Historians are pretty clear that the Christian Church in the first three centuries was firmly Trinitarian. Whatever difficulties there were in understanding the Trinity and relations within it that there was one God who was in some sense three seems to have been established orthodoxy; God, who was One, was God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. It is all the more remarkable that a presbyter from Alexandria, called Arius, began to teach that in fact Jesus was not God. God the Son he insisted was a created being, he had a beginning, there was a time when he ‘was not’.
What made Arius veer so radically from already established beliefs of Trinitarianism? What led him to adopt beliefs that resulted in him being branded as a heretic and excommunicated as such? And can we learn from him how to avoid heresy ourselves?
Arius made three cardinal errors.
- He was too readily influenced by the cultural assumptions of his age.
Alexandria lay in the East of the Roman Empire (in Egypt). The East was heavily influenced by Greek culture. The prevailing paradigm of the culture was platonic. That is, it viewed God as too far above the material and created world to be involved in it. The created world of matter was inferior and evil. For professing Christians beguiled by this cultural assumption this meant one of two things, either Jesus was not truly human or he was not truly God. Gnostics of the C2 decided he was not truly human, while Arius, at the end of the C2 decided he was not truly divine.
The point for us to note is that a strongly established cultural belief trumped for many the established teaching of the Bible and the early church that Jesus was both human and divine. The lesson for us to learn is that in any given age the accepted cultural values of the age are often a threat to faith. In our own age we need only consider our culture’s strong commitment to pluralism and egalitarianism and the strain these put on orthodox belief to see how cultural orthodoxy when adopted by Christians leads to Church heresy. It is worth observing that the cultural orthodoxy of Arius’ world (that matter is evil) seems bizarre in our world today. Arius and the gnostics are a lesson in the folly of marrying your beliefs to cultural norms… these norms eventually change and seem foolish.
- He placed too much confidence in human logic.
Arius reasoned that if Christ was the Son of God there was a time when he did not exist. If he was the ‘only-begotten’ he must have had a beginning, an origin and so he could not be God. Any biblical revelation that suggested he was the Son of God and himself God must be re-interpreted for it failed at the bar of reason: if he is a Son he had a beginning and was therefore created.
For our purposes just now it is not important to explore in detail the faults in Arius’ logic. Sufficient to say Arius was assuming that what is true of human Father/Son relationships that exist in time must be the same for the divine Father/Son relationship that existed outside of time. He did not see that Father/Son in God is to do with relationship not the chronology that belongs to time.
Over and over again heresy in the church can be sourced to placing the power of human reason above the plain teaching of biblical revelation. Christian truth is based on revelation and where revelation and apparent logic come into conflict the Christian submits to revelation. Revelation is reliable but logic is not.
In every age this is a problem for those professing Christians intoxicated by the power of autonomous reason. For them their trust in the potency of reason is likely to lead to heresy. And the greater the mind the more subtle and dangerous the heresy. Christians need to remember that the human mind is fallen. They need to grasp that at the cross independent human reasoning is crucified and that in resurrection and new life the reborn mind and reason is one that submits to what God has revealed. A man in his right minds hears God in Christ, God’s revealed Word (logos) or reason and accepts him as true wisdom and knowledge.
Arius lived in a Greek culture that treated human reasoning and logic more or less idolatrously. Greek culture prided itself on the power of reason. Since the Enlightenment, Europe and the West has had the same idolatrous confidence in the power of the mind and reason. When Christians buy into this intellectual hubris, heresy is the result.
- He used Scripture selectively
Arianism would not have found a foothold had Arius not been able to cite Scripture to apparently support his position. Christians are not silly. Heresy only gets a grip because it is plausible. It is able to appeal to Scripture and persuade the unwary that it has the support of Scripture. Arius could point to texts such as ‘the Father is greater than I’ (Jn 14:28) or Colossians where we read theat Christ is ‘the firstborn over all creation’ (Col 1:15). Texts such as these, and his trust in his own logic, and the assumptions of his culture enabled him to dismiss or reinterpret a myriad of other texts that pointed to Christ’s deity. In such ways heresy is born.
Heresy always is the result of a few Scriptures privileged in such a way as discounts the weight of others. It inevitably means the selective use of Scripture to beguile the credulous.
We need only look at the way the powerful cultural force of egalitarianism coupled with human logic and a smattering of de-contextualized verses in Scripture enables many to disregard a biblical patriarchy that is crystal clear, and to unabashedly assert a biblical egalitarianism as gospel despite indisputable evidence to the contrary, to see just how stupefying a cocktail, culture, logic and a few Scriptures can be. The same cocktail in cultural resistance to physical punishment, faulty logic about violence, and a sleight of hand with Scripture, and voilà, the cross is no longer a substitutionary penal sacrifice. The list can go on.
Arius is a lesson to us. We can either do what many did then and embrace the trendy new ideas that added a spice of controversy and fed the lust for ‘some new thing’. Or we can do what others did and try to find a compromise, a fudge that all could subscribe to and would mean different things to different people. Or we can decide that its fine for all to believe whatever they wish for truth is not really so important anyway; you can have ‘your truth’ and I can have mine and the bible is so vague we can all believe what we like. Or we can take the unpopular route; the route that says there are non-negotiable beliefs which if denied label the denier a heretic and demand his excommunication.
This latter view is considered the ultimate heresy by many today. It is, however, the most basic and clearest of biblical truths and if we evangelicals do not learn to apply it when appropriate, then evangelicalism will simply slide into whole scale apostasy. It will become a devilish parody of its former self.
How susceptible are you to cultural values? Is autonomous reason or revelation your ultimate authority? Are you tempted to use Scripture selectively to justify your predilections? If you are inclined in these directions you may be open to heresy.