Church History: A Biblical View
Part III - The Nicene Age: Lesson No. 14 - Arianism
Different concepts of the nature of Christ continued to generate the controversies which dominated the theological landscape of the Church during the Ante-Nicene and Nicene Ages. Though other disputes have come to the forefront since those times, the nature of Christ and His relation to the Father has always remained a matter of much interest and concern. After all, it is the Christian's view of Christ which is the core and most distinctive feature of his faith. It has been so from the very beginning. It was the deity of Christ that the Jews found most objectionable about the gospel. The truth about the deity of Christ also had to fight its way through the Gnostic and Monarchian heresies. The West had early settled on the "Logos Christology," which asserted that the one God was a trinity consisting of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as the correct expression of Christ's nature and relationship to the Father. The East, however, had reached no such unanimity. There a variety of Christological views was taught, and there the battle over these matters was primarily waged.
II. Doctrine of Arius
Arius (c. 250-336) was a presbyter of one of the churches of Alexandria in Egypt. His doctrinal disputes with Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, beginning about 320, grew into a much wider controversy which remained a problem in the Church for the next two or three hundred years. Arius taught that Christ was the first and highest of God's creatures. As such He did not share in the divine essence but, like all of God's creatures, was made out of nothing. However, because of His moral integrity He was adopted by God as His Son, and it was through Him that God made the world. Arius was willing to concede that Christ was God in some sense, but He was only an inferior, secondary God. Christ was neither wholly God nor wholly man, but a third party between God and man. In the incarnation Christ had entered a human body, taking the place of the human spirit and reasoning. Alexander strenuously disagreed with these views, teaching that Christ was co-eternal with the Father, one in essence with the Father, and wholly uncreated. The controversy waxed so hot that an Alexandrian synod condemned Arius, and he sought refuge among those sympathetic to his views.
Constantine, the Roman emperor in Constantinople, felt the unity of his empire was greatly threatened by this controversy. Failing to achieve peace by mere counseling, he convened the first general council at Nicea in 325. There a creed was adopted which asserted that Christ was one in essence with the Father. The Arian idea that Christ was a created being and that there was a time when He did not exist was rejected. Constantine banished those who opposed this creed, including Arius.
However, the Council of Nicea did not spell the end of Arianism. Constantine fell under the sway of those sympathetic to Arius' views and was led to support a compromise creed, restore Arius, and banish Athanasius the leading opponent of Arianism.
Constantine's sons, among whom the empire was divided after his death, became even more embroiled in the theological disputes. The emperor in the West sided with the "Catholics" while the emperor in the East sided with the Arians. Thus, a pattern was being set for political interference with theological issues on the part of civil rulers. Whether Arianism or the "Nicene faith" had the upper hand at any particular time depended upon which one had the favor of the emperor. The "Nicene faith" finally gained the upper hand for good when Theodosius, a strong devotee of it, became emperor. In 381 Theodosius convened an Eastern synod in Constantinople. This became known as the Second General Council, and it reasserted that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were all of one divine essence.
Arianism, no doubt, would have faded from the scene much sooner had it not been for the fact that the Germanic tribes, then pressing in upon the Roman Empire, were almost entirely converted to Arianism. Toward the end of the Fifth Century the Catholic bishops groomed Clovis, king of the Franks, to be the champion of their cause. By the use of very brutal tactics Clovis eventually subjugated the Germanic tribes. Between the conquests of Clovis and those of Justianian, the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople, the Germans were brought to surrender their Arian faith. Thus, Arianism was extinguished, not by the force of Scriptural truth, but by the force of arms.
III. Exercises (Please click on "File" on your browser window, then "Print" to print out this page.)
(1) What were Arius' views regarding Christ?
(2) What were Alexander and Athanasius' views regarding Christ?
(3) What dangerous precedent was set by Constantine and his sons?
(4) (T or F) The Council of Nicea put an end to Arianism.
(5) (T or F) The Second General Council in Constantinople in 381 reaffirmed that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were of one divine essence.
(6) (T or F) The Germanic tribes were brought to see their error and repent by force of Scriptural argumentation.
(7) What Scriptures teach that Jesus is divine?
(a) What does Jesus' divinity imply about Him?
(b) How may Jesus' divinity be reconciled with, or what is taught in, the following Scriptures: John 1:14; Col. 1:15; Rev. 3:14?
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