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Arius Thought He Was Being Biblical, Too

26 May, 2010

b picMost Christians know of Arius as the ancient arch-heretic who denied that Christ is the eternal Son of God. I think we often tend to think of those like Arius as trying to introduce some non-scriptural foundation into Christianity. This is half right, but to say that Arius was unbiblical in the sense that he didn’t constantly appeal to the Bible for his teaching, would be misleading. Arius constantly appealed to scripture; he argued that his position was most biblical; he accused his trinitarian opponents of introducing things foreign to the Bible. Arius wasn’t unbiblical because he wanted to get away from the Bible; he was unbiblical because he didn’t want to understand the Bible according to the Bible’s own ‘rules’.

In other words, Arius couldn’t accept all the scriptural testimony to the character of God, and the relationship between the Father and his Son. He couldn’t see how these two could be the same God, without either being two Gods, or the Father and Son being identical with one another. He took up and ran with all the passages where Jesus says things like ‘My Father is greater than I’ (John 14:28), and he explained away passages like, ‘Before Abraham was, I AM’ (John 8:58).

See, both are true: Jesus is both the I AM, the one who was and is and is to come (Rev 1:8, 17-18), together with the Father and the Spirit one only God; and Jesus is the one who humbled himself by taking our humanity to himself in order to reconcile us to God in his life, death and resurrection (Phil 2:5-11; John 1:14).

It’s so important that these are ultimately spiritual issues. At the end of the day, Arius didn’t read the Bible as a unified whole in its witness to the Triue God, not because he had philosophical presuppositions that got in the way (which is true). Rather, his philosophical presuppositions got in the way because he did not submit them to the revealed truth of God. Ultimately, Arius wasn’t trinitarian because he didn’t believe that God himself must save. Arius didn’t feel he needed this Jesus (cf. 1 John 3:23-24, 4:2-3, 9-10, 14).

Arius’ bishop was Alexander of Alexandria, who came to see the dangerous implications of Arius’ theology and opposed him strongly. The theological danger was not simply an intellectual mistake, but spiritual death. The trinitarian controversies were not about abstractions, but about the character of the God of the universe (and our redeemer); about the truth of God as he has given himself to be known; about who our Lord is and true confession of Christ who will judge the living and the dead. Theology, in this basic sense, is about life and death.

Being biblical is not about quoting the Bible to suit our ideas, but about laying down our idols and looking to the true God who reveals himself by his Spirit as our Father in the one true Son. It is to turn away from ourselves and turn to the only God who can save: the Father, our redeemer through his Son by the Spirit, the Son, our redeemer from the Father by the Spirit, the Spirit, our redeemer from the Father through the Son.

Here’s a wonderful passage — one of my favorite passages from the church fathers — from a sermon by Alexander of Alexandria, showing the unbreakable connection between the identity of Jesus and our redemption from sin, its consequences, and its curse. This is biblical:

But now, after all this bondage to death and corruption of the manhood, God hath visited His creature, which He formed after His own image and similitude; and this He hath done that it might not for ever be the sport of death. Therefore God sent down from heaven His incorporeal Son to take flesh upon Him in the Virgin’s womb; and thus, equally as thou, was He made man; to save lost man, and collect all His scattered members. For Christ, when He joined the manhood to His person, united that which death by the separation of the body had dispersed. Christ suffered that we should live for ever.

For else why should Christ have died? Had He committed anything worthy of death? Why did He clothe Himself in flesh who was invested with glory? And since He was God, why did He become man? And since He reigned in heaven, why did He come down to earth, and become incarnate in the virgin’s womb? What necessity, I ask, impelled God to come down to earth, to assume flesh, to be wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger-cradle, to be nourished with the milk from the breast, to receive baptism from a servant, to be lifted up upon the cross, to be interred in an earthly sepulchre, to rise again the third day from the dead? What necessity, I say, impelled Him to this? It is sufficiently discovered that He suffered shame for man’s sake, to set him free from death; and that He exclaimed, as in the words of the prophet, “I have endured as a travailing woman.”. In very deed did He endure for our sakes sorrow, ignominy, torment, even death itself, and burial. For thus He says Himself by the prophet: “I went down into the deep.”. Who made Him thus to go down? The impious people. Behold, ye sons of men, behold what recompense Israel made unto Him! She slew her Benefactor, returning evil for good, affliction for joy, death for life. They slew by nailing to the tree Him who had brought to life their dead, had healed their maimed, had made their lepers clean, had given light to their blind. Behold, ye sons of men! behold, all ye people, these new wonders! They suspended Him on the tree, who stretches out the earth; they transfixed Him with nails who laid firm the foundation of the world; they circumscribed Him who circumscribed the heavens; they bound Him who absolves sinners; they gave Him vinegar to drink who hath made them to drink of righteousness; they fed Him with gall who hath offered to them the Bread of Life; they caused corruption to come upon His hands, and feet who healed their hands and feet; they violently closed His eyes who restored sight to them; they gave Him over to the tomb, who raised their dead to life both in the time before His Passion and also whilst He was hanging on the tree.

For when our Lord was suffering upon the cross, the tombs were burst open, the infernal region was disclosed, the souls leapt forth, the dead returned to life, and many of them were seen in Jerusalem, whilst the mystery of the cross was being perfected; what time our Lord trampled upon death, dissolved the enmity, bound the strong man, and raised the trophy of the cross, His body being lifted up upon it, that the body might appear on high, and death to be depressed under the foot of flesh. Then the heavenly powers wondered, the angels were astonished, the elements trembled, every creature was shaken whilst they looked on this new mystery, and the terrific spectacle which was being enacted in the universe. Yet the entire people, as unconscious of the mystery, exulted over Christ in derision; although the earth was rocking, the mountains, the valleys, and the sea were shaken, and every creature of God was smitten with confusion. The lights of heaven were afraid, the sun fled away, the moon disappeared, the stars withdrew their shining, the day came to end; the angel in astonishment departed from the temple after the rending of the veil, and darkness covered the earth on which its Lord had closed His eyes….

Ye see, therefore, how great was the effect of the death of Christ, for no creature endured His fall with equal mind, nor did the elements His Passion, neither did the earth retain His body, nor hell His Spirit. All things were in the Passion of Christ disturbed and convulsed. The Lord exclaimed, as once before to Lazarus, Come forth, ye dead, from your tombs and your secret places; for I, the Christ, give unto you resurrection. For then the earth could not long hold the body of our Lord that in it was buried; but it exclaimed, O my Lord, pardon mine iniquities, save me from Thy wrath, absolve me from the curse, for I have received the blood of the righteous, and yet I have not covered the bodies of men or Thine own body! What is at length this wonderful mystery? Why, O Lord, didst Thou come down to earth, unless it was for man’s sake, who has been scattered everywhere: for in every place has Thy fair image been disseminated? Nay! but if thou shouldest give but one little word, at the instant all bodies would stand before Thee. Now, since Thou hast come to earth, and hast sought for the members of Thy fashioning, undertake for man who is Thine own, receive that which is committed to Thee, recover Thine image, Thine Adam. Then the Lord, the third day after His death, rose again, thus bringing man to a knowledge of the Trinity. Then all the nations of the human race were saved by Christ. One submitted to the judgment, and many thousands were absolved. Moreover, He being made like to man whom He had saved, ascended to the height of heaven, to offer before His Father, not gold or silver, or precious stones, but the man whom He had formed after His own image and similitude; and the Father, raising Him to His right hand, hath seated Him upon a throne on high, and hath made Him to be judge of the peoples, the leader of the angelic host, the charioteer of the cherubim, the Son of the true Jerusalem, the Virgin’s spouse, and King for ever and ever. Amen.

From Epistles V, in Schaff, ed., Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 6

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5 Comments
  1. 26 May, 2010 3:39 pm

    Hi,

    I think this just highlights the realization that virtually all heresy is “Biblical,” in that the heretic appealed to Scripture in every case. I’d say the problem is the Sola Scriptura mindset though, because everyone becomes the final authoritative interpreter of the Biblical data. I don’t think it’s so much about reading the Bible as a unified whole, because many heretics were well versed in Scripture; the problem is not knowing the sense at which to read Scripture. This is where Tradition comes in, because it provides a framework with which Scripture is supposed to be understood.

    Think about it, today there are tons of denominations divided on all sorts of issues, though they all claim to have Biblical evidence (and even to be reading Scripture as a whole).

    • James permalink
      7 October, 2010 3:57 pm

      I agree. While this statement:

      “In other words, Arius couldn’t accept *all* the scriptural testimony to the character of God”

      is true in a sense, the fact remains that Arius wouldn’t have seen it that way. Arius wouldn’t have described his position as ‘I accept some of the Bible, but not all of it’. He would have *claimed* that he accepted *all* of the Bible.

      The real problem, then, is not so much that Arius refused to read the Bible according to the Bible’s own rules, but that he refused to read the Bible according to the *Church’s rules* (which of course are the same as the Bible’s own rules since the Church wrote the Bible).

  2. 26 May, 2010 10:59 pm

    This is wonderful! I just finished writing up brief article on the logical absurdities involved in accepting the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ version of Arianism. You’ve got good timing 🙂

    -h.

  3. Vickey Silvers permalink
    8 June, 2010 6:16 pm

    I am an editor for Christian.com which is a social network dedicated to the christian community. As I look through your web site I feel a collaboration is at hand. I would be inclined to acknowledge your website offering it to our users as I’m sure our Christian reformed audience would benefit from what your site has to offer. I look forward to your thoughts or questions regarding the matter.

    Vicky Silvers
    vicky.silvers@gmail.com

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  1. Notes on John (Pt. 4): Against the Arians « Involuted Speculations

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