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TEXT: John 1:1,14
SUBJECT: Heresies #3: Arianism
Today is the third Sunday afternoon of the month and time for another lecture on Heresy. I chose the word, lecture, carefully because I don't anyone to say I preach heresy: I don't, but I study it because God uses it to sharpen our thinking and raise our commitment to the
"Faith that was once for all
delivered to the saints".
"Heresy"-let me remind you-is a serious doctrinal error that occurs in the Church. Two terms need underlining: serious and in the Church. Not every mistake in theology is heresy, but only those that overthrow a primary doctrine and put souls in jeopardy. Not every false teaching is heresy. For 300 years, the deadliest error in the world was the Deity of Caesar; all Romans (but the Jews) had to confess on pain of death,
"Caesar is Lord".
Although the doctrine is wrong, wicked, and brings damnation on those who believe it, it is not heresy, because it comes from outside the Church and not from within.
Thus far, we've looked at two heresies that plagued the Early Church, Judaism and Gnosticism.
Judaism is somewhat based on the Bible, but it errs in reading it as though Jesus Christ had not come or that His coming had had no effect on the Old Covenant. Its teachers, therefore, kept emphasizing things like circumcision, dietary laws, the Jewish Calendar, and so on, as necessary for salvation (or, at least for pleasing God). This seems relatively innocent to us, until we read Paul's take on it. He says it is so bad that if anyone preaches it-including himself or an angel from heaven,
"Let him be accursed!"
Gnosticism, on the other hand, was based almost entirely on pagan speculation-hardly a scrap of Bible can be found in it (except for a few "proof texts" tacked on to fool the foolish). This doctrine, too, was powerfully refuted in the Bible, especially in the Epistles of John.
The heresy we'll look at today borrows from both the Bible and paganism (especially Greek philosophy). It's named after its founder who lived from 256 to 336 A.D. The heresy is called Arianism
Not all heresies are created equal. All are wrong and wicked, of course, but some are worse than others. Arianism-it seems to me-is the worst heresy in the History of the Church. And it's not just I who feels this way. Its founder was called the "Heresiarch" which means something like The King of Heretics. As we move along, I hope you can see why.
Arianism can be dated as far back as 318 A.D. Its leading teacher was a pastor in Marc's hometown, of Alexandria, Egypt. The Bishop of that city was a man named Alexander, who-some say-was mistaken on the doctrine of the Trinity. Though affirming the full divinity of Christ, it seems he may have blended the Three Persons of the Godhead and not made it clear that though each is God, the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is not the Father. We can't be sure about this.
But that's what Arius got out of his teaching. He could not square what he heard from the pulpit with what he read in the Bible. Anyone who has read the Gospels would know there is an I--Thou relationship between Jesus Christ and God the Father.
The Lord Jesus prayed to the Father, depended on the Father, obeyed the Father, and committed His Spirit into the hands of His Father. Father and Son, therefore, are not the same Person. That's how Arius reasoned-and quite correctly.
Had he stopped here, Arius might have become a hero of the Faith. But he was too proud and stubborn to stick with what he knew. He went on to things he didn't understand and ended up with the most God dishonoring heresy ever known to man.
What's worse, he was so brilliant and charming that Arius nearly convinced the whole Church to follow him in his wicked doctrine. For a time, he convinced the Emperor and most of the bishops of the Eastern Church. It got so bad that his chief opponent-another man from Alexandria, named Athanasius, was told the whole world is against him. To which he replied,
Athanasius Contra Mundum.
"Athanasius against the world".
Arius' teaching was condemned by the Council of Nicea in 325, but he and his followers had no quit in them. It kept coming up again and again in the Early Church. It popped up again in the Reformation; it nearly destroyed the Church in the 19th Century; and is still with us today in various forms of Modernism and the one you know best: the Jehovah's Witnesses.
THE BIG IDEA
What is the big idea of Arianism? Let the founder speak for himself. Referring to the Lord Jesus Christ, Arius said
"There was a time when He was not".
Do you get what he's saying? He's saying Jesus Christ is not eternal. Which means: Jesus Christ is not God.
If He is not God, what is He? Arius had an answer for this, too. Jesus Christ is
"The firstborn of every creature".
Does that ring a bell with you? It ought to because it is straight out of the Bible, Colossians 1:15 to be exact. Paul-not Arius-called the Lord Jesus Christ the firstborn of every creature. Thus-Arius, not Paul-argues Jesus Christ is the first and greatest being God ever made-but He is not God.
Do you have an answer to that? You've got until the next Jehovah's Witness knocks on your door to find one. In addition to the one verse, Arius cites the Bible doctrine that there is One God only and that God is not a man. How do you argue with that? Many verses say just these things-and they're not weird verses hidden away in some obscure genealogy (like The Prayer of Jabez). Here's a small sample:
"Hear, O Israel, the LORD your God is
"You shall have no other gods before Me".
"I am God and not man."
"God is not a man."
It is much easier to quote verses in favor of the Divinity of Christ than to explain those that seem to deny it. So, what do we say about the verses? How about, "John 1:1 is truer than Colossians 1:15"? Does that satisfy you? If it doesn't why would you expect a Jehovah's Witness to take that for an answer?
We'll get back to this in a few minutes. But, for now, let me tell you how Arius was answered in his own time.
Although many opposed Arius, the man who finally beat him was Athanasius (a name you need to know in Church History). He offered two arguments (and, believe you me, I wouldn't want to be on the other end of them!).
The first came from the Bible itself. He put it in the form of a syllogism:
His second argument came from the universal practice of the Church:
Arius and his people were not satisfied with the arguments. But they were refuted by them. The only way out of the arguments is to say that:
They couldn't do that and call themselves Christians-even in the loosest way possible. But they should have known this from the start. John said,
"Whoever denies the Son does not
have the Father either".
You can deny the Divinity of Christ and be a very religious person. But you cannot do it and be a Christian. God put the two together and,
"That which God hath joined,
let no man put asunder".
In time, the Church came to accept the teachings of Athanasius, and immortalized them in the old creeds, one of which reads,
"I believe in One Lord Jesus Christ, the only-
begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father
before all ages, God of God, Light of Light,
very God of very God, begotten not made,
being of one substance with the Father."
Although many Christians have never heard of the Nicene Creed (325), every one of us agrees with it. The baby born in a manger and the man nailed to a cross is God Almighty.
If this all seems like splitting hairs to you, let me remind you of what's at stake in the Divinity of Christ. If Jesus is a man and not God, the only way He can save us is by His teaching or example which we have to obey or follow. This means salvation is by works. Which is exactly what the Jehovah's Witnesses believe-and the Muslims too!
Arianism antedates Islam by 300 years, of course, but if you think about it, you'll see they have a lot in common. Both believe in One God who has a Special Servant who can bring us to heaven if we obey his commands and follow his example.
Christianity-on the other hand-says there is One God who joined the human race in Jesus Christ, and by His atoning death wipes out our guilt and earns a place in glory-for us.
Having said all this, let's go back to the verse and the doctrines Arius used to show that Jesus is not God.
The verse is Colossians 1:15 that calls Christ "The firstborn of every creature". How do we answer this?
We start off by saying born and created are not the same thing. By calling Him the Father's Firstborn, Paul is separating Christ from other beings who are but created by God.
Secondly, Firstborn is sometimes used in the Bible to mean Heir. Thus, the verse can be understood to mean our Lord Jesus Christ is the heir of all things (which agrees with the rest of the Bible).
Thirdly, the verses around Colossians 1:15 assign to the Lord Jesus Christ the attributes, works, and worth of God. He is "Before all things"-that is, not part of the creation and thus, eternal. He "created all things"-see Genesis 1:1 for Who did that. And, "All things were made for Him"-that is, He is worthy to receive all the honor, glory, riches, etc.
As for the doctrine that God is not a man, we agree entirely. No one ever said that a mere man was God. No, what Christians have always said-and what the Bible teaches-is that in Christ, God joined a human nature to His Divine Nature. In other words,
"The Word was made flesh".
TO DO LIST
Let me close with a short to-do list. These doctrines are not the easiest things in the world to understand. People who abhor Arius are sometimes prone to Gnosticism-a heresy just as bad, that is in affirming the Deity of Christ, they deny or downplay His full humanity.
How do we become more discerning? Much can be said here, but here are three suggestions:
That may sound funny, but if the Christians had done that long ago, Arius might have been stopped long before he tore up the Church. Being a smart and cunning man, Arius often said true things about the Lord-how holy He was, how brave, how kind and loving, how God was with Him, and so on. But in all these true things, Arius left out some things. And the omissions were deadly.
This speaks for itself. Not every heretic is as obvious as Arius was. And many quote the Bible right and left and profess a deep reverence for it. But to know truth from error, you've got to study the Bible and think for yourself under the Lordship of Christ.
This is likely to be misunderstood. Only the Bible is the Word of God and infallible! But, having said this, let me remind you that you're not the only one who has read the Bible. It belongs to the Whole Church. And, although the Creeds are not inspired of God, they are the fruit of long study and discussion. Respect doesn't mean to follow them blindly. But if you have to go against them, you be sure it's really for what the Bible teaches, and not what popped into your head five minutes ago or what you heard on the radio as you dozed off last night.
That's Arianism and what to do about it. God give us the grace to love Christ enough to stand up for Him in the world. Amen.
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