An Iota of Difference
Arius and Athanasius of Alexandria
Where Science Meets Religion by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD, for the Come Follow Me lesson October 9–15: Philippians; Colossians
Paul wrote to the Philippians (2:6-11), “Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
The Pulpit Commentary, as quoted at Bible Hub, states of these verses: v. 6, “Then, when St. Paul tells us that Christ Jesus, being first in the form of God, took the form of a servant, the meaning must be that he possessed originally the essential attributes of Deity, and assumed in addition the essential attributes of humanity.” v. 8 “He humbled himself in the Incarnation; but this was not all. The apostle has hitherto spoken of our Lord’s Godhead which he had from the beginning, and of his assumption of our human nature. He now speaks of him as he appeared in the sight of men. The aorist participle, ‘being found (εὑρεθείς),’ refers to the time of his earthly life when he appeared as a man among men. Fashion (σχῆμα), as opposed to form (μορφή), implies the outward and transitory. In outward appearance he was as a man; he was more, for he was God.” v. 9 “This seems to mean, not the name Jesus, which was given him at his circumcision, in accordance with the angel's message; but the name Lord or Jehovah (comp. Ver. 11), which was indeed his before his incarnation, but was given (comp. Matthew 28:18, ‘All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth’) to Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son, God and Man in one Person.” v. 11 “The glory of God the Father, from whom, as the original Source, the whole scheme of salvation proceeds, is the supreme and ultimate object of the Savior's incarnation.”1
All of this commentary seems to be in complete harmony with our understanding of Jesus Christ as revealed many times to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. However, there is one rather odd turn of phrase “the incarnate Son, God and Man in one Person,” which seems rather out of place and doesn’t make a lot of sense. If we search elsewhere in the Pulpit Commentary, to find the meaning behind that odd phrase we find the following commentary on Ephesians 1:1, “By the will of God. The First Person of the Trinity, the Fountain of Godhead, has not only devised the whole scheme of mercy, but has likewise planned the subordinate arrangements by which it is carried out; thus it was by his will that Paul held the office of an apostle of Christ (see Galatians 1:1; Acts 26:7; Galatians 1:11, 12).”2 Here we see that the odd phrase in the commentary on Philippians 2:9 has apparent reference to the Trinity.
So what is the Trinity and why does it make an iota of difference? Sometime before 323 AD, a bishop from Cyrenaica, eastern Libya, by the name of Arius (250 or 256 – 336 AD), had studied the scriptures extensively and came to the conclusion that Christ was subordinate to and different from the father. That seems to me to be a very logical conclusion, based on numerous New Testament passages. Arius stated, “If the Father begat the Son, he that was begotten had a beginning of existence: hence it is that there was when the Son was not. It follows then of necessity that he had his existence from the non-existence.” Here Arius failed to recognize the modern understanding that Christ’s intelligence has always existed but that He was a spirit child of God.3 None-the-less, Arius believed that Jesus should be fully revered as God, but not equal to the Father.
However, Christianity had its roots in Judaism, which, after many years of worshiping the alien gods of the people surrounding them, by the early Christian era, were firmly entrenched in monotheism. Furthermore, the Greek converts to Christianity had thrown off the pantheon of Greek gods as being “ignorantly served.” Therefore, with this early Christian reasoning, if Christ were God, He must be the same God as the Father, or no god at all. Athanasius, who was about twenty-five at the time, and a deacon and assistant to Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, took on the task of countering Arius. Alexander accused Arius of picking only scriptures, out of context, that fit his position and ignoring others — when in reality, Alexander was doing the same thing.4
This controversy between Arius and Athanasius/Alexander spread from Alexandria into almost every church in Africa, and was considered by the Roman Empire to be a disturbance to public order. As a result, the Roman Emperor Constantine wrote to Alexander and Arius, shortly after 323,
“...bidding them cease disturbing the peace of the Church, at the same time giving them to understand that such questions, the meaning of which could be grasped only by a few, had better not be brought into public discussion. This well-meaning attempt at reconciliation, betraying as it did no very deep understanding of the tremendous importance of the issue, came to nothing.”5
As a result, Constantine convened a council of 318 bishops, which began 20 May 325 in Nicaea, a city across the Sea of Marmara from Constantinople, in what is now Turkey. In his book on Catholic Church history, John Laux admits that the outcome of the Nicaean Council had no scriptural foundation. Of that council, Laux stated,
“It was proposed to introduce the word homo-ousios, which means ‘of the same essence or substance.’ Eusebius of Nicomedia objected that it was a technical term not found in Scripture. But his objection was overruled: for if Scripture is interpreted in different ways, the Catholics rightly maintained, the Church must explain Scripture by a term outside it. The word homo-ousios (Latin: consubstantialis) was therefore eagerly taken up as just the word wanted; and from that moment it became the watchword of the Catholics in their struggle against Arianism. Constantine himself advised its insertion in the Creed.”6
Homoousios was the word used at the Council of Nicea to mean the “same substance.” It means that the Son is exactly the same substance as the Father and thus is exactly the same person as the Father. Homoiousios was the term used by the Arians and other heretics, like myself, and it means “of similar substance.” It was used by those of us who believed that Jesus Christ is the “Son of God.” Notice that the difference in the spelling between the two words is the letter i, or iota in Greek. Therefore, the difference between a “true Catholic” and a heretic is just one iota.
On occasion, when I have spoken with someone who isn’t a member of our Church, and we get into a discussion of theology, I state that I am an Arian heretic. That is a bit of a test to see how much they know about homoousios and homoiousios and whether they recognize an iota of difference between the two.
Trent Dee Stephens, PhD
1. Pulpit Commentary quoted in Bible Hub; biblehub.com/philippians/2-6 to philippians/2-11.htm; retrieved 1 October 2023
2. Pulpit Commentary quoted in Bible Hub; biblehub.com/ephesians/1-1.htm; retrieved 1 October 2023
3. Abraham 3:22-26
4. Alexander and Arius: The Trinity Controversy; 2015; firstname.lastname@example.org; blogs.uoregon.edu/rel321f15drreis/2015/11/08/alexander-and-arius-the-trinity-controversy; retrieved 2 October 2023
5. Laux, John, Church History, A Complete History of the Catholic Church to the Present Day, p 110, Benziger Brothers, Inc, New York, etc, Printers to the Holy Apostolic See, 1930; see also my discussion of this issue in my chapter “Nicaea” in my book, The Immortal Messiah, 2022