Arius to Eusebius of Nicomedia: the Son is “fully God”

The Da Vinci Code has spawned a host of people who believe that the First Council of Nicaea voted on whether Jesus was God.  I tend to correct such people by pointing out that Arius himself calls the Son, “fully God”, in his letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia (321 AD).  I usually include a paragraph from the translation of Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church, 1947, p.55 (online here), as a particularly clear statement of this:

Eusebius, your brother, Bishop of Caesarea, Theodotus, Paulinus, Athanasius, Gregory, Aetius, and all the other bishops of the East, have been condemned for saying that God existed, without beginning, before the Son; except Philogonius, Hellanicus and Macarius, men who are heretics and unlearned in the faith; some of whom say that the Son is an effluence, others a projection, others that he is co-unbegotten.

To these impieties we cannot even listen, even though the heretics threaten us with a thousand deaths. But what we say and think we both have taught and continue to teach; that the Son is not unbegotten, nor part of the unbegotten in any way, nor is he derived from any substance; but that by his own will and counsel he existed before times and ages fully God, only-begotten, unchangeable.

This evening I noticed that not every translation of this letter reads this way.  So I wondered just what the Greek said.

The letter is transmitted to us by Theodoret, Historia Ecclesiastica, book 1, chapter 5 (although in the NPNF version it is mysteriously chapter 4).  The text is edited in the GCS series, and the key passage appears on p.26-27.  In fact the key words are the very first two words on p.27.  And there are no variants!  Here’s the text:

And there it is: πλήρης θεός – pleres theos, fully God.  Pleres indeed can mean complete as well as full, as we see in LSJ.  But the idea is pretty clear.

I did wonder if there was a variant.  After all, everybody knows that Arius did not think that the Son was God in the same way as the Father.  I fully expected to see someone “correct” the text to fix what it said, to  bring it into accordance with the known views of Arius.  But the GCS does not list one.

But Theodoret is not our only source for the letter of Arius.  It is also transmitted by Epiphanius in the Panarion, 69.6.  This also was edited in the GCS series, by Holl.  On p.157 (here) we find the text as follows:

with apparatus:

Here Holl is proposing an emendation.  But the text as transmitted is still πλήρης θεός – pleres theos, fully God.

There are also two ancient Latin versions of the letter of Arius.  The first is by Candidus Arianus, which appears among the works of Marius Victorinus.  The other is found in an 8th century manuscript from Cologne Cathedral.  Both of these say “plenus deus”, “fully God”.  (I have written a separate post on these  here).

The letter was also edited by H.-G. Optiz in the Athanasius Werke III/1, as “Urkunden zur Geschichte des arianischen Streites” (= “Documents for the history of the Arian dispute”) 1934, Urk. 1 (= Doc. 1) accessible online here.  Optiz did something a little odd: he simply inserted Holl’s conjecture into the text:

With apparatus:

This refers to Holl, and to John 1:14

14 Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν, καὶ ἐθεασάμεθα τὴν δόξαν αὐτοῦ, δόξαν ὡς μονογενοῦς παρὰ πατρός, πλήρης χάριτος καὶ ἀληθείας· (SBL)

14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (ESV)

But there seems no pressing reason to introduce this into the text as transmitted.

The NPNF translator rendered πλήρης θεός as “perfect God”, doubtless thinking of the Latin “perfectus”, completed.

However the translation at the excellent Fourth Century site here is different: it follows Optiz.

(4.) We are not able to listen to these kinds of impieties, even if the heretics threaten us with ten thousand deaths.  But what do we say and think and what have we previously taught and do we presently teach?  — that the Son is not unbegotten, nor a part of an unbegotten entity in any way, nor from anything in existence, but that he is subsisting in will and intention before time and before the ages, full <of grace and truth,> God, the only-begotten, unchangeable.

The translation is in fact that of R. P. C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, 1988, as they make plain.  Hanson page 6:

Which is what Optiz give us.

All the same, we have to work with what Theodoret and Epiphanius and the Latin witnesses record, and what Arius wrote.  The old heretic definitely wrote “fully God”.  What he actually meant by this, of course, was the subject of the Arian disputes.  But he did not believe that the Son was not God.

Note: My sincere thanks to A. von Stockhausen for telling me about Epiphanius and the Optiz text in the comments below, with the very useful links.  I have revised this post to include this very valuable information.


13 thoughts on “Arius to Eusebius of Nicomedia: the Son is “fully God”

  1. The letter is not only transmitted in Theodoretus, but also by Epiphanius, haer. 69,6 (and in two Latin versions), cf. Opitz, Urkunden zur Geschichte des arianischen Streites, 1934, Urk. 1 ( πλήρης is a proposal by Holl in the apparatus of the GCS edition of Epiphanius (vol. III, p. 157:, which was accepted by Opitz (with the reference to Jn 1:14).

  2. Thank you so much for these links!

    Now possibly I am missing something here, but it looked to me as if the πλήρης is in the manuscripts, and it is the bit in brackets <...> that Holl added?

    Looking at Optiz, he says in the text:

    “πλήρης + <χάριτος καὶ ἀληθείας> vgl. Jh. I, 14 Holl.”

    I’m not sure what that means, except that this is something by Holl. Any idea what “Jh” is? And if we look at both Latin versions they say simply “plenus deus”.

    Now if we look at Holl’s Epiphanius p.157, his text is just πλήρης θεὸς on line 13. He footnotes “πλήρης <χάριτος καὶ ἀληθείας>, θεὸς …”? Holl.” as a suggestion.

    So if I read this right, πλήρης θεὸς is what Epiphanius and Theodoret and the Latin witnesses give. But Holl thought it should read πλήρης <χάριτος καὶ ἀληθείας>, θεὸς? It is only the bit in <> that is Holl’s emendation?

    Or am I missing something?

    I can’t find a manuscript online at the moment, but then again I am not sure that my Greek paleography would allow me to read it.

    Thank you again for this. This is a load of stuff that I was unaware of.

  3. Yes, exactly. Unfortunately the Greek in brackets was “eaten” by wordpress, when I posted the comment.
    All versions have πλήρης θεός. Jh in Opitz’ apparatus is the abbreviation for “John”. Holl obviously suspected that πλήρης θεός is an error in transmission and that’s why added χάριτος καὶ ἀληθείας from John 1:14 – but only as a suggestion in the apparatus, but he did not put it into the reconstrcuted text (which is quite typical for Holl’s approach to the problematic transmission of Epiphanius). It is Opitz, who puts this from the apparatus into the text as an emendation. And from there the emendation finds its way into RPC Hanson, I think.

    (By the way: At we’ve put some more GCS volumes online.)

  4. Ah thank you so much! (How infuriating about WordPress comments eating the stuff in brackets!)

    Wonderful to learn about extra GCS volumes! The “Athanasius Werke” volumes would be much better known if they were part of the GCS series.

  5. Yes, it’s due to the history of the GCS that they are a series by their own, although they are also based at the Prussian Academy: Harnack’s plan had been to have only editions of texts from the first three centuries (hence the original name “Die griechischen christlichen Schriftsteller der ersten drei Jahrhunderte”). And although that had been changed later, Athanasius never entered the GCS, but was given his own series.

  6. Thank you for your thorough analysis! From what I can understand, Arius’ notion was considered dangerous because it implied mutability in God Himself. Saying that the Son was not at a time and that after He came to be, is saying that there can be change within God’s essence. But He is inmutable.

    I think the expression “fully God” refers to something like, “The Son is fully God in the sense that He pre-existed implicitly in the will and council of the God (namely, God the Father)”. But this is problematic. Does it mean the Son was first in the mind of God and then He came to fully be? How can God’s essence change in this fundamental sense, concretely adding a Third Person at some point of the road?

  7. Thanks for a great article. I’m studying Arius as I realise that he is claimed to have said things which he never did. I’m curious to the translation of the word “created” in the letter. What is the Greek word used when he said “begotten or created” since there is a big difference in the meaning.

  8. I am not a specialist in Greek, but have a working knowledge of it.

    “και πριν γεννεθη ητοι κτισθη, ητοι ορισθη η θεμελιωθη, ουκ ην. αγεννητοσ γαρ ουκ ην”
    is transalated as
    “Or before He was begotten, or created, or determined or established, he did not exist”
    “And before He was begotten or created…” the word “created” is not in the text.
    πριν γεννεθη means before He was born
    ητοι κτισθη can mean creation, but rather founding or ordained
    ητοι ορισθη means defined or determined from the verb ὁριοθετέω
    θεμελιωθη means founded or established

    κτίσις εως, ἡ, (< κτίζω) founding, settling, Th. 6.5 ; ἀποικιῶν Isoc. 12.190, cf. Plb. 9.1.4 (pl.), etc. loosely, = πρᾶξις, κούφα κ. an easy achievement, Pi. O. 13.83.
    creation, κ. κόσμου Ep. Rom. 1.20 ; ἀπ' ἀρχῆς κτίσεως Ev. Marc. 10.6, 13.19, etc.
    created thing, creature, LXX Ju. 9.12, Ev. Marc. 16.15, Ep. Rom. 8.19, etc. ; in pl., LXX To. 8.5.
    authority created or ordained, 1 Ep. Pet. 2.13.

    The root is used in the Bible but here it is not used as creature, but ordinance:

    1Pe 2:13 Then be in obedience to every ordinance of men, because of the Lord, whether to a king as supreme,
    In fact, the words used for creation in the LXX in Genesis is "ποιησωμεν” or “εγενετο” or “εποιησεν”

    It should rather be translated as "ordained" and not as creation or creature. We need to remember that people translate things often to support their view. They wanted Arius to be viewed as believing that Jesus was a created being, but this is not what he meant. Why else would he have said that Jesus was fully God? Yes, it could also mean a created being, but in the context, it does not make sense.

  9. “the word “created” is not in the text.” should just be removed. I should have deleted that sentence.

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