The Arian controversy
When Arius asked whether the Son had a beginning, he
was, in effect, pointing out a fundamental flaw in that doctrine. The doctrine did
not clarify the nature of Christ. So he was asking: If there is an abyss
between Creator and creation, where does Christ belong? Was he created out of
nothing like the rest of the creatures? Or was he part of God? If so, then how
and why did he take on human form?
The Church tells us that the Arian
controversy was a struggle against blasphemers who said Christ was not God. But the
crucial issue in the debate was: How is humanity saved - through emulating Jesus or
through worshiping him?
The Arians claimed that Jesus became God's
Son and thereby demonstrated a universal principle that all created beings can
follow. But the orthodox Church said that he had always been God's Son, was of the
same essence as God (and therefore was God) and could not be imitated by mere creatures,
who lack God's essence. Salvation could come only by accessing God's grace via the
The Arians believed that human beings could
also be adopted as Sons of God by imitating Christ. For the Arians, the incarnation
of Christ was designed to show us that we can follow Jesus and become, as Paul said,
"joint heirs with Christ."
The orthodox Church, by creating a gulf
between Jesus and the rest of us, denied that we could become Sons in the same way he
did. The reason why the Church had such a hard time seeing Jesus' humanity was that
they could not understand how anyone could be human and divine at the same time.
Either Jesus was human (and therefore changeable) or he was divine (and therefore
The orthodox vision of Jesus as God is based
in part on a misunderstanding of the Gospel of John. John tells us: "In the
beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God ... All things
were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made." Later
John tells us the "the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us." The
orthodox concluded from these passages that Jesus Christ is God, the Word, made flesh.
What they didn't understand was that when
John called Jesus "the Word," he was referring to the Greek tradition of the
Logos. When John tells us that the Word created everything, he uses the Greek term
for Word - "Logos". In Greek thought, Logos describes the part of God that
acts in the world. Philo called the Logos "God's Likeness, by whom the whole
cosmos was fashioned." Origen called it the soul that holds the universe
Philo believed that great human beings like
Moses could personify the Logos. Thus, when John writes that Jesus is the Logos, he
does not mean that the man Jesus has always been God the Logos. What John is telling
us is that Jesus the man became the Logos, the Christ.
Some early theologians believed that everyone
has that opportunity. Clement tells us that each human has the "image of the
Word [Logos]" within him and that it is for this reason that Genesis says that
humanity is made "in the image and likeness of God."
The Logos, then, is the spark of divinity,
the seed of Christ, that is within our hearts. Apparently the orthodox either
rejected or ignored this concept.
We should understand that Jesus became the
Logos just as he became the Christ. But that didn't mean he was the only one who
could ever do it. Jesus explained this mystery when he broke the bread at the Last
Supper. He took a single loaf, symbolizing the one Logos, the one Christ, and broke
it and said, "This is my body, which is broken for you."
He was teaching the disciples that there is
one absolute God and one Universal Christ, or Logos, but that the body of that Universal
Christ can be broken and each piece will still retain all the qualities of the
whole. He was telling them that the seed of Christ was within them, that he had come
to quicken it and that the Christ was not diminished no matter how many times his body was
broken. The smallest fragment of God, Logos, or Christ, contains the entire nature
of Christ's divinity - which, to this day, he would make our own.
The orthodox misunderstood Jesus' teaching
because they were unable to accept the reality that each human being has both a human and
a divine nature and the potential to become wholly divine. They didn't understand
the human and the divine in Jesus and therefore they could not understand the human and
the divine within themselves. Having seen the weakness of human nature, they thought
they had to deny the divine nature that occasionally flashes forth even in the lowliest of
The Church did not understand (or could not
admit) that Jesus came to demonstrate the process by which the human nature is transformed
into the divine. But Origen had found it easy to explain.
He believed that the human and divine natures
can be woven together day by day. He tells us that in Jesus "the divine and
human nature began to interpenetrate in such a way that the human nature, by its communion
with the divine, would itself become divine." Origen tells us that the option
for the transformation of humanity into divinity is available not just for Jesus but for
"all who take up in faith the life which Jesus taught."
Origen did not hesitate to describe the
relationship of human beings to the Son. He believed that we contain the same
essence as the Father and the Son: "We, therefore, having been made according
to the image, have the Son, the original, as the truth of the noble qualities that are
within us. And what we are to the Son, such is the Son to the Father, who is the
truth." Since we have the noble qualities of the Son within us, we can undergo
the process of divinization.
To the Arians, the divinization process was
essential to salvation; to the orthodox, it was heresy. In 324, the Roman emperor
Constantine, who had embraced Christianity twelve years earlier, entered the Arian
controversy. He wrote a letter to Arius and Bishop Alexander urging them to
reconcile their differences, and he sent Bishop Hosius of Cordova to Alexandria to deliver
it. But his letter could not calm the storm that raged over the nature of God - and
man. Constantine realized that he would have to do more if he wanted to resolve the
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