By Len Mier
TOPIC: The heresy of Arius and how this heresy was dealt with by the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council (Nicaea 325 CE)
There has been a struggle in Christianity from its very beginning as to who and what Jesus of Nazareth is. Even while Jesus was alive and with his disciples there seems to be a need to clarify the disciples’ belief. It is in Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus himself asked this question, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” and then asks of His disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter’s response, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” This seems to leave more questions than it does answers. The Church struggled for over three hundred years trying to make sense of what the statement “Jesus is the Son of the living God”, means. It was only after the acceptance of the Christian faith, and the need for a unified statement of belief at the command of the first Christian emperor, did the whole Church tackle this issue.
Prior to the First Ecumenical Council, the understanding of who this person Jesus is ran a wide spectrum of understanding. In the Pre-Nicaean church the spectrum of understanding went from those who said Jesus is a created Being adopted by God the Father in some special way, for example made holy by being inhabited within his flesh by an angel. It is by this adoption He was the Son of God. At the opposite end of this spectrum are those who said that God, being pure unchanging spirit, came into this world and cast what humans see as human form and appearance but was not like us in the flesh. Eventually orthodoxy tried to reach a correct understanding of who Jesus is. The concept of the Logos or as found in St. John’s Gospel the Word Made Flesh was seen as a frame-work for this understanding. Although this middle ground made clearer our understanding, it still lacked an explanation of Jesus and His relationship to the Father and within the Trinity.
It is in the fourth century that one of the strongest and most continuing heresies in the Church emerges and takes shape. Its primary center of teaching was the Church of Alexandria in Egypt. From there it spread east to Palestine and Syria eventually throughout the Eastern Roman Empire. This heresy is called Arianism, which is named after one of its strongest supporters, Arius, a priest in Alexandria. It was Arius’ expulsion from the city of Alexandria that aided in the spread of this heresy. It was not that Arius denied that Jesus was the Son of God, he did seem to believe in that teaching. His teaching is more of an error in thinking on the nature of the Trinity and Godhead and how Jesus related to God the Father and his equality with the Father.
I would submit for your consideration that, while Arianism is an error in thinking, it has negative consequences as to the nature and salvific vocation/work of Jesus Christ. This heresy jeopardizes the union of the human with the Trinitarian God.
The key to Arius is the idea of “the unbegotten” and unequal to God the Father. God is the only thing that is unbegotten, uncreated and eternal. Scripture, Arianism says, Eludes that the Logos, being begotten from the Father, cannot be true God. The argument Arius puts forth is that the Logos was a creature the “first creation” of the Father and a perfect creation participating in the Godhead, but a creation none the less not being equal to the Father. Some scripture quoted by Arius and his followers to support his argument are John 14:28 “The Father is greater than I” and St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians 1:15 “the first-born of all creation” and from the Old Testament book of Proverbs 89:22 “The Lord created me a beginning of his ways”. The theology when placed within the philosophical climate of the period makes Jesus appear to be a demi-god in adaption of Hellenistic philosophy and pagan thinking. Open conflict between bishops and individual churches began to cause divisions within the Church. This did not go unnoticed by Constantine. The emperor wanted a unified church and peace established within his empire. To settle this argument Constantine called the Bishops to gather in an Ecumenical council to take place in Nicaea, a city near the capital. He guaranteed safe passage to all those who would participate, hoping to encourage maximum participation of all the bishops of the Church.
The question that was to be debated, what is the nature of the Son of God and his relation to God the Father? The hope was for a statement of belief on the issue and the ability to come to an acceptable understanding of the question.
Because scripture is deficient for a full explanation of this question, the Fathers turned to the use of a philosophical understanding of God to settle this question. One of the main philosophical concepts that was brought for discussion was the idea of essence, in Greek ouisios. The term substance being used in the West giving rise to the Latin term consubstantial, the words essence and substance as I am using them have the same meaning. It can be understood as the expression “being made up of the same kind of stuff”. The philosophy of the time said there were two distinct essences. The first essence, that essence or substance which is not created, is not subject to change and is eternal. This is what we call God. The second essence that of the world or Cosmos, is changing and is created.
The debate hinged on two words in the understanding of Jesus and His relation to God the Father. Was Jesus of the same essence (homoousios) or was Jesus made of similar essence (homoiousios). The argument was eventually decided on the side of homoousios. The Fathers believed that Jesus was begotten of the Father in all eternity and not created in any way. They also stated that the essence of the person of Jesus was, in fact, the same essence as that of God the Father. This belief gives rise to the symbol of faith that orthodox Christians recite in the liturgy. The Nicaean Creed states our belief.
To be continued.