17 votes, average: 4.71 out of 517 votes, average: 4.71 out of 517 votes, average: 4.71 out of 517 votes, average: 4.71 out of 517 votes, average: 4.71 out of 5 (17 votes, average: 4.71 out of 5)
You need to be a registered member to rate this post.

The Controversies about Christ: Arius and Alexander

As I mentioned in the last post, in my debate this past Friday at the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, I was trying to sketch out how it was that the early Christians came to think that Christ was God.   I decided in the debate *not* to start at the beginning, for example, with the teachings of Jesus, his understandings of himself, the views of his disciples and so on.  Instead, in order to set up a key contrast, I started at the end (well, one of the ends) of the Christological conflicts and discussions of Christianity’s first three hundred years, the conflict specifically between the famous Christian teacher of Alexandria Egypt, Arius, and his bishop, Alexander.

It was this controversy that led to the famous Council of Nicaea, called by the emperor Constantine (who had converted to Christianity just thirteen years earlier) in the year 325 CE.   The controversy is widely misunderstood by people today, who frequently hear completely erroneous things about it – for example, that Arius thought that Christ was human, not divine, or that he was not really the son of God.  Wrong, wrong, wrong.  Both Arius and Alexander thought that Jesus was the Son of God.  More than that, they both thought that he was God, the God who created the universe.  He was *not* God the Father, but God the Son.   But still he was God.

The question focused on what sense Christ was God.  To many people today their difference might seem technical, picayune, and completely uninteresting.  But in the day, it was a BIG deal.

Bishop Alexander had apparently asked the various priests in his church of Alexandria to explain a key passage of Scripture, possibly (we don’t know for sure) Proverbs 8 (which you should read!) in which the figure known as Wisdom talks about being with God at the beginning and being the one through whom God created all things.   Everyone agreed that this passage was referring to Christ.  But how was one to understand it?

Arius developed his views along lines that for well over a century had been completely acceptable within orthodox Christian circles.   His view was that…

THE REST OF THIS POST IS FOR MEMBERS ONLY.  If you don’t belong yet, JOIN!  You’ll learn so much.  You’ll get so much.  You’ll give so much.  And everything you give goes to charity!

You need to be logged in to see this part of the content. Please Login to access.

My Debate with Michael Bird Feb. 12 , 2016
The Son of God, the Council of Nicea, and the Da Vinci Code



  1. Avatar
    nichael  February 17, 2016

    As an aside, I’ll admit that for the longest time I had trouble understanding the concept of “Arianism”.

    Then it finally dawned on me: This is what we were taught all those years ago in Mrs. Brown’s Sunday School class.

    That is, there was God. And there was Jesus, who was His son. What was there to be confused about?

    More to the point, no one would have doubted that Jesus was fully divine. But to confuse Him with God would have struck us as strange as confusing Jim, the preacher’s son, with his dad, Rev. Thompson.

    [Now I won’t get into an argument as to the doctrinal –let alone the credal– correctness of this position. But I think it’s probably safe to say that, if we examined it closely, this would describe the point of view of many (if not most) main stream Protestants in middle America today.]

  2. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  February 17, 2016

    When I belonged to the oneness church, understanding the godhead was essential to salvation. Being baptized correctly was also necessary. Baptism had to be done in Jesus’ name…no trinity stuff because that was created by satan.

    Anywho, I thought Arius believed in modialism.

  3. Avatar
    teg51  February 17, 2016

    Yet another interesting article Bart. One thing that caught my attention was what you claimed during the debate- that there was no notion of Jesus’s pre-existence or deification in the earliest accounts, and that it wasn’t until the gospel of John that those ideas emerged. I would argue that the epistle to the Hebrews (likely pre-dates Mark) carries possibly the earliest account of a deification of Jesus and the notion of his pre-existence. In Hebrews chapter 1 it states “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being”,and:”but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.” Now, if anything insinuates pre-existence it’s that last statement about Jesus being the instrument into which the worlds were created, which is very reminiscent of the Gospel of John. It seems that these ideas were already roaming around before the synoptics; what astounds me is the High Christology though. Overall, would you agree that Hebrews posits Jesus as pre-existent and God?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2016

      Hebrews Christology is complicated, but yes, those are two of the key passages. And yes, pre-existence was around before the Synoptics. Paul — our earliest author! — has a view of Christ’s pre-existence (thus Phil. 2:6-8). But I’m not sure when exactly Hebrews was written….

  4. Avatar
    Mhamed Errifi  February 18, 2016

    hello Bart

    why jesus christ did not leave any explanation about his nature instead we have two mortal human beings are arguing about christ nature and people are confused they dont know who to follow Arius or Alexander. thats the irony of christianity


    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2016

      He didn’t leave any explanation about his “nature” because he had no clue there would ever be any issue about his nature. He was a Jewish teacher.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  February 27, 2016

        I suspect there’s a not-so-subtle inference in your words. I’m Jewish and among my many sins I’ve been a lawyer; in my experience all Jewish males think they’re doctors and/or lawyers, even if they’re bricklayers.
        There some distinctions. In a familiar old joke, when one Jewish mother is told by another mother that her son is a doctor, the first mother inquires, “Is he a doctor, a doctor, or a doctor, a dentist.?”

  5. Avatar
    madi22  February 18, 2016

    Bart, from my understanding “son of God” was a common term and Jesus wasn’t the only one called this, why was Jesus set apart? It baffles me how Christianity just exploded after Constantine, and still now we see the vatican has so much power! There were so many other saviors from other belief systems that had the exact same characteristics that Jesus had. Do they pre date his existance? Horus for instance….it just seems somehow Jesus was the pick of the crop.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2016

      Horus wasn’t a human being; Jesus decidedly was. It’s true that stories about Jesus are often colored by ancient understandings of other divine men, but none of them was exactly like any of the others of them.

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 18, 2016

    A debate over an “iota”: Each time I read one of your discussions of this topic, it gets clearer. Thanks for making it clearer. Ron

    • Avatar
      dougckatyBE  February 19, 2016

      Like Ron said. Very helpful article.

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 18, 2016

    I was able to watch the entire first night (2 hours and 45 minutes) by googling “Greer-Heard Debate on Jesus’ Divinity with Bart Ehrman..” Some comments:

    1. The first 21 minutes are blank so one needs to scroll through that time.
    2. The rest of the video worked well.
    3. Dr. Ehrman’s gives his usual clear and concise presentation discussing early Christologies leading up to the Arian controversy.
    4. Dr. Bird is pleasant and has a good sense of humor. He essentially attempts to challenge the idea that the earliest Christology was an “adoptionistic” Christology. His thesis is clear, but I got lost in some of his detailed scriptural points which got a little too technical for me to understand. I am just not much for proving very technical points and stuff by quoting scripture.
    5. To my surprise, the atmosphere of the meeting was not adversarial.
    6. The highpoint for me was Dr.Ehrman’s answer to the next to last question where Dr. Ehrman concisely and clearly explains the evolution of his beliefs about Christianity.
    7. I have emailed the registrar’s office of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to see if I can get a CD or an online video of the second day.

  8. Avatar
    madmargie  February 18, 2016

    I have an elementary question. When speaking of Jesus, why do you use the term “Christ” if the word means “Messiah”? Are we discussing the man Jesus or the Messiah?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2016

      I use “Christ” when those discussing him in antiquity would do so, and “Jesus” when I’m referring to the man himself during his life.

  9. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  February 18, 2016

    I just read Dr. Martin’s introductory discussion on the “New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary” website. Interestingly, I grew up in a Church of Christ in Brazosport, Texas about 50 miles from his hometown of Baytown. Anyway, his point is that there are two separate forms of truth: theological truths and historical truths. This reminds me of Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of “non-overlapping magisteria.” I sort of understand his point, but can theological truth really be separated so cleanly from historical truth? Doesn’t theological truth have to be based on and start with historical truth???? In other words, don’t certain things happen historically and from that we then reach and develop theological conclusions? Can we really have a reasonable theology that is based on something that is not true historically?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2016

      Yes, that’s precisely his argument. Theology can NOT be based on historical reconstructions of the past. He gives a number of fully compelling reasons for thinking this, in my opinion; and he does so precisely because so many people have never thought of it this way. He thinks that’s one of the great mistakes of contemporary Christian thinking.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  February 19, 2016

        Sounds like Timothy Luke Johnson’s argument for the proposition that the entire search for the historical Jesus is irrelevant to Christian faith.

  10. talmoore
    talmoore  February 18, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, what I find most fascinating about the christological controversies of the 3rd century is that they essentially hit a theological cul-de-sac. That is to say, the church leaders kept promoting Jesus the Christ higher and higher up the divine pecking-order until he was literally one with God the Father, and — semantically speaking — Jesus couldn’t be made any more greater than greatest. What I find most fascinating (and what most religious scholars appear to me to be ignoring) is *why* it was so important for the church to see Jesus the Christ as such a powerful being — as opposed to merely an important intercessor, like how, say, the Muslims see Muhammed. It wasn’t enough for the early church to see Jesus as someone (or something) special. For them Jesus had to be so powerful and significant that, eventually, they were forced to put him on par with God himself. Why do you think that is?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2016

      I’m not sure what, at the end of the day, was driving the CHristological “one-upmanship.” Something clearly was!

      • Avatar
        uziteaches  February 19, 2016

        What drove it is the fact that Jesus failed in his mission. So they had to make him higher and higher as they sought to hold onto the idea that his teachings were true even though he failed in his stated goals.

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  February 20, 2016

          Speculative and, as they would say in a courtroom trial, “Goes to motive.” I don’t think anybody needed “to make him higher and higher” in order to hold on to the truth of his teachings.

      • Avatar
        dragonfly  February 19, 2016

        The danger of falling into polytheism maybe? Jesus followers understandably looked up to him. He was the future messiah and a good teacher. Then he was killed and their feelings changed. But then God raised him from the dead and their feelings changed again. But not only that, he was exalted to heaven. Not only that, he died for them. Now that’s someone to be really revered and eternally grateful to. Someone to praise. Now we’re getting close to worshipping him. This is living dangerously close to the edge of polytheism. The only way to be able to worship him is if he is God. I don’t think they had much choice but to either turn back or push on to making him God. And Arian’s view that Jesus had not always been there is also dangerous. That could be interpreted by some as though Jesus was a separate god, still created by God the father, but still very similar to some polytheistic ideas, where gods can give birth to other gods. There’s a subtle but very significant difference between Arian’s and Alexander’s views.

        • Avatar
          dragonfly  February 19, 2016

          … by “Arian” I mean “Arius”.

      • Rick
        Rick  February 19, 2016

        Perhaps simple human nature. We seem to have been long intent on one or two things: First is that my god is better than your god unless we have the same god in which case (second) I am his favorite son.

  11. Avatar
    Wilusa  February 18, 2016

    Since this seems like ridiculous hair-splitting to many people today (and probably would have seemed ridiculous to the *laity* in Constantine’s time!), do you think novelist Dan Brown knew what the argument was really about, but used dramatic license to give his readers something more interesting?

    Or was he “off” about so many other things that it’s likely he hadn’t bothered to do much research? (I never did read his book. I read your rebuttal, but so long ago that I don’t remember details.)

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2016

      I’m not really sure which it was! He was ignorant about a lot of other things he didn’t look into (the geography of Paris and London, for example); so I’m just not sure.

  12. Avatar
    rivercrowman  February 18, 2016

    Consider for mailbag: Bart, what would Christianity look like today if Arius and his followers had won out?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2016

      My sense is that at the end of the day, it wouldn’t look much different! But it’s worth thinking about.

      • Rick
        Rick  February 19, 2016

        Pardon a second post but…. I had to wonder if the Jews had said, gee neat yes you win he was the Messiah and he’ll come back someday With no deed for escalating christologies the whole thing might have died out.

  13. Avatar
    Stephen  February 18, 2016

    Prod Ehrman

    Seeing as how it’s usually the winners who get to write the histories, does there survive an account of the Council of Nicaea written from the Arian point of view?


    • Bart
      Bart  February 18, 2016

      Now *that* would be great. I wish Arius had written something up for us!

  14. Avatar
    timber84  February 18, 2016

    Where does the Holy Spirit fit into Arius’ view of God. If Christ was created by God the Father, was the Holy Spirit created after Christ?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 21, 2016

      Yup! But I don’t think Arius talked much about the Spirit.

  15. Avatar
    bobnaumann  February 22, 2016

    Didn’t Arius suffer a rather untimely and curious death?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 23, 2016

      Not sure that he did….

      • Avatar
        bobnaumann  February 23, 2016

        “It was then Saturday, and Arius was expecting to assemble with the church on the day following: but divine retribution overtook his daring criminalities. For going out of the imperial palace, attended by a crowd of Eusebian partisans like guards, he paraded proudly through the midst of the city, attracting the notice of all the people. As he approached the place called Constantine’s Forum, where the column of porphyry is erected, a terror arising from the remorse of conscience seized Arius, and with the terror a violent relaxation of the bowels: he therefore enquired whether there was a convenient bathroom nearby, and being directed to the back of Constantine’s Forum, he hastened thither. Soon after a faintness came over him, and together with the evacuations his bowels protruded, followed by a copious hemorrhage, and the descent of the smaller intestines: moreover portions of his spleen and liver were brought off in the effusion of blood, so that he almost immediately died. The scene of this catastrophe still is shown at Constantinople, as I have said, behind the shambles in the colonnade: and by persons going by pointing the finger at the place, there is a perpetual remembrance preserved of this extraordinary kind of death.”
        The Ecclesiastical Histories of Socrates Scholastics

        Some saw this a divine retribution for the world’s worse heretic but it is more likely that Arius was poisoned.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 24, 2016

          Thanks for this — I’m sure others on the blog will find it lively reading! But yes, when I said I didn’t know if Arius had an awful and premature ending, I meant that I’m not sure we can trust the (anti-Arian) sources on the matter. The account in Socrates is comparable to what you find about the death of Herod in Acts, the death of Judas in Papias, the death of Galerius in Lactantius, and so on. Historians tend to look on these “divine judgment on the enemy” death narratives as problematic.

  16. Avatar
    jbjbjbjbjb  April 25, 2016

    Hi all.
    Dr Ehrman I believe we already discussed the implications of not defining our terms regarding G-o-d; I suggested that most folk listening to you will not be defining G-o-d as “a divine being”. You do this discussing John’s christology and I now see you do it with Arius too. That’s a confusing tactic, because ” a divine being” is **not** how most folk would define, or even understand you saying G-o-d. If you mean “a divine being” then please just say that from the start, consistently. It almost seems like currying some favour with the evangelical crowd regarding John. Since I know that you have some issues with their approach at times and perhaps a certain narrow mindedness, I doubt that is the case, I am just saying it almost seems like that. I would not be so public about this complaint if I had not tried to share it privately first!

    My second comment concerns the argument of God becoming a Father requiring the impossible situation that the unchangeable One changed. That seems like a non sequitur. Yhwh can be shown to have had different states with regard to his creation. If creation hasn’t always been then he hasn’t always been creator. He hasn’t perpetually had some kind of mind-state of wrath, but he has definitely, biblically been wrathful…. And then not again. Yhwh sometimes moves about. Most significantly, however, and most probably won’t agree with this, I don’t think we can say that Yhwh himself has always been God. By this I mean that God is a title, with respect to a **people**. Yhwh is **Israel’s** God, etc. Before all time and space, Yhwh wasn’t anyone’s God. Look forward to any responses 🙂

    • Avatar
      jbjbjbjbjb  September 3, 2016

      oh well!

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  September 3, 2016

      When you say most people would not define God as “a divine being, ” is your point that they would define God as “THE divine being”?

  17. Avatar
    Naphtali  November 12, 2017

    Greetings Mr. Bart. Peace to your House. In seeking, I came upon you blog, and I am grateful for your historical account on the positions of Arius and Alexander.
    Today more than ever as I can recall, there is evangelical emphasis on Jesus being God, which has again ignited the conscience of Bible scholars to grapple with explaining to themselves the apparent mystery of Him Jesus also being the Son of God and Son of man.
    It was foreseen and controversial even then when in Paul’s day he was moved to write to Timothy:
    “And beyond controversy, great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory”. – 1 Timothy 3:16 http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1Timothy3:16&version=KJ21

    However the debate should not be seen as one fostering heresy, but rather a genuine search for truth, especially for those who seek to preach sound and accurate doctrine.
    It is to be noted that the Church of Christ is founded upon the confession of Peter, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.
    However although I conclude that we are looking at th ‘different sides of the same coin’, the book of Revelation is most revealing on the issue Of the Divinity of Jesus.
    The same worship given to the Father is given to the Lamb. Jesus is the lamp, the tabernacle, and the Father is the light of the lamp. JESUS is called the root and offspring of David, and both He and the Father are called The Alpha and the Omega.
    This is the progressive revelation of Jesus Christ, God’s revelation to man in and through the man Jesus, whom He has given a name above every name in Heaven and on earth. I pray as we study God will reveal Himself to those who genuinely seek Him.

  18. Avatar
    bmonaghan  June 20, 2020

    “If that’s true, though, then God, who is completely perfect, can never change. But if you say that in eternity past God begot his Son, that would mean that at that point he had become a Father. But if he “became” a Father that would mean that he changed Therefore God could never have become a Father.”

    Is this your own argument or did Alexander use something similar? Curious because it is easy to dispute. For example, let’s assume that in the beginning right and left don’t exist. God is just one-handed. Later on, the opposite of one-handedness comes into being, let’s call it righthandedness. Because God is one-handed and it’s opposite is right handed, then therefore God must now be left handed. But has God changed? No. His nature remains the same. The same with his becoming a father. This is a relationship, it doesn’t alter his essense. I can become a father and never even know it.

    I realize this is nonsensical as the whole doctrine argument was. My personal belief is that the church adopted Alexanders/Athanasius’ position because it resembled Aurelian’s view of the Godhead Sol, something Constantine was familiar with.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 21, 2020

      Yes, it’s an ancient argument. I don’t quite see how your analogy works. God doesn’t have hands for these people, and so wasn’t right-handed, left-handed, or no-handed. As to your interesting viwe about Sol — do you have some reasons for thinking that Christian bishops or even Constantine would have been influenced by the pagan views of a particular emperor living some decades earlier?

You must be logged in to post a comment.