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.
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.
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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.”
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).
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.
- 1Bishop 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.