the triumph of ontological realism and eternal generation
in the nicene creed
Jung S. Rhee
The Hellenistic philosophical distortion of the Christian God in the early church could no longer be tolerated, for it threatened the very fundamentals of the Christian Gospel.1 The Church was universally alerted, and in 324 A.D. the Roman Emperor Constantine called for a universal church council, which was destined to courageously declare that the philosophical god of Hellenism is incompatible with the biblical God of Christianity and therefore all philosophical attempts to paganize the Christian God are heretical.
In The Way To Nicea, Bernard Lonergan pointed out the inevitability of this final battle, for Christianity with a Jewish cultural background now became the official religion of the whole Roman Empire which cannot be separated from Graeco-Roman culture.2 To soften this cultural conflict, many Christian philosophers tried to explain Christianity in Greek terms or categories. However, they introduced more complications, confusions and distortions rather than producing any ideal solution or mutual satisfaction. For the survival of genuine Christianity, the Church of the fourth century needed "a kind of breakthrough."3 It came by "an uncompromising condemnation of Arianism."4
Arius and his radical followers represent the extreme philosophical alternative to Christianity. They were obsessed by the rationalism of Greek philosophy and preached the pagan idol of the Logos. By their catch phrase that "there was a time when the Son was not," they rejected the eternity and divinity of the Son. By separating the Son from the ontological category of God, they degraded the Son into a creature, though a perfect one. Doubtless, it was the fundamental threat to the Gospel of Christ. Their demonic plot was detected by Alexander and his faithful successor Athanasius who persuasively and persistently argued that toleration of Arianism was an invitation to deny Christian salvation because a creature cannot save fellow creatures.5
Already, the Church condemned Arius in 321 at the Synod of Alexandria, but Arianism was too strong and universal to be controled by a local decision. So, an ecumenical council of the universal Church was called to secure the universal condemnation of Arianism. As a matter of fact, the Nicene Council is the first universal council in history,6 and the Nicene Creed is the only universally confessed creed.7 Therefore, its significance and power is extraordinary. In the Nicene Creed, the universal Church confessed the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son by affirming the eternity of the Son and His consubstantial divinity due to His being begotten of the Father.
In the last century, Charles Hodge insisted that the Nicene Creed does not confess the eternal generation of the Son, though the Nicene fathers held that doctrine.8 Today, no one holds Hodge's thesis. It is nonsense that the Nicene Creed rejected what the Nicene fathers generally agreed. Moreover, in the analysis of the text and background of the Nicene Creed, contemporary scholars unanimously found that the doctrine of the eternal generation is not merely present but central to the Nicene Creed, though which type of eternal generation doctrine was accepted, Irenaeus or Origen, is controversial.
The doctrine of eternal generation, which is composed of two concepts, i.e., the eternity of the Son and His full divinity due to His real generation by the Father as distinguished from an act of creation, is distinctly and exceptionally Christian, and therefore, it was inconceivable and unacceptable to the rationalistic mind of Greek philosophy without a considerable modification or distortion. So, they assumed that the eternal Son would be the same as their own approximate equivalent of the cosmogonic Logos or the Demiurge.
However, it was a deadly assumption. In
Greek ontology, there are three categories of beings, i.e., the
absolutely transcental God, the cosmos, and a middle Being--Logos
or Demiurge--which was dialectically invented to fill the gap
between two incompatible beings. On the other hand, biblical
ontology recognizes only two categories of beings, i.e., the
Creator and creatures. This categorical difference in ontology
and the biblical occurance of the Christological titles like
Logos or Wisdom gave the opportunity and excuse for the rise of
the Hellenistic Logos Christology. But in the extremely
Hellenistic systematic theology of Origen, the church began to
recognize how serious the problem was. As we have seen, Origen
included many pagan doctrines in his system of Christian belief,
i.e., three category ontology, eternity of the world,
pre-existence of souls, ceaseless creation, and the like. This
Hellenistic Logos Christology made its home in Alexandria with
the tradition of Philo. Philo(c. 20 B.C.-A.D. 50) is the father
of the allegorical interpretation of Scripture as well as the
pioneer who connected the Greek Logos doctrine with the
Wisdom-Logos idea of Judeo-Christian theology. Philo's influence
on Origen is immense in both aspects. Now, Origen's influence was
dominant in the East, especially in Alexandria where the Arian
Hermeneutics and Greek Ontology
Arius was a devoted follower of Origen, and so was Eusebius of Ceasarea.10 Therefore, Hugh M. Scott definitely concluded, in the 1896 Stone Lecture, that "Out of the school of Origen, helped by critical tendencies from the school of Antioch, arose Arianism, in conflict with which the Nicene theology took shape."11 So, Arius and his followers adopted an allegorical interpretation and the three category ontology as their theological principles. As Lonergan correctly pointed out, the Philo- Origenic hermeneutical "movement away from a literal to an allegorical interpretation of scripture....could hardly fail to have some effects on the manner of conceiving God."12 Their conception of God was transcendental, abstract, metaphorical, allegorical, and philosophical. They used the biblical and traditional terms but with metaphorical and allegorical meanings. They called Jesus the Son of God, but in the adoptionist sense. They said generation, but without making a real distinction from creation. This disguised heresy had to pass "the crucial test of trinitarian orthodoxy and heterodoxy."13
Therefore, the Nicene Council was a call to test whether one could confess Jesus as the Son of God literally, metaphysically, definitely and ontologically, rather than metaphorically, adoptively, descriptively, or philosophically.14 Because Arians could not do that, they were condemned and excommunicated. From then on, the Church has continued to use this standard for the purity of the Christian faith. It was revolutionary but not new. It was the revival of and emphasis on the biblical faith. John Courtney Murray called it "the realism of the word of God," and correctly pointed out that this "realist epistemology and ontology" is biblical and patristic.15 This Nicene transition "from a mode of understanding that is descriptive, relational, interpersonal, historical-existential, to a mode of understanding that is definitive, explanatory, absolute, ontological"16 is very significant in the history of Christianity. The courageous departure from an empty philosophical religion established an "ontological mentality" within the Church. The rise of natural theology in the Middle Ages attempted its reversal, though it was recovered by the Reformation. However, with the rise of modern Liberalism, our contemporary Church again struggles to maintain the Nicene standard of orthodoxy.
Now, what to ask and what to confess was
clear. The Nicene fathers asked the Arians for a clear answer to
the simple question: "Is the Son Creator or creature?"
All the ambiguous responses to avoid its clear answer were simply
regarded to mean that the Son was a creature, not Creator,17
for Nicene ontological realism with biblical ontology could not
conceive of a middle Being or tertium quid which has no
biblical ground.18 So, Athanasius urged the Arians to
be honest and frank in what they believe;
What is the use of this disingenuous talk, saying that he is "a creature and not a creature"?....Let the Word be excepted from the works, and be restored to the Father as being the Creator....or, if he is merely a creature, let him be acknowledged to have the same status as the other creatures.19
It is regrettable, however, that.the Arians could not answer clearly, for they were enslaved to the Greek ontology and Logos doctrine.
In contrast, the Nicene fathers clearly
confessed that the Son is Creator and God in the fullest sense.
This was a clear rejection of the Origenistic doctrine of God,
for the Nicene fathers invalidated the third category of being
which Origen introduced into Christian theology together with the
Greek ontology of three eternal categories of being. Horeover,
the Nicene confession that the Son is "God of God, Light of
Light, true God of true God", is the emphatic negation of
what Origen said about the Son. For the Origen-Arian system
insisted that the Son is a god by participation or a secondary
god, and not "the God(ho theos)" or "true
God(alethinos theos)". Thus, the Nicene Creed
emphatically confessed the Son as "God of God(theon ek
theou)" and "true God of true God(theon
alethinon ek theou alethinou)". At best, Origen
recognized the Son as the radiance of God the Light, but the
Nicene Creed condemned such a shadowy degradation and confessed
that the Son is the Light itself, not a mere radiance.
The Nicene Consubstantialism
Subordinationism and Adoptionism
Furthermore, the Nicene confession of the Son as true God signifies the end of Subordinationism and Adoptionism which had been cooperatively working with the Hellenistic Logos Christology. The subordinationist tendencies, which originated from the Hellenistic theologies of Tertullian and Origen, were uncompromisingly rejected by the Nicene Creed.20 It was done by the use of the term "consubstantial(homoousios)". The history of the word is ironical, because it is the very term which Sabellius and Paul of Samosata had used and were condemned partly because of this "distinctly heretical term."21 However, when it was employed to confess that the Son was consubstantial with the Father in an ontological sense, "In respect of its Christian meaning, the homoousion was a new coinage, a sort of Melchisedech among words, without father, without mother, without geneology....whether Gnostic, Platonist, or Stoic."22 Therefore, it is surprising that some scholars are so critical of it. In his doctoral dissertation, Ralph E. Person harshly criticized the term "homoousios" as "a compromising formula."23 Raising a question, "why did the council not say "miaousia"[instead of "homoousios"] if that is what it meant?",24 he suspiciously argued that the Nicene fathers intentionally compromised, with the use of the ambiguous term "homoousios", between two contradictory doctrines of one ousia and three ousiai.25 However, it is a groundless charge, because "homoousios" strongly presupposes the ontological distinctions of three persons in the Trinity, in addition to the simple meaning of "mia ousia," without any weakening implication. Moreover, the issue of the Nicene Council was a sharp distinction between "homoousios" and "homoiousios." The criticism that the use of its key-word "homoousios" was intended "to secure the widest possible measure of agreement"26 regardless of its arbitrary reading is true only in retrospect. There is no evidence for the contention that it was intented to be ambiguous, though some unexpected developments were made after Nicea. The Nicene fathers, on the contrary, tried to confess in the strongest and clearest terms possible. As J. N. D. Kelly concluded after an extensive examination, "The only reasonable inference is that in selecting it for insertion in their creed they intended it to underline, formally and explicitly at any rate, their conviction that the Son was fully God, in the sense of sharing the same divine nature as His Father."27 With the rejection of the Arian alternative term "homoiousios" as well as Origenistic doctrine of three ousiai, the Nicene fathers condemned every kind of subordinationism which degrades the Son to a secondary or inferior god.
On the other hand, the Adoptionist
Christology championed by Paul of Samosata, the condemned Bishop
of Antioch, was closely working with Arianism. It is a general
consensus of historical studies that Arianism arose out of the
influence of two heretical schools, i.e., the Schools of Origen
in Alexandria and Paul of Samosata in Antioch. The Adoptionist
overtones of Arianism came from the Antiochean School. According
to Harnack, "This school is the nursery of the Arian
doctrine, and Lucian, its head, is the Arius before Arius."28
Lucian, a devoted student of the condemned Paul of Samosata,
founded "an exegetical-theological school" in Antioch,
against the church's decision,29 and promoted
adoptionism with its gradual mixture with the Logos doctrine.30
The connection between Arianism and adoptionism is clear,31
when we read a letter of Alexander as follows;
....the teaching, which has just, now risen up against the church's piety, is of Ebion and Artemas and is an emulation of Paul of Samosata's teaching at Antioch. He was excommunicated from the church by a synod and judgment of all the bishops. Lucian, who succeeded him, remained excommunicated from three bishops during many years. Now among us have grown up those "from nothing" who drained the dregs of the impiety of Ebion, Artemas, and Paul: their hidden offsets, I mean Arius, Achillas, and the assembly of rogues with them.32
Therefore, it is not strange that Arius
openly spoke the adoption of the created Logos as the Son in the
divine foreknowledge of his virtue.33 The Nicene
Council condemned this impiety of Adoptionism and reproachfully
adopted Canon XIX that all the Paulianists "must by all
means be rebaptised." The idea of "sonship by
adoption" was definitely rejected in Nicea.
"Begotten of the Father"(GENNETHENTA EK TOU PATROS):
The Nicene Confession
in the Metaphysical Generation
How is Christ, then, the Son of God? With the condemnatory rejection of the Arian allegorical and metaphorical understanding of the kerygmatic biblical identification of Christ as "the only begotten Son," the Nicene fathers emphatically confessed that Christ is literally and metaphysically "the only Son" and "the begotten Son." Without doubt, it was an uncompromising condemnation of those who teach that Christ is one of the adopted sons of God, whether their representative or first one, and that his sonship is not real as the sonship by begottenness but a philosophical or mythological "courtesy title."
In this context, it is very significant that the Nicene fathers decided not to use the term "Logos" for Christ any longer,34 even though they were still accustomed to the Logos Christology.35 Instead, they began to use the trinitarian title "the Son" again as the early church did. Here, in the Nicene Council, "the old Logos doctrine is discarded."36 It was the official declaration of the universal church that the approach of Logos Christology which had been attempted for the last two centuries to contextualize the Christian gospel into the Hellenistic culture was proven to be unsuccessful, dangerous, and even harmful. It threatened the very fundamentals of the Christian gospel, and therefore it was no longer acceptable to the Church. In fact, the Hellenistic Logos doctrine did nothing but harm to Christianity.
Being a philosophical slave of the Hellenistic Logos doctrine, Arius could understand the biblical identification of Christ as "the only begotten Son" to mean "that the Son is called the Only-Begotten because he was brought into existence by God alone, while all other things were created by God through the Son."37 Therefore, Arius denied the essential difference between creation and generation.38 To the Arians, He is the Son only in the metaphorical sense, i.e., "son by grace" as contrasted with "son by nature."39 Accordingly, the Son has the attributes of a creature--mutable, temporal, dependent, and limited, with "the ultimate mark of creaturehood," i.e., "creatio ex nihilo."40 It was a clear denial of the Son's generation in its real sense.41
In contrast with the Arian blaspheny of the Son as "creatio ex nihilo," the Nicene Creed confessed the Son as "begotten of the Father"(gennethenta ek tou patros). As Charles A. Briggs commented, "Begotten is emphasized by of the Father, as being a real birth out of the Father, as truly from His substance as a man is begotten from the substance of his father and so over against any merely figurative senses of sonship."42 The Nicene fathers respectively believed that our Lord's choice of terms "Father" and "Son" out of the human definitions of realities and relationships is the best choice possible to communicate Their relationships. Therefore, we have no better way or term to explain the intertrinitarian relationship between the First and Second Person of the Trinity.43
Some contended that the Nicene fathers rejected the analogy of the human father-son relationship to the divine Father-Sonship.44 But, it is not correct to insist exclusively one way or the other, because human and divine sonships are not similar in all respects nor in no respect, but in some respects. And, that is what the word "analogy" exactly means, i.e., "similarity in some respects between things otherwise unlike." Therefore, the rejection of analogousness means to insist that there is no similarity between the two and thus to make our Lord's choice of the term "Son" foolish and meaningless. When we recall that the Nicene fathers understood the biblical terms in the real and metaphysical sense over and against the purely metaphorical Arian interpretation, it is not reasonable to insist that they rejected metaphysical analogy. Rather, they confessed His sonship by a real birth and real generation.45
On the other hand, they emphasized several respects in which they are not similar, because Arians indiscriminately attributed all the characteristics of human filial relationship to the Son. Thus, Athanasius pointed out that "if God is not as man(for he is not), it is not necessary to attribute to him [all] the characteristics of man."46 The Son is "a peculiar offspring"47 with some incommunicable attributes. The divine Father-Sonship is eternal and absolute, in contrast with the human father-sonship.48 As Athanasius correctly pointed out, "it is clear that God begets not as men beget but as God begets. God does not copy man. Rather, we men....have been named fathers of our own children" due to the relative similarities with the absolute Fatherhood of God.49 So, they tried to correct the order of analogy rather than denying their analogousness. The right direction of analogy is to apply the divine Father-Sonship to the similar relationship in the human or creaturely realm, and not the reverse, because there already existed the divine Father and Son before the creation of human beings and nature.
When Arius, who did not really believe in the generation of the Son, raised an objection to the eternity of the Son in reference to the creaturely principle that a son is preceded by his father, Athanasius refuted him by asking whether he could explain how a father without his father is possible in his thinking.50 During the last century, Charles Hodge imitated the reasoning of Arius when he argued against the doctrine of eternal generation. Because traducianism is not accepted in the Church, he argued, the Father cannot beget the Son because both of them are by nature spirits.51 Such an indiscriminate and negative use of the analogy has occured throughout church history, but only one who believes in the real generation of the Son is consistent and qualified to use this analogy, because one may not ground his argument upon what he does not believe.
However, belief in the real generation
of the Son was not acceptable without a satisfactory explanation
showing that the real generation and etenity of the Son are not
contradictory as the Arians argued. If the Father really begot
the Son in the metaphysical sense, Arius argued, the Father must
exist prior to the Son and therefore the Son is not as eternal as
the Father is, It seems logically inevitable, but the Nicene
fathers found that this Arian argument was based on the
assumption that the Son is not God who transcends such a temporal
principle. So, they emphasized that the Son was really generated,
but "of the Father"(ek tou patros). That is, the
generation of the Son is inseparable from the being of the Father
who is eternal God. Generation happened within the being of God,
as it is called opera Dei ad intra in contrast with opera
Dei ad extra. As John C. Murray correctly explained, "He
is begotten within the divine order and he remains with it; His
being is untouched by createdness."52 The Nicene
Creed clearly states this distinction in the confession that the
Son was "begotten, not made"(gennethenta, ou
poiethenta). To be the Father or the Son belongs to the
personhood, while both Father and Son have the divine nature, of
which one attribute is eternity. Even Charles Hodge was clear in
this distinction of person and nature. So, he correctly pointed
out that, even though "If Christ is Son...it is said He is
not self-existent and independent," "self- existence,
independence, etc., are attributes of the divine essense, and not
of one person in dictinction from the others."53
Simply, whose son one is does not decide what
nature he has. Rather, "what's son" decides his
nature. For example, to be a son of a human being makes him have
the human nature, while to be a son of a monkey decides his
nature to be that of monkey. Likewise, by the very fact that the
Son is of God the Father, He has the divine nature. Also, as
being a son does not make him to have a partial or lesser nature
than his father, the Son has not a partial divine nature. He has
the full and same divine nature exactly as the Father has.
Therefore, the Son is also self-existent, immutable,
omni-potent,....and eternal. The Nicene fathers clearly
recognized this distinction of person and nature which is the key
to solve the problem of incompatibility between the concept of
generation and that of eternity. So, Alexander suggested that
"no one should take the 'always' as a reference to the
supposition that he is unbegotten--as those who are blinded in
the faculties of their minds think--for 'he was' or 'always' or
'before the ages' are not the same thing as unbegotten."54
"Before All Worlds(PRO PANTON TON AIONON):
The Nicene Rejection
of Ceaseless Generation
There still remains a question to answer
for the doctrine of the eternal generation. If they believed in
the real generation, when did it happen? It is a question
only for those who believe in the real generation, because a
metaphorical generation does not need to point a specific moment
of generation. To this question of "when," the early
churches had answered "before the creation of the
world" though the opinions on "how much before"
were varied. Now, such an ambiguous answer was deepening the
problem, because even the Arians believed so. Arius agreed that
the Son "was created by the will of God before time and
ages"55 and "through whom he made the
ages and everything."56 However, he argued that
"the Son....was not before he was begotten."57
The Nicene fathers could see the reason why the Arians could not
escape from the slavery of this superfluous "time-loving
opposition."58 To the Arian motto that
"there was a time when he [the Son] was not," Alexander
pointed out its logical self-contradiction as follows;
The expression "he was not" is necessarily in reference either to time or to some interval of the age. [But if] it is true that all things came into existence through him, it is clear that every age, time, interval and "when," in which the expression "he was not" is found, came into existence through him....[Therefore] it is incomprehensible and totally ignorant to state that the cause of anything having come into existence is itself later than its generation[i.e., time].59
To Alexander, any application of "time language" to the Son, who transcends time as the Creator of time, was plainly nonsense.60
Therefore, Athanasius called the Arian
motto logically an "empty phrase."61 And,
when the Arians omitted the term "time" to avoid direct
criticism, he reproached: "Why, intimating time, do you not
say clearly, 'There was a time when the Word was not?' You omit
the term 'time' to deceive the guileless, but you do not hide
your own thought."62 While the Arians insisted
that the descriptions "before the ages" and
"eternal" are different, the Nicene fathers did not
agree with them. So, Athanasius insisted as follows:
[When] The holy writers say, "He who is before the ages" and "Through whom he made the ages"[Heb. 1:2], they proclaim nothing less than the everlasting and eternal nature of the Son, while they signify that he is God.63
And, he suggested the "I am"(ego eimi) passages in the Fourth Gospel as the evidence that the Son did not "become" God in some moment of time but He "is" God always. "In the expression 'I am'," he argued, "is indicated that the Son is everlasting and without beginning before every age."64
However, it was Gregory of Naziannzus who made a more satisfactory explanation to his contemporary intellectuals. For the sake of logical order, he first agreed that the begotten Son has a beginning. It seems inevitable and necessary for the belief in the real generation of the Son. Previously, Methodius of Olympus(c. d. 311) argued that Christ was begotten before all time but "after the beginningless beginning of God." This was in opposition to the teaching of Origen that the Logos is simply eternal together with God and the world.65 Now, Gregory follows the same steps of reasoning. First, the Son has a beginning in the Father: Even though "the thing without a beginning is also eternal," "the eternal thing is not by all means without a beginning, as long as for its beginning it is referred to the Father; Therefore, in reference to the cause, they are not without beginning."66 Second, the Father has no beginning, because He is the causa sui. Therefore, He is beyond "when", "how", and "why". Third, because the Son and the Holy Spirit are inseparably connected with the Being of the Father, "this is the case with the Son and the Holy Spirit."67 The triune God altogether transcends "when", "for the sources of time are not under time."68 Logically, it is implausible to insist both that the Son created time and that the Son began to exist in time. So, he reproached their lack of common sense: "Is time in time, or is it not in time? If, therefore, it is in time, in what time? And what is it besides time? And how is it superior? But if it is not in time, what is the uncommon wisdom that introduces timelessness into time?"69 This strong emphasis on the distinction between time and eternity clearly reflects the Nicene conception of time and eternity. They simply believed that eternity is the Alpha and Omega of time, that is, the pre-temporality annd post-temporality rather than ceaselessness. In this case, the pre-temporal framework was regarded as the same as the framework of eternity.70 Therefore, in the theology of the Nicene Creed, we witness a beautiful harmony of the belief in the eternal generation of the Son in the first three centuries, whether they believed that the Son was begotten "before the creation of the world," "before all worlds," or "before time," because all those descriptions were supposed to express the same belief that the Son was begotten in the eternity of pre-temporality.
In the Nicene understanding that "before all ages" is identical with "in eternity," we can clearly confirm the fact that they did not adopt the Origenistic alternative, the so-called "ceaseless generation." Rather, they followed the patristic belief of "eternal generation" that the Son was begotten eternally before. Nevertheless, it is extremely disappointing to observe that many scholars simply failed to distinguish "eternal generation" from "ceaseless generation" in discussing whether the Nicene fathers believed in the eternal generation of the Son. All of them agree that they did, but many of them carelessly state that they believed in the ceaseless generation.71 This, however, is a mistake. Those who make this mistake seems to assume that the doctrine of the eternal generation originates from Origen and therefore to believe in the doctrine is to follow Origenic conception. But, this is too naive and simple.
In the history of the dogma, there are
two types of the "eternal" generation doctrine. The
traditional type is the pre-temporal generation as
championed by Irenaeus.72 The other alternative type,
which was formulated by the heavy influence of the Greek ontology
and Logos doctrine, is Origenic idea of ceaseless
generation. As we have shown above, the Nicene fathers clearly
rejected Origen's doctrine of the Trinity in the formulation of
the Nicene Creed because most of the Arian fallacies in Trinity
doctrine came from the school of Origen. Therefore, it is not
reasonable that the Nicene Council rejected all the views of
Origen except his Neo-Platonic idea of ceaseless generation,
since it is inseparable with the rest of his theology. The
distinction between the two types of eternal generation doctrine
is crucial for understanding the Nicene Creed as well as the
historic Christian confessions of the Church. William G. T. Shedd
rightly emphasizes the importance of this distinction:
But we shall find the difference to be a marked one, between the Athanasian and the Origenic definition of "eternal generation;" and it is a difference of the utmost importance in the history of the doctrine of the Trinity.73
The Athanasian definition of "eternal generation" was not the ceaseless generation of Origen, but the pre-temporal generation of Irenaeus. As Harnack clearly pointed out, "Athanasius was no follower of Origen; he was more akin to Irenaeus."74
It becomes clear when we carefully read the writings of the Nicene Fathers as well as the text of the Nicene Creed. As we have seen, all that the Nicene fathers agreed on for the meaning of "eternal" generation was that "before all ages" is "eternal." They never argued for the neo-Platonic idea of ceaseless generation. On the other hand, the Nicene Creed adopted in 325 A.D. does not include the phrase "before all worlds," but it was added in the Council of Constantinople(381) where all the Arian controversies were settled. Thus, all the Christian Churches, including the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Protestant, receive the latter one, which includes the phrase "before all worlds," as the Received Text. Why the Nicene Council omitted this phrase that the Constantinopolitan Council added it later has been explained too easily without giving it due significance and implications. It is generally agreed that they omitted this phrase because of the danger that the Arians might play it for their justification.75 But, the reason why it was added later even though there were still some possibilities to be misused by the heretics is easily ignored. In some sense, the omission of the phrase in the original Nicene Creed is hard to explain, because the Nicene Creed is based on the existing Eastern local creeds which unanimously included the phrase.76 Therefore, it must be suggested, after the Nicene Council, that the phrase had to be included in spite of some possibilities to be misused in order to avoid the far more serious misinterpretation of the Nicene Creed as rejecting the traditional belief in the pre-temporal generation of the Son. It is not certain that the omission of the phrase had been used to promote the Origenistic idea of ceaseless generation. However, we may not deny such a possibility. Whatever the reason may be, to add a phrase to a creed which had been intentionally omitted in the original would not have been an easy task had there not been unanimity on the necessity of its addition. The First Ecumenical Creed could not be perfect with the omission of the patristic and universal belief in the pre-temporal generation of the Son. Thus they made the addition, apparently for these reasons, and the ecumenical Church accepted this addition as valid and necessary.
Therefore, the phrase "before all worlds"(pro panton ton aionon) should be significantly and emphatically confessed. It is unquestionable that each word of a creed or confession is selected with the utmost care in order to clearly express what is believed, in distinction from all other types of belief. This is even more true of the Nicene Creed because it was "an emergency Creed"77 written to reject Arian as well as all heretical trinitarian teachings in the clearest way. Also, the text of the Nicene Creed has to be interpreted in the Nicene spirit of ontological realism. Therefore, it is irresponsible to ignore any word of the Creed. However, many theologians have unfortunately ignored one of the most important words in the Creed, that is, "before"(pro) and thereby misrepresented the Nicene theology, apparently to protect their own heretical belief in ceaseless generation. The Nicene confession of the "pro" generation of the Son is the confirmation of the "pre-temporal" generation as well as the rejection of the "ceaseless" generation. The Church reaffirmed this "pro" generation again and again. The Symbol of Chalcedon confessed the "pro aionon" generation of the Son, and the Athanasian Creed also confessed His begottenness "ante secula." If the doctrine of ceaseless generation has been continuously promoted, it was certainly not done by the Church, but by some philosophical theologians who did not believe what the Church had repeatedly confessed.
However, it has never been a problem for the Church to confess both "pro" and "eternal," because "pro" was the Church's realistic conception of "eternal" in the generation of the Son. It is the same with the Athanasian Creed. The Father was not begotten, but the Son was begotten of the Father before the worlds(21-22, 31), but this did not contradict the confession that "the whole three persons are co-eternal."(26) On the other hand, the confession of the Church that the Son was begotten "before all the worlds" (pro panton ton aionon) was the Church's clear rejection of a heretical idea that generation is incarnation. Marcellus of Ancyra(d. c. 374), though he was once a champion of Nicene theology, slipped back to the old Greek two stage theory and insisted that the impersonal Logos became the Son by incarnation. To him, the term "generation" was identical with "incarnation."78 This heretical idea was condemned in the First Council of Constantinople in 381 A. D.(Canon I). It was again condemned in the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 A. D.(Canon II). Whoever denies "two nativities," that is, generation and incarnation was condemned there. However, it is regrettable that in our days this Marcellian heresy which attributes the Sonship of Christ and His "begottenness" only to the event of incarnation is gaining unbelievable popularity.
Finally, it is significant to consider a
fact that between Nicea and Calvin is Augustine and medieval
scholasticism. For the confusion in the concept of eternity in
this period and also modern times, Augustine is most responsible,
because his notion of eternity that "in the eternity nothing
can pass away, but the whole is present" (Confessions,
XI. 13) became a dominant understanding in the Christian
theology. However, it is Neo-Platonic rather than biblical and
Christian.79 Oscar Cullmann's refutation of this
Platonic conception of eternity is admirable:
For Plato, eternity is not endlessly extended time, but something quite different; it is timelessness....How much the thinking of our days roots in Hellenism, and how little in Biblical Christianity, becomes clear to us when we confirm the fact that far and wide the Christian Church and Christian theology distinguish time and eternity in the Platonic-Greek manner. This then has important consequences....
To Primitive Christianity, as to Judaism, the Greek manner of distinguishing between time and eternity is quite foreign. The reason is that here the relation between time and eternity is never the object of a speculation....Primitive Christianity knows nothing of timelessness....
If we wish to grasp the Primitive Christian idea of eternity, we must strive above all to think in as unphilosophical a manner as possible.80
Most of all, Augustine applied this
concept of eternity to the doctrine of the Son's eternal
generation,81 and reinterpreted pre-temporality to
a-temporality (Confessions, XI. 15-16). It is very natural
that his Platonic conception of eternity fits very well to his
Platonic psychological trinitarianism. In modern evangelicalism,
the latter is generally rejected but the former is still kept. It
is inconsistent. But, when Calvin rebuked that "it is
foolish to imagine a continuous act of begetting",
the long dominion of Augustinian understanding of eternal
generation began to collapse.
1 Richardson, Creeds in the Making, pp. 49-50. "A serious danger threatened the fourth-century Church...she was threatened with the loss of her specifically Christian conception of God...This was the temptation which the Church rejected when she finally expelled the Arians from her midst. For Arianism represents just such an attempt to paganise the Church's idea of God."
2 Bernard Lonergan, The Way To Nicea: The Dialectical Development of Trinitarian Theology, tr. Conn O'Donovan (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1976), p. 110.
3 Ibid., p. 134.
4 Richardson, Creeds in the Making, p. 50.
5 John Burnaby, The Belief of Christendom: A Commentary on the Nicene Creed (London: SPCK, 1959), pp. 74-75. "This was the central argument of Athanasius. To be united to a creature cannot give union with God."; Berkhof, The History of Christian Doctrines, p. 85.
6 Cf. J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, 2nd ed., (New York: David Mckay Co., Inc., 1960), p. 205. "Prior to the beginning of the fourth century all creeds and summaries of faith were local in character."
7 The Apostles' Creed does not belong to this category, for it was not made by an official church council. But as for the church-written confessions, the Nicene Creed is the only one which is accepted by the East, West, and Protestant altogether. This all-embracing power is significantly recognized and depended upon especially in the modern ecumenical movement. cf. Emilianos Timiadis, The Nicene Creed: Our Common Faith (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), p. 15. "Certainly the confession of our faith in the Nicene Creed entails valuable doctrinal implications that meet the needs of all times and places. A rereading of this Creed will reveal its present-day relevance and permanent immutability, even though it is sixteen hundred years old."
8 Hodge, Systematic Theology, 1: 462-477.
9 Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, p. 224.
10 Colm Luibheid, The Council of Nicaea (Galway: Galway University Press, 1982), p. 52. Concerning Eusebius, he explains that "Born sometimes before 264, he was appointed as a presbyter in Caesarea and came there under the influence of Pamphilus, a disciple of Origen."
11 Hugh M. Scott, Origin and Development of the Nicene Theology (Chicago: Chicago Theological Seminary Press, 1896), p. 78.
12 Lonergan, The Way To Nicea, pp. 118-119; Berkhof, The History of Christian Doctrines, p. 71. "Yet his theology bore the earmarks of neo-Platonism, and his allegorical interpretation opened the way for all kinds of speculation and arbitrary interpretation."
13 Shedd, A History of Christian Doctrine, 1: 315.
14 Ibid., 1: 315, 329; Fortman, The Triune God, pp. 66-67. "They stressed...that His was not a metaphorical or adoptive sonship but a real, metaphysical sonship."; cf. Frances M. Young, From Nicaea To Chalcedon: A Guide to the Literature and its Background (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), pp. 112-113. "Eunomius[who was condemned in the Council of Constantinople] wanted to claim that all descriptions of the Logos were analogical; he was Son of God metaphorically, not literally."
15 John Courtney Murray, The Problem of God: Yesterday and Today (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1964), pp. 42-43, 45.
16 Ibid., p. 46.
17 Athanasius, Orations against the Arians, I.31. "The purpose of all this is only that they might reduce the Son into works[creatures]."
18 Shedd, A History of Christian Doctrine, 1: 307, 310.
19 Athanasius, Orations against the Arians, II.19-20.
20 de Margerie, The Christian Trinity in History, p. 93. "If it is true that the Trinitarian doctrines of Tertullian and Origen were influenced by Stoicism and Middle Platonism respectively, it must be stated, that their subordinationist tendencies were rejected by Nicaea. Nicaea signifies precisely the rejection of the hellenization of the dogma in the sense of a syncretism between Christianity and Greek polytheism."
21 Shedd, A History of Christian Doctrine, 1: 310; Concerning the history of the term "homoousios" as used in the Christian circle, see Ibid., 1: 309-310 and Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, pp. 234-237.
22 Murray, The Problem of God, p. 55.
23 Ralph E. Person, The Mode of Theological Decision Making at the Early Ecumenical Councils: An Inquiry into the Function of Scripture and Tradition at the Councels of Nicaea and Ephesus, Th. D. Dissertation (Basel: Friedrich Reinhardt Kommissionsverlag, 1978), pp. 111-112.
24 Ibid., p. 102.
25 Ibid., pp. 101-111. Concerning the reason for compromise, he contended that the bishops intentionally created this ambiguity in order to preserve peace between the East and the West, because the adoption of one doctrine had to exclude the other.
26 Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, p. 237.
27 Ibid., p. 235.
28 Harnack, History of Dogma, 4: 3.
29 Ibid., p. 3. "He founded in Antioch an exegetical-theological school which, during the time of the three episcopates of Domnus, Timaus and Cyril, was not in communion with the Church there, but which afterwards, shortly before the martyrdom of Lucian, made its peace with the Church."
30 Ibid., pp. 2-7.
31 Ibid., p. 6.
32 Alexander of Alexandria, Letter to Alexander of Thessalonica, 35-36.
33 Athanasius, Orations against the Arians, 1.5. "Therefore he[Arius] says that God, foreknowing that he would be good, gave him in anticipation this glory[of the Son] which afterward he attained as man because of his virtue. Thus, because of his works, which God foreknew, God brought it about that he being of such a nature should come into being now."
34 Fortman, The Triune God, p. 60.
35 Cf. Athanasius, Orations against the Arians, 1.24. "Was God 'Who is' ever without reason[Word]?...Who can endure to hear them say that God was ever without reason[Word]...?"
36 Harnack, History of Dogma, 4: 29.
37 Shedd, A History of Christian Doctrine, 1: 333.
38 Burnaby, The Belief of Christendom: A Commentary on the Nicene Creed, p.
39 Athanasius, Orations against the Arians, 1.9. Here, sonship by grace means sonship by adoption; For a discussion on the Athanasius' theory of two kinds of sonship, see George D. Dragas, "The Eternal Son: An Essay on Christology in the Early Church with Particular Reference To St. Athanasius the Great," in The Incarnation: Ecumenical Studies in the Nicene- Constantinopolitan Creed A.D. 381, Thomas F. Torrance, ed. (Edinburgh: The Handsel Press, 1981), pp. 32-33.
40 Luibheid, The Council of Nicaea, pp. 26-27.
41 Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, pp. 227-229. He well summarized Arian teachings about the Son in "four propositions which follows logically from the preceding premise." (i) the Son must be a creature, a ktisma or poiema, whom the Father has formed out of nothing by His mere fiat. The term 'beget'(gennan) applied to the Son's generation must therefore bear the purely figurative sense of 'make'(poiein). (ii) as a creature the Son must have had a beginning. There was a time when He was not. (iii) the Son can have no comnunion with, and indeed no direct knowledge of, His Father. (iv) the Son must be liable to change and even sin(treptos; alloiotos).
42 Charles Augustus Briggs, The Fundamental Christian Faith: The Origin, History and Interpretation of the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1913), p. 227.
43 Thompson, The Nicene Creed, p. 69. "We cannot, in this life, understand this fully, but we believe that He is God's Son in a sense analogous to that in which we are our father's sons."; Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, p. 244. "Like Irenaeus, Athanasius regards the son's generation as mysterious; but he interprets it as implying that, so far from being a creature, He must, like a human offspring, be derived from and share His father's nature."
44 Dragas, "The Eternal Son," p. 43.
45 de Margerie, The Christian Trinity in History, p. 90.
46 Athanasius, Orations against the Arians, I.21. It was said in the context of criticism on the Arian denial of distinction between creation and generation in the mode of the Son's origin.
47 Ibid., I.19.
48 Shedd, A History of Christian Doctrine, 1: 331-332.
49 Athanasius, Orations against the Arians, I.23.
50 Ibid., I.21-22.
51 Hodge, Systematic Theology, 1: 469.
52 Murray, The Problem of God, p. 44.
53 Hodge, Systematic Theology, 1: 474.
54 Alexander of Alexandria, Letter to Alexander of Thessalonica, 48.
55 Arius, Letter to Alexander of Alexandria, 3.
56 Ibid., 2.
57 Ibid., 4.
58 Gregory of Nazianzus, Third Theological Oration Concerning the Son, 5.
59 Alexander of Alexandria, Letter to Alexander of Thessalonica, 22-23.
60 Cf. Luibheid, The Council of Nicaea, p. 32.
61 Athanasius, Orations against the Arians, I.11. Also, he criticized it as "foolish and unreasonaibe."
62 Ibid., I.13.
63 Ibid., I.12.
65 Cf. Scott, Origin and Development of the Nicene Theology, p. 191.
66 Gregory of Nazianzus, Third Theological Oration Concerning the Son, 3.
69 Ibid., 9.
70 Luibheid, The Council of Nicaea, p. 32.
71 For example, Thomson, The Nicene Creed, pp. 78-79. "...the begetting of the Son is an eternal and continuous act, that is to say, the Son is always being begotten of the Father from all eternity, and will continue to be begotten to all eternity."; Fortman, The Triune God, p. 65; Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, p. 240.
72 Scott, Nicene Theology, p. 182. "The eternal generation of the Son first found clear expression in Irenaeus."
73 Shedd, A History of Christian Doctrine, 1:291.
74 Harnack, History of Dogma, 4: 333. He gave the highest praise to Athanasius as the head of the anti-Origenist movement: "At the beginning of the fourth century, Christianity was, again in consequence of the theology, on the point of disruption. Eusebius has himself admitted the danger in the outward organization, and it was a result of the cleavage in thought. Bishops spoke authoritatively in the East who had learned from Origen all sorts of ideas that put the doctrine of the Church in danger of running to seed. A compact school was in the field that, while it considered itself very scientific and genuinely biblical, yet without knowing or intending it, secularised Christianity. Constantine on the one hand, and Athanasius on the other, saved Christendom," 4: 332-333.
75 Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, p. 217; Person, The Mode of Theological Decision Making at the Early Ecumenical Councils, p. 93.
76 Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, p. 195. "When we turn to the second article, the first thing that leaps to the eye is the unanimity of Eastern creeds in teaching explicitly the Fathers pre-cosmic begetting of the Son."; cf. Ibid., pp. 217-230. Though it has been suggested that the Nicene Creed is a revision of Ceasarean Creed, today this Hort-Harnack hypothesis is no longer agreed that the Nicene Creed was written with "a fairly free hand," p. 229. On the other hand, the Lietzmann hypothesis that the Nicene Creed was based on the creed of Jerusalem is also rejected, Person, The Mode of Theological Decision Making, pp. 87-91.
77 Richardson, Creeds in the Making, p. 53.
78 Berkhof, The History of Christian Doctrines, pp. 88-89.
79 Robert J. O'Connell, St. Augustine's Confessions (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969), pp. 138-139; Eugene Portalie, A Guide To the Thought of Saint Augustine, tr. Ralph J. Bastian (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company,1960), p. 101.
80 Oscar Cullmann, Christ and Time: The Primitive Christian Conception of Time and History, tr. Floyd V. Filson (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1964), pp. 61-64.
81 Portalie, A Guide To the Thought of Saint Augustine, p. 98. According to him, the area where the influence of Platonism made the strongest influence on Augustine is the doctrine of the Trinity, especially of the eternal generation.
A History of the Doctrine of Eternal Generation of the Son and Its Significance in the Trinitarianism: Introduction
The Doctrine of the eternal generation in opposition to the hellenistic logos doctrine in the early church
John Calvin and Reformed Theology on the Doctrine of Eternal Generation
The Significance of the Eternal Generation Doctrine in the Contemporary Trinitarian Trends
Karl Rahner's Philosophical Understanding of the Trinity