I have been reading Maurice Wiles Archetypal Heresy: Arianism through the centuries. For those not up to date on the Christological controversies of the 4th century, Arius promoted the view that Jesus was a creature made by God and was thus subordinate to God. Arius’ opponent was Athanasius who insisted that Jesus was of “one substance” with the Father, whereas Arius insisted that Jesus was of “like substance” with the Father. The difference in the Greek spelling was one iota.
The big punch up between Arius and Athanasius occurred at the council of Nicaea at which the Nicene creed was promulgated and from which the Church receives its formulation of God as the Trinity: Father Son and Holy Spirit. One of the affirmations of the Council of Nicaea may be found in the first Article of Religion of the Anglican church:
There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker and preserver of all things both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there be three Persons, of one substance, power and eternity; the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.
This formula, as do other formulas found in the creeds of the Church, does not allow either the Son or the Spirit to be subordinate to the Father; to be separate divine beings.
In the 17th century there was a revival of Arianism in Britain and it is interesting that it was promoted by the early English scientists, especially Isaac Newton, George Whiston, and later, in a different way, by Joseph Priestley.
Newton and Whiston were Biblicists, believing that the bible was the revelation of God about Himself and in their research into scripture they came to the Arian conclusion, that Christ was a creature, a separate divine being from the Father and below the Father, thus destroying the equality of beings in the Trinity and Trinitarian theology itself.
When Newton came to Cambridge he dismissed the teachings of Aristotle and branched out on his own using his own observations and his own formidable intellect to produce a remarkable foundation for modern science.
In researching the scriptures he again relied on his own researches. In a way he was one of the first modern men in that he refused to acknowledge the authority of the church and insisted that he did it his way - a kind of 17th century Frank Sinatra.
While ditching Aristotle paid off in natural science, ditching the authority of the church allowed him to come to his own wrong conclusions. It must be said in his defence that a rational exploration of biblical texts will not give out onto the doctrine of the Trinity, indeed there are many texts, taken on their own, that point in the Arian direction.
The problem with Newton and Whiston’s approach was that they brought scientific methodology to the task and this restricted their view of the matter. There is something in the scientific mind that creates either atheists or fundamentalists, rationality is just not enough. Rather, Christians believe in order to know, a recipe for disaster in science but a necessity in the matters of faith. Perhaps this explains the frailty of theological writing done by scientists turned theologians.
The exegesis of biblical texts is not an exact science like the interpretation of a set of observations in nature and it is often the hidden orientation of the exegete that decides the outcome.
I can’t help thinking that attempts to make Jesus subordinate to the Father is produced by a refusal to accept that the man on the cross, on the stinking dunghill of Golgotha, outside of the city walls and abandoned by all, is God. This is the offence at the centre of the Christian story which marks it out among the world religions.
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