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Jesus Christ God, Man and Savior Week Six: God the Son at Nicaea and Constantinople

Peter Brown, Author

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The Answer to Arianism

We are spending so much time on the Arian heresy because it is no overstatement to observe that it almost destroyed the Catholic Church particularly after it developed into a more refined form. At various points, versions of the heresy were embraced by over three-quarters of the bishops in the world while its central tenets were being enforced by no less than the Roman emperor.

But Arianism was not to prevail. Men like St. Jerome and especially St. Athanasius, however, realized what was at stake. No matter how lofty a title one gives to Jesus Christ if, at the end of the day, Jesus was a creature—even if he were above all the rest of the created order—there would exist an infinite gap between him and God the Father. Jesus Christ as a creature might rank above all other things, but in the final analysis he would be closer to rocks than to God (CCC 465).

The Arians stumbled most of all on John 1:1, the text that those who would deny the full divinity of Jesus have always stumbled over.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ Λόγος, καὶ ὁ Λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν Θεόν, καὶ Θεὸς ἦν ὁ Λόγος.

Based on the Greek, the best the Arians could muster with this text is:

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was a god.

The Arians (much as the Jehovah’s Witnesses do today!) made much of the absence of the definite article ho before the final “God” to argue that God was indefinite. The upshot was thus that the Word was merely godlike in an altogether different sense than God is God. But the context alone weighs heavily against them for only two words before, the term “God” is used clearly to represent the one true God and not simply a god. If John had wanted only a few words later to use “God” in a wholly different sense, he would have added the word “as” to say the “word was as a God.”

Greek scholars today generally split between the traditional identifying translation “the Word was God” and the more qualitative “the Word was what God was” or “the Word was divine.” No NT Greek grammarian of whom I am aware, however, would embrace the Arian/Jehovah’s Witness translation.

Such translation mischief is hardly new, however. St Augustine in On Christian Doctrine recounted how the Latin speaking Arians tampered with John 1:1. For you Latin buffs, St. Jerome’s Vulgate of John 1:1 reads 

In principio erat verbum et verbum erat apud deum. Et Deus erat verbum. Hoc erat in principio apud Deum. 

The Arian-corrupted text kept identical words but with one small change—see if you can spot it! Theirs read 

In principio erat verbum et verbum erat apud deum. Et Deus erat. Verbum hoc in principio apud Deum.

Did you catch it? All they did was shift the period over by one word so that their text (if it were in English) did not read “and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. Instead it read “and God was. This word was in the beginning with God.” In translation, even punctuation matters a great deal! You have to look closely to see the sleight of hand. Who would imagine that the dogma of the divinity of Jesus could depend even on putting a period in the right place?

A more important point could be made about this. If John, in the Greek, had included the definite article “the” before God, the sentence would mean something like “God was the Word.” This would lead us into a different error today called “oneness” Pentecostalism which holds that Jesus is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In this case there would be no personal distinction at all between divine persons (see CCC 254)—they would simply be modes in which the one God chooses to act. This would be a return to the heresy known as “modalism” or “Sabellianism” which we discussed above.

John 1:1 meant that in the long run—as attractive as Arianism and semi-Arianism were at solving the vexing problem of the relationship between God the Father and Jesus Christ—there was really no chance that it could do justice to the totality of the NT data. Moreover, in the living tradition of the Church, Jesus had been worshipped as divine for as long as anyone in the fourth century could remember. And as we have seen, although there are plenty of texts which underscore Jesus’ status as inferior to the Father in the economy of salvation, there are plenty of other texts—particularly in John and Paul in which the deity of Jesus is impossible to avoid.
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