Saturday, October 29, 2011

Arius, Athanasius and Jehovah's Witnesses

A couple years ago I wrote about an encounter I had with a Jehovah’s Witness. I wondered then (and still wonder now) how best to carry on a conversation with them. They have some sincerely held beliefs that motivate their proselytizing activity. And they generally are not argumentative or confrontational (at least not with me). I often ask them if they believe the Gospel, that Jesus died on the cross for their sins and rose from the dead, and their answer is usually an unequivocal “yes”.

For those of you who are not clear on the difference between the Jehovah’s Witness’ beliefs and classical Christianity, it has to do with their understanding of who Jesus is. They believe him to be a created being, even the first created being, but nonetheless separate and apart from God Himself, as opposed to the classic Trinitarian belief that God is One Being but somehow Three Persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Of course, it is hard to fathom and get your arms around the classic Christian belief. Three Persons but One God? I don’t get it! I think it was Augustine who said about the Trinity: “Try to explain it and you will lose your mind. Try and deny it and you will lose your soul.” Indeed the early church wrestled with and finally settled the matter at the Council of Nicaea in 335, prior to Augustine’s birth.

The matter in question was the teaching of Arius of Alexandria, who taught that Jesus was a being separate and apart from God. He was opposed by Athanasius, the Bishop of Alexandria, who contended that Jesus was one in essence with God the Father. The Council declared Arius’ teaching to be heresy and affirmed Athanasius. As the Nicene Creed summarizes:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father. Through him all things were made.

Now you might ask, what is the difference, anyway? Isn’t it just like theologians to argue how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? I remember years ago discussing this with my dad who, though a believer, had little patience for theologians. Though he affirmed classical Christianity and disagreed with Arian theology, he viewed Arius as some kind of free thinker who ran afoul of a powerful, politically connected ecclesiastical council. Actually, the opposite was true.. It was Arius who was the more politically powerful. Even though the council affirmed Athanasius’ teaching, it was Arius who was the more popular, and Athanasius ended up being banished. According to John Piper,

Athanasius was driven out of his church and office five times by the powers of the Roman Empire. Seventeen of his forty-five years as bishop were spent in exile.  [Contending for Our All (2006, Wheaton Illinois, Crossway Books), p. 39.]

But I digress. What difference does it really make whether Jesus was a created being or whether Jesus and God are one? Isn’t the fundamental issue that He lived a sinless life, died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead? Paul himself said:

“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” (I Corinthians 15:3)”

I could cite several Scriptures that make it clear that Jesus and God are one, and indeed I have gotten into such discussions with Jehovah’s Witnesses, and these discussions have generally proven fruitless. But lately I have been thinking of a different approach, and to give credit where credit is due, I must thank the non-Christians, even atheists, who have often come forward with the following argument:

“So you believe that God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son… to die a horrific death on a cross--although he was innocent--so you could be forgiven of your sins? You call that good news? That is terrible! If anything, I would call that cosmic child abuse!”

You know, if Arius and the Jehovah’s Witnesses are right, if Jesus was in fact a separate being, if God sent such a “son” to suffer and die, I suppose the atheists have a point. That would be cosmic child abuse indeed! However, it was Athanasius and the Council of Nicaea who got it right. God did not send someone else. Rather, He came Himself to bear the penalty for our sins, doing so in the Person of Jesus, the God-Man, and rose again to give us forgiveness of sins and eternal life.  As the Nicene creed affirms:

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,begotten, not made,
one in Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.

For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered, died, and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in fulfillment of the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of Life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.


Tetamay said...

Well done, Leo. Made up for my missed church service today.

JD Curtis said...

Very interesting MDC