Did Arius say there was time when the Son of God did not exist?

Summary

Arius, the fourth-century presbyter after whom the Arian Controversy was named, taught that the Son was “begotten timelessly before everything.”

Since there cannot be two Beings who exist without a cause, he also argued that God existed before His Son came into existence. The Son, therefore, had a beginning of existence, unlike the Father who had no beginning.

While Arius himself wrote that the Son was “begotten timelessly,” Athanasius claimed that Arius said there was “time” before the Son came into existence. This apparent contradiction may be explained as follows:

The theologians of the Arian Controversy agreed that time began when God brought the universe into existence and that God exists in the timeless reality beyond this universe. But they disagreed about IF and WHEN the Son came into existence:

In the Nicene View, the Son is co-eternal with the Father, meaning that He has ‘always’ existed in that timeless reality.

In the ‘Arian’ view, the Son has always existed in the literal time of this universe but, in the timeless reality beyond our universe, the Father has ‘preceded’ the Son.

– END OF SUMMARY –


Authors / Sources

This article series is based mainly on the books of three world-class scholars who are regarded as specialists in the fourth-century Arian Controversy, namely:

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

This article uses the following codes for certain ancient documents:

      • EoN – Arius’ letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia
      • AoA – Arius’ letter to Alexander of Alexandria
      • De Synodis – Athnasius’ quote of Arius
      • A1 – Alexander’s first letter in which he explains why he excommunicated Arius
      • A2 – Alexander’s second letter

Arius taught that the Son was “begotten timelessly before everything.”

As is also taught by the Bible (e.g., Col 1:16; Heb 1:2), Arius maintained that God created all things through His Son (RH, 13). Therefore, the Son must have existed before all things. Consistent with this, Arius wrote that the Son:

“Exists … before times and before ages” (EoN, RH, 6),

Was “begotten timelessly by the Father … before aeons … begotten timelessly before everything” (AoA, RH, 8). (An aeon is “an indefinite and very long period of time.”)

Was “created and established before aeons” (RH, 8), and

Was “begotten before aeonian times” and “before times and before aeons” (AoA, RH, 7).

Eusebius of Caesarea, who was regarded as the most scholarly bishop of Arius’ time, and who supported Arius all his life, similarly taught that the Son was “begotten before all ages” (RH, 56).

If we assume that “the beginning” in John 1:1 was when all things were created, as is implied by John 1:3, then Arius would have agreed that the Logos was with God “in the beginning.”

Arius also argued that God existed before His Son came into existence.

Arius also frequently said that the Son did not always exist. For example:

“There was when He was not” (Nicene Creed of AD 325), meaning that God existed before the Son:

He “did not exist before he was begotten … for he is not eternal nor co-eternal, nor co-unoriginated with the Father” (AoA, RH, 8).

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

“The Son having not existed attained existence by the Father’s will” (De Synodis, RH, 14).

If the Son “attained existence by the Father’s will,” then the Father’s will must have existed before the Son existed. Arius wrote similarly:

“Nor does he possess being parallel with the Father … thereby introducing two unoriginated ultimate principles, but as the … origin of everything, so God is prior to everything. Therefore he is also prior to the Son” (AoA, RH, 8).

In other words, Arius argued that, if the Son had always existed, then there would be “two unoriginated ultimate principles,” meaning, two Beings who exist without cause and who gave cause to all else, which is not possible.

Eusebius of Caesarea referred similarly to God as “prior to the Logos” (RH, 48).

The Son had a beginning of existence.

Since the Son did not exist before He was begotten, He had a beginning, in contrast to the Father who had no beginning of existence. For example, Arius wrote:

The Father “is supremely sole without beginning” (AoA, RH, 8).

“We praise him as without beginning in contrast to him who has a beginning” (De Synodis, RH, 14, 31)

Did Arius say that there was “time” before the Son came into existence?

Very little of Arius’ own writings have survived but in what has survived, Arius never used the word “time” to say that there was “time” before the Son was begotten. But, according to Arius’ two main enemies – Athanasius and Alexander – Arius did use that word. For example, Athanasius, in his paraphrasing of Arius’ teaching, stated that Arius taught:

“God was not always Father, but there was a time when he was solitary. The Son did not always exist” (RH, 13).

In De Synodis, which does seem to be a direct quote, Athanasius wrote:

“We worship him as eternal in contrast to him who came into existence in times” (De Synodis, RH, 14).

Similarly, Alexander described Arius as teaching:

“There was a time when God was not Father” (A1, RH, 16).

“There was a time when he did not exist” (A1, RH, 16).

“There was a time when the Son of God did not exist” (A2, RH, 17).

So, according to Athanasius, Arius apparently wrote that there was literal time before the Son existed. On the other hand, Arius himself wrote that the Son was “begotten timelessly before everything.” Did Arius contradict himself?

Many commentators have thought so. For example, “Gwatkin characterizes Arianism as … a crude and contradictory system” (RW, 10).

On the other hand, however, the Trinitarian Bishop Rowan Williams, after writing a recent book about Arius, concluded that Arius “is a thinker and exegete of resourcefulness, sharpness and originality” (RW, 116).

This apparent contradiction may be explained as follows:

Time is limited to our universe. God exists ‘outside’ time.

The theologians of the fourth century believed that time began when God brought the world (today, we would say “the cosmos”) into existence. Beyond this cosmos, where God exists, there is no time.

We cannot use the words ‘always’ and ‘before’ to describe that incomprehensible and timeless reality beyond our universe because those words assume the existence of time. Still, if we use these terms in a metaphysical sense, we can say that the Father ‘always’ existed and, therefore, that He existed ‘before’ He created the cosmos. In other words, there was something like a timeless gap between God and creation (RW, 188-9).

All sides in the Controversy agreed on these things. But they disagreed about IF and WHEN the Son came into existence:

In the Nicene View, the Son has ‘always’ existed in that timeless reality. 

In this view, the Son is co-eternal with the Father, meaning that He has ‘always’ existed in that timeless reality beyond our universe. In other words, there was no timeless gap between Father and Son (RW, 189).

The Arians opposed this because it would mean that both the Father and Son are “unoriginated ultimate principles,” which is not possible:

Arius said that this would mean that the Father does not ‘have precedence’ over the Son in any respect and it would mean that the Son also exists without cause and is a rival first principle (RW, 189).

Eusebius of Caesarea “also defends … (the statement that) ‘he who is begot him who was not’ on the grounds that … if it is not allowed, ‘then there would be two Beings’, i.e. two grounds of being” (RH, 57).

Eusebius of Caesarea also argued that the titles Father and Son mean that the Father is the cause of the Son’s existence and that, therefore, “the Father and the Son … cannot have co-existed eternally.” He wrote:

“The Father and the Son … cannot have co-existed eternally, but rather the Father precedes the Son in eternal existence. If this were not so, then the Father would not be Father nor the Son Son, and both would be either unoriginated or originated. But in fact, ‘one is regarded as prior to and greater than the second in rank and honours, so that he is the cause of the existence [of the other] and of the kind of existence which he has’. The Son himself knows that he is different from the Father and less and subordinate.” (RH, 57)

In the ‘Arian’ view, the Son has always existed in the literal time of this universe.

The quotes above show how Alexander and Athanasius, by adding the word “time,” implied that Arius taught that the Son did not always exist in the literal time of our universe. (RW, 189) But Arius refused to admit that. Arius said that the gap between Father and Son “may be temporal or logical,” and if it is temporal (time), then it may be “an instant of time or an infinitesimal reality” (RW, 189).

In other words, Arius said that, if there was a gap of literal time between the Father and Son, then it would only be an instant. But it may also be that there is no gap of literal time between the Father and Son. In that case, the gap would be “logical,” meaning a gap in the timeless reality beyond our universe.

In the Arian view, in the timeless reality, the Father has ‘preceded’ the Son.

Williams interprets Eusebius of Caesarea as presenting the same concepts:

“Faced with the notion that there was no ‘interval’ between Father and Son, Eusebius is not necessarily being inconsistent in stressing the Father’s pre-existence. From our point of view, in the world’s time, Father and Son co-exist; from the Father’s point of view, so to speak, they do not and cannot.” (RW, 172)

Hanson explains the same principle in different words:

“He (Arius) and his followers insist again and again that the Son was produced before times and ages yet they hold onto the conviction that there was a time when the Son did not exist. … Perhaps they took the Platonic view that time only existed when the heavenly bodies, by which time is measured, were created, so that the Son, who was at some point brought into existence, but before the heavenly bodies, could be said in a sense to be ‘before times’” (RH, 22).

The point in all of the accounts above is that, in Arian teaching, since God created this universe, including time, through the Son, there was no literal “time” before the Son was begotten. Therefore, from the human perspective, the Son has always existed. But from the Father’s point of view, so to speak, in the timeless reality, the Father ‘preceded’ the Son.


Other Articles

FOOTNOTES

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

Did Arius describe Jesus Christ as a Created Being?

Summary

Worship JesusIt is often said that Arius described the Son of God as a created being. But this article shows that that is a distortion of what Arius taught. The Arians taught as follows:

1. God produced all things through the Son. The Son is the only Being brought forth by God directly. Consequently, there is nobody like the Son.

2. Since God created all things through His Son, the Son is our Creator.

3. The Son is the only being who is able to endure direct contact with God. All other beings will be consumed by it. This makes an infinite distinction between the Son and the created universe.

4. The Son is not part of this universe for He created the entire universe and was begotten outside time.

5. The Son is our God because He created us, because our experience of God is limited to His Son, and because what we receive from God, we receive through His Son.

6. The church fathers used the term ‘creature’ for any being whose existence was caused by another. In this meaning of the term, the Son is also a creature because He was begotten by God. We must interpret Arius’ words using the meanings that words had then; not against the meanings that these words have today.

So, why does everybody seem to believe that Arius described the Son as a created being? Arius’ enemies, by claiming that He taught the Son is an ordinary created being, distorted his words. In misrepresenting Arius, Athanasius acted maliciously. Unfortunately, Trinitarian Christianity continued to misrepresent the Arians.

– END OF SUMMARY –


Authors / Sources

This article series is based largely on the books of three world-class scholars who are regarded as specialists in the fourth-century Arian Controversy, namely:

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

Purpose

It is often claimed that Arius described the Son of God as a created being. The purpose of this article is to show that that is a distortion of Arius’ theology. The Arians did not teach that the Son is a created being. They taught as follows:

The Son is the only Being brought forth by God directly.

God produced all things through the Son. The Son is the only Being brought forth by God directly. Consequently, there is nobody like the Son. The following confirms that this is what Arius taught:

He is “the product of the Father” (RH, 7);
alone has been given existence by the Father” (RH, 8).

“He has been produced directly without mediation by God, and everything else has come into being through his mediation” (RH, 102).

“Nor does he live a life comparable to those things which were produced through him, but he has been brought forth alone from the Father himself and is Life in himself” (RH, 56; John 5:26).

Hanson concluded: “This direct creation means that the Son has nobody like him; the Arians’ favourite title for the Son was unigenitus (only-begotten, John 1:4, 18; 3:16)” (RH, 102).

The Son is our Creator.

The Arians, and the church in general at that time, argued that God created all things through His unique Son. We, therefore, and this earth and this entire universe were created by God through the Son. That implies an infinite distinction between the Son and the universe, similar to the infinite distinction between any creator and the thing created.

Only the Son is able to endure direct contact with God.

The Son is the only being who is able to endure direct contact with God. All other beings will be consumed by it. The following confirms that this is what the Arians taught:

One prominent Arian in Arius’ day (Asterius) explained that “when God desired that created nature should come into existence, he saw that nature could not endure his direct hand and so ‘he initially makes and created, himself sole, a sole Being, and calls this Son and Word’; consequently, once this mediating Being had come into existence, the rest could be created.” (RH, 100)

“Demophilus, the last Arian bishop of Constantinople before the advent of Theodosius (AD 380), [says] God … ‘could not come in contact with the creation which he intended to make, for he would have been under the necessity either of making everything gods so as to be worthy of him, or else everything would have disintegrated by contact with him. So the Son of God had to become a mediator between God and the things created by him.’” (RH, 101)

In this theory, following Asterius’ argument, the Son is the only Being who is able to endure direct contact with God. This makes an infinite distinction between the Son and the created universe.

This argument may sound strange to a modern ear, but it was foundational in the Logos theory, which was the church’s standard explanation of the Son of God when the Arian Controversy began. See – The Apologists. In this theory, since God could not come in direct contact with the creation, the Logos was necessary to act as mediator between God and the created things; firstly to create all things and, thereafter, to be the communication between God and the created things. (RH, 100-101)

The Son is not part of this universe.

If the Son created all things (the universe), then He is not part of this universe.

Furthermore, Arius and the Arians claimed time and again that the Son was begotten “before times and before aeons” (RH, 7). In other words, the Son was begotten before time even existed. If we argue that time began when the universe was brought into being, the Son originates from that which exists beyond the time, space, and matter of this universe; He comes from the unfathomable infinity beyond this finite universe.

The Son is our God.

For example, “Ulfilas, bishop of the Goths,” described the Son as:

Our Lord and God, artificer (craftsman)
and maker of the whole creation,
who has nobody like him” (RH, 105).

They described the Son as “our God” because:

Firstly, the Son created us: “The Father is the origin of everything made, but the Son brings everything into actual existence” (RH, 103).

Secondly, God is invisible, meaning that created beings cannot experience God directly. Only His Son is able to experience God directly. Our experience of God is limited to His Son.

Thirdly, in all things, the Logos is the intermediary and mediator between God and creation. Whatever we receive from God, we receive through the Son of God. He has all authority in heaven and on earth. And whatever worship we give to God, we give to Him through His Son.

These concepts create an infinite distinction between the Son and the created things. It causes a hierarchy in which the Son is above all other beings. In practice, He is the God for all other beings. For us, He is God. He is our God, just like the Father is His God (e.g., Rev 1:6; 3:2, 12).

The term ‘creature’ refers to any being whose existence was caused by another.

For us, today, when we speak about Jesus Christ, there is a clear distinction between “created” and “begotten,” but at the beginning of the fourth century, Christians used these terms as synonyms:

(1) In the time of Origen, in the third century, “nobody distinguished ‘having come into existence’ from ‘begotten’” (RH, 63).

(2) “Christians had long been accustomed to interpret the figure of Wisdom in the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament as a reference to the preexistent Christ” (RH, 20; cf. RH 8) and Proverbs 8 describes His generation with phrases such as “established” and “brought forth” (Prov 8:22, 23, 25).

(3) “In the middle of the third century Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria; produced in a treatise an account of the Son as created” (RH, 872). This was the bishop in the same city in which Arius lived, and Arius was born (c. 256) while Dionysius still was writing.

(4) The following is an example of how the ‘Arians’ used these words as synonyms:

“He [the Father of Christ] created and begot, made and founded the Only-begotten God.”  (RH, 105; cf. RH, 6, 8, 30, 90).

The point is that we must interpret Arius’ words using the meanings that words then had; not against the meanings that words have today. As discussed, both Origen and Arius used the word ‘creature’ for any being whose existence was caused by another. In this meaning of the term, the Son is also a creature because He was begotten by God.

The Nicene Creed is innovation.

The Nicene Creed describes the Son as “begotten not made.” Since the term “created” traditionally included the concept of “begotten,” that distinction between “begotten” and “made,” which the modern ear is quite used to, was a new development. 

This is one example of a general principle: In the conventional account of the Arian Controversy, Arius’ theology was a break from the orthodoxy. In reality, it was the other way around: The Arians were the traditionalists and conservatives and Nicene theology was an innovation. For example:

Rowan Williams refers to “the radical words of Nicaea” (RW, 236) (referring particularly to the word homoousios) as “conceptual innovation” (RW, 234-5).

Hanson described homoousios as one of the “new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy” (RH, 846).

Hanson concludes: “There is no doubt … that the pro-Nicene theologians throughout the controversy were engaged in a process of developing doctrine and consequently introducing what must be called a change in doctrine” (RH, 872). “The Arians failed just because they were so inflexible, too conservative, not ready enough to look at new ideas” (RH, 873).

Arius is being misrepresented.

So, why does everybody seem to believe that Arius described the Son as a created being?

Arius’ enemies distorted his words.

By claiming that He taught the Son is an ordinary created being, his enemies distorted his words:

Arius clearly taught that no other creature is comparable to the Son. For example, Arius wrote:

“He is only-begotten God and he is different from any others” (RH, 14).

But Athanasius and Alexander, the bitter theological enemies of the Arians, distorted what the Arians said. Alexander, for example, would write that, for the Arians:

      • “the Son is a creature” and “He is one of the products” (RH, 16).
      • “When he came into existence, he was then such as is every man: because they say that God made everything out of non-existence” (RH, 17).
      • We are able to become the sons of God as he is.” (RH, 17 – Alexander).

And Athanasius would describe the Arians as teaching: “He is properly of those who come into existence and are created” (RH, 14).

Since Alexander attempted to present the Arian’s Son as an ordinary created being, he attempted to reduce the impact of Arius’ statement that the Son created all things and interpreted Arius as saying:

“He was made for our sake, in order that God should create us through him as through an instrument” (RH, 16 – Alexander).

This distortion was known in Arius’ day. For example, in a letter, Eusebius of Caesarea took Alexander “to task for unjustly accusing Arius and his friends of teaching that ‘the Son has come into existence from non-existence like one of the mass‘, whereas what they had actually said was that the Son was “a perfect creature, but not as one of the creatures” (RH, 56-57).

Athanasius acted maliciously.

This section shows scholarly Trinitarians confirm that Athanasius was malicious in claiming that the Arians taught that the Son is an ordinary created being. On pages 104-105, Rowan Williams discusses Athanasius’ quotes of Arius’ works and shows how Athanasius distorts Arius’ words. He concludes:

“The Son is repeatedly assimilated to the level of other creatures, and the phrases ‘like us’ and ‘like all others recur.” In contrast, Arius wrote: “The Son was a ‘perfect creature, yet not as one among the creatures, a begotten being, yet not as one among things begotten.” (RW, 104)

Williams interpreted this as that Athanasius applied “unscrupulous tactics in polemic and struggle” (RW, 239). Hanson agrees and wrote:

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

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

“He (Arius) did not teach (as his opponents maliciously alleged) that the Son was no greater than the locust or caterpillar” (RH, 20).

Trinitarian Christianity continued to misrepresent the Arians.

Unfortunately, however, after Emperor Athanasius made the Trinitarian version of Christianity the only official of the Roman Empire, and brutally eliminated the other and previously dominating versions of Christianity, Trinitarian Christianity accepted Athanasius’ message as truth. The “conventional account of the Controversy … stems originally from the version given of it by the victorious party.” (RPC Hanson) But that conventional account “is now recognized by a large number of scholars to be a complete travesty.”


OTHER ARTICLES

FOOTNOTES

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