I recently spent several hours trying to convince a class that Arius was right, the Son is not equal with the Father, and Athanasius blew it.
So we looked at all the biblical data suggesting that the Son is subordinate to the Father. We discussed Greek philosophy and how the Nicene view of three persons (hypostases) in one substance (ousia) necessarily entails either modalism–i.e. the one substance (God) just manifested himself at different times as different persons (Father, Son, and Spirit)–or tritheism–i.e. the one substance (deity) gets expressed in three distinct beings (Father, Son, and Spirit) just like our one human nature gets expressed as many particular humans. And, most importantly, we talked about the Cross, how Athanasius’ overly divine Son downplays the real human suffering on the cross that is a necessary part of any true atonement.
In short, we presented a pretty compelling argument for the truth of Arianism. Indeed, when we were done and had summarized all the strongest arguments for Arianism on the board, I asked the class to refute them. And they were stuck. They still felt intuitively that Arianism had to be wrong, but they couldn’t find the chinks in the armor. It looked so compelling.
That’s when I knew we’d arrived.
You see, the point of the class wasn’t to understand heresy. This was actually a class on the Greek Fathers for the ThM program at Western Seminary. So a good chunk of it focused on people like Athanasius and Gregory of Nyssa, people who were directly involved in responding to Arianism. But I’ve noticed over the years that students have a hard time truly appreciating the beauty and power of the response because they can’t see the beauty and power of the problem. Orthodoxy shines less brightly when you think heresy seems so obviously wrong.
So, if you want to understand heresy, here are at least three things you need to do.
1. Make Your Strongest Case
This one is so obvious I almost hate to mention it. But it’s also something that we frequently fail to do. Many students dismiss Arianism as merely capitulating to Greek philosophy, speculating too much about the nature of the Trinity, thus neglecting the deeply mysterious nature of God, and not reading your Bible enough. In other words, they don’t really wrestle with Arianism, just a caricature of it. Dig deeper. If Arianism was so easy to refute, it wouldn’t have been such a problem for the early church.
2. Move Beyond “That’s Stupid”
Many Christians struggle to understand heresies, especially the earliest ones, because they seem so obviously wrong. Even Irenaeus mocked one of his opponents by suggesting that his beliefs were similar to believing in a divine Gourd and his offspring Cucumber and Melon. It’s even worse for us since we live in a completely different time and have been shaped by different ways of viewing the world. For modern Christians, Arius’ argument that the Son was fully divine even though he was less divine than the Father just doesn’t make any sense. It sounds stupid. You’re either God or you’re not. You can’t be mostly God.
Here’s a tip: if a heresy sounds stupid, you haven’t understood it well enough.
The great heretics of the early church weren’t idiots. They were brilliant thinkers wrestling with difficult questions. And the great theologians of the early church weren’t so bored that they went around writing entire books refuting stupid ideas. If it sounds stupid, keep digging.
3. Make it a Gospel Issue
Most of my students are quick to point out the gospel implications of Athanasius’ theology. Of course the Son had to be fully divine, otherwise we don’t have God himself as our savior. Instead, we have just another creature, albeit a lofty and exalted one, doing the work that only the Creator should be able to do. Athanasius clearly saw that this was a gospel issue, and that’s why he was willing to invest so many decades and so much of his life in the debate.
But what about Arius? Didn’t he think the gospel was important too? And didn’t he also invest tremendous time and energy in the same debate? What was the gospel issue from his perspective? What was at stake?
Those are the questions that we often fail to ask. People on both sides thought they were defending the gospel. And that’s true of almost all the great heresies. We’ll never see why those heresies were so compelling until we see what was at stake, what they thought they were protecting. We can still disagree with them, of course. Just because they thought they defending the gospel, that doesn’t mean they were right. But we still need to recognize what they thought was at stake.
Until you see Arius defending the gospel, you haven’t seen Arius.
Is It Worth It?
The church rejected Arianism and the other great heresies hundreds of years ago. Do we really need to rehash the same stuff over and over again?
Quite simply, yes.
First, heresies are like vampires; they don’t really die, they just move to different places, change their names, and find some cool, new clothes. So understanding heresy in its strongest forms helps us recognize and respond to heresy in our own time.
As I said above, though, there’s a more important reason for understanding heresy: only then will we really see the beauty and power of orthodoxy. Become an Arian for a while and then read Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, Orations Against the Arians, or the Letters to Serapion. Then go back and re-read the Nicene Creed. Dig into Basil the Great’s On the Holy Spirit, Gregory of Nazianzus’ Theological Orations, or Gregory of Nyssa’s Contra Eunomius. The power of each unfolds only in light of a deep appreciation for the inner logic of Arianism.
In other words, it might do your theology some good if you became a heretic for a while. Not too long, mind you, but long enough to see why it was, and often still is, compelling.