Understanding Eunomius … not.
In order to understand the detailed arguments of the Five Theological Orations of St Gregory the Theologian, one probably has to have a good grasp of the teachings of the heretic Eunomius. I have spent many hours reading and re-reading secondary sources on Eunomius, and I have to concede that I simply do not have the philosophical training and brain power to comprehend him. And if I cannot understand Eunomius, then I probably will not fully grasp Gregory’s critique of Eunomius, at least not in many of its specifics and nuances. Sigh.
In this article I thought I would briefly highlight some of the things I think I have learned about the teachings of Eunomius. Please understand: I have not read the primary texts; I am relying completely on secondary sources. If I have misunderstood or misrepresented Eunomius or have missed something important, please let me know.
John Behr devotes several pages of The Nicene Faith to the two principal exponents of the Heteroousian (or Anomoean) heresy, Aetius and Eunomius (II:267-282). Eunomius begins his theological reflection from a strict monotheism. All Christians agree that there is only one uncreated Deity. God is self-existent and eternal. He did not bring himself into being, nor does he owe his existence to any other being. Hence he is properly described as “unbegotten” or “ingenerate.” “So then,” Eunomius explains, “if it has now been demonstrated that God neither existed before himself nor did anything else exist before him, but that he is before all things, then what follows from this is ‘the unbegotten’ or rather that he is unbegotten essence” (Apol. 7; quoted in Behr, II:273).
To be unbegotten, declares Eunomius, is the most accurate and exact thing we can say about God. “Unbegotten” is applied to him and him alone. It properly designates what God is. To know that God is unbegotten is to apprehend his essential identity. The name discloses the divine being. And if this is true, then human understanding of God coincides precisely with God’s own understanding of himself. The fifth century church historian Socrates of Constantinople quotes Eunomius as follows: “God does not know anything more about his own essence than we do, nor is that essence better known to him and less to us; rather, whatever we ourselves know about it is exactly what he knows, and, conversely, that which he knows is what you will find without change in us” (quoted in Behr, II:271). Whether this is an authentic quotation is debated by scholars, but it does at the least express what orthodox churchmen understood Eunomius to be saying, namely, that we may truly know what God is; we may comprehend the Deity in his essence. Eunomius is not claiming that he knows everything about God; he is not denying the incomparable mystery that is divinity; but he is asserting that he can identify and define precisely what it means for the one God to be God.
Eunomius than makes an interesting move: he insists that the divine ingeneratenness is not just one of many predicates of deity; it is the primary and defining predicate, superior to all others. God’s being simply is unbegottenness.
Underlying Eunomius’s thought is a particular understanding, going back to Plato, of the relationship between language and reality: names reveal essence. To know the name of a thing is to know what that thing is; hence to know the names of God is to possess true and exact knowledge of God. Mark DelCogliano elaborates:
The Heteroousian theory that names specifically disclose substance is the basis of their theological epistemology. The Heteroousians are heirs of a long philosophical tradition that understood real knowledge of things to be a comprehension of their essences. According to the Heteroousians, names are the means by which such real knowledge of God is attained. Hence ‘unbegotten’ reveals God as he truly is. If the divine names do not objectively refer to the divine substance, then knowledge of God is impossible and theology is a mere game played with meaningless words in futility. As Aetius said, if ‘unbegotten’ does not signify substance, “then it turns out that the hope of Christians comes and goes, being based on a distinct utterance, but not on natures that are as the meaning of their names implies.” (Basil of Caesarea’s Anti-Eunomian Theory of Names, pp. 40-41)
For Eunomius what is at stake in this debate is the reliability of our knowledge of God. If our names for God enjoy only a conventional relationship to the deity, if they are the invention of human imagination, then we are stuck in a hopeless agnosticism and are rendered incapable of honoring God as he deserves to be honored:
When we say “unbegotten,” then, we do not imagine that we ought to honor God only in name, in conformity with human conception; rather, in conformity with reality, we ought to repay him the debt which above all others is most due God: the confession that he is what he is. Things said by [human] conception have their existence in name and utterance only, and by their nature are dissolved along with the sounds [which make them up], but God, whether these sounds are silent, sounding, or have even come into existence, and before anything was created, both was and is unbegotten. (Apol. 8; quoted in Behr, II:273-274)
Eunomius appears to have grounded his essentialist understanding of language on the divine origin of names. According to his reading of the first two chapters of Genesis, God gave names to things before humanity was created and then passed on these names to Adam and his descendants. By divine ordination authentic names, as opposed to terms invented by human beings, correspond to the natures of things, which is why the apprehension of the meaning of names immediately lead us to a knowledge of essences (see DelCogliano, pp. 51ff.). Questions may be posed to Eunomius: Where in Scripture do we learn that “unbegotten” is the exclusive, divinely bestowed name for God (cf. Gregory Nazianzen Or 31.23)? Is “unbegotten” derived from philosophical analysis? Is it an inference from the biblical assertion that Christ is begotten? And finally, does not Adam’s naming of the animals actually suggest the opposite of what Eunomius claims (Gen 2:19-20)?
From the premise that God is unbegotten essence Eunomius logically derives the proposition that neither Jesus Christ nor the Holy Spirit share or possess the divine essence. Because both derive their origin from God, i.e., neither of them are unbegotten, both must be creatures made by God, though enjoying the highest positions in the creaturely hierarchy. The Son and Spirit are products of the divine will. “The absoluteness of unbegottenness, for Eunomius, thus strictly precludes any notion of derivation,” writes Khaled Anatolios; “positing such derivation within the divine essence violates both reason and the honor due to God. Radical ontological derivation, by which a being exists through the agency of another, is the definition of creaturehood. The positive reality that is prior to all such derivation is signified by the title ‘Unbegotten,’ so identifying the divine essence as unbegotten is the first and highest way to honor God” (Retrieving Nicaea, p. 73). Eunomius’ assertion of the comprehensibility of God thus leads him to a radical denial of the full divinity of the Son and the Spirit. The Son and Spirit are unlike the Father in being and essence. Arius is reborn in sophisticated philosophical dress.
Eunomius’ principal polemical concern is the identity of the Son. Scripture identifies him as “offspring” and “begotten.” Given that words reveal essence, we may logically infer from these terms that the essence of the Son is different from the essence of the Father. Eunomius puts it this way:
We call the Son “offspring,” therefore, in accordance with the teaching of the Scriptures. We do not understand his essence to be one thing and the meaning of the word which designates it to be something else. Rather, we take it that his substance is the very same as that which is signified by his name, granted that the designation applies properly to the essence. We assert, therefore, that this essence was begotten—not having been in existence prior to its coming to be—and that it exists, having been begotten before all things by the will of its God and Father. (Apol. 12; quoted in Behr, II:276-177)
Frederick Norris succinctly states the Eunomian argument: “There is no likeness or sameness of essence shared by Father, Son and Spirit because the revealed names of their natures are different. The Father is ‘unbegotten’; the Son is ‘begotten’; the Spirit ‘proceeds'” (Faith Gives Fullness to Reasoning, p. 64).
What then do we mean when we call God “Father”? For Eunomius the biblical descriptors of God must be completely divorced from the meanings that they enjoy within the world. Behr explains:
Eunomius emphasizes very strongly the homonymous character of scriptural language. He argues against those … who take the terms “Father” and “Son,” and then proceed by analogy to conclude that divine “begetting,” as human “begetting” when stripped of all its material and passionate aspects, is a communication of essence. … Analogy between the two uses of the same word, in the divine and human realm, is not enough; Eunomius wants to separate completely the meaning of a term when applied to God and the meaning of the same term when applied in the human realm. There are, Eunomius points out, some words “which have only their sound and utterance in common, but not at all their signification,” that is, homonyms. (II:177)
Ultimately, all genuine words for the Deity signify the divine ousia, which, as we have seen, is unbegottenness. “Every word used to signify the essence of the Father,” asserts Eunomius, “is equivalent in force of meaning to ‘the Unbegotten'” (Apol. 17; quoted in Behr, II:277). The title “Father,” therefore, functions simply as a synonym for “unbegotten.” It designates the Deity as self-existent monad and supreme originator. God is Father even without a Son.
John McGuckin observes that the Eunomians scored a propaganda coup with the claim that we may know the essence of God through philosophical reasoning and the reading of Holy Scripture. It created major difficulties for the supporters of Nicaea, as “it invited full lay participation in theological debate, governed only by the terms of logical assessment of scriptural texts” (Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, p. 284). Knowledge of God is accessible to all. When St Gregory Nazianzen arrived in Constantinople, he found a city embroiled in theological debate and controversy. The stage was set for the Five Theological Orations.