“There was a time when the Son was not.” This famous quotation comes from the mouth of a 4th century priest of Alexandria Egypt, named Arius. Arius was a heretic. In this one short sentence, the whole of his theology is summarized.
What did Arius mean by this assertion, and why is it important for your life, and the Church’s life today, especially since it is celebrated on the 7th Sunday after the resurrection?
First, the teachings of Arius are almost identical with modern-day Jehovah’s Witnesses. The problem with Arius’ teaching and Jehovah’s Witnesses today was his belief that Jesus was the first act of God’s creation, that God created Jesus, and then through Jesus, God created the rest of the world.
In other words, Jesus was not fully God, as the Father is fully God. Rather, Jesus is the first act of God’s creation, and so that makes him a created being, not the eternal Son of God.
Let me get at this through a more familiar symbol. I like to describe the Arian Christ as a kind of superman. You know, someone who is greater than a regular human being, but less than God. Jesus was a superman figure, who was neither fully human, nor fully divine, but somewhere in between. Hence, Arius’ famous saying, “There was a time when the Son was not.”
In other words, there was a time when the Son did not exist. He was a created being and not the eternal Son of God. Do you understand?
Okay, now, the interesting question is, why does the Church call our attention to this heresy at this particular time in the liturgical calendar?
There are several reasons why, but the most obvious appears to be this: If the Christ of Arianism is merely a kind of superman figure, then the Church is dangerously guilty of two things:
Let’s take each in turn. First, if Arius is right, then the Church is guilty of idolatry. Why? Because, as the Church subsequently confessed through the Nicene Creed, Jesus is light of light, true God of true God, begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made.
You see, the Christ of Orthodoxy is the Christ who is eternally one with God, the Father. The one whom we worship is none other than the same one who declared in the gospel of John, “I and my Father are one.” Jesus is not a created being, but an eternally divine being who is worthy of our worship.
So, in Arius’ view, if the Church is worshipping Jesus, as it does, then the Church must be guilty of making a God out of a man, and worshipping him, and that is idolatry. No man is to be worshipped as God. This is a very serious charge which the Church emphatically rejects today.
The second thing the Church would be guilty of if Arius was right, is its belief that Jesus Christ is the savior of the world. You see, the Arian Christ cannot save anyone. If Christ is a mere creature, even the most exalted one, then the best Jesus can do is to give us a moral example to follow. He can show us how to be good Christians, and how to treat others fairly and lovingly, but what the Arian Christ cannot do is save us. Only God can save from sin, and the Arian Jesus is not God.
For Arias, Jesus’ death on the cross can have no redemptive meaning other than being an example of love and obedience to God. But, as you know, that is not the Christ of the Bible, and of the Church. The Christ of Orthodoxy is, precisely, the divine savior of the world. The Church confesses that only God can save us from our sins, and Christ was fully God.
In summary, on this Sunday, the Church condemns the teaching of Arius. Against Arius, the Church believes that Christ is, indeed, to be worshipped, because he is our Lord and our savior.
Let’s pause for a moment. Look carefully at what the Church is telling us this week. What do you see? The basic message of this Sunday’s liturgy is that Jesus Christ is the only Lord and only savior of the world. He is the only one who is truly one with the Father, who became man, suffered, died, and rose again for our salvation. In other words, the Christ of the Church is the Christ of the gospel. Christ is risen, and that means he is both Lord and savior of the world.
For this liturgical celebration, the Church tells us that we must never lose sight of this important message. The ABCs are absolutely central to the Church’s faith. Without those ABCs there can be no XYZs. The Christian life is all about the fundamentals of the gospel and how those fundamentals affect everything else: Baptism, the Eucharist, and all the other sacraments.
So my friends, never allow yourself to minimize the centrality of the gospel. Never allow yourself to think, “I am past all that stuff. I do not need to hear the gospel anymore. I heard that when I was an evangelical. I used to talk about the gospel when I was a protestant, but I do not do that anymore because I have grown up and gotten over it.” Never let yourself think, “Now I am more interested in saints, and liturgy, and history, and spirituality. Repentance and faith in Christ are good things to talk about, but I am more interested in how many metanias I do every day, how many Lord-have-mercy’s I sing. I have gotten past the gospel now, and am deep into the Church’s tradition.”
Well, if you have come to that point in your life, then may I suggest that you rethink your faith in light of the First Ecumenical Council? To be Orthodox does not mean that you trade the gospel for the Church. On the contrary, the Church’s faith is, and always will be, gospel-centered. The Church not only embraces the ABCs, it proclaims them every time we recite the Nicene Creed, so do not let the ecclesiological deficiencies of your past keep you from seeing how central and important the gospel of Jesus Christ is at the heart of the Church’s faith. Keep the gospel central to your life and ministry.
And what is the gospel? The gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God who became human, suffered on the cross, died for our sins, rose from the dead, and that all who put their faith in him and are baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity, will enter the Kingdom of God and the life of the Church.
You say, “I believe in the Nicene Creed, so what am I supposed to do about it?” The applications are many, but one answer is clear and simple. Today, right now, if you are listening to my voice, God wants you to share the good news of the Nicene Creed with other people. He wants you to share the saving gospel of Jesus Christ with the people you live and work with, not just by living a holy life around them, or simply reciting the Nicene Creed, but by using your words, and telling them the good news, and inviting them to faith in Jesus Christ and the sacramental life of the Church. In other words, we have to show and tell the good news of the Nicene Creed today, and not just confess it.
Perhaps the true story of Fritz Chrysler will make the point. Fritz Chrysler was a famous violinist who lived from 1875 to 1962. He was known all over the world for the beautiful way he played the violin. Chrysler once earned a fortune with his violin concerts and compositions, but instead of keeping the money for himself, he generously gave most of it away.
One day, he discovered an absolutely exquisite violin on one of his trips. He wanted it desperately, but he was not able to buy it because he had given all his money away. Later, he raised enough money to meet the asking price, so he returned to the seller, hoping to purchase the beautiful violin he so strongly admired. To his great dismay, the violin had already been sold to a collector.
But Chrysler found out where the new owner lived, and so he went to his home and offered to buy the violin. The collector told him that it had become his prized possession and under no circumstance whatsoever would he sell it. Chrysler was sad and keenly disappointed. But just as he was about to leave he had an idea. He asked the new owner, “Could I play the instrument just once more before you consign it forever to silence?”
The owner granted him permission and the great virtuoso played the great violin one last time. The magnificent sound filled the room with such heart-moving music that the collector’s emotions were deeply stirred. After a few moments of silence, the collector explained, “I have no right to keep that violin to myself. It is yours, Mr. Chrysler. Take it into the world, and let the people hear it.”
And that, my friends, is what the Church is asking you to do this week. The Church is not simply defending a deep theological proof about Christ being Lord and savior. The Church is doing much more than that. It is telling every man, every woman, and every child who recites the Nicene Creed today, “Proclaim the good news from every corner of the world in which you live. Take the saving gospel of Jesus Christ into all the world and let the people hear it.”