For an introduction, explanation and links to the entire work, click here.
We have come a long way already in our journey through both the Scriptures and the Fathers concerning our subject. We have seen that both affirmed that a) Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are God and b) both are subordinate to the Father. As our friends from Brooklyn are not shy about pointing out, however, most Trinitarian Christians assume that all three persons in the Godhead are equal, at least in their being. This does not always enter into creeds, confessions, or faith declarations, but it is generally taught in seminaries and schools of theology. How did this happen? Is this a legitimate position to take?
We need to begin this examination by realising that this conclusion was not arrived at in a vacuum, but in the context of the time and thought processes of the time in which the debate was first joined and resolved. This means that we must start by examining the relationship between the Scriptures and Greek philosophy; without such an examination we will not understand how this debate even started.
Because I Do Regret…
The Hebrew-Aramaic Scriptures were written in a…well, Hebrew-Aramaic, i.e., Semitic context. This is not meant to level them with the rest of Middle Eastern thought of the day; the realisation that there is only one God to worship and serve was revolutionary then and is so today. Although these Scriptures present some very deep topics that philosophers have debated in their wake, they were not addressed to people who were schooled in a lot of the intellectual niceties that philosophers like to engage in.
To make this more specific, an example is necessary. A good one can be found in the following passage:
Consequently Jehovah saw that the badness of man was abundant in the earth and every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only bad all the time. And Jehovah felt regrets that he had made men in the earth. So Jehovah said: “I am going to wipe men whom I have created off the surface of the ground, from man to domestic animal, to moving animal and to flying creature of the heavens, because I do regret that I have made them.” (Genesis 6:5-7)
On the face of it, there is nothing striking about this passage. It seems an entirely sensible idea to us that Jehovah, having created man and having seen him deteriorate to the state he was in before the Flood, would have second thoughts about creating him in the first place. We would be even more surprised if he is not having similar thoughts today. But this passage does not square with a God who is both perfect and unchanging, ideas about God which the philosophers held dear and which Christian thinkers who came after them picked up on and made a part of basic theology. Such concepts have justification in the Scriptures themselves: “God is not a man that he should tell lies, neither a son of mankind that he should feel regret. Has he himself said it and will he not do it, and has he spoken and will he not carry it out?” (Num. 23:19) How can we explain this?
The usual explanation for such things is that expressions of regret, anger and other such human emotions are anthropomorphisms, i.e., the application of human emotions and attributes to God for illustrative purposes that in reality are not proper to God. In addition to applying these to emotions, these also apply to physical characteristics. The Bible speaks of the hand and eye of God, but God in reality does not have a body. This explanation of such expressions in the Scriptures is entirely correct but it overlooks two very important facts.
The first is that all of these expressions are used when referring to God’s interaction with man. Christians take it for granted that God does this but the idea of a perfect, changeless, self-sufficient and time independent God actually caring about what we are doing and where we might be going was an eye-opener to a lot of people in Jesus’ day and still is. There is no intrinsic reason why God should care if we, who are just a small part of his creation, should go stumbling on in sin until we vaporise ourselves with some weapon of mass destruction without any idea that we could live in a different way. This fact becomes more amazing if we consider ourselves individually; really, why should he care about us, who are by his own admission a “mist?” (James 4:14) But the fact remains that he does care about us and has provided a plan for our redemption that can bring us into eternity. The god of the philosophers – and the Greeks suspected that beyond the rogues’ gallery of Olympian gods there might be one that was really important – more often than not couldn’t be bothered with us. The Bible shows that our God is living and cares about us, even if it risks having to come down and make accommodation with us.
The second fact concerns the nature of Greek thought. If we look at the Scriptures, we can see that God is not ashamed of the idea of changing the ways in which he deals with men. The whole Bible is the account of those changing ways; we can trace these through the various covenants he made with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and David. As the people of God went forward in time so God’s revelation to his people progressed. It reached the summation with Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, who fulfilled the revelation that came before, gave us the final revelation to live by, and most importantly of all gave us the means to achieve union with him. But this is still not the end of it, because at the end of all things we still have his direct reign on earth to look forward to, which is another change in the relationship between God and man. Only when this earth has passed away will things become more or less “fixed,” and everything and everyone will be in his or her place.
The Greeks found this change hard to take; it was a distinct characteristic of their thought:
It is possible to see, in almost every branch of Greek literature, a particular trait of the Greek mind which has important effects in some branches of scientific thought. It was a liking for stability, rest and permanence, and a corresponding dislike, almost a mistrust, of change, movement and what they called genesis and phthora, ‘coming-to-be’ and ‘passing away’. Why this should be is something of a mystery, but perhaps their very acute awareness of the impermanence of physical things in their world, and of human life itself, caused them to set a high value on the permanent and the stable.
We see from these two things that the Bible on the one hand and Greek philosophy on the other were not always working from shared premises. When the time came for Christianity to be explained to a world that had been steeped in the philosophy of the Greeks, it goes without saying that some things got lost in the translation. A lot of Christian history can be seen as either attempts to undo the effects of Greek philosophy on Christianity or to redefine Christianity with whatever philosophy was around at the time; both of these processes are active in our day.
Journey to Mars Hill
It should not be surprising that this conflict should appear in the Christian-Greek Scriptures. Paul encountered it in his visit to Athens:
But certain ones of both the Epicurean and the Stoic philosophers took to conversing with him controversially, and some would say, “What is it this chatterer would like to tell?” Others: “He seems to be a publisher of foreign deities.” This was because he was declaring the good news of Jesus and the resurrection. So they laid hold of him and led him to the Areopagus, saying, “Can we get to know what this new teaching is which is spoken by you? For you are introducing some things that are strange to our ears. Therefore we desire to get to know what these things purport to be.” In fact, all Athenians and the foreigners sojourning there would spend their leisure time at nothing but telling something or listening to something new. Paul now stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said:
“Men of Athens, I behold that in all things you seem to be more given to the fear of the deities than others are. For instance, while passing along and carefully observing your objects of veneration I also found an altar on which has been inscribed ‘To an Unknown God.’ Therefore what you are unknowingly giving godly devotion to, this I am publishing to you. The God that made the world and all things in it being, as this One is, Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in handmade temples, neither is he attended to by human hands as if he needed everything, because he himself gives to all [persons] life and breath and all things. And he made out of one [man] every nation of men, to dwell upon the entire surface of the earth, and he decreed the appointed times and the set limits of the dwelling of [men], for them to seek God, if they might grope for him and really find him, although, in fact, he is not far off from each one of us. For by him we have life and move and exist, even as certain ones of the poets among you have said, ‘For we are also his progeny.’
“Seeing, therefore, that we are the progeny of God, we ought not to imagine that the Divine Being is like gold or silver or stone, like something sculptured by the art and contrivance of man. True, God has overlooked the times of such ignorance, yet now he is telling mankind that they should all everywhere repent. Because he has set a day in which he purposes to judge the inhabited earth in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and he has furnished a guarantee to all men in that he has resurrected him from the dead.”
Well, when they heard of a resurrection of the dead, some began to mock, while others said: “We will hear you about this even another time.” (Acts 17:18-32)
This is the first recorded encounter that Christianity had with Greek philosophy and its adherents. It is interesting to note that the point at which rejection started was not the point of one God, nor that this God was self sufficient in his existence. The problem came with the resurrection. Although a part of Judaism rejected the idea (the Sadducees in particular,) the Pharisees had done quite a lot to promote the idea of the resurrection of the dead, and so the Jews were not in general adverse to the idea. The Greeks, however, and especially Plato’s followers, had such a low opinion of the body that the whole idea of raising it up again once again was unappetising to say the least.
Paul probably had this rebuff in Athens in mind when he wrote the Corinthians the following:
For you behold his calling of you, brothers, that not many wise in a fleshly way were called, not many of noble birth; but God chose the fooling things of the world, that he might put the wise men to shame; and God chose the weak things of this world, that he might put the strong things to shame; and God chose the ignoble things of the world and the things looked down upon, the things that are not, that he might bring the things that are, in order that no flesh might boast in the sight of God. (1 Corinthians. 1:26-29)
The stage for conflict was thus set. Paul goes on to remind the Corinthians that “…I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling; and my speech and what I preached were not with persuasive words of wisdom but with a demonstration of spirit and power, that your faith might be, not in men’s wisdom, but in God’s power.” (1 Corinthians 2:3-5) Paul saw the danger of letting Christianity get bogged down in the kinds of things he saw in Athens, a danger that saw justification in the century of conflict over the divinity of Christ.
Today people who put a lot of emphasis on these verses insist that Christians check their brains at the door of the church, if not throw them away altogether. They claim that such a position is the only position that a Christian is allowed to take. It is obvious that many of the philosophies and religious concepts circulating in the Greco-Roman world – and much of Judaism itself should be included here as well — were not ideal vehicles for understanding the Gospel; many of those circulating today are, if anything, less suitable than those. But is such extreme anti-intellectualism the only position the Christian can take?
All Things to People of All Sorts
Everyone who has taken the step from death to life knows that step one is of faith, not just of blind faith but also of faith in a God that is real and cares. In leading up to this step some people spend a lot of time examining the claims of Christianity in detail and working out all of the problems that arise, but most people do not. Once we make this step, however, it is necessary for us to continue our journey with God, to understand him better, to know him not just for what he can do for us at the moment but for who he is and what our place in his plan is. Moses Maimonides put it this way:
My son, so long as you are engaged in studying the Mathematical Sciences and Logic, you belong to those who go round about the palace in search of the gate…When you understand Physics, you have entered the hall; and when, after completing the study of Natural Philosophy, you master Metaphysics, you have entered the innermost court, and are with the king in the palace. You have attained the degree of the wise men, who include men of different grades of perfection. There are some who direct all their mind toward the attainment of perfection in Metaphysics, devote themselves entirely to God, exclude from their thought every other thing, and employ all their intellectual faculties in the study of the Universe, in order to derive therefrom a proof for the existence of God, and to learn in every possible way how God rules all things; they form the class of those who have entered the palace, namely the class of prophets.
Such a journey is a necessity for spiritual growth and personal maturity; our churches are too full of people who are not making this journey. For such a journey to be successful, however, it must ultimately be directed by God himself. Since we have said that the key to our ongoing relationship with God is nothing short of his presence in us, our obvious objective from an intellectual standpoint is to have the “mind of Christ.” (1 Corinthians. 2:16) When we have this then our thought processes become his to the extent that our limitations will allow; beyond this we are totally dependent on him. Paul was certainly correct in realising that such a mind was missing on the Areopagus, especially since the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central event in human history and in the divine plan as well.
A more serious problem to be tackled then and now is the problem of communicating the Gospel to people who are ignorant of it. Paul spends a lot of time at the beginning of his letter to the Romans looking at the situation around him and the depravity that infested the world; however, he never dreamed of not communicating the Gospel to that very depraved world. To do this it is necessary to put the Gospel in terms that the world around him could understand, irrespective of the fact that, as we have seen, the thought processes of these people were not ideal for communicating that Gospel. Put another way, God had placed the responsibility on Paul and his contemporaries to get the Gospel out and expected them to use the means at their disposal.
Paul is not shy in doing this; at the start of Romans he appeals to the natural law of the Gentiles:
For God’s wrath is being revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who are suppressing the truth in an unrighteous way, because what may be known about God is manifest among them, for God made it manifest to them. For his invisible [qualities] are clearly seen from the world’s creation onward, because they are perceived by the things made, even his eternal power and Godship, so that they are inexcusable, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify him as God nor did they thank him, but they became empty-headed in their reasonings and their unintelligent hearts became darkened. (Romans 1:18-21)
This is an interesting passage from two standpoints, because Paul not only calls to mind the “secular” thinking of the day to demonstrate his point but goes so far as to tell the Romans that, if they had looked at that thinking objectively, they would realise that the real Truth was staring them in the face!
Moreover he never tired of reading the Hebrew-Aramaic Scriptures back to the Jews, and telling them what it meant. His objective, as he put it eloquently, was to “become all things to people of all sorts, that I might by all means save some.” (1 Corinthians 9:22) To accomplish this required someone of a background who could communicate with a wide variety of people. Paul was just such a person: raised a Pharisaic Jew in the Diaspora, he was a part of two worlds and thus moved from one to the other with ease.
Moreover his letters reflect someone who could get to the bottom of an issue in a hurry, which is the mark of a real intellectual; pseudo-intellectuals, with whom he disputed on Mars Hill, aren’t capable of getting to the bottom of anything. A good example of this concerns the subject that ended his Athenian discourse, namely that of the resurrection. Paul produces a relentlessly logical presentation of what the resurrection really means and how important it is:
Now if Christ is being preached that he has been raised up from the dead, how is it some among you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If, indeed, there is no resurrection of the dead, neither has Christ been raised up. But if Christ has not been raised up, our preaching is certainly in vain, and our faith is vain. Moreover, we are also found false witnesses of God, because we have borne witness against God that he raised up the Christ, but whom he did not raise p if the dead are really not to be raised up. For if the dead are not to be raised up, neither has Christ been raised up. Further, if Christ has not been raised up, your faith is useless; you are yet in your sins. In fact, also, those who fell asleep in union with Christ perished. If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.
However, now Christ has been raised up from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death is through a man, resurrection of the dead is also through a man. For just as in Adam all are dying, so also in the Christ all will be made alive. (1 Corinthians 15:12-22)
English translations don’t quite do justice to his use of language either; if preachers today commanded their native tongues in the same way that Paul did Greek, our preaching would be unrecognisable from what it is today. Many of the things he dealt with were so deep that it wasn’t until Augustine four hundred years later that someone really grasped the main point of what he was saying, and then Augustine overdid it.
None of the above should be taken to belittle the divine agency in the writing of Paul’s letters; but God was not careless in choosing Paul of Tarsus to be the “Apostle to the Gentiles.” The Greek philosopher types Paul encountered in Athens were not really getting anywhere; the Damascus Road experience, coupled with his Jewish background, taught Paul that, if we start a train of thought, it needs to end in God, and specifically in Jesus Christ, and it is in this where we rise above the foolishness of this world.
After the Apostles
We spent some time on the subject of philosophy and Christianity to illustrate that, although Greek or any other kind of philosophy has many shortcomings (which are justifiably referred to as “foolishness”) as a vehicle for the Gospel, it is useful both for the communication of that Gospel to others and when judiciously employed to the understanding of some of the basics of theology. The course of Christianity in general and of the subject of the deity of Christ in particular illustrates both traits, along with some others as well.
Based on what they saw in the Scriptures, the Apostolic and post-Apostolic church affirmed the fact that Jesus Christ is God. They hadn’t worked out the technicalities of this but they knew it to be a fact. For many then and now such an affirmation was enough; the “why” and “how” were secondary to the new life they had found in Jesus Christ. The same could be said about subordinationism; it was an eminently sensible position considering that Jesus himself had spoken often about doing the Father’s will, having been given power from the Father, etc.. It was in working out the technicalities of these concepts that difficulties began.
The first difficulty, however, came not so much from philosophy as from politics. The Greco-Roman world was a very socially stratified world where power emanated from the top down. Both Greek (specifically Athenian) and Roman civilisations had experienced periods of participatory government of one kind or another; by the time Jesus came into the world, these periods were pretty much in the past. About forty years before Jesus’ birth Brutus assassinated Julius Caesar with the hope of restoring the Republic, but his hopes died on the shores of Actium and the victory of Octavian, who became the first Roman emperor as Augustus. From there on out the history of the Roman Empire became one of increased centralisation of authority, first fitfully (with such emperors as Nero and Domitian) and then more consistently. The deification of the emperors reflects this trend; during the days of Peter and Paul it was generally done for those in the past but as time wore on emperor worship and deification became a “real time” event.
We spoke of social stratification; it was illegal in the Roman Empire to marry someone outside of your social class; the best you could do was concubinage, and for many years the church permitted it if both parties treated it as a de facto marriage. By the time of Nicea it was mandatory that sons follow their fathers in occupation. The whole of society was conceived as a stratified, ordered system with an emperor at the top and layers of people in social classes downward to the bottom, and the more people thought of things in this way the more fixed this system became.
When Christianity broke out of its Jewish confinement and began to be spread amongst the Gentiles, it came into a world where worshipping many gods was routine. The idea of worshipping only one God, well established in Judaism, was a novelty amongst the Gentiles. The Gentiles that left their gods behind to worship the one true God were not slow to make the analogy between the one God who ruled from the heavens and the one emperor who ruled from Rome (or wherever his troops were at the time.) Those who wanted to push the analogy too far insisted on a God who was one entity in every sense of the word they could think of. These were the Monarchians.
For a religion that emphasised the worship of one God, Monarchianism was an attractive doctrine. The problem with it was that the Scriptures depicted Jesus as having an active, separate personality from the Father, while at the same time affirming that Jesus is God. The Monarchians, faced with choice between trying to work out the difficulties of this in a monotheistic religion and trying to paper over the problem with unbending unity, chose the latter. They had in short chosen their own concepts (drawn from the world around them) over those presented by Jesus himself. Although this choice was not basically a philosophical one there were inevitably some philosophical types who would take up the cause; in either case it was an instance of choosing a worldly concept over a Biblical one.
Unlike the Marcionites, who cut down the Scriptures to suit their own ideas, the Monarchians tried to explain away what was there. There were two solutions set forth to this problem: Modalism and Adoptianism.
Trinitarians usually say that God is one Essence in three Persons. Modalists on the other hand tell us that, when we hear the Scriptures speak of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we are only seeing God act in different modes; thus, according to their idea, God switched from his “Father mode” to his “Son mode” to his “Spirit mode” depending upon the situation. This doctrine was for a while popular amongst many Christians, but it became the bête noire of many Christian writers and thinkers such as Tertullian and Origen, who saw the concept as robbing Jesus Christ of his divine distinctiveness and also of the possibility of him being subordinate to the Father.
The battle against Modalism (or Sabellianism, after one of its chief spokesmen) became the consuming passion of many in the third century. Tertullian’s main attack on it was, as we have seen, Against Praxeas. The doctrine had become so popular at Rome (traditionally slow on the uptake to recognise inferior theology) that some of the bishops of Rome were sympathetic. They didn’t care much for Pentecostal faith such as Montanism either, leading Tertullian to his witty remark that his opponent “Praxeas did a twofold service for the devil at Rome: he drove away prophecy, and he brought in heresy; he put to flight the Paraclete, and he crucified the Father.” The last point is an inevitable consequence of Modalism; if God is simply in the business of switching modes, then the Father himself was on the cross!
Tertullian went on to define the whole concept of the Trinity, in a way that spared Latin Christianity much of the heartburn of the Greeks:
We, however, as we indeed always have done and more especially since we have been better instructed by the Paraclete, who leads men indeed into all truth), believe that there is one only God, but under the following dispensation, or oikonomia, as it is called, that this one only God has also a Son, His Word, who proceeded from Himself, by whom all things were made, and without whom nothing was made. Him we believe to have been sent by the Father into the Virgin, and to have been born of her–being both Man and God, the Son of Man and the Son of God, and to have been called by the name of Jesus Christ; we believe Him to have suffered, died, and been buried, according to the Scriptures, and, after He had been raised again by the Father and taken back to heaven, to be sitting at the right hand of the Father, and that He will come to judge the quick and the dead; who sent also from heaven from the Father, according to His own promise, the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete, the sanctifier of the faith of those who believe in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Ghost. That this rule of faith has come down to us from the beginning of the gospel, even before any of the older heretics, much more before Praxeas, a pretender of yesterday, will be apparent both from the lateness of date which marks all heresies, and also from the absolutely novel character of our new-fangled Praxeas. In this principle also we must henceforth find a presumption of equal force against all heresies whatsoever–that whatever is first is true, whereas that is spurious which is later in date. But keeping this prescriptive rule inviolate, still some opportunity must be given for reviewing (the statements of heretics), with a view to the instruction and protection of divers persons; were it only that it may not seem that each perversion of the truth is condemned without examination, and simply prejudged; especially in the case of this heresy, which supposes itself to possess the pure truth, in thinking that one cannot believe in One Only God in any other way than by saying that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are the very selfsame Person. As if in this way also one were not All, in that All are of One, by unity (that is) of substance; while the mystery of the dispensation is still guarded, which distributes the Unity into a Trinity, placing in their order the three Persons–the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost: three, however, not in condition, but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as He is one God, from whom these degrees and forms and aspects are reckoned, under the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. How they are susceptible of number without division, will be shown as our treatise proceeds.
It is here that the classic Trinitarian formula was done, for the Latins at least. By the middle of the third century the Modalists were in retreat; the Roman prelate Novatian could write his treatise On the Trinity using similar theology as this as the accepted doctrine.
The Greeks were not idle on this question either; Origen was mind-numbing in the repetition of the three persons of the Godhead as distinct. In his Commentary in John (which we cited extensively earlier) he makes one of those statements that carried a lot of weight in later discussions:
We consider, therefore, that there are three hypostases, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit; and at the same thee we believe nothing to be uncreated but the Father. We therefore, as the more pious and the truer course, admit that all things were made by the Logos, and that the Holy Spirit is the most excellent and the first in order of all that was made by the Father through Christ. And this, perhaps, is the reason why the Spirit is not said to be God’s own Son. The Only-begotten only is by nature and from the beginning a Son, and the Holy Spirit seems to have need of the Son, to minister to Him His essence, so as to enable Him not only to exist, but to be wise and reasonable and just, and all that we must think of Him as being. All this He has by participation of the character of Christ, of which we have spoken above. And I consider that the Holy Spirit supplies to those who, through Him and through participation in Him, are called saints, the material of the gifts, which come from God; so that the said material of the gifts is made powerful by God, is ministered by Christ, and owes its actual existence in men to the Holy Spirit. I am led to this view of the charisms by the words of Paul which he writes somewhere, “There are diversities of gifts but the same Spirit, and diversities of ministrations, and the same Lord. And there are diversities of workings, but it is the same God that worketh all in all.”
In the next century, the Cappadocian Fathers used the “three hypostases” theology effectively to defeat Arianism. As is the case with Tertullian and others, Origen uses the concept of the subordinationism of the Son to the Father as proof that Modalism cannot be correct; the Son’s and Spirit’s distinctiveness are dependent on their subordination, since there can be no subordination when there be only one person. In the process of insuring this distinctiveness of persons, however, Origen makes many extreme statements about that subordinationism that the Arians use while discarding the Son’s deity in eternal generation. How to resolve this problem is a task that is left to us.
The other form of Monarchianism is Adoptionism. In this concept Jesus started out as a created being and was adopted and elevated in some fashion by the Father. The Adoptionist’s favourite verse is as follows:
After being baptized Jesus immediately came up from the water; and look! the heavens opened up, and he saw descending like a dove God’s spirit coming upon him. Look! Also, there was a voice from the heavens that said: “This is my Son, the beloved, whom I have approved.“ (Matthew 3:16,17)
The Adoptionist tells us that the Father would not have done this if it were not to confirm Jesus “adoption” as the redeemer of mankind.
The main advocate of this kind of thinking was Paul of Samosata. He was bishop of Antioch in the last part of the third century. Origen’s followers managed to have him kicked out as bishop, but it was not the end of it; in many ways he and his followers were the main precursors of Arius.
The Coming of Arius
When Arius began to set forth his idea that the Son was not God and that there was a time when he was not, given the fact that the Scriptures speak of a divine Saviour, and given the fact that those who came immediately after Apostolic times maintained this doctrine, one would think that Arius’ idea would have been rejected out of hand. But it was not; it had enough life to trouble the church for many years. How could this be? What was (and is since we now have the Watchtower) the big appeal for denying Jesus’ divinity? Or looked at another way, what is so difficult about affirming it?
This is a simple question with a long answer. The one answer we won’t find is that the Bible teaches such an idea. The Scriptures lack that philosophical precision of later formulas about the nature of the Godhead, but their intent is clear. It takes a lot of “explaining away” to force the Bible to teach that Jesus and the Spirit are not God, and Arians of all types have certainly attempted a great deal of that.
The first main objection to the divinity of Christ and the Spirit comes from Judaism. This objection is tied up in the identity of the Messiah. The Jews have always believed that the Messiah, the Anointed One, would come at some point to re-establish the Jewish nation and the kingdom. There is no arguing that Jesus claimed to be the Messiah as foretold by the prophets in the Hebrew-Aramaic Scriptures. Moreover the prophets foretold that the Messiah would be Immanuel, “God with us.” The problem comes because the Jews rejected the idea of Jesus as Messiah; if you reject this, then you reject the whole idea of Jesus being God. But how could one be a Christian and reject Jesus as Messiah? Monarchinanism in general and Arianism in particular is an attempt to have it both ways, i.e., to proclaim Jesus as Messiah on the one hand and to proclaim God absolutely one without that divinity extended to Jesus in a personal way on the other.
The second objection – more important in Arius’ day than now – is the philosophical objection. We said earlier that Greek philosophy influenced Christianity in many significant ways after the Apostles; Arians today try to tell us that their solution is a restoration of things before Greek philosophers got into the act. Unfortunately for them both Arians and Nicene followers were influence by such thought processes; the claim that Arianism in any form is purely Biblical simply will not stand, and for Arius was not entirely necessary.
To begin with, the philosophers had spent some time musing about the God that was beyond the various deities that people worshipped. This was the origin of the “Unknown God” that Paul spoke of in Athens. Connecting this God with the creation around us is another matter, because in general the philosophers taught that God was so utterly unlike his creation that he would not have much of anything to do with it. As long as the god remained unknown, such a connection was not very important.
But Christianity proclaimed that God was certainly interested in his creation, to the point that he sent Jesus Christ to redeem people from their sins and give them eternal life with him. This is a philosophical way of looking at John 3:16; the term the Scriptures use for such interest is “love.” The idea that God would actually love anything or anyone down here was too much for the philosophers. The Stoics discipled their followers to rise above such emotions, to say nothing about God doing such a thing. Having been forced to admit that God loved and cared for his creation, philosophical types who were attracted to Christianity had to deal with another “novelty:” Jesus Christ himself is God, and not only that he spent a little more than thirty years on earth as a man as well, sharing our state and ultimately allowing us to put him to death by the most excruciating and humiliating method we had devised. Additionally the Scriptures taught that this chain of events was not an accident but had been planned by God from the foundation of the world.
All of this was too much for Arius. God, uncreated and unchanging, could never in his eyes lower himself to undergo the things that Jesus Christ did; moreover as one God he could never “share” his divinity with a Son who united himself to the creation (especially in his humanity) in the way in which he did. So Arius attempted to “simplify” things by denying Jesus Christ’s divinity while at the same time making him the Saviour of the world and man’s road to God.
Why this will not do will be investigated later; in addition to being derived from the philosophers, such sentiments are reflected in the writings of a more important fellow who came from across the Red Sea about three hundred years later:
O People of the Scripture! Do not exaggerate in your religion nor utter aught concerning Allah save the truth. The Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, was only a messenger of Allah, and His word which he conveyed unto Mary, and a spirit from Him. So believe Allah and His messengers, and say not “Three” — Cease! (it is) better for you! — Allah is only One God. Far is it removed from His transcendent majesty that he should have a son. He is all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth. And Allah is sufficient as Defender.
Up to this point we have not spent any time on the subordination of the Spirit. This, however, is virtually a necessity from that of the Son.
Landels, J.G. Engineering in the Ancient World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978, p. 186.
Concerning the latter, although Greek thought has a lot of inherent limitations in explaining the concepts we see in the Scriptures, there are many worse vehicles that can be used. For instance, the Germans have spent most of the last two centuries trying to cram the Bible into Hegelian thought.
Moses Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed
The first emperor who demanded to be called “lord and god” (dominus et deus) during his lifetime was Domitian; it was under his rule that John was exiled to Patmos and from there wrote the Revelation. It is not an accident that Revelation, with its predictions of people taking the mark of the beast and the coming of the Antichrist, was produced under an emperor who claimed deity. Nor is government attempting to be a substitute god a thing of the past either, but of the present and certainly of the future.
Tertullian, Against Praxeas, 1
Origen, Commentary in John, II, 6
The KIT renders this, “in whom I have found good pleasure”