The Unbegotten Eunomius

Eunomius begins his Apology with a traditional creedal statement:

We believe in one God, the Father almighty, from whom are all things;

And in one only-begotten Son of God, God the Word, our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things;

And in one holy Spirit, the Counsellor, in whom is given to each of the saints an apportionment of every grace according to measure for the common good. (Apol. 5)

This statement, Eunomius avers, sets forth the “governing tradition which has come down from the fathers” and thus appropriately serves “as the exact standard by which to judge what is said” (Apol. 4). Eunomius firmly situates himself in the apostolic faith. But because some have accused him of impiety, he goes on to say, it is necessary for him to bring forth arguments in order to disclose the underlying meaning of the creedal claims and thus demonstrate his fidelity to the tradition of the Church.

Eunomius then proceeds to unpack the significance of the unity and self-existence of God:

It is in accordance, therefore, both with innate knowledge and the teaching of the fathers that we have made our confession that God is one, and that he was brought into being neither by his own action nor by that of any other, for each of these is equally impossible. … So then, 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)

“God is unbegotten essence”—this is the fundamental, and innovative, Eunomian claim that scandalized St Basil and his fellow pro-Nicene churchmen. Christian theologians had long taught that the divine substance is ineffable and transcends definition, but Eunomius here implies that we may comprehend the substance (or essence) of God: God is unbegottenness. One immediately notes the extra step Eunomius has taken. He has gone beyond the traditional statement that God owes his existence to no other agent or source and made this feature, ingenerateness, God’s single defining characteristic.

Perhaps at this point we need to ask what it means to know the substance (ousia) of something. Andrew Radde-Gallwitz offers this helpful explanation:

Ancient epistemology since Plato and Aristotle had been shaped by a concern with discovering the essences of things. That is, to know something meant to be able to explain it: to state what makes it the kind of thing it is, in other words, its essence. And to state this essence was to state the thing’s definition. In other words, the definitions philosophers looked for were not primarily definitions of words but of realities, especially of natural ‘kinds’ such as humanity or of forms such as justice. Knowing such definitions was held to be basic to knowing at all: in order to know something as beautiful, in order reliably and consistently to identify instances of beauty, one must know the essence of beauty. This is the thesis known as the epistemological priority of definition. (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Transformation of Divine Simplicity, p. 3)

If we Christians truly know God, argues Eunomius, then we should be able to provide a definition of what God is, just as we can do for other existents. We should be able to stipulate which attributes and properties essentially belong to God, without which he would not be God. We should be able to name the divine substance. Eunomius believes that he knows this name–“unbegotten.”

When we say ‘unbegotten,’ we do not intend to honor God in name alone by human conceptualization; rather we intend to repay him the most necessary debt of all, namely, confessing that he is what he is. Things said by way of conceptualization, you see, have an existence in name alone and when they are being pronounced, and by nature are dissolved together with the sounds used to say them; but God, whether these sounds are silent, sounding, or have even come into existence, and before anything was created, both was and is unbegotten. He is not such, however, by way of privation; for if privatives are privatives with respect to the inherent properties of something, then they are secondary to their positives. But birth has never been an inherent property of God! He was not first begotten and then deprived of that quality so as to become unbegotten! Indeed, if to say that God has been deprived of anything at all is impious in the extreme as being destructive of the true notion of God and of his perfection (or rather, destructive of the minds of those who invent such things), then it must surely be impious to say this with respect to things which belong to his nature, for no one of sound mind would say that a thing had been deprived of something which it did not previously possess. So then if, as shown by the preceding argument, ‘the Unbegotten’ is based neither on invention nor on privation, and is not applied to a part of him only (for he is without parts), and does not exist within him as something separate (for he is simply and uncompounded), and is not something different alongside him (for he is one and only he is unbegotten), then ‘the Unbegotten’ must be unbegotten essence. (Apol. 8)

This citation raises the question of the meaning of divine simplicity and how it shapes Eunomius’s understanding of theological language. I will return to this question in a subsequent article. For the moment I simply want to highlight his conviction that the title “unbegotten” is a divinely-given name that conveys to us authentic knowledge of the deity. It tells us what God truly is, not just how he appears or relates to us. The title is not an invention of human imagination or a product of discursive reason. In the absence of a revelatory name, we would not have reliable knowledge of God as he is; we would only have opinions. According to Eunomius, our conceptualizations (epinoia) of deity, even when grounded upon reflection on Scripture, refer to nothing at all in the divine nature and disappear into thin air immediately upon utterance. Hence to reject “unbegotten” as the true name of God, says Eunomius, is to refuse him the honor and glory that is his rightful due (see my earlier article “Understanding Eunomius“; also see Mark DelCogliano’s dissertation Basil of Caesarea’s Anti-Eunomian Theory of Names).

Why does Eunomius settle on “unbegotten” as the privileged appellation for God? Because, suggests Richard Vaggione, it is a word that applies exclusively to God:

But, then, why this word? Why agennetos? Agennetos is attractive because it is singularly unique; it is one of the very few words that can be applied to God and to no other Being. ‘Father’, ‘I am’, or even ‘god’ can be used in other senses of other entities—only agennetos can be applied only to the Source of all things and to nothing else. That is the reason why ‘Unbegotten’ can be considered the ‘name’ of God—not because it is privileged as a collection of syllables, but because it is the one human word that can be applied to no one else but him. (Eunomius of Cyzicus and the Nicene Revolution, p. 247).

The word “unbegotten,” therefore, precisely discloses and communicates the divine substance: to apprehend the meaning of the divine title is to share in God’s knowledge of himself. The 5th century Church historian Socrates of Constantinople reports the following statement from Eunomius, perhaps from his now lost commentary on Romans:

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. (EH 4.7)

Through the comprehension of the divine name, and thus of the divine substance, we are given to participate in the self-understanding of God. Because the name comprises the essential definition of God, it may thus be said that our knowledge of God is identical to his knowledge of himself. This is an astounding claim, but perhaps not as astounding as it sounds to us today:

At least according to their enemies, then, Aetius and Eunomius claimed to know the essence of God exactly, just as God knows it himself. This seemed bizarre in antiquity, and it still seems bizarre today; but at least part of the difficulty is our own. Centuries of implicit nominalism have made it very difficult for most of us to imagine what it is really like to say that an idea exists outside our own minds as a ‘thing’, and that we share in it but do not originate it. But that, of course, is exactly what Aetius, Eunomius, and most of their contemporaries did say. They believed that ideas are things; that essences exist in their own right, and that to the extent that they are in our minds at all, it is because we participate in them, not the other way around. To say, then, that names are ‘tools’ in that context is to say that, when they tell us what things are, they do so by putting us in actual contact with the essence. What is true in general is true also of God: to know God’s Name is to acknowledge the presence in our minds of the Essence it represents. Our knowledge is thus ‘real’ because in this, as in other instances, the name brings us into contact with a really existing non-material essence whose existence does not depend upon whether or not we are thinking it. To know the name, therefore, is to gain ‘real’ access to an intelligible reality that really exists independently of ourselves. (Vaggione, p. 254)

If we do in fact know God as he knows himself, then our knowledge of God must be described as non-discursive and immediate. As an eternal and incomposite reality, God does not acquire knowledge of himself in parts or as parts. He knows himself in immediate wholeness. Perhaps this is why Eunomius dismisses the claim of his opponents that we may apprehend deity through conceptualization, which he sees as equivalent to human invention. Years later, in his Apology for the Apology, Eunomius would explain his rejection of epinoia as a means to know God: conceptualizations always involve the manipulation of basic notions, and this manipulation can only result in fictions. Knowledge of the One who is beyond priority and posteriority cannot be acquired through a process of conceptualization. Our knowledge of uncreated divinity, if it is to be true knowledge, must be non-discursive and immediate, thus reflecting the divine self-knowledge (see Radde-Gallwitz, pp. 98-104; also Stephen Hildebrand, The Trinitarian Theology of Basil of Caesarea, pp. 42-43). In the revelatory name “unbegotten,” God has given us this knowledge.

One of my seminary professors liked to say, “Interesting … if true.” St Basil of Caesarea was convinced that on just about every controversial point, Eunomius was wrong … sometimes dangerously wrong.

(Go to “Unbegetting the Eunomian God”)

This entry was posted in Basil of Caesarea, Theology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Unbegotten Eunomius

  1. PJ says:

    I’m suddenly transported to the 14th century. Barlaam and Palamas, anyone?


Comments are closed.