Ancient Errors, Modern Examples: Arianism

He must have been a remarkable man. A theologian and scholar, well-educated and articulate, he influenced multitudes in his own day, and many millions in our own. Historian Warren H. Carroll described him as “tall and lean, of distinguished appearance and polished address. Women doted on him, charmed by his beautiful manners. Men were impressed by his aura of intellectual superiority.” He was self-controlled, self-confident and very bright. He was also very, very wrong.

His name was Arius. Born in eastern Libya about the year 250, he later became the presbyter of the oldest church in Alexandria, Egypt, an influential position that he leveraged in his empire-wide debate regarding the person of Christ. From there, he promoted and popularized his eponymous doctrine, Arianism, an error that shook early Christianity to its foundation. Arius’ false teaching was first occasioned by a message given by his superior, the Bishop of Alexandria, Alexander I, in which he highlighted the unity of the Godhead. He taught Christ’s eternal relationship with the Father, believing, as all faithful Christians do, that there is one God, eternally existing in three equal persons, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

To this, Arius took great exception. Likely influenced by an earlier heretic, Paul of Samosata, Arius then advanced his own wicked doctrine. From a dishonest reading of carefully selected texts, he argued that Christ was a divine being, begotten (to Arius, “created”) by God the Father before the creation of the world. He viewed the Son as a lesser and subordinate being in relation to the Father. To support this, he twisted Proverbs 8:22-31 into “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work” to show the inferiority of Christ. He was the first created being, Arius said, and the most exalted, but a vast distance from John’s simple but profound description: “The Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Joh 1:1 KJV).

Along with many modern heretics, Arius conflated human generation with the divine title “only begotten”; in his most (in)famous quote he said: “If the Father begat the Son, then he who was begotten had a beginning in existence, and from this it follows there was a time when the Son was not.” This was a grave misstatement regarding the doctrine of Christ. “Only begotten” (Joh 1:14,18, etc.) is never a statement of origin, but an assertion of His holy and eternal uniqueness; God has no other Son like Him, of the same essence, and in the same relationship.

As might be expected, Arius’ heresy was paired with other erroneous teachings. He taught that the Holy Spirit was either a human being or a high-ranking angel, both of which were creatures with a beginning. Disingenuously, Arius claimed to be Trinitarian, but in reality, he rejected the idea of three equal and eternal Persons.

Of course, error can be very attractive, especially when clothed in high-sounding rhetoric and cleverly distorted Bible verses; this is particularly true among the merely religious, who know neither God’s Word nor possess His indwelling Spirit of truth. And so, Arianism spread like wildfire, reaching even the Emperor Constantine, whose unregenerate state left him vulnerable to heretical schemes. Thus, the so-called “Christian” world was divided, truth was in the balance, and the honor of Christ as the eternal Son was an open question.

Sensing that a religious division would have political ramifications, Emperor Constantine arranged a conference at Nicaea (now, Iznik, Turkey) to resolve the issue. Ironically, it was from Alexandria, again, that there arose a great defender of the faith. A young deacon, Athanasius, was providentially raised by God to champion the truth concerning the Son of God. And from that meeting came the great affirmation of Christ as “the only begotten Son of God … begotten not made, of one substance with the Father” that has stood through the millennia, not as Scripture, but as a helpful summary of New Testament teaching. In the end, Arianism was rejected, truth (eventually) was triumphant, and Christology was secured for many centuries.

Sadly, Satan is a master of recycling old error into new forms. And so, Arianism saw a resurgence in the late 19th century, epitomized by the teachings of Charles Taze Russell and his followers, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. While there are subtle variations, like Arius they deny a Holy Trinity and claim that the Son was God’s creation. To that end, they have perversely mistranslated the Scripture; in their New World Translation, John 1:1 reads, “the Word was a god,” rather than “the Word was God,” as all reliable translations affirm. This differs little from Arius’ description of Christ: “He is not God truly, but by participation in grace … He too is called God in name only.”

This Arian Christ, Athanasius insisted, could not be a Savior. In his book, On the Incarnation, he argued that no creature possesses the ability or authority to save from sin. As Paul reminds us, the gospel requires a mediator who is fully God, as well as fully human – One who can spotlessly substitute Himself for fallen man (1Ti 2:5-6). Further, only an eternal Son can grant eternal life (1Jn 5:20).

Is there joy in recounting these errors? Absolutely none. Yet they remind us of the need for constant vigilance in doctrine, and the necessity, in every generation, of precise biblical statements that describe and defend the person of Christ and protect the integrity of the gospel.

Let us be clear: while the term “eternal Son” is not explicitly found in our Bible, its truth permeates all of God’s revelation of Christ. His identity in the Godhead with the eternal Father allows no other understanding; He is the “only begotten Son, which is [or, “ever existing”] in the bosom of the Father” (Joh 1:17-18 KJV). The words of J.G. Bellett are very precious and Christ-exalting: “The bosom of the Father was an eternal habitation, enjoyed by the Son, in the ineffable delight of the Father.”

What wonderful truth! He is “the Alpha and the Omega … who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty” (Rev 1:8 ESV). May we, then, as the recipients of eternal life, ever praise the Eternal Son, from whom “all blessings flow.”

Lamb of God! Thy Father’s bosom
Ever was Thy dwelling place;
His delight, in Him rejoicing,
One with Him in power and grace:

O what wondrous love and mercy!
Thou didst lay Thy glory by
And for us didst come from heaven,
As the Lamb of God, to die![1]

[1] James G. Deck (1807-1884)