What did Arius teach that caused the Arian Controversy?

Introduction

Purpose

The fourth-century ‘Arian’ Controversy, which revolved around the relation between God and His only begotten Son, began in the year 318 when Arius, a presbyter in charge of a district in Alexandria, publicly criticized the Christological views of his bishop Alexander (RH, 3):

“The crisis of the fourth century was the most dramatic internal struggle the Christian Church had so far experienced” (RW, 1).

The purpose of this article is to identify the main points of Arius’ teaching. What did he teach that had such an explosive effect on the church? Why does the church regard him as a great heretic?

Why should we earn about Arius?

After Emperor Theodosius, in the year 380, made the Trinitarian version of Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire and brutally eliminated all opposition, “Arius himself came more and more to be regarded as a kind of Antichrist among heretics, a man whose superficial austerity and spirituality cloaked a diabolical malice.” (RW, 1).

However, Bishop R.P.C. Hanson, a world expert on the Arian Controversy, concluded that the traditional account of the Arian Controversy is a complete travesty. More specifically, in a recent book about Arius, Archbishop Rowan Williams described Arius as:

“A thinker and exegete of resourcefulness, sharpness and originality.” (RW, 116)

“An important dimension in Christian life that was dis-edifyingly and unfortunately crushed.” (RW, 91)

Williams concluded that “Arius’ solution is no better or worse than most efforts that have been made by theologians through the ages” (RW, 114).

We do not have to agree with everything Arius said, but he had some very interesting perspectives that we would be deprived of if we limit ourselves to Trinitarian polemics.

Authors

This article series is largely based on three books by world-class scholars and Trinitarians who have made in-depth studies of the Arian Controversy of the fourth century:

RH Bishop RPC Hanson
The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God –
The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

RW Archbishop Rowan Williams
Arius: Heresy and Tradition, 2002/1987

LA = Lewis Ayres
Nicaea and its legacy, 2004
Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology

Summary

Arius’ Writings

AriusWe only have three letters in which Arius himself describes his theology. Everything else we know about Arius is found in the writings of his enemies; particularly Athanasius. Unfortunately, however, “Athanasius … would not have stopped short of misrepresenting what he (Arius) said” (RH, 10).

Arius’ theology may be summarized as follows:

The Son’s Origin

Does not exist without a cause – God alone exists without a cause and gave existence to all things that exist. Therefore, God has no equal. Arius’ entire theological system hangs on this central principle. It follows that the Son does not exist without a cause but that the Father gave existence to the Son.

Created Being – The Son is a created being. However:

      • He is the only being ever created directly by God: The Son is the Creator of all other beings.
      • Therefore, He is ‘God’ as far as the rest of creation is concerned.
      • He is also the greatest being that God could possibly produce. He received everything from the Father that a created being could possibly receive.

For these reasons, His only-begotten Son has nobody like him.

Begotten – “Begotten” must not be understood literally, as if the Son was born from God like human children are born from their parents. “Begotten” symbolizes that the Son is the only being ever directly produced by the Father and that He is an exact visible replica of the invisible God.

Before Time – Since He made all things, He has existed before all things. He was begotten before time itself existed. Therefore, from the perspective of beings who exist ‘in’ or subject to time, the Son has ‘always’ existed.

The Father precedes Him. – However, in that incomprehensible infinity beyond time, the Father exists metaphorically ‘before’ the Son. There was when He was not but there was no literal ‘time’ before the Son existed, as Arius’ enemies claimed Arius said.

Out of nothing – God made Him out of nothing. (This was one aspect in which Arius deviated from mainstream ‘Arianism’ which argued that the Son was begotten from the being of God.)

The Son’s Status

Subordinate – Since the Son received His life and being from the Father, the Son is subordinate to the Father. Arians even described the Father as the Son’s God whom He worships. However, when Arius wrote, all theologians regarded the Son as subordinate to the Father.

God – Arius did refer to the Son as ‘God’. However, the modern concept of “God” is the product of the Trinity doctrine and did not exist in the Greek language which Arius used. The term translated as “God” is theos, which basically means an immortal being with supernatural powers, which the Son most certainly is.

Trinity – Arius also referred to the Trinity but he simply meant a group of three. (The Trinity doctrine does not merely teach that three divine Persons exist, or even that they are equal, but that they are one single Being.)

Different Substance – In the Nicene Creed, the Son is of the same substance (homoousios) as the Father. But Arius said that the Son is “unlike in substance to the Father” because the substance of a created being can never be the same as God’s substance that exists without a cause.

Two Logoi – In the Logos-theology that was developed in the second century after the church became Gentile-dominated, and which still was the standard explanation of the Son when the Arian Controversy began, the Logos (the Son) was God’s only Logos (Word, Mind, or Wisdom). God did not have His ‘own’ Wisdom. (See – The Apologists) In contrast, Arius taught “two Logoi and two Wisdoms,” meaning that God also has His own Wisdom.

Immutable – Theologians, generally, accept that God is immutable, meaning, unable to change. In Nicene Christology, the Son is as immutable as the Father. Arius taught that “the Son is variable by nature, but remains stable by the gift of God.”

Knowledge of God – The Bible says several times that God is invisible (e.g., Col 1:15). Ancient writers understood this to mean that nobody understands God fully. Arius said that the Son also does not understand God fully, for how could “that which has a beginning could not possibly comprehend or grasp the nature of him who is without a beginning?” (RH, 15). But Arius also said that the Son knows everything about the Father that a created being is able to know.

– – – – END OF SUMMARY – – – – 

Arius’ Writings

Arius’ Own Writings

“We have only a handful of texts that can confidently be treated as giving us Arius’ own thinking in his own words,” (RW, 95), namely:

      • Arius’ confession of faith, presented to Alexander of Alexandria,
      • Arius’ letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia, and
      • The confession that was submitted by Arius and Euzoius to Emperor Constantine. (RW, 95)

The Writings of Arius’ Enemies

Apart from the three letters written by Arius, “we are wholly dependent upon the reports of his enemies.” (RW, 95) “Such reports, especially in the writings of Athanasius, have to be handled with caution.” (RW, 95)

Firstly, in the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, Athanasius is the hero of the story. However, he was a fierce opponent of Arius and Hanson concluded:

“Athanasius … would not have stopped short of misrepresenting what he (Arius) said” (RH, 10).

“In places (Athanasius) may be suspected of pressing the words maliciously rather further than Arius intended” (RH, 15).

For example, Athanasius wrote that Arius said that “the Son was no greater than the locust or caterpillar.” Hanson describes this as ‘malicious’ (RH, 20).

Secondly, the quotes by Arius’ enemies, “divorced from their own original literary context … are … very far from presenting to us the systematic thought of Arius as he himself saw it. In other words, we can never be sure that the theological priorities ascribed to Arius by his opponents were his own, even if his statements are transmitted correctly.” (RW, 95)

For example, Athanasius describes Arius’ teachings in two different places. “The differences in tone between these two versions is especially striking:” (RW, 103)

The one, which seems like a direct quote (De Synodis 15), “balances negations with affirmations of the Son’s dignity.” (RW, 103)

But the other – Athanasius’ paraphrase of Arius teachings (Contra Arianos 1.5-6) – “piles up a series of very negative-sounding terms to describe the distinction of the divine hypostases.” (RW, 104) For example:

“As everything else is alien to and unlike God in substance, so ‘the Word is different from and in all points unlike the Father’s substance and individual character” (RH, 13) … “totally different from both the Father” (RH, 14).

In this quote, Athanasius attempts to say that Arius described the Son as a normal created being. But Arius described the Son as “full of truth, and grace, God, Only-begotten, unaltering.” (RH, 6) Such statements Athanasius would not quote. Over the centuries, people have formed a wrong view of Arius’ theology because they base it on Athanasius’ writings.

We also have two letters from Alexander, archbishop of Alexandria, in which he gives an account of what Arius taught. Since the Arian Controversy began as a dispute between him and Arius, Alexander must be regarded as a biased witness.

The Nicene Creed

The Nicene Creed anathematizes those who say:

      • “There was when He was not,”
      • “He came into existence out of nothing,”
      • “He is of a different hypostasis or substance,”
      • He is “created”, or
      • “Subject to alteration or change.”

These anathemas reflect Arius’ views that attracted the most opposition and are discussed below

The Son’s Origin

God alone exists without a cause.

For Arius, only the Father is “unbegotten,” meaning to exist without a cause. The Father, therefore, gave existence to all things that exist. For example, Arius said:

      • The Father “is supremely sole without beginning” (RH, 8).
      • “The Father … is the source of all.” (RH, 7)
      • “God is … (the) origin of everything.” (RH, 8)
      • “God … has no equal.” (RH, 14)
      • “God … has none beside him …
        his will is uniquely sovereign.” (RW, 98)

Arius’ entire theological system hangs on this central principle:

“Assuming, as Arius did, that the Church’s teaching of God’s unique and immaterial nature is non-negotiable … then … all that is said about the begetting of the Son must be interpreted in the light of this central belief” (RW, 111).

The Father gave existence to the Son.

It follows that the Son does not exist without a cause but that the Father gave existence to the Son. For example, Arius wrote:

      • “The Son is not unbegotten” (RH, 6), meaning that He does not exist without cause.
      • The Son “received life and being from the Father” (RH, 7).
      • The Father “gave him existence alongside himself” (RH, 7).
      • “The Father … is the Son’s origin from which he derives his glories and life everlasting” (RH, 8).

A Created Being

Arius described the Son as a created being:

      • “The Son is a creature and a product” (RH, 16).

Both Athanasius and Alexander described Arius as teaching that the Son is equal to other created beings. For example:

      • “He was then such as is every man. We are able to become the sons of God as he is.” (RH, 17)
      • “He is one of the many ‘powers’ that exist besides God, among which are also the locust and the caterpillar.” (RH, 13)

This misrepresents Arius’ teaching for he taught that the Son is:

(a) The only being ever created directly by God.

      • He “alone has been given existence by the Father.” (RH, 8)
      • “This direct creation means that the Son has nobody like him.” (RH, 102)

(b) The Creator of all other beings.

      • “The Father is the origin of everything made, but the Son brings everything into actual existence.” (RH, 103)
      • “The Son creates the Spirit and then everything else.” (RH, 101)
      • “All things are said to be made through him.” (RW, 96)
      • “The only-begotten Son … through whom also he made the aeons and everything” (RH, 7).

The word “through” indicates that, for Arius, the Father is the primary Creator and the Son was His agent (cf. John 1:3; Col 1:16; 1 Cor 8:6; Heb 1:2). The Nicene Creed also says that “the Father almighty (is the) maker of all things” and all things came into being “through” the Son.

(c) As Creator, He is God.

      • The Son is “‘God’ as far as the rest of creation is concerned.” (RW, 177)
      • Arius described the Son as “God” (RH, 6), the “only-begotten God” (RH, 14) and as “the Mighty God [Isa 9:15]” (RH, 15).

This is discussed further below.

(d) The greatest being that God could possibly produce (RW, 103).

He received everything from the Father that a created being could possibly receive:

      • He is “a perfect creature, not just ‘one among others’; he is the inheritor of all the gifts and glories God can give him.” (RW, 98)
      • “A creature, yet one endowed with all the gifts that can be given.” (RW, 177)

For these reasons, Arius said that “His only-begotten Son … has nobody like him.” (RH, 105) For a further discussion, see – Did Arius describe Jesus Christ as a Created Being?

Created to Create

In Nicene theology, the Son is co-eternal with the Father. In other words, He does not exist for a specific reason. For Arius, the Son was created specifically to create all things:

      • “When he (God) wanted to make us, he then made a certain Person and called him Word and Spirit and Son so that he could make us.” (RH, 13)
      • “He (the Son) was made … in order that God should create us through him.” (Alexander, RH, 16)

Not Literally Begotten

By describing the Son as a created being, Arius seems to contradict the Bible, which says that the Son was “begotten;” the only Being ever “begotten” by God.

The Nicene Creed says that the Son was begotten from the substance of God and, therefore, is of the same substance as God. In other words, the Creed interprets “begotten” literally, as if the Son was born from God like human children are born from their parents.

Arius responded that the term “begotten” and the titles Father and Son must not be understood literally but symbolize that the Son is the only being ever directly produced by the Father and that He is an exact replica of the invisible God:

“The metaphor of sonship … cannot … be the semantic field that covers kinship, biological continuity …  it must be … familial intimacy, a dependency expressed in trust or love – the field evoked for us when we call God ‘Father’.” (RW, 112)

“’Son’ is … a metaphor.” (RW, 109) “Metaphorical uses of the language of ‘sonship’ and ‘begetting’ can be found elsewhere in Scripture (Isa. 1:2).” (RW, 112) Hanson adds Deut 32:18; Job 38:28 (RH, 31).

For these reasons, Arius used the terms “created” and “begotten” as synonyms (RH, 6, 8). For example:

“Before he was begotten or created or determined or established, he did not exist” (RH, 6).

Begotten before Time Existed

If the Son made all things, He must have existed before all things. Arius declared similarly that the Son was begotten before time itself existed:

      • “Brought into existence … before all times and ages.” (RW, 97)
      • “Begotten timelessly by the Father … before aeons … begotten timelessly before everything” (RH, 8, cf. 6).

From the perspective of beings who exist subject to time, therefore, the Son has ‘always’ existed.

There was when He was not

On the other hand, Arius argued that “God must preexist the Son. If not, we are faced with a whole range of unacceptable ideas .. (such as) that he is, like God, self-subsistent.” (RW, 97) Therefore, “the Son was produced before everything, before anything conceivable, but is still not co-eternal with the Father.” (RH, 103) For example, Arius wrote:

      • “God is prior to everything. Therefore, he is also prior to the Son” (RH, 8)
      • The Son “did not exist before he was begotten” (RH, 8; cf. RH. 6).
      • “We praise him (God) as without beginning in contrast to him (the Son) who has a beginning” (RH, 14)
      • “The Son has an origin, but God is unoriginated” (RH, 6).

The Nicene Creed expressly opposed this teaching. It explicitly anathematizes:

“Those who say,
There was when He was not, and,
Before being born He was not.”

Time when He was not

Both Athanasius and Alexander reported that Arius taught that:

“There was a time when God was not Father. …
There was a time when he did not exist.” (RH, 16, 13, 17).

But that is not what Arius said. He did not use the word “time” in this context. He said that the Son was “brought into existence … before all times and ages” (RW, 97). Time is part of our universe and, presumably, does not exist outside our universe. But God, since He gave existence to this universe, exists outside the universe. What exists beyond our universe, therefore, is infinitely more than what exists in our universe. What Arius said, in other words, is that the Son was begotten in the unknowable and timeless infinity beyond time, and “there was when He was not” only in a metaphysical sense. He did not say that there was literal time before the Son. In other words, for our purposes, living within time, the Son has ‘always’ existed.

For a further discussion, see – Did Arius teach there was time when the Son of God did not exist?

Out of Nothing

Arius stated:

“God … made him when he did not exist out of non-existence” (RH, 16).

In other words, He was made out of nothing. “This was certainly the feature of Arius’ thought which gave rise to more scandal than any other.” (RH, 88) By saying that the Son was derived from the substance of the Father, the Nicene Creed explicitly opposes Arius’ statement that the Son was made out of nothing.

After the Nicene Creed has anathematized this statement, “it is noteworthy too that … Arius deliberately refrains from describing the Son as ‘deriving from nonexistence’” (RH, 8).

This was one aspect in which Arius deviated from mainstream ‘Arianism’. Eusebius of Caesarea “consistently rejects the doctrine that the Son was produced from nonexistence” (RH, 59; cf. RH, 52, 53).

Created by the Will of God

Will and Creature

Williams summarizes Arius’s writings by saying that “Arius and his followers … establish three basic theological points:

(i) The Son is a creature … a product of God’s will;

(ii) ‘Son’ is therefore a metaphor … and must be understood in the light of comparable metaphorical usage in Scripture;

(iii) The Son’s status, like his very existence, depends upon God’s will.” (RW, 109)

From this, one important point is the relationship between “will” and “creature:”

If the Son exists without God’s “will,” then He is co-equal and co-eternal with God.

But if He exists by God’s “will,” then He is a creature.

Whether the Son exists by God’s will. therefore, was one major point of debate during the fourth century.

Eternal Generation

One key aspect of the standard Trinity theory is Eternal Generation. In it, the Son exists without God’s will; God never ‘willed’ to generate the Son. It teaches that the Father has always been begetting the Son and will always be begetting the Son. In other words, it is an eternal reality and part of what God is. God generated the Son by a “natural ‘inner dynamism’ compelling God to go forth in creation.” (RW, 98)

Arius’ View

In contrast, as Williams noted, Arius taught that:

      • “The Son exists by God’s free will” (RW, 97; cf. 98).
      • “The Son having not existed attained existence by the Father’s will.” (RH, 14)
      • “He would not have come into existence if the Father had not wished to make him.” (RH, 16)
      • “The Word exists because God chooses that he should.” (RW, 177)

Gregg and Groh concluded that Arius’ view in this regard “is good Biblical doctrine, reproduced by Ignatius, Justin, Hippolytus, Clement of Alexandria and Origen.” (RH, 90)

The Son’s Status

The first half of this article above describes Arius’ view of the origin of the Son. The second half below explains Arius’ view of the Son’s status:

Subordinate

For Arius, “the Father … is the source of all.” Therefore. the Son “received life and being from the Father.” (RH, 7) “It is ‘by God’s will [that the Son] is as great as he is’.” (RW, 106) The Father is “the cause of the existence [of the Son] and of the kind of existence which he has’.” (RH, 57)

Consequently, Arius and his supporters taught that the Son is subordinate to the Father:

He “is not equal to God.” (RW, 102)

“He is dependent and subordinate. ” (RW, 177)

They even described the Father as the Son’s God:

“The Father is the Son’s God” (RH, 8).

“He … in some degree worships the Greater.” (RH, 15)

Their arguments included the following:

He cannot be on equal footing with the Father, for that would mean “two unoriginated ultimate principles.” (RH, 8)

They referred to “Christ’s human infirmities (as a proof of his divine inferiority).” (RH, 17)

However, when Arius wrote, all theologians regarded the Son as subordinate:

“There is no theologian in the Eastern or the Western Church before the outbreak of the Arian Controversy, who does not in some sense regard the Son as subordinate to the Father” (RH, 63).

“Subordinationism might indeed, until the denouement (end) of the controversy, have been described as accepted orthodoxy” (RH, xix).

“The initial debate was not about the rightness or wrongness of hierarchical models of the Trinity, which were common to both sides” (RW, 109).

So, the issue was not whether the Son is subordinate to the Father. Everybody accepted that He is. For most people who are somewhat familiar with the ‘Arian’ Controversy, this will be a surprising revelation. For further evidence, see – The Son is subordinate.

The title God

Although Arius and his supporters regarded the Son as subordinate to the Father, and said that “the Father is the Son’s God” (RH, 8), they also described the Son as “God.” For example, Arius described the Son as:

      • “God” (RH, 6),
      • “Only-begotten God” (RH, 14), and as
      • “Mighty God [Isa 9:15]” (RH, 15).

However, following John 17:3, the ‘Arians’ distinguished between “God” and “the one true God.” They described the Father alone as “true God” (RH, 13, 57; RW, 101). For example:

“There is, says Eusebius, the ‘one true God’ (John 17:3), and the Son who is God but not ‘the one true God’.” (RH, 57)

This confusion does not exist in the Greek but is caused by the translations:

Today, English uses “God” for only one Being, namely, the Ultimate Reality. All other beings with ‘supernatural’ powers are called “god.”

The ancient Greek, however, had no word equivalent to the modern word “God.” They used “theos” for both the Ultimate Reality and for what we today would call ‘gods’.

Theos, therefore, is translated as “God” when the translator thinks that the Ultimate Reality is intended. This means that, to translate theos as “God,” when it refers to the Son, is an application of the Trinity doctrine and should never be used as proof of the Trinity doctrine.

For a further discussion, see – Did the church fathers describe Jesus as “god” or as “God?

The title Trinity

Arius believed that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct divine realities:

Arius taught “three hierarchically ordered divine subsistents” (RW, 105, cf. 98; RH, 7)

Arius had a “strong commitment to belief in three distinct divine hypostases.” (RW, 97)

Although he did not regard them as equal, Arius did refer to them as a Trinity:

“Certainly, there is a Trinity … their individual realities do not mix with each other, and they possess glories of different levels. (The Father is) infinitely more splendid in his glories.” (RH, 14; cf. RW, 102).

This does not mean that Arius believed in the Trinity doctrine. He used the term trinity in the original sense of a group of three. The Trinity doctrine does not merely teach that three divine Persons exist, or even that they are equal, but that they are one single Being. That Arius did not think. That theory was developed by the Cappadocians long after Arius’ death.

Heteroousion

The Nicene Creed states that the Son of God was “begotten from the Father … that is, from the substance of the Father” and, therefore, is of the same substance (homoousios) as the Father. But Arius said:

    • “The Son is ‘unlike in substance to the Father’” (Alexander, RH, 17).
    • “He (the Son) … is not equal … far less is he consubstantial to him (God)” (Athanasius in De Synodis, RH, 14).
    • “The Word is different from and in all points unlike the Father’s substance and individual character” (Athanasius’ paraphrase, RH, 13).
    • “The Father is in his substance alien from the Son because he [ME alone] remains without beginning” (RH, 14).

In other words, the substance of a created being can never be the same as God’s substance that exists without a cause. Arius may be what became later known as a Hetero-ousian (different substance). See – The branches of Christianity

Two Wisdoms

It is significant that both Alexander and Athanasius reported that Arius taught two Wisdoms or Words (Logoi):

Athanasius wrote that, for Arius, “There are … two Wisdoms, one God’s own who has existed eternally with God, the other the Son who was brought into existence. … There is another Word in God besides the Son” (RH, 13; cf. RW, 100)

Alexander similarly noted that Arius stated: “Nor is he the Father’s true Logos … nor his true Wisdom” (RH, 16). “He came into existence himself through the proper Logos of God and the Wisdom which was in God.” (RH, 16)

Hanson stated it like this:

In Arius’ theology, “there are two Logoi and two Wisdoms (Sophiae) … Arius distinguished between an original Reason (Logos) or Wisdom immanent from eternity in the Godhead and the Son who was not immanent in the Godhead but created.” (RH, 20)

Since Athanasius and Alexander found this surprising, it is implied that they understood that only one Wisdom exists and that the Son is the Father’s Wisdom and Word. In other words, the Son is God’s mind. The Father does not have His own ‘Wisdom’.

This was the Logos-theology which was developed by the Christian Apologists in the second century after the church became Gentile dominated. It was developed by merging the Bible with Greek philosophy and taught that the Logos always existed as part of God but was “begotten” to become a separate hypostasis (a separate reality), namely, the Son, when God decided to create. (See – The Apologists)

There was no place for the Spirit as a separate hypostasis in Logos-theology.

When the Arian Controversy began, this was still the standard explanation of the Son or Logos. But Arius deviated from this traditional teaching. One wonders whether Athanasius and Alexender commented on this deviation to criticize Arius, for the Nicene Creed does not criticize this deviation.

Note that to say that the Son is the Father’s Wisdom is different from the Trinitarian proposal in which the Father, Son, and Spirit share one Mind or ‘Wisdom’.

 

Immutable

To be immutable means to be unable to change. Ancient Greek philosophers thought that God cannot change. For example, Plato argues that God is perfect and cannot and does not change. (Wikipedia) and the God of Aristotle was called ‘The Unmoved Mover’.

After the church became Gentile-dominated, Christianity accepted this principle and it is still accepted today by most theologians. For example, Origen said: “The divine (is) distinguished from the rest by possessing immutable existence not subject to the change.” (RH, 67)

So, during the Arian Controversy, the question arose: Is the Son subject to change?

In Nicene Christology, the Son is as immutable as the Father.

In his own letters, Arius wrote that “the Son of God … is, like the Father, ‘unchangeable’” (RW, 96) and as “unchangeable and unalterable” (RH, 7; cf. RH, 6, 8). “By the will of God, the Son is stably and unalterably what he is.” (RW, 98)

In contrast, Arius’ enemies claimed that Arius taught the exact opposite. For example, Athanasius, in his paraphrasing of Arius’ writings, claimed that Arius wrote:

The Son is “like all others … subject to change … because he is changeable by nature” (RW, 100; cf. RH, 13).

“God foresaw that the Son was going to be good, and so exempted him from evil in advance, i.e., deprived him of the possibility of earning merit” (RH, 21; cf. RH, 13).

Similarly, Alexander described Arius as saying that the Son “is of a mutable nature” (RH, 16-17) and “mutable and alterable in his nature as are all rational beings” (RH, 16; cf. RW, 104-5)

Nicene Creed anathematizes those who say, “The Son of God is … subject to alteration or change.” Since these anathemas are specifically designed to oppose Arius’ theology, that seems to confirm that Arius described the Son as mutable.

However, the Son is mutable in one sense but immutable in another. Hanson summarizes Arius’ teaching as follows:

“The Son is variable by nature, but remains stable by the gift of God. … God foresaw that the Son was going to be good, and so exempted him from evil in advance” (RH, 21)

In other words, by nature, He is mutable, but He cannot change because God made Him unable to change (or sin).

Williams stated that it is possible that it is “a problem wholly generated by anti-Arian polemic” (RW, 105). So, Athanasius, for polemic purposes, emphasized that the Son is mutable by nature but omitted to add that Arius really taught that the Son cannot change.

For a further discussion, see – Did Arius describe the Son as immutable?

Knowledge of God

The Bible says several times that God is invisible. For example, Colossians 1:15 says that the Son is the (visible) “image of the invisible God” (cf. John 1:18; 1 Tim 6:16). Ancient writers understood this also to mean that nobody understands God fully. So, the question arose, Is the Son able to “see” and “understand” the Father fully?

Origen said that the Son has “perfect knowledge of the Father.” But he qualified this by saying that “all that can be known of the Father’s life is known by the Son.” By implication, certain things cannot be known. Specifically, he said that the Son does not have “the Father’s primary self-awareness.” (RW, 206)

Arius’ view was that “the Father remains invisible to the Son, and the Word cannot see or know his own Father completely and accurately. The Son cannot comprehend the Father.” (RH, 14; cf. RH, 16) He argued as follows:

“God is invisible to all” (RH, 14), By implication, God “is invisible … to the Son himself.” (RH, 14)

“It is clear that that which has a beginning could not possibly comprehend or grasp the nature of him who is without a beginning.” (RH, 15)

Or, as Williams interpreted his argument:

“It is logically out of the question that anything that is not God should understand … what it is to be God.” (RW, 106)

For Arius, “the Son’s ignorance is a logical consequence of his createdness.” (RW, 105)

But Arius also said that the Son knows everything about the Father that a created being is able to know:

“All that limits his selfcommunication and self-revelation is the irreducible difference between him and his creation; but what he can give, he does give.” (RW, 107)

The Son “receives all the grace a creature could receive.” (RW, 105)

Knowledge of Himself

Arius also said that “the Son does not know the nature of his own substance (ousia)” (RH, 16; cf. RH, 15). Williams understands Arius as saying:

“He is willed into existence by the Father, and cannot therefore have that ‘perspective’ on his own substance which his creator possesses.” (RW, 105-6)


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FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    Overview of the history, from the pre-Nicene Church Fathers, through the fourth-century Arian Controversy

Arius was a conservative. He did not say anything new.

INTRODUCTION

Arius was a presbyter in the city of Alexandria, Egypt. In the year 318, he confronted his bishop Alexander for ‘erroneous’ teachings concerning the nature of the Son of God. Their disagreement escalated and even became a threat to the unity of the empire. So, Emperor Constantine called a council at Nicaea in the year 325 where Arius’ theology was presented, discussed, and soon rejected.

Purpose

This article discusses Arius’ antecedents: From whom did Arius receive his theology? Or did he develop his theology himself? In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, Arius’ theology was an innovation opposing established orthodoxy. But this article shows that Arius did not say anything new.

Was Arius important?

Only a few pages of what Arius wrote survived until today. The reason is that, as discussed in a previous article, Arius was not regarded by his peers as a particularly significant writer.

Still another article concluded that, while Athanasius’ enemies labeled him as a Sabellian, Athanasius invented the terms ‘Arian’ and ‘Arianism’ to label his opponents with Arius’ theology, with all the incoherence and inadequacy that teaching displayed. But his opponents were not ‘Arians’, meaning that they were not followers of Arius. They were the anti-Nicenes of a different place and time. In fact, they also opposed Arius’ theology.

Nevertheless, Arius was significant in the first 7 of the 62 years of the ‘Arian’ Controversy. (See – The Arian Controversy had two phases.) To understand the Nicene Creed, we need to understand him.

Authors

This article is mainly based on the following books:

RH = Bishop R.P.C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381 (1981), particularly chapter 3.

RW = Archbishop Rowan Williams, Arius, Heresy & Tradition (2001)

These are world-class scholars and Trinitarians.

SPECIFIC PREDECESSORS

“A very large number of names have been suggested as predecessors of Arius” (RH, 60).

“His enemies first associated him with Paul of Samosata and with Judaizing tendences in Christology; later on, after the reputation of Origen had been virtually ruined in the Church, Arius was regarded by some as an Origen redivivus (a reborn Origen). Some more modern scholars have been much preoccupied with the question of whether Antioch or Alexandria should be seen as his spiritual and intellectual home.” (RW, 116)

This section summarizes Hanson’s and Williams’ conclusions concerning Arius’ dependence on specific predecessors:

Plato

Plato’s philosophy of time and the origin of the universe still dominated in the fourth century and shaped what most influential writers of that time said about creation:

“Plato’s Timaeus served as the central text upon which discussions of the world’s origins focused, not only in late antiquity, but right up to the revival of Christian Aristotelianism in the thirteenth century. …

There can be no doubt that for many of the most influential writers of the age, from Origen to Eusebius Pamphilus, the contemporary discussion of time and the universe shaped their conceptions of what could intelligibly be said of creation.” (RW, 181)

“Plato distinguishes between:

      • What exists without cause and, therefore always exists and never comes into being, and
      • The universe as we perceive it, which had a beginning, is not eternal, and never exists stably.” (RW, 181)

Furthermore, Plato argues that, since the cosmos is beautiful; it must therefore be modeled upon what is higher and better. The Creator made something like himself; reflecting order and beauty. To establish this order, God created time. The heavenly bodies are made in order to measure and regulate time. In other words, so to speak, time did not always exist. (RW, 181-2) (Similar to the modern big bang theory)

So, yes, Arius was influenced by Plato, but so was every other theologian of his time.

Philo of Alexandria

Philo (20 BC – 50 AD) was a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher who interpreted Jewish scripture in terms of Greek philosophy. That is significant because the Christian theologians of the second and third centuries did the same with the New Testament (See – the Apologists).

Wolfson concluded, “Arius was responsible for ‘a reversion to the original view of Philo’ on the Logos, after the aberrations of a modalism which deprived the Logos of real subsistence” (RW, 117).

“Wolfson … suggested that Philo may have been a former of Arius’ thought because he too taught two Logoi, and the creation of one of them ex nihilo, and the incomparability of God.

But then, Wolfson was obsessed to an excessive degree with the influence of Philo on the fathers; Philo’s Logos-doctrine is confused and obscure; he does not make the same division between the Logos and God as did the Arians. We cannot claim Philo as an ancestor of Arius’ thought.” (RH, 60)

After discussing the evidence, Rowan Williams comes to a similar conclusion. He says that the similarities between Philo and Arius “should not … mislead us into hastily concluding that Arius was an assiduous student of Philo. What all this shows is, rather, that Philo mapped out the ground for the Alexandrian theological tradition to build on, and that Arius’ theological problematic is firmly within that tradition.” (RW, 122-123)

So, to the same extent that Arius was influenced by Philo, Alexandrian theologians, in general, were also influenced by him. Philo was not the origin of Arius’ idiosyncrasies.

Gnosticism

Arius also did not receive his theology from the Gnostics:

“There are some resemblances to Gnostic doctrines in Arius’ thought. … But these resemblances are either too general or refer to terms used for different things in the two authors. Furthermore, Arius several times rejects the favourite Gnostic concept of the ‘issue’ … of beings, from God.” (RH, 60)

Clement of Alexandria

Clement (150-215) was the bishop of Alexandria in the early third century in the same city where Arius and his bishop lived.

Clément’s theology included one of the peculiar aspects of Arius’ theology, namely, “two Logoi.” (See the explanation below.) However, Clement’s “two Logoi are quite different from those of Arius.” (RH, 60)

Furthermore, while Arius taught ‘there was when He (the Son) was not, Clement taught “the eternity of the Son.” (RH, 60)

Clement describes the Logos as:

“The primary image of God …
the ‘second cause’ in heaven,
‘life itself’.” (RW, 125-126)

After showing that Clement’s theology is significantly different from that of Arius, Williams concludes:

“However, this is not to deny that Clement also passes on a positive legacy to Arius and his generation. … There are the numerous parallels in vocabulary between Arius’ Thalia and the language of Clement.” (RW, 126)

“It is less a question of a direct influence on Arius than of a common ethos … Arius begins from the apophatic tradition shared by Philo, Clement and heterodox Gnosticism … but his importance lies in his refusal to … (admit) into the divine substance … a second principle.” (RW, 131)

So, Arius inherited many things from Clement, just like he received many things from many other theologians, but the peculiar aspects of Arius’ theology cannot be blamed on Clement (RH, 60).

Origen

Origen (185-253) was the most influential theologian of the first three centuries. “From very early on, there were those who saw Origen as the ultimate source of Arius’ heresy” (RW, 131). The similarities and differences between Origen and Arius are discussed in a separate article. Hanson concluded:

“Arius probably inherited some terms and even some ideas from Origen, … he certainly did not adopt any large or significant part of Origen’s theology.” (RH, 70)

“He was not without influence from Origen, but cannot seriously be called an Origenist” (RH, 98).

Dionysius of Alexandria

“Dionysius was bishop of Alexandria from 247 to 264.” (RH, 72) “The Arians … were adducing (offering) Dionysius of Alexandria as a great authority in the past who supported their doctrine.” (RH, 73) For example, Dionysius wrote:

“The Son of God is a creature and generate,
and he is not by nature belonging to
but is alien in ousia from the Father,
just as the planter of the vine is to the vine,
and the shipbuilder to the ship;

Further, because he is a creature
he did not exist before he came into existence” (RH, 73).

“Dionysius … rejected homoousios because it did not occur in the Bible.” (RH, 75)

“Athanasius defends Dionysius, though he admits that he wrote these words, on the grounds that the circumstances, since he was combating Sabellianism, justified such expressions” (RH, 73).

“Basil … says that Dionysius unwittingly sowed the first seeds of the Anhomoian error, by leaning too far in the opposite direction in his anxiety to correct wrong Sabellian views” (RH, 74).

Hanson concludes as follows:

“However Dionysius may have refined his later theology, it is impossible to avoid seeing some influence from his work in the theology of Arius. The later Arians and Basil were right. The damning passage quoted from his letteris altogether too like the doctrine of Arius for us to regard it as insignificant.” (RH, 75-76)

“If, as seems likely, Arius put together an eclectic pattern of theology … Dionysius of Alexandria certainly contributed to that pattern” (RH, 76).

So, of all the writers referred to above, Dionysius is the first one who really could have been the source of Arius’ theology. And Dionysius was the bishop of the city when Arius was born there.

Paul of Samosata

Paul was Bishop of Antioch from 260 to 268. At the time, Antioch was the headquarters of the church. “Many scholars have conjectured that the views of Paul of Samosata, or at least of his school, must have influenced Arius” (RH, 70). However:

“Apparently for Paul the Son was Jesus Christ the historical figure without any preexistent history at all.

And the stock accusation made against Paul by all ancient writers who mention him from the ivth century onward was that he declared Jesus to be no more than a mere man.” (RH, 71)

“Apart from his (moral?) superiority to us in all things because of his miraculous generation, he is ‘equal to us’. Wisdom dwells in Jesus ‘as in a temple’: the prophets and Moses and “many lords’ (kings?) were indwelt by Wisdom, but Jesus has the fullest degree of participation in it.” (RW, 159-160)

“This is an idea which all Arian writers after Arius (and, in my view, probably Arius himself) regularly rejected.” “Arius believed firmly in a pre-existent Son.” (RH, 71) “Arius … ranges himself with those who most strongly opposed Paul. (RW, 161)

To conclude:

“We know very little with certainty about Paul of Samosata.” Therefore, “any attribution of influence from Paul of Samosata upon Arius must rest almost wholly upon speculation.” (RH, 72)

Theognostus of Alexandria

Theognostus wrote between 247 and 280. His views “echoes Arian concerns in insisting that the Father is not divided” but he also had some quite un-Arian views, such as that:

The Son is an issue of the Father (RH, 78).

“The ousia of the Son … was (not) introduced from non-existence, but it was of the Father’s ousia.” (RH, 77) “Theognostus explicitly disowned the doctrine, which Arius certainly held, that the Son was created out of non-existence” (RH, 78).

While Arius taught “that there are two Logoi (one immanent in the Father and one a name given somewhat inaccurately to the Son),” … Theognostus insisted that there was only one Logos (RH, 79). Therefore:

“We cannot glean any satisfactory evidence that Theognostus was a predecessor of Arius.” (RH, 79)

Methodius of Olympia

Methodius of Olympia (died c. 311) was a bishop, ecclesiastical author, and martyr.

He was “the most vocal critic of Origen in the pre-Arian period” (RW, 168). He “seems to assume that Origen’s doctrine of the eternity of creation implies the eternity of matter as a rival self-subsistent reality alongside God” (RW, 168).

He “produces some views which interestingly resemble those of Arius. For example:

“The Son … is wholly dependent on the Father.” (RH, 83).

The Son is “the first of all created things” (RH, 83).

“God alone … is ingenerate [meaning, exists without a cause]; nothing else in the universe is so, certainly not, he implies, the Son.” (RH, 83)

“God the Father is the ‘unoriginated origin’, God the Son the beginning after the beginning, the origin of everything else created.” (RH, 83)

“God the Father creates by his will alone. God the Son is the ‘hand’ of the Father, orders and adorns what the Father has created out of nothing.” (RH, 83)

Lucian of Antioch

The authorities above are discussed in chronological sequence. Lucian was the last of them. He died as a martyr in 312, only 6 years before Arius and his bishop clashed.

“Jerome ... describes Lucian thus: ‘A very learned man, a presbyter of the church of Antioch” (RH, 81). He was “well versed in sacred learning” (RH, 79).

Evidence that Arius was a follower of Lucian

“A figure to whom many scholars have looked in order to explain the origins of Arius’ thought is Lucian of Antioch:”

“Arius describes Eusebius of Nicomedia, to whom he is writing, as ‘a genuine fellow-disciple of Lucian’” (RH, 80), implying that Arius himself was a “disciple of Lucian.”

Philostorgius also described Eusebius of Nicomedia, who was one of Arius’ close friends, as “the _ disciple of Lucian the martyr’” (RH, 81).

Epiphanius identifies “the Arians” with “the Lucianists” (RH, 80). “’Lucian and all the Lucianists’, he says, ‘deny that the Son of God took a soul [i.e. a human soul), ‘in order that, of course, they may attach human experiences directly to the Logos.” (RH, 80) This was a standard teaching of the Arians.

Lucian’s theology

“According to Sozomen, the second creed of the Dedication Council on Antioch in 341 was said to be a confession of faith stemming from Lucian.” (RW, 163-4; cf. RH, 80-81)

“There is one fact, and one fact only, which we can with any confidence accept as authentic about Lucian’s doctrine. … Lucian taught that the Saviour at the Incarnation assumed a body without a soul” (RH, 83).

But Arius deviated from Lucian.

“Philostorgius knew of a tradition that Arius and the Lucianists disagreed about the Son’s knowledge of the Father, (RW, 165)

While Arius maintained “that God was incomprehensible … also to the only-begotten Son of God’ (RW, 165), “the Lucianists … were remembered to have held that God was fully known by the Son … Eusebius of Caesarea says much the same.” (RW, 165)

If these are true, then Arius differed from Lucian on this key aspect of his teachings.

Conclusions re Lucian

“We can be sure that Arius drew on the teachings of Lucian, but … we do not know what Lucian taught” (RH, 82, cf. 83). “Our witnesses to Lucian’s theology are fragmentary and uncertain in the extreme.” (RW, 163)

“It is wholly unlikely that Arius was a vox clamantis in deserto (a lone voice calling in the desert). He represents a school, probably the school of Lucian of Antioch, and the school was to some extent independent of him. Arianism did not look back on him later with respect and awe as its founder.” (RH, 97)

Antioch or Alexandria?

“Some … modern scholars have been much preoccupied with the question of whether Antioch or Alexandria should be seen as his spiritual and intellectual home.” (RW, 116).

However, “the stark distinctions once drawn between Antiochene and Alexandrian exegesis or theology have come increasingly to look exaggerated. (RW, 158)

“Arius is an unmistakable Alexandrian in his apophaticism (knowledge of God). … We have no real justification even for regarding him as a rebel in the matter of exegesis.” (RW, 156) “Arius inherits a dual concern that is very typically Alexandrian.” (RW, 176)

CONCLUSIONS

Arius did not cause the Controversy.

The analysis above shows that the authors preceding Arius had very conflicting views of the Son. Sabellian and his supporters are not even mentioned above because Arius was on the opposite end of the spectrum. Consequently:

“Many of the issues raised by the controversy were under lively discussion before Arius and Alexander publicly clashed” (RH, 52).

“The views of Arius were such as … to bring into unavoidable prominence a doctrinal crisis which had gradually been gathering. … He was (only) the spark that started the explosion.” (RH, xvii)

Arius was particularly influenced by two authors.

Arius rejected Gnosticism and the theology of Paul of Samosata.

Arius is unmistakably Alexandrian in his theology and the general heritage of the church in Alexandria was shaped by Plato, Philo, Clement, Origen, and Lucian:

Arius’ theology was “clearly the result of a very large number of theological views.” (RW, 171)

The two authors whom Arius could rightly claim as his theological predecessors are Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria, and Methodius, bishop of Olympia:

It is likely that Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria contributed to Arius’ theology (RH, 76).

Bishop Methodius of Olympia regarded the Father alone as ingenerate; the ‘unoriginated origin’ and the Son as the first of all created things and wholly dependent on the Father (RH, 83).

While Hanson said that “Arius … represents a school, probably the school of Lucian of Antioch” (RH, 97), Williams proposed that “it is perhaps a mistake to look for one self-contained and exclusive ‘theological school’ to which to assign him” (RW, 115).

Arius did not say anything new.

Arius’ book (The Thalia) “is conservative in the sense that there is almost nothing in it that could not be found in earlier writers; it is radical and individual in the way it combines and reorganizes traditional ideas and presses them to their logical conclusions.” (RW, 177).

“Arius … can no longer be regarded as the strange monster of heresy which Gwatkin, and even Harnack, depicted him to be” (RH, 84-85).

SPECIFIC DOCTRINES

This second section discusses specific doctrines which Arius might have received from his predecessors. Almost everything that Arius wrote can be found in the writings of his predecessors. This section relies on both the discussion above and the article – Was Origen the ultimate source of Arius’ heresy?

A Creature

Both Origen and bishop Dionysius of Alexandria (247 to 264), described the Son as a ‘creature’ (RH, 63):

“Origen did … describe the Son both as ‘having come into existence’ and as a ‘creature’. … But at the same time, he declares his belief in the eternity of the Son as a distinct entity from the Father” (RH, 63-64). He used the term ‘creature’ in the general sense of a being whose existence was caused by another. That would include ‘begotten’ beings.

Dionysius described the Son of God as “a creature,” “alien in ousia from the Father” (RH, 73).

Originated

Methodius emphasized that the Father alone exists without a cause and, therefore, without a beginning. Origen, similarly, described the Son as “the originated God” (RH 62).

Subordinate

“Origen, with Arius, can be said to have subordinated the Son to the Father” (RH, 64). Hanson also explains that, for Origen, the Son was less subordinate than for Arius (RH, 64). Nevertheless, Hanson goes on to say that all theologians in the Eastern or the Western Church before the outbreak of the Arian Controversy regarded the Son as subordinate to the Father.

“Subordinationism might indeed, until the denouement (end) of the controversy, have been described as accepted orthodoxy” (RH, xix).

For example, Bishop Methodius of Olympia (died c. 311) regards the Son as the first of all created things and wholly dependent on the Father (RH, 83).

Not fully understand

Origen taught that the Son does not fully understand the Father.

Produced by the Father’s will

In contrast to Nicene theology, in which God never made a decision to generate the Son; the Son simply always exists, “Ignatius, Justin, Hippolytus, Clement of Alexandria and Origen” taught “the Son was produced by the Father’s will” (RH, 90).

Not homoousios

Dionysius of Alexandria “rejected homoousios” (RH, 75) and said that “the Son of God … is alien in ousia from the Father” (RH, 73).

There was when He was not

Dionysius of Alexandria said that the Son did not always exist:

“Because he is a creature he did not exist before he came into existence” (RH, 73).

From non-existence

As indicated by the anathemas attached to the Nicene Creed, this was one of the main aspects of Arius’ theology to which the Council objected. In opposition to the view that the Son is from non-existence, the Nicene Creed interprets “begotten” as that He is from the substance of the Father.

Hanson says that “Arius’ view, that “the Son was created from non-existent things, has never been supplied with a convincing antecedent.” (RH, 88)

But I would like to differ a bit from Hanson in this regard. I cannot find a place where Arius adds the word “things” to this statement. Arius simply said, “God made him ‘out of non-existence'” (RH, 20, 24). To me, this simply means that the Son did not exist before He was begotten. If that is the meaning, bishop Dionysius of Alexandria said the same thing about 50 years earlier when he said, “Because he is a creature he did not exist before he came into existence” (RH, 73).

Two Logoi

One of the unique aspects of Arius’ teaching was ‘two logoi’. Clement of Alexandria also taught “two Logoi” (RH, 60) but Theognostus of Alexandria “insisted that there was only one Logos” (RH, 79). This aspect requires more detail because the modern reader would not off-hand understand the significance:

Logos-theology had only one Logos.

The church became Gentile (non-Jewish) dominated in the second century but was still persecuted by the Roman Empire. These ‘Gentile’ theologians developed the Logos-theology and this became generally accepted in the church.

Logos-theology was an interpretation of the New Testament on the basis of Greek philosophy, which still dominated the intellectual world of the Roman Empire (see – The Apologists).

In Greek philosophy, God’s Logos (Word, Wisdomhas always existed as part of God but became a separate reality (hypostasis) when God decided to create. So, in Greek philosophy, there was only one Logos.

These church fathers explained the pre-existent Jesus Christ as the Logos of Greek philosophy. Consequently, the pre-existent Jesus Christ was explained as God’s only Logos. In this theology, God does not have another Logos. In other words, God does not have his own ‘mind’ or ‘Wisdom’ apart from His Son.

This view was challenged by Sabellianism in the third century but Sabellianism was rejected. Consequently, Logos-theology was the general explanation of the Son with which the church entered the fourth century. For example, Theognostus of Alexandria (247 to 280) “insisted that there was only one Logos” (RH, 79).

Since Hanson mentions only one theologian who taught “two Logoi” (Clement of Alexandria – RH, 60), presumably all other theologians taught one single Logos – as per the traditional Logos theology. For a further discussion, see – Logos-Theology

Arius deviated from Logos-theology.

Both Alexander and Athanasius noted that Arius taught two Logoi (two Wisdoms): The Son is Logos and God has His own Logos (mind). For example, Athanasius, in his paraphrasing of Arius’ teaching, wrote:

“There are … two Wisdoms, one God’s own who has existed eternally with God, the other the Son who was brought into existence. … There is another Word in God besides the Son” (RH, 13, cf. 16).

The fact that they mentioned this shows that they regarded this as noteworthy and even a deviation. Arius is very often accused of bringing philosophy into the church. However, his two Logoi seem to be a protest against the influence of Greek philosophy on church doctrine.


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