Arius, ‘the good Greek’: And Miscellanies on the Greekification of God

This is not going to be an extensive engagement with nor introduction to Arius’s theology, in fact I will presume that those reading this will already have some sort of understanding of who, Arius was in the history of the church and what his heresy entails. But I wanted to highlight something I just read with reference to Arius; I thought the way the authors stated this was well put, and so would be beneficial for you all to read too. After we work through the quote from said authors (who you will meet in a moment) I will apply the ‘Greek’ link to a problem that has currently been being addressed online in regard to the John Frame and James Dolezal debate; albeit indirectly (since I will not address the actual debate in detail, but will only touch upon currents that are indeed related to the debate).

As we know Arius argued that Jesus, the Son of God, was a creation of God; that he shared a unity of will with his Creator God, but not a unity of being. Yes, for Arius the Son was indeed elevated to a level of degree over the rest of the created order, even functioning as a cipher through whom God created, but indeed the Son remained subordinate and a creature of God. Arius was driven to this conclusion because he was driven by his conviction that there could only be one actual infinite, one pure being; any division in that being, by definition, would render God to be no-God based upon the a priori definitional conviction that these were the requirements for God to be God. We can better appreciate, then, Arius’s dilemma when confronted with Christian reality; he was attempting, based upon his servile conviction that God must be a monad in order to actually be God, to negotiate his way out of this dilemma—an artificial dilemma of his own making.

The following quote, just like my last post, is taken from Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink’s Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction. The way they characterize Arius is rather brilliant. They don’t antagonistically get after Arius, instead they simply and almost sympathetically contextualize Arius as the Greek thinker that he genuinely was:

10.5.1 Arius and Athanasius

Put most simply, Arius asked about the order to which Jesus, as the incarnate Word, belonged: to the order of God, or to that of created reality? Arius opted for the second and had some good arguments on his side. He read the Old Testament texts that speak of the unity of God: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God is one Lord” (Deut 6:4). If God, as the Father, is the first, then he must also be the only one, and besides him there can be only that which is created; thus Jesus belongs in that category. Nor can God exist in a double, a twofold (or threefold), manner, so Jesus is not a second God. The highest essence is not plural; God, as the only one, is by definition indivisible. This view does not so much make Arius a good Jew (as we mentioned earlier, Judaism in this era did not totally reject any plurality in God), but rather a good Greek. To the Greek mind, which is always in search of the unchanging primordial beginning (the arche), divisibility implies mutability.[1]

Arius was just being a good Pure Being theologian. He couldn’t figure out how to think the Son into the being of the eternal immutable God, on how the Greek mind thought that, and, as such he had to, of necessity, make the Son a creature and say: ‘there was a time when the Son was not.’

Miscellanies on the Hellenization of God

In some ways this is should explain to you why I am so leery of ‘pure being’ theology; of the sort that relies heavily say upon Aristotelian categories in order to provide a grammar for the Christian and Triune God. There is a basic incompatibility between the Greek conception of God, or pure being, and the God Self-revealed in Jesus Christ. This is why I am so leery of so called classical theism, because it relies so heavily upon a Greek mindset for thinking God. And yet, there is a revitalization of classical theism currently happening among Reformed and evangelical theologians in particular. My ‘fear’, in regard to classical theism and the overly Greek mind ostensibly behind it, was captured much more famously by Adolph von Harnack’s ‘hellenization thesis.’ Michael Allen explains, in a nutshell, what that entails, and then goes on to illustrate how it is that people like Allen et al. are moving beyond the Harnackian thesis in order to retrieve what the past classical theists produced in regard to a grammar for thinking and speaking the Christian God:

What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? For several decades in the twentieth century, the answer seemed to be overwhelmingly: “Too much!” The influence of Greek philosophy upon Christian faith and practice was viewed as excessive and uncritical. A century ago Adolf von Harnack proposed the “Hellenization thesis,” the argument that the early church swallowed a bunch of Hellenistic fat that makes their theological approach difficult to digest today.  Harnack proposed a radical revision to the faith whereby we seek to cut the fat out and get back to the message of Jesus himself, a proclamation unencumbered by the metaphysics of Greece and the dogmas of the later fathers. The influence of this model of history has been and continues to be remarkably widespread, accepted not only in more revisionist circles (e.g., Jürgen Moltmann) but also by those who wish to affirm orthodox theology (e.g., the late Colin Gunton). Its most deleterious application regards the character of God, that is, the doctrine of divine attributes. Numerous attributes were viewed as Greek accretions that ran not only away from, but directly against the grain of biblical teaching and Christ-centered theology.[2]

I am not necessarily endorsing, tout court, the Harnackian thesis, but I do think his is a good cautionary tale in regard to thinking about the influence that Greek categories had upon how Christians have thought God. I actually do think it is possible to ‘evangelize’ certain types of metaphysics in the service of the Gospel and its articulation—not just Hellenism, but even Hegelianism, etc.—but only in such a way that the categories present within such philosophical systems become so recontextualized by the pressure of God’s Self-revelation in Christ that the corollary between the former philosophical context and the new Christian revelational context has been rent asunder to the point of no real contact. Note what Myk Habets writes in regard to the way that Patristic theologians, when hammering out a Doctrine of God and Christology, were able to achieve in their usage of Greek metaphysics:

I grant that patristic theology was tempted constantly by the thrust of Greek thought to change the concepts of impassibility and immutability in this direction, but it remained entrenched within the orbit of the Judeo-Christian doctrine of the living God who moves himself, who through his free love created the universe, imparting to its dynamic order, and who through the outgoing of his love moves outside of himself in the incarnation.[3]

This is something of what I am referring to in regard to the way it is possible to engage with Greek metaphysics, but then convert them in such a way that they are resurrected with Christ which reorients their inability to actually get at the wonder of who the genuine Christian God is which is purely reliant upon God’s own Self-exegesis in Christ.

There is always this dance, though. We must decide, at some point, how well a particular system of theology achieves the proper movements in this dance between its referral to something like pure being theology (of the sort that Arius was slavishly committed to), and how that may or may not be allowed to implicate the way Christians attempt to speak God. I personally think that something like the classical theist synthesis has failed at providing a conception of God that actually emphasizes the relationality of God, and instead offers a God who is too stilted by a kind of mechanical identity that is devoid of real passion, emotions, and that type of dynamism. Habets comments further on this reality (and with this we’ll close) as he reflects on the impact that pure being theology has had upon the development of Christian theology:

This freedom is also found in the very Being of God. When medieval theology adopted Aristotelian philosophy the Greek notion of God as impassible and immutable was also adopted. In this way Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover became associated with the God of the Scriptures. However, in Patristic theology immutability and impassibility, as applied to God, were not associated with these philosophical ideas but were actually a challenge to it. It is true that God is not moved by, and is not changed by, anything outside himself, and that he is not affected by anything or does not suffer from anything beyond himself. But this simply affirms the biblical fact that God is transcendent and the one who created ex nihilo. What the Fathers did not mean is that God does not move himself and is incapable of imparting motion to what he has made. It does not mean that God is devoid of passion, of love, mercy and wrath, and that he is impassibly and immutably related to our world of space and time in such a way that it is thrown back upon itself as a closed continuum of cause and effect.[4]

If we must speak of God in ways that diminish his revealed reality as relational, dynamic, and Triune love then we might be suffering from an Arian hangover. It would be best to repent of such drunkenness and think new ways, just as the patristic theologians did, to evangelize the metaphysics we use to think and speak God.

[1] Cornelius van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink, Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017), 404. [emphasis mine]

[2] Michael Allen, The Promise and Prospects of Retrieval: Recent Developments in the Divine Attributes, accessed 11-08-17.

[3] Myk Habets, Part I, A Realist Approach to Science and Theology, accessed 11-08-17.

[4] Ibid.

23 thoughts on “Arius, ‘the good Greek’: And Miscellanies on the Greekification of God

  1. But Athanasius everywhere presumes Divine Simplicity, Impassibility etc. Those were not Arian impulses; almost every Christian writer at that time took those things as axiomatic. To say that’s God is subject to passions is to throw away the Patristic consensus.


  2. Apparently you didn’t exactly follow the whole line of my post; ie in regard to non-correlation etc. You’re going to make the argument that Athanasius articulated simplicity impassibility univocal w/ the way mediaeval and post reformed orthodoxy does? Okay, I’ll wait to see you make that argument.


  3. I never said God was “subject to passions” (pretty please with sugar on top, don’t put words in my mouth), I said he had/has them according to Scripture and Jesus.


  4. Bobby, your post relates the categories of Simplicity to Arius’ heresy, as though the latter flowed from the former. This simply isn’t true, and can be shown to not be true by the fact that Athanasius (the ‘champion’ of orthodoxy) shares his axiomatic assumption of Simplicity.

    I’m not arguing that Athanasius’ articulation is univocal with the medieval (though I could do), but that Athanasius’ articulation is univocal with Arius’.

    Having ‘passions’ to which one is not subject is a contradiction in terms. By saying ‘subject to passions’, I didn’t intend to misrepresent your words, though I apologise if that’s how it landed. Myk Habet’s quote encapsulates the problem: it caricatures traditional Christian impassibility, and then makes an unwarranted distinction between potentiality and self-movement.

    We ALL affirm that God has passions “according to Scripture”. And all the semi-Arians affirmed that the Son was one with the Father “according of Scripture”. But Athanasius insisted on going further and talking about God’s Being, which is where (and only where) the question of impassibility bites. Yes, we can say God suffers “according to Scripture”. But does he suffer in his being as God? The almost unanimous answer for the orthodox Fathers is that he doesn’t.


  5. “Laurence” from Oxford, I’m not contending (in a blog post) that Athanasius did not operate with Hellenic categories—again I’d hoped to have made that clear (at least by way of signaling)—what I would contend is that the way Athanasius retextualized Hellenic categories was under the evangelical pressure of the reality of the Gospel itself; which would explain why Arius and Athanasius et al arrived at such different conclusions. That Revelation, for Athanasius&co, was given formal prominence (and when I say revelation, I mean the reality of God’s life revealed) whereas philosophy was given formal prominence by Arius&co. Again, I’d hoped to have made that clear in the post; I guess I didn’t.

    I would love to see you make an argument that Athanasius and the medieval are univocal on simplicity. I’ve seen many intimate that—especially online over recent weeks—but never an actual argument. You are free to do that here if you like, or point me to somewhere where you have.

    No, I’m not saying God is not subject to passions, per se, I’m saying that his passions, in se, are part of his a se life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

    Yes, Arians and semi-Arians alike affirm that the Son was one with the Father, but as Jon Robertson points out in his published dissertation from Oxford, this was only a union of will not being (which is Athanasius’s position). The question of whether or not God suffers in his being is not an easy one; I will admit that. I’d prefer, actually, to speak in terms of loss or shadow—to soften things towards the mystery at this point. I realize what the many of the Fathers held in this regard, and was in no small part related to much of the Christological angst as well. I would simply press the singular person of Christ, recognizing the ground of his life (in an/enhypostatic terms) as given by the divine Logos, and recognize that in his full person he suffered. Can that be fully read back into the inner life of God; or is this only an aspect of his economic life? I affirm that the economic is the immanent Trinity, but not in the full Rahnerian sense, but as is qualified by TF Torrance et al. So this remains, for me personally, somewhat of an open question to a degree (and yet I cannot affirm any sort of Moltmannian death of God theology either).

    All of that said: I don’t think my basic premise has been challenged by you (whoever Laurence from Oxfordshire is). My basic point was that someone—like Arius—driven by an unevangelized philosophical metaphysic that posits God as pure being monad will end up with a deficient doctrine of God and Jesus Christ. The question at that point is, for me, whether or not—as we move on history—whether the medievals and post reformed orthodox, as the progeny, adequately evangelized the metaphysic that Arius and Athanasius operated from? Did these later folks accomplish the same level of an evangelicalized metaphysic that someone like Athanasius did? Did Thomas Aquinas really get beyond the mechanical and monadic categories he appropriated from Aristotle in regard to pure being/God, or not? I don’t think so. And that’s where I’m at on this. I would make my argument from reverse, and work from effects (soteriology) to the cause (doctrine of God), ironically, to make a case.


  6. Nothing I’ve said remotely implies that I take tradition more seriously than Scripture. I could return the rather uncharitable favour, and say that you appear to privilege modernism, German Romanticism and the woolly-liberal demand for a “suffering God” above Scripture. But I won’t.

    Your (very interesting) post is much more about tradition than it is about Scripture, no? On that basis, I’ve engaged your claims about tradition – claims which appear to me to misrepresent the Arian debate. Of course the Fathers baptised the metaphysical categories that they used; I don’t know any major theologian that doesn’t. But it’s a non-sequitur of the highest order to assume that “baptism” equals the passable God of the 20th century. There’s no convincing evidence of that in their writings, and much to support Simplicity, the classical attributes of God etc. Even if it isn’t token-for-token univocal with Thomistic Simplicity, it is *far* closer to that it than it is to Neo-Orthodoxy.


  7. Sorry Bobby, I didn’t see your message before making my response. I don’t understand what’s so odd about living in Oxford and being called Laurence. But anyway…


  8. Much has been said recently about Arius and his desire to be faithful to Scripture (cf. Williams). I don’t doubt that Arius was broadly attempting to do the same thing that Athanasius was: to find a way to understand Scripture in the light of recent controversy. Much of his angst was nothing to do with ‘Greek philosophy’ per se, but with an evangelical zeal to combat the the “gnostic” cosmology of divine emanations and the mutability inherent in Sabellianism, which Irenaeus and Tertullian had defeated by a strong appeal to God’s Simplicity. Athanasius shared *exactly* those same concerns and wrestled with exactly the same Scriptures, but was yet able to come to a much better synthesis that made sense of the Church’s praxis of worshipping Jesus and baptising in the Triune name.

    The difficulty here is that we’re discussing the biggest questions in theology, and the temptation is always to generalise rather than make a step-by-step case. So I agree that it must be frustrating to be presented with sweeping statements linking the Patristic doctrine of Simplicity to Aquinas. But I’d only point out that your treatment is equally general. You link impassibility to the Arch-whipping-boy of Church history, but fail to give any concrete examples of the ‘good guys’ (Athanasius et al.) doing anything different. It’s left to your readers to assume that Athanasius shares your view about God’s passions, when in fact it would be quite easy to show that this is not the case. In either case, the burden would be on you to demonstrate what this “baptism” looks like, and why it has any link at all to your (relatively modern) doctrine of God.


  9. Nothing is odd about that; I’m just trying to figure out who you are and what your background is. I like to know who I’m interacting with, it’s always been a quirk of mine.

    I do appreciate your pushback by the way; I don’t get much constructive push like that these days—so thank you.


  10. My point about the semi-Arians (“according to Scripture”) was intended to have a bigger impact than it seems to have done. Classical impassibility teaches that when God “suffers” in Scripture, it is only after a metaphorical mode of speaking. The semi-Arians were happy to say that the Son is one with the Father after a mode of speaking, but refused to link them ontologically. If what you’re affirming about God’s passions is that he “suffers” after a mode of speaking (e.g. not in his being as God but INDIRECTLY through the Son’s assumed humanity, to which suffering is predicated) then you’re not too far from the classical Thesism you seek to repudiate.


  11. So you’re going to contend that Arius arrived at his erroneous conclusions about God based upon the same motivations as Athanasius and the same type of appeal to metaphysics that Athanasius et al operated with? In your mind, then, where did Arius go wrong; what led him down the wicked path he trailed?

    Yes, I agree, these are big theological questions/issues. No, I only suggestively made that “link,” not directly. The link is more tenuous in regard to how well (or not) someone is able to retextualize said metaphysic. I’m also not arguing that my view of passions in God is tout court Athanasius (that’s something you’re imposing on me). I fully admit that there is much Barth lurking in my thinking when it comes to doctrine of God (that’s no secret). But I have read quite a bit of the secondary lit on Ath and him directly; and your claims about him being univocal w/ someone like Aquinas are quite bodacious and a burden you need to demonstrate.


  12. I’m not seeking to necessarily “repudiate” all forms of classical theisms; but instead to evangelize the best offering thru folks like Barth et al. I don’t hold to the notion that all classical theisms are equal, as you seem to. That’s something I’d need to have you demonstrate beyond the space a blog will allow for.


  13. Really enjoying the interaction. As you say, it’ll be hard to demonstrate anything on a blog. Will be back later with a response.


  14. I have a post on Neo-Orthodoxy; Barth wasn’t neoorthodox nor am I. I actually didn’t get too into the Arian debate, I even said that wasn’t my intention in my first paragraph. My post was severely fragmented; I really was only going to make it a short one and leave off with the quote from Kooi. But then the feeling of it all and other stuff going on online right now sort of catapulted me onto a rabbit trail. And who said that I necessarily affirm passibility of the 20th c? Isn’t it possible to be critical of Thomist impassibility w/o jettisoning a qualified form of it? Barth has the resources for that.

    If I actually knew who you were and your background my “uncharitable” attribution to you of elevating trad over scripture may well have not been made. You have also read much into me that isn’t necessarily present in re to a suffering God etc.


  15. Thanks, Bobby. I’d be interested to know what you mean by Thomist impassibility, and where you see Barth correcting him (?). I’ve been able to study Thomas in great detail at Blackfriars here in Oxford, and to say that his treatment of impassibility is not “qualified” would be incredibly wide of the mark.

    The issue I have with Aquinas is the same issue I imagine you have with Barth: their writing is so copious and popular, that people almost always equate their teaching with its popular mediations and slogans. Sometimes the mediation comes through friends (I.e. Torrance, McCormack etc.), and at other times it comes through the caricature and polemic of opponents. At times, I feel that Barth’s friends are the biggest spin-doctors of all when it comes to Aquinas, wildly distorting everything he wrote. In all charity, I sense echoes of that on your blog.


  16. I’d be glad to have a punt at why Arius landed where he did, one day. I’m sure it was down to the same set of complex reasons that the majority of the Church was taken in by that teaching. My point is that it is *not* to do with divine simplicity and not listening to God’s self-revelation. If reading the great heretics of old teaches us anything, it’s that the road to hell is paved with very good intentions. It would be all too facile to say that he reasoned his way to error merely because he didn’t take revelation seriously. It’s obvious in his letters that he did, and yet arrived at mortal error (as Barth did in his theological justification of his adultery).


  17. Barth’s futility on adultery and Arius futility on a doctrine of God are not parallel sins; that’s a pretty big category mistake and red herring, Laurence. But I still think it has everything to do with methodological and formal reasons in re to Arius being “a good Greek”. Majority obviously is pretty meaningless in this discussion contra mundum.


  18. My criticality of Thomas didn’t originally come through Barth, but through Luther et al and other historical theological voices. I can recognize a distinction between Thomas and neo-Thomists, but that distinction doesn’t get Thomas off the hook in regard to his heavy reliance on Aristotle; I’ve actually read large chunks of Thomas’s summa directly, and I don’t fully buy this idea that Thomas was so different from the Thomists; I think Henri de Lubac critique is quite on point—even if he is critically accepting of some of Thomas. If you’d like to illustrate how these folks have wildly misrepresented Thomas I’d be happy to entertain that.

    I never said his treatment of impassibility was unqualified, but that I still find it untenable and still suffering from monadic like sensibilities (with his essence/accident distinctions etc). I fundamentally reject Thomas’s theology. Even so, people like Hunsinger can speak somewhat charitably of Thomas as transitional towards some of Barth’s own developments.

    So are you a PhD student at Oxford? I have a friend who did his PhD there; Shao Kai Tseng—on Barth’s theology no less.


  19. Interesting. There’s lots to discuss there, but I wonder if it might be more fruitful to talk privately. Would you mind if I emailed/facebooked?


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