Most modern scholars recognize that behind Arius’s campaign to differentiate Jesus from God was the Hellenistic theological conviction that the high God cannot suffer. Rowan Williams argues that Arius had the right idea about divine suffering, but the wrong idea of God, which “puts the unavoidable question of what the respective schemes in the long term make possible for theology.” One must honestly admit, according to Williams, the “odd conclusion that the Nicene fathers achieved not only more than they knew but a good deal more than they wanted.” (Rowan Williams, Arius: Heresy and Tradition [London: Darton, Longman, and Todd, 198]), p. 22). Now, what does that mean?
The Arians recognized the importance of the genuine sufferings and death of Christ as God. R.P.C. Hanson notes that “at the heart of the Arian Gospel was a God who suffered” (The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian Controversy 318-381 [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988], p. 121). Unfortunately, they would not (or could not) go the whole way with this insight because they too were under the control of the Greek philosophical impassability axiom. The Arians argued that God must have suffered in Christ, but only a god whose divinity was somehow reduced could suffer. Therefore, the Son was god (theos), but not the one high and immutable God (o theos). He was something of a demigod: created by the high God, but not of the same substance or being as the impassible God.
Although Hanson praises the Arians for not “shying away from the scandal of the cross,” in fact, their own theological program was its own attempt to explain away the scandal of the crucified God. If the Nicene theologians, as Rowan Williams argues, did not fully understand the implications of contending for the homoousios of the Father and Son, they nevertheless rightly emphasized the unity of the one Lord Jesus Christ in such a way that eventually the question of God’s participation in the suffering and death of Jesus would have to be addressed.
We’re still addressing this issue. Many Christians are uncomfortable with affirming that God the Son experienced death as a man (the theopaschite formula). They feel the need to distance God from the suffering of the man Jesus. This is a huge mistake. It’s pretty close to Peter insisting that what Jesus had said about his suffering and death in Jerusalem would “never happen” to him (Matt. 16:22). Jesus pushes Peter aside as a Satan, saying that he does not have “his mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (16:23). Indeed.
God the Son lived as a man, suffered, and experienced death. There is no Gospel if this is not the case.