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History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600.
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§ 127. The Nicene Doctrine of the Consubstantiality of the Son with the Father.


Comp. the literature in §§ 119 and 120, especially the four Orations of Athanasius against the Arians, and the other anti-Arian tracts of this “father of orthodoxy.”


The Nicene, Homo-ousian, or Athanasian doctrine was most clearly and powerfully represented in the East by Athanasius, in whom it became flesh and blood;13791379   Particularly distinguished are his four Orations against the Arians, written in 356. and next to him, by Alexander of Alexandria, Marcellus of Ancyra (who however strayed into Sabellianism), Basil, and the two Gregories of Cappadocia; and in the West by Ambrose and Hilary.

The central point of the Nicene doctrine in the contest with Arianism is the identity of essence or the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father, and is expressed in this article of the (original) Nicene Creed: ”[We believe] in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God; who is begotten the only-begotten of the Father; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, and Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”13801380   Καὶ εἰς ἕνα Κύριον Ἰησοῦν Χριστὸν, τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ Θεοῦ· γεννηθέντα ἐκ τοῦ Πατρὸς μονογενῆ· τοῦτ ̓ ἐστιν ἐκ τῆς οὐσίας τοῦ Πατρὸς, Θεὸν ἐκ Θεοῦ καὶ φῶς ἐκ φωτὸς, Θεὸν ἀληθινον ἐκ Θεοῦ ἀληθινοῦ· γεννηθέντα, οὐ ποιηθέντα, ὁμοούσιον τῷ Πατρί, κ.τ.λ.

The term ὁμοούσιος, consubstantial, is of course no more a biblical term,13811381   Though John’s Θεὸς ἧν ὁ λόγος (John i. 1), and Paul’s τὸ εἷναι ἴσα Θεῷ (Phil. ii. 6), are akin to it. The latter passage, indeed, since i1sa is adverbial, denotes rather divine existence, than divine being or essence, which would be more correctly expressed by τὸ εἷναι ἴσον Θεῷ?, or by ἰσόθεος. But the latter would be equally in harmony with Paul’s theology. The Jews used the masc. ἴσος, though in a polemical sense, when they drew from the way in which he called himself preeminently and exclusively the Son of God the logical inference, that he made himself equal with God, John v. 18: Ὅτι ... πατέρα ἴδιον ἔλεγε τὸν Θεὸν, ἴσον ἑαυτὸν ποιῶν τῷ Θεῷ. The Vulgate translates: aequalem se faciens Deo. than trinity;13821382   The word τριὰςand trinitas, in this application to the Godhead, appears first in Theophilus of Antioch and Athenagoras in the second century, and in Tertullianin the third. Confessions of faith must be drawn up in language different from the Scriptures—else they mean nothing or everything—since they are an interpretation of the Scriptures and intended to exclude false doctrines. but it had already been used, though in a different sense, both by heathen writers13831383   Bull, Def. fidei Nic., Works, vol. v. P. i. p. 70: ” Ὁμοούσιον a probatis Graecis scriptoribus id dicitur, quod ejusdem cum altero substantiae, essentiae, sive naturae est.” He then cites some passages from profane writers. Thus Porphyry says, De abstinentia ab esu animalium, lib. i. n. 19: Εἴγε ὁμοούσιοι οἱ τῶν ζώων ψύχαὶ ἡμετέραις, i.e., siquidem animae animalium sunt ejusdem cum nostris essentiae. Aristotle (in a quotation in Origen) speaks of the consubstantiality of all stars, ὁμοούσια πάντα ἄστρα, omnia astra sunt ejusdem essentiae sive naturae. and by heretics,13841384   First by the Gnostic Valentine, in Irenaeus, Adv. haer. l. i. cap. 1, § 1 and § 5(ed. Stieren, vol. i. 67 and 66). In the last passage it is said of man that he is ὑλικός, and as such very like God, indeed, but not consubstantial, παραπλήσιον μὲν, ἀλλ ̓ οὐχ ὁμοούσιον τῷ Θεῷ. The Manichaeans called the human soul, in the sense of their emanation system, ὁμοούσιον τῷ. Θεῷ. Agapius, in Photius (Bibl. Cod. 179), calls even the sun and the moon, in a pantheistic sense, ὁμοούσια Θεῷ. The Sabellinas used the word of the trinity, but in opposition to the distinction of persons. as well as by orthodox fathers.13851385   Origen deduces from the figurative description ἀπαύγασμα, Heb. i. 3, the ὁμοούσιον of the Son. His disciples rejected the term, indeed, at the council at Antioch in 264, because the heretical Paul of Samosata gave it a perverted meaning, taking oujsiva for the common source from which the three divine persons first derived their being. But towards the end of the third century the word was introduced again into church use by Theognostus and Dionysius of Alexandria, as Athanasius, De Decr. Syn. Nic. c. 25 (ed. Bened. i. p. 230), demonstrates. Eusebius, Ep. ad Caesarienses c. 7 (in Socr. H. E. i. 8, and in Athan. Opera i. 241), says that some early bishops and authors, learned and celebrated (τῶν παλαιῶν τινὰς λογίους καὶ ἐπιφανεῖς ἐπιστόπους καὶ συγγραφεῖς ), used ὁμοούσιον of the Godhead of the Father and Son. Tertullian(Adv. Prax.) applied the corresponding Latin phrase unius substantiae to the persons of the holy Trinity. It formed a bulwark against Arians and Semi-Arians, and an anchor which moored the church during the stormy time between the first and the second ecumenical councils.13861386   Cunningham (Hist. Theology, i. p. 291) says of ὁμοούσιος: ” The number of these individuals who held the substance of the Nicene doctrine, but objected to the phraseology in which it was expressed, was very small [?]—and the evil thereof, was very inconsiderable; while the advantage was invaluable that resulted from the possession and the use of a definite phraseology, which shut out all supporters of error, combined nearly all the maintainers of truth, and formed a rallying-point around which the whole orthodox church ultimately gathered, after the confusion and distinction occasioned by Arian cunning and Arian persecution had passed away.” At first it had a negative meaning against heresy; denying, as Athanasius repeatedly says, that the Son is in any sense created or produced and changeable.13871387   Athanas. Epist. de Decretis Syn. Nicaenae, cap. 20 (i. p. 226); c. 26 (p. 231); and elsewhere. But afterwards the homoousion became a positive testword of orthodoxy, designating, in the sense of the Nicene council, clearly and unequivocally, the veritable and essential deity of Christ, in opposition to all sorts of apparent or half divinity, or mere similarity to God. The same divine, eternal, unchangeable essence, which is in an original way in the Father, is, from eternity, in a derived way, through generation, in the Son; just as the water of the fountain is in the stream, or the light of the sun is in the ray, and cannot be separated from it. Hence the Lord says: “I am in the Father, and the Father in Me; He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father; I and My Father are one.” This is the sense of the expression: “God of God,” “very God of very God.” Christ, in His divine nature, is as fully consubstantial with the Father, as, in His human nature, He is with man; flesh of our flesh, and bone of our bone; and yet, with all this, He is an independent person with respect to the Father, as He is with respect to other men. In this view Basil turns the term ὁμοούσιοςagainst the Sabellian denial of the personal distinctions in the Trinity, since it is not the same thing that is consubstantial with itself, but one thing that is consubstantial with another.13881388   Basil. M. Epist. lii. 3 (tom. iii. 146): Αὔτη δὲ ἡ φωνὴ καὶ τὸ τοῦ Σαβελλίου κακὸν ἐπανορθοῦται· ἀναιρεῖ γὰρ τὴν ταυτότητα τῆς ὑποστάσεως καὶ εἰσάγει ταλείαν τῶν προσώπων τὴν ἔννοιαν: (tollit enim hypostaseos identitatem perfectamque personarum notionem inducit) οὐ γὰρ αὐτὸ τί ἐστιν ἑαυτῷ ὁμοούσιον, ἀλλ ̓ ἕτερον ἑτέρῳ (non enim idem sibi ipsi consubstantiale est, sed alterun alteri). Consubstantiality among men, indeed, is predicated of different individuals who partake of the same nature, and the term in this view might denote also unity of species in a tritheistic sense.

But in the case before us the personal distinction of the Son from the Father must not be pressed to a duality of substances of the same kind; the homoousion, on the contrary, must be understood as identity or numerical unity of substance, in distinction from mere generic unity. Otherwise it leads manifestly into dualism or tritheism. The Nicene doctrine refuses to swerve from the monotheistic basis, and stands between Sabellianism and tritheism; though it must be admitted that the usage of οὐσίαand ὑπόστασις;still wavered for a time, and the relation of the consubstantiality to the numerical unity of the divine essence did not come clearly out till a later day. Athanasius insists that the unity of the divine essence is indivisible, and that there is only one principle of Godhead.13891389   Orat. iv. contra Arianos, c. 1 (tom. i. p. 617): ὝΩστε δύο μὲν εἷναι πατέρα καὶ υἱὸν, μονάδα δὲ θεότητος ἀδιαίρετον καὶ ἄσχιστον ... μία ἀρχὴ θεότητος καὶ οὐ δύο ἀρχαί, ὅθεν κυρίως καὶ μοναρχία ἐστίν. He frequently illustrates the relation) as Tertullian had done before him, by the relation between fire and brightness,13901390   E.g., Orat. iv. c. Arianos, c. 10 (p. 624): Ἔστω δὲ παράδειγμα ἀνθρώπινον τὸ πῦρ καὶ τὸ ἐξ αύτοῦ ἀπαύγασμα (ignes et splendor ex eo ortus), Δύο μὲν τῷ εἶναι [this is not accurate, and strictly taken would lead to two οὐσίαι] καὶ ὁρᾶσθαι, ἕν δὲ τῷ ἐξ αὐτοῦ καὶ ἀδιαίρετον εἶναι τὸ ἀπαύγασμα αὐτοῦ. or between fountain and stream; though in these illustrations the proverbial insufficiency of all similitudes must never be forgotten. “We must not,” says he, “take the words in John xiv. 10: ’I am in the Father and the Father in Me’ as if the Father and the Son were two different interpenetrating and mutually complemental substances, like two bodies which fill one vessel. The Father is full and perfect, and the Son is the fulness of the Godhead.”13911391   0rat. iii. c. Arian. c. 1 (p. 551): Πλήρης καὶ τέλειός ἐστιν ὁ πατὴρ, καὶ πλήρωμα θεότητός ἐστιν ὁ Υἱός . “We must not imagine,” says he in another place, “three divided substances13921392   Τρεῖς ὑποστάσεις [here, as often in the Nicene age, synonymous with οὐσίαι] μεμερισμένας καθ ̓ ἑαυτάς. Athan. Expos. Fidei or Ἔκθεσις πίστεως, cap. 2 (Opera, ed. Bened. i. p. 100). in God, as among men, lest we, like the heathen, invent a multiplicity of gods; but as the stream which is born of the fountain, and not separated from it, though there are two forms and names. Neither is the Father the Son, nor the Son the Father; for the Father is the Father of the Son, and the Son is the Son of the Father. As the fountain is not the stream, nor the stream the fountain, but the two are one and the same water which flows from the fountain into the stream; so the Godhead pours itself, without division, from the Father into the Son. Hence the Lord says: I went forth from the Father, and come from the Father. Yet He is ever with the Father, He is in the bosom of the Father, and the bosom of the Father is never emptied of the Godhead of the Son.”13931393   Expositio Fidei, cap. 2: Ὡς γὰρ οὐκ ἔστιν ἡ πηγὴ ποταμὸς , οὐδε ὁ ποταμὸς πηγὴ, ἀμφότερα δὲ ἓν καὶ ταὐτόν ἐστιν ὕδωρ τὸ ἐκ της πηγῆς μετεχευόμενον, οὕτως ἡ ἐκ τοῦ πατρὸς εἰς τὸν υἱὸν θεότης ἀῤῥεύστως καὶ ἀδιαιρέτως τυγχάνει, κ.τ.λ.

The Son is of the essence of the Father, not by division or diminution, but by simple and perfect self-communication. This divine self-communication of eternal love is represented by the figure of generation, suggested by the biblical terms Father and Son, the only-begotten Son, the firstborn.13941394   Πατὴρ, υἱὸς, μονογενης υἱός(frequent in John), πρωτότοκος πάσης κτίσεως(Col. i. 15). Waterland (Works, i. p. 368) says of this point of the Nicene doctrine, “that an explicit profession of eternal generation might have been dispensed with: provided only that the eternal existence of the λόγος. as a real subsisting person, in and of the Father, which comes to the same thing, might be secured. This was the point; and this was all.” The eternal generation is an internal process in the essence of God, and the Son is an immanent offspring of this essence; whereas creation is an act of the will of God, and the creature is exterior to the Creator, and of different substance. The Son, as man, is produced;13951395   Γενητός(not to be confounded with γεννητός), ποιητός, factus. Comp. John i. 14: Ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο. as God, he is unproduced or uncreated;13961396   Ἀγένητος, οὐ ποιηθείς, non-factus, increatus; not to be confounded with ἀγέννητος, non-genitus, which belongs to the Father alone. he is begotten13971397   Γεννητός, or, as in the Symb. Nic. γεννηθείς, genitus. from eternity of the unbegotten13981398   Ἀγέννητος, non-genitus. This terminology is very frequent in the writings of Athanasius, especially in the Orat. i. contra Arianos, and in his Epist. de decretis Syn. Nic. Father. To this Athanasius refers the passage concerning the Only-begotten who is in the bosom of the Father.13991399   John i. 18: Ὁ μονογενὴς υἱὸς , ὁ ὢν (a perpetual or eternal relation, not ἧν) εἰς(motion, in distinction from ἐν) τὸν κ́ολπον τοῦ πατρός. Comp. Athanas. Epist. de decr. S. N. c. 22 (tom. i. p. 227): Τί γὰρ ἄλλο τὸ ἐν κόλποις σημαίνει, ἣ τὴν γνησίαν ἐκ τοῦ πατρὸς τοῦ υἱοῦ γέννησιν;

Generation and creation are therefore entirely different ideas. Generation is an immanent, necessary, and perpetual process in the essence of God himself, the Father’s eternal communication of essence or self to the Son; creation, on the contrary, is an outwardly directed, free, single act of the will of God, bringing forth a different and temporal substance out of nothing. The eternal fatherhood and sonship in God is the perfect prototype of all similar relations on earth. But the divine generation differs from all human generation, not only in its absolute spirituality, but also in the fact that it does not produce a new essence of the same kind, but that the begotten is identical in essence with the begetter; for the divine essence is by reason of its simplicity, incapable of division, and by reason of its infinity, incapable of increase.14001400   Bishop John Pearson, in his well-known work: An Exposition of the Creed (Art. ii. p. 209, ed. W. S. Dobson, New York, 1851), thus clearly and rightly exhibits the Nicene doctrine in this point: “In human generations the son is of the same nature with the father, and yet is not the same man; because though he has an essence of the same kind, yet he has not the same essence; the power of generation depending on the first prolifical benediction, increase and multiply, it must be made by way of multiplication, and thus every son becomes another man. But the divine essence, being by reason of its simplicity not subject to division, and in respect of its infinity incapable of multiplication, is so communicated as not to be multiplied; insomuch that he who proceeds by that communication, has not only the same nature, but is also the same God. The Father God, and the Word God; Abraham man and Isaac man: but Abraham one man, Isaac another man; not so the Father one God and the Word another, but the Father and the Word both the same God.” The generation, properly speaking, has no reference at all to the essence, but only to the hypostatical distinction. The Son is begotten not as God, but as Son, not as to his natura, but as to his ἰδιότης, his peculiar property and his relation to the Father. The divine essence neither begets, nor is begotten. The same is true of the processio of the Holy Ghost, which has reference not to the essence, but only to the person, of the Spirit. In human generation, moreover, the father is older than the son; but in the divine generation, which takes place not in time, but is eternal, there can be no such thing as priority or posteriority of one or the other hypostasis. To the question whether the Son existed before his generation, Cyril of Alexandria answered: “The generation of the Son did not precede his existence, but he existed eternally, and eternally existed by generation.” The Son is as necessary to the being of the Father, as the Father to the being of the Son.

The necessity thus asserted of the eternal generation does not, however, impair its freedom, but is intended only to deny its being arbitrary and accidental, and to secure its foundation in the essence of God himself. God, to be Father, must from eternity beget the Son, and so reproduce himself; yet he does this in obedience not to a foreign law, but to his own law and the impulse of his will. Athanasius, it is true, asserts on the one hand that God begets the Son not of his will,14011401   Μὴ ἐκ βουλήσεως. but by his nature,14021402   Φύσει. yet on the other hand he does not admit that God begets the Son without will,14031403   Ἀβουλήτως and ἀθελήτως. or of force or unconscious necessity. The generation, therefore, rightly understood, is an act at once of essence and of will. Augustine calls the Son “will of will.”14041404   Voluntas de voluntate. De trinit. xv. 20. In God freedom and necessity coincide.

The mode of the divine generation is and must be a mystery. Of course all human representations of it must be avoided, and the matter be conceived in a purely moral and spiritual way. The eternal generation, conceived as an intellectual process, is the eternal self-knowledge of God; reduced to ethical terms, it is his eternal and absolute love in its motion and working within himself.

In his argument for the consubstantiality of the Son, Athanasius, in his four orations against the Arians, besides adducing the proof from Scripture, which presides over and permeates all other arguments, sets out now in a practical method from the idea of redemption, now in a speculative, from the idea of God.

Christ has delivered us from the curse and power of sin, reconciled us with God, and made us partakers of the eternal, divine life; therefore he must himself be God. Or, negatively: If Christ were a creature, he could not redeem other creatures from sin and death. It is assumed that redemption is as much and as strictly a divine work, as creation.14051405   Comp. particularly the second oration contra Arianos, c. 69 sqq.

Starting from the idea of God, Athanasius argues: The relation of Father is not accidental, arising in time; else God would be changeable;14061406   Orat. i. contra Arianos, c. 28 (p. 433): Διὰ τοῦτο ἀεὶ πατὴρ καὶ οὐκ ἐπιγέγονε (accidit) τῷ Θεῷ τὸ πατὴρ, ἳνα μὴ καὶ τρεπτὸς εἶναι νομισθῇ. Εἰ γὰρ καλὸν τὸ εἶναι αὐτὸν πατέρα, οὐκ ἀεὶ δὲ ἦν πατὴρ, οὐκ ἀεὶ ἄρα τὸ καλὸν ἦν αὐτῷ. Though to this it might be objected that by the incarnation of the Logos and the permanent reception of human nature into fellowship with the divine, a certain change has passed, after all, upon the deity. it belongs as necessarily to the essence and character of God as the attributes of eternity, wisdom, goodness, and holiness; consequently he must have been Father from eternity, and this gives the eternal generation of the Son.14071407   Orat. ii. c. Arianos, c. 1 sqq. (p. 469 sqq.); Orat. iii. c. 66 (p. 615), and elsewhere. The divine fatherhood and sonship is the prototype of all analagous relations on earth. As there is no Son without Father, no more is there Father without Son. An unfruitful Father were like a dark light, or a dry fountain, a self-contradiction. The non-existence of creatures, on the contrary, detracts nothing from the perfection of the Creator, since he always has the power to create when he will.14081408   This last argument, in the formally logical point of view, may not be perfectly valid; for there may as well be a distinction between an ideal and real fatherhood, as between an ideal and real creatorship; and, on the other hand, one might reason with as good right backwards from the notion of essential omnipotence to an eternal creation, and say with Hegel: Without the world God is not God. But from the speculative and ethical point of view a difference must unquestionably be admitted, and an element of truth be acknowledged in the argument of Athanasius. The Father needed the Son for his own self-consciousness, which is inconceivable without an object. God is essentially love, and this realizes itself in the relation of Father and Son, and in the fellowship of the Spirit: Ubi amor ibi trinitas. The Son is of the Father’s own interior essence, while the creature is exterior to God and dependent on the act of his will.14091409   Orat. i. c. 29 (p. 433): Τὸ ποίημα ἔξωθεν τοῦ ποιοῦντός ἐστιν ... ὁ δὲ υἱὸς ἴδιον τῆς οὐσίας γέννημά ἐστι· διὸ καὶ τὸ μὲν ποίημα οὐκ ἀνάγκη ἀεὶ εἶναι, ὅτε γὰρ βούλεται ὁ δημιουργὸς ἐργάζεται, τὸ δὲ γέννημα οὐ βουλήσει ὑπόκειται, ἀλλὰ τη̈̑́ς οὐσίας ἐστὶν ἰδιότης . God, furthermore, cannot be conceived without reason (ἄλογος), wisdom, power, and according to the Scriptures (as the Arians themselves concede) the Son is the Logos, the wisdom, the power, the Word of God, by which all things were made. As light rises from fire, and is inseparable from it, so the Word from God, the Wisdom from the Wise, and the Son from the Father.14101410   Comp. the 4th Oration against the Arians, cap. 1 sqq. (p. 617 sqq.) The Son, therefore, was in the beginning, that is, in the beginning of the eternal divine being, in the original beginning, or from eternity. He himself calls himself one with the Father, and Paul praises him as God blessed forever.14111411   The Θεόςin the well-known passage, Rom. ix. 6, is thus repeatedly by Athanasus, e.g., Orat. i. contra Arianos, c. 11; Orat. iv. c. 1, and by other fathers (Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen, Chrysostom), as well as by the Reformers and most of the orthodox expositors, referred to Christ. This interpretation, too, is most suitable to the connection, and in perfect harmony with the Christology of Paul, who sets forth Christ as the image of God, the possessor of the fulness of the divine life and glory, the object of worship (Phil. ii. 6; Col. i. 15 ff.; ii. 9; 2 Cor. iv. 4; Eph. v. 5; 1 Tim. iii. 16; Tit. ii. 13); and who therefore, as well as John, i. 1, could call him in the predicative sense Θεός, i.e., of divine essence, in distinction from ὁ Θεόςwith the article.

Finally Christ cannot be a proper object of worship, as he is represented in Scripture and has always been regarded in the Church, without being strictly divine. To worship a creature is idolatry.

When we attentively peruse the warm, vigorous, eloquent, and discriminating controversial writings of Athanasius and his co-laborers, and compare with them the vague, barren, almost entirely negative assertions and superficial arguments of their opponents, we cannot escape the impression that, with all their exegetical and dialectical defects in particulars, they have on their side an overwhelming preponderance of positive truth, the authority of holy Scripture, the profounder speculations of reason, and the prevailing traditional faith of the early church.14121412   We say the prevailing faith; not denying that the theological knowledge and statement of the doctrine of the trinity had hitherto been in many respects indefinite and wavering. The learned bishop Bull, indeed, endeavored to prove, in opposition to the Jesuit Petavius, that the ante-Nicene fathers taught concerning the deity of the Son the very same things as the Nicene. Comp. the Preface to his Defensio fidei Nicaenae, ed. Burton, Oxf. 1827, vol. v. Pars. 1, p. ix.: “De summa rei, quam aliis persuadere volo, plane ipse, neque id temere, persuasus sum, nempe, quod de Filii divinitate contra Arium, idem re ipsa (quanquam aliis fortasse nonnunquam verbis, alioque loquendi modo) docuisse Patres ac doctores ecclesiae probatos ad unum omnes, qui ante tempora synodi Nicaenae, ab ipsa usque apostolorum aetate, floruerunt.” But this assertion can be maintained only by an artificial and forced interpretation of many passages, and goes upon a mechanical and lifeless view of history. Comp. also the observations of W. Cunningham, Historical Theology, vol. i. p. 269 ff.

The spirit and tendency of the Nicene doctrine is edifying; it magnifies Christ and Christianity. The Arian error is cold and heartless, degrades Christ to the sphere of the creature, and endeavors to substitute a heathen deification of the creature for the true worship of God. For this reason also the faith in the true and essential deity of Christ has to this day an inexhaustible vitality, while the irrational Arian fiction of a half-deity, creating the world and yet himself created, long ago entirely outlived itself.14131413   Dorner, l.c. i. p. 883, justly says: “Not only to the mind of our time, but to all sound reason, does it seem absurd, nay, superstitious, that an under-god, a finite, created being, should be the creator.”



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