I’ve been thinking extensively about a question posed to our Greek Fathers class by Marc a couple of weeks ago. Our discussion was over Athanasius and his battle with Arius and the Arian doctrine that Jesus was not God, but a creation of God. The question posed was whether or not Arius was a Christian? Further, were the followers of Arius, who agreed with his interpretation of Christ as a creation of God, Christians? Initially, my response was a stout-hearted, “No!” For Arius to change the very nature of who Christ is, making Jesus an aspect of creation, and not God himself, is the worship of a creature and not the Jesus of the New Testament. The Bible establishes that 1) there is only one God (Deut. 6:4; Is. 43:10-12), 2) that this God exists in three distinct persons (Matt. 3:13-17; Rom. 1:1-6), and 3) all of them are fully God (John 8:58; Acts 5:3-4). However, these truths are accepted by Christians today because early church Fathers wrestled with these issues and settled them for us.
The problem, for me, with this question is two fold. First, if we make correct doctrine a litmus test to see who is really saved, then many people in our churches, including myself, are possibly disqualified. There are things I believe today that I ridiculed others for when I was in college. (Youth brings such arrogance.) Furthermore, I am confident that if we were to press our church members to define the Trinity, there are all types of heresy that would reveal itself. Does one’s inability to define correctly the doctrine of the Trinity disqualify one from salvation, specifically if that doctrine redefines the very person of who Christ is? Secondly, we know that doctrine matters. One cannot simply believe whatever they desire about Christ. God establishes the manner in which he may be approached and worshipped, not men. Therefore, the Mormon doctrine of Jesus is completely heretical! However, inside of Christian orthodoxy, where is the line to be drawn? When is an individual to be considered to have passed beyond the point of just being incorrect, to being a heretic? Certainly, we could say that any doctrine that redefines the person and work of Jesus must be seriously disputed and corrected. But what beliefs would disqualify one from salvation?
That being said, we return to our original question: Would you consider Arius and his followers Christians? Arius loved Jesus, worshipped him, and was a pivotal figure in the conversion of the Galls in Northern Rome. But if our answer is “No!” then it seems that we must answer the following questions: 1) Why not? and 2) What of those in our churches who do not believe right doctrine concerning the person and work of Christ? However, if our answer is “Yes!” then it seems we must answer the questions: 1) Why? and 2) When does one cross a line of false belief that they disqualify themselves from salvation? In the framing of these question I do not mean to eclipse the foundational role of being saved by grace through faith in Christ. What I am attempting to think through is how certain beliefs alter the very object of our faith: Christ. Would love to get feedback, and I’m really looking forward to Marc answering this on Wednesday!