Unbegetting the Eunomian God

“God is unbegotten substance,” declares Eunomius. When we say this, we are stating a precise definition of God and thus comprehending him as he truly is. Eunomius certainly does not mean to suggest that we thus know God exhaustively and completely; but we do comprehend the divine substance; we are able to verbalize an exact definition of God. Eunomius has thus modified the epistemological priority of definition. It is not just that we must first be able to know what something is before we can know anything else about it. For Eunomius, as Andrew Radde-Gallwitz explains, “God’s essence is all there is to know” (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Transformation of Divine Simplicity, p.108).

St Basil of Casarea and his pro-Nicene peers were scandalized. Even many of the Homoians were scandalized. Before Aetius and Eunomius no Christian theologian had been so bold about our knowledge of the eternal Creator. Yes, we are given to know the Father through and in the Son; but always this claim was qualified by the assertion of the divine ineffability. Even in his self-revelation God remains the transcendent mystery. But the scandal goes deeper than the denial of the incomprehensibility of the divine substance. Basil recognizes that in the hands of Eunomius the assertion of the unbegottenness of God serves a more nefarious purpose—namely, the ontological subordination of the Son and the Spirit: if the divine substance is unbegottenness, then neither the Son nor the Spirit can be divine. If they were unbegotten, they would be identical to God in substance, and we would be find ourselves ensnared in modalism. But the Church confesses Jesus as the begotten Son. By Eunomian understanding we therefore know that the Son is not God—he is heterousios from the Father—precisely because we say that he is generated by God. Our linguistic distinctions map directly onto reality. We must conclude, therefore, that the Son is a product of the divine will, analogous to other creatures, with the proviso that all other creatures are made by the Son in cooperation with the Father.

Basil rightly judges that if the gospel of the Trinity is to be firmly secured, he must challenge the privileging of “unbegotten” by Eunomius. Why this one attribute? Basil advances four counter-arguments:

First, the term “unbegotten” is unbiblical. “It is nowhere to be found in Scripture,” Basil explains; and “the term ‘Father’ means the same as ‘unbegotten,’ yet it has the additional advantage of implying a relation, thereby introducing the notion of the Son. For the one who is really Father is the only one who is from no other, and being ‘from no one’ is the same as being ‘unbegotten'” (Contra Eunomium 1.5). Basil will develop his crucial point about the relationality of the divine Fatherhood a bit latter in his treatise, but at the moment we simply note the assertion of divine authority for the familial name “Father,” over against the term “unbegotten,” which is nowhere to be found in the apostolic revelation. The Savior commanded us, “Go, baptize in the name of the Father” (Mt 28:19); he did not say, “baptize in the name of the unbegotten.”

Second, Basil challenges Eunomius’s dismissal of “conceptualization” (epinoia). As we saw in our previous article, Eunomius insists that concepts and names developed by human reflection, which in his view are nothing more than inventions, cannot mediate knowledge of the incomposite, simple deity. Basil judges that this epistemology is incompatible not only with how we come to know reality in general but specifically with the discourse of Holy Scripture:

When our Lord Jesus Christ spoke about himself to make known both the Divinity’s love of humanity and the grace that comes to humanity from the economy, he did so by means of certain distinguishing marks considered in connection with him. He called himself ‘door,’ ‘way,’ ‘bread,’ ‘vine,’ ‘shepherd,’ and ‘light,’ even though he is not a polyonym. All these names do not carry the same meaning as one another. For ‘light’ signifies one thing, ‘vine’ another, ‘way’ another, and ‘shepherd’ yet another. Though our Lord is one in substrate, and one substance, simple and not composite, he calls himself by different names at different times, using designations that differ from one another for the different conceptualizations. On the basis of his different activities and his relation to the objects of his divine benefaction, he employs different names for himself. For instance, when he calls himself ‘the light of the world,’ he points out the inaccessibility of the glory in the divinity. He also calls himself this because he illuminates those who have purified the eye of their soul with the splendor of his knowledge. He calls himself ‘vine’ because he nurtures those who have been planted in him by faith so that they may bear the fruits of good works. And ‘bread’ because he turns out to be a rational being’s most appropriate nourishment, since he maintains the soul’s constitution, preserves its distinguishing mark, and, always filling up from himself what is lacking, does not allow it to be dragged down to the weakness that enters it from irrationality. And if anyone should examine each of the names one by one, he would find the various conceptualizations, even though for all there is one substrate as far as substance is concerned. Who, then, has so sharpened his tongue for blasphemy that he dares to say that these conceptualizations are dissolved together with the sound of the words? (Eun. 1.7)

God may be one and his divine substance simple and incomposite, yet Scripture employs a multiplicity of names and terms to describe deity according to various aspects.

Contrary to the assertions of Eunomius, epinoia is a legitimate and necessary mode of human knowing, sanctioned by divine revelation. The Scriptures bespeak God in manifold ways. If Eunomius is correct, then either the testimony of the Bible does not in fact communicate the truth of God (inconceivable!), or the various attributes and properties of God of which the Bible speaks in fact refer to the divine substance and mean the same thing as unbegottenness (ridiculous!). “How is it not sheer madness,” asks Basil, “to deny that a proper signification underlies each of the names, and to claim in contradiction to their actual meaning that all names mean the same thing as one another?” (Eun. 1.8). Lewis Ayres summarizes the Basilean position on epinoia:

Basil states that no one name can ever serve to identify God’s existence. Rather, we know in theology by epinoia, which for the moment we can gloss as ‘the activity of reflecting on and identifying the distinct qualities or properties of something’. In focusing on this term Basil contradicts Eunomius’ dismissal of the idea that we know God only in concepts developed by the human mind. In response Basil, at Contra Eunomium 1.6, offers a definition of the process of epinoia. Realities we initially perceive as simple and undifferentiated can, by a process of reflection and abstraction, be recognized as a conglomeration of attributes and qualities. In this process of epinoia we find ourselves in a somewhat paradoxical situation: we do not, strictly speaking, grasp the nature of something by epinoia, but epinoia, nevertheless, delivers an accurate and useful knowledge of something.

At 1.7 Basil gives a theological example. The divine speech (Scripture) accommodates itself to our capacities and reveals Christ’s properties (idiomata) of being ‘door, way, bread, light’ (for example), but his simple essence (ousia or hypokeimenon) remains unknown. Each one of these titles enables us to conceptualize an aspect of Christ’s work and grow in knowledge of him, even while we do not know his essence. In the same way Basil argues that we use ‘unbegotten’ of God by epinoia: we perceive that God’s life must extend beyond all pasts we can imagine and thus that God precedes temporal generation even while we cannot say what God is. Thus, for Basil, epinoia, far from being an unreliable mode of knowing, is both a necessary feature of any advanced knowledge of things and a means of human knowledge directly addressed by the divine dispensation. (Nicaea and its Legacy, pp. 191-192)

Third, Basil rejects the Eunomian claim that “unbegotten” is different in kind from other privatives or negative terms that are typically applied to God. As we have seen, Eunomius denies that “unbegotten” is a privative–by his very nature God is the fullness of being and has never been without any of his properties: “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” (Apol. 8). Basil insists, however, that “unbegotten” functions in the same way that other privatives do, such as “immortal,” “invisible,” “incorruptible,” “immutable,” “incorporeal,” and so forth. In Greek all of these terms are linguistically marked (they are known as alpha-privatives), much as we mark words in English by adding the prefixes in- and un-. “Note, Eunomius,” Basil declares,

that many of the things said about God are expressed with terms of a similar formation, for example, ‘incorruptible,’ ‘immortal,’ and ‘invisible.’ We maintain that ‘unbegotten’ has the same formation. So, then, if some call such names ‘privatives,’ this way of speaking is of no concern to us. For we know nothing about the technical jargon for terms, nor are we envious of those who do. Nonetheless, in whatever category one may put the other terms we have listed, we say that the designation ‘unbegotten’ also belongs in the same. Just as ‘incorruptible’ signifies that no corruption is present to God, and ‘invisible’ that he is beyond every comprehension through the eyes, and ‘incorporeal’ that his substance is not three-dimensional, and ‘immortal’ that dissolution will never happen to him, so too do we also say that ‘unbegotten’ indicates that no begetting is present to him. So, then, if none of the former terms is privative, then neither is the latter. But if you grant that the former terms are privatives without conceding this for the designation ‘unbegotten,’ then tell me, what is the preceding possession whose privation is revealed by ‘incorruptible’? Why can’t ‘unbegotten’ have the same force? He practices his evil art of this term alone because the foundations of his impiety depend upon it. (Eun. 1.9)

According to Basil, Eunomius’s selection of “unbegotten” as a privileged name is purely arbitrary. If “unbegotten” names the divine substance, why do the other privatives not also do so? We can just as easily declare (quoting Eunomius) that “When we say ‘_____’ [pick your favorite alpha-privative], 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.” But if “incorruptible” or “invisible” does not name the divine essence, then neither does “unbegotten”! Eunomius perhaps has a ready comeback, if Richard Vaggione is correct in his analysis. Eunomius might respond that the other privatives can also be attributed to angels–they too are invisible, incorporeal, immaterial, etc. Only “unbegotten” uniquely applies to God; he alone enjoys unoriginated existence. I wonder how Basil might have replied.

The function of negative terms is to prevent us from improperly attributing of God qualities and properties intrinsic to created being. We use these privatives “so that human beings will never consider God to be one of the things that are corruptible, or one of the things that are visible, or one of the things that are begotten” (Eun. 1.10). Privatives thus summon us to purify our thinking about the uncreated deity. For St Basil, the divine substance is incomprehensible, unknowable, ineffable, unspeakable. God is infinite Being. He cannot be defined.

Finally, Basil argues that “unbegotten” is in reality a conceptualization, a product of considered reflection upon the divine life:

For we say that the God of the universe is ‘incorruptible’ and ‘unbegotten,’ designating him with these names according to various aspects. Whenever we consider ages past, we find that the life of God transcends every beginning and say that he is ‘unbegotten.’ Whenever we stretch out mind forward to the ages to come, we designate the one who is without boundary, infinite, and comprehended by no terminal point as ‘incorruptible.’ Therefore, just as ‘incorruptible’ is the name we give him because his life is without an end, so too is ‘unbegotten’ the name given because his life is without a beginning, when we consider each through conceptualization. (Eun. 1.7)

All negative terminology for God, including “unbegotten,” is an expression of our reflection upon the life and activities of God as presented to us in the Holy Scriptures and the natural order. Negative terms do not signify the “what” of the divine substance but rather the “how” of the divine substance, “what it is like” (Eun. 1.15)–or perhaps more accurately, what it is not like. Hence “unbegotten” does not tell us what God is, but only that he is “from no source.” “The substance of God is unbegotten,” Basil pithily states, “but the Unbegotten is not his substance” (Eun. 1.11).

The Bishop of Caesarea is emphatic: “the substance of God is incomprehensible to human nature and completely ineffable” (Eun. 1.14). We might expect him, therefore, to affirm some form of radical apophaticism, much as did Clement of Alexandria. Yet surprisingly, he does not. Basil does not hesitate to predicate goodness, justice, life, light, power, wisdom of the divine substance. These positive attributes are “present” to God, but they do not essentially define him. Basil concludes:

There is not one name which encompasses the entire nature of God and suffices to express it adequately. Rather, there are many diverse names, and each one contributes, in accordance with its own meaning, to a notion that is altogether dim and trifling as regards the whole but that is at least sufficient for us. Now some of the names applied to God are indicative of what is present to God; others, on the contrary, of what is not present. From these two something like an impression of God is made in us, namely, from the denial of what is incongruous with him and from the affirmation of what belongs to him. (Eun. 1.10)

In his Apology for the Apology Eunomius would accuse Basil of violating the divine simplicity. If the above properties may be predicated of the divine substance, and if they are not synonymous, then how is Basil not transforming divinity into a compound substance? But perhaps there is an alternative. Just perhaps St Basil is transforming the notion of divine simplicity.

(Go to “Eunomius and his Simple God“)

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