A third error that arose in the early Church, more serious than either of the preceding ones, was Arianism. This view denied the true Deity of Christ and held rather that He occupied a position somewhere between that of God and man, that He was the first created being and the creator of all other creatures. He was thus regarded not as possessing absolute Deity, but only as the highest of created beings. Because of the claims which He made, the authority which He assumed, the miracles He worked, and the glory He displayed particularly in His resurrection, the great majority of the early Christians recognised Him as truly God. The
Arians, however, misinterpreted certain Scripture statements relating to His state of humiliation and assumed that temporary subordination to the Father meant original and permanent inequality. Origen, the most outstanding of the early church fathers, in connection with his doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son, had taught inherent subordination. Arius carried this idea much farther and declared that the generation of the Son had taken place in time, thus definitely making Him a creature.
This controversy was brought to a head in the early part of the fourth century by the teaching of Arius, a presbyter in the Church at Alexandria, Egypt. Because of the widespread difference of opinion concerning the person of Christ an Ecumenical Council was called by the first Christian Emperor, Constantine, for the purpose of formulating a general doctrine which should be accepted by the whole Church. The council met in the year 325, at Nicaea, in Asia Minor, and was attended by bishops and presbyters from practically all parts of the empire. The real controversy centered around the question as to whether Christ was to be considered as truly God, or as only the first and greatest creature.
The Arians maintained that Christ was not eternal, that He was created by the Father out of nothing and was therefore the first and highest of all creatures, that He in turn created the world, and that because of the power delegated to Him He is to be looked upon as God and is to be worshipped. He was, therefore, to be called God only by courtesy, in much the same way that we give a Lieutenant Governor the title of Governor. His pre-eminence was due to the fact that He alone was created immediately by God and that supernatural power was given to Him, while all other creatures were created by Him.
Most of the Arians also held that the Holy Spirit was the first and greatest of the creatures called into existence by His power. All of this meant, of course, a God who had a beginning, and who might therefore have an end; for a creature, no matter how highly exalted, must ever remain finite. Hence the Arians, in demanding worship of Christ, were in fact asserting the central principle of heathenism and idolatry, the worship of a creature.
The Arians asserted that Christ was not of the same substance (homo-ousia) with the Father, but of similar substance (homoi- ousia). We may be tempted today to wonder how the whole Christian world could have been convulsed over the rejection of a single letter of the alphabet; but in reality the absence or the presence of the iota signified the difference between a Saviour who is truly God and one who is only a creature,—between a Christianity which is able to save the souls of men and one which can not.
In the Council of Nicaea the Church faced what we believe to have been the greatest crisis in the entire history of doctrine. It was, however, in effect, although in a slightly different form, the same question that it faces in the twentieth century dispute between the Evangelical Faith and Modernism.
The noble champion of the orthodox cause was Athanasius, who later became Bishop of Alexandria. Under His influence the Council declared for the full and eternal Deity of Christ, who was declared to be “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, being of one substance with the Father.” Opposition continued strong for some time after the Council had made this pronouncement, but under the zealous and skillful leadership of Athanasius the doctrine gradually won official acceptance by the entire Church. It was seen that a created Christ was not the Christ of the New Testament, nor could He be the Christ who, by His death and resurrection, became the Author of eternal salvation.