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History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600.
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§ 130. The Nicene, Doctrine of the Trinity. The Trinitarian Terminology.


The doctrine of the essential deity and the personality of the Holy Ghost completed the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity ; and of this doctrine as a whole we can now take a closer view.

This fundamental and comprehensive dogma secured both the unity and the full life of the Christian conception of God; and in this respect it represents, as no other dogma does, the whole of Christianity. It forms a bulwark against heathen polytheism on the one hand, and Jewish deism and abstract monotheism on the other. It avoids the errors and combines the truth of these two opposite conceptions. Against the pagans, says Gregory of Nyssa, we hold the unity of essence; against the Jews, the distinction of hypostases. We do not reject all multiplicity, but only such as destroys the unity of the being, like the pagan polytheism; no more do we reject all unity, but only such unity as denies diversity and full vital action. The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, furthermore, formed the true mean between Sabellianism and tritheism, both of which taught a divine triad, but at the expense, in the one case, of the personal distinctions, in the other, of the essential unity. It exerted a wholesome regulative influence on the other dogmas. It overcame all theories of emanation, established the Christian conception of creation by a strict distinction of that which proceeds from the essence of God, and is one with him, like the Son and the Spirit, from that which arises out of nothing by the free will of God, and is of different substance. It provided for an activity and motion of knowledge and love in the divine essence, without the Origenistic hypothesis of an eternal creation. And by the assertion of the true deity of the Redeemer and the Sanctifier, it secured the divine character of the work of redemption and sanctification.

The Nicene fathers did not pretend to have exhausted the mystery of the Trinity, and very well understood that all human knowledge, especially in this deepest, central dogma, proves itself but fragmentary. All speculation on divine things ends in a mystery, and reaches an inexplicable residue, before which the thinking mind must bow in humble devotion. “Man,” says Athanasius, “can perceive only the hem of the garment of the triune God; the cherubim cover the rest with their wings.” In his letter to the Monks, written about 358, he confesses that the further he examines, the more the mystery eludes his understanding,14431443   Ep. ad Monachos (Opera tom. i. p. 343). and he exclaims with the Psalmist: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it.”14441444   Ps. cxxxix 6. Augustine says in one place: “If we be asked to define the Trinity, we can only say, it is not this or that.”14451445   Enarrat. in PS. xxvi. 8. John Damascenus (Expos. fidei) almost reaches the Socratic confession, when he says: All we can know concerning the divine nature is, that it cannot be conceived. Of course, such concessions are to be understood cum grano salis. But though we cannot explain the how or why of our faith, still the Christian may know, and should know, what he believes, and what he does not believe, and should be persuaded of the facts and truths which form the matter of his faith.

The essential points of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity are these:

1. There is only one divine essence or substance.14461446   Οὐσία, substantia, essentia, φύσις, natura, τὸ ὄν, τὸ ὑποκείμενον. Comp. Petavius, De Trinitate lib. iv. c. 1 (ed. Par. tom. ii. p. 311): “Christiani scriptores ... οὐσίανappellant non singularem individuamque, sed communem individuis substantiam.” The word ὑποκείμενον,however, is sometimes taken as equivalent to provswpon. Father, Son, and Spirit are one in essence, or consubstantial.14471447   Ὁμοούσιοι. On the import of this, comp. § 127, and in the text above. They are in one another, inseparable, and cannot be conceived without each other. In this point the Nicene doctrine is thoroughly monotheistic or monarchian, in distinction from tritheism, which is but a new form of the polytheism of the pagans.

The terms essence (οὐσία) and nature (φύσις), in the philosophical sense, denote not an individual, a personality, but the genus or species; not unum in numero, but ens unum in multis. All men are of the same substance, partake of the same human nature, though as persons and individuals they are very different.14481448   “We men,” says Athanasius, “consisting of body and soul are all μίας φύσεως καὶ οὐσίας , but many persons.” The term homoousion, in its strict grammatical sense, differs from monoousion or toutoousion, as well as from heteroousion, and signifies not numerical identity, but equality of essence or community of nature among several beings. It is clearly used thus in the Chalcedonian symbol, where it is said that Christ is “consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father as touching the Godhead, and consubstantial with us [and yet individually, distinct from us] as touching the manhood.” The Nicene Creed does not expressly assert the singleness or numerical unity of the divine essence (unless it be in the first article: “We believe in one God”); and the main point with the Nicene fathers was to urge against Arianism the strict divinity and essential equality of the Son and Holy Ghost with the Father. If we press the difference of homoousion from monoousion, and overlook the many passages in which they assert with equal emphasis the monarchia or numerical unity of the Godhead, we must charge them with tritheism.14491449   Cudworth (in his great work on the Intellectual System of the Universe, vol. ii p. 437 ff.) elaborately endeavors to show that Athanasius and the Nicene fathers actually taught three divine substances in the order of subordination. But he makes no account of the fact that the terminology and the distinction of οὐσία and ὑποστασιςwere at that time not yet clearly settled.

But in the divine Trinity consubstantiality denotes not only sameness of kind, but at the same time numerical unity; not merely the unum in specie, but also the unum in numero. The, three persons are related to the divine substance not as three individuals to their species, as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or Peter, John, and Paul, to human nature; they are only one God. The divine substance is absolutely indivisible by reason of its simplicity, and absolutely inextensible and untransferable by reason of its infinity; whereas a corporeal substance can be divided, and the human nature can be multiplied by generation. Three divine substances would limit and exclude each other, and therefore could not be infinite or absolute. The whole fulness of the one undivided essence of God, with all its attributes, is in all the persons of the Trinity, though in each in his own way: in the Father as original principle, in the Son by eternal generation, in the Spirit by, eternal procession. The church teaches not one divine essence and three persons, but one essence in three persons. Father, Son, and Spirit cannot be conceived as three separate individuals, but are in one another, and form a solidaric unity.14501450   Comp. the passages from Athanasius and other fathers cited at § 126. “The Persons of the Trinity,” says R. Hooker (Eccles. Polity, B. v. ch. 56, voL ii. p. 315 in Keble’s edition), quite in the spirit of the Nicene orthodoxy, “are not three particular substances to whom one general nature is common, but three that subsist by one substance which itself is particular: yet they all three have it and their several ways of having it are that which makes their personal distinction. The Father therefore is in the Son, and the Son in Him, they both in the Spirit and the Spirit in both them. So that the Father’s offspring, which is the Son, remaineth eternally in the Father; the Father eternally also in the Son, no way severed or divided by reason of the sole and single unity of their substance. The Son in the Father as light in that light out of which it floweth without separation; the Father in the Son as light in that light which it causeth and leaveth not. And because in this respect his eternal being is of the Father, which eternal being is his life, therefore he by the Father liveth.” In a similar strain, Cunningham says in his exposition of the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity (Hist. Theology, i. p. 285): “The unity of the divine nature as distinguished from the nature of a creature, might be only a specific and not a numerical unity, and this nature might be possessed by more than one divine being; but the Scriptures plainly ascribe a numerical unity to the Supreme Being, and, of course, preclude the idea that there are several different beings who are possessed of the one divine nature. This is virtually the same thing as teaching us that the one divine nature is possessed only by one essence or substance, from which the conclusion is clear, that if the Father be possessed of the divine nature, and if the Son, with a distinct personality, be also possessed of the divine nature, the Father and the Son must be of one and the same substance; or rather—for it can scarcely with propriety be called a conclusion or consequence—the doctrine of the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father is just an expression or embodiment of the one great truth, the different component parts of which are each established by scriptural authority, viz.: that the Father and the Son, having distinct personality in the unity of the Godhead, are both equally possessed of the divine, as distinguished from the created, nature. Before any creature existed, or had been produced by God out of nothing, the Son existed in the possession of the divine nature. If this be true, and if it be also true that God is in any sense one, then it is likewise true—for this is just according to the established meaning of words, the current mode of expressing it—that the Father and the Son are the same in substance as well as equal in power and glory.”

Many passages of the Nicene fathers have unquestionably a tritheistic sound, but are neutralized by others which by themselves may bear a Sabellian construction so that their position must be regarded as midway between these two extremes. Subsequently John Philoponus, an Aristotelian and Monophysite in Alexandria about the middle of the sixth century, was charged with tritheism, because he made no distinction between φύσιςand ὑπόστασις, and reckoned in the Trinity three natures, substances, and deities, according to the number of persons.14511451   On tritheism, and the doctrine of John Philoponus and John Ascusnages, which is known to us only in fragments, comp. especially Baur, Lehre von der Dreieinigkeit, etc., vol. ii. pp. 13-32. In the English Church the error of tritheism was revived by Dean Sherlockin his “Vindication of the Doctrine of the Holy and ever Blessed Trinity,” 1690. He maintained that, with the exception of a mutual consciousness of each other, which no created spirits can have, the three divine persons are “three distinct infinite minds” or “three intelligent beings.” He was opposed by South, Wallis, and others. See Patrick Fairbairn’s Appendix to the English translation of Dorner’s History of Christology, vol. iii. p. 354 ff. (Edinburgh, 1863).

2. In this one divine essence there are three persons14521452   Πρόσωπα, personae. This term occurs very often in the New Testament, now in the sense of person, now of face or countenance, again of form or external appearance. Etymologically (from πρός·and ἡ ὤψ , the eye, face), it means strictly face; then in general, front; also mask, visor, character (of a drama); and finally, person, in the grammatical sense. In like manner the Latin word persona (from sonus, sound) signifies the mask of the Roman actor, through which he made himself audible (personuit); then the actor himself; then any assumed or real character; and finally an individual a reasonable being. Sabellianism used the word in the sense of face or character; tritheism in the grammatical sense. Owing to this ambiguity of the word, the term hypostasis is to be preferred, though this too is somewhat inadequate. Comp. the Lexicons, and especially Petavius, De trinit., lib. iv. Dr. Shedd also prefers hypostasis, and observes, vol. i. p. 371: ” This term (persona), it is obvious to remark, though the more common one in English, and perhaps in Protestant trinitarianism generally, is not so well adapted to express the conception intended, as the Greek ὐπόστασις. It has a Sabellian leaning, because it does not with sufficient plainness indicate the subsistence in the Essence. The Father, Son, and Spirit are more than mere aspects or appearances of the Essence. The Latin persona was the mask worn by the actor in the play, and was representative of his particular character for the particular time. Now, although those who employed these terms undoubtedly gave them as full and solid a meaning as they could, and were undoubtedly true trinitarians, yet the representation of the eternal and necessary hypostatical distinctions in the Godhead, by terms derived from transitory scenical exhibitions, was not the best for purposes of science, even though the poverty of human language should justify their employment for popular and illustrative statements.” or, to use a better term, hypostases, 14531453   Ὑποστάσεις subsistentiae. Comp. Heb. i 3. (The other passages of the New Testament where the word is used, Heb. iii. 14; xi. 1; 2 Cor. ix. 4; xi. 17, do not belong here.) Ὑπόστασις, and the corresponding Latin sub-stantia, strictly foundation, then essence, substance, is originally pretty much synonymous with οὐσία, essentia, and is in fact as we have already said, frequently interchanged with it, even by Athanasius, and in the anathema at the close of the original Nicene Creed. But gradually (according to Petavius, after the council at Alexandria in 862) a distinction established itself in the church terminology, in which Gregory of Nyasa, particularly in his work: De differentia essentiae et hypostaseos (tom. iii. p. 32 sqq.) had an important influece. Comp. Petavius, l.c. p. 314 sqq. that is, three different modes of subsistence14541454   Τρόποι ὑπάρξεως, an expression, however, capable of a Sabellian sense. of the one same undivided and indivisible whole, which in the Scriptures are called the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.14551455   This question of the tri-personality of God must not be confounded with the modern question of the personality of God in general. The tri-personality was asserted by the Nicene fathers in opposition to abstract monarchianism and Sabellianism; the personality is asserted by Christian theism against pantheism, which makes a personal relation of the spirit of man to God impossible. Schleiermacher, who as a philosopher leaned decidedly to pantheism, admitted (in a note to his Reden über die Religion) that devotion and prayer always presume and require the personality of God. The philosophical objection, that personality necessarily includes limitation by other personalities, and so contradicts the notion of the absoluteness of God, is untenable; for we can as well conceive an absolute personality, as an absolute intelligence and an absolute will, to which, however, the power of self-limitation must be ascribed, not as a weakness, but as a perfection. The orthodox tri-personality does not conflict with this total personality, but gives it full organic life. These distinctions are not merely different attributes, powers, or activities of the Godhead, still less merely subjective aspects under which it presents itself to the human mind; but each person expresses the whole fulness of the divine being with all its attributes, and the three persons stand in a relation of mutual knowledge and love. The Father communicates his very life to the Son, and the Spirit is the bond of union and communion between the two. The Son speaks, and as the God-Man, even prays, to the Father, thus standing over against him as a first person towards a second; and calls the Holy Ghost “another Comforter” whom he will send from the Father, thus speaking of him as of a third person.14561456   John xiv. 16: Ἄλλον παράκλητον,comp. v. 26; c. xv. 26: Ὁ παράκλητος·, ὅν ἐγὼ πεμψω ὑμῖν παρὰ πατρός , —a clear distinction of Spirit, Son, and Father.

Here the orthodox doctrine forsook Sabellianism or modalism, which, it is true, made Father, Son, and Spirit strictly coordinate, but only as different denominations and forms of manifestation of the one God.

But, on the other hand, as we have already intimated, the term person must not be taken here in the sense current among men, as if the three persons were three different individuals, or three self-conscious and separately acting beings. The trinitarian idea of personality lies midway between that of a mere form of manifestation, or a personation, which would lead to Sabellianism, and the idea of an independent, limited human personality, which would result in tritheism. In other words, it avoids the monoousian or unitarian trinity of a threefold conception and aspect of one and the same being, and the triousian or tritheistic trinity of three distinct and separate beings.14571457   Comp. Petavius, l.c., who discusses very fully the trinitarian terminology of the Nicene fathers. Also J. H. Newman, The Arians, etc. p. 208: “The word person, which we venture to use in speaking of those three distinct manifestations of Himself, which it has pleased Almighty God to give us, is in its philosophical sense too wide for our meaning. Its essential signification, as applied to ourselves, is that of an individual intelligent agent, answering to the Greek ὑπόστασις, or reality. On the other hand, if we restrict it to its etymological sense of persona or πρόσωπον, i.e., character, it evidently means less than Scripture doctrine, which we wish to ascertain by it; denoting merely certain outward expressions of the Supreme Being relatively to ourselves, which are of an accidental and variable nature. The statements of Revelation then lie between this internal and external view of the Divine Essence, between Tritheism, and what is popularly called Unitarianism.” Dr. Shedd, History of Christian Doctrine, vol. i. p. 365: ” The doctrine of a subsistence in the substance of the Godhead brings to view a species of existence that is so anomalous and unique, that the human mind derives little or no aid from those analogies which assist it in all other cases. The hypostasis is a real subsistence,—a solid essential form of existence, and not a mere emanation, or energy, or manifestation,—but it is intermediate between substance and attributes. It is not identical with the substance, for there are not three substances. It is not identical with attributes, for the three Persons each and equally possess all the divine attributes .... Hence the human mind is called upon to grasp the notion of a species of existence that is totally sui generis, and not capable of illustration by any of the ordinary comparisons and analogies.” In each person there is the same inseparable divine substance, united with the individual property and relation which distinguishes that person from the others. The word person is in reality only a make-shift, in the absence of a more adequate term. Our idea of God is more true and deep than our terminology, and the essence and character of God far transcends our highest ideas.14581458   As Augustinesays, De trinitate, lib. vii. cap. 4 (§ 7, ed. Bened. Venet. tom. viii. foL 858): “Verius cogitatur Deus quam dicitur, et verius est quam cogitatur.”

The Nicene fathers and Augustine endeavored, as Tertullian and Dionysius of Alexandria had already done, to illustrate the Trinity by analogies from created existence. Their figures were sun, ray, and light; fountain, stream, and flow; root, stem, and fruit; the colors of the rainbow;14591459   Used by Basil and Gregory of Nyasa. soul, thought, and spirit;14601460   Ψυχὴ, ἐνθύμησις, πνεῦμα, in Gregory Nazianzen. memory, intelligence, and will;14611461   Augustine, De trinit. x. c. 11 (§ 18), tom. viii. fol. 898: “Haec tria, memoria, intelligentia, voluntas, quoniam non sunt tres vitae, sed una vita, nec tres mentes, sed una mens: consequenter utique non tres substantiae sunt, sed una substantia.” and the idea of love, which affords the best illustration, for God is love.14621462   Augustine, ib. viii. 8 (f. 875): “Immo vero vides trinitatem, si caritatem vides; ” ix. 2 (f. 879): “Tria sunt, amans, et quod amatur, et amor.” And in another place: “Tres sunt, amans, amatus, et mutuus amor.” Such figures are indeed confessedly insufficient as proofs, and, if pressed, might easily lead to utterly erroneous conceptions. For example: sun, ray, and light are not co-ordinate, but the two latter are merely qualities or emanations of the first. “Omne simile claudicat.”14631463   This was clearly felt and confessed by the fathers themselves, who used these illustrations merely as helps to their understanding. Joh. Damascenus (De fide orthod. l. i. c. 8; Opera, tom. i. p. 137) says: “It is impossible for any image to be found in created things, representing in itself the nature of the Holy Trinity without any point of dissimilitude. For can a thing created, and compound, and changeable, and circumscribed, and corruptible, clearly express the superessential divine essence, which is exempt from all these defects?” Comp. Mosheim’s notes to Cudworth, vol. ii. 422 f. (Lond. ed. of 1845). Analogies, however, here do the negative service of repelling the charge of unreasonableness from a doctrine which is in fact the highest reason, and which has been acknowledged in various forms by the greatest philosophers, from Plato to Schelling and Hegel, though often in an entirely unscriptural sense. A certain trinity undeniably runs through all created life, and is especially reflected in manifold ways in man, who is created after the image of God; in the relation of body, soul, and spirit; in the faculties of thought, feeling, and will; in the nature of self-consciousness;14641464   The trinity of self-consciousness consists in a process of becoming objective to one’s self, and knowing one’s self in this objectivity, according to the logical law of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, or in the unity of the subject thinking and the subject thought. This speculative argument has been developed by Leibnitz, Hegel, and other German philosophers, and is adopted also by Dr. Shedd, Hist. of Christian Doct. i. p. 366 ff., note. But this analogy properly leads at best only to a Sabellian tri-personality, not to the orthodox. and in the nature of love.14651465   The ethical induction of the Trinity from the idea of love was first attempted by Augustine, and has more recently been pursued by Sartorius, J. Müller, J. P. Lange, Martensen, Liebner, Schöberlein, and others. It is suggested by the moral essence of God, which is love, the relation of the Father to the Son, and the “fellowship” of the Holy Ghost, and it undoubtedly contains a deep element of truth; but, strictly taken, it yields only two different personalities and an impersonal relation, thus proving too much for the Father and the Son, and too little for the Holy Spirit. 3. Each divine person has his property, as it were a characteristic individuality, expressed by the Greek word ἰδιότης,14661466   Also ἴδιον.Gregory of Nyssa calls these characteristic distinctions γνωριστικαὶ ἰφιότητες,peculiar marks of recognition. The terms ἰδιότης , and ὑπόστασιςwere sometimes used synonymously. The word ἰδιότης, fem. (from ἴδιος), peculiarity, is of course not to be confounded with ἰδιώτης, masc., which likewise comes from ἴδιος, but means a private man, then layman, then an imbecile, idiot, and the Latin proprietas.14671467   Proprietas personalis; also character hypostaticus. This is not to be confounded with attribute; for the divine attributes, eternity, omnipresence, omnipotence, wisdom, holiness, love, etc., are inherent in the divine essence, and are the common possession of all the divine hypostases. The idiotes, on the contrary, is a peculiarity of the hypostasis, and therefore cannot be communicated or transferred from one to another.

To the first person fatherhood, or the being unbegotten, 14681468   Ἀγεννησία, paternitas. is ascribed as his property; to the second, sonship, or the being begotten;14691469   γεννησία, γέννησις, generatio filiatio. to the Holy Ghost, procession.14701470   Εκπόρευσις, procesio; also ἔκπεμψις, missio; both from John xv. 15 (πέμψωἐκπορεύεται) and similar passages, which relate, however, not to the eternal trinity of constitution, but to the historical trinity of manifestation. Gregory Nazianzen says: Ἴδιον πατρὸς μὲν ἡ ἀγεννησία, υἱοῦ δέ ἡ γέννησις , πνεύματος δὲ ἡ ἔκπεμψις . In other words: The Father is unbegotten, but begetting; the Son is uncreated, but begotten; the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father (and, according to the Latin doctrine, also from the Son). But these distinctions relate, as we have said, only to the hypostases, and have no force with respect to the divine essence which is the same in all, and neither begets nor is begotten, nor proceeds, nor is sent.

4. The divine persons are in one another, mutually interpenetrate, and form a perpetual intercommunication and motion within the divine essence; as the Lord says: “I am in the Father, and the Father in me;” and “the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works.”14711471   John xiv. 10: Ὁ δὲ πατήρ ὁ ἐν ἐμοὶ μένων, αὐτὸς ποιεῖ τὰ ἔργα; v.11: Ἐγω ἐν τῷ πατρὶ, καὶ ὁ πατήρ ἐν ἐμοί.This also refers, strictly, not to the eternal relation, but to the indwelling of the Father in the historical, incarnate Christ. This perfect indwelling and vital communion was afterwards designated (by John of Damascus and the scholastics) by such terms as ἐνύπαρξις, περιχώρησις,14721472   From περιχωρέω (with εἰς), to circulate, go about, progredi, ambulare. Comp. Petavius, De trinit., lib. iv. c. 16 (tom. ii. p. 453 sqq.), and De incarnatione, lib. iv. c. 14 (tom. iv. p. 473 sqq.). The thing itself is clearly taught even by the Nicene fathers, especially by Athanasius in his third Oration against the Arians, c. 3 sqq., and elsewhere, with reference to the relation of the Son to the Father, although he never, so far as I know, used the word περιχώρησις. Gregory Nazianzen uses the verb περιχωρεῖν(not the noun) of the vital interpenetration of the two natures in Christ. Gibbon, in his contemptuous account of the Nicene controversy (chapter xxi.) calls the περιχώρησιςor circumincessio ” the deepest and darkest corner of the whole theological abyss,” but takes no pains even to explain this idea. The old Protestant theologians defined the περιχώρησιςas “immanentia, h. e. inexistentia mutua et singularissima, intima et perfectissima inhabitatio unius personae in alia.” Comp. Joh. Gerhard, Loci theologici, tom. i. p. 197 (ed. Cotta). inexistentia, immanentia, inhabitatio, circulatio, permeatio, intercommunio, circumincessio.14731473   From incedo, denoting the perpetual internal motion of the Trinity, the circumfusio or mutua commeatio, et communicatio personarum inter se. Petavius (in the 2d and 4th vol. l. c.), Cudworth (Intellectual System of the Universe, vol. ii. p. 454, ed. of Harrison, Lond. 1845), and others use instead of this, circuminsessio, from sedeo, which rather expresses the repose of the persons in one another, the inexistentia or mutua existentia personarum. This would correspond to the Greek ἐνύπαρξιςrather than to περιχώρησις.

5. The Nicene doctrine already contains, in substance, a distinction between two trinities: an immanent trinity of constitution,14741474   Ad intra, τρόπος ὑπάρξεως . which existed from eternity, and an economic trinity of manifestation;14751475   Ad extra, τρόπος·ἀποκαλύψεως though this distinction did not receive formal expression till a much later period. For the generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit are, according to the doctrine, an eternal process. The perceptions and practical wants of the Christian mind start, strictly speaking, with the trinity of revelation in the threefold progressive work of the creation, the redemption, and the preservation of the world, but reason back thence to a trinity of being; for God has revealed himself as he is, and there can be no contradiction between his nature and his works. The eternal pre-existence of the Son and the Spirit is the background of the historical revelation by which they work our salvation. The Scriptures deal mainly with the trinity of revelation, and only hint at the trinity of essence, as in the prologue of the Gospel of John which asserts an eternal distinction between God and the Logos. The Nicene divines, however, agreeably to the metaphysical bent of the Greek mind, move somewhat too exclusively in the field of speculation and in the dark regions of the intrinsic and ante-mundane relations of the Godhead, and too little upon the practical ground of the facts of salvation.

6. The Nicene fathers still teach, like their predecessors, a certain subordinationism, which seems to conflict with the doctrine of consubstantiality. But we must distinguish between, a subordinatianism of essence (οὐσία) and a subordinatianism of hypostasis, of order and dignity.14761476   Ὑποταγὴ τάξεως καὶ ἀξιώματος. The former was denied, the latter affirmed. The essence of the Godhead being but one, and being absolutely perfect, can admit of no degrees. Father, Son, and Spirit all have the same divine essence, yet not in a co-ordinate way, but in an order of subordination. The Father has the essence originally and of himself, from no other; he is the primal divine subject, to whom alone absoluteness belongs, and he is therefore called preeminently God,14771477   Ὁ Θεός, and αὐτόθεος, in distinction from Θεός. Waterland (Works, vol. i. p. 315) remarks on this: ” The title of ὁ Θεός, being understood in the same sense with αὐτόθεος , was, as it ought to be, generally reserved to the Father, as the distinguishing personal character of the first Person of the Holy Trinity. And this amounts to no more than the acknowledgment of the Father’s prerogative, as Father. But as it might also signify any Person who is truly and essentially God, it might properly be applied to the Son too: and it is so applied sometimes, though not so often as it is to the Father.” or the principle, the fountain, and the root of Godhead.14781478   Ἡ πηγὴ, ἡ αἰτία, ἡ ῥίζα τῆς θεότητος: fons, origo, principium. The Son, on the contrary, has his essence by communication from the Father, therefore, in a secondary, derivative way. “The Father is greater than the Son.” The one is unbegotten, the other begotten; the Son is from the Father, but the Father is not from the Son; fatherhood is in the nature of the case primary, sonship secondary. The same subordination is still more applicable to the Holy Ghost. The Nicene fathers thought the idea of the divine unity best preserved by making the Father, notwithstanding the triad of persons, the monad from which Son and Spirit spring, and to which they return.

This subordination is most plainly expressed by Hilary of Poictiers, the champion of the Nicene doctrine in the West.14791479   De trinit. iii. 12: “Et quis non Patrem potiorem confitebitur, ut ingenitum a genito, ut Patrem a Filio, ut eum qui miserit ab eo qui missus sit, ut volentem ab eo qui obediat? Et ipse nobis erit testis: Pater major me est. Haec ita ut sunt intelligenda sunt, sed cavendum est, ne apud imperitos gloriam Filii honor Patris infirmet.” In the same way Hilaryderives all the attributes of the Son from the Father. Comp. also Hilary, De Synodis, seu de fide Orientalium, pp. 1178 and 1182 (Opera, ed. Bened.), and the third and eighteenth canons of the Sirmian council of 357. The familiar comparisons of fountain and stream, sun and light, which Athanasius, like Tertullian, so often uses, likewise lead to a dependence of the Son upon the Father14801480   Comp. the relevant passages from Athanasius, Basil, and the Gregories, in Bull, Defensio, sect. iv. (Pars ii. p. 688 sqq.). Even John of Damascus, with whom the productive period of the Greek theology closes, still teaches the same subordination, De orthod. fide, i. 10: Πάντα ὅσα ἔχει ὁ υἱὸς καὶ τὸ πνεῦμα, ἐκ τοῦ πατρὸς ἔχει, καὶ αὐτὸ τὸ εἶναι. Even the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan Creed favors it, in calling the Son God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God. For if a person has anything, or is anything, of another, he has not that, or is not that, of himself. Yet this expression may be more correctly understood, and is in fact sometimes used by the later Nicene fathers, as giving the Son and Spirit only their hypostases from the Father, while the essence of deity is common to all three persons, and is co-eternal in all.

Scriptural argument for this theory of subordination was found abundant in such passages as these: “As the Father hath life in himself (ἔχει ζωὴν ἐν ἑαυτῷ), so hath he given (ἔδωκε) to the Son to have life in himself; and hath given him authority to execute judgment also;”14811481   John v. 26, 27. “All things are delivered unto me (πάντα μοι παρεδόθη) of my Father;”14821482   Matt. xi. 27; Comp. xxviii. 18. “My father is greater than I.”14831483   John xiv. 28. Cudworth (I. c. ii. 422) agrees with several of the Nicene fathers in referring this passage to the divinity of Christ, for the reason that the superiority of the eternal God over mortal man was no news at all. Mosheim in a learned note to Cudworth in loco, protests against both interpretations, and correctly so. For Christ speaks here of his entire divine-human person, but in the state of humiliation. But these and similar passages refer to the historical relation of the Father to the incarnate Logos in his estate of humiliation, or to the elevation of human nature to participation in the glory and power of the divine,14841484   John xvii. 5; Pbil. ii. 9-11. not to the eternal metaphysical relation of the Father to the Son.

In this point, as in the doctrine of the Holy Ghost, the Nicene system yet needed further development. The logical consistency of the doctrine of the consubstantiality of the Son, upon which the Nicene fathers laid chief stress, must in time overcome this decaying remnant of the ante-Nicene subordinationism.14851485   All important scholars since Petavius admit the subordinatism in the Nicene doctrine of the trinity; e.g., Bull, who in the fourth (not third, as Gibbon says) section of his famous Defensio fidei Nic. (Works, vol. v. Pars ii. pp. 685-796) treats quite at large of the subordination of the Son to the Father, and in behalf of the identity of the Nicene and ante-Nicene doctrine proves that all the orthodox fathers, before and after the council of Nice, “uno ore docuerunt naturam perfectionesque divinas Patri Filioque competere non callateraliter aut coördinate, sed subordinate; hoc est, Filium eandem quidem naturam divinam cum Patre communem habere, sed a Patre communicatam; ita scilicet ut Pater solus naturam illam divinam a se habeat, sive a nullo alio, Filius autem a Patre; proinde Pater divinitatis, quae in Filio est, origo se principium sit,” etc. So Waterland, who, in his vindication of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity against Samuel Clarke, asserts such a supremacy of the Father as is consistent with the eternal and necessary existence, the consubstantiality, and the infinite perfection of the Son. Among modem historians Neander, Gieseler, Baur (Lehre von der Dreieinigkeit, etc. i. p. 468 ff.), and Dorner (Lehre von der Person Christi, i p. 929 ff.) arrive at the same result. But while Baur and Dorner (though from different points of view) recognize in this a defect of the Nicene doctrine, to be overcome by the subsequent development of the church dogma, the great Anglican divines, Cudworth (Intellectual System, vol. ii. p. 421 ff.), Pearson, Bull, Waterland (and among American divines Dr. Shedd) regard the Nicene subordinationism as the true, Scriptural, and final form of the trinitarian doctrine, and make no account of Augustine, who went beyond it. Kahnis (Der Kirchenglaube, ii. p. 66 ff.) thinks that the Scriptures go still further than the Nicene fathers in subordinating the Son and the Spirit to the Father.



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