Contra Novo Arius

Some years ago, when I lived in Florida, I knew a gentleman who had a heretical view of the nature of God that he viewed as springing from a supposed Gospel of the stars which came from a particular interpretation of a story that came from the order of the zodiac signs.  According to this particular view of the nature of God, both Jesus Christ and Satan were created beings on the same level, and Jesus Christ was promoted to the godhead and Satan rebelled, both of them having been the Gemini twins.  About eight and a half years ago, around the time I began this blog, there was a controversy over the beliefs about the nature of God from a pastor who became part of a breakaway organization who had quoted at length from a poem that implied an Arian view of Jesus Christ viewing Him as a maker who was Himself made.  The minister, already in sufficient trouble for other reasons, sought to deny any implications that he was arguing for an Arian nature of Jesus Christ.  Nevertheless, it has come to my attention in recent weeks and months that an Arian belief in the nature of Jesus Christ has once again become popular, which has required a great deal of discussion about the matter than I ever remember hearing.

It is not as if the Arian heresy is a new one.  In fact, it is a very old heresy, one that goes back to the early period of Hellenistic Christianity, at the point when Hellenistic Christianity was just going mainstream and was about to become the state religion of what is now viewed as Christendom.  During the time between the fourth century and at least the sixth century, there were widespread groups of people, especially among the Germanic successor states of the Western Roman Empire, who held to a view that Jesus Christ was a created being that was subordinate to an eternal Father God.  Such a belief was certainly easier to understand than the Trinitarian beliefs that were being expounded by the Hellenistic Church at the time, although the fact that a belief is easy to understand does not make it right.  There is an influential point of view that states that a heresy is merely a truth that is taken too far, and that is certainly the case when it comes to Arianism.  Jesus Christ is subordinate to the Father–He said so Himself [1] in passages like John 10:29-30:  “My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand.  I and My Father are one.””  Let us note, though, that even when Jesus Christ is proclaiming the superiority of God the Father above all (even above Himself), He simultaneously affirms the oneness of Himself and the Father.  We find the same dual affirmation of the superiority of God the Father and the superiority of Jesus Christ to the created angels in places like Hebrews 1:1-4:  “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets,  has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.”

When we look at the balance between the subordination of authority between Jesus Christ and the Father–something that is far more evident during the time when Jesus Christ was on earth and God the Father remained in heaven than in those times where they are frequently commingled in terms of the description of their actions either before or after that time–and the statements about the unity of God and the Father, the understanding that if someone has seen Christ they have also seen the Father, and the fervent desire of Jesus Christ (and God the Father) that we should be one as they are one, it is clear that heresies involving the nature of God and Jesus Christ can take one of two forms.  Some heresies seek to elide or deny the subordination of Jesus Christ to God the Father, since Arianism amounts to an extreme view of subordination that takes the Bible’s position too far.  Other heresies seek to deny the oneness of both Jesus Christ and God the Father being uncreated and eternal beings.  Consistently, though, the Bible shows Jesus Christ and God the Father as both being the same sort of being (what we may call God beings in distinction to angels or human beings or lesser beings below us in the order of creation), but with a clear hierarchy between them in the matter that Jesus Christ subordinated His will to that of the Father and that He was fully committed to working out that will, even in cases where it required Him to sacrifice His own interests and His own preferences.  It was not possible, after all, for that cup to pass to another because Jesus Christ alone could pay the price of sin for us all and open up the way to eternal life for sinning, mortal man.  No created being could pay the price of sin for all of humanity and thus reconcile God and man.

While we must oppose the denial of the everlasting existence of our Lord and Savior before the heavens and angels were created, based on the way it does violence to what the Bible says about Jesus Christ (notably, though far from only, in passages like John 1:1-3), it is easy enough to understand why this heresy exists.  If someone is seeking to make plain the subordination of Jesus Christ to God the Father, it is easy to go too far in trying to distinguish between the two and claim that certain divine names can only belong to one of them and not the other, and thus make the claim that Jesus Christ is on a separate order of creation because He is clearly viewed as subordinate to His father.  Yet even in this life we have some understanding of the problem of subordination and the way that a defense of a godly and biblical view of the chain of being need not posit that what is subordinate is on a separate order of creation.  As human beings the Bible clearly has placed husbands in the role of Jesus Christ and wives in the role of the Church, where Jesus Christ’s superiority in authority clearly gives husbands a headship in the family.  And the Bible is consistent in placing children as subordinate to their parents and in requiring those children to honor their parents, regardless of what kind of parents they may be, while also enjoining parents not to provoke their children to wrath.

Indeed, the question of subordinationism makes its most practical place in the various household codes in the Bible, of which there are several, perhaps most notably (though not only) in Ephesians.  In all cases where we find a clear example of subordination, whether we are looking at the duties of slaves to honor and obey masters in the Lord, for children to honor and obey their parents in the Lord, and for husbands to show self-sacrificial love and care for wives who are commanded to honor them in turn, we are dealing with a clear case of subordination in beings that are of the same nature.  For indeed men and women are of the same nature, parents and children are of the same nature, masters and servants are of the same nature, rulers and subjects are of the same nature, and so on and so forth.  We are all created in the image and likeness of God, and there is no human created with saddles on his (or her) back and no human being created with boots and spurs to ride him as we would ride a horse.  Yet our equality as human beings in terms of God’s judgment does not mean that there is a lack of authority or hierarchy within humanity.  Rather, we find hierarchy and authority at every turn, with a clear biblical position that authority figures are to be honored and respected and that authority is meant to serve the well-being of those who are under authority.  The fact that it is neither easy to honor authority nor to be honorable in authority over others does not make the biblical doctrine of subordination as it relates to human beings any less true or vital.  As it is in heaven, so it is on earth.  For there to be order, there must be some sort of structure and some sort of authority that governs and restrains and allows human beings to be united together, and that requires some sort of subordination of our own personal wishes and preferences to some sort of greater purpose and higher authority than ourselves alone, even if it does not make those who are subject to more layers of authority any different in terms of our being or nature than those who rule over us.

In many ways, when taken to its logical conclusion, the Arian heresy has disastrous ramifications when we look at subordination as it relates to human beings.  If Jesus Christ is to be viewed as a lesser being by virtue of accepting and being subordinate to the authority of the Father, then all of those who are under the authority of others are of a separate order of creation than those who rule over them.  Husbands are an order of creation higher than wives.  Parents are an order of creation higher than their children.  Masters and bosses are of a higher order than slaves and servants and employees.  Ministers are of a higher order of creation than lay members.  Rulers are of a higher order of being than ordinary citizens, and any sorts of claims of equality between these various classes of people are a threat not only to the status but to the very identity of these respective authorities.  With such a view, Paul’s statement in Galatians 3 that there is no Jew nor Gentile, no male nor female, and no slave nor free is in the eyes of God is completely incomprehensible and meaningless.  Nor is it possible for the Golden Rule to operate between those who are on a different order of creation, for to the extent that we view ourselves as a higher order of being than someone else, we cannot view their preferences and their well-being as higher than our own, and we cannot love others as we love ourselves, for we do not see others as the same sort of being that we see ourselves as.  In such a world, justice and equity are impossible, for to hold that other human beings are not merely subordinate to us by convention or by circumstance but are a different order of being altogether means that every act by which we assert some intrinsic superiority and not merely conventional authority is to do violence to those who are our equals by nature even if they are subordinate to us in terms of authority.

It is of the utmost importance that we be able to distinguish equality of nature from equality of authority.  God is not a God of chaos and confusion, and there is clearly order and structure in God’s workings with humanity.  That has been true from the beginning and it remains true now, and it will always remain true, even in the world to come when we put on immortality and enjoy the gift of eternal life.  There will never come a time when we will not be subject to the authority of God and Jesus Christ, and probably of a great many other beings who will be placed in superior positions of authority over us, regardless of what cities or cultures or planets we may eventually rule.  Yet this acceptance of authority does not mean that we accept an inferiority of nature.  For Revelation 3:9 clearly states that those who are resurrected saints will be worshiped by human beings in the world to come, something which no angel can claim, but only God, which means by inference that resurrected saints will partake in the nature of God.  And the various submission and subordination that is required in this life and in our current existence is only tolerable to the extent that it does not imply an inequality of nature.  For if to accept someone’s authority meant to accept our inferiority to them, no authority could be honorably accepted by anyone with a fierce view of dignity, and no family, no congregation, no company, and no society could long endure.  Rather than being an esoteric and obscure heresy, the Arian heresy and its equation of subordination to a higher authority with inequality of nature strikes at the survival of any institution in a world where inequalities of authority must always be finessed and balanced by a recognition of the implications of the equality of our nature by which we may find ourselves at times in authority over others and at other times subject to the authority of others based on chance and circumstance, and not any inherent inequality in our talents and gifts and abilities, which is to say any institutions in any and all times and places wherever human beings have ever or may ever exist.  The heretical implications of Arianism must therefore be strongly opposed by any and all who would defend any equality within either the Family of God or mankind, or else we must submit to the bellum omnium contra omnes that results from the connection between equality of authority and equality of dignity and nature.  For let it be plainly said that whatever my respect for those who are in authority, I will never tolerate any claim to inferiority of nature to any man or woman, no matter how noble or excellent their state or office.  And I suspect I am far from alone in that.

[1] It should be noted that the subject of subordinationism is something that I have spent a great deal of time writing about as it appears in the writings of various Hellenistic Christians from Origen to C.S. Lewis.  A list of posts dealing with this matter appears below for those who are interested in reading about this matter further.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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4 Responses to Contra Novo Arius

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    Philippians 2:6-11 explains that Jesus Christ didn’t think it was robbery to be equal with God. By taking on the form of a servant and being made into the likeness of men; humbling Himself unto death, He was given a Name by the Father that exalted Him above all others–that every knee of every being ever created will bow before Him and every tongue confess Him Lord, to the glory of the Father. I was in a discussion just this morning about the greater perfection of Christ through the addition of obedience learned through great suffering in this life. The Word God, His Name prior to becoming flesh, became Jesus Christ, Immanuel–God With Us–Son of God. The Family of God began to take shape when the “Word was made flesh and dwelled among us” (John 1:14). However, the “was made” is NOT synonymous with “created” because His divine spirit always was, is and will be. Scripture makes that very plain. His Holy Spirit flowed seamlessly into the seed that God planted in Mary’s womb. It was Christ’s spirit composition that changed, not His mind. This seed, unlike that of any other human being, was not a new creation. Christ’s conception of the Holy Spirit was that of the same Spirit that He always had. This Spirit–the mind, personality, etc.–what makes Him who He is–was transferred to an different form; a physical one from the spirit one it had always inhabited before. We have within us the spirit of man which joins with our brain to produce our minds. Christ had within Him the Spirit of God. He was the same God here on earth as He had been in heaven.

  2. Catharine Martin says:

    How do I take your brevity?
    I wrote this specific comment because a minister conveyed that Christ had “divested Himself of His divinity” when He became human. At the same time, this minister also stated that Christ was completely God and was the same being as the Word God who had always been with God. This minister later wrote me back, explaining that he will not use this phrase again because it is not accurate. Christ was divine as a human being because He was always God, both in the flesh and as a spirit being. This minister verified that he and I believe the same way. Christ could not have been a created being.

    • My brevity was the result of typing on my phone, something I often do when it comes to replies (although not this one). It is good that the pastor no longer uses that term because, as he now understands, it is not an accurate one. Bible translations speak of Jesus emptying Himself or (better) humbling Himself, making it clear that while Jesus Christ remained God he took on the form of mankind, the capacity to be hurt, the sensitivity to lack of sleep or food and so on and so forth. Jesus’ time as a human was a matter of addition rather than subtraction because while He remained God, he added the experience and understanding from the inside of what it meant like to be human as well, gaining a degree of empathy He did not have before. Understandably so, this is not an easy matter to discuss, but it is a lot easier when we use the Bible (the books of John and Hebrews and 1 John are particularly helpful in this) and more difficult when we try to explain these matters using nonbiblical language.

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