A Time When He Was Not: Did the Arian Controversy Really Matter?

In my continuing housecleaning efforts on this blog (i.e., dismantling the “Stories Evaluated . . . ” page), I would like to post this paper, from Seminary-the-Second-Time. It’s pretty well related to last Thursday’s post. It’s also pretty long, but evidently a lot of people researching this topic end up at my blog because of it . . . Athanasius is almost as much a reason for people to end up here as Emmylou Harris is. Who knew?

Theology Thursday

Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

A Time When He Was Not: Did the Arian Controversy Really Matter?

CH501: The Church to the Reformation – Dr. Garth Rosell – Spring 2010

THE_FIRST_COUNCIL_OF_NICEAI am a member of Generation X. As far as I can tell, my generation forms the seam between modernity and post-modernity, a state of affairs which occasionally leads to ambiguity and confusion. For example, the twin ideas of orthodoxy and heterodoxy both fascinate and repel me. Like any good post-modern, I wonder how we can really know who is right. In the Patristic era, for instance, often both sides of an issue argued from the Bible. Both sides were evidently sincere. I am tempted to believe in an orthodoxy that is unknowable, and a grace which offers the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, when I read about the controversies themselves, I find myself thinking like a modern. I want the orthodox to “win.” I find myself critiquing their arguments and sometimes getting annoyed at what seems like an inadequacy in the presentation. At the beginning of my research, I anticipated a paper that would outline my sense of the futility of the entire enterprise against heterodoxy. However, the more I read on the topic, focusing in particular on Athanasius and the Arian controversy, the more convinced I become that orthodoxy is worth fighting for, even in the face of better logicians, and even when, from the perspective of the present day, it seems that the heresies have remained alongside orthodoxy after all.

This Present Heresy

The Arian controversy went live for me, although I didn’t realize it at the time, with an email from a young agnostic during turn of the year. Andrew and I used to have heated religious debates when we worked together at Starbucks. Now he was starting them up again with an email about the Trinity. Although not all of his musings ran to Arianism, he did assert the “God-ness” and the “oneness” of God the Father, saying that the Son was created later. “In a sense,” he said, “the theos is the uncreated, the being, and the logos is the created, the coming into.  John 1:1 says ‘In the beginning was the Word.’  This implies that there was the God of no beginnings, the theos, and the God of beginning, the logos.  That theos is the essence of being and logos is the essence of becoming.”[1]

Like the small-scale, backwater, post-modern Athanasius that I was about to become for a brief moment, I sent him a letter of rebuttal. This, it seems, is what the church fathers did to combat heresies when they were not holding councils about them instead. I wanted him to know that the Son and the Spirit were coeternal with the Father. But my powers of debate pale in comparison to my friend’s, and I don’t think that anything I said rang true to him. And, after all, did it really matter? The fact that any conception of the Trinity at all had found a home in his understanding seemed preferable to some of his previous philosophies, and who can really explain the Trinity anyway? I hoped Andrew would someday reach a point where he understood the Word to be necessary for salvation. At that juncture, would it really matter if he thought the Word was co-eternal with the Father or not—even if I did?

As if to confirm this idea, Robert C. Gregg and Dennis E. Groh contend in their book Early Arianism that part of the reason Arius and his philosophies caused such a storm was because they were misunderstood. The traditional interpretation of Arius and his adherents, these men argue, is of men who were primarily “cosmologians,”[2] when in reality, their main concern was soteriology. “At the center of the Arian soteriology was a redeemer, obedient to his Creator’s will, whose life of virtue modeled perfect creaturehood and hence the path of salvation for all Christians.”[3] The question is, is this soteriology enough? If my friend ultimately came to this conclusion at the end of his musings on the Trinity, could I be content to leave him to his thoughts? Should I be?

The Back Story

Basic church histories will certainly mention the Arian controversy, if for no other reason than that the first great ecumenical church council (the Council of Nicea) was called largely because of it.  Arius was a presbyter from Alexandria who created a stir by his assertions that the Son of God had not always existed eternally with God the Father. Instead, according to him, the Son was created by the Father—unique among all other creatures by virtue of having been created first and from nothing—but a creature nonetheless. As first among creatures, this Son of God was the one through whom all other creatures were made. Because of his perfect life, he was adopted into the Godhead. As Gregg and Groh put it, “ . . . central to the Arian understanding of salvation was the view that Christ attained his favor with God through the machinery of ethical advance and thus established a like goal for all true believers.”[4]

On the other hand, Bishop Alexander of Alexandria and his successor Bishop Athanasius saw these ideas as touching the very core of the Christian faith and twisting it around until it became something quite different—and quite dangerous. Athanasius, in particular, spent most of the rest of his life combating Arius, his adherents and his philosophical descendents. Sometimes Athanasius’ pronouncements met with favor; sometimes he was exiled. In fact, he ended up being exiled far more times than Arius ever was, though not from doctrinal charges,[5] and though this may in part have been because Arius gave up the game and the ghost before the battle had even properly begun.

The fight, which was to take up so much of the fourth century, began “as a local quarrel. But Arius had invoked weighty support outside Egypt, and now Alexander of Alexandria was being opposed by important bishops . . . “[6] The Emperor Constantine, who had hoped the Church could be the unifying element in his empire,[7] was distressed. He called the first major ecumenical Church council at Nicea in hopes that the bishops could come to some sort of agreement and keep the peace within his realm. At first it looked like they could. A creed, followed by some curses upon people who held to Arian doctrines, was drawn up, and almost all of the bishops signed—even the supporters of Arian theology.

Within only a few years, however, the powerful and insidious Eusebius of Nicomedia, who had co-opted the Arian cause to the neglect of its founder,[8] returned to defame his enemies[9] and argue the point once more. A chief plank in his platform was that the Greek word homousion, used in the Nicene document to describe Christ’s consubstantial relationship to the Father, could not be found anywhere in the Bible.[10]

Although Athanasius, for one, saw this argument as a conniving way of skirting the real issues,[11] there are, as any post-modern will tell you, two sides to every story, and perhaps there was something in Eusebius’ objection. In the patristic period, the Bible was “the” source of theological authority. “Terms in dispute and debate, phrases which needed explication, and even whole perspectives on soteriology were built up out of a careful examination of systematic and incidental treatments of a given topic by the scriptures. This meant that . . . scriptural justification was primary.”[12] Even if Eusebius’ motives were doubtful, Arius had been a presbyter, who had made his living teaching the laity the Scriptures. He would have been committed to thorough exegesis,[13] surely. If the conclusion of this exegesis was “that even the preexistent Christ was, and had to be, a creature, no matter how exalted were the results of his creaturehood,”[14] who has the right to begrudge a man his attempt sincerely to discern the truth?

Granted, the entire ordeal became intensely political, what with the involvement of Constantine, the power plays of Eusebius and the frequent banishments and reinstatements of Athanasius. But just because some men took things too far, was Arius himself guilty of heresy and deserving of banishment? “Far beyond the clear desire to deflate what the Arians considered to be a disastrously overinflated Christology was the desire to chronicle the savior’s creaturely characteristics for a positive soteriology which seemed to the Arians to conform better to scripture and human experience.”[15]

Men Behaving Badly

Constantine, as has already been stated, simply wanted a unified Empire at any cost. Whether or not he was a genuine Christian is, and probably forever will be, a matter of conjecture and debate,[16] but it is certain that he was no theologian. The issues at stake during the Council of Nicea and for years afterwards were clearly lost on him and on his sons, who succeeded him and variously supported different factions in the controversy based on their own political aspirations at the time. “The order of banishment against Arius and his followers, with which Constantine attempted to show his support of the decisions of the Council, established a bad precedent: thereafter, when theological argument failed, and even before making use of it, one could always make use of the resources of politics and have one’s enemy banished.”[17] Meanwhile, the Church was having its own internal political trouble alongside its doctrinal controversies, as relations between the Eastern and Western branches were becoming more and more tense. The Arians were able to play off of these tensions and build up quite a strong base of support.[18] That any kind of unbiased, accurate analysis and formulation of Christian doctrine could happen in such a climate, which looked so little like the example of the debated Christ, was unlikely.

Nor, in fact, did it happen. “The orthodox and the Arians observed the codes and conventions of polemic and were equally adept at argument by insinuation, slander by association, and the deflection and misrepresentation of opponents’ assertions.”[19] Athanasius as a young man was something of a zealot,[20] so it was not difficult for Eusebius of Nicomedia to oust him from his role as bishop. As if in retaliation, Athanasius, whether at home in Alexandria or abroad in some exile, taught and wrote scathing letters against the Arians themselves and the doctrines they promoted.

“Polemic” is not an inaccurate description of Athanasius’ diatribes against the heretics. While arguing against specific tenets, such as the creatureliness of the Son, the nature of the Father or the Arians’ objections to the term homousion, he also indulges in certain rants and insults, which sound to twenty-first century ears completely tactless and undignified. He is anti-Semitic, calling his enemies “Judaizers”—comparing them to “the Jews” who were incapable of seeing Jesus for who he was and therefore guilty of his death.[21] He taunts them that, whereas Nicene doctrine has been passed down from respected sources—even the Apostles themselves—the Arians can claim no such lineage, but only have Satan as the father of their lying claims. He calls Arius the “forerunner of the Antichrist.”[22] Over and over again he calls the Arians impious, irreligious (an “insult” which many modern and post-modern Christians would receive with pride) and insane. He even exclaims, “who but would justly hate them while possessed by such a madness?”[23] Even considering the technically conditional nature of that cry, the idea of a supposedly Christian bishop enjoining hatred against those who don’t toe the party line is unsettling. It happens all the time. It is what people like my agnostic friend expect of Christians. Is hatred and doctrinal yelling and judgment and rejection really all the Church has ever been about—has ever been “good” at? Is there anything, to use a loaded term, redeeming about it?

Once Upon a Time

From a general perspective, the answer to that question is, maybe surprisingly, a qualified “yes.” Christians nowadays cry, “Hate the sin, love the sinner.” Even though that is easier said than done and the cliché often cloaks an actual hatred of the sinner in question, at face value it is a reasonable ideal that should apply to heresy as much as to anything else. The distinction between orthodoxy and heterodoxy “is inevitable if one is to speak and think about Christianity in a way that does not do violence to the fundamental Christian experience of salvation in Christ.”[24] According to both modern and post-modern sensibilities, the possibility of violence to a religious idea sounds like it is missing the point. Are we not supposed to love our neighbor? Surely that is more important than fighting over words about God. But we are to love God first, and perhaps sometimes those words mean more than we think they do.

Bishop Krumm reminds us, “It is perfectly obvious to anyone who is acquainted with a modern academic community that some limits are set to the tolerance that serious scholars can extend to a man whose views are wildly divergent from those of the overwhelming majority of his fellows. So whether the word ‘heresy’ is used or not, the kind of judgment it represents is being passed all the time in even the most liberal and enlightened intellectual circles.”[25] In other words, maybe there really are heresies. If so, maybe they really are worth fighting. Even if the vitriol expressed in the fight appears neither seemly nor Christian, maybe sometimes ideas emerge that need to be removed or dissociated from the environment in which they formed.

Evidently Athanasius thought this was the case regarding Arianism. “For what have they discovered in this heresy like to the religious Faith, that they vainly talk as if its supporters said no evil? This in truth is to call even Caiaphas a Christian, and to reckon the traitor Judas still among the Apostles, and to say that they who asked Barabbas instead of the Saviour did no evil . . . ”[26] In spite of Gregg and Groh’s charge that both Alexander and Athanasius exhibited “a tendency repeatedly encountered in orthodox argumentation to deflect or divert Arian soteriological assertions in the direction of concerns which might more precisely be called theological or cosmological in character,”[27] it is clear throughout Athanasius’ impassioned writings that he knew very well that somehow salvation itself was at stake.

Athanasius was not a philosopher or a logician like many of the Arian leaders. His arguments are not as clever theirs and occasionally he resorts to repetition and bluster. These are the things that make the modern in me cringe. I would like him to have logical, well-thought-out arguments, precisely expressed. Though the greatest theologian of his time, he was more pastoral than intellectual.[28] “His work and his theology developed in response to the needs of each moment rather than on the basis of the requirements of a system.”[29] Gregg and Groh observe that, while Athanasius accused Arius of being heretical because his ideas were not Apostolic, in fact, elements of Arius’ subordinating Christology had been present in Christian teaching from its earliest days,[30] whereas Athanasius’ doctrine of grace was “peculiarly his own.”[31] Gonzalez agrees with this assessment.[32] If this is true, and Arius was a better debater, how was it that in the final analysis, Athanasius and his doctrines won out, and how can we be sure that they should have?

Arguing whether Jesus had always existed or not—was really of the same substance as the Father or not—seems like splitting hairs. Even when I emailed Andrew, however, not knowing exactly what to say or exactly why it mattered, or where the doctrine of the eternality of Christ came from, I knew that the role of Jesus in the Godhead was of vital importance to the understanding of salvation. How could a creature just like me save me? The Arians said that no one could ever be greater than the Son, but that it was hypothetically possible for people to be his equal. But what if we weren’t? Did the Arians really think they were? If this creature-Son was good enough to get into God’s good graces—adopted into the Godhead itself—that still doesn’t mean I am. Then what? It could, perhaps, be that the created Jesus’ goodness would be enough to count for me, too, but it seems very arbitrary, and it doesn’t sound like anything I’ve understood from Scripture. And really, how many people could one mere man’s perfection really cover?

Athanasius muses that if the Son was not eternally with and from the Father, but rather a being of other substance tacked on to the Trinity, then God could conceivably be added to and subtracted from. In this case, God can be both improved and diminished. “But this is not so;” he says, “perish the thought!” Later he explains, “Such statements do not glorify and honour the Lord of all, but the reverse; for he who dishonours the Son, dishonours also the Father.”[33] He clearly would not have agreed with Gregg and Groh that Arius was simply trying his best to exegete correctly and give everyone their proper due. Both Arius and Athanasius use the terms Word and Wisdom to denote the Son, but Athanasius contends that to say that the Son had a beginning and then was adopted into the Godhead is to imply, among other things, that God was once without word or wisdom.[34] Athanasius sees God’s word and wisdom as that which flows out from him like the living water of a fountain, which is sometimes used to describe God in the Bible. If God were once without word or wisdom, then surely he used to be a desert, and word and wisdom came to him from an external source. Athanasius finds this not only repellently sacrilegious, but baffling, as, I confess, do I. The water, Athanasius argues, is inherent to the fountain, just as the Father and Son are, and always were, one.[35]

The Arians liked to use the word “Ingenerate” to describe God. Athanasius, perhaps ironically, takes them to task for using a word stolen (inaccurately) from Greek philosophy and not found in Scripture.[36] Although Athanasius uses the term himself on occasion, he accuses the Arians of using it so as to avoid using the term “Father,” which naturally implies a Son.[37] This changing of names and terms and definitions is a hallmark of heresies, and Athanasius implies that calling God the “Ingenerate” depersonalizes him and changes his relationship with creation. “For He has bid us be baptised, not in the name of the Ingenerate and generate, not into the name of the Uncreate and creature, but into the name of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; for with such an initiation we also are made sons verily, and, while using the name of the Father, we acknowledge from that name, the Word in the Father.”[38]

Divine revelation, Krumm points out, is not mechanical—it is always a personal disclosure of the “heart and purposes of God.”[39] Heresies can swing to the opposite end of the spectrum, such that God becomes a “buddy” who averts his eyes from misbehavior. “Personal revelation” can be turned into a manipulation tactic. In the case of the controversy with Arius, however, Athanasius seems to have picked up on this important distinction between the impersonal and the personal God, though he did not use those words to describe it.

The Arians believed that the creation of the Son was necessary for our own creation. Apart from the logical difficulties, which Athanasius points out ad absurdum, regarding the mediation needed to create the Son if he was a necessary mediator to the rest of creation,[40] it makes God looks distant and uninvolved. “It is impious to suppose that He disdained, as if a humble task, Himself to form the creatures which came into being after the Son, for there is no pride in that God, who goes down with Jacob into Egypt, and for Abraham’s sake corrects Abimelech in behalf of Sara, and speaks face to face with Moses, who was but a man, and descends upon Mount Sinai, and by His secret grace fights for the people against Amalec.”[41] Athanasius knows the Scripture as more than a formula. He knows the stories, and that the stories are about people, and that the God of the Bible—the eternally coexistent Triune God—was directly involved with them.

How, Athanasius wants to know, can the rest of humanity be considered the Father’s sons along with the Son, if the Son is a creature, too? According to the sort of creature the Arians say the Son is, he was necessary in order for us to be created, and we take our substance from him. But in that case we share substance with him only, and not with the Father, since the Arians are bound and determined to express the difference between the Son and the Father. In that case, Athanasius quips, we should be called the Son’s sons, and not sons of the Father.[42]

Or how, he also wonders, can anyone speak of God creating his Only Begotten Son? On a human level, he points out, a man conceives a son from his substance, and a man builds a house, but you don’t say that the house bears the man’s image, nor do you try to assert that the son was made by, and not a part of, his father.[43] Certainly the Son was created—but only his humanity, not his substance.[44] He was necessarily always and forever divine. Once upon a time he became human as well. His entering creation from his divinity was what was necessary for our salvation, not his having been a creature from the start and pulling himself up by his bootstraps to show that the rest of us could. “And as we, by receiving the Spirit, do not lose our own proper substance, so the Lord, when made man for us, and bearing a body, was no less God; for He was not lessened by the envelopment of the body, but rather deified it and rendered it immortal.”[45]

These are the things Athanasius understands as crucial to salvation: that we become God’s children because God entered his own creation himself to remake it and draw it back to himself. In the end, the trouble with Arianism, as with so many heresies, was that it gave humans too much credit, and didn’t give God enough. Athanasius knew that God could have just spoken to lift the curse. It was something implied by the Arian idea that Christ was humanity’s (un-unique) representative before God, instead of God himself bringing his own nature into humanity.[46] But if God had just waved away the consequences of sin, grace would still be external to us and not a part of us as it has become from Christ’s sharing our nature. Most likely we would have sinned again, so the cycle would have had to repeat for all eternity.[47]

God has come to us instead of waiting and demanding that we come to him. He has entered our reality and saved us himself, instead of sending a proxy. He has become personally involved. “He was not first man and then became God, but He was God and then became man, and that in order to make us gods. Otherwise, if only when He became man, He was called Son and God, yet before He became man, God called the ancient people sons . . . it is plain that He is called Son and God later than they.”[48] Something about the Arian time-line is definitely inconsistent if the Son becomes a part of time. It is difficult to see how a finite Christ’s righteousness and title could really have any bearing on the generations before him, let alone the ones after. On the other hand, an always-existent, divine Christ can cover all of humanity, having infused it, past and future, with his own perfect nature.

“For of this was man’s nature in want, because of the degradation of the flesh and of death. Since then the Word, being the Image of the Father and immortal, took the form of a servant, and as man underwent for us death in His own flesh . . . therefore also, as man, He is said because of us and for us to be highly exalted, that as by His death we all died in Christ, so again in Christ Himself we might be highly exalted, being raised from the dead and ascending into heaven . . . “[49]


In the end, I’m still uncomfortable with bishops calling their flock to hate heretics. I know that heretics don’t always change, and that they can know Scripture better than some Christians and still not be open to the influence of the Holy Spirit to explain those Scriptures to their hearts. Athanasius himself observes, “ . . . but I cannot hope that those restless spirits will give up their opposition now any more than then. They will doubtless run about in search of other pretences, and of others again after those.”[50] But the grace—the real grace—which God has offered us through Jesus, His Only Begotten, consubstantial Son, is too amazing and too important to keep silent about. I know I can’t change his mind, but I’m not content for Andrew—and many others like him—to remain in his own heresy. To that end, I will pray that the divine nature enters his own to remake it, and I will, as the opportunity arises, keep writing letters about Jesus, the coeternal Son of God.


Sources Consulted

Athanasius of Alexandria “Against Arius: Discourse 1,” in Select Treatises of St. Athanasius in Controversy with the Arians trans. John Henry Newman. 6th ed. vol. 1. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1895. 155-220.

Athanasius of Alexandria, “Athanasius,” in The Early Christian Fathers: A selection from the writings of the Fathers from St. Clement of Rome to St. Athanasius. ed. and trans. Henry Bettenson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956. 274-299.

Athanasius of Alexandria, “Epistle of Athanasius,” in Select Treatises of St. Athanasius in Controversy with the Arians. trans. John Henry Newman. 6th ed. vol. 1. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1895. 10-55.

Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church: The story of emergent Christianity from the apostolic age to the foundation of the Church of Rome. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1967.

Gregg, Robert C. and Dennis E. Groh. Early Arianism: A View of Salvation. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981.

Gonzalez, Justo L. A History of Christian Thought, rev. ed. vol. 1. From the Beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970.

Krumm, John M. Modern Heresies. Greenwich, CT: The Seabury Press, Incorporated, 1961.

N****, Andrew. Personal correspondence. Email. 3 January 2010.


[1] Andrew N****, personal correspondence, email, 3 January 2010.

[2] Robert C. Gregg and Dennis E. Groh, Early Arianism: A View of Salvation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), ix.

[3] Ibid., x.

[4] Ibid., 117.

[5] Henry Chadwick, The Early Church: The story of emergent Christianity from the apostolic age to the foundation of the Church of Rome (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1967), 135.

[6] Ibid., 129.

[7] Justo L. Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought, rev. ed., vol. 1, From the Beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970), 266.

[8] Chadwick, 136.

[9] Ibid., 134.

[10] Athanasius of Alexandria, “Epistle of Athanasius,” in Select Treatises of St. Athanasius in Controversy with the Arians, trans. John Henry Newman, 6th ed., vol. 1 (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1895), 11.

[11] Ibid., 14.

[12] Gregg and Groh, 8.

[13] Ibid., 3.

[14] Ibid., 2.

[15] Ibid., 12.

[16] Chadwick, 128.

[17] Gonzalez, 273.

[18] Chadwick, 133.

[19] Gregg and Groh, 45.

[20] Chadwick, 134.

[21] Athanasius, “Epistle,” 12-13.

[22] Athanasius of Alexandria, “Against Arius: Discourse 1,” in Select Treatises of St. Athanasius in Controversy with the Arians, trans. John Henry Newman, 6th ed., vol. 1 (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1895), 162.

[23] Athanasius, “Discourse,” 208.

[24] John M. Krumm, Modern Heresies (Greenwich, CT: The Seabury Press, Incorporated, 1961), v.

[25] Ibid., 5.

[26] Athanasius, “Discourse,” 156.

[27] Gregg and Groh, 64.

[28] Gonzalez, 291.

[29] Ibid., 292.

[30] Gregg and Groh, 43.

[31] Ibid., 182.

[32] Gonzalez, 295-296.

[33] Athanasius, “Discourse,” 177.

[34] Athanasius, “Discourse,” 213.

[35] Athanasius, “Discourse,” 178.

[36] Athanasius, “Epistle,” 49-50.

[37] Athanasius, “Epistle,” 52-53.

[38] Athanasius, “Epistle,” 53-54.

[39] Krumm, 56-57.

[40] Athanasius, “Discourse,” 195-196.

[41] Athanasius, “Epistle,” 21.

[42] Athanasius, “Discourse,” 172.

[43] Athanasius, “Epistle,” 51.

[44] Athanasius, “Epistle,” 29.

[45] Athanasius, “Epistle,” 30.

[46] Gregg and Groh, 29-30.

[47] Athanasius of Alexandria, “Athanasius,” in The Early Christian Fathers: A selection from the writings of the Fathers from St. Clement of Rome to St. Athanasius, ed. and trans. Henry Bettenson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956), 293.

[48] Athanasius, “Discourse,” 217.

[49] Athanasius, “Discourse,” 220.

[50] Athanasius, “Epistle,” 54.

24 thoughts on “A Time When He Was Not: Did the Arian Controversy Really Matter?

  1. Fun read 🙂

    I can kind of see both sides…
    If God and Jesus are coeternal, why are they Father and Son? There is an implication of an age difference and a later-ness of the son… How can someone who has always existed be begotten or created? Son, Firstborn… these imply a starting point.

    Surely though Jesus is in nature fully God, and was God before He was man. That’s absolutely clear from Scripture. Just because Jesus is referred to as the Word or Wisdom does not mean God is not-Word or not-Wisdom–in fact His God-ness must have begotten the Word, and so Word and Wisdom were included in His nature. My reading of the Bible is that while the creating was done through Jesus, it was also done by the Father (and surely the Spirit was involved, as at the beginning He was “hovering over the waters.”)
    I would reject out of hand any philosophy which puts the Son as less than the Father or separate in nature or speaks of the Father as impersonal or uninvolved–but I am not sure any of that truly follows from believing the Son to have a beginning. Surely he is begotten–but that itself implies a beginning.
    Humans beget after our kind–humans who are always, only fully human. At the moment of conception the human offspring is a human in nature and an imagebearer of God. It would follow that as everything reproduces after its kind, the begotten Son of God is God. Creating, from Athanasius’s words, is not begetting but a different kind of act. Humans do not create humans, but do beget them (with, from Scripture, God being in control and doing the actual creation). So while we beget, God is still doing the creating. But in the case of God…
    If a thing must be created to exist, God must be both begetting and creating Christ. But God Himself is not created, so obviously it is possible for something to exist and not be created.
    If begetting implies that the begotten is alike in status, type, nature. The begotten son is equally God, but is eternality in the sense of not having a beginning part of the nature of God? If it is, Christ must have it, but I am not convinced it is.
    But… if the begottenness of Jesus implies a beginning point, a before point is also involved. There was no moment of first coming into being, because I AM is also always-was. If there is a beginning-point to Jesus–even before time–that implies that for a time–an eternity, actually–God was sterile and there was nothing but Himself, One (two?) Person of God.
    But God is Love. That is part of His nature. He cannot be Love without an object of His Love. That is why God is more than one Person–because I AM/always-was/ever-will-be must be Love from/for all eternity, so there cannot be a point when there was God alone, a one-person God. So because He is Love, the Son (and the Spirit) must have always coexisted with God. So, there we are. Solved.

    • Thank you, glorify, for illustrating another point I meant to make, which is that when “heresies” emerge, it is because they speak to people. There was something in what Arius was saying that grabbed people’s hearts. And unless that is acknowledged and listened to, the “heresy” will never die.

    • I think you nailed it with the Love thing, but I would also say that your point about things begetting in-kind is also relevant. We, as creatures, all have beginnings, and so we beget other creatures, who have beginnings. Therefore, it’s not surprising that we can’t wrap our minds around, but at the same time it seems logical that, an uncreated being without a beginning would also be able to beget something of Himself that didn’t have a beginning. We assume “beget” means “beginning” because that’s how it is in the world of beginnings, but I suppose it’s not a necessity.

      • Jenn, I agree with the Love logic too, but your reasoning feels fishy to me. Words have meanings that cannot be stretched indefinitely. Could one say “we assume ‘chair’ means ‘something to sit on’ because that’s how it is around us, but I suppose it’s not a necessity”? It tastes of a fallacy to me though I do not have a name for it. Perhaps you might run it by a professor well versed in rhetoric?

  2. A very fine paper, Jenn. So many thoughts come to mind. For example, is it a charitable thing to define those whose ideas are further “out there” as heretics? Does it really set a good example for someone like Andrew to brand his ideas as heretical? What is a true Christian — one who believes “right ideas” or one who who loves God with all one’s heart, and loves one’s neighbor as oneself (as shown in daily actions)? Athanasius seems to fail the latter criterion, stirring up hatred against those who believed differently. As did Augustine in his latter, “bitter old evil cleric” incarnation. And isn’t the whole dust up over Arianism about power rather than Christian living? I see two factions of “I am right, you are wrong” narcissists fighting for dominance. Perhaps one might say that both factions were wrong.

    Constantine, that murderer and opportunistic power player, was concerned about unifying his failing empire via enforced belief. THAT itself was a fatal move, as your paper suggests at one point. It’s tainted Christianity since then, and only loss of power to secular entities has stopped the carnage resulting.

    Human beings will never believe alike. That’s an empty conceit. But they could behave well toward one another regardless of belief. That, I think, is not an unrealistic attitude. But then, would that necessitate the abandonment of emphasis on salvation as resulting from cleaving to “right belief” altogether? Perhaps Christians would even find it easier to live in imitatio dei if they stopped obsessing about salvation and put their money where their mouth is.

    • The finer points of doctrine are so often tied to our very real-life actions. If we do not know what is right, how can we do what is right? There are many cases where two sides earnestly believe the other side is in error, and their side is right, and it very much affects the real lives of the adherents… in these cases clearly one of the sides is wrong, causing dishonor and disrespect for God, and working against his purpose and plan. So an attempt to do good, no matter how well-intentioned, can be harmful when predicated on bad theology or mere feelings. That is why seeking out and figuring out good doctrine is important. It is absolutely true that to denigrate one another on the basis of doctrine is wrong as well, especially when both sides are sincere. It reflects an error of theology in practice–because we should be loving and encouraging one another.
      But when one sees that another who is professing Christianity is in error, it is equally wrong (and unloving) to ignore their error. We need to be always ready to give an answer, we need to correct even when it isn’t easy or comfortable. With love, with respect, but ignoring another’s error is not loving. If I see that another Christian is in error, it’s my responsibility to first examine their position and mine and make sure of who is right (it might not be me); second, find some way of expressing the truth to them, while also being loving (perhaps by pointing out similarities in our beliefs or admiring them for trying to seek out what is right). It is not right to let error persist if we might, by our word or example, show truth and change hearts. There is no need to belabor it or bring it up again and again, but to let another person remain in error while we know the truth–for whatever motive (peace, self-righteousness, dislike of confrontation)–is to not allow them access to the truth, to give them no chance to recover from their error.

      • Thank you, glorify, for continuing the conversation. It’s been a long time since I was involved in theological musings!

        You open up the question about whether any of us can know anything with such utter certainty that we can correct others’ abstract beliefs. I tend to think that’s an attitude that falls prey to the “lust for certainty” and in my experience, such certainty is not a gift God gave human beings. Neither do I see such an attitude doing good historically speaking. Do you see it differently?

        I support efforts to correct others’ actions that go against the two commandments of Jesus. Down to earth stuff that is very easy to see — even babies know when someone is being harmed, and object.

        The other interesting topic you raise is… something ubiquitous in our culture: that it is beliefs that drive actions. I have become dubious about this assumption, and am more inclined to see actions as emerging from core values and attitudes — a much less rationalistic point of view. Beliefs are often applied after the fact to justify one’s actions, alas.

      • Oh and I forgot: when you say “There are many cases where two sides earnestly believe the other side is in error, and their side is right, and it very much affects the real lives of the adherents… in these cases clearly one of the sides is wrong, causing dishonor and disrespect for God” can you give an example?

      • About beliefs driving actions: Not sure, still thinking about what you are saying… either way I think I would say that our values are affected by our beliefs too, and our attitudes have to do with our beliefs.
        As for certainty the Bible does say that we should be convinced in our own minds, and in general I am.
        As for specifics about conflicting beliefs… I could probably give them but I think that would take us on a rabbit trail with a can of worms and I’m not sure Jenn wants that mess on her blog.

        What do you mean when you talk about attitudes and values driving actions? How does it happen that we act, in this case, and what is the difference? How does one change core values and attitudes, if possible? What distinguishes a core value, an attitude, and/or a belief?

      • Glorify–feel free to take as many rabbit trails as you genuinely wish to here. I’m happy when dialogue is happening! Just please excuse me if I don’t always chime in myself.

      • Glorify, I am still working it out in my head too. Maybe I will write a blog post about it. Lessee… I too think it’s all kinda back and forth. But in some basic way, I think beliefs come after actions. We do stuff for other reasons, then come up with ideas about it.

        I am not knocking exploring ideas, or making up one’s mind. Heaven forfend. I’ve spent a lifetime doing same. I am arguing FOR humility regarding those ideas and our (human therefore limited) conclusions.

        Well, hm. A value is… for example, treating people well, with kindness and respect. A value is experiential. A belief is something that can override that value… for example, when a man believes that women are inferior, and so allows that belief to override the value of kindness and respect. Another kind of belief can support kindness and respect, of course… A belief is in our heads, value is in our gut. 🙂

        How does one change one’s values? I think by struggling via conscience, the way Jacob struggled with the angel. It’s hard work. Ideas can be changed easier; in fact, one can have ideas and not apply them… and change them as one wishes. Tolstoy once said something to the effect of — if you want to know what you really believe, do it, and then you will find out if you really believe it or not. Does that make sense?

        When I think of the Arians and anti-Arians, I see two factions of bullies, using ideas (beliefs) to smack each other over the head. They both share the attitude of entitlement; they are fighting each other for power and status. And while they pay lip service to loving one’s neighbor, in action they vilify and persecute and abuse one another. Their attitude of entitlement is far more powerful inside them than the belief in the two commandments of Jesus.

        • I know you’re talking to Glorify here, but just a couple more things:

          Yes. Humility is SO KEY. (still working on that one. Still pretty sure that when I’m pretty sure I have it, I’ll have lost it again.)

          Arians versus non-Arians–yeah, I think bullying happened. It’s not a very appealing scenario at all. I think important things were hammered out during this time, but probably on both sides some of the wrong people were hammered. I hope that you’re not lumping me in with one of these groups. Keep in mind that this was an assignment written for a class, and I posted it here because I’m trying to keep the blog active during a time that I don’t actually have time to write fresh stuff. I realise that, based on some of my comments within this assignment, it may appear that I am also bullying, in respect to Andrew. In hindsight, I’d say we had some of those moments, on both sides–well before those email exchanges happened, though. On the other hand, we were both, in this limited way, consenting adults, and there was plenty of respect and humour sprinkled into our interactions. I wasn’t going to delineate all the permutations of our interactions in a paper of this small scope; however, a gloss on it seemed relevant to the topic.

          Anyway. I guess it doesn’t really matter what kind of person you think I am, but sometimes I worry about things like that . . .

      • Heh. No. I think of it as a historical quarrel. Though by no means altogether dead.

        The thing I wondered about you is, why do you need to pick one or the other? It seemed to me that glofify’s post showed really well that both sides had a point. I mean, apart from the assignment. I mean, for life. That’s why I asked her for an example… why does it matter one whit this way or that way, for practical purposes? Why must we take sides?

        Why not live with the paradox instead? I mean, there are plenty of them in religion. For example, God is good. AND, God created a world in which are both good and evil. A paradox. A mystery. Why not say, Christ was a begotten child of God, and fully a human being. AND Christ is homoousion with God. ?

      • Oh trust me. I ask myself that all the time, as I’m wrapping up the second of two systematic theology classes. I suspect I and most of my classmates would rather just live with the paradox, and I also suspect that after we’re done being graded, many of us will return to that mindset about many of the things we talked (and debated) about in class. I think it’s clear, from the outworking of the “Early Church” debate about this particular doctrine, that what the people believed certainly didn’t necessarily lead to “incarnational living” (ironically). On the other hand, as a student of theology, it’s important at least to wrestle with this stuff. Also, if I want to teach or write or engage in dialogue about this stuff at all (as I hope to–respectfully and irenically, of course!), it’s important to have a handle on as much as one can have a handle on, and the implications of it, at least in my own mind, as a place from which to draw in that teaching or dialogue.

        Also, as regards this particular debate, I think the thing which I maybe didn’t highlight in the above paper very well was that Arius et al. believed that Christ was never actually God, even though he sort of got “adopted” into God. Arius didn’t believe that “God could share His essence with another,” i.e., in the Incarnation, so he CREATED Jesus first and then through Jesus made everything else. Which maybe is splitting hairs, except that if Jesus was only some superman and not actually God, too, then the crucifixion and resurrection take on a whole new (and feebler) meaning. Then, instead of sacrificing HIMSELF for our freedom, God inflicted unjust punishment on an innocent victim. Which makes Him clearly not a very loving God (or else love is not what we think it is). And then all the peace and love and justice and grace and mercy that Jesus preached and lived gets totally undermined by that God’s arbitrary slaughter of a good man. Basically, the whole Christian Gospel unhinges in the end if Arius is right. I think it’s entirely possible to be a very good Christian indeed and not have all these ideas and implications worked out, and often those of us who try to work it out get so stuck in our heads that we forget WHAT, exactly, we’re working out in the first place and just start worrying about being right instead of being brought to our knees by what these doctrines mean God’s done for us–and living out of that humility. But it also seems to me that when one is introduced to the question, it’s a good idea to at least try to reason it out as much as possible for onesself.

        Finally (and–man! All these comments are like individual blogposts!), I attend and work for an interdenominational church. People come to it from all sorts of denominations and leave their theological differences at the door . . . which at least in theory is amazingly wonderful and is actually one of the reasons I joined this operation in the first place. And, in principle, I still support this approach. However, what it ends up meaning in practice is a unity over the “lowest common denominator.” Who, verbally, is Jesus, but in practice is just this specific church. People can’t be motivated to good works by a guy they don’t know (or know much about), and so although there’s a lot of activity, there’s also a lot of burnout, and the reach of the activities, instead of being largely determined by the Spirit, are determined by the number of people involved and their degree of loyalty (and “we grew up here”) to this church. We have one really wonderful outreach, but a whole lot of what happens just continues without people really knowing why we’re doing it. It’s not that this can’t happen in a more doctrinally rigid church, but I think at least in the case of this church, one of the things we need is more specific teaching–not for rigidity and micromanaging, but just for some basic basis of our faith and our works. Doctrine can be dry, boring and divisive, but I also believe that if “done” right, it can be invigorating, life-giving and unifying.

      • I just want to quickly post a link to one of my old posts. I think a corollary of “beliefs follow actions” is “beliefs are not unifying, they are fundamentally divisive.” I wrote about it here:
        Alert: there are a couple of rude words there, for emphasis.

        I will wait for glorify to pitch in before I post more of a response, Jenn. This is fun! Thank you for making this space available!

    • Thanks for this, LeaverGirl. A couple of things that come to mind immediately. (If other things become more fully developed, maybe I’ll blog about it this summer.)

      First: Yeah, Constantine. Boo.

      Second: I suspect defining people whose beliefs are further away from what is traditionally called “orthodox” as “heretics” isn’t charitable–IF they are unhappy with the term. I used the term in this paper because it was for a particular class in which the term was more or less assumed, and it would have been pretty unwieldy to describe it some other way–and also probably inexplicable to the professor. But also, in my experience, my friends who don’t hold to “orthodox” faiths (including Andrew–at least at the time) kind of take pride in the “heretic” label, and have been known to refer to themselves as such, or as “heathens.” It’s usually said mainly ironically, so I don’t think there’s any lack of charity there.

      I tend to agree that we can’t be certain about EVERYTHING, and that “religious people” of all stripes, but particularly the more conservative in each, tend to be certain about things we probably have no right to be certain about. I was just reading a book the other day with this quote which I just loved: “I don’t believe that God is a fussy faultfinder in dealing with theological ideas. He who provides forgiveness for a sinful life will also surely be a generous judge of theological reflections. Even an orthodox theologian can be spiritually dead, while perhaps a heretic crawls on forbidden bypaths to the sources of life.”–Helmut Thielicke. I agree with this.

      I guess, though, I do believe that God gives us a measure of truth and certainty in it. I don’t think Christianity is, at base, either about word OR deed, but that both should naturally flow out of a real relationship with the living Christ (THE Word, become flesh–among other things, action). That’s what the Gospel is really about. And that relationship is really possible. Of course the whole world isn’t going to believe the same. The Bible doesn’t even claim that. But if I have even an introductory relationship with the One who holds the universe, then it’s kind of selfish to keep it to myself. Admittedly it’s also kind of selfish if I try to shove it down someone’s throat.

      I think it’s possible (and maybe even fair) to posit that people who “claim Jesus” and then treat others badly–hatefully–are not being honest with the rest of the world (and probably even themselves) about having an actual relationship with Jesus, because a genuine such relationship will gradually but certainly produce both good works and “right thinking” (orthodoxy). By which I don’t mean to say even those people will all think the same, but . . . there’s a certain unifying element. (Probably the Holy Spirit.) People (and I’m sure both of us can think of some folks by name) who do this consistently–well, it’s tough to take. But I also feel like, while nastiness, hatred, all those things are not justifiable or excusable, people who act that way are in as much need of grace as the rest of us. Everybody’s going through stuff. Everybody’s in a different stage of their “relationship” and their own development as a human being. Speaking from personal experience, I know I have a relationship with Jesus, but I also know that I don’t always live it very well and sometimes it looks downright ugly. I’m not proud of that stuff, and sometimes I question whether God’s REALLY at work in my life or not. I often need grace extended to me–even sometimes in spite of my best efforts–and I don’t always get it, and never deserve it (or it wouldn’t be grace, I guess).

      I was looking for another quote, but I can’t find it, so I guess I’ll leave this here for now! 🙂

      • What you say about heretics makes sense. I worry the way we theists sometimes treat atheists in ways that may be, well, it kinda pushes them away, into a bad place. As when missionaries arrogantly talk about the tribal people living in darkness (while they go in, infect them with civilized illnesses and destroy their culture). Who is in darkness here? That’s a bit of a far out example, but I just ran into it on another blog.

        Are bullies and manipulators and verbal abusers in need of grace? Of course they are! But they are also badly in need of limits. If we fail to place down those boundaries, we get victimized. No good, no good for anyone. While I agree with you that everyone is going through stuff, those of us who have (more or less) the attitude of humility and willingness to cooperate and negotiate our relationships must stop making allowances for those who abuse others as a way of life. We need to stop being enablers for bad behavior. And I think that theologians who focus on the Arians/anti-Arians as a theological dispute without paying close attention to the abusive bahavior of both sides, are enabling such behavior later on too. I just looked up Arius, and it sure sounds like he was poisoned when he returned from exile. In any case, he died a sudden and gruesome death. And the other side gloated over it and praised God. Sheesh. Crap like this gives Christianity a bad name.

      • Yeah, you’re right–I remember being kind of horrified/disgusted doing the research for this. I couldn’t go into it as much as I wanted to in that paper, but that’s why I briefly touched on it in the “Men Behaving Badly” bit. I wanted to point out that this wasn’t an above-reproach scenario, and I DIDN’T want to justify that, but I also didn’t want it to take over that particular paper. I agree that limits and not-enabling are absolutely vital, because absolutely–it does have far-reaching consequences. (I can think of one microcosmic example of this in a friend’s marriage right now. It’s abysmal–and being dealt with.) I can’t argue with any of this here. I also find the condescending attitude of many people of “faith” toward people of “no faith” (both terms of which I’m skeptical) really despicable and ignorant.

  3. Great stuff, ladies. Unfortunately, today is class day and I’m on my way out the door, but I don’t want either of you to think I’m ignoring your very thought-provoking comments. Thoughts have been provoked. I’ll respond more fully anon. Thanks, both of you!

  4. “what the people believed certainly didn’t necessarily lead to “incarnational living”“

    I don’t think it’s ironic, because I don’t think human nature works that way. We have pacifistic egalitarian anarchists getting into riots and oneupmanship, we have green folk getting seduced by personal publicity and money into cooptation, we have doctors who start with idealistic beliefs turn into money grubbers, we have people who believe the tenets of Christianity who abuse and even kill those they disagree with. It’s all of the same cloth. (And yes, it reaches into personal relationships all the time, as well.)

    Anabaptists, the folks who started the dust up over baptism of babies and some other issues in Switzerland in 1525, decided early that “incarnational living” came first. And after several centuries, it seems they have done fairly well with it.

    The way they do it is… they think of two baptisms. The first is baptism of the spirit. When a person hears God calling. And they realize they want to turn over a new leaf, turn their life around, walk with God. And only when they show evidence that they are getting somewhere with it (when they begin to embody it), are they ready to join the church community, the ecclesia, and get baptized by water.

    I read that the early Christians did it that way too. A person was expected to scrutinize their whole life: their occupation, their use of force, their treatment of their fellows… and to stop those behaviors that did not pass muster. They were not part of the ecclesia until they showed by their behavior they were genuine and serious. But eventually, this approach was steamrolled under, and all sorts of persons were taken in as long as they were ready to mouth some doctrine or other. A big mistake. What I think of as “empire mind, empire heart” took over large portions of the Church. There is a saying among artists and writers, “the devil promises a larger audience.” Meaning if you compromise and create stuff that’s designed to sell, you will get somewhere in the world, but lose your soul. Well, revolutionaries (and early Christians were revolutionaries) suffer from the same temptations to go for the numbers and other signs of worldly success.

    Complexity theorists speak of “costly signaling.” It means you recognize your fellows, e.g. Christians, by certain behaviors that are hard to do. That require real commitment to do. Learning to verbally affirm a credo is easy. You don’t even really need to believe it, and if it’s really abstract, no one will notice. But to do stuff the Amish do — wear plain clothes, insist on simplicity in everything, on humble behavior too, they even speak their own language… they are not likely ever to have people coming to them who are doing it for any other reason than that it’s in their hearts to be Amish, to be Jesus-followers in this particular way. But even among more modern people, costly signaling can be applied if folks expect certain behaviors that require real effort, real commitment. Words are easy. Living it is hard. But it shows you who is genuine.

    I wonder if the church you belong to, Jenn, and work for… if they are lacking real vision? I find doctrine generally divisive, but vision tremendously unifying. As Jesus went around preaching the Kingdom, people flocked to the vision… there was very little doctrine over and above what the Torah was teaching them then. What good is doctrine if people remain slaves to “empire mind, empire heart”? Jesus came to set us free…

    As for the issues around the meaning of sacrifice, I find it all pretty baffling. I suppose I myself am more of an Arian… because I focus on God and don’t worry about the whole very complicated set of doctrines around the crucifixion. I think if I started worrying about it, it would take me away from just walking with God. I tend to think of a “relationship with Jesus” in terms of following his teachings and example. Living them in the world, and leaving Babylon thereby. I know that other folks think and feel differently, but I don’t understand that part. I guess I am more a jesusian rather than paulian! Paul preached crucifixion and rising from the dead and verbal confession of faith. Jesus preached the Kingdom and living it.

    I am in the middle of moving, and so need to move on with my thoughts too, and attend to a whole bunch of practical matters. But this has been a really lovely discussion, and I will keep an eye on the blog in the future.

  5. Pingback: This Theology Thing Goes Way Back | That's a Jenn Story

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