Arius was Wrong…
and so Were the Councils
History of The Problem
Early in the fourth century, a controversy arose regarding the divinity of Christ. Arius, a presbyter from Alexandria, argued that Jesus, “the Son of God,” was a created being, and therefore was somewhat less than God. This controversy was sufficiently powerful as to be a prominent factor in Roman Imperial politics for at least two centuries.
Athanasius was Arius’ foremost opponent. He “particularly disliked the Arian designation of God as “the Unoriginate” (agenetos), a title [Arians] equated with “the Unbegotten” (agennetos).” Unfortunately, we are bereft of most of Arius’ writings, since they were banned and burned. Thus we cannot directly adduce his arguments. Rather, we are left with summary statements quoted in the writings of his opponents.
“God was not always the Father; but there was a time when God was not the Father. The Word of God was not always, but was made ‘from things that are not;’ for He who is God fashioned the existing from the non-existing; wherefore there was a time when He was not. For the Son is a thing created, and a thing made: nor is He like to the Father in substance; nor is He the true and natural Word of the Father; nor is He His true Wisdom; but He is one of the things fashioned and made. And He is called, by a misapplication of the terms, the Word and Wisdom, since He is Himself made by the proper Word of God, and by that wisdom which is in God, in which, as God made all other things, so also did He make Him. Wherefore, He is by His very nature changeable and mutable, equally with other rational beings. The Word, too, is alien and separate from the substance of God. The Father also is ineffable to the Son; for neither does the Word perfectly and accurately know the Father, neither can He perfectly see Him. For neither does the Son indeed know His own substance as it is. Since He for our sakes was made, that by Him as by an instrument God might create us; nor would He have existed had not God wished to make us. Some one asked of them whether the Son of God could change even as the devil changed; and they feared not to answer that He can; for since He was made and created, He is of mutable nature.”
The theological “resolution” of the controversy, first propounded at Nicaea in 325, was that Jesus, the eternal second person of the Trinity, was of the same substance as the “Father,” the eternal first person of the Trinity. Further, Jesus the monogenos Son was “begotten of the Father,” but “not made.” The Greek of this phrase is gennēthenta ou poiēthenta, using the Greek root gennaō.
The Nicene Creed did not settle the matter. The gennaō lemma is used hundreds of times in the LXX to indicate the birth of a child. Thus there seems to be a legitimate rationale in the Greek to suggest that “begetting” implies a beginning. Eunomius of Cyzicus argued this at length in his First Apology. The created nature of Christ could also be philosophically derived by an analysis of the very concept of God. It is God’s essential nature to be unbegotten, whereas Christ is “begotten of the Father.” This argument derives from John 1:14, which uses monogenes. Like Arius, Eunomius is equating the gennaō and ginomai lemmas, negating the modern lexical argument that monogenes implies unique status rather than singular progeny.
Thus, contra Nicaea, the Son is “generated” or “made,” implying a different substance from the Father. Eunomius also adduces “the Father is greater than I” in John 14:28 in support of his thesis. “Begotten but not made” was “absurd.” Words must mean what they mean. Nicaea had twisted the words from their original meaning in scripture.
It hadn’t been until Nicaea that theology began to acquire the technical philosophical language to address issues of divine “being.” The issue of the “beginning” normally associated with a “begetting” had been finessed with these new philosophical constructs.
The Cappadocian Fathers proffered a detailed defense drawn from more developed philosophical constructs. Gregory of Nyssa countered Eunomius by saying that God is incomprehensible. Thus it is presumptuous to suppose that God can be defined by a set of human concepts. When we speak of God’s inner nature, all that we can say is what He is not. Gregory of Nazianzen engaged in an extended philosophical argument separating “persons” and “natures” in There are not Three Gods. He also noted that the scriptures declare both the Father and the Son to be God, yet “God is one” (Deut 6:4). In this, he reveals that his primary task is to defend the proper understanding of God as presented in the Bible. Philosophical constructs were secondary and subservient to this purpose. They are only necessary because scripture is “historical, functional, and confessional,” and does not concern itself with philosophical issues.
“Begetting without a beginning” is at best a difficult concept and at worst an oxymoron as Eunomius suggests. In English this presents a God who is three persons where the Father is the same age as the Son. “The son was begotten by the Father, but existed before he was begotten.” This leaves us with three co-eternal persons, the Father unbegotten, the Son begotten, and the Spirit proceeding from both the Father and the Son. Skeptics happily seize upon such apparent incoherence to justify an apologetic of disbelief in God, since “the attributes [of God] are mutually incompatible.” “… since Christ is eternal and has always existed, we must say that this generating has been happening as long as God has existed, which is forever, and it never began to happen. But think of what is being proposed, and one can see that this makes little sense.” It is virtually certain that this difficulty has led some to lose faith. Christians find themselves admitting that “no intelligible account can be offered of the Trinitarian formula.”
Apologists for the doctrine are well represented by James R. White, who explores it at length in The Forgotten Trinity. In a two-page endnote White explains that, in accord with the standard lexicons, “only begotten” (monogenēs) identifies a unique entity. It derives from mono, meaning “single,” and genos (from ginomai), meaning “kind.” White’s lexical argument would seem to settle the argument on one front. But he, representative of most others, neglects both the Greek of the conciliar pronouncements already mentioned above and the lexical counter-arguments of their contemporaries. He also neglects key passages in the New Testament.
Psalm 2:7 reads, “I will surely tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to Me, ‘Thou art My Son, Today I have begotten (gegennēka/from gennaō) Thee.’” In Acts 13:33 Luke treats this as Messianic. Similarly, the writer of Hebrews twice applies this text to Jesus (Heb 1:5, 5:5). In all three passages we find that the “begetting” has a firm beginning: “today.” It would seem that Arius and his successors had prima facie support for their position.
At this point I must step aside for a moment. The core of the doctrine of the Trinity may be summarized as follows:
- One God, with one essence
- Three co-eternal, uncreated, equal persons
I do not propose to argue for or against these points. Scripture supports them, and even the ancient apologists for the doctrine noted this fact when they weren’t dealing with the other philosophical conundrums related to the Trinity.
Précis of the Project
Beginning with Origen, we find arguments that the sonship of Jesus is from “His own nature,” not “of human fashion,” and “not a work of creation.” As each of these arguments is examined in depth, one fact becomes clear. Every discussant deals with sonship as ontology. That is, sonship is a part of the Son’s essential being in His uncreated state “before the foundation of the world” (1 Pet 1:20).
If sonship is part of the essence of the second person of the Trinity, a new philosophical problem arises. Fatherhood must therefore be part of the essence of the first person of the Trinity. Thus, there is a difference in substance between the two persons. Of course, this stands in opposition to the councils, and creates a new difficulty that requires resolution. This sort of philosophical hairsplitting has led to mountains of explanation and soporific reading. The explanations have generally been less that satisfying, and all of the old arguments keep bubbling up. In my exploration I will diverge from the old path. I propose to untie this Gordian knot by reconsidering the biblical concept of sonship.
Sonship of the People
Exodus 4:22 God describes Israel as “my son, my firstborn.” We note here that two concepts are present: sonship and firstborn status. We will consider “firstborn” first.
The firstborn received the birthright blessing, a double portion of the inheritance. This is first recorded in the story of Jacob and Esau (Gen 25:29-34). But even in this story, firstborn status was not strictly according to birth order. Jubilees 24:7-8 says that when Esau ate the lentils prepared by his younger twin, Jacob “became the elder.”
The firstborn functioned in a position of special responsibility and obedience with regard to family unity and management. He was the surrogate for the Father in the Father’s absence. As God’s firstborn, Israel was immediately granted the birthright in the person of Moses the prophet (Deut 34:10) and the promise of the land (Gen 12:7, Num 13:2).
As God’s son, the people of Israel were to be obedient (Deut 13:17b-14:1a). They were to be “holy … to the Lord” (Deut 14:2), “a people set apart to God for His use.” They are commissioned to be His servant, the ebed Yahweh. The title “son of God” is thus a “genitive of quality” that indicates a special attribute of Israel. Yahweh was their essential identity.
The Old Testament carries the concept of Israel as God’s son throughout. Israel is “called out of Egypt” (Hos 11:1), an historical act Matthew applies typologically to Jesus (Matt 2:15). When Israel is faithful, they call God their Father and He calls them Sons (Isa 63:8-19). When repentant, God calls Israel “My dear son” (Jer 31:18-20). When they rebel, they become “faithless sons” (Jer 3:22).
We must note that this sonship was not originally by bloodline. Cyril of Jerusalem states that Israel’s sonship is not to be thought of “in human fashion.” Rather, they “received adoption which they did not have.” This agrees with modern commentators. This conclusion is further buttressed by a consideration of the exodus itself. A large mixed multitude departed Egypt with the Hebrews (Exod 12:38). If they observed the Passover (a virtual certainty given the circumstances) and their males were circumcised, they would become “as one born of the land” (Exod 12:48, lit.). Since verse 43 denies the Passover to foreigners, these non-Hebrews necessarily became Israelites. It was impossible for them to be sons by consanguinity. This is consistent with Genesis 12:2, where Abraham is promised that he will become a great goy (nation), not a great am (people related by blood).
The ultimate extent of this adoption is seen in the “un-adoption” of Israel in Hosea 1. There we see God’s metaphorical recitation of how the northern tribes had been called out of Egypt, rebelled, were instructed by God, and continued to rebel. God cried out at the need to give up His child. But he gave up the northern tribes, declaring them “Lo-ammi,” literally, “not of my bloodline,” because their rebellion meant He was not their God (Hos 1:9, cf. Lev 26:12).
Israel’s King as Son of God
Just as the people of Israel were “sons of God,” the king of Israel was a “son of God.” This reflects the dyadic personality inherent in that culture, and most famously exemplified in the story of David and Goliath (1 Sam 17). In a very real sense, the king was the people.
Scripture continues the metaphor. Solomon is identified as God’s son in 2 Samuel 7:14. This continues in Psalm 2, the famous royal psalm which is quoted three times in the New Testament. Psalm 89 combines the themes we have noted so far. King David has been chosen to be adopted as God’s son (vv. 3, 27). He will be God’s servant (v. 3). He will be faithful (vv. 22-24). He will depend fully on God (v. 26). As Cullmann notes, “The king too is ‘son’ as one specially chosen and commissioned by God… The primary thought in these texts is the same as that in the designation of the people as ‘Sons of God.’ The king is son of God because the nation is.”
The sonship of a king was not known exclusively within the context of a divine appointment. Pagan nations were familiar with it in the suzerain/vassal relationship. If a vassal was sufficiently loyal and of service to the suzerain, he would be adopted as a son. Ahaz claims this status from the king of Assyria by offering his loyalty in 2 Kings 16:7. The cinematic story of Ben-Hur is also well known. Shipwrecked, floating on a piece of wood, slave oarsman Ben-Hur rescues the drowning captain of the vessel. For this deed, the captain adopts him as his son.
The Son of God in the New Testament
Paul exploits the fundamental identity between the king and the people in his theology of salvation in Galatians 3. Those who are faithful are “in Christ” and share the identity of Christ (Gal 3:16, 29). They will be adopted as sons of God (Gal 4:5). Thus, we are Israel, and following the logic developed so far, Christ is Israel par excellence. This is a fundamental unity of thought between the testaments.
Perhaps the best New Testament demonstration of Jesus’ sonship is the Carmen Christi in Philippians 2:5-11. There we find that Jesus surrendered the prerogatives of divinity (v. 7) and became “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (v. 8). Based on the nature of sonship we have derived to this point, no example is more direct or more complete. As the obedient servant of God, Jesus acted fully as His Son.
Jesus clearly understood Himself in a sonship role, even from His earliest recorded activities. At the age of twelve, His time in the Temple was “in My Father’s house” (Luke 12:49). The NET Bible notes that His activities were in obedience to the task before him.
The synoptics all record Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. All also quote the voice from heaven, “This is my beloved son, in You I am well pleased.” Thus, God confirms Jesus sonship while alluding to Isaiah 42:1. There the Spirit will come on God’s servant. Matthew notes further that the baptism was done “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt 3:15). These words mean that Jesus, with John’s cooperation, is to do all that is right for the completion of his mission. In other words, the baptism is another step of obedience.
Rather than belabor the point, we may simply note that Jesus’ ministry was sonship par excellence. “…the witness of the Synoptic writers is unequivocal. Jesus is the Son of God not as a miracle worker, but in the obedient fulfillment of his task…” Thus, independent of any question of ontology, Jesus was the son in role relation to the Father.
The Sending of the Son
The question of sonship as ontology comes to the fore in the Jesus’ self-description. In John 5:23 and 10:36 Jesus simply states that the Father “sent the Son.” The simplest reading seems to say that Jesus, the Son, was in heaven, and was sent to earth by the Father who remained in heaven. This approach treats sonship and fatherhood as ontology. The same flavor can be read in Galatians 4:4 and 1 John 4:9-14. But this is not the only possible reading.
The Son in the Epistles
The title “Son of God” occurs sixteen times after the gospels. First John 4:15 is representative. There it is used in the present tense. And this raises a question. In what way should we read the title? Does its use here indicate a continuing reference to Jesus’ essence? Or does it represent a continuing reference to Jesus’ role during His incarnation and as Intercessor (1 Tim 2:5, Heb 7:25)?
Verse 14 declares that the Father sent the Son “to be the Savior of the world.” This is parallel to the narrative in Philippians 2:7-8. That is, the eternal first person of the Trinity sent the eternal second person of the Trinity for the purpose of being obedient. As we have developed above, He came to act as a son. But this verse again raises the question of ontology in relation to fatherhood.
None of the passages examined so far forces us to one understanding or another. It is just as reasonable to suggest that “the Son” is a literary convenience as it is to take it as ontology. That is, it can be used in the same sense as “President Clinton” even though Bill Clinton is no longer the President. It is a previously earned title, and used thereafter for simplicity. This leaves us to examine the few direct time statements that apply to the term “son.”
When Did Sonship Begin?
Philippians 2:5-11 provides an outline of events. The eternal second person of the Trinity was fully God in heaven. He then gave up divine prerogatives and powers to come to earth. His role on earth was as a servant of the highest order, eventually dying on the Cross. Following this, “God” (necessarily the first person of the Trinity), restored the exalted status of the second person of the Trinity.
It is quite possible that Philippians 2:6–11 is from an early Christian hymn (see also Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16) written by Paul or someone else. If so, he employs it much like a preacher would use a particularly appropriate song or poem at a crucial juncture in a sermon. Whatever its original nature, and (possibly different) wording, this passage contains some of the most important teaching about Jesus Christ in all the New Testament.
Paul’s language is instructive. At no time in this account does he call Jesus “the Son.” Second, he calls him “Christ Jesus” even before the narrative reaches the incarnation. No author I know identifies the second person of the Trinity as ontologically “Christ Jesus” before the incarnation, even though this role was foreknown (1 Pet 1:20). Thus, the use of a “present” term here in a “past” narrative is simply a narratival convenience. We may then dispose of the use of “Father” and “Son” in “the Father sent the Son” passages similarly. They do not imply ontology.
Next, Paul describes Jesus as being “declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead” (Rom 1:4). This implies that Jesus had not earned the “Son” appellation until the Cross. This may sound a bit commercial or legal, but it exactly matches Luke’s use of Psalm 2:7 in Acts 13:33. There Jesus is declared the Son “today” on the day He was “raised up.” The writer of Hebrews follows this lead in 1:1-5, where Jesus’ “inheritance” is the “more excellent name” of “Son.” The same argument is made in 5:1-5 with regard to Jesus’ appointment as high priest. He is named as Son in the same way He is named as High Priest.
A son was adopted in this model. But Paul also states that Jesus was a son “according to the flesh” (Rom 1:3). “Matthew and Luke tried to solve the problem by interpreting the human descent from David to mean Jesus’ adoption into Joseph’s Davidic family. Luke begins his genealogy with the formula … ‘being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph…’”
Saintly Sonship in the New Testament
It is useful to consider the “adoption” of saints as sons as a parallel to Jesus’ sonship. The term “sons of God” appears as a present-tense term in Romans 8:14 and Galatians 3:26. In both cases, it refers to the present faithful Christian. But in Paul’s discussion in Romans, the present-tense appellation is immediately followed by a statement that even though the Holy Spirit testifies that we are the children of God (Rom 8:16), “creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God” (Rom 8:19). Our “adoption as sons” will happen at “the redemption of our body” (Rom 8:23). This will occur at the parousia (1 Cor 15:50-54). Thus, while we are functionally sons, the title of “son” is not ours in fact until the end, when we have been “faithful unto death” like Jesus was (cf. Rev 2:10).
Summary and Conclusion
Since the time of the Councils, the sonship of the eternal second person of the Trinity has been taken as ontology in orthodox circles. But scripture clearly identifies sonship in a different way. From at least the time of the exodus, sonship has been defined in terms of obedience to the suzerain. This was true in both Hebrew and pagan nations. Sonship could be awarded, and it could be lost. While there was an inherited biological sonship, this was irrelevant in covenant terms, since God clearly declared the northern tribes to be no longer His am (Hos 1:9). He also adopted non-Hebrews into His am (Exod 12:48, Isa 56:3).
Arius and his successors seem to have been unaware of this concept. They did note that there were passages that suggested a beginning for the son. They applied this to ontology. Their opponents at the councils accepted the challenge and used a “completely philosophical approach” in their “Christological speculations.”
Eunomius correctly accused Athanasius and the Cappadocian fathers of twisting the meaning of words. After all, gennaō does imply a beginning. When combined with “today,” as Psalm 2:7 and its New Testament quotations do, the conclusion is inescapable. Jesus’ sonship title had a specific identifiable beginning. Romans 1:4 emphatically confirms this. The fact that Jesus is monogenēs is irrelevant. Uniqueness has nothing to do with origin.
Jesus understood from an early age that His role was to be the Son of God. But He was reticent to use the term since He had not completed His obedience until the Cross. God called Him “my beloved Son” at the baptism and the Mount of Transfiguration, but these should be understood as anticipatory. Further, Jesus instructed the disciples to keep this secret until His resurrection (Matt 17:9). The eternal first person of the Trinity could see Jesus’ ultimate success, but as a man, Jesus could not. Paul and Luke clearly identify the effective declaration of sonship at the resurrection.
If we see sonship as a role beginning at the incarnation and perfected at the Cross, then all the arguments of Arius, Eunomius, Athanasius, the Cappadocians, and others simply vanish. They were arguing about the wrong subject. Ontology is not in view. The obedient suffering servant of Isaiah 53 is.
Similarly, identifying sonship as a role eliminates many modern skeptical arguments that create doubt in the minds of Christians. Certainly a God who is uncreated is enough of a wonder. It is not necessary to maintain creeds with logically incoherent statements like “begotten but not made.” A simple biblical understanding of sonship is all that is needed. Thus, when God speaks of David’s descendant (who is born — begins — on a particular date!), God says, “[I] will become a father to him and he will become a son to me” (2 Sam 7:14, lit., emphasis added).
The eternal second person of the Trinity became the Son of God as a result of His obedience during His incarnation. He understood this role from His earliest age. Jesus was not eternally the Son. His sonship was not ontological, it was adoptive. It was not essence, it was role. Similarly, the eternal first person of the Trinity was not the Father except in role relation to specific sons in history. Fatherhood is not part of His ousia.
One may ask what effect this construct has on the other descriptions of the Trinity. Feinberg notes that the ontological expression “the eternal generation of the Son” is at best speculative and not demanded by scripture. Further, the “eternal procession of the Spirit” has no scriptural support at all.
This approach makes no changes whatever in the fact that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all God. Further, it has no bearing on the fact that they constitute “one God.” The Hebrew echad (Deut 6:4) implies a plural unity. Thus, it has no bearing on the fact that the three persons are homoousios. All it does is restore the fundamental scriptural silence on the way that the three persons originated (assuming one can even make a time-based statement that is meaningful in an arena outside time).
Perhaps Cullmann puts it best. “Here lies the key to all New Testament Christology. It is only meaningful to speak of the Son in view of God’s revelatory action, not in view of his being.”
 Giles, Kevin, Jesus and the Father (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 136. It is important to note that Arians regarded the ginomai and gennaō roots as synonymous.
Arius, quoted in Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria’s Epistles on the Arian Heresy and the Deposition of Arius, 2nd Epistle Catholic.
 This follows the logic of Origen in de Principiis 1.2.4.
 See White, below.
 Wood, Laurence W., God and History, (Lexington: Emeth, 2005), 24.
 Wood, 28.
 Against Eunomius, 13ff.
 Wood, 38.
 Martin, Michael, “Review of Hugo Meynell’s Is Christianity True” at http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/michael_martin/meynell.html
 Wagenet, Ralph C., “The Coherence of God: a response to Theodore M. Drange” at http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/ralph_wagenet/response_to_drange.html
 Feinberg, John S., No One Like Him, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001), 489.
 Durrant, M., Theology and Intelligibility (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973), 195.
 White, James R., The Forgotten Trinity (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1998).
 Ibid. 201-203.
 Origen, op. cit.
 Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 11.4, cited in Lienhard, Joseph T., Rombs, Ronnie J., Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture OT 3 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity 2001), S. 31.
 Williams, J. Rodman, Renewal Theology, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 93.
 Even Feinberg, who strongly criticizes much of the language of standard Trinitarian formulations, does not argue against sonship as ontology.
 Bailey, Kenneth E., Poet and Peasant (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 168, 194-202.
Walvoord, John F., Zuck, Roy B., Dallas Theological Seminary: The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures. (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1985). 1:287
 Procopius of Gaza, Catena on the Octateuch, (on Numbers 26:2) quoted in Lienhard, J. T., & Rombs, R. J. (2001). Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture OT 3. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity), 252.
 Orr, J., Gen. Ed., The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol IV. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 2826.
 Cyril, op cit.
 Woods, A. M., “The Paradigm of Kadesh Barnea as a Solution to the Problem of Hebrews 6:4-6,” Chafer Theological Seminary Journal, 12:44-70, 2006.
 Patterson, Richard D., “Parental Love as a Metaphor for Divine-Human Love,” JETS 46:2, June 2003, 208-209.
 Gugliotto, Lee J., Handbook for Bible Study, (Hagerstown, MD: Review & Herald, 1995), 94.
 Cullmann, Oscar, (Guthrie, S. C., Hall, C. A. M., trans.) The Christology of the New Testament, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963), 273.
 Gileadi, A., The Literary Message of Isaiah, (New York: Hebraeus Press, 1994), 66-68.
 Hansen, G. W., Galatians. The IVP New Testament commentary series (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1994), Gal 4:4-5.
 The NET Bible, (Dallas: Biblical Studies Press, 2005), 1924.
Elwell, W. A., Vol. 3: Evangelical Commentary on the Bible. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), Matt 3:13.
 Cullmann, 277.
Elwell, Php 2:1-11.
 The identity of the author of Hebrews is debated. There are on the order of thirty uniquely Lukan and a similar number of uniquely Pauline expressions in the book. Thus, it is possible that Paul composed it and Luke edited it so as to make it more palatable to a Jewish audience. If this is the case, it should not be surprising that the Pauline and Lukan passages already cited find parallels in Hebrews.
 Cullmann, 295.
 Cullmann, 294.
 Giles, 239-240.
 Metzger, John B., The TriUnity of God is Jewish (Holly Springs, NC: Jewish Awareness Ministries, 2005), 84-85.
 Cullmann, 293. Emphasis in the original.