The history of the Christian Church is replete with theological controversies, but few as significant as the fourth century concern over the unity between God the Father, God the Holy Spirit, and God the Son. The struggle was over how, exactly, to understand the relationship among the Trinity.
It all began in the early 300s in Alexandria, Egypt, with Arius, a well-liked presbyter of the city. It is important to note that, as with most abiding theological positions, Arius’s views arose from a commitment to Scripture. Arius was committed to preaching the Bible, specifically Proverbs 8:22, “The LORD brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old.” Unfortunately, his mishandling of this text split the Christian community.
In Proverbs 8:22 the first-person pronoun “me” is attributed to “wisdom” (cf. Prov. 8:12). Along with many other Christians of his day, Arius identified Christ as “wisdom.” This understanding was not without support: 1 Corinthians 1:24 says “Christ is the…wisdom of God,” and 1 Corinthians 1:30 similarly speaks of “Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God.” Thus, Arius interpreted the speaker in Proverbs 8:22 as Jesus Christ. This led him to affirm that Jesus Christ is not co-eternal with the Father, but was rather created by the Father at some point in the past. In Arius’s own words, taken from a letter he wrote to Eusebius, Bishop of Nicomedia: “[W]e say and believe…that the Son is not unbegotten…. [W]e say that the Son has a beginning, but that God is without beginning…. He is neither part of God, nor of any essential being.”
You may be surprised to learn that Arius appealed to additional biblical texts to support his view. For example, John 1:14, 18 speaks of “the only Son from the Father” and “the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father.” Others included Acts 2:26, John 14:28, and Colossians 1:15. These verses, Arius thought, seem to say that Jesus is not God, but was rather the most important of all creatures. Notice, however: Arius was not claiming that the Son came into existence at the moment of the incarnation. Rather, he affirmed (with us) the Son’s preexistence; Arius’s claim was that before anything else was made, the Word (to use the same terminology as John 1) was created by God.
So, what exactly is at stake here? Is this really all that big of a deal? Yes! Christ’s divinity is what is at stake. If Christ is not of the same essence as the Father, as Arius claimed, then he can have no direct knowledge of the Father, is liable to sin, and is not worthy of our praise. Most importantly, though, if Christ is not divine, then he cannot redeem fallen humanity.
Thankfully, Arius’s heresy was promptly rebutted (although Arius had many followers both then and now), primarily by Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria. Alexander argued that the Son is divine, and therefore could not be created. He insisted that Christ is co-eternal with the Father. When the dispute became public and widespread, Constantine (the emperor) intervened and called the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea (this was the winter of 324-325). This was a big deal. Bishops from all over the empire were summoned to settle numerous issues, predominantly the Arian controversy. Since the Council was universal, its decision would be binding on the church throughout the world.
In the end, on 19 June 325, the Council in Nicaea affirmed that the Son was of the same essence as the Father, that is, the Son was divine and co-eternal with the Father. Together the Council wrote the following creed, the Nicene Creed:
We believe in one God, Father, all-sovereign, maker of all things seen and unseen; and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father as only-begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, homoousios [Greek for “of the same essence”], one in, with the Father, through whom all things came into existence, the things in heaven and the things on earth, who because of men and our salvation came down and was incarnated, made man, suffered, and arose on the third day, ascended into heaven, comes to judge the living and the dead; and in one Holy Spirit. And those who say “there was once when he was not” or “he was not before he was begotten” or “he came into existence from nothing” or who affirm that the Son of God is of another hypostasis [Greek for “nature”] or substance, or a creature, or mutable or subject to change, such ones the catholic [i.e., universal] and apostolic church pronounces accursed and separated from the church.
This meant that Arius and his followers were pronounced heretics and were exiled. Let us learn well.
Arius. From Letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia, in Placher, ed., p. 52.
Other works consulted:
D. Jeffrey Bingham. Pocket History of the Church. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002.
Justo L. Gonzalez. The Story of Christianity: Vol. 1. New York: Harper & Row, 1984.
Alister McGrath. Christian Theology: An Introduction, 3d ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001.
William Placher, ed. Readings in the History of Christian Theology, Vol. 1. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1988.