Part One: “My Lord and My God!” The Incarnation and Arianism

View of Acropolis & Parthenon from stone

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in the Son.”[1]

During the twilight hours of late-antiquity, the deepening gloom of cosmic despair could be seen on the horizon upon which the mythologies and philosophies of man had exhausted themselves. In his book, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, David Bentley Hart writes that it was “a time when religion and philosophy alike were increasingly concerned with the escape from the conditions of earthly life, and when both often encouraged a contempt for the flesh more absolute, bitterly unworldly, and pessimistic” than ever before.[2] With noble resignation, mankind had come to accept this world as nothing more than a material prison.  History was stuck in an endless cycle, punctuated by the wiles of capricious and demanding gods.   In this view there was a regularity in history that followed the cycles of nature – an endless, thus meaningless, continuum of “creation and dissolution, without beginning or end.”[3]   The wisest amongst the pagans would agree that “generations come and generations go, / but the earth remains forever,” all the while the Supreme God remained completely out of reach and uninvolved.[4] The most one could hope for is to be able to cultivate a resigned soul that was “immune to the effects of time and nature alike.” [5] Salvation could only be found in escape.

In this gathering darkness, there arose out of an unimportant peasantry of the dusty Galilean backwoods the antidote to the world’s predicament. Rumors began to scandalize antiquity that what was once inaccessible had been made accessible, that what was timeless had entered time, and “that the hands that had made the sun and stars were” in a moment “too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle.”[6] What is even more remarkable is that this God-man called Christ was said to have been unjustly killed and numbered among criminals, but had then come back to life. Into this “twilit world of pervasive spiritual despondency and religious yearning” sprung forth the news that death itself had been conquered by none other than God himself.[7]

Still, as glad as these tidings were, they would soon be embattled and fighting for their life along with their messengers. Their entrance into the world of gloom would quickly turn into what G.K. Chesterton called the romance of orthodoxy, a struggle he likened to “the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses.”[8] Heresy after heresy would threaten to either divide the church or dissolve its doctrines into the amalgam of pagan ideas. “Open traps of error and exaggeration” gaped at every turn into which it would have been easy to fall.[9] “It is always simple to fall,” Chesterton wrote, “there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.”[10] These tidings that had originated in a cave in Bethlehem would be put to the test and, when all was said and done, would turn out to be a “heavenly chariot … thundering through the ages,” leaving all “the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate” while it remained “reeling but erect.”[11]  One of the heresies was that of Arianism.  This is a report of its rise and ruin.

The Heresy of Arianism

At the heart of many of the early heresies was the strong temptation to subjugate Scriptural authority to philosophy, reducing revelation to “fit our small world of thought.”[12]  Arianism is an example of such a temptation, and the early church almost succumbed to its “sensible blend of philosophy, theology, and exegesis.”[13]  In short, it “is the heresy which denies the full divinity of Jesus Christ.”[14]  It adopted the assumption that Jesus could not be eternally begotten of the Father, but was “created before the ages by the Father as an instrument for the making of the world.”[15]  In other words, Jesus was merely “a lesser, inferior deity.”[16]  This heresy arose out of the difficulty of conceiving of the second person of the Trinity, in all of the fullness of God, becoming a man (and indeed, at a more fundamental level, the difficulty of conceiving of the separate persons of the Godhead).

It must be noted that the heresy’s namesake, Arius, “started from a position of strong faith and orthodoxy.”[17] For Arius, the idea of God’s unchanging and uncreated Divine nature being wedded to our finite, limited, and mutable nature was inconceivable.  He was determined to protect the concepts of divine immutability and unity.  Michael Thompson notes that Arius was reacting “against what he perceived to be the heretical teaching that left no room for distinguishing the divinity of God the Father from that of God the Son,” which might lead to an assumption that whatever limitations Jesus experienced “would have to be ascribed to the Father, as well.”[18] As will be demonstrated later, Arius’s attempts to protect God from limits ironically resulted in limiting God.

Hart notes that in order to understand the historical debates that were raging within the early church, one must understand the picture of the cosmos that had dominated ancient thought for centuries. Influenced by the Neoplatonism of his day, which conceived of a cosmology that consisted of a transcendent realm that had “no immediate contact with the [lower] material world,” Arius also wanted to “preserve the sharp distinction between creator and creation.”[19] In A History of Philosophy: Volume 1, Frederick Copleston, S.J. explains that this philosophy – developed largely by Plotinus – expressed the dominant ethos of the day “that matter itself is a privation and not a positive principle.”[20] Hart writes that in this “vision of things, all of reality was arranged in a hierarchy of beings, the ‘shape’ of which might be described as a pyramid, with purely material nature at its base, and God Most High or the eternal One at its summit.”[21] Such was the transcendence of this summit that it “literally could not come into direct contact with the imperfect and changeable order here below.”[22] The idea that such transcendence would enter this lower, lesser realm was inconceivable.

As we can see, though highly educated and dedicated to orthodoxy, Arius was not immune to the temptation to use the philosophy of the day to guide his theology. He could not break free from a model of the cosmos that made the Incarnation impossible, despite its Scriptural attestation and early church witness. As with the early church father, Origen, preference for Plato over the prophets would lead him to a defective understanding of Christ. In his book, When Athens Meets Jerusalem, John Mark Reynolds notes that, “Jerusalem could not be reduced to a suburb of Athens without endangering the faith.”[23]

Part Two: “My Lord and My God!” Arius Versus Athanasius

Part Three:  “My Lord and My God!” Conclusion

Plato, Socrates, and the Dialogues (2)

[1] Colossians 1:19, NET.

[2] David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, (Ann Arbor, MI: Sheridan Books, 2009), 134.

[3] Ibid., 201.

[4] Ecclesiastes 1:4-6, NIV.

[5] Hart, 201.

[6] G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, (Tacoma, WA: Angelico Press, 2013), 145.

[7] Hart, 143.

[8] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006), 96.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 97.

[12] Michael B. Thompson, “Arianism: Is Jesus Christ divine and eternal or was he created?” Heresies and How to Avoid Them: Why it matters what Christians believe, ed. Ben Quash and Michael Ward, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 23.

[13] Ibid., 19.

[14] Ibid., 15.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 18.

[17] Ibid., 17.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Frederick Copleston, S.J., A History of Philosophy: Volume 1, (New York: Image Books, 1993), 470.

[21] Hart, 203.

[22] Ibid., 204.

[23] John Mark Reynolds, When Athens Met Jerusalem: An Introduction to Classical and Christian Thought, (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 18.

2 thoughts on “Part One: “My Lord and My God!” The Incarnation and Arianism

  1. Pingback: Part Two: “My Lord and My God!” Arius Versus Athanasius and a Classic Apologetic | Along the Beam

  2. Pingback: Part Three: “My Lord and My God” Conclusion | Along the Beam

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