This article covers the Arian heresy and its modern-day equivalent in the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Let’s begin with Arianism, named after its proponent, Arius, though many others after him carried on his views.
If you would like to see the following verses in many translations and in their contexts, please go to biblegateway.com.
1.. Who are the key figures in the Arian dispute?
The first is Alexander (d. 328), the bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, about 313-328. He held a council at an unknown date of about 100 bishops from Egypt and Libya, where he accused Arius of following Paul of Samosata (probably a mistaken accusation) and opposed Arius’s view. He anathematized (declared him a heretic) in about 321. Emperor Constantine regarded Alexander as overly scrupulous about doctrine. Constantine called a council in Niceae (also spelled Nicea and also called the Council of Nicaea or the Nicene Council) in 325, so unity could be maintained in his empire.
At the Council, Alexander would not budge, and it came around to his point of view and adopted the Nicene Creed.
The second figure is Arius (d. 336 AD), who was trained under Lucian of Antioch, whose views foreshadowed Arius’s views. He was probably ordained a presbyter by Alexander in 312, the year that Constantine conquered his opponent Maxentius in the name of Christ outside of Rome. (Athanasius was around 12 or 13 at the time.)
It is here in Alexandria that Arius first denied the Son’s eternal preexistence, which earned him the bishop’s rebuke and later rendered him anathema. Rather than give in and assent, he sought the help from bishops all over the Greek-speaking side of the church. The controversy became so intense that it caught the ear of Constantine, who, as noted, convened the Nicene Council.
The third figure is Athanasius (c. 296-373), who came from a wealthy family. He was an Egyptian by birth and Greek by education and a student at the catechetical school of Alexandra, where Alexander made him a deacon or his personal assistant.
He was Alexander’s secretary during the Council of Nicaea. He took notes for the bishop, but his influence was behind the scenes in his writings. When Alexander died in 328, Athanasius was enthroned as bishop, by popular acclaim, at just thirty-three years old. He was a keen journalist, an excellent writer, a high-level theologian, devout, and knew the Old and New Testaments thoroughly. The people loved him.
But his public visibility made him a target because Arianism was strong and pervaded the Roman empire. Even Constantius, successor to Constantine in 337, was sympathetic to it. Athanasius was hounded and exiled five times, hiding for his life for seventeen years. He fled to Rome and “networked” with the Western church, which supported his cause.
He spent his latter years peacefully at Alexandria.
2.. What was the controversy between them?
It is called Arianism, for Arius developed a heretical view that diminished Jesus in his preincarnate existence (before he incarnated as man in the flesh). Arius latched on to the phrase in John 3:16 “the only begotten Son.” Begotten? What does that mean? Arius said that God created the Son, so Jesus had a beginning. This means Jesus was not eternal alongside his Father.
If the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence, and from this it is evident that there was [a time] when the Son was not. It therefore necessarily follows that he had his subsistence from nothing.
Translation: The Son did not exist eternally (“there was [a time] when the Son was not”), but had a beginning when he was created by God from nothing. He derived his existence from a creative act—Jesus was created before the angels and was the first and best of God’s creation, but he had a beginning, as angels did.
3.. How did Athanasius fight against it?
First, he said whatever “begotten” meant, it cannot be that the Son was created or made, for John 1:1-3 says he was alongside the Father; when the beginning happened, the Son was already there.
Second, from many Scriptures he argued that the Son was of the same substance or nature or essence with the Father, not a similar (and derivative) substance or nature or essence, but co-equal in being. The two Greek words were homoousia (same substance) and homoiousia (similar substance). Ousia remains in the two words, but the one letter iota (“i”) in the prefix made a big difference. Bishop Alexander and his allies (and Athanasius) ensured sure that the Nicene Creed said homoousia. This was reinforced at the Council of Constantinople in 381.
Third, he pointed out that Arianism jeopardized the doctrine of the atonement. This doctrine says that Christ died on the cross for our sins and propitiated divine wrath that was directed at us because our sins. The apostle Paul says in Rom. 8:18-21 that creation itself waits for ultimate redemption. If Christ were a mere creature and part of this creation, then he could not have redeemed all of creation. He too would be waiting and needing redemption. Hence, the eternal Son of God must not be a created being.
Eventually, after a long struggle, he and those who agreed and lived after him were successful. Now the church believes in homoousia. Even though the word is non-biblical, it is reflected throughout Scripture.
Please click on 2. Two Natures in One Person: He Was Human and God for the verses that says Jesus had the full attributes of deity.
Also, please click on The Trinity: What Are Key Terms? ****** for a better interpretation of “only begotten Son,” which says the phrase means “in-a-class-all-by-himself” or “unique” Son. Now the complications are removed.
4.. Do Jehovah’s Witnesses teach something similar to Arianism?
Yes, they latch on to John 1:1 and the clause, “And the Word was God.” They translate it “The Word was a god.” How? Why?
In Greek the definite article “the” is “ho” in masculine singular (Greek uses articles differently than English). The key clause reads in Greek, theos hēn ho logos. Note that “God” (theos) does not have the definite article, while “Word” or logos does. So the Jehovah’s Witnesses translate it as “The Word was a god.” From there they claim that Jesus is an inferior being, created of God, not co-eternal with God.
Ironically Jehovah’s Witnesses intend to purge Christianity of paganism, but bring it directly into their church with their strange “a god” notion.
In reply, first, Colwell’s rule in Greek grammar is a bit complicated, but here it is. It says when a sentence has a linking “to be” verb (hēn in that verse: “The Word was God”), a definite predicate noun (God) may drop the definite article when it precedes the verb (ēn), but the subject of the sentence will retain the article (ho logos or the Word). That is what the clause on verse 1 does, probably just to clarify the subject of the verb: “The Word.”
Bottom line: Colwell’s rule tells us that it is right to translate it as “The Word was God.” But let’s not make a big deal of Colwell’s rule, because sometimes it does not hold. The context is more important (see the third point).
Second, however, if John intended “a god,” he would have written it as he did, above. So how do we break the deadlock between “a god” and “God” with the same Greek sentence? The context decides. The word God appears six times without the article in John 1 (verses 1, 6, 12, 13, 18a and 18b).
Therefore, it is not the case that this God is an inferior “god” of sorts. Rather, all throughout John 1 he is the God who made the universe, the omnipotent (all-powerful) God of the Bible. Further, the larger context of the Gospel’s high and developed Christology (doctrine of Christ) tells us that “The Word was God” is the right translation
So how does knowing about the Trinity help me know God better?
There is an entire ten-point post that answers that question, here:
Written by James Malcolm
ARTICLES IN THE TRIUNITY SERIES
The Trinity: What Do Arians and Jehovah’s Witnesses Teach?
Richard Bauckham, “The Trinity in John,” in Brandon D. Crow and Carl R. Trueman, The Essential Trinity: New Testament Foundations and Practical Relevance. Pp. 91-117 (P&R, 2017).
The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, J. D. Douglas, gen. ed. (Zondervan 1974).