In the midst of a new era of peace and privilege in society, the church also had to deal with significant theological controversies. One of the largest controversies surrounded the heretical teachings of a priest from Alexandria named Arius. Concerned with maintaining the uniqueness of God the Father and the unity of God, Arius erroneously taught that Christ, the Living Word of God, was subordinate to the Father. According to Arius, Jesus was distinctly “other” than the Father, a created being, created before time began. Arius wrote, “We are persecuted because we say that the Son has a beginning, but God is without beginning.” For Arius, to suggest that Jesus was fully God was to deny the oneness of God. Arius’s teaching was quickly rejected and condemned by his bishop, Alexander, who rejected the idea that Jesus, the Living Word, had been created. A convening of church leaders, called a synod, was brought together around 320, and Arius was removed from his position. But his teachings took root with other leaders, and Arius gained the support of some important, influential bishops. His ideas spread among the wider public as Arius set his teaching to music.
To justify his position, Arius used Scripture, pointing out texts where Jesus seemed to have a lesser position to that of God the Father. Those who opposed Arius’ position questioned his interpretative practices, claiming that Arius was incorrectly understanding and explaining Scripture.
Arius taught that Jesus was important, crucial to our faith, but not equal with God. What exactly made his teaching so dangerous? Opponents of Arius pointed out the deeply troubling fallacy in his logic. If Christ was less than God the Father, then how could he possibly offer an atoning sacrifice for our salvation? This argument was especially developed by the man who would emerge as the greatest opponent of Arius’ teachings: Athanasius. We will learn more about Athanasius in the coming days.
Further, since its very beginning, the church had worshiped Christ as God. In fact, some scholars believe that one of the earliest hymns of the church can be found in the apostle Paul’s words to the church in Philippi when he wrote about Jesus, saying, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:6–7). Additionally, since the beginning, converts to Christianity were baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). In response to Arius’s teaching, leaders like Alexander and Athanasius rightfully rejected his ideas, recognizing the worship that was due to Christ.
In the city of Alexandria and beyond, the tension and controversy surrounding the teaching of Arius grew. Constantine stepped in and sent another bishop from Spain to try and mediate the conflict. When it became clear that mediation wouldn’t work, Constantine called for bishops to come together and settle the matter. We will explore this council, the Council of Nicaea, tomorrow.