The Eternal Generation of the Son – Is it Biblical?

Summary

According to the Bible, the Son has been begotten by the Father. In analogy to how humans beget children, this implies that the Father generated the Son from His being. This further implies that the Son is dependent on and subordinate to the Father.

The theory of Eternal Generation, however, explains “begotten” and “generated” in such a way that the Son is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father. Eternal Generation is a key part of the Trinity doctrine.

Key Concepts

Eternal Generation may be summarized into two main concepts:

1. While the idea of begetting or generation implies a creation in time, Eternal Generation proposes that that generation is ‘eternal’, meaning that it is a process with no beginning or end so that the Son is co-eternal with the Father.

2. While the idea of begetting or generation implies that the Son is dependent on His Father for His existence and power, Eternal Generation proposes that that generation is not the result of the Father’s will but “by necessity of nature.” In other words, it is an essential part of what God is. In consequence, the Son is not dependent on the Father but co-equal with Him.

Objections

The objections that can be raised to Eternal Generation include:

No Scriptural Support – The Bible does not attest to a generation that is without beginning or end, or for the notion that this generation is “by necessity of nature.”

Not an act of the Father – If the generation is “by necessity of nature,” and if that nature is shared by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, then it is no longer an act by the Father alone.

Not the generation of the Son – In the Eternal Generation, neither the substance nor the mind or will of the Son is generated because the three ‘Persons’ share one single substance, mind, and will. What is generated is not a Person as envisaged by the Bible, but merely a mode of being.

– END OF SUMMARY – 


The Father generated the Son.

According to the Bible, the Son has been begotten by the Father. In analogy to how humans beget children, this implies that the Father generated the Son from His being:

This is explicitly stated by verses that describe the Son as the only being begotten by the Father (e.g., John 1:14, 18; 3:16). (Many modern translations render monogenēs not as “only-begotten” but as “unique.” However, another article argues that the traditional translation “only-begotten” is correct.)

In support of the concept that the Son was begotten by the Father, the Bible also describes the Son as the “Son of God,” “born of God” (1 John 5:18), and as living “because of the Father” (John 6:57). 

This principle is also indirectly stated by verses that say that the Father gave the Son His being and authority, for example:

        • “To have life in Himself” (John 5:26);
        • “All the fullness of Deity” (Col 2:9; 1:19);
        • “All authority … in heaven and on earth” (Matt 28:18); and
        • To be worshiped (Phil 2:9-10; Heb 1:6).

Eternal Generation

However, if the Father generated the Son, then the Son is dependent on and subordinate to the Father:

“The language of ‘generation’ suggests that the Son is not equally God, but in some sense comes into being – which is ontological subordinationism.” (Theopedia)

In response, the theory of Eternal Generation explains “begotten” or “generated” in such a way that the Son is co-equal and co-eternal with the Father:

“The church fathers turned to the doctrine of eternal generation … to ensure that the Son is understood to be equal with the Father.” (Tabletalk)

“The eternal generation of the Son must be understood to mean that the Father did not bring the Son into existence, which would deny the full immutability and deity of the Son.” (Carm.org)

As such, Eternal Generation is a key part of the Trinity doctrine:

“This doctrine, along with the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit, form the basis for the complete doctrine of the Trinity.” (GotQuestions)

“One of the most essential doctrines for a Christian understanding of the Trinity is eternal generation.” (Tabletalk)

Definition

I will use Hodge’s definition of Eternal Generation as the basis for this discussion:

      1. “An eternal, personal act of the Father,
      2. wherein, by necessity of nature, not by choice of will,
      3. He generates the person (not the essence) of the Son, by communicating to Him the whole indivisible substance of the Godhead,
      4. without division, alienation, or change,
      5. so that the Son is the express image of His Father’s person,
      6. and eternally continues,
      7. not from the Father, but in the Father, and the Father in the Son.”
        (A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology, p. 182.)

This definition is used by both Theopedia and Carm.org.

GotQuestions summarizes this definition into three main points:

“The doctrine of eternal generation essentially teaches that God the Father eternally and by necessity generates or begets God the Son in such a way that the substance (divine essence) of God is not divided.”

I would like to discuss this definition under the following headings:

      1. Continues Eternally
      2. Personal Act of the Father
      3. Generates the Son
      4. Without Division, Alienation, or Change.
      5. The Express Image of His Father.
      6. Scriptural Support
      7. Conclusions

1. Continues Eternally

Hodge’s definition says that it is an “eternal” act that “eternally continues.” In other words, it is a process without beginning or end. GotQuestions says, for example:

“There was no beginning, nor will there be an end to the generation of the Son from the Father.”

Scriptural Support

So, where we would find this in the Bible? The Bible does describe the Son as the One through whom God created all things (e.g., Heb 1:2), “the Beginning of the creation of God” (Rev 3:14), and as “the first and the last” (Rev 1:17). We can conclude that the Son has ‘always’ existed.

On the other hand, if the Father generated the Son, then the Father alone is the Ultimate Reality, alone exists without cause, and preceded the Son in existence.

The fourth-century Arians used to reconcile these concepts by arguing that the Father exists outside our time-bound universe and has begotten the Son in that timeless infinity. Therefore, from the perspective of beings existing within time, the Son has always existed, but from God’s perspective, so to speak, the Father pre-existed the Son.

But there is no support in the Bible for the idea that the generation of the Son is a never-ending process.

Need for this Teaching

GotQuestions explains:

“The idea of begetting or generation implies a creation in time … (but) the qualifier ‘eternal’ removes this relationship from the constraints of time and space; there was no beginning, nor will there be an end to the generation of the Son from the Father.”

In other words, this teaching is required to describe the Son as co-eternal with the Father, meaning that He has always existed along with the Father, even in the timeless infinity beyond time.

2. Personal Act of the Father

Hodge’s definition says that the Son’s generation is the “personal act of the Father,” which is entirely Biblical, but then it contradicts that same statement by saying that it is “by necessity of nature, not by choice of will.” To explain:

Firstly, if it is “by necessity of nature,” so that there is no intention or personal purpose involved, it is no longer a “personal act of the Father.”

Secondly, in the Trinity doctrine, the Son is, in all respects, co-equal and co-eternal to the Father. But, to avoid the criticism that it teaches two or three Gods, it argues that the three Persons (Realities) share one single being and “nature” with one single will and mind. Since there is but one “nature,” if it is “by necessity of nature,” it is the being of God that generates the Son; not the Father.

To explain this slightly differently, in the Trinity doctrine, the Father, Son, and Spirit are “not three parts of God” (Theopedia) but each of them is the entire God Almighty. So, how can the Son be excluded from generating Himself if He is the entire God? It can only be done by a verbal denial, but verbal denials are meaningless if the substance of the thing contradicts such denials.

Need for this Teaching

GotQuestions explains why the Trinity doctrine denies that the begetting of the Son is “by choice of will:”

“The idea of begetting or generation … implies an ontological dependence … (but) the qualifier ‘necessarily’ removes any ontological dependence between the Father and the Son; the Son must be generated from the Father and the Father must generate the Son.”

In other words, if it is “by choice of will,” then the Father empowers or upholds the Son, meaning that the Son is dependent on the Father for His existence and power and, therefore, subordinate to the Father, something which the New Testament continually asserts but the Trinity doctrine denies. As Carm.Org explains, in Eternal Generation:

“Neither the Son nor the Holy Spirit is dependent upon the Father … for existence” 

3. Generates the Son

The Bible says that the Father has begotten the Son. By implication, the Father has generated the entire being of the Son. In contrast, Hodge’s definition says that the Father “generates the person (not the essence) of the Son.” To explain this, the definition adds:

“By communicating to Him the whole indivisible substance of the Godhead.”

To appreciate what this means one must realize that, in the Trinity doctrine, the Persons are not “persons” in the usual sense of the word because each does not have His own mind or will. For that reason, scholars prefer to refer to hypostases or Realities, rather than to ‘Persons’.

But the point, for our discussion, is that, while the Bible teaches that the Father has begotten (generated) the Son, in the theory of Eternal Generation, the Father generates merely a mode of being; not a Person with His own mind and will.

“The eternal generation of the Son must be understood to mean that the Father did not bring the Son into existence, which would deny the full immutability and deity of the Son.” (Carm.org)

Trinitarians will object that the term “mode of being” equates the Trinity doctrine to Modalism but, if we go beyond verbal denials, it is very difficult to see the difference. See – What is the difference between the Trinity doctrine and Modalism? Note also that Basil of Caesarea, in the years 360-380, was “decisively influential in bringing about the final form of the doctrine of the Trinity” (RH, 676)1Bishop R.P.C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 198 and he explained a hypostasis as a “mode of subsistence” (RH, 692) or a “mode of being” (LA, 210)2Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its legacy, 2004.

4. Without Division, Alienation, or Change

The definition continues and says that the begetting of the Son is “without division, alienation, or change” (in God). In other words, the begetting of the Son, which is so important in the New Testament, does not change anything. This supports the point above that the generation of the Son in the theory of Eternal Generation is not the begetting of the Son envisaged by the New Testament.

5. The express image of His Father

The definition adds that, in consequence of the Son’s begetting, “the Son is the express image of His Father’s person.”

In normal usage, the word “image” implies that the image and the original are different types of things, for example, “a representation of the external form of a person or thing in art”. When the Bible describes the Son as an image of the Father, it also describes them as two different kinds of beings:

In Colossians 1:15, the Son “is the image of the invisible God.” By implication, He is the ‘visible’ image of the invisible God.

In Hebrews 1:3, the Son is “the exact representation of” God’s hypostasis. Hebrews 1:1-3 makes a clear distinction between Him and God and in at least 5 ways describes Him as subordinate to God:

        • He is God’s Son
        • It is God who has spoken to us in His Son.
        • God appointed Him heir of all things.
        • God “made the world” through His Son.
        • He is the radiance of God’s glory.

The point is that Hebrews 1:1-3 describes the Son as very different from the Father.

In both these verses that describe the Son as an image of God, therefore, the Son’s being is different from the Father’s. In contrast, in the Trinity doctrine, the being of the Son is in all respects the same as the Father’s. Both are the entire Almighty God. Therefore, to say that Eternal Generation teaches that the Son is an “image” of the Father distorts how the Bible uses that concept.

6. Scriptural Support

GotQuestions lists a number of verses in support of Eternal Generation. However, not even one of them says that this generation is a never-ending process or that it is an involuntary process. GotQuestions lists the following, to which I add comments:

The Word was God.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

Comment: Another article argues that this is better translated as “the Word was LIKE God,” similar to Philippians 2, which said that, before His incarnation, “He existed in the form of God” (Phil 2:6).

Only Son

The Word’s glory is “as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14). “God … gave his only Son.” (John 3:16)

Comment: These statements merely support the idea that the Son was generated by the Father.

Made God known

“No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” (John 1:18)

Comment: This even implies that the substance of the Son is different from the Father’s for, while the Father is invisible, the Son is visible. Colossians 1:15 is a similar verse.

Life in Himself

“For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.” (John 5:26)

Comment: While the Son has received “life” from the Father, the Father has received “life” from no one.

The implication is also that only the Father and Son have “life in himself.”

“How, Augustine asks, did the Son receive “life in himself”? His answer is both simple and profound: the Father “begat” the Son.” (The Gospel Coalition)

This is one of several statements in the Bible indicating that everything the Son has, He has received from the Father, which supports the idea that the Son was generated by the Father and is subordinate to the Father.

I and the Father are one.

“I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” (John 14:11) “That they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us.” (John 17:21)

Comment: These verses explain themselves: To be “in” another is the same as to be “one” with another. The Father and Son are “one” and “in” one another just like Christians are supposed to be “one” and “in” one another. It does not mean that they are literally one being. For a further discussion, see – I and the Father are one.

Upholds the Universe

“He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” (Hebrews 1:3)

Comment: Read in isolation, this seems to say that the Son upholds the universe by His own power. However, the pronoun “his” is used twice in this quote and four times in Hebrews 1:1-3. In the other instances, “His” always refers to God. Since these verses contrast “God” and “His Son” (Heb 1:1-2), the Son upholds the universe by the word of God’s power.

That does mean that He has existed for as long as this universe has existed. However, God exists beyond this universe. Consequently, there is an incomprehensible infinity beyond our universe about which we know nothing. The Son has been begotten in that infinity. Time, as we know it, is only part of our universe. But if time of some kind exists in that infinity, that the Son exists when this universe was brought into being by no means means that He has ‘always’ existed in the infinity beyond time.

Conclusions

After listing these verses, Gotquestions vaguely concludes that “these verses … suggest that the relationship between Father and Son is one that has existed for all eternity and that the relationship depicts one of ontological equality.” In my view, neither of these points have even remotely been proven.

7. Conclusions

Contradicts the Bible

The Bible is clear that the Father generated the Son and that the Son is subordinate to the Father but the theory of Eternal Generation attempts to explain “begotten” in such a way that the Son is independent from and equal to the Father.

Human Speculation

As the discussion above shows, Eternal Generation is largely based on extra-Biblical speculation. “The secret things belong to the LORD our God” (Deut 29:29) but theologians insist on explaining the unexplainable. The theory of the Eternal Generation reveals the arrogance of man.


OTHER ARTICLES

FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    Bishop R.P.C. Hanson, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 198
  • 2
    Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its legacy, 2004

Is the Athanasian Creed consistent with the “Monarchy of the Father?”

Introduction

Is the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of “the Monarchy of the Father” consistent with the Athanasian creed?

To answer this question, below, I first analyze and summarize the Athanasian Creed (AC), excluding its ‘anathemas’ at the beginning and at the end, and excluding the section on the incarnation. Then I compare this summary to the doctrine of the “Monarchy of the Father” of the Eastern Orthodox Church, using particularly the Catechism of the Orthodox Faith and a well-known talk on the Trinity by Fr. Thomas Hopko

Christianity originated in the Eastern Roman Empire (in Judea) and most of the Christian theologians of the first centuries were from that area. However, the Muslim military conquests in later centuries considerably weakened Christianity in the east. At the same time, the Church in Rome grew in prominence and remained a powerful force throughout the Middle Ages. For that reason, the theology of the church in the western world today has been mostly inherited from the Church in Rome. On the other hand, the doctrinal differences that always existed between the church in the east and the west, together with the severe persecution which the church in the east suffered over many centuries, ensured that, to a greater extent than in the west, Eastern Orthodoxy retained the theology of the church fathers of the first centuries. For that reason, it is important that we take note of the teachings of that denomination.

All emphases in quotes below are added by myself.

Summary

This article analyses the Athanasian Creed (AC) and summarizes it as follows:

The Son and the Spirit came into existence timelessly from the being or essence of the Father to form three distinct but coeternal Persons.

However, the essence remained undivided.

The Son and the Holy Spirit are equal with the Father ontologically (in terms of essence) and functionally (in terms of roles).

Since all three Persons are uncreated, unlimited, eternal, and Almighty, they seem to be three Gods. However, because the Father’s essence remains undivided, there is one Almighty God with one mind and will, existing in a Trinity.

The remainder of this article compares this summary of the Athanasian Creed (AC) with Eastern Orthodoxy (EO).

Who is God?

The AC and OE identify “God” differently.

The Greek word theos, often translated as “God,” has a wide range of meanings. For example, the New Testament uses it also to refer to false gods and to God’s people. Therefore, to specify that the true God is intended, the Bible sometimes refers to the “one God” (e.g., Mark 12:28-30; John 5:44; 1 Cor 8:6). The Nicene Creed of 325 AD followed this practice and identified the “one God” as the Father:

“We believe in one God, the Father almighty” (Nicene Creed)

The Athanasian Creed (AC) continued to use the phrase “one God” but, while the “one God” in the Nicene Creed is the Father, in the AC, formulated more than 100 years later, the “one God” is the Trinity. For example:

“We worship one God in Trinity.”

Eastern Orthodoxy, following rather the Nicene Creed, states:

“The one God in whom we believe is not the Holy Trinity. …
The one God is the Father of Jesus Christ.”

For this reason, “in Eastern Orthodoxy, the term triune God is not a traditional formula. You find the term tri-personal or tri-hypostatic Divinity. There is no tri-personal God.” (Hopko)

Although, in EO, the Son is not the “one God” or part of the “one God,” His only begotten Son “is divine with the very same divinity as the one true and living God.” For this reason, EO translates John 1:1c as “and the Word was divine” (Hopko).

EO does sometimes refer to the Trinity or to the Son as “God” but, in such instances, it uses the word “God” not in a “personal” sense to identify the “one God.” Rather, “when it is said that ‘Jesus Christ is God’ or that there is ‘one God in three Persons’, we use the word God in the qualitative sense of ‘uncreated’ or ‘divine’” (EO Catechism, question 93).

The Trinity

EO agrees with the AC that the Son and Holy Spirit were not created, but came forth from the being of the Father and, therefore, “are of the same essence as the Father” (Hopko).

Nevertheless, there is a significant difference between the Trinity in the AC and in EO. As discussed, while, in the AC, the “one God” is the Trinity, in EO, the “one God” is the Father alone. The following shows that this is a real difference; not only a difference in terminology:

The AC does not allow the “dividing the essence.” Consequently, the Trinity has one single undivided essence. In this view, the term homoousios in the Nicene Creed must be translated as “one substance.” The one single essence and the strong emphasis on one-ness also imply that the three Persons have one single mind and will.

When searching in EO for evidence of one-ness of essence, I did not find it. What I did find is an emphasis on the sameness of substance. For example, the Son “is divine with the same divinity as the one true and living God” (Hopko). And the Son and the Spirit have “ontological or essential equality” with the Father (EO Catechism, question 95).

Also related to the concept in the AC of an undivided essence, I found in EO that “God the Father is thus always with and inseparable from his Only-Begotten Son and Holy Spirit” (EO Catechism, question 90).

Therefore, while the AC teaches that the three Persons are ontologically “one” (have one single substance), in EO they are ontologically the “same,” implying three distinct substances of the same type that are eternally and inseparable together. In that case, homoousios should be translated as “same substance.”

In this respect, EO also follows the Nicene Creed, for (1) the literal meaning of the term homoousios is “same substance,” (2) before Nicea homoousios meant “of generically the same substance,” and (3) the purpose of the creed was not the affirm the UNITY of the Godhead, but the DIVINITY of the Son.

And while the emphasis on one-ness in the AC implies one single mind, the emphasis on three-ness in the EO implies three distinct minds and wills. As Hopko stated, “there are three instances of divine life in perfect and total unity.”

For these reasons, the difference, where the AC identifies the Trinity as God while EO defines God as the Father only, is a real difference; not merely a difference in terminology.

Subordination

Subordination in the Godhead may be classified into different categories:

Relational Subordination

In both the AC and EO, the Son and the Spirit are relationally subordinate to the Father, meaning that they came into existence from the being of the Father. This is the meaning of the phrase, “the Monarchy of the Father” (EO Catechism, question 94).

Filioque Clause

In the AC, “the Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son.” EO claims that this appears to deny the monarchy of Father. In EO, the Spirit proceeds from God (the Father) alone (Wikipedia).

EO does not deny that the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, but explains that as that, because “the Christ is the Son of God on whom God the Father sends and affirms His Holy Spirit, the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ” (Hopko).

However, in the AC, since the Son was begotten by the Father, the Father remains the ultimate Source of the Spirit. For that reason, in my view, the filioque is NOT in opposition to the Monarchy of the Father.

Functional Subordination

In EO, the Son and the Spirit are functionally subordinate to the Father. The EO Catechism, question 95 states that the Son and the Spirit are ontologically (in terms of substance) equal with the Father, however, “this does not negate different roles or functions.” The question then gives examples of different functions or roles in which the Son is subordinate to the Father (1 Cor 11:2-3; 15:27-28).

The AC, on the other hand, does not seem to allow for functional subordination.

Ontological Subordination

For the following reasons, it is proposed that, in EO, the Son and the Spirit are also ontologically less than (subordinate to) the Father:

Firstly, the examples above of the functional subordination of the Son point to eternal functional subordination. But eternal functional subordination implies ontological subordination. Why would the Son and the Spirit be eternally functionally subordinate unless they are also ontologically subordinate?

Secondly, if “the Father is the cause and origin,” as the EO Catechism claims, the Son and the Spirit received their substance and divinity from the Father. If that is true, and if they do not have one single substance as in the AC, then the substances of the Son and the Spirit are portions of the substance of the Father. That would mean that they are ontologically subordinate to the Father, as Tertullian also taught:

“The Father is the entire substance, but the Son is a derivation and portion of the whole” (Tertullian Against Praxeas, 9 (ANF 3: 604))

Conclusion

In the AC, the “one God” is the Trinity, existing in one single substance and mind. In EO, the “one God” is the Father, and the trinity have three distinct substances and wills.

While, in the AC, the strong emphasis on the single undivided substance and only allows relational subordination, in EO, the Son is ontologically, functionally, and relationally subordinate to the Father.

– END OF SUMMARY – 

The Athanasian Creed

The Athanasian Creed was formulated by unknown authors somewhere during the fifth or sixth century but it remained the primary formulation of the Trinity doctrine throughout the Middle Ages untl today.

Below, I used “AC” as an abbreviation for the Athanasian Creed.

One God in Trinity

AC: And the catholic faith is this: that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost.

Interestingly, the AC does not use the term homoousios (same substance or essence). But it does use a related phrase: “nor dividing the essence.” While homoousios may also mean two distinct substances that are the same in all respects, “nor dividing the essence” means that the three Persons are of one single undivided essence or substance. This is probably the reason why the homoousios of the Nicene Creed is often translated as “one substance.”

This clause makes three parallel contrasts:

        • one God in Trinity,
        • Trinity in Unity;
        • Three Persons, undivided Essence

On the one side of the contrast, the “one God” is the “Unity” and the undivided Essence. On the other side, the “Trinity” is the “Persons.”

To summarize this clause, “we worship” one God of one undivided Essence, existing in a Trinity of Persons.

Ontologically Equal

AC: But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal.

Here we have another set of three parallel phrases describing the three Persons:

        • Godhead … one;
        • Glory equal;
        • Majesty coeternal

Each of the three Persons is described as having “Godhead,” “Glory” and “Majesty.” These three terms, therefore, seem to be used more or less as synonyms and as describing the undivided “essence” in the previous clause.

Similarly, “one,” “equal,” and “coeternal” also seem to point to one and the same thing, namely equality.

In summary, since the three Persons are of one single undivided essence, their “Godhead,” “Glory,” and “Majesty” are equal.

One uncreated, unlimited, eternal Almighty

AC: Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost.

    • The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Ghost uncreated.
    • The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Ghost unlimited.
    • The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Ghost eternal.

And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated; nor three infinites, but one uncreated; and one infinite.

So likewise the Father is Almighty; the Son Almighty; and the Holy Ghost Almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties; but one Almighty.

This explains the equality of the previous clause in more detail. In summary, this says that all three Persons are uncreated, unlimited, eternal, and Almighty.

But, simultaneously, here we have a strong emphasis on oneness of the three Persons. This is consistent with the statement above that the three Persons are one undivided Essence. The emphasis on one-ness is so strong that it seems to say that the three Persons have one single mind and will.

One God

AC: So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God.

So likewise the Father is Lord; the Son Lord; and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not three Lords; but one Lord.

For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity; to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord; So are we forbidden by the catholic religion; to say, There are three Gods, or three Lords.

Because each of the Persons is uncreated, unlimited, eternal, and Almighty, as stated in the previous clause, each of them is a God. But because they are one undivided essence, they are one God. This confirms the oneness emphasized in the previous clause.

Relational Subordination

AC: The Father is made of none; neither created, nor begotten.

The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created; but begotten.

The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten; but proceeding.

So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.

This clause uses the word “created” three times, saying that all three Persons are uncreated. Consequently, they have the same eternal and uncreated substance.

This clause is the only indication of differences between the Persons which we find in the AC, namely that the Father is the Ultimate Cause. “Source” may be a better term because, as this clause indicates, both the Son and the Spirit come out of the being of the Father. The Spirit also proceeds from the Son but, because the Son was begotten by the Father, the ultimate Source of the Spirit remains the Father.

That the Father is the ultimate Cause of everything – also of the Son and the Holy Spirit – is known as the Monarchy of the Father in Eastern Orthodoxy (EO) (EO Catechism, question 94). We may also refer to it as relational subordination.

Since the Father is the Source of the Son and the Spirit, the undivided essence mentioned above is the essence of the Father. In a sense, the Son and the Spirit form part of the being of the Father.

Functional Equality

AC: And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal.

This is a qualification of the differences mentioned in the previous clauses, saying that, although the Father is the ultimate Source, the three Persons are coeternal and coequal.

The “none … before … after … greater … less” seems to refer to a different category of equality than the equality of essence above. Since the equality of essence may be classified as ontological equality, and since relational subordination is addressed in the “begotten … proceeding”-clause, the “none … before … after … greater … less” and the term “coequal” seem to deny functional subordination.

AC: So that in all things, as aforesaid; the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped.

This section of the creed ends where it began: “We worship one God in Trinity.” As concluded above, “we worship” one God of one undivided essence, existing in a Trinity of Persons.

Summary of the Athanasian Creed

Given the discussion above, I would like to summarize the Athanasian Creed as follows:

The Son and the Spirit came into existence timelessly from the being or essence of the Father to form three distinct but coeternal Persons.

However, the essence remained undivided.

Since it is the essence of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are part of the essence of the Father.

Although the Son and the Holy Spirit are relationally subordinate to the Father (meaning that they came forth out of the being of the Father), they are equal with the Father ontologically (in terms of essence) and functionally (in terms of roles).

Since all three Persons are uncreated, unlimited, eternal, and Almighty, one could say that they are three Gods. However, because the Father’s essence remains undivided, there is one Almighty God with one mind and will, existing in a Trinity. This is the “one God” we worship.

The remainder of this article compares this summary of the Athanasian Creed (AC) with Eastern Orthodoxy (EO).

Who is God?

The AC and OE identify “God” differently.

The One God of the Bible

The basic meaning of the ancient Greek word theos is an immortal being with supernatural powers. The Greeks used this word for their gods. Generally, the Jews in Jesus’ day spoke Koine Greek and the authors of the New Testament used the same word in the Greek text of the New Testament for the God of the Bible. But the New Testament also uses theos for God’s people, the gods of the nations and even for Satan. In such cases, theos is translated as “god.”

Because of the wide range of meanings that the word theos has, the authors of the New Testament often added words such as “true” or “only” to theos to identify the God of the Bible. Perhaps the most important such phrase is “one God” or “one and only God.” This phrase is important because it connects with the Old Testament Shema, “Yahweh is one” (Deut 6:4)) as well as to the several “one God” statements in the New Testament, for example:

    • God is one” (Mark 12:28-30; James 2:19; Gal 3:20);
    • The one and only God” (John 5:44);
    • One God” (1 Cor 8:6; 1 Tim 2:5; Eph 4:4-6);
    • “Only God” (Jude 1:25; John 5:44; 1 Tim 1:17); or
    • “Only true God” (John 17:3).

The Nicene Creed of 325 AD followed this practice and identified the “one God” as the Father:

“We believe in one God, the Father almighty” (Nicene Creed)

The one God in the Athanasian Creed

The Athanasian Creed (AC) continued to use the phrase “one God” but, while the “one God” in the Nicene Creed is the Father, in the AC, formulated more than 100 years later, the “one God” is the Trinity. For example:

“We worship one God in Trinity.”

“The Father … the Son … the Holy Ghost … are not three Gods; but one God.”

The one God in Eastern Orthodoxy

Eastern Orthodoxy, following rather on the Nicene Creed, states that the “one God” is the Father alone; not the Trinity:

“It is critically important to note that, in the Bible and, therefore, in the creeds, such as the Nicene Creed (325) and Creed of Constantinople (381), the one God in whom we believe is not the Holy Trinity. The one God is God the Father. In the Bible, the one God is the Father of Jesus Christ. He is the Father who sends His only begotten Son into the world.” (Hopko)

The one God is the Father of Jesus: Jesus is the Son of God. As the Nicene Creed says, Jesus is ‘God from God; true God from true God.’” (Hopko)

For this reason, EO does not refer to the “triune God:”

“In Eastern Orthodoxy, the term triune God is not a traditional formula. You find the term tri-personal or tri-hypostatic Divinity. There is no tri-personal God.” (Hopko)

“The Trinity is the tri-hypostatic Divinity – the tri-personal Godhead; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; one in essence and undivided” (Hopko).

Hopko stated that, to say that the Trinity is the “one God,” amounts to Modalism:

“The other terrible error is usually called Modalism. This is where people say that there is one God who is the Holy Trinity” (Hopko).

Although, in EO, the Son is not the “one God” or part of the “one God,” He “is divine with the very same divinity as the one true and living God:”

We orthodox Christians, following Scripture and the credal statements, … say, there is the one God who is the Father, and He has with Him eternally, whom He begets timelessly before all ages, His only begotten Son, who is also His Logos (His Word) and His Wisdom and His Icon (Image), but this only begotten Son is divine with the very same divinity as the one true and living God. (Hopko)

For this reason, EO prefers to translate John 1:1c as “and the Word was divine:”

“In John’s gospel, in the beginning, the Logos was with God, and ‘the Logos was divine’. All things came to be through Him (John 1:1-2). Orthodox Christians interpret these sentences to show that the Logos is really divine with the same divinity as the Father.” (Hopko)

(t is interesting how Eastern Orthodoxy refers to itself as “orthodox Christians,” as if all other Christians are unorthodox.)

God Qualitatively

EO does sometimes refer to the Trinity or to the Son as “God” (without the word “one”) but says that, in such instances, it uses the word “God” in a qualitative sense, not in a “personal” sense to identify the “one God:”

It justifies this practice by claiming that the Bible also uses the word “God” in those two senses:

“In the Holy Scriptures, God (theos) is generally used in the personal sense of the Father. There are also passages where Jesus Christ is called ‘my/our God’ and theos in the sense of this authority and uncreated divine nature.” (EO Catechism, question 93)

In other words, the Scriptures use the word theos (God) in two different senses: Sometimes, it uses “God” in a “personal sense” to identify the Father as God. But when the Scriptures refer to Jesus as “God,” the term is used qualitatively to describe Him as uncreated and divine.

EO follows this Biblical practice:

“When it is said that ‘Jesus Christ is God’ or that there is ‘one God in three Persons’, we (EO) use the word God in the qualitative sense of ‘uncreated’ or ‘divine’.” (EO Catechism, question 93)

Since the Son is “divine with the same divinity as the one true and living God,” He is most appropriately referred to as theos in a qualitative sense.

Tertullian’s Analogy

Tertullian’s analogy helps to explain these two senses of the title “God.” Tertullian wrote:

I shall follow the apostle [Paul], so that if the Father and the Son are alike to be invoked, I shall call the Father “God” and invoke Jesus Christ as “Lord.”

But when Christ alone [is invoked], I shall be able to call him “God.” As the same apostle says, “Of whom is Christ, who is over all, God blessed forever” [Rom. 9:5].

For I should give the name of “sun” even to a sunbeam, considered by itself. But if I were mentioning the sun from which the ray emanates, I would certainly withdraw the name of sun from the mere beam. … I shall reckon both the sun and its ray to be as much two things—and two forms of one undivided substance—as God and his Word, as the Father and the Son. (Against Marcion 2:13).

In summary, when the Son is mentioned alone, Tertullian says, we can call him God because “God and his Word” are “two forms of one undivided substance.” But when mentioned together, the Father is to be called God, and the Son is to be referred to as Lord because He is a “mere beam.”

This insightful analogy presents the Father as the Source of everything – also of the Son – and the Son as God’s subordinate intermediary between God and us. For that reason, we withdraw the name God from Jesus when we speak of both Him and the Father.

The Trinity

EO agrees with the AC that the Trinity refers to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The following shows that EO also agrees with the AC that the Son and Holy Spirit were not created, but came forth from the being of the Father and, therefore, are of the same eternal and uncreated substance as the Father:

“The Son and the Spirit are of the same essence as the Father.” (Hopko)

The Son is “divine with the same divinity as the one true and living God.” (Hopko)

And in his critique of Arianism, Hopko implies that the Son is “an element of the divinity and being of God Himself.”

As also argued above, in the AC, since the Son and the Holy Spirit came forth from the Father, it is the being or essence of the Father that remains undivided. In some sense, the Son and the Holy Spirit remain part of the being of the Father. EO also agrees with this:

“There is one God because there is one divine nature of the Father, which is the nature of the Son and the nature of the Holy Spirit too.” (Hopko)

“The unity of God is not that there is one divine essence from which the three divine persons come forth; the unity of God is located in the person of the Father.” (Question 90 of the EO Catechism)

“The Son and the Spirit are OF the Father – FROM the Father – BELONGING TO the Father.” (Hopko)

Despite this substantial agreement, there still is a significant difference between the Trinity in the AC and in EO. As already discussed, in the AC, the Trinity is the “one God” but in EO, the Father alone is the “one God.” The following shows that this is not only a difference in terminology but a real difference:

The Trinity in the Athanasian Creed

The AC does not allow “dividing the essence:”

We worship one God in Trinity,
and Trinity in Unity;
neither confounding the Persons,
nor dividing the Essence

The Godhead of the Father, of the Son,
and of the Holy Ghost, is all one.

Consequently, the one Almighty God, existing as a Trinity, has one single undivided essence. In this view, the term homoousios in the Nicene Creed must be translated as “one substance.” The one single essence and the strong emphasis on one-ness also imply that the three Persons have one single mind and will.

The Trinity in Eastern Orthodoxy

When searching in EO for the same strong emphasis on one-ness of essence, I did not find it. What I did find is an emphasis on the sameness of substance:

“He (the Son) is divine with the same divinity as the one true and living God. In the language of the Nicene Creed, He is ‘God from God, true God from true God; begotten of the Father; not created, of one very same essence (ousia) – one same being or divinity with God the Father Himself’” (Hopko).

God the Father … His Word (or Only Begotten Son) and Spirit … are uncreated and co-eternal, co-equal in the fact that they belong to the category of creator, not creature. (Catechism, question 90)

The Son and the Spirit are “co-eternal and co-uncreated with the Father” because of their “ontological or essential equality” which was “expressed … by the expression ‘homoousion’” (EO Catechism, question 95).

Also related to the concept in the AC of an undivided essence, I found in EO that the Son and the Holy Spirit always were and always will be inseparable “with” God the Father:

This … is the mystery of the Trinity, that God the Father is always with His Word (or Only Begotten Son) and Spirit. (Catechism, question 90)

With Him (God) were always present the Word and Wisdom, the Son and the Spirit, by whom and in whom … He made all things, to whom also He speaks, saying, “Let Us make man after Our image and likeness…” (Genesis 1:26) (EO Catechism, question 90, quoting St Irenaeus, Against Heresies, IV:20).

God the Father is thus always with and inseparable from his Only-Begotten Son and Holy Spirit (EO Catechism, question 90).

Three Substances and Minds

In summary, while the AC teaches that the three Persons are ontologically “one” (have one single substance), in EO they are ontologically the “same,” implying three distinct substances that are the same type of uncreated and eternal substance and that are eternally and inseparable together. In that case, homoousios should be translated as “same substance.”

In this respect, for the following reasons, EO also follows the Nicene Creed:

(1) The literal meaning of the term homoousios is “same substance” rather than “one substance” (Wikipedia).

(2) Before Nicea homoousios generally meant ‘of generically the same substance’ rather than numerically the same (one and the same (FortmanErickson)

(3) Both Erickson and Philip Schaff stated that the purpose of the creed was not the affirm the UNITY of the Godhead, but the DIVINITY of the Son (Philip Schaff. History of the Church volume 3. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1981 edition. pp.672-673.).

And while the emphasis on one-ness in the AC implies one single mind, the emphasis on three-ness in the EO implies three distinct minds and wills:

There are three ‘Whos’; He who is the Father, He who is the Son and He who is the Holy Spirit. They are three Persons or three hypostasies. But hypostases is a better term because there are three instances of divine life in perfect and total unity. (Hopko)

Consistent with the concept of three distinct substances and wills, EO does not refer to the Trinity as “God” but as “the tri-hypostatic Divinity” or as “the tri-personal Godhead.”

For these reasons, the difference, where the AC identifies the Trinity as God while EO defines God as the Father only, is a real difference; not merely a difference in terminology.

Subordination

Subordination in the Godhead may be classified into different categories:

Relational Subordination

In both the AC and in EO, the Son and the Holy Spirit are uncreated and came into existence from the being of the Father:

In the AC:
“the Son is of the Father alone;
not … created; but begotten.
The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son;
neither … created … but proceeding.

In EO, the principle of “the Monarchy of the Father” means that He is the “cause, source and principle” of everything, including of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

“God the Father is cause and origin of His Word (or Son) and Wisdom (or Holy Spirit)” (Catechism, question 90).

“All then that the Son and the Spirit have is from the Father, even their very being” (EO Catechism, question 90, quoting John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Chapter 1),

“The Monarchy of the Father” is the principle that “God the Father is neither begotten nor proceeds from any other Person, he is the cause, source and principle” (EO Catechism, question 94). (In other words, He is also the cause and source of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.)

“When the Son says that the ‘Father is greater than I am,’ (John 14:28) he is referring to the fact that the Father is the cause and origin” (of Himself) (EO Catechism, question 95).

In other words, in both the AC and EO, the Son and the Spirit are relationally subordinate to the Father.

Filioque Clause

The translations in Wikipedia and Orthodoxwiki of the filioque clause of the AC reads as follows:

“The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son.”

EO claims that the filioque (and of the Son) appears to deny the monarchy of Father; the Father as principal origin of the Trinity. In EO, the Spirit proceeds from God (the Father) alone:

“Eastern Orthodox theologians maintain that by the expression “from the Father alone,” … is Orthodox and consistent with church tradition. They draw the teaching of the Father as cause alone (their interpretation of the Monarchy of the Father) from various saints and biblical texts. (Wikipedia)

EO does not deny that the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, but explains that as that, because “the Christ is the Son of God on whom God the Father sends and affirms His Holy Spirit, the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ” (Hopko).

“The Spirit is the Spirit of the Son because He proceeds from the Father and rests on the Son. That is why we orthodox is against the filioque in the creed (‘and the Son’ – Athanasian Creed). … We claim that the Spirit of God does not proceed from the Father and the Son together.” (Hopko)

So Jesus can say, “I will send you the Spirit,” because the Spirit is his Spirit, but it’s the Spirit of God that is in Jesus because he’s the Son of God. The Word of God and the Spirit of God are both of God. … The Father is the source of the Spirit and of the Son: the Son. (Fr. Thomas Hopko)

So, to determine whether the AC is in conflict with EO on this point regard, the question is, what does “of” mean in this clause of the AC? (See the quote above.) For the following reasons, I propose that it means “proceeds:”

The AC uses the “of” in contrast to “created,” implying that “of” refers to the ultimate origin or source of the Holy Spirit.

The AC explains the “of” by the phrase “but proceeding.”

Therefore, in the Athanasian Creed, the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son. The Christianity Knowledge Base translation of the filioque clause of the creed reflects the idea well:

“The Spirit was neither made nor created,
but is proceeding from the Father and the Son.”

Nevertheless, in the AC, since the Son was begotten by the Father, the Father is the Source of the Son. Therefore, the Father remains the ultimate Source of the Spirit. For that reason, in my view, the filioque clause is NOT in opposition to the Monarchy of the Father. It would be easier to make the case that the AC is inconsistent with the Bible on this point (e.g., John 15:26).

Functional Subordination

In EO, the Son and the Spirit are functionally subordinate to the Father:

The Son and the Spirit are “co-eternal and co-uncreated with the Father” because of their “ontological or essential equality” … However, “this does not negate different roles or functions.” (EO Catechism, question 95) The question then gives examples of different functions or roles in which the Son is subordinate to the Father:

        • The head of Christ is God” (1 Cor 11:2-3), and
        • When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to every one” (1 Cor 15:27-28).

The point is that the three Persons are equal ontologically (in terms of substance) but, the Son and the Spirit are functionally (in terms of roles) subordinate to the Father.

The AC, on the other hand, does not seem to allow for functional subordination.

Consistent with EO, the definitions of Subordinationism (the heterodox view) in theological dictionaries are careful to define it not as subordinate in all senses, but as subordinate specifically ontologically, for example, in terms of:

“The divine essence” (Karl Rahner and Herbert Vorgrimler, eds., “Subordinationism,” in Dictionary of Theology (2d ed.; New York: Crossroad, 1981) 488)

“Essential divinity” (Frances Young, The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983) 553)

Therefore, when EO says that the Son is not subordinate to the Father, it specifically means that He is not ontologically subordinate but it does not deny that He is subordinate either relationally or functionally.

Ontological Subordination

For the following reasons, it is proposed that, in EO, the Son and the Spirit are also ontologically less than (subordinate to) the Father:

Eternal Functional Subordination

Firstly, the examples above of the functional subordination of the Son point to ETERNAL functional subordination. One may add Biblical teaching that God created all things “through” His Son (E.g., Heb 1:2; 1 Cor 8:6; Col 1:16). These statements identify the Son as God’s agent in the creation. But eternal functional subordination implies ontological subordination. Why would the Son and the Spirit be eternally functionally subordinate unless they are also ontologically subordinate?

Cause and Origin

Secondly, if “the Father is the cause and origin,” as the EO Catechism claims, the Son and the Spirit received their substance and divinity from the Father. This is stated explicitly by Fr. Thomas Hopko:

The church fathers of the fourth century, like Gregory the theologian, would never have said that the Father is of one essence with the Son. They would only say that the Son is of one essence with the Father. The reason is that the Son’s divinity is the Father’s divinity. The Son is “God from God” (Nicene Creed). He is a divine Person “from” the one God.

If the Son and the Spirit received their divinity (substance) from the Father, and if they do not have one single substance as in the AC, then the substances of the Son and the Spirit are portions of the substance of the Father. That would mean that they are ontologically subordinate to the Father. That this concept is an ancient teaching can be seen in Tertullian’s words:

“The Father is the entire substance, but the Son is a derivation and portion of the whole” (Tertullian Against Praxeas, 9 (ANF 3: 604))

In conclusion, while the AC has a strong emphasis on the single undivided substance and only allows relational subordination, in EO, the Son is ontologically, functionally, and relationally subordinate to the Father.

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