My Lord and My God: Why Arianism Failed

For an introduction, explanation and links to the entire work, click here.

In the course of our discussion we have made reference to a lot of history surrounding the original Arian controversy. It took nearly a century to sort things out on this. Organisationally the Watchtower is separate from the Arian churches of long ago. To begin with there was too much time separating the two; also, the Watchtower’s Arianism is but one part of its distinctive agenda.[1] The original Arians’ objective was to take over the Christian church in its entirety rather than to found a distinctive organisation. So why did they fail in their task?

The usual Watchtower explanation of this is that Trinitarian doctrine was imposed by the state. They tell us that the emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicea, outlawed Arianism, and that was that[2], until the likes of Russell and Rutherford came along with the Watchtower. This theory is especially dear to the Watchtower because of its aversion to the state at any level. For people who don’t vote, hold public office or even pledge the flag, the state support of any doctrine — even when same state has been gone for over five hundred years – is the kiss of death; it just can’t be right to them.[3]

The problem with this idea is that it is half right. Constantine certainly did make the Nicene formula state policy during his lifetime. But the Arian controversy outlived him; moreover his descendants and successors were active participants in the dispute as much as he was, and not only on the Nicene side. The Arians, semi-Arians and other assorted doctrinalists found state sanction and support too tempting to pass up, just like everyone else. We need to take a deeper look at this issue to see just what the facts are. This is admittedly a difficult task, because the Arian controversy is one of the most complicated and difficult periods in the history of Christianity to keep up with, let alone to interpret. The following is the condensed version of this history.

Since Arius first proclaimed his denial of the deity of the Son in Alexandria, it was here that interest in the subject came up first, and also Arianism’s most important opponent – Athanasius, presbyter and later bishop, who opposed Arianism with a single minded intensity that lasted the rest of his life. It was he who helped to inspire Constantine to call the Council of Nicea in the first place, and he (along with others such as Hosius of Cordoba, in Spain) to force the church to squarely face the problem of Arianism and to do something about it. Arius was condemned at Nicea and the doctrine of the homoousious – that the Father and the Son were “of one substance” – became state supported orthodoxy. But this is where the Watchtower’s account of events begins to run out, because this was not the end of the matter, but only the beginning.

Even though the homoousious was official, it was not received everywhere with equal enthusiasm. In the western, Latin churches, it was accepted almost universally, in large measure because it squared with the Trinitarian theology first developed by Tertullian and expounded by others that had become standard in the west. In Alexandria it was also well received for the most part. But in places such as the lower Balkans, Asia Minor, Antioch and Jerusalem, it was not accepted. This was not because eastern churchmen were prepared to deny en masse the deity of Christ (a few were) but because a) the word homoousious had Monarchian connotations as a result of its use in the east previous to Nicea and b) a natural conservatism just didn’t care for the novelty of a formula set forth in a forum (a “universal” church council) which was as much a novelty as the homoousious. This dislike for the formula was used by the few real Arians (and those who wanted to use the new movement for their own political purposes, such as Eusebius of Nicomedia) to keep their cause alive for many years.

It didn’t take long for this to surface; Constantine’s first priority was unity and peace in the church, and he pardoned many of Arius’ boosters and exiled Athanasius for opposing all of this and thus creating “division.” The process of back-pedalling on the Nicene formula began in Constantine’s lifetime, and was instigated by the emperor himself.

When Constantine died in 337, the Roman Empire was divided between his three sons, Constantine II, Constans and Constantius. The first two divided the western half and promptly got into a war, which ended with Cosntantine’s death in 340 and Constans’ assuming sole control of the west. Constans was a pro-Nicene emperor in a pro-Nicene part of the empire. Unfortunately he in turn was murdered in 350; three years later the last remaining brother Constantius became sole emperor.

This was a problem for Athanasius and his Nicene friends because Constantius was opposed to the Nicene formula. Athanasius, having returned to Alexandria after Constantine’s death, was promptly exiled again until 346; Constantius exiled him again in 356. The real Arians would of course have liked to have replaced the homoousious with the formula that the Son was unlike (anomoios) the Father, but the conservative eastern churchmen were not prepared for this. Instead Constantius’ reign is punctuated by a series of councils (very much under the emperor’s supervision) where the church groped to define the relationship between the Father and the Son in any terms except the two just mentioned. The climax of this took place at Rimini in Italy, where the Son was proclaimed to be like (homoios) the Father. This was a weak as it could get; many things are “like” others in some respects but unlike in many others. Jerome wrote, “The whole world groaned, and was astonished to find itself Arian.”[4] This also illustrated that Constantius has managed to bring both the eastern and western churches to heel on this issue.

When Constantius died in 361, Julian became emperor, and promptly made public the fact that he was a pagan. He recalled all of the exiles in the hope that the feuding factions of the church would destroy each other and thus the church. But they did not; without imperial interference, and with the mediating work of those who wanted to both affirm the Nicene formula and solve some of the problems that led to its widespread rejection. When Julian’s hope for discord was unrealised, he exiled Athanasius again, but the tide against Arianism in any form (which was becoming more extreme all the while) was turning.

Julian perished on the field of battle in 363; with him perished the last hope of official paganism in the Roman Empire. He was succeeded by the Nicene Christian Jovian, but only briefly; the following year the empire was divided again. Valentian I took the west; he was both of the Nicene faith and tolerant of others. His brother Valens, who ruled the east, was neither; he once again enforced the homoios against the Nicene faith. Athanasius, recalled under Jovian, was exiled again, if briefly. But the church was turning against Arianism in any form, and it was now dependent upon imperial support for its continued domination. That support perished in 378 with Valens’ death on the battlefield at Adrianople. The Nicene Gratian, who was already emperor in the west since 375, succeeded him. Gratian appointed Theodosius as emperor in the east, who called the Council of Constantinople in 381 to affirm the Nicene faith as the faith of the church.

With this Arianism was finished as part of the main body of Christianity; it persisted with barbarian groups such as the Goths and the Lombards for many years afterwards but eventually they either became Nicene themselves or were absorbed into the populations they conquered. In its day it had the support of emperors and at least the sympathy of much of the church, especially in the east where Christianity was the strongest to start with. So how did this doctrine, with so much going for it politically, fail?

To answer this question – and really to get to the main practical point of a book such as this – we need to start by looking at the main protagonist for the Nicene cause – Athanasius. His entire life was spent in defending the Nicene cause, not because it was philosophically “good and beautiful” (to use an old expression of the Greeks) but because he realised from the start that only a fully divine Saviour was capable of redeeming people from their sins and bringing them to eternal life. He himself put it this way:

For seeing that men, having rejected the contemplation of God, and with their eyes downward, as though sunk in the deep, were seeking about for God in nature and in the world of sense, feigning gods for themselves of mortal men and demons; to this end the loving and general Saviour of all, the Word of God, takes to Himself a body, and as Man walks among men and meets the senses of all men half-way, to the end, I say, that they who think that God is corporeal may from what the Lord effects by His body perceive the truth, and through Him recognise the Father.[5]

But is it really necessary for Jesus to be God in order for him to save people? Watchower theology tells us that Jesus was a perfect ransom for the sins of mankind; his work on the torture stake was precisely enough to redeem the sins of people, both past and present. Once this ransom was paid, the sin problem was solved; the perfect man had come, the ransom was paid without need of “change” if you please. Today millions of people in the Watchtower believe this for their eternity. Why couldn’t Arius and his friends, with the frequent backing of the government, convince the world of this so many years ago, before the Nicene faith became so rooted in Christian belief that it was necessary to go off and form a well disciplined cult such as the Watchtower to perpetuate such beliefs? And is this correct in any case? We now pose two crucial questions to try and sort this out.

Why Should God Care About Us?

When you engage people to talk about such things as God, the afterlife and other related subjects, one of the amazing assumptions that frequently surfaces is that God will simply save everyone just because he could not bear to see anyone go to Hell, because everyone is good, or whatever reason they might want. The underlying assumption of this is that God has some kind of obligation to “do the right thing” in the eyes of man, and that this binds him.

One of the real achievements of the philosophers is to put this issue into focus. They told us that God is uncreated, that his existence is entirely self sufficient, that he is eternal, that he is above time, that he is entirely different from his creation, that he does not change, and so on. All of these concepts are Biblical. Where one main divergence comes is in how God relates to his creation. As we have noted, one of the underlying assumptions of the Bible is that God takes an interest in the affairs of people and that he intervenes on our behalf in many different ways, whether it is in delivering the Israelites out of Egypt, giving them the Law, sending them the prophets, and of course in the fullness of time sending Jesus Christ.

The philosophers, on the other hand, saw no good reason why God should be involved in the creation, let alone in the affairs of people. He does not need this creation to exist, or to add anything to his own existence, or for any other reason. If we do not assume that the creation is eternal, then God had to stop what he was being to accomplish this; this implies change, which God does not do. More change comes if he decides to actually intervene in the affairs of people, or to alter the course of creation, or whatever. There is simply no compelling reason here why God should be involved in the creation. People who have not thought this out have no real basis to show why God should save them or do anything else. They simply assume that, because they are, God should do something about it. It is amusing to see people who on the one hand laugh at the idea that people believed that the earth was at the centre of the universe and on the other seriously think that God is under some kind of obligation to help them just because they are human and “deserve” it. If there is any “centre” of this universe it is God himself, not us.

People in the Watchtower like to use phrases such as “God-dishonouring[6]” to describe the doctrine of the Trinity, but the basic truth is that any contact that God has with his creation is “God-dishonouring” especially if we restrict God to be the Father. Under this scenario any time God steps out of his eternal, timeless, self-sufficient existence he is degrading himself. Inserting the “perfect man” as the Watchtower does doesn’t really solve the problem because the perfect man is in reality as much a part of the creation as anything else; God doesn’t have any reason to have to do with the perfect man than with anyone else. According to Arian theology, the perfect man appeared at a definite time just as anything else did. So the existence of this “perfect man” doesn’t help our problems at all; he just adds to the confusion.

The deists, some of whom helped to found the American republic, picked up on this and posited that God simply put the creation out to run by itself without divine intervention. But the Bible does not teach this; as we have noted, the Bible tells us that God is certainly interested in the course of his creation in general and in us in particular. The Bible also tells us why this is so: “For God loved the world so much that he gave his only begotten Son, in order that everyone exercising faith might not be destroyed but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) The whole process of God’s dealings with us are driven by love; moreover they are not out of necessity but an act of God’s free will and desire. This is the point where we come past the philosophers; they correctly discerned the nature of God, but they could not tell us that God loved us or would come and meet with us and help us.

But how can God carry this out, when he is so far above us? The answer, of course, is that God set forth a mediator, who on the one hand is really God and on the other is able to meet us poor creatures where we are. That mediator is the Son, and to follow up on the work of the Son the Spirit. Arians of all kinds immediately object and say that such a combination is in reality impossible. In doing so they basically end any worthwhile discussion of God meaningfully intervening in the affairs of the creation. Arianism is a losing proposition because, when they deny the existence of a truly divine mediator, they end any meaningful discussion of a relationship between God and his creation.

And the process of mediation started with the creation itself; this is why the Bible tells us that all things were created through the Son. This is why many of the Church Fathers tell us that it was the Son that appeared at every theophany in the Hebrew-Aramaic Scriptures. Finally of course this is why God came to become a man and to live among us, to die and rise again, to procure our salvation. All of this is possible because, at the point of negative infinity, the Father generated the Son and the Spirit, that, though God be alone, we might not. As is always the case with God, there are no accidents; things are planned before the foundation of the world, in reality in the foundation of God himself.

Our considerations of the nature of infinity and divinity have shown that we can look at both multidimensionally. This is not a defect; it makes it possible for the Son and the Spirit to interact with us while at the same time to be God. In addition to making time contact possible, it also made possible contact in the worst possible way, namely with our sin, and it is to this subject that we now turn.

How Can We Be Redeemed?

Now that we have established that a) God is not obligated to redeem us and b) God made provision in his beginning to solve the problem, we need to take a look at just how this works. This is the question of utmost importance to us because without such a solution we will never achieve eternal life; we will be consigned to eternal death, death that does not end. Here again we need to consider the Watchtower’s solution to the problem. They tell us that only a certain amount of sin needs to be redeemed, and that Jesus Christ, the perfect man, was just enough for that sin.

Such a view, however, presumes a totally inadequate concept of the problems that people have in getting from the state they are in to God. To begin with, why should the “perfect man,” created at a finite point in time as they claim he was, be a sufficient sacrifice for anything? The Law set forth an involved and specific system of sacrifices of animals and other foods for all kinds of sins that the Jews might commit. How did each of these animals, both in kind and number, be allocated for certain sins? Why not just, say, sacrifice one animal on a periodic basis and be done with it? Why was it necessary for the “perfect man” to come along and do the whole job when other created beings could have done as well?

The reason why any sacrifice is acceptable to God is because he himself said that it was. No created being, however wonderful it might be, has any value in and of itself – we refer to this as intrinsic value – and only becomes a worthy sacrifice when God himself sets a value on it. A good example of this is in the first sacrifice, that of Cain and Abel:

And Abel came to be a herder of sheep, but Cain became a cultivator of the ground. And it came about at the expiration of some time that Cain proceeded to bring some fruits of the ground as an offering of Jehovah. But as for Abel, he too brought some firstlings of his flock, even their fatty pieces. Now while Jehovah was looking with favor upon Abel and his offering, he did not look with any favor on Cain and upon his offering. (Genesis 4:2a-4)

Although there are some important symbolic considerations here, the fact remains that Jehovah designated Abel’s offerings of animals as acceptable while Cain’s offerings of grains were not. This designation was completely in Jehovah’s prerogative and the offerings themselves had no intrinsic value one way or another. If they did, then we could still make these offerings and they be effective. The Jews went through this system for many years and never really got ahead of their sins. What was and is really needed was something with some intrinsic value to be offered up and completely clear the sin problem once and for all.

That took place when Jesus Christ, as both God and man, offered himself up for the sins of the world. He had intrinsic value from the very beginning not only because he had received it from the Father but also because he was God himself. This enabled him to not only redeem the sins of the world – both present and future – but also to really go far past them. This is the point of the whole diatribe in the book of Hebrews on the subject of the old covenant and the new. In the old covenant a flawed priest offered an inadequate sacrifice for sins in a man made temple; Jesus Christ, a perfect priest, offered himself in a temple made by God. As God, both Jesus’ worth and his perfection are fully guaranteed; such could not be assured under any other circumstance.

This, however, does not explain what was obvious from the last part, i.e., how could a changeless God take on sin? When John saw Jesus coming to his baptism, he exclaimed, “The next day he (John the Baptist) beheld Jesus coming toward him, and he said: ‘See, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world!’” (John 1:29) Taking away that sin was the centre of Jesus’ mission; there can be no getting around this. How could God even touch the sin of the world, let alone take it away? And doesn’t this very act in a specific point of time imply change? Neither sin nor change is proper to God. How can this all take place with God involved?

Our considerations have shown that God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all God. They also show that they are all one. We have seen that God’s place in things is unique; there can be no other like him. “Listen, O Israel: Jehovah our God is one Jehovah.” (Deuteronomy 6:4) The Father did not generate the Son and the Spirit to result in three gods. There can be but one divine essence, one who is the foundation of the universe. We have shown, however, that the Son is the mediator between God and his creation, that the Son is capable of being God while at the same time having the ability to accommodate both the sin of the world (in order to take it away, not to come to some kind of agreement) and interaction with us. This interaction includes his incarnation. The ability of the Son to limit himself is not only the result of his humanity, but also because of the nature of his divinity, which is as good as the Father’s but, as we have seen, not as great as the Father.

We need at last to consider another important matter: is taking away sin all there is? The idea of a perfect ransom implies this. It tells us that, once the sins are taken away, there are no more problems with God. But the Scriptures don’t support this view either, and in not doing so they add a whole new dimension to getting to God that many overlook.

Removing the sin problem is important. We don’t need to take this lightly, even though it is so easy to do in this age where the whole concept of sin is almost passé. It is not passé with God however; our sins are an obstacle we cannot ourselves surmount if we plan to be in unity with God. Sins, however, come from somewhere and are not just accidental. They are the result of acts of our will. It is reasonable to say that, if our sin alienates us from God, then the root causes in our will and nature do the same. So it is necessary to fix both if we plan to spend our eternity with God.

How did we get into this fix? The beginning of the Scriptures tell us that God set our first parents in the garden to live the kind of life with God that he had intended from the start. Our first parents responded to this by doing the one thing that God had instructed them not to do, i.e., eat of the tree of the knowledge of good an evil. This act ended their time in the garden and set them out to have to make it on their own, with all the problems and woes that come with that.

In the garden Adam and Eve were given all the provision they needed to live with and for God. They were certainly endowed with free will (they proved that the hard way) but God offered them a way to live with him. In turning this down, however, they discovered that getting back to Eden wasn’t as easy as they might have thought. Their own sin stood in the way, obviously, and their sinful propensities only made things worse. But the central problem was that, once they had walked out on God’s plan of mutual dwelling, they discovered that they lacked the capability of getting back to God by their own resources. There are several ways to explain this, but our considerations of our finite, limited nature and God’s infinite, unlimited nature show that we as creatures of semi-infinite life and finite nature simply do not have what it takes to get to God.

Now this is an awful situation: what is to be done? The solution came from God in the long successions of covenants and dispensations that are described in the Scriptures. Their object was first to establish a relationship between man and God, to form an alliance between the two, and to provide some kind of system to enable man to have the sin taken out of his life. The Hebrew-Aramaic Scriptures show a real awareness that sin just doesn’t happen. People make sinful decisions; however, at that stage of the walk between man and God, just getting the sin paid for was made the priority.

Sooner or later the whole problem of the sinful nature of man needed to be addressed. This is the point where the perfect ransom gets into trouble; we can obtain redemption for all the sins we want, but if the nature that commits them isn’t addressed, then we really haven’t solved the problem. The solution came with and by Jesus Christ, and he himself put it to Nicodemus by night: “In answer Jesus said to him: ‘Most truly I say to you, Unless anyone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.’ Nicodemus said to him: ‘How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter into the womb of his mother a second him and be born, can he?’ Jesus answered, ‘Most truly I say to you, Unless anyone is born from water and spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.’” (John 3:3-5)

We hear people talk about being “born again” so much that it doesn’t have the impact to us that it did with Nicodemus. If we really step away from the way we have made such a revolutionary concept so conventional it hits us that Jesus’ message is simple: we need to be made into new people. “Consequently if anyone is in union with Christ, he is a new creation; the old things passed away, look! new things have come into existence.” (2 Corinthians 5:17) We need to be recreated, and recreated by the one who created us in the first place, God himself. For us to have fellowship with God it is necessary that we be recreated with God himself living in us: Once this takes place God can live in us and we in him, and we can participate in his divinity, as man does not have the resources to be or be made into God.

It was this which Jesus prayed for: “…in order that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in union with me and I am in union with you, that they may be in union with us, in order that the world may believe that you sent me forth.” (John 17:21) God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are one because they are all God and of one essence. We too can be in union with God if God lives in us and we live in him.

Jesus himself made this possible. We said that all things that are attributed to God are a part of his being. We remember that Jesus said that he is the bread of life, the way, the truth and the life, etc. It is central to God’s perfect plan that Jesus himself in his life and very being would make this union between us and God possible.

  • Jesus was generated at negative infinity in such a way that he could accommodate us in our created state; thus, it was necessary that the Father be greater than him, but not better. This accommodation included his union with a human soul and body to be a man and ultimately to take on – and away – the sin of the world.
  • At the fullness of time, Jesus was united in a complete union with a human soul and a human body and took on our human state, with all of its limitations. He directed his divinity into the situation he was in through his authoritative teaching and through the miracles he performed during his ministry. He became living proof that it was not only possible but also desirable for God to live in man.
  • Jesus took on our sins at Calvary. He was at once a perfect high priest, the perfect sacrificial victim, and the shedder of the perfect blood that was sufficient for all sins.
  • In the power of God he rose from the dead. In doing this he not only undid Adam’s sin but also the consequence of this, namely death. He gave us the authority to become God’s children. (cf. John 1:12) He had this authority as God.
  • He returned to the Father from where he came, and will return to rule the earth as God intended it to be done in the first place.

The plan of our salvation was not an accident; it was planned from the beginning. God himself went though the whole thing rather than leaving it to a simply created surrogate. The Spirit, God’s own presence in his plan, does the follow up to this. God’s intimate participation in our redemption, made possible by the special nature of the Son and the Spirit, sets Christianity apart from any other proposed way to God because God himself is the road to himself, the only really worthy road. When Christians realised this, Arianism was doomed, and consigned to the margins of history.

[1]We spend a lot of time on the Watchtower as the chief defenders of the idea that Jesus is not God, but we should not overlook the fact that Unitarians have been doing this for a long time as well. The problem here is that Unitarians and the Watchtower may be at one on this issue but this is where it ends; beyond this we are looking at two groups which are very different in outlook. Unitarians tend to be very open and sceptical about a wide variety of issues while the Watchtower is equally dogmatic and rigid. The Unitarian denies the deity of Christ because no one in their opinion can prove it right; the JW denies same because headquarters in Brooklyn has declared that it is wrong. Such a reality speaks of an entirely different approach to belief.

[2] The Da Vinci Code sets forth the same proposition, and it has no more merit there than it does in the hands of the Watchtower.

[3]No, we’re not missing it by a thousand years; the Byzantine Empire was in fact one and the same state with the Roman Empire, despite its vastly different approach to a lot of things. It did not end until the Turks took Constantinople in 1453.

[4]Jerome, Dialogue Against the Luciferians, 19.

[5]Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 15.

[6] The concept of “God-dishonouring” is strong in Islam, too: “It does not befit the Majesty of ALLAH to take unto Himself a son.” (Qur’an, 19:35a)

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