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

Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

– END OF SUMMARY –


Authors / Sources

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

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

The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1987

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

LA = Lewis Ayres
Nicaea and its legacy, 2004

Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology

This article uses the following codes for certain ancient documents:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Son had a beginning of existence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Similarly, Alexander described Arius as teaching:

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

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

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

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

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

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

This apparent contradiction may be explained as follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Williams interprets Eusebius of Caesarea as presenting the same concepts:

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

Hanson explains the same principle in different words:

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

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


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2 Replies to “Did Arius teach there was time when the Son of God did not exist?”

  1. “The mind of the flesh” cannot know or describe what is Transcendent of time and space. He didn’t exist before the Beginning and he will not exist after the End. He “knows” Jesus Christ only by “the days of His flesh” and he tries to prove that “forever and ever” is made equal to God’s Eternal Life.

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