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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 Arian Understanding of God’s Presence in the OT

The anthropomorphic language found in the OT demonstrates already that God was revealing himself in various ways. Even in the early chapters of Genesis, expressions such as “God saw” and “God said” display a very human approach to Divinity. In chapter three, the encounter between the Lord God and Adam and Eve reveals another aspect of this approach: “and they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day…” (3:8).

Later, the Scriptures note how God establishes relations with men using the form of human covenants, expressing his thoughts in human words. The encounter with Moses in the burning bush on Mount Horeb is an example of how he localizes his presence among his people Israel during their Exodus. This presence is further manifested in such specific human terms and places as the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire, the Meeting Tent, and finally in the Temple.

But in all, it was by no means clear how this divine presence should be construed. Did God literally appear to his people? In the vast majority of these divine theophanic appearances, the Biblical text suggests the existence of an intermediary. In the case of the Exodus, the intermediary was the pillar of cloud and the pillar of fire—indications of God’s presence to be sure but not the same as God in his essence. In the case of God speaking to the people, far more often than not, the OT text will tell us about the existence of a mysterious “angel of the Lord.” In Gen 22:11-15 for instance, it is the angel of the Lord who instructs Abraham not to kill Isaac. In Gen 31:11, it was “the angel of God” who wrestled with Jacob. In Exod 3:2-4, it is the angel of the Lord who appears to Moses in the burning bush. In Exod 14:29, “the angel of God” follows behind the pillar of fire and pillar of cloud as it leads the people. The angel of the Lord/God is treated with divine honors and is often addressed as Yahweh by the humans involved. But the OT never makes it completely clear precisely how the “angel” relates to God himself. Is he truly an angel, God himself, or Jesus Christ before he became man? The ambiguity in the text was seized on by Arius to claim that the appearances of God in the OT, which anticipated the Incarnation, were nevertheless created appearances of God or an emanation of God and not the divine essence.

We saw some of this last week when we examined Divine Wisdom, another form of divine presence that nevertheless seemed distinct from God. Two characteristics of Divine Wisdom are seen in the two following passages—emanationism and eternity:

For she [wisdom] is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her. For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness. (Wis 7:25–26)

I came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and covered the earth like a mist . . . From eternity, in the beginning, he created me, and for eternity I shall not cease to exist. (Sir 24:3,9)

Proverbs 8:22 was another problematic text that was seized on by Arians to promote a view of Jesus Christ as Divine Wisdom who was nevertheless a primordial creation of God:

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old.

Naturally, Arius’ arguments were based also on the passage from the Gospel of John: “…for the Father is greater than I” (14:28) as well as texts such as 1 Cor 15:20-29 which clearly—taken individually—point to a subordinationist Christology. Arius contended that the body which the Word assumed was an instrument without a soul—or at least without a rational soul. All the weaknesses of Jesus that are recorded in the Gospels—hunger, thirst, fatigue, sleep, suffering, death—relate to the Word who uses the body in the way that a charioteer would drive a chariot. The Word cannot be the impassible God, but merely a creature. For the Arians, the Word could be called God, or indeed Son of God, but merely as courtesy titles.
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