[For the introductory post in this series, see ‘Nature of God’ – Introduction.]

Many groups deny the divinity of Jesus Christ. Under the Christian umbrella, one of the larger and more popular groups hold to a theologian known as Arian theology. The most well-known group includes the Jehovah’s Witnesses, but there are some independent groups who hold to Arian theology also. Arians fall under the unitarian category and are sometimes referred to as such.1 Here, ‘unitarian’ will be synonymous with ‘Arian.’

HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT

Arian theology takes its name from its theological father Arius, an presbyter of Alexandria, Egypt in the 4th century. Arius believed that Jesus Christ was not God but was instead a created being—albeit “the first and highest.”2 In turn, Christ in His preexistence created everything else. Arius’s reasoning for the created status of Christ was based on the term begotten. In explaining this aspect of the Alexandrian presbyter’s argument, Olson phrases it this way:

Thus if the Son of God who became Jesus Christ was ‘begotten,’ he must have had a beginning in time, and since it is of the essence of God to be eternal—without beginning or end—then the Son of God must be a great creature and not God himself.

Some aspects of philosophy, like immutability, were also part of Arius’s theological formulations. These, however, are out of the scope of this discussion.

STRENGTHS

Often unspoken of in the whole of Christendom are the strengths of the Arian movements. For one, the casual and plain reading of virtually the whole of Scripture agrees with their theology. The term Son of God in its plainest sense means God the Father has a son, and that is what Arians believe. Also, the Arian position place a great stress monotheism, the belief in only one God. In this case, there is only one God: the Father alone.

Colossians 1:15 is a verse that would demonstrate Arian theology:

Colossians 1:15 – He [the Son {v. 13}] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.3

In this verse, a plain reading sees a distinction between the Son and God. It could also see the Son being the firstborn means the Son is the first-created. If theology was restricted to using only biblical language, unitarian theology could survive.

WEAKNESSES

Despite a seemingly strong agreement between Arian theology and the Scripture, there are critical places of disagreement. We will sample a few verses here.4

John 1:1

John 1:1 – In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Arians will argue that John 1:1c is improperly translated and that the correct translation should be “and the Word was a god.” The reason is that the word traditionally translated “God” does not have a Greek definite article and should therefore be translated indefinite in the English (that is, with the indefinite article “a”).

The problem with this that the unitarian translation does not fully convey the idea behind Greek; those who translate John 1:1 with an indefinite misunderstand the Greek. Simply because a Greek word does not appear without a definite article does not automatically mean it is indefinite—it can be either definite or indefinite.

There are, however, even more nuances of the appearance or nonappearance of the article. When a definite article is used in the Greek text, the purpose is often to identify; when an article does not appear, it often stresses essence.5 John 1:18 is an example of the latter where, in the phrase “No one has seen God,” “God” appears without the article. The stress in 1:18 is on God in His essence (that is, He is essentially invisible).

Another aspect is the position of words. With regard to the word order of John 1:1c, the word translated “God” comes before “the Word,” placing emphasis on what the Word was.6

The meaning John 1:1c conveys is that whatever can be said about the God that the Word was with (John 1:1b), the same can be said about the Word. The traditional translation “and the Word was God” is the fullest expression in the English of what John meant.

2 Peter 1:1

2 Peter 1:1 – Simon Peter, a bondservant and apostle of Jesus Christ,
To those who have obtained like precious faith with us by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ:

Arians will interpret this verse to say that Jesus Christ is not God–the verse can certainly be read this way. However, Granville Sharp examined every construction like this in the Greek text and found that

When the copulative [kai] connects two nouns of the same case, [vis. nouns (either substantive or adjective, or participles) of personal description, respecting office, dignity, affinity, or connexion, and attributes, properteries, or qualities, good or ill], if the article [ho], or any of its cases, precedes the first of the said nouns or participles, and is not repeated before the second noun or participle, the latter always relates to the same person that is expressed or described by the first noun or participle.7

In other words, two nouns joined together with the conjunction “and,” with a definite article (in the Greek text) attached to the first noun, both nouns refer to the same person. Two verses with the exact same grammatical structure reveal this:

2 Peter 1:11 – for so an entrance will be supplied to you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
2 Peter 2:20 – For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning.

It is evident here that both “Lord” and “Savior” refer to Jesus Christ.

2 Peter 1:1 has two nouns (“God,” “Savior”) joined by the conjunctive kai with the definite article attached to the first noun. This indicates that “God” and “Savior” refer to one person: Jesus Christ.

Revelation 21 & 22

Revelation 21:22; 22:3 – But I saw no temple in it [the city], for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. . . . And there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him.

Unitarians have also argued that Jesus is never given latreuo. Because latreuo is divine service that, when used of God, is given only to the Lord God Almighty, Jesus cannot be God. Revelation 22:3 uses latreuo, and the object of latreuo is the pronoun “Him” (“His servant shall serve Him”). In language, the antecedent of a pronoun is generally the closest noun that agree with the pronoun in gender and number. In this case, the closest antecedent is “the Lamb.” Some would consider “God” to be the antecedent.

But John takes pains to show the unity the Almighty and the Lamb. Just a few verses earlier, John writes that “the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its [the city’s] temple.” I would like to note that the word translated “are” is not the plural form of the “to be” verb here. Instead, it is the singular form of the verb. In a literal translation, Revelation 21:22 would say:

Revelation 21:22b – for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb is its temple. (literal)

Grammatically, John indicates the most intimate unity of the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb with a singular verb.

So whether one would argue that the antecedent of “serve Him” in Revelation 22:3 is God or the Lamb, John has already indicated their unity. Even if one were to say that God is the one who receives latreuo, it follows that service would also be done to the Lamb by virtue of their unity expressed just a few verses earlier.

CONCLUSION

Arian theology has the right intent: it seeks to establish monotheism and it seeks to stick to the language of Scripture. But where there are explicit passages that affirm the deity of Christ, Arian theology disagrees with the witness of Scripture. Unitarian theology must therefore be rejected in favor of the consistent witness of Scripture that Jesus Christ is God.

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1Other unitarian groups would be the Untarian Universalists, the Christadelphians, and the Philippine-based Iglesia ni Cristo. These groups do not necessarily hold to the same theology as Arian do, but like the Arians believe in only one God and deny the divinity of Christ.[Back]
2Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: BakerAcademic,1998), 712.[Back]
3Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations from The Holy Bible: New King James Version (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982).[Back]
4Other verses are John 8:58; Titus 2:13; Revelation 1:8 (cf. 1:11, 17; 2:8).[Back]
5Ray Summers, Essentials of New Testament Greek, rev. Thomas Sawyer, rev. ed. (Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1995), 153.[Back]
6William D. Mounce, Basics of Biblical Greek, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 27.[Back]
7Granville Sharp, Remarks on the Uses of the Definitive Article, quoted in Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 271.[Back]