The Arian Controversy: Part 2
Arius was not the first to have difficulty with the notion that Christ was both human and divine. What Arius did was put the question a little differently. The question of the faithful was "How is Jesus Christ related to us?" It was a question of soteriology, that is salvation. Arius raised a second question concerning the divine ontology, that is the very nature of God's existence. Who is Jesus Christ? Is Jesus a creature or is he God?
It is important to state that, as the church struggled over this second question, it exercised great wisdom in knowing that the answer it settled upon would greatly affect the answer to the first question. Questions around the person of Christ (Who is Jesus?) were always placed in the context of the work of Christ (What has Jesus done?) In other words, in the christological debates of the third and fourth centuries, the central question was, "If we say 'this' or 'that' about Jesus, what does it mean for our understanding of salvation?" The theological debate was practically motivated.
The controversy that led directly to the First Council of Nicea (A.D. 325) involved Arius and Alexander, the Bishop of Alexandria. They quarreled over the question, "Is the logos (Greek for "Word;" from John 1:1) co-eternal with the Father?" Alexander argued in favor of the co-eternity of the Word. Arius contended against it.
Arius, like most theologians of the day, had been greatly influenced by Greek philosophy, particularly Neo-Platonism. Neo-Platonism perceived perfection as a reality which was impassible (without emotion) and immutable (unable to change). Since God was perfect, God must not have emotion nor change in character and essence. If this were true, how could Christians speak of Jesus as both human and divine? Early theologians brought both together in the notion of the logos. They reasoned that the Father was impassible and immutable. The world was passible and mutable. Therefore, the Father could not be directly involved in the world. The logos, however, was able to directly and personally communicate with the world.
This solution was interpreted in various ways. Arius reasoned that since the Son was passable an mutable, the Son must have been created. Therefore, the Son could not be co-eternal with the Father. Arius and his followers were known to sing a slogan: "There was a time when the Son was not." No one disputed that the Son existed before the world. Arius argued that the Son was created before the world. To be created is to place the logos in time.
There would arise, however, a champion of the orthodox position who would respond to Arius.
Previous Posts in the Series
The Question of Christ in the Earliest Centuries #1
The Question of Christ in the Earliest Centuries #2
The Question of Christ in the Earliest Centuries #3
The Question of Christ in the Earliest Centuries #4
The Question of Christ in the Earliest Centuries #5
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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)