Can I buy you a glass of theology, and then, at the end, tell you why?
Here we are:
The Arian controversy of the fourth century is widely regarded as one of the most significant in all of Christian history.
A man named Arius (who lived between 250 and 336) argued that the scriptural titles for Christ, which seemed to indicate Christ’s equality with God, were merely courtesy titles. Verily, says Arius, Christ was to be regarded as a creature, though the first among all creatures. So, although the son was unlike any other creature, Arius maintained that he was a creature nonetheless. He even said that the son was a perfect creature and surpassed all other creatures, but he was indeed created. Hence Arius’s phrase: “There was a time when he was not”.
So much for the Trinity.
Arius was trying to rely on a number of biblical passages. In John 14 you have Jesus saying that the Father is greater than him. In Mark 13, Jesus says that no one knows when the second coming will be – not even Him – only the Father. Thus, Arius and his followers held that Jesus was similar to the Father in nature or essence, but not the same like the Father in nature or essence.
This prompted a quick and hostile reaction from many church members who were able to piece together an impressive number of biblical passages (e.g. John 3:16, 14:9) – which form the basis of Orthodox Christology to this day – to combat his ideas and emphasize the fundamental unity between the Father and the Son.
Additionally, the passages used by the Arians were shown to be misinterpreted, missing the subordination of the Son to the Father during the incarnation, and how his language reflected this state of subordination. In other words, in his incarnation, Jesus fulfilled a different role.
It has also been argued that the divinity of Christ was central to the Christian idea of salvation. If what Arius maintained were true, Christ could not save anyone, since no mere “creature” can save another creature. Only God can save and even Arius seemed to agree that according to the New Testament salvation had to come through Jesus.
The conclusion, asserted at the famous Council of Nicaea in 325, was that Jesus was God himself in human form, the second person of the Trinity, and any other opinion was heresy of the first order.
Specifically, it was determined that Jesus was homo (same) ousios (substance) – “one in being” or “one in substance” – with the Father. This was chosen as opposed to homoiousios, which meant “as substance” or “as being”. In Gibbon’s monumental work The rise and fall of the Roman Empire, he notes that never had so much energy been spent on a vowel. But this vowel mattered because it defined the very person of Christ.
The Nicene Council produced what would become known as the Nicene Creed, which declared that Jesus Christ was of the same substance as the Father.
Okay, here’s why I took you through this technical – but critically important – piece of historical theology.
Arianism is once again on the rise.
According to the annual State of Theology Survey, conducted jointly by Ligonier Ministries and Lifeway Research, of the five most common mistaken beliefs among evangelicals (yes, evangelicals, not the general public), two are directly related to Arianism. A whopping 73% agreed with the statement that “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God”, and 43% said that “Jesus was a great teacher, but he was not God” . So much for “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).
Although outside of classical Arian theology, the Trinity seems peculiar in restraint. Of the top five revelations in the study, 60% believed that “the Holy Spirit is a force but is not a personal being.”
The report refers to the teaching of Ligonier’s founder, RC Sproul, that everyone is a theologian. “However, Dr Sproul would hasten to add that not everyone is a good theologian.”
No they are not.
James Emery White
“The State of Theology,” USA 2022, read online.
Stefani McDade, “Top 5 Heresies Among American Evangelicals”, Christianity todaySeptember 19, 2022, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founder and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His last book After “I believe” is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookstore. To take advantage of a free Church & Culture blog subscription, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture podcast. . Follow Dr. White on TwitterFacebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.
James Emery White is the founder and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president.
His latest book, After “I believe”, is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookstore. To take advantage of a free Church & Culture blog subscription, visit churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive, read the latest church and culture news from around the world, and listen to the Church & Culture podcast. .
Follow Dr. White on TwitterFacebook and Instagram at @JamesEmeryWhite.