Saving Arius: A Heretic for Our Times

Arius was a presbyter, a leader of a church, somewhere in Libya. He was born sometime before the year 280 and died sometime after the year 333. Not much is known about his life, but that does not matter. Even with scant knowledge about his life and thought, Arius became, in Christian history, the archetype of heresy.

Arius is the arch-heretic, the heretic who is the symbol of all heresies. In the Christian tradition, simply calling someone Arian is enough to dismiss that person as a blasphemer of Christ. No explanation is needed. You cannot get much lower than that.

What was the crime of Arius? It was to deny the full divinity of Jesus. Commonly, this means to be an Arian is to deny Jesus was or is God. Any progressive in Christianity today probably qualifies for the school of Arius.

Membership in the school of Arius may not be as comfortable as it first sounds. Arius still held the ancient Greek way of thinking about God. It is hard to know exactly, but clues about Arius’ thinking are in the fragments of writing known as the Thalia. The problem, of course, is that because Arius was a heretic, no original script survives. The Thalia is preserved only in the writing of his opponent, Athanasius. It has two versions. The first one is set negatively; its intention is to show what is wrong with Arius. So, the first version is not thought to be authentic. The second version is more elaborate, balancing positive and negative statements, and has a rhetorical style. It’s the second version of the Thalia that people rely on, but it is still important to say that Athanasius is the one who relayed the second version, too.

Arius makes several claims, but his central claim is that God alone is uncreated, existing before time, as the One (mono). It is a very Neoplatonic version of God: God is absolutely singular, timeless, unknowable, ineffable, unequaled. The irony of the Neoplatonic God is that God is conceived in the same way that nothingness is conceived: complete unknowability, which makes true theism oddly the same thing as atheism (but that’s another story).

For Arius, though, Jesus is not just another human being. God has to become external in some way; God has to be knowable even though complete knowledge of God is impossible. The first creation, the first external thought, of God is the Son. The Son is the true Wisdom of God, and through the Son all things are created. As Arius said, or as we think he said, “God who is without beginning made the Son the beginning of all things.” This is similar to what the Apostle Paul writes in I Corinthians 15:27, where God has put “all things under subjection to the Son.” Like Paul, Arius sees all things under the Son, but Arius sees the Son positively as One who creates all things and not negatively as the One who subjugates all things.

The difficult parts of Arius for people today are things that are naturally bizarre to modern ears. God is like a monad, a singular point of completely unknowable space untouched and unrelated to history and the cosmos. Then, a dyad happens. The Son emerges like a new shining star from the otherwise dead space of the monistic God’s self-being. The star gives to everything its image, its beauty, and its being. It is fascinating metaphysics, but it has nothing to do with reality.

However, there are two important ways that Arius does speak to our world today. One is that the way he conceives Jesus is poetic rather than historical. More and more today it seems clear that theology and religion remain important to the human experience as types of poetic expressions of life but not as explanations of life, its origin, or its natural evolution. Religion as a poetic reflection on life uses metaphors to think about meaning in existence. Arius’ use of Jesus as the Son comes across this way. There is nothing really “historical” or real about the Jesus of Arius; rather, the Son is the first artistic work of a creative God. Thinking about Arius in this way makes it possible to save Arius from the prison of heresy in which Christian history has placed him.

A second way that Arius speaks to the world today is in the way the Son, as the first image of life, takes the position of Plato’s supreme form, which is the Good. In platonic thought, every physical thing, including human beings, is authentic when it moves toward the fulfillment of its form. Aristotle loved this image and talked about the telos of motion: everything moves to its end cause. Thomas Aquinas loved Aristotle and said that everything moves to its blessedness. In Western philosophy, Plato now commonly gets belittled, but when one commits to reading Plato, his sense of beauty can be overwhelming. The point of everything in existence is the Good. Imagine what the political world would be like today if presidents and prime ministers thought the point of politics was the Good.

Arius has this basic platonic idea in his Jesus. The Son is the image within everything created, so the Son is that to which everything moves for fulfillment. The Son is the final form of the universe. Everything that exists has as its content the “Son.” Buddhism teaches something similar. Everything that exists has a Buddha-nature, and the world is what the world was meant to be when the world is the Buddha. For Arius, the cosmos is as the cosmos should be when it is the Son, and each human being is as they truly are when the image of the Son shines in the daily activities of life.

Arius is an excellent heretic to save in today’s world. Arius has a vital and strong sense of the common good, which is the image of the Son in all things. Arius does not have an idea that Christ died for sins; rather, Christ, the Son, is the original blessing or grace of life itself. Arius does not, or does not appear to, relate Jesus to sin. In both versions of the Thalia, the word “sin” is absent. Indeed, you can read a whole book about Arius (Arius by Rowan Williams, 2001) and never encounter the word sin. Arius’s theology is not conceived with the idea of sin; it is conceived with the idea of the Good.

This brings up a final thought most suited for today. Christianity’s experiment with Jesus as a sacrifice for sin has been a failure. A Jesus sacrificed for human sin makes Jesus a commodity in the religious marketplace. A commodity is something people compete to acquire. It depends, as Karl Marx noted more than a century ago, on a libertarian understanding of economics. It is all about satisfying fetish desires. Once Christianity becomes an expression of libertarian fetishism, which it is in Christian fundamentalism, it loses both the personal value of psychological growth and the social value of the common good. Arius has both of these values in spades. Christian fundamentalism has sacrificed them both. Arius is truly worth saving.

© David Galston
Executive Director, Westar Institute