Arius Revisited: The Firstborn Over All Creation (Col 1:15) -- By: Larry R. Helyer

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 031:1 (Mar 1988)
Article: Arius Revisited: The Firstborn Over All Creation (Col 1:15)
Author: Larry R. Helyer

Arius Revisited:
The Firstborn Over All Creation (Col 1:15)

Larry R. Helyer*

In about A.D. 318 Arius, presbyter of Alexandria, became a leading figure in a Christological and trinitarian controversy that rent the Church for most of the fourth century. The controversy was one “which for complexity, intrigue, and bitterness has seldom, if ever, been exceeded in the history of the church.”1

At the heart of the debate lay Arius’ denial of the full deity of Christ and, subsequently, of the Holy Spirit. What emerged was a triadic view of the three Persons in which only the Father was acknowledged as truly God.

Theologically the key to Arius’ view lay in his concept of “unbegottenness” as the essential attribute of the Godhead. According to Arius, God is necessarily uncreated, unbegotten and unoriginate, and hence he is absolutely incommunicable and unique. Since Scripture clearly designates the Logos as begotten, Arius concluded that the Logos cannot be true God. Though predicated as Son of God and even God in Scripture, and though adored by Christians, the Logos enjoys this status either by participation in grace or by adoption.2 In either event the Logos is clearly a creature alien and dissimilar in all things from the Father, a perfect creature and immensely above all other created beings, but a creature nevertheless. In response to Origen’s view of an eternal generation from the Father, Arius steadfastly asserted “there was when he was not.”3

In the controversy and debates that swirled around this issue, the Arians relied primarily upon Scriptural texts that seemingly asserted the createdness of Christ. Two of the prominent texts were Prov 8:22 (“The Lord created me [at the] beginning of his ways”) and Col 1:15 (“the firstborn of all creation”). It is the purpose of this paper to reexamine the expression prōtotokos pasēs ktiseōs in Col 1:15 with a view to understanding its meaning and significance.

In 1938 Edward Cerny could write that “commentators do not agree regarding the meaning of ‘firstborn of every creature,’ and the expression remains one of the unsolved problems of the New Testament.”4 That the

*Larry Helyer is associate professor of Biblical literature at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana.

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