Tuesday, June 23, 2015

What If Arius Won?

In his book, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth, Dr. Alister McGrath asks a provocative question: "[W]hat would Christianity have looked like if Arius had won?" (150) His answer is worth exploring.

Before beginning, a few words of clarity need to be said  The Council of Nicaea which condemned Arianism as a heresy was not a conspiracy. Though popular in liberal circles, Nicaea was not a political strategy of the Roman Catholic Church to consolidate power. Nicaea did not outlaw books of the Bible or any such thing. Any conspiracy theories regarding Nicaea are inevitably false.

Secondly, Arianism was condemned emphatically. Regardless of what Dan Brown has written through his fictional characters, the vote in favor of Athanasius Christology was not close. Related to that, the genesis of Christian Chrisotlogy by which Christ was viewed as divine was not at Nicaea, but in Christ himself. The Church did not make Christ divine, but recognized what Christians already believed.

With that said, here is how McGrath answers the above question:
It needs to be made clear that what Arius was proposing was not a minor rearrangement of the theological furniture of the Christian faith, to be compared with adjusting the position or changing the color of a favored chair in the living room. Arius's understanding of the identity of Christ differed so greatly from that proposed by Athanasius and the orthodox that it can only be regarded as constituting a separate religion. Arian Christianity is much closer to Islam than to orthodox Christianity, in relation both to its notion of God and to its understanding of the religious role of its founder. its concept of absolute divine monarchia has important political associations in that it points to an analogy of absolute authority on earth and in heaven. (150, emphasis mine)
McGrath then shows that "Arianism emphasized the inscrutability of God" where there "was an absolute ontological gulf between God and the world of the creatures" (150). Because Jesus is not divine, He is not revelation from God. This is just one reason why John's prologue is central to orthodoxy. Jesus, as Logos, reveals God. Without embodied divinity, God remains a distant deity.

This weaker view of Christ as revealer confuses the gospel. McGrath shows that "by failing to connect with God, it was unable to permit humanity either reliable or authentic knowledge of God or the salvation promised by the gospel" (151). The Arius Jesus delivered secondary revelation  and thus "may have been superior in quality to that of other human beings but was nevertheless equal in kind" (151).

In short, no orthodox view of Christ equals no gospel. Orthodox doctrines, in many ways, stand and fall on orthodox Christology.

In this regard, McGrath concludes by quoting Dorothy Sayers:
The central dogma of the Incarnation is that by which relevance stands or falls. If Christ was only man, then he is entirely irrelevant to any thought about God; f he is only God, then He is entirely irrelevant to any experience of human life. It is, in the strictest sense, necessary to the salvation of relevance that a man should believe rightly the Incarnation of Our Lord Jesus Christ. (152)
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