Here I resume my previous post about the biggest theological controversy in Christian history, which, to modern ears, sounds rather, well trivial. It certainly sounded that way to some of the people who were dealing with it at the time. Others thought it was a life and death matter. It had to do with who Christ was in relation to God.
To refresh your memory, the presbyter Arius of Alexandria developed his understanding of Christ in the early fourth century. In a nutshell, he thought that Christ was created in God’s own image by God himself, and so bears the title God, but he is not the “true” God. Only God himself is. Christ’s divine nature was derived from the Father; he came into being at some point in the remote past before the universe was made; and so he is a creation or creature of God. In short, Christ was a kind of second-tier God, subordinate to God and inferior to God in every respect.
Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, was not at all pleased with this view and considered it heretical and dangerous. And so, In 318 or 319 CE he deposed Arius from his position and excommunicated him along with about twenty other church leaders who were his supporters. As a group these exiles went to Palestine, and there they found several church leaders and theologians who were willing to support them in their cause, including a figure that we have seen repeatedly in our study, the “Father of Church History,” Eusebius of Caesarea.
Before explaining the alternative view embraced by bishop Alexander, and describing the events that led up to the Council of Nicea that was called by the emperor Constantine to try to resolve these issues (in the next post), I should set forth Arius’s teachings in some of his own words. You may have noticed over the history of this blog that we very rarely have the writings of the heretics themselves. In most instances we are necessarily reliant on what the orthodox opponents of heretics said, since the heretics’ own writings were generally destroyed. With Arius, we are in the enviable position of having some of his own words, some of them in letters he wrote and others in a kind of poetic work he produced called the “Thalia.”
Although, to our regret, we do not have the actual text of the Thalia preserved for us in a surviving manuscript, it is quoted by a very famous Church Father of Alexandria, Athanasius. And it appears that when Athanasius quotes these passages, he does so accurately. I will not reproduce all these quotations, but only a few that show Arius’s particular views of Christ as not at all equal with God the Father but fully subservient to him. In the Thalia Arius indicates that:
[The Father] alone has neither equal nor like, none comparable in glory…
[The Son] has nothing proper to God in his essential property
For neither is he equal nor yet consubstantial with him….
There is a Trinity with glories not alike;
Their existences are unmixable with each other;
One is more glorious than another by an infinity of glories.
Thus the Son who was not, but existed at the paternal will,
Is only begotten God, and he is distinct from everything else.
Thus, for Arius, unlike the unbegotten Father, Christ, the Son of God, is the “begotten God.” He is greater than all else. But he is removed from the greatness of the Father by an “infinity of glories” and so is not “comparable in glory” to the Father.
In a letter defending his views to his bishop Alexander, Arius is even more explicit about his understanding of the relationship of God and Christ:
We know there is one God, the only unbegotten, only eternal, only without beginning, only true, who only has immortality…. Before everlasting ages he begot his unique Son, through whom he made the ages and all things. He begot him…a perfect creature of God, but not as one of the creatures – an offspring, but not as one of things begotten.
And so, Arius maintained that there were three separate divine beings – which he calls by the technical name “hypostases,” which now, in this context, simply means something like “essential beings” or “persons.” The Father alone has existed forever. The Son was begotten by God before the world was created. But that means that he “is neither eternal nor coeternal …with the Father.” God is above, beyond, and greater than all things, including Christ.
My rather firm sense is that this view is quite compatible with what most Christians today think. I might be wrong; I’ve never seen a survey of opinion. But I’d guess most people are more comfortable with this than with the view set forth by Arius’s own bishop, Alexander. But it was declared a vile heresy.
I’ll explain Alexander’s position in the next post and then talk about the Council of Nicea that was called to resolve the issue.
 Translation of Stuart Hall, in J. Stevenson, ed., A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrating the History of the church to AD 337 rev. ed. W. H. C. Frend (London: SPCK, 1987).
 Translation of Edward Rochie Hardy, Christology of the Later Fathers (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1954).