You know Yogi Berra’s one-liner: “This is déjà vu all over again.” Well, the modern Catholic Church is experiencing Arianism all over again.
Marcellino D’Ambrosio’s new book When the Church Was Young is an excellent introduction to the lives and teachings of the Fathers of the Church. His section on the Arian controversy is especially good—dealing with fascinating characters, a complex plot line and abstruse theological arguments in a down to earth and compelling way. In reading it, I was reminded of how relevant the events of the first millennium of the church are to this new millennium.
Arianism, simply defined, 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. Their friend Athanasius was an especially stalwart, dynamic and determined defender of the orthodox faith in the face of almost universal heresy.
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. There is no spiritual realm, no heaven or hell, and therefore the advancement of the human race in this physical realm is the only thing fighting for.
Today’s form of Arianism is understands Jesus Christ according to this materialistic, humanistic philosophy. If there is no supernatural realm, then Jesus Christ must be no more than a good man. The idea of a historic and real incarnation is an embarrassment to those who believe only in the physical realm.
Instead of being the Divine Son of God and the co-eternal second person of the Holy Trinity Jesus is a seen to be a good teacher, a wise rabbi, a beautiful example, or 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’.” The Arian of today would put it like this: “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.”
This watered down Christianity is everywhere. Its expression is different, but the essence of the heresy is the same as it always was: “Jesus Christ is not God incarnate. He 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 and presbyteries. They are the modernist clergy who dominate the mainstream Protestant denominations and populate 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 ill-formed. 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. “After all” they say with a weaselly smile, “God is bigger than our definitions isn’t he? He can’t be put into a box…”
Nevertheless, they feel totally at ease reciting 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 Christianity, while re-interpreting those words in a way that would please Arius. So when they speak of Jesus Christ the Divine Son of God, what they really mean is “In some beautiful way Jesus was such a perfect human being that he reveals to us what God is like.”
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. It was the same in the fourth century; why, even the emperors were Arians.
These suave and smooth heretics are on top of the socio-economic pecking order. Their Arian re-interpretation of the faith seems so much more reasonable and sensible and credible than the intellectually scandalous orthodoxy of Athanasius and the Nicene Christians down through the ages.
Saints like Athanasius and the Cappadocian Fathers fought Arianism and suffered greatly in the battle. Modernism is the Arianism of our day, and we need to first be aware of the poisonous heresy that it is, identify it for what it is and fight it.
Why is this important? Because Arianism then and Arianism now will destroy the Church and destroy man’s hope for a glorious final destiny. If Jesus Christ is no more than a good man, then the bridge from God to Man does not exist, Jesus’ death is no more than a martyrdom and his resurrection no more than a symbol. If this is true, then man is still separated from God, his soul cannot be saved and he is forever alienated from his heavenly home.