Arianism is the idea that Jesus Christ is not equal to the Father by nature but He is the first creation of God. The founder of Arianism was Arius who died in 336. His ideas would have a tremendous impact on the early Church by causing it to define orthodoxy with a number of creeds. However, his impact continues to this present day with such groups as the Jehovah’s Witnesses. As a result of their convictions, these modern-day Arians produce a number of Biblical arguments to support their contention that Jesus is not God. Though Arianism is false Biblically, its doctrines force the Church throughout all generations to define what she believes regarding the person and nature of Christ.
The Historical Background of Arianism
The founder of Arianism was no other than Arius. He studied under Lucian of Antioch who saw Jesus as a semidivine intermediate being. In fact, Lucian thought the Logos was not fully God or man. Therefore, Jesus has a high status among the creatures even being called “the firstborn of all creation (Col. 1).” Jesus is supernatural, but He is not equal to the Father. Brown states, “Arianism developed the idea that the Son is a semidivine being created, not begotten, by the Father and having an origin in time, or at least a definite beginning before the creation of the material world.”1 Arius would later receive his ordination as a presbyter in Alexandria in 311. He had many friends in high places including quite a few Asian bishops who tolerated his ideas.
As a result of the spread of his teachings, Arius received opposition from some of his opponents. One of these opponents was Bishop Alexander. He argued that Jesus was the same substance with the Father (homoousios). The contrasting party was known as the homoiousios group. They believed that Jesus was of similar substance with the Father. As a result of this disagreement, there was great controversy among the various local churches. This arguing would convince Constantine to call the Council of Nicea.
Council of Nicea
Three-hundred-eighteen (318) bishops from the East and a few from the West came to the Council in Nicea. They debated the matters for quite a while, but no agreement was reached. Eventually, the Arians made the mistake of presenting a statement of their faith from Eusebius of Nicomedia. Brown comments, “It frankly and flatly denied the deity of Christ, stunning even the least acute of the uncommitted majority.”2 As a result, “It was roundly rejected.”3 The Arians appealed to Eusebius of Caesarea who drew up a creed that would become the blueprint for the Nicene Creed. Constantine himself acted and advocated the addition of homoousios (consubstantial). Most of the Arian bishops gave in, and the emperor commanded that the writings of Arius be burned.
Despite the efforts of the emperor, the Nicene Creed did not completely settle the issue. The emperor soon began to listen to Arian sympathizers. He even reinstated Eusebius of Nicomedia. He also removed some pro-Nicene bishops. After Constantine’s death, his three sons allowed many of the pro-Nicene bishops to return to their positions.
The Conflict of 340-380
The period of 340-380 marks a period of turmoil in the Empire. There was a great struggle between Orthodoxy and Arianism. The short restoration by some of Constantine’s sons would not last long. In 356 Constantius condemned Athanasius who was forced to flee to the desert. Constantius favored Arianism to such an extent that Brown remarks, “By 361, a generation after Nicea, the victory of the Arians seemed complete.”4 However, the battle was not over yet. Soon Julian came to the throne. He was the last of the pagan monarchs. He favored religious toleration and restored many of the Orthodox bishops. Under his rule, Arianism never solidified, and Orthodoxy gained strong ground. In 362, there was a Synod in Alexandria which stressed the deity of the Son and Holy Spirit. It would become the forerunner for Constantinople. In 363 there was more turmoil, but it was short lived. Around 370 Valens came to the throne. He was the last of the pro-Arian emperors. In 378 he died, and this left the East with a lack of Arian political support.
Gratian eventually became co-emperor with Theodosius (379-95--coemperor, 394-95--sole emperor). Shortly after his inauguration, he became baptized and issued an edict promoting Trinitarian Orthodoxy. Brown comments, “The Nicene Creed itself placed the emphasis on the incarnation, passion, resurrection, and Second Coming of Christ and was thus historical rather than theological in its orientation. In contrast, the decree of Theodosius emphasizes the deity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and the doctrine of the Trinity and does not mention the work of Christ as such.”5 He then summoned the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople. Theodosius took all the bishoprics from the Arians and gave them to the Orthodox. Brown comments, “This Second Ecumenical Council really marks the beginning of ecumenical orthodoxy, for unlike Nicea, it represented the conclusion rather than the beginning of the conflict with Arianism.”6 With Constantinople and the efforts of Theodosius, Arianism had clearly run its course, and Orthodoxy was triumphant in Christendom.
Jehovah’s Witnesses: The Modern-Day Arians
Despite the best efforts of the Orthodox Church to stamp out Arianism, there are branches of the belief that continue to this present day. One of them is the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Founded in the mid- to late-nineteenth century by Charles Taze Russell, this group contains several million adherents in numerous countries. Like the ancient Arians, these modern-day Witnesses believe that Jesus is a created being who is, therefore, not eternal and not God. They specifically argue that Jesus was Michael the Archangel. However, by examining a number of Scriptures, their contentions do not hold up.
The True Nature of Jesus
Despite the best efforts of the Witnesses, there is no Biblical support for the contention that Jesus is inferior to the Father. In fact, one can make a strong positive case for the deity of Christ. First, in John 20:28, Thomas states to Jesus, “My Lord and my God.” Metzger points out that it is strange that Jesus made no effort to correct him, but Jesus accepts and commends Thomas’s statement of faith (v. 29).7 Second, in Acts 7:59, Stephen prays to Jesus. Metzger makes an insightful comment, “If therefore the opinion of the Jehovah’s Witnesses be correct, namely, that Jesus is only a spirit creature, then Stephen was an idolater in praying to one who was not truly God.”8 Third, in Galatians 1:1, Metzger comments, “Paul clearly distinguishes Jesus Christ from men and ranges him with God the Father.”9 He uses two prepositions with man and men but only one preposition with reference to God the Father and Jesus. Paul was Jewish and a strict monotheist--something which he does not dispute. In fact, “Even those whom he combats in this Epistle to the Galatians, the Judaizers, so far as we can see, had no quarrel with Paul’s lofty view of Christ.”10
Fourth, John 10:30 records Jesus as stating, “I and my Father are one.” The Jews attempt to stone him because they understood him to be claiming deity (v. 33), which was something Jesus did not dispute. Metzger points out the Witnesses attempts to get around the obvious implications of this passage, “The marginal note of their translation, suggesting that ‘are one’ means ‘are at unity,’ is an alternative interpretation which is so lacking in justification that the translators did not dare to introduce it into the text itself.”11 Again, the Jews understood his claim and attempted to kill Him. Metzger comments, “Psychologically, there was no reason for them to become angry at Jesus if all he asserted was his being one in purpose and outlook with the Father.”12
Fifth, Metzger points out that the New Testament writers often quote passages in the Old Testament that refer to Jehovah and refer them to Jesus.13 Joel 2:32 states, “Whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” However, Romans 10:13 quotes the exact passage but refers to Jesus as “the Lord” of the passage in 10:9. “If you confess with your mouth Jesus is Lord” and then in verse 13 states, “Whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” There is a clear correlation between Jesus and deity.14 Metzger does well to conclude the evidence stating, “As has often been pointed out, Jesus’ statement is either true or false. If it is true, then he is God. If it is false, he either knew it to be false or he did not know it to be false. If while claiming to be God he knew this claim to be false, he was a liar. If while claiming to be God he did not know this claim to be false, he was demented. There is no other alternative.”15
The Jehovah’s Witnesses are not lacking from purposely mistranslating the Bible to demonstrate that Jesus is inferior to the Father. They perform this with a number of faulty translations of key divinity passages.
According to the New World Translation, The Word was “a god.” The Witnesses do this since there is no definite article present. Metzger responds, “By using here the indefinite article ‘a’ the translators have overlooked the well-known fact that in Greek grammar nouns may be definite for various reasons, whether or not the Greek definite article is present.”16 Furthermore, if the Witnesses accept this translation, they must be polytheists. Finally, Metzger elaborates on a principle called Colwell’s rule which indicates, “A definite predicate nominative has the article when it follows the verb; it does not have the article when it precedes the verb.”17 It is indefinite only when the context demands it. In fact, this statement without a definite article is not strange in a Johannine context.
Another passage that Witnesses attempt to distort is Col. 1:15-17 where they translate “For by him all other things were created.” The other is not present in the original Greek. Metzger comments, “As a matter of fact, the ancient Colossian heresy which Paul had to combat resembled the opinion of modern Jehovah’s Witnesses, for some of the Colossians advocated the Gnostic notion that Jesus was the first of many other created intermediaries between God and men.”18 Second, the verb “to create” in reference to Son and Father is not here. Likewise, the reference to the “firstborn of creation” does not indicate inferiority to God but to primacy over creation. Metzger comments, “What God begets is God; just as what mail begets is mail. What God creates is not God; just as what man makes is not mail.”19 In fact, in the same book, Col. 2:9 mentions deity of Christ with the present tense of “dwells” indicating that the fullness of God dwells in Jesus bodily.
Another instance of the Jehovah’s Witnesses mistranslating passages is found in Philippians 2:6 which they translate as, “Christ Jesus, who, although he was existing in God’s form, gave no consideration to a seizure, namely, that he should be equal to God.” However, this flatly contradicts a number of other translations. J. H. Thayer states, “Who, although he bore the form of God, yet did not think that this equality with God was to be eagerly clung to or returned.”20 Arthur S. Way likewise translates, “He, even when He subsisted in the form of God, did not selfishly cling to His prerogative of equality with God.”21 Finally, J. B. Phillips translates, “For He, Who had always been God by nature, did not cling to His prerogatives as God’s Equal, but stripped Himself of all privilege by consenting to be a slave by nature and being born as mortal man.”22 Therefore, the Jehovah’s Witnesses' translation is contrary to modern New Testament Greek scholarship.
Witnesses likewise mistranslate Titus 2:13 with “and of our Savior” which separates “our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” Metzger explains a rule which contradicts this mistranslation by the Jehovah's Witnesses, “This rule, in brief, is that when the copulative kai connects two nouns of the same case, if the article precedes the first noun and is not repeated before the second noun, the latter always refers to the same person that is expressed or described by the first noun.”23 Other scholars agree.24 Therefore, in contrast to the Watchtower, this passage teaches the connection between Jesus as Savior and God.
Another passage that the witnesses distort is found in Revelation 3:14. They make Christ refer to himself as “the beginning of the creation by God.” However, the genitive means “of God” not “by God.” This correlates with the Pauline notion “that Christ is the origin, or primary source, of God’s creation” (cf. Jn. 1:3).25
Objections to Jesus’ Divinity
In response to the Trinitarians, Arius (and the Witnesses) points out that the “divinity” passages are really just speaking of Jesus in an honorific way. God is still quite different from the Son. Arius argued that “the language of ‘sonship’ is variegated in character, and metaphorical in nature. To refer to the ‘Son’ is an honorific, rather than theologically precise, way of speaking.”26 God is still totally different in essence from the Son.
Athanasius provides an excellent response to Arius’ objection. First, he argues that only God can save. He states, “An essential feature of being a creature is that one requires to be redeemed. No creature can save another creature. Only the creator can redeem the creation.”27 However, according to Christian theology, Jesus is the Savior. Athanasius produced a syllogism: Only God can save; Jesus Christ saves; therefore, Jesus Christ is God (50).28 Second, Athanasius points out that Christians worship and pray to Jesus Christ. However, “Christians . . . are totally forbidden to worship anyone or anything except God himself.”29 Therefore, according to Arius and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christians are practicing idolatry. Arius was not able to significantly refute this, nor can the Jehovah’s Witnesses today.
Witnesses love to point out that the word Trinity is nowhere found in the Bible. Therefore, it must not be true.
The absence of the word “Trinity” does not disprove the fact that there is one. Metzger comments, “The fallacy of such an argument will be brought home to them by pointing out that their favorite term, ‘theocracy,’ likewise appears nowhere in the Bible. In neither case, however, does the absence of the word for ‘Trinity’ or the word for ‘God’s rule’ (theocracy) imply that the realities expressed by these two words are absent from the Scripture.”30 Furthermore, there are a number of texts that demonstrate a Trinitarian pattern.31
Witnesses point out that the New Testament speaks of the subordination of the Son to the Father such as in John 14:28 where Jesus states, “My Father is greater than I.”
The Witnesses are correct to point out that Jesus is subordinate to the Father, but this applies to His operation as in John 14:28 and not to His very being or essence. Metzger comments regarding the Athanasian Creed, “Equal to the Father, as touching His Godhead: and inferior to the Father, as touching His manhood.”32 Calvin likewise comments, “Christ does not here compare the divinity of the Father with his own, nor his own human nature with the divine essence of the Father; but rather his present condition with the celestial glory to which he would be presently received.”33 Second, Jesus is speaking in a context about comforting His disciples in light of His departure. Since He was going to submit to the cross, the explanation of the Father’s greatness would be fitting. However, He is not speaking about His creation or denying His eternality. Third, in like manner, Paul speaks of a number of modes of Jesus operation: 1 Cor. 3:23, 11:3, 15:24, and 28. Paul does not say what subjection means, however, one must recognize the clear teaching elsewhere in Paul.
Witnesses often object to the notion of the Trinity due to the fact that it seems to be polytheistic and illogical and eliminates the majesty of God’s being.
Though one could understand the Trinity in a polytheistic context, the Trinity in fact better explains the operation of God. For example, how can God always love if there was no one for Him to love before creation? There would have to be another person for this love to take place. Metzger comments, “But these words, ‘God is love,’ have no real meaning unless God is at least two Persons.”34 There must be a Lover, a Loved, and a Spirit of love. God must always love if it is part of His essence. Further, there can be no self-consciousness without various persons in the Godhead. This is not to deny that the Trinity is mysterious. Metzger rightly admits, “How in the unity of the Godhead there can be three persons of one substance, power, and eternity is a mystery beyond human comprehension.”35 However, a god that we could completely understand would not be worthy of our worship. Therefore, the Trinity is perfectly compatible with the majesty and oneness of God.
Conclusion--The Significance of Arianism
Arianism did not simply influence several theologians in the early centuries of Christianity. Its impact affected the emergence of Orthodoxy. Brown comments that Arianism gave “the church the first standard by which orthodoxy could be reliably measured.”36 The Arian controversy was the first controversy to be decided by an ecumenical council. This impact continues today with groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses who deny the deity of Christ. However, despite their best efforts, their arguments do not square with the Biblical evidence. Instead, their Jesus lacks the power to save. Metzger rightly points out the effects of the Witnesses view, “While he was on earth he was nothing more than a man, and therefore the atoning effect of his death can have no more significance that that of a perfect human being.”37 Further, “ . . . if a sect’s basic orientation regarding Jesus Christ be errant, it must be seriously doubted whether the name ‘Christian’ can rightly be applied to such a system.”38 However, despite the negative evaluation the Christian “has the joyous confidence that his divine Lord’s mediatorial work is sufficient to bring into heaven itself not only 144,000, but a great multitude which no man can number.”39
- Brown, Harold O. J. Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church. Grand Rapids: Hendrickson, 1988.
- McGrath, Alister E. Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998.
- Metzger, Bruce M. “The Jehovah’s Witnesses and Jesus Christ: A Biblical and Theological Appraisal.” Theology Today. (April, 1953): 65-85.
- 1. Harold O. J. Brown, Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church (Grand Rapids: Hendrickson, 1988), 106.
- 2. Harold O. J. Brown, Heresies, 117.
- 3. Ibid.
- 4. Ibid., 125.
- 5. Ibid., 137.
- 6. Ibid.
- 7. Bruce M. Metzger, “The Jehovah’s Witnesses and Jesus Christ: A Biblical and Theological Appraisal,” Theology Today (April, 1953): 71.
- 8. Ibid.
- 9. Ibid., 72.
- 10. Ibid.
- 11. Ibid.
- 12. Ibid.
- 13. Ibid., 73-74.
- 14. Other instances are found Isaiah 60:19 with Luke 2:32, Isaiah 6:1, 3, 10, which is a vision of Jehovah compared with John 12:37-41 where Isaiah saw a vision of Jesus; and Ps. 23:1/ Is. 40:10-11 where Jehovah is the Shepherd yet in John 10:11 Jesus is the Good Shepherd.
- 15. Ibid., 74.
- 16. Ibid., 74-75.
- 17. Ibid., 75.
- 18. Ibid., 76.
- 19. Ibid., 77.
- 20. Ibid., 78.
- 21. Arthur S. Way, The Letters of St. Paul, 5th ed. (London, 1921), 155, in Ibid.
- 22. J. B. Phillips, Letters to Young Churches (New York, 1948), 113, in Ibid.
- 23. Ibid., 79.
- 24. Metzger cites PW Schmiedel, J. H. Moulton, A. T. Robertson, and Blass-Debrunner.
- 25. Ibid., 80.
- 26. Alister E. McGrath, Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998), 49.
- 27. Alister E. McGrath, Historical Theology, 49.
- 28. Ibid., 50.
- 29. Ibid.
- 30. Metzger, 73.
- 31. Cf. Matt. 28:19, II Cor. 13:14, 1 Cor. 6:11, 12:4-5, II Cor. 1:21-22, Gal. 3:11-14, I Thess. 5:18-19, 1 Pet. 1:2, et cetera.
- 32. Ibid., 81.
- 33. Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, II (Edinburg, 1847), 103, in Ibid.
- 34. Ibid., 83.
- 35. Ibid.
- 36. Brown, 106.
- 37. Metzger, 70.
- 38. Ibid.
- 39. Ibid., 85.