Throughout the centuries, Christendom has faced many threats to historic Christian truth claims and doctrine. Perhaps the deepest confrontations have consisted of heresies that are such serious abandonments of Christian doctrine that, if accepted, would change the very nature of the faith. Theologian Justin Holcomb says “Traditionally, a heretic is someone who has compromised an essential doctrine and lost sight of who God really is, usually by oversimplification. Literally, heresy means a ‘choice’—that is, a choice to deviate from traditional teaching in favor of one’s own insights.”1 Heresies, then, are doctrinal deviations that must be confronted effectively by orthodox (right teaching) Christianity.
Let’s look briefly at a heresy that is arguably the deepest doctrinal challenge historic Christianity has ever faced. And yet while church theologians and apologists effectively responded to that heresy in ancient times, it never died and still remains evident today.
Beginnings of Ancient Arianism
The First Council of Nicaea in AD 325 was called to principally confront the great doctrinal controversy surrounding the teachings of Arius of Alexandria (c. 250–336). Arius was a presbyter who taught that the Son (Jesus Christ) was a highly exalted creature of God but not equal with God himself (a denial of the full deity of Christ and, by implication, a rejection of the Trinity).
He said, “If the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence: and from this it is evident, that there was a time when the Son was not.”2
Christian theology affirms the creator-creature distinction, meaning that the triune God is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable and the creature comes into existence by an act of God’s sovereign will. But Arianism places the Son clearly on the side of the creature.
This challenge rocked historic Christianity. Historical theologian Ryan Reeves states: “The Arian controversy is one of the most important, if not the most important crisis that the church has faced in all its history.”3
Fortunately for historic Christianity, they had a champion of Christ’s deity in the Eastern church father Athanasius (c. 296–373).4 Athanasius was a highly adept theologian with a deep knowledge of Scripture and biblical exegesis. He had a mastery of the New Testament content that buttressed the deity of Christ, such as Jesus’s explicit and implicit divine claims (John 8:58–59; 10:30–33), instances of equating himself with Yahweh (John 5:17–18; 14:9), his insistence that he possessed divine prerogatives (Matt. 28:17–18; Mark 2:5; John 5:22), and his application of divine titles to himself (Mark 14:61–64).
But Athanasius focused on how the identity of Christ in the incarnation made it possible for him to achieve salvation. Being both God and man, Christ could represent both parties and reconcile them through redemption. For Athanasius, the logic of New Testament doctrine on salvation assumed a divine-human Christ.
Here are two of Athanasius’s biblical arguments for the deity of Christ and thus against Arianism set forth in logical form:5
First, for an orthodox Christology (the person and nature of Christ):
1. Only God can save people from sin (Isa. 45:21–22).
2. Jesus Christ saves people from sin (Matt. 1:21; Acts 4:12; Heb. 2:10).
3. Therefore, Jesus Christ is God (incarnate).
Second, against an Arian Christology:
1. Only God is to be prayed to and worshipped (Ps. 105:1; Jer. 10:25).
2. The Arian Jesus is not God.
3. Therefore, praying to and worshipping the Arian Jesus constitutes idolatry (Arianism makes historic Christians, as seen in their scriptural practices [Matt. 28:17; Acts 7:59], into idolaters).
Athanasius’s arguments demonstrate that he viewed the acceptance of an Arian Christology as leading to two devastating results for Christians. Namely, an Arian Christ cannot serve as the Savior of human beings and an Arian Christ transforms Christians into practicing idolaters.
While the Council of Nicaea came to the clear consensus that the Son was homoousios (Greek: of the same substance) with the Father and condemned Arianism as a Christological heresy, this perspective nevertheless remained popular in various quarters of Christendom for many years.
Arianism has not gone away. Arianism or Arian-like beliefs are found in contemporary religious sects like Jehovah’s Witnesses, Iglesia ni Cristo, Christadelphians, and some forms of Unitarianism, among other groups.6
The Arian view of the Son is that he was a creature and thus inferior to the Father. The historic Christian view of the Son is that he was fully divine and equal to the Father. In accordance with Scripture, historic Christianity affirms that Jesus Christ was God incarnate (a single person with both a divine and a human nature).
Reflection: Your Turn
Have you been challenged by a person who affirms a contemporary version of Arianism?
- For a detailed biblical, theological, and apologetics discussion of the incarnation (Jesus as the God-man) and the Trinity, see Kenneth Richard Samples, Without a Doubt, chapters 5 (Trinity) and 9 (incarnation).
- For a detailed discussion of how the incarnation relates to the Trinity in terms of mystery and logic, see Christianity Cross-Examined, chapter 5.
- For a brief online article about the Scriptural grounding of trinitarianism, see my blog post “The Trinity’s Biblical Basis.”
- For a summary of the historic Christian view of Arius and Arianism, see Justin S. Holcomb’s Know the Heretics, chapter 7.
- For a summary of the historic Christian view of the Council of Nicaea and the Nicene Creed, see Justin S. Holcomb’s Know the Creeds and Councils, chapter 2.
1. Justin S. Holcomb, Know the Heretics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 11.
2. See Arius. Rejecting Arius’s language, historic Christianity came to view that which is begotten as reflecting anequality of nature while that which is created or made reflects an inferiority of nature.
3. “Arius and Nicea,” Ryan M. Reeves, February 24, 2015, video, accessed June 9, 2023, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nduka-QqXbQ.
4. Kenneth R. Samples, Classic Christian Thinkers (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2019), chapter 2.