21 December 2021

Arianism: One God—and Jesus isn’t quite him.

ARIAN 'ɛr.i.ən adjective. Believes God is one being, one person, not three; and that both Jesus and the Holy Spirit are created beings and lesser gods.
[Arianism 'ɛr.i.ən.ɪz.əm noun.]

I’ve written on unitarian beliefs—namely how there’s one God, but contrary to how he’s been revealed in the New Testament, certain folks insist God’s not a trinity. Now, pagans and other monotheists don’t bother with the New Testament, so of course they don’t believe in trinity. But Christians do have the NT and claim to abide by it… and yet some of us still don’t believe in trinity. We call these folks heretics. (And of course they’d call us heretics, and round and round we go.)

One of the first major anti-trinitarian heresies Christians bumped into, is Arianism—a word pronounced the same, but is not the same, as the white-supremacist view Aryanism. It’s named for Áreios of Alexandria (c. 250-336), a Christian elder—or in Roman Catholic thinking, a priest. In Latin he’s Arius, and that’s usually what he’s called in history books. Arianism is based on Áreios’s insistence Jesus isn’t YHWH. He’s a second god, created by the Almighty, who does godlike things, but he’s not the God, but a lesser god. ’Cause God’s not a trinity.

You gotta understand where Áreios was coming from. When you read the gospels, Jesus is clearly a different person than his Father. His Father is God, Jn 8.54 and the usual, natural conclusion you’d come to is that God’s one person, and Jesus is another. Which is true! The hard part is the idea God is more than one person, and for Áreios and other Arians, that’s an impossible part.

Thing is, in the scriptures there are verses which bluntly state Jesus is God. Jn 1.1, Pp 2.5, What’d Áreios do with them? Simple: He allowed that Jesus must be a god. But not the God.

You gotta also understand where Áreios came from. Third-century Egypt was predominantly pagan and polytheist. They believed in Egyptian gods, Greek gods, Roman gods, and any other gods which sounded worth their time. Christianity, in contrast, is monotheistic: One God, and all the other gods are probably demons. The idea of trinity—of Jesus and the Holy Spirit being God exactly the same as the Father is God—rubbed Áreios the wrong way. To him it sounded way too much like weird gnostic polytheism. But two gods?—he could live with two gods.

Áreios was hardly the first to believe this. But he was the first to successfully spread the idea around. Largely through the use of catchy worship songs which taught his theology. Here’s a bit from his song “Thalia,” quoted by then-deacon (and Áreios’s chief critic) Athanásios of Alexandria. De Synodis 15. My translation:

The First One made the Son—the first thing he created.
He made the Son himself, giving birth to him.
Who doesn’t have any of God’s being nor uniqueness,
For he’s not the same. He’s not the same stuff as him.

The lyrics don’t sound all that catchy to me, but the music must’ve been way better.

Hence for a while there in the early 300s, Arianism was rapidly becoming the main form of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Even the emperor, Flavius Constantinus, had become Arian.

Okay. You might be going, “Why on earth are you writing about a 17-century-old heresy? Those people got condemned by the ancient Christians and died out.” And man alive would you be dead wrong. Arians are everywhere.

Arians among us.

Fr’instance Jehovah’s Witnesses are definitely Arian. Latter-day Saints get accused of it, but they’re way more complicated than that: They believe the Father was also created at one point, by his god, who’s somehow not our god. (But let’s not go there today.)

But heretic churches are the more obvious Arians. The less obvious ones are scattered throughout Christendom. These’d be the people in our churches—including your church—who figure because they don’t understand the trinity, they’re not gonna believe in it. So they choose to either believe in modalism, where God is sometimes Jesus just as Batman is sometimes Bruce Wayne; or Arianism.

Arianism keeps popping up. Kept popping up over and over again throughout Christian history, as Christians who don’t understand trinity figured it was just easier to imagine Jesus as a second, lesser god. Especially if they came out of a religion with multiple gods—much like Christians who used to be Hindu or Yoruba or Wiccan.

Often we can detect ’em because they’re uncomfortable with any language which makes it obvious Jesus is God. They really object to the idea of God becoming human. Or God dying on the cross for our sins. Or Mary being God’s mother. Or otherwise wanna avoid trinitarian language ’cause “it’s confusing.” Nine times out of 10 we’re dealing with a closet Arian.

Likewise sexists who wanna claim the Son is subordinate to the Father, instead of essentially every way like the Father. They may claim they believe in trinity, but the whole point of trinity is equal persons. Introduce levels and ranks and bosses, and they’re not equal persons anymore; the Father becomes the One God, and the Son and Spirit become lesser gods. Call him a trinity as much as you like, but a hierarchy is not a trinity.

So I’m not bringing up Arianism for no good reason. If we mistakenly put Arians into any position of authority, their beliefs are gonna turn into teachings, mislead people, and damage relationships same as the sexists are doing with their beliefs about subordination. Damage relationships with God, and damage relationships with one another by claiming “Oh, we’re just doing as God does” as an excuse to not practice love.

But unlike Christians throughout history, I’m not interested in demonizing Áreios. He was wrong. Still, we gotta understand where he was coming from. And thanks to him, Christians finally had to make some definite statements about trinity and orthodoxy. Thanks to Áreios we have the Nicene Creed. So, some improvements in the long run.

Áreios’s teachings.

Jesus is the only-begotten son of God. Jn 3.16 KJV Thing is, when “begetting” refers to humans and our kids, it means we made our kids: The children didn’t previously exist, but after their parents had sex (or otherwise fertilized an ovum), now they do. Understandably Áreios figured if that’s how the son of God is described, he must’ve been made. Not necessarily sexually, like Zeus made his kids; again, we’re back to how one otherwise fertilizes an ovum. But that’s what “beget” means, right?

No, not necessarily. I refer you to the beginning of John: The Son wasn’t begotten like that.

John 1.1-5 KWL
1 The word’s in the beginning. The word’s with God. The word is God.
2 He’s in the beginning with God. 3 Everything came to be through him.
Nothing that exists came to be without him. 4 What came to be through him, was life.
Life’s the light of humanity. 5 Light shines in darkness, and darkness can’t get hold of it.

No surprise, Arians have an answer to that: The word (i.e. the Son) only has the honorary title of “God.” You know, like all the “gods” in the Old Testament who aren’t so much gods as great heavenly powers which serve the One God. The Son created the universe, so functionally he’s like God to us. But he’s not the God, but a god: A subordinate god. God’s vice-president. A demiurge.

They figure the Son was in the beginning, at the Big Bang, and said “Let there be light,” Ge 1.3 and created spacetime. But not the beginning-beginning. Before all that, before the rest of creation, first God created the Son.

To Áreios, God’s unique. Different. Transcendent. Not even Jesus fully understood him; he’s just that awesome. (Not that Áreios claimed he understood the Father better than Jesus; just that the Father’s that much greater than the Son.) The Father’s almighty, all-knowing, perfect, unchangeable… whereas Jesus was limited. That’s how the gospels portray him. Certain things he couldn’t do, didn’t know, and lacked. Áreios figured that lack of almightiness was always true: The Son was always subordinate to the Father. Ergo not the Almighty. Not God.

Not that he is equal to the Father, but for our sake and our salvation he limited himself:

Philippians 2.6-8 KWL
6 Existing in God’s form,
he figured being the same as God wasn’t something to clutch,
7 but poured himself into a slave’s form:
He took on a human likeness.
8 He was born; he was found human in every way.
Being obedient, he humbled himself to death: Death by crucifixion.

If any of these ideas sound familiar—’cause you’ve heard Christians teach them—you can see how there’s still a bit of Arianism here and there in Christianity. It slips in all the time. It’s an attempt to elevate the Father, but it does so at the expense of the Son. And even some trinitarians think it’s okay to do this, ’cause after all Jesus himself honored his Father. But it doesn’t honor the Father to misrepresent his Son.

It’s also an attempt to emphasize God’s oneness. As we should: God’s big on the idea himself. Dt 6.4 But again, it doesn’t honor the One God to say the Son’s not God, or the Holy Spirit’s not God. To treat any person who is God, as less than God.

The Nicene Creed gets it the way the scriptures describe it: Okay, Jesus was begotten. But begotten isn’t the same as made. Jesus is begotten in that he comes from the Father, who sent him to us. Jn 8.42 But he was never made by the Father; he’s always existed. He’s always been God.

If that’s hard to understand, sorry: That’s all we have. The scriptures don’t go into detail about how God works. That’s why we call it a mystery: God hasn’t explained it yet. Most of the mysteries in the scriptures he has explained; this one he hasn’t. And we need to accept that, and not demand our explanations become the official explanations… and in so doing, go heretic like Áreios.

The Council of Nicea.

Back to Constantinus. He’s a big deal because in 306, he became the first Christian to become an emperor. (At the time he became emperor, the Roman Empire had four co-emperors, but he became sole emperor; we’ll get to that quickly.) Various Christians and historians object he wasn’t all that Christian; and since he was a politician, duh. But he was way more Christian than his predecessors, even though he was Arian.

In 313 he declared the Edict of Milan, which re-established freedom of religion in the empire… and this time included Christianity, and gave Christianity government funding. In 324 he defeated the other three emperors and became sole emperor. He built Hagia Sophia in his capital, New Rome (later Constantinople, now Istanbul, Turkey) to be the primary Christian sanctuary in the empire. He even sent his mom to Israel to find Jesus’s sepulcher, and tried to collect the Twelve’s bodies to inter in Hagia Sophia—though there, he didn’t succeed.

What Constantinus didn’t want was a big fight among Christians as to whether Jesus is God or not. Romans like peace, and Constantine wanted peace in his church. Since one of the emperor's official titles was pontifex maximus/“head priest” (meant to make the emperor the head of Jupiter’s priests, but Constantine figured why couldn’t it apply to Jesus?) he figured he was just the guy to fix the problem. So Constantinus called an ecumenical, or all-church, gathering. It took its precedent from the Council of Jerusalem in Acts. Ac 15.1-35 He called every bishop in the Roman Empire and beyond to come to his imperial palace at Nikéa (or Nicæa, or Nicea), Bithynia, on 20 May 325, and hash things out. Constantinus even sat as the council’s president.

About 1,800 were invited, but only some 318 attended, plus various elders and deacons, including Áreios himself. Arianism wasn’t the only topic discussed, but it was the topic which produced the Nicene Creed, which is one of the foundations of Christian orthodoxy.

Pretty much all Áreios had to do to get condemned was have his books read aloud. Even his supporters couldn't stomach some of his conclusions. Various historians try to make it sound like a long, drawn-out debate between the septugenarian Áreios and his fellow Alexandrian, the 28-year-old Athanásios who later wrote Adversus Arianos/“Against Arians.” Athanásios didn’t have to say much of anything; the obvious contradictions between Áreios and the gospels did all the work of convincing the bishops he was in error. Including 22 of the Arians among them.

All but two of the bishops—who happened to be close friends of Áreios—voted against Arianism, and in favor of the Creed. They signed the Creed on 19 June.

But regardless of the council and Creed, regardless of Constantine’s edict in 333 ordering all Arian books to be burned and possessors executed, Arianism had a resurgence of popularity in the 350s. Two emperors, Constantinus’s son Constantius (ruled 337-61), and Valens (ruled 364-78), were Arian. Arian missionaries evangelized the Goths, Vandals, and Lombards, so most of the Germanic tribes were Arian till it finally fell out of the mainstream in the 700s.


Any Christian who can’t recite the Nicene Creed and honestly mean it, is usually called Arian. Technically they’re not. By definition an Arian is someone who believes only the Father is God, and Jesus and the Holy Spirit aren’t. Whether they believe the Holy Spirit is a person (or a force, as the Jehovah’s Witnesses claim) isn’t the point: It’s the claim God isn’t a trinity, and Jesus is a secondary god.

Like Socinians, the followers of Fausto Sozzini (1539-1604), who don’t believe Jesus is God. They insist he didn’t exist before Mary conceived him. But arguably they’re not really Arian: They don’t believe Jesus is divine at all. Functionally they’re no different than Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, or any other non-Christian monotheist.

I mentioned those Christians who believe the trinity’s a hierarchy. They don’t deny the Son and Spirit are God, but since their hierarchy turns ’em into lesser gods, Christians tend to call ’em semi-Arian: Technically they’re trinitarian, but functionally they treat two persons of the trinity like the Father’s appendages.

Is semi-Arianism heresy? I’d say yes. Other Christians (especially the semi-Arians!) would say no: They haven’t rejected the trinity! But I’d point out they’ve redefined trinity till it’s not at all the same thing the Nicene Council was describing. “True God from true God” was written to emphasize Jesus is God in every way God is and can be, and is in no way inferior to his Father. Any submission the Son does is voluntary—and reciprocated. Jn 3.35, 5.20 God is love, and love isn’t self-serving.

Now, I remind you: Heresy doesn’t mean these people are unsaved, or not Christian. We’re saved by grace, not orthodoxy. Heresy just means they’re wrong. We’re all wrong, but heretics are wrong in such a way that they’ll lead people away from God, either by the noxiousness of their beliefs, their own fruitlessness, or by making people think they gotta earn salvation. Semi-Arians tend to fixate on power, but in so doing they knowingly or unknowingly downplay Jesus’s authority. Since Jesus is vital to understanding God, that’s mighty dumb of them. Worshiping God is not a zero-sum game, where you honor the Father more by honoring the Son less. Honoring one honors the other, Jn 5.23 ’cause they’re one God. So do both!