Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

Chapter Six

Jesus the Son of God

The Arian and Gnostic Begotten Son


Arianism: A Time when the Son of God did not Exist

He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power. Hebrews 1:3

The 4th century in Church history is famous for the Arian controversy which dominated the Church’s theological interests and doctrines in a way which has never been repeated in Christian history. The first three centuries were marked by Roman oppression, martyrdoms, and other forms of official persecution which made it impossible for the Church, on a broad scale, to discuss or determine its most important subject, the nature of the triune God revealed in the books of the New Testament. When the Roman emperor Constantine legitimised the Church, however, it found a new freedom to debate and discuss its fundamental beliefs. It also created the opportunity for heresies to arise within its domain and the one which demanded its immediate attention was Arianism, a belief system it was to eventually reject as inherently heretical.

Historians today are often somewhat bemused at the intensity of the conflict and its outcomes as the issue at stake seems peripheral and somewhat inconsequential for the Church’s basic beliefs. The emerging Arians believed that Jesus was indeed divine, that he was the Son of God, and that he died and rose again for the redemption of sinners throughout the world. So what was ultimately at stake? Isn’t that Christian enough to place Arian teachings at the core of the Christian faith? It was precisely this – the apparently narrow gap between the Arians and their opponents – that made the latter fight so fiercely for what they knew to be the principal teachings of the gospels and epistles about Jesus Christ.

The Arian movement was not actually founded by Arius but he has always been regarded as its source. He died in 336 and is best-known for his book called Thalia which espoused many basic Arian teachings. Arius strongly believed that God was ultimately unknowable, a principle repeated in Islam which followed it almost three centuries later. Arius actually stated in his Thalia that God was incomprehensible, not only to normal humans, but even to the only-begotten Son of God. He believed that there were three distinct divine hypostases, but that God was not truly triune. The Son of God, in his view, did not share his Father’s eternal self-subsistence. Nor, for that matter, did the Holy Spirit. The Father alone was the eternal God.

Some time before the famous Council of Nicaea in 325, but after the beginning of the Arian movement around 315, Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, called a council of pro-Arius and anti-Arian theologians together and, after hearing both sides, he commanded Arius to sign an orthodox confession which the latter refused to do. He and his supporting bishops were promptly excommunicated and driven out of Alexandria. The Arian controversy, however, continued to grow within the Church and was one of the main reasons for the Nicaean Council and the famous Nicene Creed which arose from it, restating the fundamental Christian belief in the triune God, namely that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are co-eternal, three divine persons who share the same essence and who are essentially one – so united that the Trinity is only a greater revelation of the complexity inherent in the divine unity, the one supreme God.

What does the Arian controversy have to do with the Qur’an and the historical Jesus? In the next section we shall see just how relevant it is to the Qur’an’s denunciation of the Christian belief that Jesus is the Son of God, for what the Qur’an (with unflinching consistency) opposes is not the Christian doctrine but rather the Arian position, what the Arians believed about Jesus being the Son of God, beliefs that were successfully eliminated in the Church more than two centuries before the Qur’an was compiled.

The Arians based their beliefs about Jesus on texts like these: ‘I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, “You are my son, today I have begotten you”’ (Psalm 2:7), and: ‘He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation’ (Colossians 1:15). The Arians taught that Jesus was only a created being, though he was indeed divine. All things on earth, created though him and for him (Colossians 1:16), belong to the lower order of material creation, but the Son of God himself belongs to the higher divine order. Nonetheless he is not one with the Father, united to him in a single essence and co-existing with him from all eternity, but a divine being created at a point in time. In other words, to quote Arius’ most famous statement, there was a time when the Son of God was not. He pre-existed the present created universe, but his Father pre-existed him.

In other words, the Father, God eternal, had taken to himself an offspring, a Son. He had effectively created a partner to himself, another god though one less than himself. Another text the Arians used to support their position was this statement of Jesus: ‘For the Father is greater than I’ (John 14:28). The Arians said that they believed in the triune baptismal formula, namely to baptize believers ‘in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 28:19), but that the Son and the Spirit were nonetheless ‘produced’ by the Father and were not co-eternal with him.

In his famous letter to Eusebius of Nicomedia Arius said that it is inadmissible to say that the Father and the Son ‘co-exist.’ If God does not pre-exist the Son, he argued, then the Son must be a part of God or an emanation of God or, at worst, self-subsistent like his Father. Arius declared that the Son exists purely by the Father’s creative free will, brought into existence by the Father as the first expression of his creative purposes and in his image.

The Arians always held that Jesus, as the divine logos, had a beginning and simply became the expression of the Father’s own image to the world. He was not created in the same time-frame as the material, lower order of creation, but had an inception at some specific time prior to it. There was, therefore, a time when the Son of God did not exist. Arius added that the origin of the Son is the Father alone, but that, even though he did not belong to the normal created order, the Father was still his God and became the Father through the creation of the Son. He was, being the Son, a created offspring of God, not pro-created but nonetheless derived from him.

The controversy continued throughout the 4th century until the Council of Constantinople in 381. Athanasius, the famous bishop of Alexandria who succeeded Alexander, had relentlessly opposed Arianism and had put forward the most telling expositions of the fundamental New Testament teaching about the triune God in opposition to it. In the later years of the century bishops like Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa, three famous Cappadocian bishops, finally enabled the anti-Arian party to gain the ascendancy. The Council duly condemned Arianism as a heresy that would thereafter guarantee the excommunication of anyone who publicly proclaimed its teachings. The decision carried considerable weight – it was endorsed by the Roman emperor Theodosius. Arianism had run its course and was destined to disappear simultaneously with Gnosticism as a threat to the purity of Christian doctrine within the Church.

The Arian controversy served a very useful purpose in the end – it obliged the true theologians in the church to carefully define the triune God in scriptural terms. Gregory of Nazianzus was one of the great champions of the final definition of the Trinitarian doctrine. He accepted the biblical principle that the Son proceeds from the Father (monogenes – ‘the one coming from’ the Father, John 3:16), but he taught that this is best-defined as an eternal generation. The Father is the source of all things and both the Son and Holy Spirit proceed from him, but are nevertheless eternally one with him and fully consubstantial with him. That doctrine at its roots has never been altered or remotely redefined in the sixteen centuries since it was originally determined.

Many theologians of the time also showed that the texts most relied on by the Arians to prove that Jesus was the offspring of God at a point in time, begotten of him, refer primarily to his conception in human form as God’s own Son, brought into the world at a point in time. Psalm 2:7, which says of the Son ‘today I have begotten you,’ refers to his human introduction to the world as the verses before and after it clearly show: he was the King whom God had set on Zion, the one to whom all the nations and other kings of the world would eventually bow in homage. Proverbs 8:22, which says: ‘The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old,’ was also used consistently by the Arians to support their position (including the full passage that follows down to Proverbs 8:31). Gregory argued that this also referred to Christ’s human form, but it is more correct to view it as a definition of the creation of wisdom which is personified in the text and only indirectly reflects the personality of the Son which gained a greater definition as the wisdom of God when he was publicly portrayed as crucified: ‘folly to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God’ (1 Corinthians 1:24).

Modern historians may view the Arian controversy as an exercise in Christian theological hair-splitting, but it struck right at the heart of Christian belief about God himself. If the Father is God alone and created the Son as another god, then it was that personality alone who bore the brunt of human sinfulness and paid the price for it on the cross. Christians would have remained forever uncertain about what rests in the heart of God himself. Was the gift of his Son a sign of how much God himself loved the world and was willing to make the supreme sacrifice to redeem it (the Christian position – ‘God so loved the world that he was willing to give his only Son,’ John 3:16), or was it nothing more than the victimisation of the Son without any corresponding feeling in the heart of the Father himself (the Arian position)?

The theologians of the 4th century won a crucial battle and preserved the truth for Christian posterity. The Son of God, and his love for sinners and willingness to be both humbled in human form and even humiliated on a Roman cross, expresses the heart of God himself, a God whom all true believers can trust at all times to have their best welfare at heart. ‘If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?’ (Romans 8:31-32).

The Arian controversy, however, has a huge bearing on the Quranic attack on the Christian doctrine that Jesus is the Son of God, for it is the Arian Son of God that the Qur’an consistently opposes and wrongly projects as the Christian Son of God. We will move on to see how the Qur’an has confused the two and, in doing all it can to reject the latter, it only succeeds in assailing the former. We will see that, once again, the Qur’an misses the historical Jesus and allows subsequent heretical teachings about him to cloud and affect its assessment of him.

How can God have a Son when He has no Wife?

One of the most well-known chapters of the Qur’an is the Suratu’l-Ikhlas, the chapter of the pure unity of Allah. It reads: ‘Say: he Allah, is one, Allah the Eternal, He does not beget, nor is he begotten, and like unto him there is not one’ (Surah 112:1-4). Next to its first chapter, the Suratu’l-Fatihah, this is the most oft-recited chapter of the Qur’an. Muslim traditions say that to recite this chapter is the equivalent of reciting a third of the Qur’an.

The key words here are lam yalid – ‘he does not beget.’ The Qur’an makes it quite clear that this means he does not produce an offspring, or a partner to himself. The charge is primarily directed against the Christian belief that Jesus is the begotten Son of God, but the Qur’an does not assess the fundamental Christian doctrine that the Son only proceeds from the Father. It overlooks the key element of Christian belief in Jesus that he was never ‘begotten’ in the sense of being brought into existence at a point of time, that he is the ‘offspring’ of God. His eternal deity, his everlasting oneness with the Father, is missed by the Qur’an.

The Qur’an says: ‘It is not fitting for Allah that he should take to himself a son’ (Surah 19:35). Here the Qur’an clearly sets itself against any suggestion that God has, at some time, actually brought a son into being for himself (in other words, a Son who did not exist from all eternity but was ‘begotten’ of him in the sense of being produced or brought into existence). The Qur’an repeats this in numerous texts, for example: ‘They say: Allah has taken a son. Glory to him! He is the Self-Sufficient’ (Surah 10:68). The words in Arabic, are attakhathallahu waladin, which literally mean ‘Allah has brought forward a new-born boy.’ Alternatively, he has produced, or accomplished, or achieved the production of a son. The same descriptive words are used in this text: ‘And it is not becoming of the Compassionate that he should take to himself a son’ (Surah 19:92). Similar words are used in Surah 19:35.

An interesting verse, employing the same words, says: ‘If Allah had wished to take to himself a son, he could have chosen whom he pleased of those he had created’ (Surah 39:4). The key words here are: mima yakhluq, ‘from those created.’ The Arabic word khalaqa means to ‘shape, create, originate, form.’ In this verse the Qur’an speaks of Allah possibly taking a son from those he had created, meaning that the suggestion that God had taken Jesus, the Son of Mary, to himself as a son is an allegation that he had created him, that he had brought him forth at a point in time before adopting him.

Another verse says: ‘Allah has not taken to himself a son,’ once again employing the same words maa attakhathallahu min waladin (Surah 23:91). The same structure appears again in Surah 2:116 (‘And they say: Allah has taken to himself a son – Glory to him!’), and in Surah 18:4. A most interesting statement occurs in this text: ‘How could he have a son when he has no consort?’ (Surah 6:101). The Arabic word here, sahibah, means a female ‘companion’, or a ‘consort,’ or more specifically, a ‘wife.’ The Qur’an, in this text, clearly asks how Allah could take to himself a son when he has no wife? The question is presented as unanswerable, but the Qur’an seems to forget a very similar question Mary asked: ‘How can I have a son when no man has touched me and I have not been unchaste?’ (Surah 19:20). In this case the spirit addressing her responded: ‘Your Lord says, “It is easy for me.”’ Surely the same answer applies to the same question posed in reverse. If Mary can have a son without a husband, surely Allah can have a son without a wife! (It should be ‘easy’ for him.)

Here, however, the key implication of the question is that Allah would have to procreate through the medium of a consort if he was to take to himself a son. The Qur’an clearly considers the Christian belief that Jesus is the Son of God to be a suggestion that God must have procreated Jesus at his birth. This is where the Qur’an reckons that God would have ‘taken to himself’ a son.

Our study of these texts shows convincingly that the Qur’an, in every instance where it attacks the Christian belief that Jesus is the Son of God, is actually directing its onslaught at the Arian Son of God! The book nowhere shows any comprehension of the fundamental Christian belief in Jesus, that he is a divine figure, uncreated at any point in time, who has been one with the Father from all eternity, who took on human form and became the man Jesus. The Qur’an vents all its denunciations at the Arian alternative, namely that the Son was brought into existence at some point in time. Arius taught that ‘there was a time when the Son of God did not exist’ and that only thereafter did God take to himself a Son whom he created as an independent divine figure. It is this principle that the Qur’an consistently (and without exception) assails.

Arianism finally disintegrated almost two centuries before Muhammad was born. The Qur’an is guilty of a clear anachronism when it challenges the Christians of Muhammad’s day with making claims about Jesus that were actually proclaimed by Arians centuries earlier, claims that had disappeared two hundred years prior to Islam. No Christian has ever believed that God needed a consort or a wife to take a son to himself! Christian doctrine has never held that God produced and created a son at some point in time, or that he ‘took to himself’ a son. The Arians held this position, and we will see that they were preceded in this by the Gnostics before them who also held that the Father had generated the Son, but no Christian church within the mainstream of Christian doctrine has ever subscribed to such a fallacy.

Arius always believed and taught that Jesus, the Son of God, was brought into existence by the will of the Father and that he was dependent on a creative power of God to have become the begotten Son of God. This is exactly the position that the Qur’an attacks time and again (that he took a ‘partner’ to himself), but it has unfortunately assailed a concept that had become obsolete centuries before its time, and it errs in charging the Christians of Muhammad’s time with believing only what the Arians had believed centuries earlier. Its error is all the more conspicuous when it is remembered that the Christian Church denounced the Arians as heretics for holding to the fallacy that God had taken to himself a son at some point in time! The favourite description of the Arians for the Son was that he was unigenitus, the ‘uniquely conceived’ Son of God who was brought into existence by the creative will of his eternal Father in heaven.

The Gnostic Son: Generated by the All-in-All

The Arians were not the first to conceive the concept of a Son of God who had been brought into existence by a fiat of the eternal ruler of the universe. The Gnostics, whose movement fell away at roughly the same time as the Arian heresy but which had come into being centuries earlier, also taught that the Father had, to use the favourite Quranic expression, ‘taken to himself a son.’ The Tripartite Tractate says of the Father, in dogmatic monotheistic language similar to that found in the Qur’an: ‘Of him it may be said that he is a true father, incomparable and immutable, because he is truly singular and God. For no one is god for him and no one is father to him – he has not been born – and no other has brought him into being.’ On the contrary, the text goes on to say, he is the One who ‘has given birth to the All and has brought it into being’ (NHS, p.62). That includes his female reflection, Barbelo, and their offspring, the Son (or the Child) who took over the person of Jesus.

The text goes on to say: ‘In the true sense he alone, the good, the unborn, and perfect Father who lacks nothing, is complete – filled with everything he possesses, excellent, and precious qualities of every kind,’ and: ‘Therefore, his manner, his form, and his greatness are such that nothing else exists beside him from the beginning’ (NHS, p.63). In other words, he alone is self-subsistent – all other beings derive their existence from him, including the Son. In language once again similar to Quranic terminology, he has no partner and, being incomprehensible, it follows that he is unknowable.

The Tripartite Tractate immediately proceeds to give an exposition of the generation of the Son. The following passage, where the words italicised parallel those used in the Qur’an, describes how the Son was generated: ‘He brings forth something worthy of the admiration, glory, praise and honor that belong to himself, through his boundless greatness, his inscrutable wisdom, his immeasurable power, and his sweetness that is beyond tasting. It is he himself whom he puts forth in this manner of generation, and who receives glory and praise, admiration and love, and it is also he who gives himself glory, admiration, praise and love. This he has as a Son dwelling in him, keeping silent about him, and this is the ineffable within the ineffable, the invisible, the ungraspable, the inconceivable within the inconceivable’ (NHS, p.64).

This is the concept of sonship that the Qur’an assails, once again very similar to the Arian concept and almost certainly the origin of the Arian heresy. But it is most certainly not what Christians believe about the Son. He was never brought forth, he was never ‘generated’ by the Father. The text adds these words: ‘The Father brought him forth while he remained united with the one from whom he had gone forth,’ going on to say of the Son: ‘he exists only partially in the manner, the form, and the greatness that he is’ (NHS, p.67).

In another passage the text says that the Father, unknowable and incomprehensible, withheld his power, but then spread it out and extended it. He gave a location to the Son, he gave the Son to the people as a delight and nourishment, he is called the Son in whom the All that the Father generated and brought forth, exists.

The teaching of the Tripartite Tractate is similar to the Arian teaching – the Son is a divinely created being in contrast to the aeons and all other creatures in the heavens or on earth which are only creatures of lower orders. It is this teaching alone, however, which the Qur’an denounces – that God had taken to himself a Son. The standard Gnostic textbook, the Apocryphon of John, goes into more detail in describing how the Father took to himself a Son. It begins: ‘The Father gazed into Barbelo, with the pure light surrounding the Invisible Spirit, and his radiance. Barbelo conceived from him, and he produced a spark of light similar to the blessed light, but not as great. This was the only Child of the Mother-Father that had come forth, the only offspring, the only Child of the Father, the pure light’ (NHS, p.111).

The italicised words emphasise the concept that the Qur’an opposes – a Son who was produced and brought into being by his eternal Father who had pre-existed him. Here we see that the Arian heresy within the Church was derived from the Gnostic concept of a produced Son of God, brought into being at a point in time, right at the beginning of creation indeed, but nonetheless from a position which the Son only acquired at his moment of being brought forth into existence.

Another Gnostic book repeats the concept of a Son who was brought forth from the Father, namely the Holy Book of the Great Invisible Spirit. Both Barbelo, the Son’s mother, and the Son himself were realms that ‘the Father brought forth from within through forethought’ (NHS, p.254). These three – the Father, Mother and Son – are the sole divine persons in the ultimate heavenly realms, yet the Mother and the Son were brought forth from the eternal source, the Father’s own being. Another Gnostic text, the Three Forms of First Thought, says of the Christ that ‘they blessed the perfect Son, the god who was generated’ (NHS, p.725).

The Son of God whom the Qur’an opposes is not the Christian Son of God, the eternal second person of the Triune God who was never produced or brought into being but who has existed with the Father and the Holy Spirit in an absolute and perfect unity from all eternity. The Qur’an rejects the Arian Son of God, pre-empted by the Gnostic generated-Son, a divine being whom the Father brought forth and procreated. What aggravates the Qur’an’s error, as we have seen, is that it not only opposes a misplaced definition of the Son of God, but one which had recoiled into oblivion some centuries before the Qur’an was ever compiled.

It is not known why the Qur’an misidentified the Christian Son of God as a divinely-created being who was produced and taken by God as his offspring, a concept that had long disappeared and had been rejected as a heretical article of belief held by the Arians and the Gnostics, but the anachronistic character of its error aggravates the Qur’an’s misplaced attack on Christian Christology.