The RH-references in this article are to the 1981 book by RPC Hanson - The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God - The Arian Controversy 318-381 - probably the most comprehensive and reliable description of the Arian Controversy available to us today.
The RW-references are to the 2001 book by Rowan Williams. - Arius, Heresy & Tradition, 2001 - an extremely valuable discussion of Arius' teachings.
It is often claimed that Arius described the Son of God as a created being. It is the purpose of this article to show that that is a distortion of Arius’ theology.
1 God’s Only Direct Creation
Firstly, in Arius' theology, the Son is the only being ever to be brought forth directly by the Father. All other beings were brought forth by the Son. For example:
He is “the product of the Father” (RH, 7); “alone has been given
existence by the Father” (RH, 8).
“He has been produced directly without mediation by God, and
everything else has come into being through his mediation” (RH, 102).
“Nor does he live a life comparable to those things which were
produced through him, but he has been brought forth alone from the
Father himself and is Life in himself” (RH, 56; John 5:26).
Hanson concluded: “This direct creation means that the Son has nobody like him; the Arians' favourite title for the Son was unigenitus (only-begotten, John 1:4, 18; 3:16)” (RH, 102).
2 In God’s Presence
Secondly, the Arians taught that the Son is the only being who is able to endure direct contact with God. All other beings will be consumed by God’s presence:
One prominent Arian in Arius’ day (Asterius) explained that “when God
desired that created nature should come into existence, he saw that
nature could not endure his direct hand and so 'he initially makes and
created, himself sole, a sole Being, and calls this Son and Word';
consequently, once this mediating Being had come into existence, the
rest could be created.” (RH, 100)
“Demophilus, the last Arian bishop of Constantinople before the advent
of Theodosius (AD 380), [says] God … 'could not come in contact with
the creation which he intended to make, for he would have been under
the necessity either of making everything gods so as to be worthy of
him, or else everything would have disintegrated by contact with him.
So the Son of God had to become a mediator between God and the things
created by him.'” (RH, 101)
In this theory, following Asterius’ argument, the Son is the only Being who is able to endure direct contact with God. This makes an infinite distinction between the Son and the created universe.
This argument may sound strange to a modern ear, but is was the church's standard explanation of the Son of God when the Arian Controversy began. See - The Apologists.
3 Not part of this Universe
Thirdly, Arius described the Son as not part of this universe:
If the Son created all things (the universe), then He is not part of
Furthermore, Arius and the Arians claimed time and again that the Son
was begotten “before times and before aeons” (RH, 7). In other words,
the Son was begotten before time even existed. If we argue that time
began when the universe was brought into being, the Son originates
from that which exists beyond the time, space, and matter of this
universe; He comes from the unfathomable infinity beyond this finite
4 Our God
Fourthly, the Arians considered the Son to be their God. For example, “Ulfilas, bishop of the Goths,” described the Son as:
“Our Lord and God, artificer (craftsman) and maker of the whole
creation, who has nobody like him” (RH, 105).
They described the Son as “our God” because:
Firstly, the Son created us: “The Father is the origin of everything
made, but the Son brings everything into actual existence” (RH, 103).
Secondly, God is invisible, meaning that created beings cannot
experience God directly. Only His Son is able to experience God
directly. Our experience of God is limited to His Son.
Thirdly, in all things, the Logos is the intermediary and mediator
between God and creation. Whatever we receive from God, we receive
through the Son of God. He has all authority in heaven and on earth.
And whatever worship we give to God, we give to Him through His Son.
These concepts create an infinite distinction between the Son and the created things. It causes a hierarchy in which the Son is above all other beings. In practice, He is the God for all other beings. For us, He is God. He is our God, just like the Father is His God (e.g., Rev 1:6; 3:2, 12)
Fifthly, for us, today, when we speak about Jesus Christ, there is a clear distinction between "created" and "begotten," but at the beginning of the fourth century, when talking about Jesus Christ, all Christians used the words “begotten” and “created” as synonyms. Richard Hanson confirms this:
(1) “Christians had long been accustomed to interpret the figure of
Wisdom in the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament as a reference to
the preexistent Christ” (RH, 20; cf. RH 8). Consequently, when
Proverbs 8 describes Wisdom's generation with phrases such as
"possessed," "established, and "brought forth," all Christians in
Arius' day understood that as describing the Son of God:
- Proverbs 8:22 “The LORD possessed me at the beginning of His way … 23 “From everlasting I was established … 25 “Before the mountains were
settled, … I was brought forth;
(2) “In the middle of the third century Dionysius, bishop of
Alexandria; produced in a treatise an account of the Son as created”
(RH, 872). This was an important bishop in the same city in which
Arius lived, and Arius was born (c. 256) while Dionysius still was
(3) Hanson adds that, in the time of Origen, in the third century,
“nobody distinguished 'having come into existence' from 'begotten'”
Consistent with Tradition
This means that Arius and his supporters were consistent with tradition when they used "created" as a synonym for "begotten." The following is an example of how they used these words as synonyms:
“He [the Father of Christ] created and begot, made and founded the
Only-begotten God.” (RH, 105; cf. RH, 6, 8, 30, 90).
The point is that must interpret Arius’ words using the meanings that words had then; not against the meanings that these words have today.
But it also means, when the Nicene Creed uses these words as opposites in the phrase "begotten not made," that that was a new development. In the conventional account of the Arian Controversy, Arius’ theology was a break from the orthodoxy. However, it was the other way around: The Arians were the traditionalists and the Nicene Creed was an innovation:
Rowan Williams refers to “the radical words of Nicaea” (RW, 236)
(referring particularly to the word homoousios) as “conceptual
innovation” (RW, 234-5). And Hanson described homoousios as one of the
"new terms borrowed from the pagan philosophy" (RH, 846).
Hanson concludes: “There is no doubt ... that the pro-Nicene
theologians throughout the controversy were engaged in a process of
developing doctrine and consequently introducing what must be called a
change in doctrine” (RH, 872). “The Arians failed just because they
were so inflexible, too conservative, not ready enough to look at new
ideas” (RH, 873).
The Nicene Creed defines “created” and “begotten” as opposites and interprets “begotten” fairly literally, saying that it means that the Son came out of the substance of the Father. It was to object to this that the Arians argued that we should not interpret “begotten” literally because the Son’s generation from the Father is ineffable (indescribable and incomprehensible). For example:
Eusebius of Nicomedia, who “was a supporter of Arius as long as Arius
lived,” wrote as follows: “'(There is) One, the Unoriginated and One
produced by him … produced … not only indescribable by word but also
incomprehensible by thought not only of men but also of all those who
are superior to men” (RH, 30).
“Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea … an early supporter of Arius” (RH, 46),
wrote that the Son was “begotten … by processes which are to us
ineffable and mysterious and altogether unknowable” (RH, 56).
In conclusion, Arius clearly taught that no other creature is comparable to Him: “He is only-begotten God and he is different from any others” (RH, 14). Consequently, the later Arians were “not happy with the use of the term 'created', because this suggests that the Son is to be classified with other created things” (RH, 102).
It was their opponents, particularly Alexander and Athanasius, who decided to single out and emphasize the word “created” in the writings of the Arians. For example, they would write that, for the Arians:
“The Son is a creature” and, “He is one of the products” (RH, 16 -
“He is properly 'of those who come into existence and are created”
(RH, 14 – Athanasius’ paraphrasing).
“When he came into existence, he was then such as is every man:
because they say that God made everything out of non-existence” (RH,
17 - Alexander).
“We are able to become the sons of God as he is, for it is written, 'I
have begotten sons and I have exalted them' (Isa 1:2 LXX)” (RH, 17 -
Alexander and Athanasius did their best to present Arius’ Son of God as a normal created being. Therefore, since Arius wrote that the Son created all things, Alexander, to describe Arius’ Son as a normal creature, de-emphasized the Son's role in creation:
“He was made for our sake, in order that God should create us through
him as through an instrument” (RH, 16 - Alexander).
On pages 104-105, Rowan Williams discusses Athanasius’ quotes of Arius’ works and shows how Athanasius distorted Arius’ words. He concludes:
“The Son is repeatedly assimilated to the level of other creatures,
and the phrases ‘like us’ and ‘like all others' recur. The Arius who
wrote to Alexander that the Son was a 'perfect creature, yet not as
one among the creatures, a begotten being, yet not as one among things
begotten … is eager to avoid any suggestion that the Son is simply
‘like all others'.” (RW, 104)
Williams says that Athanasius applied “unscrupulous tactics in polemic and struggle” (RW, 239). Hanson concurs that Athanasius' writings maliciously distorts Arius’ message. He wrote:
“Athanasius, a fierce opponent of Arius … certainly would not have
stopped short of misrepresenting what he said” (RH, 10)
“Athanasius … may be suspected of pressing the words maliciously
rather further than Arius intended” (RH, 15).
“He (Arius) did not teach (as his opponents maliciously alleged) that
the Son was no greater than the locust or caterpillar” (RH, 20).
All this was known in Arius’ day. For example, in a letter, Eusebius of Caesarea took Alexander “to task for unjustly accusing Arius and his friends of teaching that 'the Son has come into existence from non-existence like one of the mass', whereas what they had actually said was that the Son was 'a perfect creature, but not as one of the creatures'” (RH, 56-57).
However, Athanasius’ message has become accepted in the church as truth because the “conventional account of the Controversy … stems originally from the version given of it by the victorious party.” (RPC Hanson) But Hanson adds that this “is now recognised by a large number of scholars to be a complete travesty.”