Imagine that you were a Christian during the Great Persecution of 303-313 AD. Your pastor and most other leaders in your local church are in prison or have been executed. Biblical manuscripts and pastors’ sermons are destroyed. Church members are not allowed to meet on threat of arrest. The government confiscated your property. You lost your livelihood and have no way to earn a living. People you used to think were loyal friends have turned in Christians to save themselves from government persecution. You are always in fear of being hauled before a judge to face the charge of being a Christian. You have seen countless family members and friends arrested, imprisoned, tortured and many killed. The last ten years have been the toughest of your life. You may even wonder if Christianity will continue to exist with the Roman Empire doing its best to destroy it.
Now imagine that it’s 313 AD and you hear about the Edict of Milan. Roman emperors Constantine I and Licinius agreed to grant all people freedom to worship any deity they chose. You find out that your legal rights are being returned to you, as well as the property taken from you during the Persecution. You can return to your home. You can go back to work to earn a living. You can raise your family in safety. You can worship God with other Christians openly. Church leaders can preach the Gospel of Christ without fear of arrest, torture and death.
What would you think about such an edict?
313 AD must have been a great time of relief for many Christians. It was also a challenging time with Christians trying to sort out what had happened to them during the Great Persecution. Who would lead local churches after so many bishops, pastors and deacons had been tortured and killed? How would faithful Christians deal with believers who had lapsed in their faith and turned other believers in to authorities to save themselves? It was a challenging and turbulent time for the Church.
[Podcast version at the end of this post.]
4th Century Heresies
Another challenge that took center stage during the early part of the 4th century concerned non-Trinitarian teachings about Jesus Christ. Some of them had been around for decades.
These heresies are sometimes known as Trinitarian/Christological heresies because they address variant views of Christ’s nature. Was Jesus eternal or created? Was He God and Man? God or man? Man who became God? Was Jesus equal to the Father and the Holy Spirit or subordinate to the Father? Were the Father, Son and Spirit the same Person? Were they of the same “essence”?
John the Apostle addressed one of the earliest heresies about Jesus in his first epistle – that Jesus had not come in the flesh.
“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world.” 1 John 4:1-3
John linked believing that Jesus had not come in the flesh to false prophets and the spirit of “the Antichrist.” That’s pretty strong language coming from an apostle of Christ.
John also wrote this about Jesus coming in the flesh –
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14
And this –
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life— the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us— that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.” 1 John 1:1-3
The apostles Peter and Paul also made strong claims concerning the physical nature of Christ –
“Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind, for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.” 1 Peter 4:1
“… concerning His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the seed of David according to the flesh, and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.” Romans 1:3-4
“And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh, Justified in the Spirit, Seen by angels, Preached among the Gentiles, Believed on in the world, Received up in glory.” 1 Timothy 3:16
One of the earliest heresies about the physical nature of Christ that we know by name is Docetism. The word came from the Greek word dókēsis (δόκησις), which means “apparition, phantom.” Docetics believed that Jesus only seemed to be human and that His human form was an illusion – Jesus only appeared to have a body of flesh.
Some of the other early Church heresies viewed God as having adopted Jesus at some point during Christ’s life because of obedience to God (Adoptionism, Dynamic Monarchianism, Ebionism), that the names Father and Son were only different designations for the one God (Modalistic Monarchianism, Sabellianism), that God the Father suffered as the Son (Patripassianism), and that Jesus was subordinate to the Father (Arianism).
Eusebius, who became bishop of Caesarea after the Edict of Milan, was drawn toward one of those heresies – specifically that of Arianism. He supported Arius at the beginning of the disagreement, but eventually voted against Arius as we’ll see later in our study.
Arius was a church leader from Libya. He lived during the late 3rd and early 4th centuries. Arius became known for taking a theological position in the absolute oneness of God with a view of Jesus Christ as being important in God’s plan, but not equal with God. Arius wrote Thalia (Banquet) which presented his position.
First, about God –
” … And so God Himself, as he really is, is inexpressible to all. He alone has no equal, no one similar, and no one of the same glory. We call him unbegotten, in contrast to him who by nature is begotten. We praise him as without beginning in contrast to him who has a beginning. We worship him as timeless, in contrast to him who in time has come to exist.
God is wise, for he himself is the teacher of Wisdom – Sufficient proof that God is invisible to all: He is is invisible both to things which were made through the Son, and also to the Son himself.”
Next, about Jesus Christ –
“He who is without beginning made the Son a beginning of created things. He produced him as a son for himself by begetting him. He [the son] has none of the distinct characteristics of God’s own being For he is not equal to, nor is he of the same being as him.”
In brief, God is inexpressible to the Son. For he is in himself what he is, that is, indescribable, So that the son does not comprehend any of these things or have the understanding to explain them. For it is impossible for him to fathom the Father, who is by himself. For the Son himself does not even know his own essence, For being Son, his existence is most certainly at the will of the Father.
So, what was Arius’ position on the Trinity?
“So there is a Triad, not in equal glories. Their beings are not mixed together among themselves. As far as their glories, one infinitely more glorious than the other. The Father in his essence is foreign to the Son, because he exists without beginning.”
[Read more of Thalia in Greek and English]
Arius’ position became a popular view with many Christians and church leaders of the early 4th century.
Enter Athanasius of Alexandria. He was a leader of the church in Alexandria in the early part of the 4th century and eventually became its bishop after the death of Alexander about 328AD.
The disagreement with Arius began when Alexander was bishop of the North African church and Athanasius was his chief assistant. Alexander preached that Jesus was equal with the Father and the Holy Spirit. That led Arius, a presbyter in Alexander’s diocese, to declare that “If the Father begat the Son, then he who was begotten had a beginning in existence, and from this it follows there was a time when the Son was not.”
Some historians believe that Athanasius wrote or at least helped write Alexander’s response to Arius in 320 or 321 AD. That fits with Athanasius’ position as chief deacon and secretary to Alexander.
Here is a portion of that response.
[Note that the Eusebius mentioned in the response is Eusebius of Nicodemia, not Eusebius of Caesarea.]
“Now there are gone forth in this diocese, at this time, certain lawless men, enemies of Christ, teaching an apostasy, which one may justly suspect and designate as a forerunner of Antichrist. I was desirous to pass such a matter by without notice, in the hope that perhaps the evil would spend itself among its supporters, and not extend to other places to defile the ears of the simple. But seeing that Eusebius, now of Nicomedia, who thinks that the government of the Church rests with him, because retribution has not come upon him for his desertion of Berytus, when he had cast an eye of desire on the Church of the Nicomedians, begins to support these apostates, and has taken upon him to write letters every where in their behalf, if by any means he may draw in certain ignorant persons to this most base and antichristian heresy; I am therefore constrained, knowing what is written in the law, no longer to hold my peace, but to make it known to you all; that you may understand who the apostates are, and the cavils which their heresy has adopted, and that, should Eusebius write to you, you may pay no attention to him, for he now desires by means of these men to exhibit anew his old malevolence, which has so long been concealed, pretending to write in their favour, while in truth it clearly appears, that he does it to forward his own interests.
Now those who became apostates are these, Arius, Achilles, Aeithales, Carpones, another Arius, and Sarmates, sometime Presbyters: Euzoïus, Lucius, Julius, Menas, Helladius, and Gaius, sometime Deacons: and with them Secundus and Theonas, sometime called Bishops. And the novelties they have invented and put forth contrary to the Scriptures are these following:—God was not always a Father, but there was a time when God was not a Father. The Word of God was not always, but originated from things that were not; for God that is, has made him that was not, of that which was not; wherefore there was a time when He was not; for the Son is a creature and a work. Neither is He like in essence to the Father; neither is He the true and natural Word of the Father; neither is He His true Wisdom; but He is one of the things made and created, and is called the Word and Wisdom by an abuse of terms, since He Himself originated by the proper Word of God, and by the Wisdom that is in God, by which God has made not only all other things but Him also. Wherefore He is by nature subject to change and variation as are all rational creatures. And the Word is foreign from the essence of the Father, and is alien and separated therefrom. And the Father cannot be described by the Son, for the Word does not know the Father perfectly and accurately, neither can He see Him perfectly. Moreover, the Son knows not His own essence as it really is; for He is made for us, that God might create us by Him, as by an instrument; and He would not have existed, had not God wished to create us. Accordingly, when some one asked them, whether the Word of God can possibly change as the devil changed, they were not afraid to say that He can; for being something made and created, His nature is subject to change.” Deposition of Arius
Alexander and Athanasius then explained some of the background into the disagreement that had apparently gone on for some time prior to Arius’ deposition along with their Scriptural position for the Deity of Jesus Christ –
“Now when Arius and his fellows made these assertions, and shamelessly avowed them, we being assembled with the Bishops of Egypt and Libya, nearly a hundred in number, anathematized both them and their followers. But Eusebius and his fellows admitted them to communion, being desirous to mingle falsehood with the truth, and impiety with piety. But they will not be able to do so, for the truth must prevail; neither is there any ‘communion of light with darkness,’ nor any ‘concord of Christ with Belial.’ For who ever heard such assertions before? or who that hears them now is not astonished and does not stop his ears lest they should be defiled with such language? Who that has heard the words of John, ‘In the beginning was the Word,’ will not denounce the saying of these men, that ‘there was a time when He was not?’ Or who that has heard in the Gospel, ‘the Only-begotten Son,’ and ‘by Him were all things made,’ will not detest their declaration that He is ‘one of the things that were made.’ For how can He be one of those things which were made by Himself? or how can He be the Only-begotten, when, according to them, He is counted as one among the rest, since He is Himself a creature and a work? And how can He be ‘made of things that were not,’ when the Father saith, ‘My heart hath uttered a good Word,’ and ‘Out of the womb I have begotten Thee before the morning star?’ Or again, how is He ‘unlike in substance to the Father,’ seeing He is the perfect ‘image’ and ‘brightness’ of the Father, and that He saith, ‘He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father?’ And if the Son is the ‘Word’ and ‘Wisdom’ of God, how was there ‘a time when He was not?’ It is the same as if they should say that God was once without Word and without Wisdom. And how is He ‘subject to change and variation,’ Who says, by Himself, ‘I am in the Father, and the Father in Me,’ and ‘I and the Father are One;’ and by the Prophet, ‘Behold Me, for I am, and I change not?’ For although one may refer this expression to the Father, yet it may now be more aptly spoken of the Word, viz., that though He has been made man, He has not changed; but as the Apostle has said, ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever.’ And who can have persuaded them to say, that He was made for us, whereas Paul writes, ‘for Whom are all things, and by Whom are all things?’
As to their blasphemous position that ‘the Son knows not the Father perfectly,’ we ought not to wonder at it; for having once set themselves to fight against Christ, they contradict even His express words, since He says, ‘As the Father knoweth Me, even so know I the Father.’ Now if the Father knows the Son but in part, then it is evident that the Son does not know the Father perfectly; but if it is not lawful to say this, but the Father does know the Son perfectly, then it is evident that as the Father knows His own Word, so also the Word knows His own Father Whose Word He is.” Deposition of Arius
What did it mean that Alexander and the others listed on the Deposition had “anathematized both them and their followers”? It means they “cursed” Arius and his followers. This was a very serious step with the Church then and is now as well.
The Apostle Paul used the word anathema (ἀνάθεμα) at the end of his first epistle to the Corinthians –
“If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema.” KJV
“If anyone does not love the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be accursed.” NKJV
“If anyone does not love the Lord, let that person be cursed!” NIV
He also used the word in his epistle to the Galatians –
“But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.” Galatians 1:8-9
Alexander and those who signed the Deposition with him were saying that Arius and his followers were “accursed.” Here is some of what that meant –
“And we have made this known to your piety, dearly beloved and most honoured fellow-ministers, in order that should any of them have the boldness to come unto you, you may not receive them, nor comply with the desire of Eusebius, or any other person writing in their behalf. For it becomes us who are Christians to turn away from all who speak or think any thing against Christ, as being enemies of God, and destroyers of souls; and not even to ‘bid such God speed,’ lest we become partakers of their sins, as the blessed John hath charged us.” Deposition of Arius
The Deposition did not end the disagreement concerning the Deity of Christ – far from it. In the next part of our series we will look at where this led and how it ended.
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Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.