For all of those just joining us, I am, for myself, reading through the Arian documents of the 4th century – the most wonderful century in Church history. If you thought that the Reformation was political…
According to several scholars, it is possible that Athanasius had a strong hand in writing this. Remember, Athanasius succeeded Alexander as Bishop of Alexandria, facing expulsion and exile many times because he maintained the doctrine presented here. I am reminded that during this time, the See of Alexandria was powerful, competing only with Rome (the canons at Nicaea gave special recognition to both Rome and Alexandria).
This letter is clear on the divinity of the Word from the very beginning.
Alexander, to our beloved and most honored fellow-ministers of the Catholic Church everywhere. Greetings in the Lord!
Since the catholic church is one body, and we are commanded in the divine Scriptures to maintain “the bond of unity and peace” , it follows that we should write, and mutually acquaint each another with the things that have happened among each of us, so that “if one member suffers or rejoices, we may either sympathize or rejoice with one other” .
In our diocese lawless and anti-Christian men have recently arisen, teaching an apostasy which one might reasonably consider and label the forerunner of the Antichrist.
I wished indeed to treat this matter with silence, that if possible the evil might be confined to its supporters alone, and not spread into other regions and contaminate the ears of innocent people. But Eusebius, now bishop in Nicomedia, thinks that the affairs of the church lay under his control; after abandoning his office at Beirut and coveting the church at Nicomedia without being punished for it, he has now established himself at the head of these apostates, daring even to write letters in all directions in support of them, hoping to drag down some of the ignorant into this shameful and anti-Christian heresy.
Thus, since I know what is written in the law, I could no longer keep silent, but I had to inform you of all of these things, so that you would be made aware of which people have fallen into apostasy and also of the terrible threats caused by their heresy, and pay no attention to anything that Eusebius writes to you. For now wishing to use these events to resurrect his old ill-will, which seemed to have been silenced over time, he pretends to write on their behalf, while the facts show that he does this to promote his own cause.
These then are those who have become apostates: Arius, Achillas, Aithales, and Carpones, a second Arius, Sarmates, who were all once priests; Euzoïus, Lucius, Julius, Menas, Helladius, and Gaius, who were all once deacons; and with these also Secundus and Theonas, who were once called bishops.
I want to ignore the politics of this letter, mostly. Alexander is using the historic power of this See to write letters to all other bishops to warn them of the heresy – as required by the ‘law.’ I assume that he means the New Testament, and more specially, some of Paul’s writings. Further, the idea of ‘church hopping’ by bishops, and later priests, was condemned in the disciplinary canons of both Nicaea I and Constantinople I.
The dogmas which, going beyond Scripture, they have invented and asserted, are the following:
“God was not always the Father, but that there was once when God was not the Father; that the Word of God was not always in existence, but came into being from nothing; for ‘the God who is’ made ‘him who did not previously exist’ out of nothing. For this reason, there was once when he did not exist; for the Son is a creature (ktisma) and a created being (poiēma). He is neither like the Father in essence (kat’ ousian), nor is he by nature either the Father’s true Word or his true Wisdom, but rather one of the things he made (poiēmatōn) and one of those he begot (genētōn); he is called Word and Wisdom only by analogy, since he himself came into being from the actual (idios) Word of God and the Wisdom which is in God, by which God made all things including him.
For his nature is mutable and susceptible of change, as are all rational beings. And thus the Word is alien to, other than, and excluded from the essence (ousia) of God; and the Father is invisible to the Son. For the Word neither knows the Father perfectly and accurately, nor can he see him perfectly. For the Son does not even know his own essence as it exists, since he was made for our sake, in order that God could create us through him, as through an instrument, and he would never have existed if God had not wanted to create us.”
This is Alexander’s view of the Arian doctrine, of course, but dead on as far as I can tell. Arius was actually promoting a doctrine found before him in Justin, who joined the Logos doctrine of Greek philosophy with that of the Church. For Justin, and the Greeks, the Logos/Son was an instrument a transcendent God used to create the world so as to not defile Himself with matter. Rowen Williams in his book on this topic argued that Arius
Some one therefore asked them whether the Word of God could turn to evil, like the devil has. And they were not afraid to answer, “Yes, he could.” For since he is begotten, his nature is able to change.
The evils of anything by a divine Incarnation is that it allows free well on the part of the Messiah. It is fully possible as well that a divine, but created Being, could also rebel against God, not merely on earth, but in heaven.
We then, assembled with almost one hundred bishops of Egypt and Libya, have anathematized these things that were said by the group around Arius and those who have shamefully followed along with them. Thus Eusebius’s group has welcomed them and tried to blend falsehood with truth, and impiety with what is sacred. But they will not succeed. For the truth must triumph; and “light has no fellowship with darkness, nor can Christ be harmonized with Belial” .
For who ever heard such things? Or who that hears it now is not astonished and does not plug his ears to stop himself from hearing such filthy expressions? Who that hears John saying, “In the beginning was the Word” , does not condemn those who say, “There was a time when the Word did not exist”? Or who, hearing in the Gospel of “the only-begotten Son” , and that “through him all things were made” , will not hate those who proclaim that the Son is one of the things that were made (poiēmata)? For how can he be one of the things which were made through himself? Or how can he be the only-begotten, if he is reckoned among such created things? And how could he come into existence from nothing when the Father has said, “My heart has spewed out a good word (logos)” ; and “I begot you from the womb before the morning star” ?
Or how can he be unlike the Father in essence (ousia) when he is the perfect image and radiant glory of the Father and says, ‘He that has seen me, has seen the Father” ? Again how if the Son is the Word and Wisdom of God, could there be a time when he did not exist? For that is equivalent to their saying that God was once without the Word and without Wisdom.
How can one be mutable and susceptible of change who says of himself, “I am in the Father, and the Father is in me” ; and “I and the Father are one” ; and again through the prophet, “Look at me because I AM, and I have not changed” ? For if someone can use this expression of the Father himself, it would be even more fittingly spoken concerning the Word, because he was not changed when become man, but as the apostle says, “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever” . So who then could persuade them to say that he was made on our account, when Paul yet wrote that “for him and through him all things exist” ?
It is of my opinion that Alexander is saying of Arian doctrine that they believe that the Word underwent a dramatic transformation, not a temporary Incarnation – meaning that like all created things, the Word can change and has changed.
One need not wonder at their blasphemous assertion that the Son does not perfectly know the Father. For once they decided to fight against Christ, they reject also his own voice when he says, “As the Father knows me, even so I know the Father” . If therefore the Father only partially knows the Son, then it is clear that the Son can only partially know the Father. But if it would be improper to say this, and if the Father does perfectly know the Son, it is clear that just as the Father knows his own Word, so also the Word knows his own Father, whose Word he is.
By stating these things and explaining the divine Scriptures, we have often refuted these men: but like chameleons, they changed themselves again, obstinately dragging themselves down to that which was written, “When the ungodly man goes into the depths of evil, he becomes contemptuous” . Thus, although many heresies have arisen before these, which going far beyond what ought to be dared fell into complete foolishness, these persons, by attempting in all their discourses to do away with the divinity of the Word, they have brought themselves closer to becoming the Antichrist, and have exonerated these others when compared to themselves. For this reason they have been publicly denounced and anathematized by the church
As a side note, I have often said that ‘antichrist’ refers to those that deny the divinity of Christ, not an eschatological figure.
We are indeed grieved by their destruction, and especially so because they have now turned away from the teachings which they had once learned in the church, although we are not surprised. For Hymenaeus and Philetus fell in the same way, and before them Judas, who had been a follower of the Savior, but later became a betrayer and apostate.
Nor should we have been ignorant about these men, for the Lord himself said: “Beware that no man deceive you; for many shall come in my name, saying, ‘I am Christ,’ and ‘the time is at hand,’ and they will deceive many people. Do not follow them” . And Paul, having learned these things from the Savior, wrote, “That in the last days some will apostatize from the sound faith, following deceiving spirits, and the teachings of devils, turning away from the truth”
Seeing then that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has directed through himself and foretold through the apostle concerning these men, it follows that we, having ourselves heard their impiety, have condemned them, as previously stated, and declared them to be outside the catholic church and faith.
We have also made it clear to your pious minds, beloved and most honored fellow-servants, that you should not welcome any of these men, if they hurriedly approach you, nor be persuaded to receive any writing from Eusebius or any other concerning them. For it is proper for us who are Christians, to turn away from all those who speak or reason against Christ, since they are resisting God, and destroyers of souls; nor are we “even to greet such men” so that we never “are made partakers in their sin,” as the blessed John instructed . Give greetings to the brothers with you. Those with me greet you.
– subscriptions of 17 priests and 24 deacons of Alexandria and 19 priests and 20 deacons of the Mareotis district
Translation from Socrates (NPNF2 vol. 2, p. 3-5) adapted by GLT
Other translations in New Eusebius, no. 282; NPNF2 vol. 4, p. 69-72; p. 2-3 Hanson, p. 16
Absent are late 4th century terms, yet this document shows quite well the majority doctrine of the Church at this time was indeed that the Word was eternally present with the Father. Maybe I am failing to see it, but the Bishop also seems to separate the pre-Incarnate Word with the Incarnate Son at times, much like Marcellus does years later.