Arian form of Christianity. The champion of homoousian theology, Athanasius, was even banished for his anti-Arian teachings. Various individuals and groups were accused of Arianism in subsequent centuries and the label tended to be applied to anyone with an anti-trinitarian stance, such as the Polish Brethren, whether their beliefs were truly “Arian” or not.

The modern “Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of Arian Catholicism” claims to follow Arian teachings;  it “deems trinitarian Christianity as heresy and apostasy… there have been living Arian Clerks in Holy Orders since Christ’s Pentecost to the present day and will continue to be until the Judgement Day.” The Arian Catholic Creed reads in part:

I believe in one God, Creator of Heaven and earth,  And of all things visible and invisible. And in his Spiritual Son, Yeshua the Messiah,  Whom was born of Mary and Joseph, Was not consubstantial nor co-eternal with God the Father almighty,  Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, died, and was buried.  On the third day His Spirit was resurrected…”   “Yeshua the Messiah was not physically divine but his title was honorific of a man who was worthy of being called “Son of God”, physically human… a tzaddik orthodox Jew, and whose Spirit was chosen and sent by God as his messenger: the Angel of Great Counsel.”

These beliefs are at odds with a number of aspects of ancient Arianism, and with beliefs of Trinitarian, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christadelphians. Arian Catholics  do not accept the virgin birth, bodily resurrection of Jesus, any divinity or worship of Jesus, or biblical infallibility, unlike Arius himself, who accepted all of these.

The group most closely aligned with ancient Arian beliefs are probably the Jehovah’s Witnesses, although again there are important differences to be appreciated. The Witnesses reject the Trinity and the common essence of Son and Father, but they do believe that the Son preexisted his birth and took part in creation:

Unlike any other human, Jesus lived in heaven as a spirit person before he was born on earth. (John 8:23) He was God’s first creation, and he helped in the creation of all other things. He is the only one created directly by Jehovah and is therefore appropriately called God’s “only-begotten” Son. (John 1:14) Jesus served as God’s Spokesman, so he is also called “the Word.”

However, the Witnesses acknowledge the close bond of unity between Father and Son, whereas Arius denied that the Son could fully know the Father. Arius regarded the Holy Spirit as personal, akin to an archangel, whereas both Witnesses and Christadelphians deny the personality of the Spirit, regarding him as an impersonal energy or force.

The thesis of this series of historical discussions of various non-trinitarian views is that the Christadelphian position is genuinely unique and cannot rightly claim a bread crumb trail of similar beliefs back to Apostolic times. Whilst there are some commonalities between their view of the Godhead and the nature of Christ both in the past and in the present, there appears to be no direct correspondence. This has some important implications.

Firstly,  Christadelphians need to be cautious when appealing to a non-trinitarian legacy, and in selectively citing other groups as predecessors or fellow believers merely because they are or were anti-trinitarian. Just as any Christian should carefully examine and understand the beliefs of non-trinitarian groups before engaging with them or criticising them, so too Christadelphians should feel obligated to fully understand the genuine doctrine of the Trinity as well as the actual doctrines of those with whom they claim some affiliation or some disagreement. This entails using primary sources wherever possible, not merely the representations of those who oppose that position.

Secondly, the practice of selectively drawing on some aspects of other groups’ doctrines whilst disregarding differences should become much more transparent. For example, Christadelphians have traditionally drawn on the Witness’s New World Translation of John 1:1–2 (against all other translations) to provide support for their assertion that the Word is not God. Yet they vehemently oppose most fundamental Witness doctrines, such as Christ’s pre-existence, a personal devil and their eschatology. It is true that Arians drew on the same passages as Christadelphians to promote a subordinationist view of Christ, but Arians also believed in Christ’s pre-existence as Creator, drawing on verses which Christadelphians must pronounce “metaphorical,” but which Witnesses accept as literal. Although few if any Christadelphians would overtly claim Arius as a predecessor to the extent they might view Socinius or some of the Anabaptists, it is fair to say that Arians are sometimes enlisted to bolster the number of historical anti-trinitarian votes. Engagement with the Arian position, as with other non-mainstream historical views, usually presents the non-trinitarian as the underdog, misrepresented and persecuted. Although that was usually the case, and the fourth century Arian controversies were certainly tainted by political power-play and examples of un-Christlike polemic, all that baggage is no determinant of truth. Truth must be founded in Scripture, and if historical theology is appealed to, it must involve as comprehensive and accurate an engagement with others’ beliefs as we would wish those groups to render to our own.

 

References

Website of the Apostolic Church of Arian Catholicism:                             http://arian-catholic.org/

Website of the Jehovah’s Witnesses:   https://www.jw.org/

Website of the Christadelphians:   http://www.christadelphia.org/belief.htm

A discussion of Arianism from a Christadelphian perspective may be found in Dave Burke, “The Trinity in the Fourth Century,” in Thomas E Gaston, ed. One God the Father (East Boldon UK: Willow, 2013) 137—149.

The classic text from which much of my information on Arianism was drawn:  J.N.D. Kelly Early Christian Doctrines 5th ed. (London: Continuum, 2006) 223—251. “The Nicene Crisis”

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