In his discussion of the arch-heretic, indeed the heretic of heretics, Arius, Lewis Ayres makes a passing comment on Arius’ motivations. He mentions the theory of two scholars that Arius’ views on the divinity of the Son (he denied it) were driven by a particular view of how God saves men and women (soteriology). Apart from the fact that there isn’t much evidence for this theory, Ayres writes, ‘there is also something very modern about explaining a cosmology as really about the practicalities of soteriology. For Arius and his followers preserving an appropriate account of the true God and of the Word may have been motivation enough.’ (Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy, 56)
Whether or not Ayres is right about Arius, and I would bet he is, he is certainly right about the modern tendency to view everything in terms of practicality and utility. We are disposed to productivity, exertion, activity. Even in this year of lockdown we have rushed around maintaining as much of our previous life as possible even if it has become thin and ersatz online. That the word ‘Zoom’ has become so ubiquitous in our speech seems an appropriate commentary on our times.
This means, of course, that we tend to view everything in terms of instrumentality. What does this do? What’s the point? What will this achieve? And, no doubt, this has had huge benefits. I am glad I live in a world where I know the benefits of, to pick a few things at random, travel (normally at least), communication, indoor plumbing, and, when necessary, pain relief and anaesthetics. Instrumentality has profound benefits.
Nevertheless, we would all acknowledge that such a posture does not work as a comprehensive approach to life. For one thing, it doesn’t work, or at least it shouldn’t, with people. We’ve all that feeling of unease when we realise that someone was only interested in us for what we could do for them or, worse, the realisation that we’ve treated someone else as if they were only a tool for our agenda. And what’s more, viewing the whole world as an instrument is self-defeating – if everything is a means to an end, nothing, therefore, is an actual end and life becomes an endless procession of means, means, means, with no final resting place.
I don’t think it’s controversial to say that this demeanour is found in the church, at least my corner of the church, as much as in the world. Strategy, productivity, and instrumentality are all embedded in our evangelical world – so much so that the historian David Bebbington used the term ‘activism’ as one of his four qualities that define evangelicalism in his famous quadrilateral. We too, are prone to view things as instruments, to approach things with the question – what does it do? What is the point? Again, much of this has been good, people have been saved, institutions started, blessings shared.
And yet, at least in so far as the knowledge of God is concerned, and I suspect with much else, I would argue that this is a fundamentally pagan posture. It approaches God not for His own sake, not to know Him as He is but with the question, what will this get me? But if we only do theology, if we only want to know the truth about God, in order to understand how we get saved, have we not turned God into another instrument? If you worship a fertility God, the thing you are interested in is the fertility, not the God. How different are we? Viewing his Father as an instrument, as a means to an end, was of course the perspective of the prodigal Son. And so it is that so many of us are always striving, never rejoicing; always spending, never receiving; always travelling, never at home.
If then, Ayres is right about Arius, that he held his views, erroneous and dishonouring to Christ as they were, simply because he valued the truth about God that he believed they represented, then we should be more like Arius. We should want to know God not as a means but as an end, the end of all things, including ourselves. This does not mean we should be inattentive to salvation; indeed, it is approaching God, and therefore the rest of life, in this way that is salvation (John 17:3). Freedom from the endless, wearying, self-referentiality that wants to connect everything to me and instead the liberty to look out on life and beauty and truth, both in created things but ultimately in the Creator, and rest in their enjoyment. Only when we learn to embrace the Father for his person, not his benefits, will we ever truly be home.
So then, Arius was the heretic of heretics and yet, perhaps, we have something to learn even from him.