In preparing for this post, I came to the realization that I am not often presented with the chance to address the same heresy in two different time periods. At least, not in this manner, and not so clearly. Yet, this particular heresy is alive and well in our modern age, and most of us simply are not aware. I am referring, of course, to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and their particular brand of heresy. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, this will be a two-part series. First, I will address the teachings of Arius of Alexandria, his role in the Council of Nicea, and the aftermath of the Council. In the second post, I will directly address the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and highlight the various ways that their doctrinal positions conflict with sound doctrine.
Definition of terms:
Presbyter: a member of the governing body of an early Christian church.
Orthodox: conforming to established doctrine especially in religion.
Heterodox: contrary to or different from an acknowledged standard, a traditional form, or an established religion.
Hypostatic Union: the combination of divine and human natures in the single person of Christ.
Eructation: an act or instance of belching.
Ecumenical Council: An ecumenical council is a conference of ecclesiastical dignitaries and theological experts convened to discuss and settle matters of Church doctrine and practice in which those entitled to vote are convoked from the whole world and which secures the approbation of the whole Church.
Catechumen: a person who receives instruction in the Christian religion in order to be baptized.
Homoousios: of one substance.
Arius of Alexandria (256 AD-336 AD) was a Presbyter in the Alexandrian Church whose teachings were controversial. He taught that doctrine must be reasonable to the human mind, or it simply was not biblical. This naturally caused issues with others around him because human reason was never meant to be the standard by which we determine biblical doctrine. (Isa. 55:9; Proverbs 3:5) According to his teachings, if it is unreasonable, it is unscriptural. Naturally, this does not bode well for various Christian doctrinal stances, not the least of which deals with the matter of miracles. If we have trouble following the will and commands of a God we do not fully understand, then what do you think would happen if He was easily understood?
It was this stance that brought him into direct conflict with figures in Church history such as Athanasius of Alexandria, who used Arius and his teaching as an epithet to describe anyone who disagreed with the Doctrine of the Trinity. This teaching was so pervasive that, by the end of the entire episode, Arianism had spread throughout Europe, the Middle East, and into Northern Africa. The impact of this particular heresy simply cannot be measured, as it is still ongoing.
The Teaching & its Refutation
Prior to the Council of Nicea in 325 AD, there had been some internal debate within the Church body about the nature of the relationship between God and Jesus. The Orthodox position had always adhered to the Doctrine of the Trinity, which stipulates:
God is one in essence and three in person:
The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct Persons
Each Person is fully God
There is only one God.
Meanwhile, there were those who held to a variety of other positions on this unique relationship, including Lucian of Antioch, Arius’ mentor. Much is unknown about Lucian’s theology, but many extant sources make the claim that Lucian was the source of Arius’ heretical teachings. In either case, Arius is the one whose name rests on this particular heresy, which is why we are discussing Arianism and not Lucianism.
As regards Jesus, Arianism teaches:
1. The son was created out of nothing; hence, he is different in essence from the Father; that he is Logos, Wisdom, Son of God, is only of grace. He is not so in himself.
2. There was a point when he did not exist; i.e., he is a finite being.
3. He was created before everything else, and through him the universe was created and is administered.
4. In the historical Christ the human element is merely the material; the soul is the Logos. The historical Christ, therefore, had no human soul.
5. Although the incarnate Logos is finite, and hence not God, he is to be worshiped, as being unspeakably exalted above all other Creatures, the immediate Creator and Governor of the universe, and the Redeemer of man.
6. The Arians adhered to the Scriptures, and were willing to employ as their own any scriptural statements of doctrine. (A Manual for Church History, p. 327).
In his own words, Arius had this to say,
Some of them say that the Son is an eructation, others that he is a production, others that he is also unbegotten. These are impieties to which we cannot listen, even though the heretics threaten us with a thousand deaths. But we say and believe and have taught, and do teach, that the Son is not unbegotten, nor in any way part of the unbegotten; and that he does not derive his subsistence from any matter; but that by his own will and counsel he has subsisted before time and before ages as perfect as God, only begotten and unchangeable, and that before he was begotten, or created, or purposed, or established, he was not. For he was not unbegotten. We are persecuted because we say that the Son has a beginning but that God is without beginning.
— Theodoret: Arius’s Letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia, translated in Peters’ Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe, p. 41
They said that Jesus had a beginning, but God did not. This is in opposition to the Bible, which states that Jesus is God, and therefore has neither beginning nor end. Take Isaiah 9:6, for example:
“For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counseller, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.“
This verse perfectly defines Jesus’ nature. The government will be on His shoulders (Matt. 28; Dan. 7). Going beyond this, there is a term in this verse that is inescapable. In the original Hebrew, The mighty God (El Gibbor) is a title that one simply cannot miss. What is more telling is that El Gibbor is used again, just one chapter later, and this time not in reference to the Messiah, but to YHWH. Isaiah 10:21,
“The remnant shall return, even the remnant of Jacob, unto the mighty God.“
Two verses, one dealing with the Messiah, the other YHWH, and both being given the same divine title. That is not an accident, that is a clue. There is more, though. Consider Zechariah 12:10,
“And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplications: and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn.“
Pay close attention to a portion of the verse, specifically, “and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced”. Now, this is the Lord speaking through the prophet Zechariah, and He is saying that He is the one who is pierced. How can the Lord be pierced, unless He takes human form and submits Himself to our physical reality? It is simply impossible!
Next, we have Isaiah 48:12-17, in which the Lord announces rather clearly that He is the expected Messiah,
“Hearken unto me, O Jacob and Israel, my called; I am he; I am the first, I also am the last.
13 Mine hand also hath laid the foundation of the earth, and my right hand hath spanned the heavens: when I call unto them, they stand up together.
14 All ye, assemble yourselves, and hear; which among them hath declared these things? The LORD hath loved him: he will do his pleasure on Babylon, and his arm shall be on the Chaldeans.
15 I, even I, have spoken; yea, I have called him: I have brought him, and he shall make his way prosperous.
16 Come ye near unto me, hear ye this; I have not spoken in secret from the beginning; from the time that it was, there am I: and now the Lord GOD, and his Spirit, hath sent me.
17 Thus saith the LORD, thy Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel; I am the LORD thy God which teacheth thee to profit, which leadeth thee by the way that thou shouldest go.“
In verse 12, the person speaking identifies Himself rather clearly. I AM he; I AM the first, I also am the last. To further cement it in your minds, though I am sure most of y’all caught it, we have two of the names attributed to both YHWH and Jesus. As if that was not enough, Jesus calls Himself I AM (John 8:58), and the First and the Last (Rev. 22:13), directly.
In verse 13, the Lord says, “Mine hand also hath laid the foundation of the earth”. Well, when you take a look at John 1, it states that Jesus is the One who created the earth, so it becomes clear, again, that Jesus is God.
Then, there is verse 16. Thus far, the passage has been the Lord speaking. Yet, verse 16 is clearly the Messiah speaking, and what He says is that the Lord and His Spirit sent Him. This brings up a question. At which point in the passage did the perspective change from God to the Messiah? I keep looking at the passage, and seeing no difference. Clearly, it was the Lord speaking from beginning to end.
It is also worth noting that the Messiah in this verse is stating that He is eternal, given that He says He has been around since the beginning.
Finally, there is the point of worship. According to Arius, we worship Jesus, not as God, but as a super-exalted, perfect creation of God. Again, we must turn to Scripture to see why that is wrong.
“Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: 5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; 6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.“
As you can see in verse five, the Lord plainly states that worship is reserved strictly for Him. According to both Arian and Orthodox theologies, Jesus existed by this point, and had certainly made multiple appearances, as evidenced by multiple chapters in the Book of Genesis. If He existed, and Arius was right, then why was the Lord so very explicit in reserving worship strictly for Himself? Why did He not create an exception for His first created being? This particular verse only makes sense from the Orthodox position that Jesus is God.
The Council of Nicea
In 325 AD, the Emperor Constantine I (280 AD-337 AD) called for an ecumenical council because he desired to create unity within the Church that he had recently legalized. When he heard of the conflict between Arius and the others, he saw a division forming that he sincerely did not want to take place. It was his desire to bring an end to the conflict, and find some kind of compromise between the two sides. In this, he was somewhat destined to be disappointed. While he did achieve his goal, he was very disappointed at how he arrived at it. In his opening remarks, he urged all to work toward unity and peace, saying,
“Let, then, all contentious disputation be discarded; and let us seek in the divinely-inspired word the solution of the questions at issue.”
Constantine I, an unbaptized Catechumen, was the one who presided over the opening of the Council, and did participate in some of the discussion, ultimately had very little impact on it. About all he could do was abide by the ultimate findings of the Council. From the beginning, Arius and his supporters, Eusebius of Nicomedia and Secundus of Ptolemais, were forced into the defensive. They were required to defend their teachings, and were ultimately unable to do so convincingly. This led to Arius’ teachings being declared anathema.
When all was said and done, the Council had formulated the Nicene Creed, which Arius and two of his followers refused to sign. As a result, they were excommunicated. Taking things a step further, Emperor Constantine exiled them, and ordered all copies of Arius’ book, Thalia, burned.
While Constantine I had initially held to the findings of the Council, he did ultimately change his mind. At the urging of his sister, he threw his support behind the Arians. For a time, Arians enjoyed tremendous political power in the Empire, and the Orthodox view was declared anathema. Eusebius of Caesarea, long known to be the first Church historian, spent a time in exile due to this incident.
Constantine attempted to mend the breach between the two sides, but Arius died before he could be readmitted to the Church. To the day he died, he absolutely refused to renounce his heretical teachings.
In the end, this ecumenical council did much for us today. Were it not for Arius and his teachings, many of the doctrines we know as Truth today would not have been defined. It has also given us the tools we need to fight against a similar heresy, the teachings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.