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)


Other Articles

FOOTNOTES

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

The Eternal Generation of the Son – Is it Biblical?

Summary

According to the Bible, the Son has been begotten by the Father. In analogy to how humans beget children, this implies that the Father generated the Son from His being. This further implies that the Son is dependent on and subordinate to the Father.

The theory of Eternal Generation, however, explains “begotten” and “generated” in such a way that the Son is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father. Eternal Generation is a key part of the Trinity doctrine.

Key Concepts

Eternal Generation may be summarized into two main concepts:

1. While the idea of begetting or generation implies a creation in time, Eternal Generation proposes that that generation is ‘eternal’, meaning that it is a process with no beginning or end so that the Son is co-eternal with the Father.

2. While the idea of begetting or generation implies that the Son is dependent on His Father for His existence and power, Eternal Generation proposes that that generation is not the result of the Father’s will but “by necessity of nature.” In other words, it is an essential part of what God is. In consequence, the Son is not dependent on the Father but co-equal with Him.

Objections

The objections that can be raised to Eternal Generation include:

No Scriptural Support – The Bible does not attest to a generation that is without beginning or end, or for the notion that this generation is “by necessity of nature.”

Not an act of the Father – If the generation is “by necessity of nature,” and if that nature is shared by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, then it is no longer an act by the Father alone.

Not the generation of the Son – In the Eternal Generation, neither the substance nor the mind or will of the Son is generated because the three ‘Persons’ share one single substance, mind, and will. What is generated is not a Person as envisaged by the Bible, but merely a mode of being.

– END OF SUMMARY – 


The Father generated the Son.

According to the Bible, the Son has been begotten by the Father. In analogy to how humans beget children, this implies that the Father generated the Son from His being:

This is explicitly stated by verses that describe the Son as the only being begotten by the Father (e.g., John 1:14, 18; 3:16). (Many modern translations render monogenēs not as “only-begotten” but as “unique.” However, another article argues that the traditional translation “only-begotten” is correct.)

In support of the concept that the Son was begotten by the Father, the Bible also describes the Son as the “Son of God,” “born of God” (1 John 5:18), and as living “because of the Father” (John 6:57). 

This principle is also indirectly stated by verses that say that the Father gave the Son His being and authority, for example:

        • “To have life in Himself” (John 5:26);
        • “All the fullness of Deity” (Col 2:9; 1:19);
        • “All authority … in heaven and on earth” (Matt 28:18); and
        • To be worshiped (Phil 2:9-10; Heb 1:6).

Eternal Generation

However, if the Father generated the Son, then the Son is dependent on and subordinate to the Father:

“The language of ‘generation’ suggests that the Son is not equally God, but in some sense comes into being – which is ontological subordinationism.” (Theopedia)

In response, the theory of Eternal Generation explains “begotten” or “generated” in such a way that the Son is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father:

“The church fathers turned to the doctrine of eternal generation … to ensure that the Son is understood to be equal with the Father.” (Tabletalk)

“The eternal generation of the Son must be understood to mean that the Father did not bring the Son into existence, which would deny the full immutability and deity of the Son.” (Carm.org)

As such, Eternal Generation is a key part of the Trinity doctrine:

“This doctrine, along with the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit, form the basis for the complete doctrine of the Trinity.” (GotQuestions)

“One of the most essential doctrines for a Christian understanding of the Trinity is eternal generation.” (Tabletalk)

Definition

I will use Hodge’s definition of Eternal Generation as the basis for this discussion:

      1. “An eternal, personal act of the Father,
      2. wherein, by necessity of nature, not by choice of will,
      3. He generates the person (not the essence) of the Son, by communicating to Him the whole indivisible substance of the Godhead,
      4. without division, alienation, or change,
      5. so that the Son is the express image of His Father’s person,
      6. and eternally continues,
      7. not from the Father, but in the Father, and the Father in the Son.”
        (A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology, p. 182.)

This definition is used by both Theopedia and Carm.org.

GotQuestions summarizes this definition into three main points:

“The doctrine of eternal generation essentially teaches that God the Father eternally and by necessity generates or begets God the Son in such a way that the substance (divine essence) of God is not divided.”

I would like to discuss this definition under the following headings:

      1. Continues Eternally
      2. Personal Act of the Father
      3. Generates the Son
      4. Without Division, Alienation, or Change.
      5. The Express Image of His Father.
      6. Scriptural Support
      7. Conclusions

1. Continues Eternally

Hodge’s definition says that it is an “eternal” act that “eternally continues.” In other words, it is a process without beginning or end. GotQuestions says, for example:

“There was no beginning, nor will there be an end to the generation of the Son from the Father.”

Scriptural Support

So, where we would find this in the Bible? The Bible does describe the Son as the One through whom God created all things (e.g., Heb 1:2), “the Beginning of the creation of God” (Rev 3:14), and as “the first and the last” (Rev 1:17). We can conclude that the Son has ‘always’ existed.

On the other hand, if the Father generated the Son, then the Father alone is the Ultimate Reality, alone exists without cause, and preceded the Son in existence.

The fourth-century Arians used to reconcile these concepts by arguing that the Father exists outside our time-bound universe and has begotten the Son in that timeless infinity. Therefore, from the perspective of beings existing within time, the Son has always existed, but from God’s perspective, so to speak, the Father pre-existed the Son.

But there is no support in the Bible for the idea that the generation of the Son is a never-ending process.

Need for this Teaching

GotQuestions explains:

“The idea of begetting or generation implies a creation in time … (but) the qualifier ‘eternal’ removes this relationship from the constraints of time and space; there was no beginning, nor will there be an end to the generation of the Son from the Father.”

In other words, this teaching is required to describe the Son as co-eternal with the Father, meaning that He has always existed along with the Father, even in the timeless infinity beyond time.

2. Personal Act of the Father

Hodge’s definition says that the Son’s generation is the “personal act of the Father,” which is entirely Biblical, but then it contradicts that same statement by saying that it is “by necessity of nature, not by choice of will.” To explain:

Firstly, if it is “by necessity of nature,” so that there is no intention or personal purpose involved, it is no longer a “personal act of the Father.”

Secondly, in the Trinity doctrine, the Son is, in all respects, co-equal and co-eternal to the Father. But, to avoid the criticism that it teaches two or three Gods, it argues that the three Persons (Realities) share one single being and “nature” with one single will and mind. Since there is but one “nature,” if it is “by necessity of nature,” it is the being of God that generates the Son; not the Father.

To explain this slightly differently, in the Trinity doctrine, the Father, Son, and Spirit are “not three parts of God” (Theopedia) but each of them is the entire God Almighty. So, how can the Son be excluded from generating Himself if He is the entire God? It can only be done by a verbal denial, but verbal denials are meaningless if the substance of the thing contradicts such denials.

Need for this Teaching

GotQuestions explains why the Trinity doctrine denies that the begetting of the Son is “by choice of will:”

“The idea of begetting or generation … implies an ontological dependence … (but) the qualifier ‘necessarily’ removes any ontological dependence between the Father and the Son; the Son must be generated from the Father and the Father must generate the Son.”

In other words, if it is “by choice of will,” then the Father empowers or upholds the Son, meaning that the Son is dependent on the Father for His existence and power and, therefore, subordinate to the Father, something which the New Testament continually asserts but the Trinity doctrine denies. As Carm.Org explains, in Eternal Generation:

“Neither the Son nor the Holy Spirit is dependent upon the Father … for existence” 

3. Generates the Son

The Bible says that the Father has begotten the Son. By implication, the Father has generated the entire being of the Son. In contrast, Hodge’s definition says that the Father “generates the person (not the essence) of the Son.” To explain this, the definition adds:

“By communicating to Him the whole indivisible substance of the Godhead.”

To appreciate what this means one must realize that, in the Trinity doctrine, the Persons are not “persons” in the usual sense of the word because each does not have His own mind or will. For that reason, scholars prefer to refer to hypostases or Realities, rather than to ‘Persons’.

But the point, for our discussion, is that, while the Bible teaches that the Father has begotten (generated) the Son, in the theory of Eternal Generation, the Father generates merely a mode of being; not a Person with His own mind and will.

“The eternal generation of the Son must be understood to mean that the Father did not bring the Son into existence, which would deny the full immutability and deity of the Son.” (Carm.org)

Trinitarians will object that the term “mode of being” equates the Trinity doctrine to Modalism but, if we go beyond verbal denials, it is very difficult to see the difference. See – What is the difference between the Trinity doctrine and Modalism? Note also that Basil of Caesarea, in the years 360-380, was “decisively influential in bringing about the final form of the doctrine of the Trinity” (RH, 676)1Bishop R.P.C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 198 and he explained a hypostasis as a “mode of subsistence” (RH, 692) or a “mode of being” (LA, 210)2Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its legacy, 2004.

4. Without Division, Alienation, or Change

The definition continues and says that the begetting of the Son is “without division, alienation, or change” (in God). In other words, the begetting of the Son, which is so important in the New Testament, does not change anything. This supports the point above that the generation of the Son in the theory of Eternal Generation is not the begetting of the Son envisaged by the New Testament.

5. The express image of His Father

The definition adds that, in consequence of the Son’s begetting, “the Son is the express image of His Father’s person.”

In normal usage, the word “image” implies that the image and the original are different types of things, for example, “a representation of the external form of a person or thing in art”. When the Bible describes the Son as an image of the Father, it also describes them as two different kinds of beings:

In Colossians 1:15, the Son “is the image of the invisible God.” By implication, He is the ‘visible’ image of the invisible God.

In Hebrews 1:3, the Son is “the exact representation of” God’s hypostasis. Hebrews 1:1-3 makes a clear distinction between Him and God and in at least 5 ways describes Him as subordinate to God:

        • He is God’s Son
        • It is God who has spoken to us in His Son.
        • God appointed Him heir of all things.
        • God “made the world” through His Son.
        • He is the radiance of God’s glory.

The point is that Hebrews 1:1-3 describes the Son as very different from the Father.

In both these verses that describe the Son as an image of God, therefore, the Son’s being is different from the Father’s. In contrast, in the Trinity doctrine, the being of the Son is in all respects the same as the Father’s. Both are the entire Almighty God. Therefore, to say that Eternal Generation teaches that the Son is an “image” of the Father distorts how the Bible uses that concept.

6. Scriptural Support

GotQuestions lists a number of verses in support of Eternal Generation. However, not even one of them says that this generation is a never-ending process or that it is an involuntary process. GotQuestions lists the following, to which I add comments:

The Word was God.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

Comment: Another article argues that this is better translated as “the Word was LIKE God,” similar to Philippians 2, which said that, before His incarnation, “He existed in the form of God” (Phil 2:6).

Only Son

The Word’s glory is “as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14). “God … gave his only Son.” (John 3:16)

Comment: These statements merely support the idea that the Son was generated by the Father.

Made God known

“No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” (John 1:18)

Comment: This even implies that the substance of the Son is different from the Father’s for, while the Father is invisible, the Son is visible. Colossians 1:15 is a similar verse.

Life in Himself

“For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.” (John 5:26)

Comment: While the Son has received “life” from the Father, the Father has received “life” from no one.

The implication is also that only the Father and Son have “life in himself.”

“How, Augustine asks, did the Son receive “life in himself”? His answer is both simple and profound: the Father “begat” the Son.” (The Gospel Coalition)

This is one of several statements in the Bible indicating that everything the Son has, He has received from the Father, which supports the idea that the Son was generated by the Father and is subordinate to the Father.

I and the Father are one.

“I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” (John 14:11) “That they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us.” (John 17:21)

Comment: These verses explain themselves: To be “in” another is the same as to be “one” with another. The Father and Son are “one” and “in” one another just like Christians are supposed to be “one” and “in” one another. It does not mean that they are literally one being. For a further discussion, see – I and the Father are one.

Upholds the Universe

“He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” (Hebrews 1:3)

Comment: Read in isolation, this seems to say that the Son upholds the universe by His own power. However, the pronoun “his” is used twice in this quote and four times in Hebrews 1:1-3. In the other instances, “His” always refers to God. Since these verses contrast “God” and “His Son” (Heb 1:1-2), the Son upholds the universe by the word of God’s power.

That does mean that He has existed for as long as this universe has existed. However, God exists beyond this universe. Consequently, there is an incomprehensible infinity beyond our universe about which we know nothing. The Son has been begotten in that infinity. Time, as we know it, is only part of our universe. But if time of some kind exists in that infinity, that the Son exists when this universe was brought into being by no means means that He has ‘always’ existed in the infinity beyond time.

Conclusions

After listing these verses, Gotquestions vaguely concludes that “these verses … suggest that the relationship between Father and Son is one that has existed for all eternity and that the relationship depicts one of ontological equality.” In my view, neither of these points have even remotely been proven.

7. Conclusions

Contradicts the Bible

The Bible is clear that the Father generated the Son and that the Son is subordinate to the Father but the theory of Eternal Generation attempts to explain “begotten” in such a way that the Son is independent from and equal to the Father.

Human Speculation

As the discussion above shows, Eternal Generation is largely based on extra-Biblical speculation. “The secret things belong to the LORD our God” (Deut 29:29) but theologians insist on explaining the unexplainable. The theory of the Eternal Generation reveals the arrogance of man.


OTHER ARTICLES

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    Bishop R.P.C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 198
  • 2
    Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its legacy, 2004