Back in the first centuries of the Christian movement, a priest from Africa named Arius stirred up some trouble. Though Arius spent the majority of his days as a religious upstart at Alexandria, he was trained at Antioch. That’s an important bit of info. There were two main “schools” of thought in Christianity then: Antioch and Alexandria. Alexandria was known for interpreting the Bible in an allegorical fashion. Much of the Alexandrian writings are first year church history for seminary students. Antiochan giants like Theodoret of Cyrus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and Diodore of Tarsus held to a strict literal interpretation of biblical passages. These are really important theologians who receive very little attention nowadays.
Arius began devoting his sermons to investigating the question: “Was Jesus really God or was he just a human?”Arius had trouble believing God and Jesus existed together prior to the incarnation. This really isn’t that surprising. Antiochian theology focused on the “humanness” of Jesus – it was only a slight misstep that would lead Arius toward a form of adoptionism. So, for roughly the next three centuries, Alexandrian-heavy councils dragged Arius and company through the mud in their writings using nasty words like “heretic.” And for most Christians, that’s all we know about him. Was Arius wrong? Sure. Jesus is God. But there’s more to the story.
People rarely ask why Arius struggled with the divinity of Jesus. His reasoning is not much different from many struggling Christians today. Most of us were taught growing up that God the Father was a sovereign despot concerned with protecting his image of magisterial omnipotence. Liberal Protestant preacher Lyman Abbot put it this way: God is a “kind of awful omnipotent police justice” and each of us is a “scared culprit who knows he is liable to punishment but does not clearly know why.” And that keeps many Christians in line. Afraid of God…but in line.
There’s only one problem. Jesus looks very different than that…and in John 14, Jesus had the gall to say he was just like the Father. And that’s what bugged Arius so long ago. He had been taught that God was unfeeling (impassible) and Jesus seemed so different. And because God did not seem to possess the qualities associated with Jesus, Arius assumed they weren’t the same at all. He was protecting the Father’s impassibility over against the “human” suffering in Jesus. If God did not feel our pain, how could he become one of us? Arius’ answer was simple: he didn’t. Arius’ responded when asked if Jesus and God are the same: “No! I would never insult the majesty of God that way!” This thought pattern also affects how many view the cross today: good Jesus protecting us from bad God.
There’s a good lesson here. People’s actions make it in the textbook. But their intentions rarely do. And what’s important to note here is that a struggling priest was attempting to think outside the box when reconciling his ministerial training with what he actually read in the Bible. He’d been taught that God was a “police justice” and wasn’t sure what to do with the compassionate Jesus he read about in the gospels. No one else had a good answer either so he courageously took a stab at it and was branded a heretic for the ages. But really, he was just a man attempting to understand God a little better. Maybe we shouldn’t call him the heretic for the ages. How about the heretic next door?
We should be careful when reading our history books. While it’s important to oppose false doctrine, we need to be careful not to disdain the struggles, fears, and mistakes of people in the process. Arius was doing the best he could. May we have grace to do the same.