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Church History Debates: Is Jesus Fully God?

After the Roman emperor Constantine used Christianity to unify his empire, his son Constantius went one step further: He attempted to unify the Roman empire under an even more unifying version of Christianity: Arianism. Arianism, with its less-than-fully divine Jesus, made for an easier version of Christianity for pagans to assimilate into. But was it a legitimate version of Christianity?

Background and Summary

Contrary to Alexander, bishop of Rome, Arius, a presbyter in Alexandria, preached that the Son was a created being who then created the rest of creation. He did not have preexistence, for He was different in essence from the Father.[1] Though Arius found many sympathizers, he was condemned by the first “ecumenical” council, which was called by Constantine in Nicaea in 325.

The Creed of Nicaea spelled out Christ as “of one substance [homoousios] with the Father.” Furthermore, “Those who pretend that the Son of God is ‘of another substance [hypostasis] or essence [ousia]’ or ‘created’ or ‘alterable’ or ‘mutable,’ the catholic and apostolic church places under a curse.”[2] Despite the clarity of the council’s decision, Arianism remained a major force for the next decades, even gaining political prominence through certain later emperors.[3]


“Despite the clarity of the council’s decision, Arianism remained a major force for the next decades, even gaining political prominence through certain later emperors.”


Proponents of the Full Divinity of Jesus

Alexander, bishop of Rome, preached a sermon on “The Great Mystery of the Trinity in Unity,” around 318. Arius disputed Alexander’s view of God, feeling that it failed to give a clear distinction between the members of the Godhead.[4]

Athanasius, Alexander’s successor as bishop of Rome, stressed that only a fully divine Christ could appropriate salvation for mankind. Christ was “coequal, coeternal, and consubstantial with the Father.”[5] Athanasius wrote most often to combat Arianism. For his views, he was exiled five separate times.[6]

Opponents of the Full Divinity of Jesus

Arius studied under Lucian in Antioch, who taught that the Logos became incarnate in the man Jesus. Following Lucian, Arius rejected both the deity of Christ and Trinity, in viewing God the Father and the created Logos as of two different substances.[7]

Biblical Basis of the Full Divinity of Jesus

“Then those who were in the boat worshiped [Jesus], saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God’” (Matthew 14:33, NIV).

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1, NIV).

“The Father and I are one” (Jesus, in John 10:30, NIV).

“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood” (Acts 20:28, NIV).

“Simon Peter, a servant, and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours” (2 Peter 1:1, NIV).


“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”


Excerpt

From a letter from Arius to Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia:

“But what we say and think we both have taught and continue to teach; that the Son is not unbegotten, nor part of the unbegotten in any way, nor is he derived from any substance; but that by his own will and counsel he existed before times and ages fully God, only-begotten, unchangeable. And before he was begotten or created or appointed or established, he did not exist; for he was not unbegotten.”[8]


[1] David F. Wright, “Councils and Creeds,” in Introduction to the History of Christianity, ed. Tim Dowley (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 164-165.

[2] Wright, “Councils and Creeds,” 166-167.

[3] Wright, “Councils and Creeds,” 170.

[4] Cairns, Christianity through the Centuries: A History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1981), 133. 

[5] Cairns, 134.

[6] Ferguson, “Athanasius,” in Introduction to the History of Christianity, ed. Tim Dowley (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 145.

[7] Harold O.J. Brown, Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1988), 107.

[8] Arius, “Arianism,” in Documents of the Christian Church, ed. Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 42-43.

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