Arianism is the belief that Jesus is not God. Instead, it argues that the Son is the first created being made by God through whom he created the world. This heresy is named after Arius who served as a pastor in Alexandria before being condemned at the Council of Nicaea in 325. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are a modern form of this belief except that they also believe that Jesus is the archangel Michael. By making Jesus “a god” in their New World Translation of John 1:1, they commit the error of henotheism which is a form of polytheism with one chief God and multiple lesser gods. As Athanasius rightly observed, Arianism is polytheistic because it makes the Son a lesser deity than the Father (Four Discourses Against the Arians 3.25). Arianism also errs by denying that Jesus is God (John 1:1-3; 8:58; 20:28; Col 2:9; Heb 1:3-13), eternal (Isa 9:6; 1 John 1:2), unchangeable (Heb 13:8), omniscient (John 16:30), the object of prayer (1 Cor 1:2), and the object of worship (Rev 5:12-14).
As with every system of belief, to understand Arianism as it was historically understood, we must go back to the original sources and read Arius in his own words to understand his theology. He sets forth his beliefs concerning who Jesus is in his letter to Alexander of Alexandria:
“But, as we say, he was created by the will of God before times and ages, and he received life, being, and glories from the Father as the Father has shared them with him. For the Father, having given to him the inheritance of all, did not deprive himself of those things which he has in himself without generation, for he is the source of all. Thus there are three hypostases. God being the cause of all is without beginning, most alone; but the Son, begotten by the Father, created and founded before the ages, was not before he was begotten. Rather, the Son begotten timelessly before everything, alone was caused to subsist by the Father. For he is not everlasting or co-everlasting or unbegotten with the Father. Nor does he have being with the Father, as certain individuals mention things relatively and bring into the discussion two unbegotten causes. But God is thus before all as a monad and cause. Therefore, he is also before the Son, as we have learned from you when you preached throughout the midst of the church. Therefore, insofar as he has from God being, glories, and life, and all things have been handed over to him, thus God is his cause. For he, as his God and being before him, rules him. But if “from him” [Rom 11.36] and “from the womb” (Ps 110.3) and “I can from the Father and I come” [John 16.28] are thought by some to signify that he is a part of him and an emanation, the Father will be according to them compounded, divided, mutable and a body, and, as far as they are concerned, the incorporeal God suffers things suitable to the body.”
One of the common mistakes people make when discussing Arianism is assuming that Arius believed that the Son’s generation was temporal as opposed to eternal generation which teaches that it is timeless. But Arius believed that the Son’s begetting was without respect to time when he says that the Son was “begotten timelessly before everything.” People make this mistake because the Nicene Creed condemns the belief that “there was a time when he was not.” Hence, it is argued, Arianism must believe that this begetting was in time or else it would not have fallen under the condemnation of this anathema. But the Arians had a way of getting around this condemnation of their beliefs. What they actually believed was that this begetting was timeless so that there was never a time when the Son did not exist, but that there was a time before time existed when the Son did not exist. They also understood this begetting to be a creative act rather than something eternally occuring within the being of God since the Son does not share the Father’s nature. For Arius, it was timeless and creative, but not eternally ongoing.
The last part of his argument that there are some who believe “that he is a part of him and an emanation” is directed at Alexander’s belief in eternal generation. Following Origen, Alexander believed that the Son is eternally generated by the Father and derives his divine nature from him. Arius’ argument against this belief is that it would violate the immutability of God since that which is emanated reflects that which it emanates from. If the Son is an emanation of the Father and suffered on the cross, then the Father must likewise be capable of suffering if the Son shares the Father’s nature. Arius instead proposes that we should conceive of the Son as a created demiurge who mediates between God and the world and does not share the Father’s nature as an emanation would. Arius later composed the Thalia to express his doctrine in poetic form:
“God Himself then, in His own nature, is ineffable by all men. Equal or like Himself He alone has none, or one in glory. And Ingenerate we call Him, because of Him who is generate by nature. We praise Him as without beginning because of Him who has a beginning. And adore Him as everlasting, because of Him who in time has come to be. The Unbegun made the Son a beginning of things originated; and advanced Him as a Son to Himself by adoption. He has nothing proper to God in proper subsistence. For He is not equal, no, nor one in essence with Him. Wise is God, for He is the teacher of Wisdom. There is full proof that God is invisible to all beings; both to things which are through the Son, and to the Son He is invisible. I will say it expressly, how by the Son is seen the Invisible; by that power by which God sees, and in His own measure, the Son endures to see the Father, as is lawful. Thus there is a Triad, not in equal glories. Not intermingling with each other are their subsistences. One more glorious than the other in their glories unto immensity. Foreign from the Son in essence is the Father, for He is without beginning. Understand that the Monad was; but the Dyad was not, before it was in existence. It follows at once that, though the Son was not, the Father was God. Hence the Son, not being (for He existed at the will of the Father), is God Only-begotten, and He is alien from either. Wisdom existed as Wisdom by the will of the Wise God. Hence He is conceived in numberless conceptions: Spirit, Power, Wisdom, God’s glory, Truth, Image, and Word. Understand that He is conceived to be Radiance and Light. One equal to the Son, the Superior is able to beget; but one more excellent, or superior, or greater, He is not able. At God’s will the Son is what and whatsoever He is. And when and since He was, from that time He has subsisted from God. He, being a strong God, praises in His degree the Superior. To speak in brief, God is ineffable to His Son. For He is to Himself what He is, that is, unspeakable. So that nothing which is called comprehensible does the Son know to speak about; for it is impossible for Him to investigate the Father, who is by Himself. For the Son does not know His own essence. For, being Son, He really existed, at the will of the Father. What argument then allows, that He who is from the Father should know His own parent by comprehension? For it is plain that for that which hath a beginning to conceive how the Unbegun is, or to grasp the idea, is not possible.”
Arius found an early supporter in Eusebius of Caesarea who also wrote to Alexander of Alexandria defending his doctrine:
“Your letters have misrepresented them as though they were saying that since the Son came into being from nothing, he must therefore be just like the rest of creation. But they have brought forth their own document, which they have written for you, in which they explain their faith, confessing it with these very words: ‘The God of the Law and of the Prophets and of the New Testament begat an only begotten son before time began, through whom he also made the ages and all things, begetting him not in appearance but in reality, causing him to exist by his own will. He is unchanging and unchangeable, God’s perfect creation, but not a creation in the same way like one of God’s other creations.’ And so surely indeed their writings speak the truth, since these opinions are certainly held by you also when they confess that the son of God existed before time began, that God also made the ages through him, that he is unchanging, God’s perfect creation, but not like God’s other creations. But your letter surely misrepresents them as saying that the son is the same as the other created things. They are not saying this! But they clearly draw a distinction, saying that he is, ‘not like one of the created things.’ Take care, then, lest immediately again a pretext be found for arresting them and keeping them from moving about as much as they wish. Again, you accuse them of saying, ‘He-who-was begat he-who-was-not’? I would be astonished if someone were able to speak differently. For if there is only one who exists [eternally], it is clear that everything which exists has come into being from him, whatever indeed exists after him. If it were not he alone who exists eternally, but the son also exists eternally, how indeed could one who exists beget another who already exists? It would have to follow that there would actually be two who exist eternally.”
Robert A. Morey in his book The Trinity: Evidence and Issues outlines the four key tenets of Arianism:
- In the classic Platonic sense, God is the eternal, immutable, and indivisible Monas. He is not the Father from all eternity because there was a time when He did not have a son.
- Jesus Christ is called the Duas who was created by the Monas. This is why He is the demiurge-like creator and the mediator between Mind (God) and matter (the world). He was created by the Monas and thus there was a time when he was not.
- Since the Monas is indivisible, the Son and the Spirit cannot partake of his nature or attributes. Thus, the Trinity cannot be true by definition.
- The Holy Spirit was created by the Duas and is not God. This was later abandoned by most Arians and today they reduce the Spirit to a non-personal force.
One of the main arguments of the Arians is that God alone is unbegotten. Since the Son is begotten, he cannot be God. Only the Father is unbegotten or eternal. If Jesus is eternal and God by nature equal with the Father, then there would be two unbegottens and thus two Gods. In addition, there would be no way to distinguish between the Son and the Father. They would exist as twins or brothers rather than as Father and Son. But the Arians had to accommodate this belief with the biblical passages which teach that Jesus is God. Their solution to this problem was to make the Son a lesser God than the Father so that the divine essence is not divided. Jesus is only God in a qualified sense since his deity is less than the Father’s and it is a derived deity. The solution to the Arian argument about God alone being unbegotten is not to deny that the Son is unbegotten (Ignatius to the Ephesians 7:2), but to affirm that the one who is unbegotten exists as three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The one who is unbegotten is three.
The Arians argued on the basis of the created order that the Son must be subordinate to the Father because human sons are subordinate to their fathers. Just as human fathers exist before their sons, the Father must have existed before the Son. Because God is immortal and cannot die, Jesus could not have been God since he died for our sins. There is no concept of the two natures of Christ in Arianism. Those passages in Scripture which teach that Jesus is truly human are used against his deity because there is an a priori denial that God could become man in the incarnation.
While many cultists argue against the doctrine of the Trinity by claiming that it comes from Greek philosophy rather than the Bible, the Arians and other heretics in the early church were just as influenced by Greek philosophy as the orthodox were. Arguments based on the influence of Greek philosophy are a double-edged sword because of the variegated nature of philosophy and its universal influence. God in Arianism is an indivisible monad and therefore by definition God cannot share his divine nature among more than one person. They argue that if the Son shares the divine nature or attributes of God equally with the Father, then there would be a division in God’s essence. For God to be simple and not made up of parts, they argued that God must be unitarian in person. If God exists as more than one person, then he could not be simple or indivisible.
Arianism reminds us of the danger of allowing fallen human reasoning to distinguish truth from error rather than relying solely on the revelation of God in Scripture. Arguing from the created order back to God makes creation definitional for what is true of God rather than trusting in the words of the creator.