Understanding Eunomius

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.

( Go to “The ‘Biblical’ Monotheism of Eunomius“)

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7 Responses to Understanding Eunomius

  1. Father:

    My knowledge of Eunomius is probably even less direct than yours. But based on what I’ve read and what you’ve presented, I believe his basic error was logical. It caused him to absolutize and exaggerate the truth he affirmed.

    As Eunomius seems to have used the term, ‘unbegotten’ means ‘exists a se‘–that is, exists “of itself” and is in no way caused. Now that is necessarily true of the Godhead in relation to whatever is not God; it is also necessarily true of the Father in relation to the other two Persons. And it’s right to say that the term ‘aseity’ is truly ascribed to the divine essence considered in relation to whatever is not of the divine essence. But it does not follow that the divine essence comprises no causal relations within itself, where ‘causal’ is taken in an analogous sense. If that did follow, then only the Father would be God, which is what Eunomius thought. To put it another way: from the fact that whatever is God exists a se in relation to creation, and that the Father exists absolutely a se, it does not follow that whatever is God exists absolutely a se. If three persons are each the same God–which is what orthodoxy professes–then the Father in some sense(s) causes the other two, which latter thus exist a se only relative to what is not God. But the Trinity is identical with the divine essence; it’s not as though the divine essence were one thing and the Trinity three other things. So the Trinity and the divine essence exist a se in relation to whatever is not God, but two divine persons are caused by the one that is absolutely a se, and are thus only relatively a se.

    Eunomius is just another case of somebody thinking he’s won the race.by riding a horse too hard.



  2. PJ says:

    Surely Eunomius is one of the great grandfathers of the Mohammedan heresy. Such radical and absolute monotheism — monadism, really — is always a temptation, for it privileges a notion of the divine as a fearful cosmic king at the expense of the communion of charity which is the truth, as expressed by traditional Christian creeds.


  3. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I have expanded this article just a bit.


  4. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Consider this comment by St John Chrysostom about the Eunomians: “When we were starting our discourses about the incomprehensibility of God, they were obstinately striving to claim for themselves what belongs to the only begotten alone, namely, that they know God as perfectly as God knows himself” (On the Incomprehensible Nature of God 7.10). This homily was preached on 20 December 386, only a few years after St Gregory Nazianzen’s Theological Orations.


  5. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Another comment by St John Chrysostom on the Eunomians: “Let us try to tear out by the roots this destructive force because in it we have the mother of all evils, the source from which those teachings of the Anomoeans grew. What is the root of all these evils? Believe me, a holy trembling lays hold of me as I am about to speak of it. I tremble to let my tongue utter the thought they are constantly pondering in their minds. What, then, is the root of these evils? A mere human has the boldness to say: ‘I know God as God himself knows himself'” ((On the Incomprehensible Nature of God 2.17).


  6. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    In my article above I state that “Father” is a synonym for “Unbegotten.” I am not sure now if this is correct. Khaled Anatolios writes of Eunomius, “The term ‘Father’ designates neither the eternal essence of the Unbegotten nor an eternal capacity (dynamis) for action, much less an eternal action. It only names the agency of the begetting of the Son, which is external and posterior to the divine essence” (p. 75). This makes sense. Let’s call this a question that needs further consideration. Anyone have any opinions and documentation they’d like to share?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I have not yet found evidence that “Father” is not a synonym for “Unbegotten.” Today I came across a statement by Frederick Norris in his commentary on the Five Theological Orations in which he states that “Father”=”Unbegotten”: “Eunomius (Apology 8, 18-19 and 23) insists that ‘unbegotten’ was the name of God’s essence and that other names like ‘Father’ had to be equal to ‘unbegotten’ to be names of God” (Faith Gives Fullness to Reasoning, p. 194).

      One day I will have to order Vagionne’s book on Eunomius through ILL and see if he discusses this question. I suspect that Behr and Norris are correct. As I read through Eunomius’ Apology I do not find a statement that would imply that the “Unbegotten” became “Father” when he begat the Son. “Unbegotten” and “Father” seem to function as synonyms. I await further documentation.


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