The Arian Controversy

A nation that is at war with a neighboring country finds itself hindered to a great extent in its efforts at home in construction and general improvement of living conditions.  Today our country is not yet back to normal after the war has been brought to a close for a considerable length of time.  To a certain extent this was also true of the church before the peace which was brought about by Constantine and of which we wrote last time.  All during the period of the Apostolic Fathers and the Apologists, the church had a struggle on its hands.  That is always the case with the church in this world.  They must always fight the good fight of faith.  However, in these first three centuries after the death and resurrection of Christ, she had a special battle to fight.  The church had to defend the Christian religion over against the Pagan philosophies and Judaistic antagonism and as we have seen, the apologies written by the church fathers in this period were intended to show that Christianity rightfully has a place in this world and is in fact the true religion so that all other religions have no right of existence.  Now, however, after Constantine embraced Christianity and being a world ruler made Christianity the state religion, the church was free to study and develop the various doctrines taught in Scripture.  The enemy outside the church is no longer a powerful force that threatens to destroy the church.  Now a careful and uninterrupted study of the teachings put forth can be conducted in order that the church may derive a clearer conception of what is taught in the Scriptures.

It must not be thought that there was no doctrinal development during the first three centuries after Christ’s ascension.  There certainly was and in former issues of this department we called your attention to some of this development.  Now, however, there is ushered in a period of more intense study and of deeper and more frequent discussion of the doctrines taught in God’s Word.  One other element which enters the picture is that due to Constantine’s work of making Christianity the state religion, many were brought inside the church institute who were steeped in Pagan philosophy.  Many of these men were capable writers and speakers and began to expound their views freely inside the church.  One such a man was Arius, who taught a very corrupt doctrine which spurred the church on to greater study of the matter and ended in a clearer declaration of truth than the church had enjoyed before.

Arius was a presbyter in the church at Alexandria. He was a very capable man having attained quite a reputation as a teacher of great ability. He was also highly respected for his apparent piety. But the doctrines he began to teach were such that he clearly branded himself a heretic.

His false doctrine centered about his corrupt conception of the divinity of Christ. In fact, it was just exactly this divinity of Christ that he denied. The Son of God, so he taught, is not of the same essence as the Father. He believed that all things were created by the Son. How could he deny that when in John 1:8 it is plainly stated that all things were made by the Word and that without Him was nothing made that was made. But Arius maintained that the Word, or the Son of God, was Himself created by the Father. He existed before the creation of the world, according to the view set forth, by Arius, but it is not co-eternal nor equal with the Father. He is a creature made by the Father who only is God. Arius considered Christ to be a creature of far higher degree and power than either man or angels and that all men, angels and all that appeared from the moment that God said, “Let there be light” have been created by God.

You understand then that Arius not only denied the truth of the Triune existence of God, but he also taught a doctrine which makes salvation impossible for us. If the Son is not of the same essence with the Father, then we do not have three persons dwelling in one divine essence. Nor do we really have a Saviour in Christ. If He is not truly God as well as truly man, salvation through Him becomes an impossibility. As the Heidelberg Catechism states, Christ must be very God “that He might by the power of His Godhead sustain in His human nature, the burden of the wrath of God; and might obtain for and restore to us righteousness and life”. If Christ, that is the Son of God, is simply a creature God has made, even granted that He made Him higher than man and created Him long before the foundation of the world, He still cannot bear the wrath of God without being consumed by it. Then He perishes under that wrath, and we have no salvation.  Only Christ as the Son of God of the same essence with the Father and Spirit can bear this wrath, sustaining His human nature in it and delivering us from it.

In our next installment of this department we hope to call your attention to the defense of the church over against Arius and the historical proceedings which led to the final expression of the church.