Arius 'Orthodoxos'; Athanasius 'Politicus':

The Rehabilitation of Arius and the Denigration of Athanasius

James T. Dennison, Jr.

"If the Son is a creature . . . no help will come to creatures from a creature, since all need grace from God" (Athanasius, Contra Arianos, 2.41).

The Christological controversies of the 4th century have attracted considerable attention over the past twenty-five years. Patristic scholars have revisited the ante- and post-Nicene controversies, reexamining Arius, Arianism, Neo-Arianism, Athanasius, the Cappadocians, etc. The technical literature has exploded with a spate of articles and books by scholars with impressive credentials. As with all revisitations, the possibility of altered assessments looms large.

Revisionism is an academic pastime. Without being altogether crass about some of these recent studies, I must admit to an element of skepticism when Athanasius, for example, is labeled a thug (as in "gangster"). This shocking accusation seems to be taken from a page of his 4th century detractors (recall, he was alleged to have cut off a priest's hand, the damning appendage waved about by his Arian enemies as proof positive, only to be unmasked themselves as liars and brigands when Athanasius produced the priest—alive with hand intact!)

The free world seems insatiably obsessed with the underdog. (Is there possibly a hint of Marxist historiography here, so dominant in the Western academy, even in patristic circles?) Arius has been a historical underdog for centuries and our modern revisionists have set themselves to the task of demonstrating his "theological conservatism." If we are shocked once more, it is because we are not properly initiated into the fine details of this scholarly rehabilitation of the ancient arch-heretic. Presuppositions do make a difference! Ours are altogether too naively orthodox (and myopic); the revisionists, of course, are absolutely objective and factual. Believe that last phrase and I have a bridge to sell you.

Modern historiography (patristic and otherwise) is one of the most agenda-based disciplines in the academy. We do not expect modern historians to approach the past without a bias, an ax to grind, a point to prove, If (the late) R.P.C. Hanson, Maurice Wiles, Timothy Barnes and others argue that Arius is really the good guy and Athanasius is the villain—I smell a rotten presupposition.

Revisionist conclusions are usually summarized as: (1) Arius remains elusive and his theology a "puzzle." Arianism was the invention of Athanasius in justification for his polemical opposition to the anti-Nicene party. (2) Non-Nicene Christianity of the 4th century is one of several varieties of Christianity common to that era—a "trajectory" of Alexandrian Christianity now regarded (by our revisionists) as valid as the Athanasian variety. (3) Arius was a "free spirit" whose liberty of inquiry and speculation was opposed because he was an anti-establishmentarian. He questioned the church's right to define certain (i.e., his) interpretations of the Bible as "unacceptable." (4) Church historians close to the era who treated the Arian controversy (Socrates Scholasticus, Sozomen, Theodoret of Cyrrhus) must be treated with suspicion because modern research is better able to reconstruct the "truth" of the matter than these "undoubtedly" biased reporters. These four general conclusions amount to a radical deconstruction of classic Nicene orthodoxy and a concomitant radical reconstruction of Arius and Arian error. If the revisionist case is correct that the essence of Arianism has been misinterpreted because Athanasius created his enemy for reasons of political and personal ambition, then 1700 years of the history of doctrine is simply wrong—dead wrong!

Before scutinizing the revisionist case, we need to know who is playing this new game. As in baseball, a scorecard tells you "who's on first." The hubbub boiled over at the 1983 Ninth International Patristic Conference in Oxford, England. Of that (in)famous Conference, Jaroslav Pelikan has quipped (borrowing on Jerome): "Oxford awoke to find itself Arian." The major revisionists were all present: R.P.C. Hanson, Dennis Groh, Robert Gregg, Rowan Williams, Michel R. Barnes, Thomas Kopecek, Maurice Wiles. (We may add to this list the bitterly hostile Timothy Barnes, and the sympathetic if ambivalent Frances Young and Charles Kannengiesser.) Each of these modern pro-Arius scholars has produced a major work on the controversy: R.P.C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God: The Arian controversy, 318-381 (1988); Dennis Groh and Robert Gregg, Early Arianism: A View of Salvation (1981); Robert Gregg (ed.), Arianism: Historical and Theological Reassessments (1985)—actually the texts of the papers presented by the revisionists at Oxford in 1983; Rowan Williams, Arius: Heresy & Tradition (Eerdmans rev. ed. 2002); Timothy Barnes, Athanasius and Constantius: Theology and Politics in the Constantinian Empire (1993); Thomas Kopecek, A History of Neo-Arianism (1979); Maurice Wiles, Archetypal History: Arianism through the Centuries (1996); Frances Young, From Nicaea to Chalcedon: A Guide to the Literature and its Background (1983); Charles Kannengiesser, Arius and Athanasius: Two Alexandrian Theologians (1991); Michel R. Barnes and Daniel Williams (eds.), Arianism After Arius: Essays on the Development of the Fourth Century Trinitarian Conflicts (1993).

Weighing in for the defense of the historic understanding of Arius the heretic and Athanasius the champion of Nicene orthodoxy are: Oscar Skarsaune, Incarnation—Myth or Fact? (1991); Alvyn Pettersen, Athanasius (1995); Khaled Anatolios, Athanasius: The Coherence of his Thought (1998); Peter Widdicombe, The Fatherhood of God from Origen to Athanasius (1994) and the latter's very important article, "Athanasius and the Making of the Doctrine of the Trinity," Pro Ecclesia 6/4 (Fall 1997): 456-78.

The root presupposition for vindicating Arius is the shocking assertion that he was a biblical exegete. Now let us ask this gallery of alleged first-class scholars how they know Arius was a biblical exegete? What commentaries on the Bible did he write? Well, they admit (not the least bit chagrined), none that are extant (see especially Hanson, p. 6). What commentaries on the Bible is Arius alleged to have written? Well, they admit (still straight-faced), none! And still you insist he is a "biblical exegete"? This is scholarship?!! Well, if there are no extant commentaries on Scripture from Arius's pen, what sermons do we have by Arius which demonstrate his exegesis of Scripture? Well, our scholars admit, none. So we have no commentaries on the Bible; no sermons on Biblical texts; then what do we have by Arius? And our scholars list the following as the sole surviving authentic works of Arius.

First, the three uncontroverted pieces: (1) the letter which Arius wrote to Eusebius of Nicomedia (so-called Document/Urkunde #1; cf. Stevenson, A New Eusebius (=NE), 344-45; the letter is variously dated 318 to 321/22 A.D.); (2) the letter which Arius wrote to Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria, containing a confession of faith (so-called Document/Urkunde #6; cf. NE, 346-47; variously dated 320/21 A.D.); (3) the letter to the Emperor Constantine in which Arius and Euzoius confess their faith (so-called Document/Urkunde #30; cf. NE, 375-76; variously dated 327 to 334 A.D). The fourth document—Arius's Thalia ("The Banquet")—is a hotbed of controversy. Few of our revisionist scholars will permit it any weight in the discussion of Arius's theology. Why? because the only copies extant are two versions documented by Athanasius (Against the Arians (Orationes Contra Arianos) I.5-6 in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, [hereafter NPNF2] 4:308-9; and De Synodis 15, ibid., 457-58). And since Athanasius (unlike our purely objective modern revisionists) cannot be trusted to have reported what Arius really wrote, the (alleged) Thalia is dismissed. ". . . from the Thalia, Arius' only known theological work, we meet the difficulty that they are all quotations made or reproduced by Athanasius, a fierce opponent of Arius who certainly would not have stopped short of misrepresenting what he said" (Hanson, 10).

Other sources which quote Arius are also regarded as "unreliable." These include: Alexander's letter to Arius (so-called henos somatos, now generally believed to have been written by Athanasius; Document/Urkunde #4b; cf. NE, 342-44; dated about 319 to 325 A.D.); Alexander's circular letter on the Arian strategy (so-called he philarchos; Document/Urkunde #14; cf. NE, 347-50; dated 321/22 to 324 A.D.); Constantine's letter to Alexander and Arius (Document/Urkunde #17; cf. NE, 352-54; dated 324 A.D.).

Hence, on the basis of only three genuine documents from the pen of Arius (according to our revisionist scholars)—documents numbering less than 6 pages, 9 paragraphs and 85 lines in the H.-G. Opitz Greek edition (in English translation, 6 pages, 12 paragraphs, 120 lines)—our same revisionist scholars have produced interpretations, explanations, profound penetrations of this prolific "heretic" amounting to 931 pages (Hanson), 378 pages (Williams), 343 pages (Barnes), 209 pages (Gregg and Groh), 204 pages (Wiles). Would that 6 pages, 12 paragraphs, 120 lines of Athanasius's corpus received comparable treatment. But, of course, Athanasius has left hundreds of pages with lengthy exegeses of Biblical passages and numerous detailed expositions of his understanding of the relation between the Father and the Son. "Methinks," say our revisionists, "that Athanasius writes too much. He is therefore most definitely unreliable!" Surely this current revisionist madness is badly skewed. Forsooth, there is something rotten in PC ("patristically correct") studies these days. How do we know so much from so little? Dear reader, remember, these are scholars. And in their work upon Athanasius, perhaps he has taught them so well that they are stealing (oops! borrowing) a page from his "gangster" dossier—he invented Arianism; they are reinventing Arianism!!

Let us read/hear Arius himself, from the documents accepted as genuine by out revisionists. And then, let us ascertain what the revisionists themselves say Arius is saying on the basis of these documents: Arius, in his own words, and the revisionist exegesis of Arius's own words.

Document #1 (Urkunde #1)

Arius writes that he does not agree with Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria, when the latter preaches, "Always Father, always Son" (or "God has always been, and the Son has always been"). By his own words, Arius does not agree with the eternality of the Son (or the co-eternality of the Son with the Father). Arius affirms that he himself teaches, "The Son had a beginning, but God is without beginning. This is really the cause of our persecution." Here Arius expands on the temporal (i.e., non-eternal) nature of the son. According to Arius, he is like all other things which are not God—they are created, have a "beginning", were not, and then they were. It would appear that a straightforward reading of Arius's words indicates that he believes the son of God is : (1) not eternal; (2) a being with a "beginning."

Hanson quotes Arius (in this letter) as affirming that "before he [the son] was begotten, or created or determined or established, he did not exist" (p. 6). Hanson features Arius's words that the son did not exist before he was created or begotten. Williams quotes Arius as teaching that "God alone is anarchos ["without beginning"], and the Son has an arche ["beginning"] (p. 97). According to Williams, therefore, Arius affirms that the son of God "must be made, like all creation, out of nothing [ek ouk onton]" (ibid.). Williams concludes that Arius is teaching that God the Father (or God "unbegotten," as Arius puts it) "initiates the creative process by freely bringing the Son into being" (p. 98). Williams agrees: Arius teaches that "the Son is not eternal" (ibid.).

Gregg and Groh examine Arius's remarks that God (the Father) exists prior to the son, not co-terminously with him ("God has existence without beginning prior to his Son," NE, 344) ("Centrality of Soteriology in Early Arianism." Anglican Theological Review 59 (1977): 263ff.). Continue Gregg and Groh, "God only receives the name Father, according to Arius, upon the creation of the Son" (ibid., p. 263). Furthermore, our revisionist authors agree that Arius asserts the "creation of the Son" in this letter to Eusebius (ibid., p. 266).

Christopher Stead suggests that Arius made a "tactical error" when he described the son as "from [out of] nothing [ek ouk onton]" ("The Word 'From Nothing'." Journal of Theological Studies 49/2 (1998): 671). Stead is nothing if not transparent about Arius's Logos: "the Logos must be seen as junior, as radically inferior and subordinate to the Father" ("Arius in Modern Research." Journal of Theological Studies 45/1 (1994): 25). Arius's "junior" being is, quite frankly, a "creation" (ktisma). Arius is, in fact, a Patritarian (unitarianism of the Father), not a Trinitarian. "From nothing" radically distinguishes and separates the Son from the Father. Stead's sympathy for Arius's blunder flows from the "old conservative's" failure to read the mood of the times. Alexandrian Christianity in the 4th century was dominated by the "incoherent" doctrines of Alexander and Athanasius in defense of the eternal generation of the Son of God from the substance (ousia) or being of the Father (rather than "from nothing").

It is clear that Arius teaches the non-eternality of the son of God; that he is made out of nothing; that before he was made, he did not exist. Arius's revisionist defenders agree that this is what Arius taught.

Thus, when Athanasius asserts that Arius denies the eternality of the Son; that Arius teaches that the Son/Logos of God is a creature; that before he was created, he did not exist—how is this a misrepresentation or political manipulation of Arius's doctrine? ("They say . . . 'Not always Father, not always Son; for the Son was not before His generation, but, as others, came to be from nothing; and in consequence God was not always Father of the Son; but, when the Son came to be and was created, then was God called Father"— Athanasius, De Decretis, 3.6 [NPNF2, 4:153-54].) The words of Arius are plain and clear; the explanation of Arius's words by Hanson, Williams, Gregg and Groh and Stead are plain and clear. How then has Arius been misunderstood or his doctrine skewed to another's personal agenda? Are the revisionist committed, in being committed to the defense of Arius's Christology, to a Christology different from that of historic Christian orthodoxy? It certainly appears so, for they defend a doctrine of the Son of God who is not eternal, not always Son, a creature. They are, in truth, modern scholars, defending functional Christology, not ontological Christology.

Again, the favorite term of Arius for God is "ingenerate" or "unbegotten" or "inoriginate" (agennetos)—an unbiblical term, ironic in view of Arian demands for the language of the Bible "alone" in the church's creeds. That is, Arius, Arians and our modern revisionists have scored the orthodox use of homoousios ("consubstantial" or "of the same substance") in the Nicene Creed as an insertion of an alien, non-biblical term (cf. Dennis Groh, "Arius, Arianism" in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1: 384-86, esp. p. 386). Have we caught our revisionists demonstrating the pot calling the kettle black??!

Document #2 (Urkunde #6)

This letter from Arius to Alexander is frequently called a "confession." In it, Arius distinguishes himself from traditional heretics: Valentinus (Gnostics); Manichaeans; Sabellius; Hieracus. He asserts that the son of God is a "perfect creature of God, but not as one of the creatures"; "created before times and before ages, and gaining life and being and His glories from the Father, who gave real existence to those together with Him." Once again, Arius affirms that the Son of God is a creature—a very high creature, but nonetheless a creature. In addition, the non-eternality motif of Document #1 is also present (in fact, a necessary corollary of the son's creaturehood, however exalted). To make this explicit, Arius continues, "God, being the cause of all things, is unbegun and altogether sole but the Son being begotten apart from time by the Father, and being created and found before all ages, was not before his generation." Here is the first echo of the traditional Arian slogan "there was (a time) when he was not." Lest any doubt remain about the created status of the son, Arius continues: "For He is not eternal or co-eternal or co-unoriginate with the Father . . . but as God is before all things as being Monad and Beginning of all." As Monad, God exists as God alone, unrelated, undifferentiated. The son is derivative from, less than, not the same as this Monad. Hence to call Arius a divine Monadist or Unitarian is not at all unfair. He confesses it!

Finally, Arius repudiates the consubstantiality of the Son. "If the terms 'from Him' and 'from the womb' and 'I came forth from the Father and I come' be understood by some to mean as if a part of Him, being consubstantial, or as an issue, then the Father is according to them compounded and divisible." Arius opposes any consubstantial (homoousios) nature of the Son with the Father because this would topple his divine Monad and make him not Unitarian, but (at least) Binatarian (the Father is essential God and the Son is essential God, both co-essential). Arius's whole career was a repudiation of consubstantial persons in the Godhead, whether two or three. Here he states that repudiation plainly and clearly.

Hanson explains the salient portions of this "confession" as follows. Derived from the Father, the son may not be regarded as "consubstantial" with him for this would mean that "God is composite and divisible" (p. 8). Arius is unable to conceive of a Father and a Son sharing equally the same, identical divine substance or essence. To suggest this is to make the Son a "broken-off bit of God" (ibid.). Hanson confirms Arius's Unitarianism (God as single Monad; the son as derivative, i.e., created, non-Monad). Thus, for Hanson, Arius's second genuine remainder is a ringing affirmation of the son as created, not eternal, not consubstantial with the Father. Arius, it would seem, continues to be Arius!

Williams provides little analysis of this second document besides some commonplace remarks about Arius "defending his status as a teacher of the church" (p. 96). He does provide a translation of the statement (pp. 270-72) with several encomiums ("carefully phrased text"; "skill as a dialectician"), but virtually no commentary on Arius's teaching. In the light of the paucity of genuine Arius texts, one would expect scholar Williams to seize gladly on any tidbit in the interest of defending the "old conservative." Alas, perhaps Williams is tacitly admitting that the "conservative" in indefensible when Document #2 is presented.

Gregg and Groh also make little of Arius's teaching in Document #2. Their emphasis upon the son as a creation of God's will places the Logos outside of God's own essence/being and therefore derivative ("truly distinct" and separate). As Gregg and Groh are the leading advocates of Arius's exemplaristic soteriology, this voluntarism in the production of the son ("from the will of God") makes redemption an act of God's will which all other (human) creatures are capable of imitating. While the thesis of Gregg and Groh re Arius's soteriology is regarded with skepticism by many (Williams, Stead, etc.), it appears to be consistent with opposition to Arius from Alexander and Athanasius. But, of course, for some revisionists, this would afford far too much credibility to the anti-Arians. And that simply will not do!

Stead cites Document #2 as follows: "Arius does indeed, in his own words, proclaim the inferiority of the Logos and his substantial unlikeness to the Father in just the way that Athanasius condemns" ("Arius in Modern Research." Journal of Theological Studies 45 (1994): 28). I cannot resist underscoring the admission of what Arius is classically alleged to have said "in his own words" juxtaposed with the 'villain', Athanasius, as an accurate reporter. According to the revisionist Stead, Athanasius correctly understood Arius to teach the "inferiority of the Logos" and "his substantial unlikeness to the Father"! My head reels at the on-going revisionist dedication to exculpating Arius while skewering Athanasius.

Document #3 (Urkunde #30)

Arius's credal statement (with Euzoius) in a letter to the Emperor Constantine is undoubtedly written subsequent to the Nicene Council and Creed (325 A.D.). Arius is pleading for reconciliation ("peace") in light of his banishment following the First Ecumenical Council. Arius is bold; he speaks on behalf of the faith professed by "all our adherents." He further pleads that "all superfluous questions and wranglings" be put aside. The confession is a bland acknowledgment of the "only begotten Son, who was begotten of [the Father] before all ages." Clearly, Arius has learned to avoid saying more than is necessary since his condemnation by the bishops assembled at Nicaea.

Hanson concedes that this statement is a "colourless creed which has been carefully divested of any controversial wording" (p. 8). One may wonder who is the politician now? Hanson concludes that the document is without "theological significance" (p. 9).

Williams concurs with Hanson: "this is a studiedly uncontroversial composition" (p. 279). In it, Arius "tells us almost nothing about [his] distinctive views" (p. 97).

Gregg and Groh, as well as Stead, do not expand upon the content of this final document.


As noted above, the Thalia of Arius is suspect because all the extant copies derive from versions found in the corpus of Athanasius. While it is possible to assess Arius's doctrine without the benefit of the Thalia, Charles Kannengiesser draws attention to parallel patterns found in the latter document and the (alleged) unimpeachable Arius (Documents 1, 2 and 3 above) ("Holy Scripture and Hellenistic Hermeneutics in Alexandrian Christology: The Arian Crisis," in Charles Kannengiesser, Arius and Athanasius: Two Alexandrian Theologians, esp. pp. 6-11).

In his letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia, Arius objects to Alexander's teaching that "God has always been, the Son has always been." The Thalia reads: "God was not always Father"; "the Son was not always" (Contra Arianos=Discourse 1 Against the Arians, 1.5—NPNF2, 4:308); "though the Son was not, the Father was God" (De Synodis, 15—NPNF2, 4:457). The material in the Thalia certainly appears to reflect the same doctrine as the material in Arius's letter to Eusebius.

Again to Eusebius, Arius writes: "And that He was not, before He was begotten" (ibid.). The Thalia reads: "hence the Son, not being . . . is God only-begotten" (ibid.). Begottenness in both documents means createdness, i.e., non-eternality. Both documents trace the origin of the Son to the "will" of the Father. A voluntary act, not an essential or consubstantial (homoousios) generation, is the source of the Son's being (ad extra to the Father).

In his letter to Alexander, Arius mentioned three "subsistences" (hypostaseis)—the ingenerate (God, the Father), the generate (the son) and the holy spirit. (The Spirit is mentioned by Arius only in quoting the baptismal formula of Mt. 28:19 in his confession to Constantine.) The Thalia repeats the mention of the "subsistences" (hypostaseis) and specifies that they are not consubstantial: "the Father is other that the Son in substance (kat' ousian)" (Williams translation, p. 102). Both documents contain remarks about the divine "Monad." The priority of the divine Monad is emphasized by Arius in order to separate Monad and "Dyad" (Thalia). "Before it came to be" (i.e., the Dyad/son), the Monad was. "Understand that the Monad was; but the Dyad was not, before it was in existence" (NPNF2, 4:457). The creation of the son is a theme common to both documents. Finally, both documents contain pertinent reflections on the word "consubstantial" (homoousios). In the confession to Alexander, Arius cites homoousion as the Manichaean error ("Manichaeus taught that the offspring [son] was a portion of the Father, consubstantial [homoousios]," NE, 346; later Arians were to designate the term the "Abomination of Desolation"). In the Thalia, we read "he is not equal to God, nor yet is he of the same substance (homoousios)" (Williams, ibid.). The genuine document from Arius shares remarkable similarities with the document alleged to be suspect (because found in Athanasius). Is it likely that Athanasius's Arius (Thalia) and Arius's Arius (Confession to Alexander) are one and the same? Nearly all of church history thought so until the revisionists suggested tendentious motives to Athanasius.

Revisionist scholars may be suspicious of the provenance of the Thalia, but the tone and doctrine of Athanasius's versions are consistent with the "historical Arius" (as shown in his letters to Eusebius and Alexander). It would seem reasonable (biased presuppositions aside) to place the Thalia in the "historical Arius" corpus. It would also seem that the only reason to void its testimony is a sobering realization that a truly Arius Thalia damns the attempt to recreate Arius in a more favorable modern light. Reading the genuine documents in the light of the Thalia presents Arius in precisely the light Athanasius shined upon him. The case is cumulative and definitive: all the documents (and all the revisionists admit that at least the genuine documents) show an Arius who taught a supreme divine Monad (monotheistic, unitarian deity as opposed to a monotheistic, trinitarian deity), begetting/creating a son before time (as opposed to begetting the Son eternally from his homoousios/consubstantial essence), by a voluntary act outside of/apart from his essential being (as opposed to an eternal generation from his being), so that the son is not equal to the Father—neither co-eternal, nor co-essential, nor co-terminus.

If the case is as I have presented it—that the doctrine of the genuine historical Arius is the same as the doctrine of Arius reported by Athanasius—then why the fuss? If our revisionists admit that the historical Arius repudiated the consubstantiality of the Son of God; that the historical Arius taught that the Son of God is a created being, not an eternal being; that the historical Arius taught that the Monad produced the son ad extra, by an act of will—why do they come to his defense and villify Athanasius? In truth, they do not believe in the biblical, orthodox (as articulated in the Nicene Creed) doctrine of the Trinity or the essential deity of the Son/Logos of God (so plainly taught in John 1:1 and elsewhere). And the reason they do not believe in the essential deity of the Son of God is because they are modern men and women who have embraced the fashionable liberalism of contemporary Christology, i.e., the distinction between functional and ontic Christology. Functional Christologists contend that the "historical Jesus" never claimed to be God (co-essential deity); rather he was a creature—a very good human creature—who provided the highest exemplar of "God-likeness." Now if this functional Christology sounds vaguely familiar—like Arianism and/or Neo-Arianism—that is because it is Arianism!! The repudiation of ontic Christology (the Son of God is God) in our generation is tied intimately to the repudiation of orthodox Christology (Jesus of Nazareth is God, essential deity, in the flesh) in our generation. Arius's son of God is the modern liberal son of God—not God himself, but a creature.

But there is another reason for the modern search for the "historical Arius." And that reason is the ghost of Walter Bauer (of Bauer-Ardnt-Gingrich fame). In 1934, Bauer wrote a book which revolutionized patristic studies: Rechtglaubigkeit und Ketzeri im altesten Christentum (English translation, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity [1971]). Bauer's thesis was this: the Christian victors were the "orthodox", the losers were the "heretics." Orthodoxy was the name for triumphalist Christianity in its earliest years, according to Bauer. There was no single "right doctrine" derived from the New Testament—in fact, the disparate theologies of the New Testament writings convinced Bauer (as it had convinced all liberalism from the Enlightenment onward) that no single conception of Christianity (New Testament or otherwise) has precedence over another. Bauer argued that geographical communities of Christians (Antioch, Egypt, Palestine, Asia Minor, etc.) demonstrated a variety of "Christianities." Those that came to be dominant were those which achieved political and ecclesiastical power over the others. There was no "correct" variety of Christianity—only competing varieties until the fittest/strongest triumphed (do I detect a hint of Darwinianism applied to patristics?). The student of the early church, according to Bauer, could only map out the "trajectories" of belief for various communities and attempt to trace their development. When a "trajectory" achieved establishmentarian status, "orthodoxy" was attained.

The language of "trajectory" and "political orthodoxy" is common coin in the current revisionist discussion of Arianism. These buzzwords are dead giveaways that we are not dealing with objective scholarship in this matter (if my analysis above has not already demonstrated the tendentious nature of the modern pro-Arian party). We are dealing with propaganda, scholarly agendas, attempts to re-write history as a reflection of the triumph of heretofore suppressed varieties of Christianity. The endless litany from our modern pro-Arian scholars is that he is a "traditional" Christian, a "conservative" Alexandrian, a "biblical" exegete, etc. This telltale language is indicative of the Bauer thesis: Arius is "orthodox" until the Christian majority (under Athanasius and Constantine) succeed in suppressing him. Only after the triumph of Athanasius's Nicene Christology is Arius persona non grata. Prior to 381 A.D. (the Second Ecumenical Council at Constantinople), Arianism is just one (struggling) form of Christianity in a sea of many forms of Christianity. That Arius lost was just bad luck, not bad biblical exegesis or bad biblical doctrine. He ran into the brutal machine of "gangster" Athanasius and his king.

The shocking revisionist rehabilitation of Arius over the past twenty-five years is not because new genuine documents from Arius's pen have been discovered (no "Qumran" or "Nag Hammadi" Arius tomes!). No, not new information, but a new spin on old information. Not a spin which can deny what Arius actually taught (the genuine consensus documents are too patently clear), but a spin which can relativize Arius in the context of his culture. Arius's brand of Christianity is like Heinz 57 varieties—one among many. He lost in the 4th century, but his modern advocates are determined that he will win in the 21st century. And if not win, at least be rehabilitated to "respectable Christian." Such a rehabilitation will be the end of the Nicene Creed; the end of ontic Christology; the end of the orthodox biblical doctrine of the deity of Christ as Son of God, consubstantial with the Father (and the Holy Spirit). And that, dear reader, puts us right back where Arius and Arianism leaves us—back in classic paganism!

So What Difference Does It Make?

Can a creature save a creature? Or was it necessary for the Creator to take the nature of a creature in order to redeem sinful creatures? The Arian doctrine of salvation (soteriology) is crucially tied to the Arian doctrine of the son of God (Christology). As noted above, our revisionists furiously disagree over this element in the discussion. Gregg and Groh are the leading advocates of a carefully defined Arian soteriology (cf. also Groh, "The Arian Controversy—How It Divided Early Christianity." Bible Review 10 (1994): 20-32). Their conclusion is moralistic: Jesus is an example of virtue—which example is open to every human creature. "Salvation" is therefore entrance into Jesus' moral example of a virtuous life. Their conclusion is also adoptionistic: Jesus' virtuous life earned him the right to be adopted as "son of God." All other human creatures may receive equivalent adoption by following his example.

One reason others have opposed Gregg and Groh is that their case depends on the report by Alexander on Arius's doctrine of redemption (so-called Document/Urkunde #14; in the Ante-Nicene Fathers, 6:291-96; variously dated 321-324 A.D.). But as we have pointed out above, if Athanasius must be regarded with suspicion when he reports Arius's opinions/teachings, Alexander may not be regarded as any more reliable when he alleges Arius's doctrine of salvation. Hence many revisionists refuse to recognize Alexander's testimony.

But surely, it is reasonable to suppose, one of the "trajectories" of Arius's doctrine of the person of the son of God would have been the results or effects of that sonship on men and women in the church (cf. Hanson, pp. 92-94). Who Jesus is and what Jesus does or brings are inseparably united (they certainly are for others in the 4th century milieu, i.e., Athanasius and Alexander). Thus, Williams muses that Arius must have had some resultant notion of what the son of God means to Christians in history. (His most suggestive comment is: [God's] freedom and sovereignty are exercised in grace, the grace first given to the first of the creatures, his only and beloved Son"—p. 98; cf. his review of Hanson's book in the Scottish Journal of Theology 45 [1992]: 101-11, esp. p. 109.) And since the vocabulary of salvation/redemption/justification is woven through the New Testament, the son of God must have something to do with these concepts. Williams remains agnostic about what that may be (ironic in that he is very certain about Arius's Christology), but at least he acknowledges that Gregg and Groh are asking a proper question.

Thus, the status quaestionis is this: can a being, created as the son of God, efficaciously satisfy the penalty for another sinner (let alone a "world" of sinners) by moral example? If the cross of Christ is the summum bonum of an exemplary moral life (the life of a good creature), how is it the basis of forgiveness of sins for others, reconciliation with God and vindication of justifying righteousness? No creature in the Bible is regarded as capable of producing these saving graces (sacrificial creatures are typological, not actual "redeemers") because no creature is sufficient to unite essential God and sinful man. Athanasius and Alexander (with the fathers at Nicaea) understood this, which is why they grounded their doctrine of the (uncreated) Son of God in the biblical teaching of consubstantial deity (Father and Son). Only God could save a creature and God the Son did precisely that.

Regardless of the conclusions of the inter-revisionist debate about soteriology or no soteriology in Arius, one thing remains clear. Arius's "son of God" can never bring sinners to God the Father. Arius's Father God is "unoriginate", "unbegotten", pure "will", first cause, etc.; he is not essentially a God in relation—neither with his son, nor with the creation, nor with sinners. Arius's God reminds us of the remote deity of pagan antiquity—an Unmoved Monad, distinct and separate from any relationships with another than himself.

Here is what is at stake in the current revisionist foray—what was at stake 1700 years ago at Nicaea and Alexandria. Only a God-man can redeem sinners because only true God (the Son) can become flesh (Jn. 1:14) so as to redeem that flesh and unite it to God. Athanasius's greatest work, The Incarnation of the Word (De Incarnatione Verbi), is a statement and defense of just this position. As he stood contra orbem/mundum ("against the world"), so too shall we stand contra revisionem, if need be.

Finally, a postscript on the defenders of Alexander, Athanasius, Nicaea and the traditional orthodox case against Arius and Arianism. Oskar Skarsaune has written a very useful, semi-popular book on the incarnation. He surveys the biblical material and traces the discussion of the deity of the incarnate Son of God to the Fourth Ecumenical Council (Chalcedon, 451 A.D.). The book is a clear, readable articulation of the orthodox position summarized in the Creed of Nicaea. Alvyn Pattersen has written the most capable and penetrating study of Athanasius. His volume is a mini-handbook of patristic theology to the 4th century. Careful and balanced, yet refreshingly orthodox, Pettersen articulates and defends the champion of Nicaea. Khaled Anatolios attempts to respond to the Arian revisionists by demonstrating the uniform coherence of Athanasius's doctrine. This is a technical study, useful in the debate, but a bit turgid in style and convoluted in organization. Peter Widdicombe has attempted to survey the relational categories of "Father" and "Son" from Origen to Athanasius. His goal is to demonstrate the faithfulness of Athanasius (not Arius) to the Alexandrian Christology of Origen. And though Origen may contain some problematic expressions, the eternal generation of the Son from the Father is not one of them (ouk en hote ouk en, "there was no moment when he [the Son of God] was not"; cf. De Principiis, 1.2.9 in the Ante-Nicene Fathers, 4:249). Arius cannot qualify as Origenist on this point, in spite of revisionist ink to the contrary. Widdicombe's excellent article on the Trinity in Pro Ecclesia is nothing short of a tour de force. The committed orthodox scholar and reader will find each of these volumes/articles useful "in defense of the faith once for all delivered to the saints." To the glory of our God (Jn. 20:28) and Savior (Jn. 20:30, 31)!

Northwest Theological Seminary
Lynnwood, Washington