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Arius himself wrote that “the Son of God … is, like the Father, 'unchangeable’” (Rowan Williams, page 96) but Athanasius wrote that Arius taught that the Son is “like all others … subject to change … because he is changeable by nature” (Contra Arianos(v), RW, 100).

Are we able to reconcile these statements, or did one of them lie?

For one possible answer, see Rowan Williams pages 113-116, beginning with the phrase "This leaves the third point noted above as a major theme of Arian exegesis to be investigated ..."

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  • Perhaps both Son of God and Son of Man are in view? Mar 10, 2023 at 12:47

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If the Son is eternally begotten of the Father and is begotten of eternal life and possesses eternal life himself . . . . then he is immutable.

If he is not so, but otherwise, then he has changed already in his very origin. (He was not, then he was : which is a change.)

Therefore Arius did say (in effect) that the Son is mutable. And Athanasius did so correctly describe the teachings of Arius.

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    An eternal begetting is one that cannot be said to have commenced. +1 Mar 11, 2023 at 14:15
  • "Eternally begotten" can mean either begotten in the eternal past or it may mean begotten in the realm beyond time. Mike seems to interpret it as the second. Arius similarly described the Son as begotten "timelessly." But since I do not know what you mean by that phrase. I also do not understand why you create a causal link between "Eternally begotten" and immutability.
    – Andries
    Mar 12, 2023 at 6:02
  • "If the Son ... possesses eternal life himself . . . . then he is immutable." In other words, saved people are also immutable?
    – Andries
    Mar 12, 2023 at 6:05
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    @Andries There is no such thing as 'the eternal past'. Eternity is distinct from time. The Son is not 'born again' (begotten anew) as the redeemed are. No, the redeemed are not 'immutable' - because once they were in Adam and now they are in Christ (which is a change).
    – Nigel J
    Mar 12, 2023 at 7:18
  • I have said to you before - the saved will live for all eternity. That does not mean they will move out of our realm of time. Eternity is not distinct from time. But if you want to define "eternity" as referring to the realm beyond time - fine. But do not pretend that that is how everybody understand it.
    – Andries
    Mar 12, 2023 at 7:28
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Unfortunately, you don't provide the page 96 quote from Williams' book, in full. The ellipsis bit could skew the meaning implied in your question. The full quote really should be provided. But, working from the full contents of pages 113 to 116, an answer may be given. The content is copyright protected, however, so I cannot copy and paste. This, however, seems to be the substance of the intractable problem Arius was wresting with (according to Williams):

Arius took as a foundational fact that God bestows power and glory upon the Son from the beginning. If not, then the Son could not have his role as The One who manifests God's glory, who is God's creative Word and Wisdom. Yet by saying that this One had a beginning, Arius has dug a hole which he has fallen into, and his use of words is craftily designed to either hide the problem or to make it look as if he has resolved it.

The Son must have God's glory and stability by nature, otherwise he must have been given them by God. (My note: bear in mind that God states that he will not give his glory to another - Isaiah 48:11 & 42:8, and this 'stability' equates with immutability.) Creatures, however, are mutable. Rational creatures are mutable by choice, and the dilemma for Arius was to avoid any suggestion that God overrules the Son's freedom by his pre-mundane gifts and graces.

The foregoing deals with Williams' comments about "the third point", the matter of the Son's status, his 'promotion' at God's will. Arius may have resolved the dilemma to his own satisfaction, but only because (as Williams says) he was a resourceful, sharp, and original thinker. The Bible however, warned first century Christians to hold fast to the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude vs. 3). No original, or novel arguments were to be brought into the established Church of Christ, for the apostles had already written down everything needed to explain the gospel and just who Christ is, and that by the enabling of the Holy Spirit.

That is why the trinity doctrine was not a new idea introduced in the 4th century; it was a form of wording to expose the 'original' ideas of people like Arius - to protect the Church from a departure from the faith that had once for all been delivered to the saints. It was so worded to aim to stop the thin end of the wedge of the teaching that Christ had a starting point in time going further.

You ask if the two statements (you provide) can be reconciled, or if one of them is a lie (either that of Arius, or that of Athanasius). You think Williams can give the answer. Well, no, he didn't - not from what I've read. The statements are polar opposites and cannot be reconciled. It is not a question of whether one of them was a lie. It is a matter of myriad words being employed in a person's attempt to dig himself out of a hole he has fallen into - or not. An example of modern-day variations on those who largely uphold Arius: one group says they do give Jesus due honour and worship, but then add that because Jesus is a created creature, they do not honour and worship him as they do God (ignoring what Jesus said in John 5:23, amongst other things). That is an example of trying to have their cake, and eat it too. Which is what Arius tried to do, and which Athanasius exposed.

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  • "his use of words is craftily designed to either hide the problem or to make it look as if he has resolved it" These words indicate an unwillingness to engage with Arius' thinking. Archbishop Rowan Williams, after writing an entire book about Arius, says that “he is a thinker and exegete of resourcefulness, sharpness and originality” (RW, 116). But you, without even reading what Arius wrote, described him as a fraud!
    – Andries
    Mar 12, 2023 at 6:11
  • Why do you ask me to provide the full quote for something Arius has written? Are his letters not available on the internet? Or do you, like Athanasius, prefer not to read what Arius actually wrote? Athanasius was not interested in giving Arius a fair hearing. He was using Arius as a stick to hit his opponents with. He created the terms Arian and Arianism to insult his opponents. Athanasius' opponents did not support Arius' doctrines but Athanasius did his best to make everybody believe that their theology is just some variation of Arius' theology, which has already been rejected at Nicaea.
    – Andries
    Mar 12, 2023 at 7:23
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    @Andries If Arius' letters are 'available on the internet' could you please supply links to them. That would be appreciated.
    – Nigel J
    Mar 12, 2023 at 8:38
  • See fourthcentury.com/arius-chart for links to these letters and to Athanasius' quote of the Thalia. Read particularly fourthcentury.com/arius-thalia-intro and you will see that Williams and Hanson, the two authorities I quote, are the experts in this field. Williams says “What is … surprising is 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). He blames it on: “The long history of what I have called the 'demonizing’ of Arius is extraordinarily powerful” (RW, 2).
    – Andries
    Mar 12, 2023 at 13:24
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Introduction

It is generally taught, based on principles of Greek philosophy but also based on the Bible, that God is immutable, meaning "unchanging over time."

Arianism is named after the fourth-century presbyter Arius. Traditionally, "Arius … came ... to be regarded as a kind of Antichrist among heretics" (RW, 1). But 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).

Unfortunately, most of what we know about Arius comes from the writings of Athanasius. But three letters that Arius himself wrote have survived.

Traditionally, also, Arius' views have always been “represented as … some hopelessly defective form of belief” (RW, 2). But, more recently, Rowan Williams described Arius as “a thinker and exegete of resourcefulness, sharpness and originality” (RW, 116)

For that reason, it would be appropriate for us to take note of what Arius wrote. The purpose of this article is to explain why Arius described the Son as a created being but also as immutable.

Summary

Arius himself wrote:

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

But Athanasius claimed that Arius taught the exact opposite, namely:

The Son is “like all others … subject to change” (RW, 100).

Arius’ bishop Alexander, in his letters, similarly stated “that Arius taught a mutable Logos, whose divine dignity is a reward for his unswerving spiritual fidelity” (RW, 104).

Explanation

In the Nicene Creed, the Son is begotten from the substance of the Father, implying that the Son has the same attributes as the Father, including immutability. Arius opposed this view but still described the Son as immutable. Rowan Williams explains Arius’ thinking as follows:

By nature, the Son does not possess any of the divine attributes (RW, 113-114). (These attributes would include immutability.) All the divine attributes that the Son has, He has received from the Father.

He did not receive those divine attributes “because of virtue,” as Alexander suggested (RW, 113). Instead, he had those attributes “from the beginning” (RW, 113). There was no time when He was "not Wisdom and Word” (RW, 114).

However, “as a rational creature he is mutable according to his choice." And God did not overrule the Son's freedom by the divine attributes God gave Him in ‘the beginning’ (RW, 114). Consequently, the Son, in his pre-incarnate state and in his life on earth, voluntarily remained faithful to God (RW, 114).

Therefore, when God endowed the Son with dignity “from the very beginning of his existence,” He did that because He knew that the Son “is and will always be worthy of the highest degree of grace” (RW, 114-5).

So, to conclude, why did Arius write that the Son is immutable while Athanasius claimed that Arius taught the opposite?

In Athanasius' view, only God is immutable. Since Arius taught that the Son is distinct from God, Athanasius concluded that that means that Arius described the Son as mutable.

Arius, on the other hand, did not describe the Son as immutable because He cannot change; He is immutable because He will not change.

                 - End of Summary -

Source

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 studied the ancient materials and must be regarded as a specialist in this field. This article uses "RW" to refer to this book.

The Contradiction

In the three letters of Arius that have survived, he wrote:

“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).

But Athanasius claimed that Arius taught the exact opposite of what he wrote in his letter, namely that:

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 said that this “has no parallel in S, nor any in Arius’ letters” (RW, 104). “S” stands for de synodis 15, the other work by Athanasius in which he seems to quote Arius’ actual words.

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

Explanation

Rowan Williams explains this apparent contradiction on pages 113-116 of his book. In summary, he wrote as follows:

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 question then is whether Jesus was “promoted because of virtue” (RW, 113), as Alexander claimed,  or whether He had those divine attributes 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).

However, “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).

“We can conclude that Arius argued” (RW, 114) as follows:

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

  2. “Such an exercise of rational freedom is normally what fits us for transfiguring grace, the 'glory' of familiarity with God, so far as any creature can be familiar with the unapproachable mystery of the Father” (RW, 114).

  3. “God, in endowing the Son with this dignity of heavenly intimacy from the very beginning of his existence, is therefore 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).

Conclusion

So, in conclusion, why did Arius write that the Son is immutable while Athanasius claimed that Arius taught the exact opposite?

In Athanasius' view, only God is immutable. Since Arius taught that the Son is distinct from God, Athanasius concluded that that means that Arius described the Son as mutable.

Arius, on the other hand, did not describe the Son as immutable because He cannot sin; He is immutable because He will not sin. Arius described the Son as the only being ever to be produced directly by God (RPC Hanson, 7, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God - The Arian Controversy 318-381) and that He received "all the gifts and glories God can give” (L, RW, 98). Therefore, "He is different from any others" (De Synodis 15, RH, 14).

In another article, I argue that the Son came to this world to be tested. He was really tested. If it was impossible for Him to sin, His victory over sin would have been meaningless. See - Why did Jesus have to die?

But this question remains: Should we trust Athanasius' version of Arius' theology? Without explanation, he has directly contradicted what Arius himself wrote and presented that as Arius' teaching.

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