St Jerome is often quoted as saying, “The whole world groaned and was astonished to find itself Arian”
Well I think Arianism hasn’t died out. It’s going strong, but sadly few people are groaning over this reality.
Simply defined, Arianism is the belief that Jesus Christ was not equal with God the Father, but was a created being. In the fourth century the Cappadocian fathers, St Basil and St Gregory of Nazianzus (along with Basil’s brother Gregory of Nyssa and John Chrysostom), fought against Arianism.
The theological details are, of course, much more nuanced, but the bottom line definition for Arianism is that Jesus is no more than a very good guy. Therefore, it is worth examining the heresy of Arianism today. Heresies are like weeds. They keep coming back. The thing is, they come back in different guises. In the fourth century Arianism was part of the great debate over the divinity of Christ and therefore the definition of the Holy Trinity.
Today Arianism takes a different form, and comes to us in the guise of humanism. By ‘humanism’ I mean that belief system that takes man as the measure of all things. This humanism is a conglomeration of different modernistic beliefs, but the summary of it all is materialism– that this physical world is all there is, human history is all that matters and the advancement of the human race in this physical realm is the only thing fighting for.
Arianism today is an interpretation of Christianity according to this whole materialistic, humanistic philosophy. Clearly, Jesus Christ as the Divine Son of God and the co-eternal second person of the Holy Trinity doesn’t really fit. Instead the false teachers propose that Jesus is a good man–even the very best of men. He is a wise rabbi, a beautiful example, a martyr for a noble cause. At most he is a human being who is “so fulfilled and self actualized that he has ‘become divine’.” To put it another way, “Jesus is so complete a human being that he reveals to us the divine image in which we were all created–and therefore shows us what God is like.” There is a sense in which this “divinization” happened to Jesus as a result of the graces he received from God, the life he led and the sufferings he endured.
This watered down Christianity is our modern form of Arianism. The cultural context of the heresy and it’s expression is different, but the essence of the heresy is the same as it always was: “Jesus Christ is a created being. His ‘divinity’ is something that developed or was added to his humanity by God.”
The difference between Arius and the modern heretics is that Arius was actually explicit in his teaching. The modern heretics are not. They inhabit our seminaries, our monasteries, our rectories, presbyteries and bishop’s palaces. They are the modernist clergy who dominate the mainstream Protestant denominations and who infest the Catholic Church as well.
Many of them don’t even know they are heretics. They have been poorly catechized from the start. Their beliefs about Jesus Christ have remained fuzzy and out of focus. They hold their beliefs in a sentimental haze in which they vaguely feel that what they believe is “Christian” but would not want to pin it down too much. This is because they have been taught that dogma is “divisive”. They deliberately keep their beliefs vague, and focus on “pastoral concerns” in order to avoid the difficult questions. They have been taught that dogma is part of an earlier age in the church and that we have matured and moved on from such nit picky sort of questions. “God, after all, can’t be put into a box. He’s bigger than all that…”
The Nicene Creed comes to us from the Council of Nicea in 325 AD when the Arian heresy was quashed and the full divinity of Christ was affirmed. The Creed hammers it home:
I believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.
I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the Only Begotten Son of God,
born of the Father before all ages.
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary,
At the words that follow up to and including
and became man,
So you might wonder how such men can manage to recite the Nicene Creed every week and celebrating the Nativity of the Son of God and the great Paschal Triduum–using all the words of traditional Nicene Christianity. Well, it works like this. They treat the creeds as “historically significant documents which require constant re-interpretation.” In other words, they use the same traditional words of orthodox Catholicism, but they mean something else entirely. So when they recite “only begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds” they excuse their wishy washy belief by saying “this is a poetic way of speaking about mysteries which are beyond our understanding…” When they speak of Jesus Christ the Divine Son of God they really mean what I wrote above–“That in some beautiful way Jesus was such a perfect human being that he reveals to us what God is like.”
The Virgin Mary then becomes “A good and pure Jewish girl who dealt with her unplanned pregnancy with great courage and faith.” The crucifixion becomes “The tragic death of a young and courageous fighter for peace and justice”. The resurrection means that, “In some mysterious way, by following his teachings, the disciples of Jesus continued to believe that he was alive within their hearts and within history.”
You get the idea. What they mean by the Catholic faith and what you understand it to be is radically different, but you’ll never find out because they use the same language you do. It would be rather like a person reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag but what they mean by “liberty and justice for all” is communism.
Now what really interests me is that these modern day Arians (and I’m sure the same could be said of the fourth century version) are not wicked and filthy sinners. They’re nice people. They’re articulate, educated people. They’re well off people. They’re well connected people. They’re good, solid respectable “Christian” people. Heck, even the emperors were Arians in their day. They’re the people on top of the socio economic pecking order. Furthermore, their Arian version of the faith seems so much more reasonable and sensible and credible than the intellectually scandalous orthodoxy of Basil and Gregory and the historic church down through the ages. Like the Arians of the fourth century, they are smooth talkers, skilled and subtle theologians and manipulative, charming people.
But I’m with Basil, Gregory and Athanasius. I recognize these heretics for what they are: wolves in sheep’s clothing. They might present as nice, respectable, prayerful and sincere Christians. That’s OK. But they’re heretics. They’re liars, and the people who believe their lies the most are themselves. If they have their way, and if their subtle heresies prevail they will destroy the faith. Therefore they are my enemies.
I want to hold to the historic Nicene faith with all the saints and martyrs down the ages. I don’t mind a bit if the world thinks this faith is “antique” or “quaint” or “unfortunately rigid” or “too dogmatic” or “inaccessible to modern Christians”. The Arians probably made all those same arguments too.
I affirm the Nicene Creed and I don’t mind saying the Lord Jesus Christ is “consubstantial with the Father” and I hold to the clarity and simplicity of the words and don’t think they need to be “re-interpreted.”
This was a well-written work. I think the hardest part of my first few years in the Church (I’ve only been Catholic for five years) was the scandal I felt when I met people like this. Unfortunately, I’ve also met a Priest who thought like the people you wrote about. I will be perfectly honest with you; it was challenging to my faith. Through prayer, study, and counsel from my wife (she’s the cradle Catholic of our duo) I was able to get through it. It makes me think that there may be a few converts that don’t weather the storm of realizing that there are many people in the Church, including in its hierarchy, that don’t believe most of the teachings. I guess you’ll always have the weeds growing with the wheat.
There are a percentage of priests who no more believe the Bible is the word of God than the phone book or the Book of Morman. They loaf through the Seminary without much effort, long for Suburban parishes, are indifferent to virtually everything. Think of the director of a Funeral home who knows the right thing to say, always remains respectful and properly dressed and gives the impression that he or she actually cares and shares your grief. So these priests slide along through life, work the system, and hold on for vacations and retirement. Ask them why they continue in the Priesthood and you will get answers like, “I’m not sure what else I would do, I like people, or for a while I believed all that stuff, or best of all they wouldn’t want to hurt their Mother or Grandmother by leaving”. You my friend have been challenged in your faith, placed in the balance and found whole, congratulations. A very wise Priest I knew told me that rather than become angry with the Church because of a Priest and turn away from God, instead seek the good which is present in so many places within yourself and the larger Church.
This article and specifically the sentence, “The difference between Arius and the modern heretics is that Arius was actually explicit in his teaching” got me thinking about other heresies such as Modernism in the Catholic Church today. I’ve been reading about the so-called ‘nouvelle theologie’ movement from the 1940-1960s. These nouvelle thinkers (e.g. De Lubac) seem to deny the impact of original sin without explicitly stating so. I just can’t seem to pin this movement down in what they actually believe. I wonder, is the nouvelle theologie framework just an implicit form of Modernism?
Yes, and I wish I had kept the source of the quote from Athansius or one of the Cappadocian Fathers that pointed out that the heretics were especially adroit at saying one thing but meaning another and at using ambiguous language.
Fr Longenecker, I need help knowing how to understand what you’ve written here about your enemies in light of Immortal Combat. I agree with every word in this piece, and meanwhile, I am trying to live that book. Here’s where I get stuck: how do I say THIS IS HERESY without falling into I am right (Pride) and you are wrong (Prejudice)? “You are my enemies” is even more challenging. Loving my enemies without becoming a relativist, I guess that sums up the challenge. Any light to shed?
This is a very good question, and it emphasizes the importance of the magisterium of the Catholic Church. If you are knowledgable about what the Catholic Church teaches you can assert that something is heresy or immoral not because it is your opinion, but because the Catholic Church teaches it. Therefore instead of saying, “I think that’s heresy!” and thereby saying “I’m right and you’re wrong” you can simply and objectively say, “According to the teaching of the Catholic Church your opinion is heretical.” However, there are some things that are opinion and not church teaching, and if there is a grey area or things are a matter of opinion you can also therefore be more open minded and tolerant. So, for example if a person says, “I think gay marriage is just fine.” You can quite clearly state that this is contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church. That is objectively true. This also allows you to still be friendly to that person if you wish. However, if a person says, “I think solar energy is stupid” that’s nothing to do with church teaching. There are still some grey areas, but thank God, on all the important doctrinal and moral issues the teaching of the Catholic Church is quite clear.