Evangelicals and disagreement: What can we learn from the Arians?

Athanasius
Athanasius of Alexandria.

If you haven’t seen the news recently, Christian worship leader and media commentator Vicky Beeching has come out as gay. (If you don’t know who she is, or any of the background, that link will hopefully explain). In a similar vein to Steve Chalke, who came out in support of same-sex marriage recently, Vicky wants to retain the label ‘evangelical’. All this has re-opened the same debate which has been bubbling away for some time now: just what is an evangelical? (A subject which I’ve written about before from another angle).

I read an interesting post this week by Ian Paul about the role of experience in interpreting Scripture, and it made me realise once again that the debate (within evangelical circles at least) largely centres around how we interpret Scripture. Two people can have the same view of Scripture and yet interpret it differently, so it is said – therefore, both interpretations are legitimate.

It put me in mind of something I studied at college last year – namely, the debate between those defending Nicene Christology and the Arians. If your eyes glazed over when I mentioned the word ‘Nicene’ and you entered a coma-like state at ‘Christology’… I apologise. I will explain. But the similarity between the debates within evangelical circles today and the debates in around the 4th century AD are striking, to say the least. As it says in Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9).

So, who were the Arians?

The Arians are the villains of the piece. They take their name from Arius of Alexandria, who was denounced as a heretic at the Council of Nicea (325AD). The Arians taught that Jesus was a created being, not an eternal Son – and as such he was not God. You can still see this teaching alive and well today in organisations like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It has gone through many variations throughout the years – the people we’ll come onto in a moment were dealing with a later form of Arianism who would have used more developed arguments than Arius.

One of the interesting things about the Arians for our purposes was that they were ‘evangelicals’. They weren’t liberals – denying the truth of (some of) the Scriptures. They had a “high view of Scripture” – they didn’t think it was wrong, they simply wanted to challenge the interpretation.

Enter Sandman Hilary and Athanasius

Hilary of Poitiers and Athanasius of Alexandria are, surprisingly, not characters from Game of Thrones (apparently everyone in that programme is “someone of somewhere else”). They are in fact two theologians who wrote strongly against the Arian heresy. You could say a lot about their response to Arianism (and, indeed, many people have) – but for the moment I’m just going to pick up on one theme: what does the Arians’ interpretation of Scripture say about God?

First up, this is what Hilary says in De Trinitate:

While I was thus engaged there came to light certain fallacies of rash and wicked men, hopeless for themselves and merciless towards others, who made their own feeble nature the measure of the might of God’s nature. They claimed, not that they had ascended to an infinite knowledge of infinite things, but that they had reduced all knowledge, undefined before, within the scope of ordinary reason, and fixed the limits of the faith. Whereas the true work of religion is a service of obedience; and these were men heedless of their own weakness, reckless of Divine realities, who undertook to improve upon the teaching of God. (De Trinitate I.15)

And with scarcely a moment to take a breath, let’s move seamlessly into a quote from Athanasius:

The Arians, being engrossed in themselves, and thinking with the Sadducees that there is nothing greater or beyond themselves, have met the inspired Scripture with human arguments. When they hear that the Son is the Wisdom, Radiance, and Word of the Father, they are accustomed to rejoin, “How can this be?”, as though nothing can be unless they understand it. (Epistle 2-3 to Serapion)

The argument from both of them here is that the Arians – as finite, human creatures – have tried to start with what they understand, rather than letting the infinite God be the one who reveals himself. The key point is that those who wish to understand the Bible must start with the view that God is bigger than us, and therefore God might understand a few more things than we do. In studying the Bible, we must not come thinking that God will fit in with our expectations; rather, we must come prepared to let our expectations be moulded by what God says.

One of the arguments that Hilary and Athanasius make is that the Arians essentially refuse to let God testify about himself: Jesus calls himself ‘Son’ – but the Arians essentially deny that Jesus is a true Son. It is, as Hilary says, saying that if they can’t actually understand how something can be the case, then it must not be. God’s revelation through the Scriptures has to fit with their ideas.

How does this relate to the topic at hand?

Good question. And I would just like to say I’m glad you asked … otherwise this blog post could have gone on forever.

I’d like to suggest a couple of things:

Firstly, people like Athanasius and Hilary didn’t “agree to disagree” on matters of interpretation. They didn’t say to the Arians, “Hey, we disagree, but we want there to be diversity within the church. It’s, like, totally cool if you think that Jesus was a created being.” Although the Arians weren’t ‘liberal’ when it came to Scripture, their interpretation really did matter. This has a direct bearing on our understanding of what it means to be ‘evangelical’ today: I would say you can’t just claim to be evangelical with a high view of Scripture without proving it by the way you interpret Scripture. Not every interpretation of Scripture is correct: see, for example, Jesus’ reply to the Sadducees in Mark 12:18-27 – “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God?

Secondly, our methodology matters hugely. Are we allowing the infinite God to speak to us, or are we baptising our wants and desires with ‘thus says the Lord’? This is a tough question for every theologian, and indeed every Christian! If we go back to the story of Vicky Beeching, what I find interesting about her – as horrendous as her experience was – is her assumption that God could not have said what he really did because of her experience. Her starting position, as far as I can see, is that the traditional position cannot be correct – because that’s not her experience. She comes to the Scriptures with an agenda. This is an approach which ends up silencing God: how could God disagree with someone when they have already presupposed the conclusion they want to come to?

In conclusion, then, the church’s debates around Arianism teach us something about disagreement within the church: interpretation really does matter – particularly on an area like sexuality. The church in history didn’t simply “agree to disagree”. And how we read the Bible, the presuppositions we bring to the table, really does matter. We must read the Bible understanding that it is the Word of the infinite God, the God who spoke the stars into motion, who knows all things – including the future – and who is competent to inspire Scripture and to speak clearly into our situations.

Postscript: I only realised after writing this post that I’d already blogged about the particular quote from Hilary before (blogging, huh?) – however, this is an expansion of what I said back then so I will simply link back there for the keen to go back and see what I wrote and how it compares to this time round…

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