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

Peter Brown, Author
Introduction, page 1 of 12
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The Problem with Modalism/Sabellianism: The Rise of Arianism

Modalism was a solution to the problem all right but not one that was really true to the Biblical sources. How is Jesus sent from the Father, how does he pray to the Father, how does he become man if at the same time he is utterly at one with God? Did God the Father really come to suffer on the cross? The solution was clearly unsatisfactory and indeed prompted an equal and opposite reaction. Whereas Modalism had pulled Jesus so tightly into the oneness of God that his subject/object distinction with the Father was lost completely, the opposite tendency soon appeared, namely, to subtly crowd Jesus Christ out of the oneness of God to thereby protect his distinction from God the Father.

In the early part of the fourth century, a priest of Alexandria named Arius began to push back against Sabellianism. Arius’ teachings developed into a system we call Arianism.

As Arius saw it, if we call Jesus the Son, he must have had a beginning, since all sons come from their fathers and because Scripture in numerous places says that the Son came from the Father. Moreover, Arius did not see how God could communicate within himself or even have an existence of different beings within himself as the Sabellian system seemed to require. He believed that the Father must communicate only outside of himself and that it made no sense for God to have an interior life. The solution of Arius was that the Son came from the Father in time and that there was a time in which the Son did not exist at all.

Arius’ solution to the problem had a surface plausibility when one examined the matter philosophically. Because it is unique, the being of the Godhead cannot be shared or communicated. Besides, if God were to impart his substance to some other being, however exalted, this would imply that he was divisible and therefore subject to change, which is inconceivable. Further, if any other being were to participate in the divine nature in any valid sense, there would result a duality of divine beings.

This could not be since, by definition, the Godhead is unique. The conclusion: if anything else exists, including the Son, it must have come into existence. Yet this is not by a communication of God’s being but rather by an act of creation on his part. Creation means that something is called into existence out of nothing. When Arius spoke of God, he spoke of God the Father. But how did he explain the Son? The thoughts of Arius and his companions can be summarized in four propositions:

1. The Word must be a creature whom the Father formed out of nothing. He is a perfect creature and is not to be compared with the rest of creation. As such he owes his whole being wholly to the Father’s will; he is not self-existent.

2. As a creature, the Word must have had a beginning. In a confusing manner, Arius insisted: “although born outside of time . . . prior to his generation he did not exist.”

3. The Son can have no communion with, and indeed no direct knowledge of, his Father. Being finite and of a different order of existence, he cannot comprehend the infinite God.

4. The Son must be liable to change and even sin. While the Son’s nature was in principle peccable, God in his own providence foresaw that the Son would remain virtuous. This was a grace bestowed on him in advance.
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