Who was Arius and why is he important?

Overview

The Great Persecution of AD 303-313 was Rome’s final attempt to get rid of Christianity. Only 5 years later, in 318 AD, the Arian Controversy began. That was the church’s most dramatic struggle. It was only brought to an end 62 years later when emperor Theodosius made the Trinitarian version of Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire and brutally exterminated all opposition.

Thereafter, Arius became more and more regarded as some kind of Antichrist. However, over the last 100 years, due to new information that has become available, the scholarly view of the Controversy has significantly revised.

Arius’ following was limited to Africa but he had the support of the two most important church leaders of the time: Eusebius of Nicomedia and Eusebius of Caesarea. However, it is perhaps truer to say that his supporters opposed Alexander rather than that they supported Arius. They thought the theology of Alexander a greater menace than that of Arius.

Emperor Constantine attempted to restore unity, not because he was interested in ‘the truth’, but because he was worried that the controversy might split his empire apart.

In the traditional account of the Arian Controversy, Arius was a deliberate radical who created a novel heresy and defective theology. Recently, however, based on ancient documents that have become more readily available, scholars conclude that Arius was a conservative and an exegete of sharpness and originality.

Furthermore, in the traditional account, Arius was an important person. But not even his own supporters thought of him as important. He was not the founder of Arianism nor the leader of a movement. He did not leave a school of disciples. His theology was only relevant in the first 7 years of the controversy. The second and main phase of the Controversy was a dispute, particularly about the word homoousios in the Nicene Creed. In that phase, Arius’ theology were irrelevant.

The reason that Arius is still misunderstood is that so little of his writings survived. Most of what we know about Arius comes from the writings of his enemies, but they misrepresented him.


The Arian Controversy

The Great Persecution (AD 303-313)

During the first three centuries, the Roman Empire persecuted Christianity. The Great Persecution, only the 2nd empire-wide persecution and easily the longest, was led by Diocletian and was Rome’s final attempt to limit the expansion of Christianity across the empire. Beginning around 303, Diocletian’s first edict commanded churches and holy sites razed to the ground, sacred articles burned, and believers jailed.

That persecution of Christians came to an end when Christianity was legalized through Galerius’ Edict of Toleration in 311 followed by Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313, after Emperor Constantine himself had become a Christian.

Beginning of the Controversy

The Arian Controversy began only 5 years later in 318 when Arius, who was in charge of one of the churches in Alexandria, publicly criticized his bishop Alexander for “carelessness in blurring the distinction of nature between the Father and the Son by his emphasis on eternal generation” 1Lyman, J. Rebecca (2010). “The Invention of ‘Heresy’ and ‘Schism'”. The Cambridge History of Christianity. and of Sabellianism (Legal History Sources).

End of the Controversy

The Controversy around the word homo-ousios in the Nicene Creed divided the church into a number of viewpoints. The pro-Nicenes defended the term, but others said that we should not talk about God’s substance (the Homo-ians), or that the Son’s substance is similar to the Father’s (the Homoi-ousians), and still said that the Son’s substance is different from the Fathers (the Heter-ousians).

That controversy was brought to an end 62 years after it began by emperor Theodosius who, in the year 380, through the edict of Thessalonica, made the Trinitarian version of Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. He wrote that all must:

“Believe in the one deity of the Father,
the Son and the Holy Spirit,

in equal majesty and in a holy Trinity.”

End of Arianism

That edict threatened all other Christians with “the punishment of our authority.” This threat was brutally implemented. Opponents to the Trinity doctrine were forbidden to meet and preach and their places of worship were given to those bishops who accepted the Trinity doctrine. Through the Roman Army, Theodosius eliminated all opposition to the Trinity doctrine within the Empire. For a further discussion, see – Theodosius.

That eliminated ‘Arianism’ among the Roman citizens but the Germanic nations – both inside and outside the empire – remained ‘Arian’.

The most dramatic struggle

That entire period of 62 years, from 318 to 380, is known as “the Arian Controversy” and is described as “the most dramatic internal struggle the Christian Church had so far experienced” (RW, 1).

The doctrine of God is the church’s most fundamental doctrine. So, perhaps this controversy will flame up again in the end-time, when “the image of the beast” will kill those who “do not worship (obey) the image of the beast.” (Rev 13:15)

Purpose

This is an article in the series on the Arian Controversy. This article explains who Arius was and why it is important to learn about him.

Authors

This article series is largely based on three books:

RH = Bishop RPC Hanson
The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God –

The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987 2Trevor Hart wrote about this book: “While contributions have not been wanting, nothing comparable in either scale or erudition exists in the English language … treating in considerable detail … the so-called ‘Arian controversy’ which dominated the fourth century theological agenda.” 3Kermit Zarley described Hanson as “the preeminent authority on the development of the church doctrine of God in the 4th century.” 4Lewis Ayres, Emory University, wrote that this book “has been the standard English scholarly treatment of the trinitarian controversies of the fourth century and the triumph of Nicene theology.

RW = Archbishop Rowan Williams
Arius: Heresy and Tradition, 2002/1987 5Lewis Ayres wrote that Williams’ book “offers one of the best recent discussions of the way scholarship on this controversy has developed. (LA, 12)

LA = Lewis Ayres
Nicaea and its legacy, 2004

Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology

These are world-class scholars and Trinitarians who have made in-depth studies of the Arian Controversy of the fourth century and are regarded as specialists in this field.

Revised Scholarly View

“In the first few decades of the present (20th) century … seminally important work was … done in the sorting-out of the chronology of the controversy, and in the isolation of a hard core of reliable primary documents.” (RW, 11-12) Consequently, scholars have come to realize that the traditional textbook account of the Arian Controversy is a complete travesty. For example:

“The four decades since 1960 have produced much revisionary scholarship on the Trinitarian and Christological disputes of the fourth century” (LA, 11). 6“A vast amount of scholarship over the past thirty years (i.e., as from 1970) has offered revisionist accounts of themes and figures from the fourth century.” (LA, 2)

Hanson summarizes this development as follows:

“The study of the Arian problem over the last hundred years has been like a long-distance gun trying to hit a target. The first sighting shots are very wide of the mark, but gradually the shells fall nearer and nearer. The diatribes of Gwatkin and of Harnack, can today be completely ignored.” (These books were written around the year 1900.) (RH, 95-96)

The three books listed above reflect this ‘revised’ scholarly view.

Arius’ History

Arius was about 60 years old when the Controversy began (RH, 3, 5; cf. RW, 30). Epiphanius described him as follows:

“He was very tall in stature, with downcast countenance … always garbed in a short cloak and sleeveless tunic; he spoke gently, and people found him persuasive and flattering.” (RW, 32)

A student of Lucian?

Hanson says that “Arius very probably had at some time studied with Lucian of Antioch” because he refers to somebody else as “truly a fellow-disciple of Lucian.” (RH, 5, cf. 29) But Williams questions whether “we should assume from the one word in Arius’ letter that he had actually been Lucian’s student.” (RW, 30)

Involved in the Melitian Schism?

In the past, many writers have assumed that our Arius is the same as the Arius who was involved in the Melitian schism, “who had an outward appearance of piety, and … was eager to be a teacher.” (RW, 34, 32-40) However, after several pages of detailed analysis, Williams concludes that “the Melitian Arius … melt(s) away under close investigation.” (RW, 40)

Arius’ Support

Limited to Africa.

In the traditional account of the Controversy, Arius had wide support in the Roman Empire. The reality is that Arius’ following was limited to Africa. For example:

“The controversy had spread from Alexandria into almost all the African regions and was considered a disturbance of the public order by the Roman Empire.” (Eusebius of Caesarea in The Life of Constantine)

“The Thalia appears … to have circulated only in Alexandria; what is known of him elsewhere seems to stem from Athanasius’ quotations.” (LA, 56-57)

The two Eusebii

The two Eusebii supported Arius:

Eusebius, bishop of Nicomedia “was a supporter of Arius as long as Arius lived.” (RH, 30-31)

Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea “was certainly an early supporter of Arius” (RH, 46).

At the time, the two Eusebii were perhaps the two most important church leaders (LA, 52). For example:

“Many eastern bishops rallied around the Eusebii even while differing among themselves.” (LA, 52)

Eusebius of Nicomedia

Eusebius of Nicomedia was the ‘top executive’ of the church:

“The conventional picture of Eusebius (of Nicomedia) is of an unscrupulous intriguer.” (RH, 27) “This is of course because our knowledge of Eusebius derives almost entirely from the evidence of his bitter enemies.“ (RH, 27)

Hanson lists several examples where Eusebius displayed integrity and courage (RH, 28) and then concludes that this Eusebius:

“Virtually took charge of the affairs of the Greek-speaking Eastern Church from 328 until his death.” (RH, 29) (At that time, the bulk of the church was in the east. “The Westerners at the Council represented a tiny minority.” (RH, 170))

“Was … influential with the Emperors Licinius, Constantine, and Constantius.” (LA, 52) It was this Eusebius who baptized Emperor Constantine on his deathbed.

“Certainly was a man of strong character and great ability.” (RH, 29)

Encouraged the spread of the Christian faith beyond the frontiers of the Roman Empire. (The version of the Christian faith that the missionaries spread was that favored by Eusebius and not by Athanasius. This is evidence of his zeal. (RH, 29))

Eusebius of Caesarea

“Eusebius of Caesarea, the historian and theologian” (LA, 58) “was made bishop of Caesarea about 313 (and) attended the Council of Nicaea in 325.” (RH, 47) He was:

“Universally acknowledged to be the most scholarly bishop of his day.” (RH, 46; cf. 153)

“One of the most influential authors of the fourth century.” (RH, 860)

“The most learned and one of the best-known of the 300-odd bishops present” at the Nicene Council (RH, 159).

“Neither Arius nor anti-Arians speak evil of him.” (RH, 46)

The Eusebii did not follow Arius.

The two Eusebii supported Arius but they did not follow Arius as if they were students of Arius. They supported Arius because they also opposed Alexander’s theology:

Eusebius of Caesarea “thought the theology of Alexander a greater menace than that of Arius.” (RW, 173)

“Holger Strutwolf (1999) … concludes that Eusebius initially misunderstood Arius as saying something similar to himself, and then distanced himself more and more from the Alexandrian as he realized his error, while still opposing the theology … advanced by Alexander” (RW, 261).

Socrates wrote that Eusebius opposed Arius by saying:

“Anyone could justly censure those who have presumed to affirm that he is a Creature made of nothing, like the rest of the creatures; for how then would he be a Son?”

Arius’ real followers were limited to a small number of people in Egypt. The Eusebii were the real theological leaders of the anti-Nicene movement. They agreed with Arius in many respects because they all belonged to the same school:

“Arius … represents a school … 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)

“If some of these … agreed with him, then the explanation is to be sought rather in the fact that both he and they were drawing upon a common theological heritage.” (Dr. Hart)

It is, therefore, truer to say that they opposed Alexander than that they supported Arius.

Before Nicaea (318-325)

Arius Excommunicated

In AD 321, three years after the dispute arose and four years before the Council of Nicea, Alexander removed Arius from office and also excommunicated him [i.e.; banned him from the communion table].

Constantine’s Motive

Emperor Constantine became involved as well. It is important to understand his motive. Constantine was not concerned about ‘the truth’.  His only interest was the unity of his empire. Since religion had such a huge hold on the people, religious conflict could cause the empire to split Boyd wrote: 7W.K. Boyd, The Ecclesiastical Edicts of the Theodosian Code (1905)

“Constantine desired that the church should contribute to the social and moral strength of the empire.”

Therefore, “religious dissension was (regarded as) a menace to the public welfare.”

Constantine interceded “for the settlement of the Arian controversy,” not for “the protection of any creed or interpretation of Christian doctrine,” but “to preserve unity within the church.”

Constantine did not understand.

Constantine sent a letter to both parties rebuking them for quarreling about ‘minute distinctions’, as he believed them to be doing.8Encyclopædia Britannica, 1971, Constantine, Vol. 6, p. 386 He dismissed the theological question of the relationship of Father and Son as “intrinsically trifling and of little moment” and as “small and very insignificant questions.”9Drake, 4. Constantine and Consensus He told the opposing parties that they are “not merely unbecoming, but positively evil, that so large a portion of God’s people which belong to your jurisdiction should be thus divided.”10Davis, Leo Donald. The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology. Vol. 21. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 1990. 55

Arius’ Writings

Very little of Arius’ writings have survived until today. As explained here, the reason is that “the people of his day, whether they agreed with him or not, did not regard him (Arius) as a particularly significant writer.” (RH, xvii) “He did not write anything worth preserving.” (RH, xvii-xviii)

Given that so little of Arius’ writings survived, we need to reconstruct what Arius taught mostly from the writings of his enemies, which are not always a reliable source.

Why is Arius important?

The church demonized Arius.

Why should we learn about Arius? ‘Arianism’ “has often been regarded as … aimed at the very heart of the Christian confession.” (RW, 1) Athanasius implied that Arius is the devil’s pupil (RW, 101). After Emperor Theodosius in AD 380 made Trinitarian Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire and, thereafter, brutally eliminated all opposition to the Trinity doctrine,

“Arius … 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)

“By the early medieval period, we find him represented alongside Judas in ecclesiastical art.” (RW, 1)

“No other heretic has been through so thoroughgoing a process of ‘demonization’.” (RW, 1)

Arius was not important.

Arius’ own supporters did not regard him as particularly important:

Since the Arian Controversy is named after Arius, it may seem as if Arius was important; the leader of the Arians and the cause of the Arian Controversy.

But Arius was not regarded by his fellow ‘Arians’ as a great theologian. He was not the founder of Arianism nor the leader of a movement. He did not leave a school of disciples and his following was limited to Africa. “He was the spark that started the explosion. But in himself he was of no great significance.” (RH, xvii)

The reason we today refer to the fourth-century crisis today as the ‘Arian’ Controversy is that Athanasius referred to his opponents as Arians to tar them with a theology that was already formally rejected by the church. But Athanasius’ opponents were not followers of Arius. After Nicaea, the controversy around the word Homoousios divided the church into four main camps and, in that context, Arius was irrelevant.

For a further discussion, see – Athanasius invented Arianism.

An important dimension in Christianity.

There is another and more valid reason for learning about Arius.

Defective Theology

Arius’ views have always been “represented as … some hopelessly defective form of belief.” (RW, 2) For example:

Harnack (1909) describes Arius’ teaching as “novel, self-contradictory and, above all, religiously inadequate.” (RW, 7)

“Gwatkin (c. 1900) characterizes Arianism as … a crude and contradictory system.” (RW, 10)

An exegete of sharpness and originality

Contrary to the traditional view, after writing a recent book specifically about Arius, Rowan Williams concluded that Arius had already early on produced a consistent position on almost all points under debate (RW, 2). In his view:

Arius is “a thinker and exegete of resourcefulness, sharpness and originality.” (RW, 116)

“Arius … is confronted with a bewildering complexity of conventions in Scripture for naming the mediator … and he seeks to reduce this chaos … to some kind of order.” (RW, 111)

“Arius may stand for an important dimension in Christian life that was disedifyingly and unfortunately crushed.” (RW, 91)

Hanson concurs:

“Arianism was not, as some of its critics have claimed, a juxtaposition of incongruous doctrines.” (RH, 99)

The point is that we need to study Arius, not because we agree with him, but to understand the core issues of that dispte.

Arius only explains the Nicene Creed.

As explained here, the Arian Controversy had two clear phases:

The first was the dispute between Arius and Alexander. That dispute was concluded when Arius was rejected at the Nicene Council in the year 325.

The second phase was about the word homoousios. That article explains that Arius and his theology had no role in the second and main phase of the controversy from 325 to 380. Lewis Ayres confirms:

“Arius’ own theology is of little importance in understanding the major debates of the rest of the century.” (LA, 56-57)

Therefore, a study of Arius will only help us to understand the first phase of the Controversy, culminating in the Nicene Creed.

Arius was a conservative.

Another false accusation that the traditional account levies against Arius is that he is a deliberate radical, breaking away from the ‘orthodoxy’ of the church fathers. But the opposite is true:

“A great deal of recent work seeking to understand Arian spirituality has, not surprisingly, helped to demolish the notion of Arius and his supporters as deliberate radicals, attacking a time-honoured tradition.” (RW, 21)

“Arius was a committed theological conservative; more specifically, a conservative Alexandrian.” (RW, 175) 11“In Alexandria he (Arius) represented … a conservative theology.” (RW, 233)

“The theology of the Thalia (Arius’ book) … 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 defended the tradition:

“Arius had perceived the necessity … of a critical and logical defence of tradition in the face of increasingly dangerous theological ambiguities in the teaching of his day [i.e., Alexander].” (RW, 235)

Why is Arius misunderstood?

If the evaluation of Arius by these scholars is correct, why do so many people still regard Arius and his theology as “crude and contradictory?” Williams is surprised by “the way in which the modern study of Arius and ‘Arianism’ has often continued to accept … the image of this heresy as the radically ‘Other’.” (RW, 2)

Little of his writings survived.

One major reason is, as already stated, that very little of his writings have survived. Arius’ letters that we have today only provide his summary conclusions. There are no explanations of how he came to those conclusions:

“The Arian controversy is essentially about hermeneutics … the principles of exegesis … Unfortunately, however, we have very little evidence for Arius’ own exegesis.” (RW, 108)

Athanasius misrepresents Arius.

Secondly, most of what we know about Arius are critiques of his theology in the writings of his enemies – particularly Athanasius and that is not reliable:

The extracts in the writings of Arius’ enemies “are … very far from presenting to us the systematic thought of Arius.” (RW, 92)

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

“The quotations from the Thalia in Orationes con. Arianos I.5-6 are full of derogatory and hostile editorial corrections clearly emanating from Athanasius.” (RH, 11)

“Athanasius is paraphrasing rather than quoting directly, and in places may be suspected of pressing the words maliciously rather further than Arius intended.” (RH, 15)

This is the main reason why scholars still misunderstand Arius:

“Elliger argues that the consensus of earlier scholarship has radically misunderstood Arius, largely as a result of reading him through the spectacles of his opponents.” (Walter Elliger, 1931) (RW, 12)

“Once we stopped looking at him from Athanasius’ perspective, we shall have a fairer picture of his strength.” (RW, 12-13)

Subordination was orthodox.

Arius is often accused of introducing a ‘new’ teaching that the Son is subordinate to the Father. That accusation results from a lack of understanding of his context. In Logos-Theology, which was ‘orthodoxy’ when the Arian Controversy began, the Logos is subordinate to the supreme Being. Therefore, when Arius wrote, all Christians regarded the Son to be subordinate to the Father:

“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)

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

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

The subordination of the Son to the Father, therefore, was an idea that Arius shared with his opponents; not a new idea proposed by Arius.

Demonized for a long time.

Rowan Williams adds two more reasons why Arius is misunderstood. The first is “Nicaea’s traditional and liturgical importance.” The second is “the long history of what I have called the ‘demonizing’ of Arius is extraordinarily powerful” (RW, 2).


Other Articles

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    Lyman, J. Rebecca (2010). “The Invention of ‘Heresy’ and ‘Schism'”. The Cambridge History of Christianity.
  • 2
    Trevor Hart wrote about this book: “While contributions have not been wanting, nothing comparable in either scale or erudition exists in the English language … treating in considerable detail … the so-called ‘Arian controversy’ which dominated the fourth century theological agenda.”
  • 3
    Kermit Zarley described Hanson as “the preeminent authority on the development of the church doctrine of God in the 4th century.”
  • 4
    Lewis Ayres, Emory University, wrote that this book “has been the standard English scholarly treatment of the trinitarian controversies of the fourth century and the triumph of Nicene theology.
  • 5
    Lewis Ayres wrote that Williams’ book “offers one of the best recent discussions of the way scholarship on this controversy has developed. (LA, 12)
  • 6
    “A vast amount of scholarship over the past thirty years (i.e., as from 1970) has offered revisionist accounts of themes and figures from the fourth century.” (LA, 2)
  • 7
    W.K. Boyd, The Ecclesiastical Edicts of the Theodosian Code (1905)
  • 8
    Encyclopædia Britannica, 1971, Constantine, Vol. 6, p. 386
  • 9
    Drake, 4. Constantine and Consensus
  • 10
    Davis, Leo Donald. The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology. Vol. 21. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 1990. 55
  • 11
    “In Alexandria he (Arius) represented … a conservative theology.” (RW, 233)
  • 12
    Overview of the history, from the pre-Nicene Church Fathers, through the fourth-century Arian Controversy

Did Arius describe the Son as immutable?

Purpose

God alone is immutable.

Theologians generally agree, based mainly on the principles of Greek philosophy (See – Classical Theism), that God is immutable, meaning “unchanging over time.” All other beings are then thought of as subject to change. To say that God is immutable essentially means that He has never and will never do anything evil.

Is God’s Son immutable?

In the Nicene Creed, the Son is begotten from the substance of the Father and is of the same substance as the Father. This implies that He has the same attributes as the Father, including immutability.

In contrast, as discussed, Arius described the Son as a created being. At the time, the term ‘creature’ was used for any being whose existence was caused by another. Since the Father has begotten the Son, the Father alone exists without a cause.

If Jesus is a ‘creature’, as Arius claimed, and not God, then He must also be mutable. But this article shows that Arius described the Son as immutable:

Like the Father, ‘unchangeable’” (RW, 96).

The purpose of this article is to explain why Arius described the Son both as a ‘creature’ and as immutable. 

Summary

While Arius himself described the Son as immutable, both Alexander and Athanasius, Arius’ fierce opponents, claimed that Arius’ Son is mutable, for example:

Like all others … subject to change … because he is changeable by nature” (RW, 100).

Alexander claimed that Arius’ Son is mutable because He was promoted and received His divinity as a reward for his unswerving fidelity. But that was not Arius’ thinking. Arius said that the Son had His “divine dignity” right from the beginning. Arius’ thinking was as follows:

By nature, the Son is mutable. God GAVE Him His stability (immutability).

God did not override the Son’s freedom. God did not make it impossible for His Son to change or to sin.

The Son is free to sin but He does not sin because He loves righteousness and hates iniquity. He is not immutable because He cannot sin: He is immutable because He will not sin.

God could give the Son supremacy over all because things because He knew that His Son would never sin.

Please note that Athanasius directly contradicted what Arius himself wrote. As discussed, this is one example of how Athanasius misrepresented Arius.

– END OF SUMMARY –


Why must we take note of Arius?

Arianism is named after the fourth-century presbyter Arius. Traditionally, “Arius … came … to be regarded as a kind of Antichrist among heretics” (RW, 1). However, more recently voices have gone up saying, “Once we stopped looking at him from Athanasius’ perspective, we shall have a fairer picture of his strength” (RW, 12-13).

The point is that most of what we know about Arius comes from Athanasius’ criticism of Arius’ writings and “Athanasius, a fierce opponent of Arius … certainly would not have stopped short of misrepresenting what he said” (RH, 10). He applied “unscrupulous tactics in polemic and struggle” (RW, 239).

Since theologians generally accept Athanasius’ criticism, Arius’ views have traditionally been “represented as … some hopelessly defective form of belief” (RW, 2). But, more recently, Rowan Williams, after careful study of the ancient documents, described Arius as:

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

An important dimension in Christian life that was disedifyingly and unfortunately crushed.” (RW, 91)

For that reason, it would be appropriate for us to take note of what Arius wrote. See also – Who was Arius and why is he important?

Source / Authors

This article is largely based on the book “Arius Heresy & Tradition,” revised edition 2002, by Archbishop Rowan Williams. Williams is a world-class scholar and a trinitarian. Many authors have a section on Arius in their books but rely on what others have said about Arius. Williams, in contrast, has himself studied the ancient documents and is regarded as one of the specialists in this field. This article uses “RW” to refer to this book.

This article also twice refers to RH.1Bishop RPC Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

Arius’ opponents claimed that Arius’ Son is mutable.

Both Athanasius & Alexander described Arius’ Son as mutable.

In Athanasius’ Writings

Athanasius claimed that Arius taught:

The Son is “like all others … subject to change … because he is changeable by nature” (Contra Arianos(v), RW, 100).

This quote is from Contra Arianos in which Athanasius paraphrases Arius’ theology. Wlliams confirms that this “has no parallel in S, nor any in Arius’ letters” (RW, 104).2“S” stands for de synodis 15, the other work by Athanasius in which he seems to quote Arius’ actual words.

In Alexander’s Writings

Alexander was Arius’ bishop. The Arian Controversy began as a dispute between them. Williams mentions that two of the letters which Alexander wrote “emphasize very strongly that Arius taught a mutable Logos, whose divine dignity is a reward for his unswerving spiritual fidelity” (RW, 104).

Arius described the Son as immutable.

In contrast to Athanasius and Alexander, Arius, in his own writings, described the Son as immutable. In the three letters of Arius that have survived, he said:

“The Son of God … is, like the Father, ‘unchangeable’” (RW, 96).

He exists “stably and inalienably” (L, RW, 97).

“By the will of God, the Son is stably and unalterably what he is” (RW, 98).

The terms “stably and unalterably” indicate immutability.

The Son always had His divine dignity.

As quoted above, Alexander claimed that Arius’ Son is mutable because He was “promoted because of virtue” (RW, 113), namely, that His “divine dignity is a reward for his unswerving spiritual fidelity” (RW, 104). But this was not Arius’ view. According to Williams, Arius said that the Son had His “divine dignity” right from the beginning:

“Arius’ scheme depends upon the fact that God bestows power and glory upon the Son from the beginning” (RW, 113).

“The Son (was) creative Word and Wisdom and the image of the Father’s glory from before the world was made” (RW, 114).

There was no “sort of change in his status … (no) time when he is not Wisdom and Word” (RW, 114).

The point is still that Arius did not describe the Son as not a mutable being: God did not change Him to give Him His “divine dignity;” He always was “creative Word and Wisdom.”

Arius’ thinking.

How could Arius describe the Son as both a creature and immutable? Rowan Williams explains Arius’ thinking on pages 113-116 of his book. In summary, he wrote:

By nature, the Son is mutable.

For Arius, the Son “does not by nature possess any of the divine attributes … his godlike glory and stability … and so must be given them” (RW, 113-114).

The word “stability” indicates the Son’s immutability.

According to this quote, the Son has divine attributes but He does not have those attributes by nature. He receives them from the Father. For example, to have life in Himself and for all the fullness to dwell in Him (John 5:26; Col 1:19).

Therefore, unlike God, the Son is mutable by nature. For Him to be ‘stable’, as Arius said He is, God must have given it to Him.

God did not override the Son’s freedom.

In Arius’ view:

“As a rational creature he is mutable according to his choice and what is to be avoided here is the suggestion that God overrules the Son’s freedom by his premundane (before the creation of the world) gifts and graces” (RW, 114).

In other words, in Arius’ view, God did not make it impossible for His Son to change or to sin.

The Son does not sin because He hates iniquity.

In Arius’ view, “the Son, in his pre-incarnate state and in his life on earth voluntarily ‘loved righteousness and hated iniquity’” (RW, 114).

In other words, He is not immutable because He cannot sin: He is immutable because He will not sin.

God knew that the Son would never sin.

So, while God cannot sin, the Son is able to sin. Furthermore, God has given His Son supremacy over all creation. Right from the beginning, He has given Him “all the gifts and glories God can give” (L, RW, 98). If the Son would sin, that would cause great unhappiness. However, in Arius’ thinking, God knew that His Son would never sin:

“God, in endowing the Son with this dignity of heavenly intimacy from the very beginning of his existence, is … acting not arbitrarily but rationally, knowing that his firstborn among creatures is and will always be worthy of the highest degree of grace, a perfect channel for creative and redemptive action, and so a perfect ‘image’ of the divine” (RW, 114-5).

Conclusions

Arius did not describe the Son as immutable because He cannot sin; He is immutable because He will not sin. 

In another article, I argue that the Son came to this world to be tested to test Him to see whether He would also sin under the ‘right’ circumstances. If it was impossible for Him to sin, His victory over sin would be meaningless.

Please note that, while Arius write that the Son is immutable, Athanasius, without an explanation, directly contradicted what Arius himself wrote. It is possible that Athanasius argued that, if the Son is a ‘created being’ then He must be mutable, irrespective of what Arius himself wrote. Nevertheless, as discussed, this is one example of how Athanasius misrepresented Arius. “Athanasius … certainly would not have stopped short of misrepresenting what he (Arius) said” (RH, 10). We must not blindly accept what Athanasius wrote.


Other Articles

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    Bishop RPC Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987
  • 2
    “S” stands for de synodis 15, the other work by Athanasius in which he seems to quote Arius’ actual words.
  • 3
    Overview of the history, from the pre-Nicene Church Fathers, through the fourth-century Arian Controversy