The Rationale of Arianism

I’m now reading through Hanson’s account of Arianism and trying to differentiate his view from Gregg and Groh which I have posted on recently. He agrees with them that one must not think of Arianism as merely philosophical speculation on cosmology or the transcendence of God.  In other words, Arianism has a soteriology. Their doctrine of God is tied into their understanding of salvation. Yet, as I’ve mentioned before, Hanson critiques Gregg and Groh’s analysis (The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, pp. 97-98).

1) Gregg and Groh align Arianism closer to Stoicism than Middle Platonism, but the relevant Stoic vocabulary is missing (though there is the use of Middle Platonist and Aristotelian terminology). Though, this isn’t that significant especially when one considers the Arian insistence on using only scriptural terms. Thus, while technical vocabulary would make the scholars job easier, I think Gregg and Groh’s point is that a Stoicism makes more sense of the data than Middle Platonism. That is, their thesis is a hypothesis and not a sum. It’s value should be weighed against the evidence to see if it makes sense of the data the best.

2) While there is evidence that the Arian’s gave value to the idea of a morally progressing Son, there is also evidence that the Son cannot make moral progress. Hanson’s argument is simply that if the Son received grace according to his foreseen merit, and that grace produced sinlessness (not by nature), then Christ would not be able to morally progress.  I’m not entirely convinced by this argument either because Gregg and Groh argue that the grace given is essentially adoption as Son and not sinlessness. Remember, Christ’s foreseen merit was that he would not sin (see the quote on my post “The Arian View of Salvation”), so sinlessness by grace cannot be the reward. The reward (i.e., “grace”) is adoption as Son.

3) The third objection is the most serious, and that is that Christ cannot be the virtuous man because he really isn’t a man. This points to Hanson’s analysis (to be quoted below) of the rationale of Arianism, namely that the pre-existent Christ assumed human flesh without a human soul. Yes, Christ is the example, but he is not an example of a human being making moral progress. This is an legitimate point, but I wonder how relevant it actually is. Gregg and Groh aren’t saying that the Arian view of salvation is that a man lived a perfectly virtuous life, but that a creature did (again, see my post, “The Arian View of Salvation”). If their view of salvation was one of example, then does it matter whether the example comes from a true man (i.e., with a human soul) or a true creature?

Nonetheless, I think Hanson’s analysis is worth quoting because it does illuminate something that was oddly absent from Gregg and Groh’s analysis.

We can now perceive the rationale of Arianism. At the heart of the Arian Gospel was a God who suffered. Their elaborate theology of the relation of the Son to the Father which so much preoccupied their opponents was devised in order to find a way of envisaging a Christian doctrine of God which would make it possible to be faithful to the Biblical witness to a God who suffers. This was to be achieved by conceiving of a lesser God as reduced divinity who would be ontologically capable, as the High God was not, of enduring human experiences, including suffering and death. This might be called an exemplarist soteriology, not in the sense that they presented the example of a man gaining perfection by moral effort, but in the sense that it was an example of God suffering as man suffers, or at least what man suffers, in order to redeem man. Arian writers are fully convinced of the genuine humanity of the body which the Logos assumed. They are not tempted to suggest, as many pro-Nicene writers do, that Christ’s human nature, though genuinely human, was not the same as ours because it was derived from a Virgin without the interposition of male generation, though of course all Arians believed in the virginal conception of Jesus. But they insist that what this Word assumed when he became incarnate was a soma (body) without a psyche (soul). Arianism never seems to have faced, as Apollinarianism may be said to have faced, the question of the mind, the nous, nor of the spirit, the pneuma, of the incarnate Son. Because Arians were determined that the Son of God did genuinely, seriously, undergo human experiences, within the limits of their doctrine they understood the scandal of the Cross much better than the pro-Nicenes. Neither Athanasius nor Hilary nor the Cappadocians could ever have envisaged the self-emptying of the Son as Asterius did, nor have written etiam sui ipsius impassibilitatem praeposuit salutem humanam (he even placed human salvation before his own immunity from suffering). Here Arian thought achieved an important insight into the witness of the New Testament denied to the pro-Nicenes of the fourth century, who unanimously shied away from and endeavoured to explain away the scandal of the Cross. We must give the Arians credit for this insight. But of course they only achieved their doctrine of the Incarnation at the expense of an account of the Christian doctrine of God which in effect taught two unequal gods, a High God incapable of human experiences, and a lesser God who, so to speak, did his dirty work for him. most of us will conclude that this was too high a price to pay.

As for the old contrast between cosmology or ontology and soteriology in Arianism, we have seen good reason to believe that this is a false problem. Arianism did not consist only of Prestige’s ‘glittering syllogisms’ nor was it composed of two incompatible halves (Harnack). The ontology fitted the soteriology and the soteriology the ontology. Once we understand the true rationale of Arianism, we realize that the two sides fit very well together, have in face been devised to fit together, and that it is only by accident that we have been given the impression that either Arius or his followers cared only for defining the relation of the Son to the Father. They laboured for and upheld that definition because they held a concrete and by no means contemptible doctrine of salvation which that definition was intended to undergird.”

-R. P. C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 121-122.

It’s a long quote, but then Hanson never did take Polonius’ advice. My only question, though, is regarding the mechanics of salvation according to Hanson’s picture. Yes, the Arians had a vision of a God who suffered (even if only vicariously through the Son), but how does that save humankind? Gregg and Groh were very clear on this, but Hanson seems to stop short of a clear explanation. It seems that Hanson’s construction looks like the Arian’s held a similar view of salvation as to that of Athanasius. That is, Christ suffered like us and thus took upon himself our infirmities, etc… This could make sense of the debate in that they held to a similar view of salvation, the only difference is Christology. Athanasius would then be arguing that in order for the similar soteriology to work, Christ must be truly divine. Hopefully this will come up when he discusses Athanasius, but for now I’m at a loss.


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