What is Arianism?

Question
What is Arianism?
Answer

Arianism is a false Christological concept named for Arius (c. AD 250-336) who taught in Alexandria, Egypt. Arianism teaches that God the Son is not co-eternal with God he Father. It emphasizes the uniqueness of God the Father, whom they claim is "alone" self-existent and immutable. They claim that the Son had to have a beginning and was created by God the Father. So, Arianism attempted to introduce the idea of different levels of divinity, insisting that while Jesus is called "God," he is in fact a "lesser god" than the Father.

Arianism misunderstands Jesus' self-imposed human limitations - the fact that he grew (Luke 2:52), him not knowing the date of his return (Matt 24:36), and getting tired (John 4:6), etc. as referring to the fact that Jesus is a lesser god. In addition, it misunderstands the meaning of "firstborn" (Rom 8:29; Col 1:15-20; Heb 1:6, etc.), thinking it means that Jesus was "created" as God's first act of creation - thereby denying he is the self-existent and immutable God. However, the term "firstborn" doesn't deal with time, but status and position. It refers to the special status of the firstborn as the preeminent son and heir to be held in great honor (Gen 49:3; Exod 11:5; 34:19; Num 3:40; Psa 89:27; Jer 31:9). God the Son is the self-existent God (John 1:1-2; 8:58; 10:30). See the references below on the Trinity.

The Council of Nicaea (325) deemed Arianism to be a heresy and exiled Arius to Illyria. The theological debate reopened at the Synod of Tyre (335), where Arius was restored. However, Arian was again anathemised and pronounced a heretic at the Council of Constantinople (381). Though Arianism has been denounced as a false doctrine, it is still taught in various forms by the Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses (the later regard Arius as a forerunner of their founder Charles Taze Russell).

The Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, says of Jesus:

1 John 4:2 This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.

The Scriptures clearly present Jesus as fully human and fully divine. He is one person, but he has two natures: one human and the other divine.

Affirming the full humanity of Christ is critical to the Christian faith. In fact, the apostle John strongly condemned those who deny that "Jesus Christ has come in the flesh" (1 John 4:2; see also 2 John 1:7). These words spoke against an early form of a heresy known as Docetism (from the Greek word dokeo, "seem"). Docetists taught that Jesus was divine (though not God himself) but that he only seemed to be human. In reality, they alleged, he was a kind of phantom, a teacher who did not actually live and die as a human being.

The Scriptures make it clear that Jesus was a man. He experienced human limitations such as hunger (Matt. 4:2), weariness (John 4:6) and ignorance (Mark 13:32; Luke 8:45-47). He experienced the pain of weeping (John 11:35, 38), agonizing (Mark 14:32-42; Luke 12:50; Heb. 5:7-10) and suffering on the cross (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34). Being divine, Jesus could not sin; but because he was human, he could still be genuinely tempted (Heb. 4:15). Jesus could not conquer temptation without a struggle, but he always resisted and fought it until he had overcome (Matt. 4:1-11). From Gethsemane we may infer that his struggles were sometimes more acute and agonizing than any we will ever know (Matt. 26:36 ff).

The book of Hebrews stresses that if Jesus had not been fully human, he would not be qualified to help us as we go through the trials of human existence (Heb. 2:17-18; 4:15-16; 5:2,7-9). As it is, his human experience guarantees that in our every trouble we may be confident that he sympathetically intercedes for us before the Father (Heb. 7:25).

Unfortunately, many well-meaning Christians focus on Jesus' deity almost to the exclusion of his humanity, believing that they honor him by minimizing his human nature. Modern forms of the early heresy of Monophysitism (the idea that Jesus had only one nature) also tend to downplay the fact that Jesus was fully human. It is assumed by some that Jesus only pretended to be ignorant of facts; he was, after all, divine and omniscient (knowing everything). Similarly, some deny that Jesus was ever actually hungry and weary, believing that his divinity supernaturally and continually energized his human body.

The Biblical doctrine of the incarnation, however, asserts that the Son of God lived his divine human life in and through his human mind and body at every point, maximizing his identification and empathy with those he had come to save.

The idea that Jesus alternated between his two natures, so that he sometimes acted in his humanity and sometimes in his divinity, is also mistaken. He died and endured all his sufferings, including those on the cross, in the unity of his divine human person.

Nevertheless, some of Jesus' characteristics and actions are rightly attributed to his divine nature, while others stem from his human nature. The Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) expressed this doctrine as "the peculiar property of each nature being preserved and being united in one person and subsistence" (NPNF2, vol. 14, p. 265). For example, while Jesus was ignorant in his humanity, he was at the same time omniscient in his divinity, hard as that may be for us to understand.

Acknowledgement of the full humanity of Jesus is essential to the Christian faith because of the special role God gave the human race as his image bearers. Humanity was ordained as the means by which God determined to display his glory and extend his kingdom over all the earth. Even after the fall into sin, God still declared that the descendants of Eve would crush the seed of the serpent under their feet (Gen. 3:15). This early promise is fulfilled in Jesus because he was a fully human being who served God faithfully and received in reward a name greater than any other. Through Christ the victory of humanity over evil is assured.

In addition, God is self-existent (aseity, from the Latin - a meaning "from," + se meaning "self," + ity). Children sometimes ask, "Who made God?" The clearest answer is that God (God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit) never needed to be made, because he was always there. He exists in a different way from us: We, his creatures, exist in a dependent, derived, finite, fragile way, but our Maker exists in an eternal, self-sustaining, necessary way. It is part of God's nature that he cannot cease to exist, just as it is part of our nature that we cannot live forever in this fallen world (Rom. 5:12-14). We necessarily age and die, because it is our present nature to do that; God necessarily continues forever unchanged, because it is his eternal nature to do that (Psa. 90:2). This is one of many contrasts between creature and Creator.

God's self-existence is a basic truth. At the outset of his presentation of the unknown God to the Athenian idolaters, Paul explained that this God, the world's Creator, "is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else" (Acts 17:25). Sacrifices offered to idols, in today's tribal religions, as in ancient Athens, are thought of as somehow sustaining the gods "physical" needs for such things as food, but the Creator needs no such support system (Psa. 50:9-13). God has life in himself and draws his unending energy from himself (Psa. 90:1-4; 102:25-27; Isa. 40:28-31; John 5:26; Rev 4:10), a fact that theologians often refer to as his "aseity" (a se in Latin means "from himself").

In theology, life and faith, endless mistakes result from supposing that the conditions, bounds, and limits of our own finite existence apply to God - we impoverish ourselves by embracing an idea of God that is too limited and small. The doctrine of God's self-existence stands as a bulwark against such mistakes. It is vital for spiritual health to believe in the God in all his greatness (cf. Psa. 95:1-7), and grasping the truth of his aseity is an early step on the road to doing this.

Related Topics:

We Believe in Jesus
We Believe in God
We Believe In The Holy Spirit
The Apostles' Creed
What is the Trinity?
The Trinity or the Truth?
Does the Doctrine of the Trinity Matter?
Trinity and Jesus' Omniscience
Presupposing the Trinity
Equality in the Godhead

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).