Arius and the deity of Christ

Arius was a cultured and ascetic presbyter (256-336 AD), a popular preacher from Libya. He was tall, handsome, earnestly religious, and eloquent in his arguments. He gave the impression of being arrogant.

He lived at a time when the Eastern Church was divided because of the Christological dispute which he was instrumental in starting. He taught that Christ is not divine, but created.

Arius was strongly opposed by his bishop Alexander, who was bishop of Alexandria from 313 AD. Alexander insisted that the Son was fully and truly God, in as absolute a sense as the Father was. The problem for Alexander was to show that this (orthodox) truth did not lead to a belief in two Gods, as Arius maintained that it did.

Alexander assembled a council of Egyptian bishops in 320 which deposed Arius for heresy. Arius, however, was not ready to give up without a fight, and went to Palestine, canvassing support from other Eastern bishops.

Arius wrote letters to Lucian’s ex-students who were now presbyters or bishops, addressing them as “Dear fellow-pupils of Lucian.” Lucian’s views of Christ seem to have been similar to Arius’s.

All came to a head and the Emperor, to safeguard the unity of the empire and the church, convened a general council at Nicea, which declared the Son to be equal with the Father and issued the Creed saying that Christ is “God from God, true God from true God, begotten not created, of the same essence as the Father....”

All but two of Arius’s supporters - Secundus of Ptolemais and Theonas of Marmarica - gave in and signed the Creed. Arius still refused. These three were sent into exile by Constantine the emperor. They were anathemized and condemned. The enforce the decisions of the Council, Constantine demanded, with the death penalty for disobedience, the burning of all books composed by Arius and deposed Eusebius of Nicomedia and another bishop who had been active in their support of Arius.

The dispute, though, continued throughout the fourth and fifth century.

Defining the heresy named after him.

His teaching was that the Father alone is God. The Logos or Son, Arius maintained, was a created being - formed out of nothing by the Father before the universe was made. He therefore said that there was a time when the Son had not existed.

According to Arius, the Son was the first and greatest of all that God had created; He was closer to God than all others, and the rest of creation related to God through the Son (for instance, God had created everything else through Christ).

By developing this arch-heresy, Arius thought he was defending the fundamental truth that there is only one God - monotheism. A belief in the full deity of Christ, he supposed, would mean the Father and Son were two separate Gods, which contradicted the many statements of the Bible about God’s oneness.

Arius was also unhappy with Origen’s idea that there could be ‘degrees’ or ‘grades’ of divinity, with the Son being slightly less divine than the Father (this became known after the Nicene Council as semi-Arianism).

Arius argued that since the Father is clearly God, it follows that the Son could not be God - so He must be a created being.

Opposing Sabellianism

This heresy is named after Sabellius (early third century), an obscure Roman theologian. Sabellius taught that God is only one person, who acts now as Father in creating the universe, now as son in redeeming sinners, now as the Holy Spirit in sanctifying believers.

The three divine Persons he believed to be three different roles acted out by one divine Being, much as one human person might be a husband, a father and a clerk.

His view, of one sort or another, was quite popular in the early church, because it offered a way of believing in the deity of Christ while preserving the oneness of God.

The Church rejected Sabellianism because, among other things, it failed to preserve the personal relationships between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, so prevalent in the New Testament. It makes nonsense of the prayer-life of Jesus in the Gospels.

Sabellianism is also known as Modalism (3 different modes of the same God), and Monarchianism (one rule of God through different roles).