Ante-Nicene Subordinationism and the Unitarian Narrative

So how did we get from trinity to Trinity, from the one God with his Son and Holy Spirit to the tri-personal God in which each person is ontologically distinct and yet equally divine? As we saw in “Once Upon a Time,” Dale Tuggy offers a plausible narrative: from its Pentecostal inception the Church confessed the “one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor 8:6; cf. Col 1:15-17), right up until the ecumenical councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381). At this point, he claims, the unitarian wheels fell off and a very different Deity began to be proclaimed and dogmatically imposed. In the words of the fifth-century Quiqunque vult (popularly known as the Athanasian Creed):

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

How different this sounds from the ancient rule of faith and baptismal creeds. Thus the Old Roman Symbol:

I believe in God the Father almighty;
and in Christ Jesus His only Son, our Lord …;
and in the Holy Spirit …

Even the Creed of Nicaea preserved the primitive “unitarian” structure: “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty …”

But perhaps we should look earlier than the fourth century for the decisive departure from the allegedly unitarian Deity of the New Testament—namely, to the mid-second century when Christians began to interpret their triadic faith in light of Hellenistic philosophy.  Tuggy alludes to this development in his Oxford handbook “Metaphysics and the Logic of the Trinity“:

The platonic theory of forms introduced another twist. A Christian monotheist must view the one God as the ultimate, so the ultimate reality can’t be any mere form (universal). And as ultimate, this God can’t “participate in” or in any way depend on some other reality, such as the universal divinity. Rather, he must be divinity. And other things which are to some degree divine must “participate in” or “imitate” God, who is the universal divinity, to various degrees. Thus, the Son and Spirit, as divine, get their degree of divinity ultimately from the Father, that is, from God himself. And for some, the Spirit gets his indirectly, by way of the Son. This transmission of divinity was first envisioned as occurring a finite time ago, before the creation of the cosmos, but starting with Origen of Alexandria (c. 186‒255 A.D.), the more popular view became that this divinity transmission is eternal, so that relative to any time (or timelessly) there is a triad of three divine beings, with the second and third ultimately depending on the first for their existence and divine nature/essence. In this way, the members of the trinity share the universal essence divinity. It is the result of God (either eternally or a long time ago) as it were producing inferior copies of himself, putting a degree or amount of his divinity into two others.

Here we see the decisive movement from Jewish monolatry to philosophical monotheism. Beginning with the Apologists, divinity is identified as ultimate reality and the unconditioned ground of being. God is a monadic being whose properties include reason, wisdom, goodness. Once having decided to create a cosmos, he needs to generate a second divine self, the Logos, to mediate the divine act of creation. This being now stands between Deity and the world. One might even argue that the positing of metaphysical mediators began with the Apostles Paul and John. After all, it’s pretty strange hearing Paul asserting that the entirety of creation exists through the man Jesus (quotation above) or John declaring that “all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (Jn 1:3). But why the need for one or more intermediaries between the absolute Creator and the cosmos? More importantly, how is this not polytheism‽ Clearly neither Apostle thought he was compro­mising the monotheistic commitment of their Jewish faith, yet here they are identifying the crucified and exalted Nazarene as an agent of divine creation (for analysis of Jewish monotheism and the divinity of Jesus, see Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel). Is this Jesus divine, semi-divine, quasi-divine, or perhaps just an exalted creature?

David Bentley Hart locates the problem in the subordinationist understanding of reality that was characteristic of the Hellenistic apprehension of reality:

In the intellectual world of the first three centuries before Nicaea, especially in the East, something like a “Logos metaphysics” was a crucial part of the philosophical lingua Franca of almost the entire educated class, pagan, Jewish, Christian, and even Gnostic (even though the term generally preferred was rarely “logos”). Certainly in Alexandria the idea of a “derivative” or “secondary” divine principle was a common premise in the city’s native schools of Trinitarian reflection, and in the thought of either “Hellenized” Jews like Philo or the Platonists, middle or late. And one could describe all these systems, pagan and Jewish no less than Christian, as “subordinationist” in structure. All of them attempted, with greater or lesser complexity, and with more or less elaborate mythic detail, to connect the world here below to its highest principle by populating the interval between them with various intermediate degrees of spiritual reality. All of them were shaped by the same metaphysical impulse, one sometimes described as the “pleonastic fallacy”: the notion that, in order to overcome the infinite disproportion between the immanent and the transcendent, it is enough to conceive of some sort of scale of successively more accommodating hypostases or emanations or abstract causes between, on the one hand, the One or the Father or ho theos and, on the other, the world of finite and changing things. In all such systems, the second moment of the real—that which proceeds directly from the supreme principle of all things: logos, or nous, or what have you—was understood as a kind of economic limitation of its source, so reduced in nature as to be capable of entering into contact with the realm of discrete beings, of translating the power of the supreme principle into various finite effects, and of uniting this world to the wellspring of all things. This derivative principle may not as a rule properly be called ho theos, but it definitely is theos: God with respect to lower reality. And this meant that this secondary moment of the real was understood as mediating this supreme principle in only a partial and distorted way; for such a principle can appear within the totality of things that exist only as a restriction and diffusion—even perhaps a deviation or alienation from—that which is “really real,” the Father who, in the purity of his transcendence can never directly touch this world. For Christians who thought in such terms, this almost inevitably implied that the Logos had been, in some sense, generated with respect to the created order, as its most exalted expression, certainly, but also somehow contingent upon it. Thus Christian apologists of the second century often spoke of the Logos as having issued from the Father in eternity shortly before the creation of the world. (“The Hidden and the Manifest,” The Hidden and the Manifest, pp. 143-144)

The metaphysical result is a hierarchical chain of being, with a series of mediators between the immutable One and the world of change and multiplicity. Hart’s analysis jives with Tuggy’s observation that the Logos theorists of the second and third centuries consistently speak of degrees of divinity: the Father is perfectly divine in the simplicity of his being; the Son is in some sense less divine; the Spirit even less so. Tuggy elaborates:

Wherever platonic philosophy was influential, so was its assumption that the creator needed some sort of go-between to interact with his material creation, that an unmediated interaction between the creator and the cosmos is metaphysically impossible. This idea is prominent both in the Alexandrian Jewish thinker Philo, a contemporary of Jesus, and in the theology of the early Christian theologian Justin Martyr. Elaborating this scheme, in the 1st and 2nd centuries it became popular for platonic philosophers to posit some transcendent triad, three sources of the cosmos, the primary among which is always the ultimate source, with the other two standing between this and the cosmos. In the latter half of the 2nd century, philosophically minded Christians too started touting their own triad and coined the words we now translate as “Trinity” (Greek, trias; Latin, trinitas) to refer to it.

Given the Hellenistic worldview which everyone inbreathed, it is hardly surprising that early Christian theologians would interpret the biblical narrative of the Father, Son, and Spirit in subordinationist terms. To have done otherwise would have required a metaphysical revolution. Even the great Origen appears to have maintained the subordinationist structure:

The God and Father, who holds the universe together, is superior to every being that exists, for he imparts to each one from his own existence that which each one is; the Son, being less than the Father, is superior to rational creatures alone (for he is second to the Father); the Holy Spirit is still less, and dwells within the saints alone. So that in this way the power of the Father is greater than that of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and that of the Son is more than that of the Holy Spirit, and in turn the power of the Holy Spirit exceeds that of every other holy being. (First Principles 1.3.9; fragment 9)

Here’s Tuggy’s summary:

The person who changed the emerging catholic mainstream from two- to one-stage logos Theory was the massively influential Origen. He holds the divine logos and Spirit to exist eternally, but because of God. In eternity God (the God, in Greek ho theos), aka the Father, causes (“begets”) his logos (Word, a second god (deuterons theos). In so doing he imparts a degree of divinity to the logos. The logos in turn eternally gives a degree of divinity to the Holy Spirit. But for Origen, the Son and Spirit are not divine in the same way as the Father, so as to make them equal in power, knowledge, goodness, and so on. Only the Father is divine independently of any other being and to the highest degree. In second place is the logos, who gets his second greatest degree of divinity from God. In third place is the Spirit, who gets his yet lesser degree from the Son. (Tuggy, What is the Trinity?, pp. 49-50; but cf. Ilaria Ramelli, “Origen’s Anti-Subordinationism“)

Origen is a critical figure for both the unitarian and Trinitarian narratives of the develop­ment of Christian doctrine during the first four centuries. Tuggy sees Origen as continuing the subordinationist Logos tradition, while noting (though without comment) Origen’s crucial innovation—namely, his assertion of the eternal pre-existence of the Son and Spirit. Why is this important? Because it means that at no point did God ever exist apart from the Son whom he has begotten. God exists eternally in relation to his Son; the Son exists eternally in relation to his Father. Against the Monarchians, Origen states, “we must first quote to them the texts capable of establishing definitely that the Son is other than the Father, and we must say that it is necessary that a son be the son of a father and that a father be the father of a son” (Comm. Jo. 10.246). Christ is intrinsic to the divine being and constitutes the identity of the Creator. A century later St Athanasius would echo his fellow Alexandrian: “God, in that he ever is, is ever Father of the Son” (De decretis 12). Origen thus quietly subverts the subordinationist framework in which he is theologizing. Lewis Ayres explains:

Turning to his [Origen’s] account of Father and Son, we need to explore how Origen emphasizes both the unique status of the Father and the ways in which the relationship of Father and Son is constitutive of the divine life. Father and Son are distinct beings and yet Origen begins to think of the Son, the image who is ‘in’ the Father (John 14: 10), as constituted by a mirroring of the Father’s existence and as intrinsic to the nature of God. In part he negotiates this paradox by means of his insistence that the Son is eternally generated from the Father. For Origen, he who is God’s Wisdom and Power must have always been with the Father. Introducing an argument that will be developed in the fourth century, Origen argues that Father and Son are ‘correlative’ terms. The name Father implies the existence of a child, and if God is truly called Father, the Son’s generation must be eternal. The Son’s existence thus seems to be essential to God’s being what God from all eternity wills to be. Thus we see that while the Father is superior to the Son, Origen works to make the Son intrinsic to the being of God: subordinationism is an inappropriate word for describing this theological dynamic. (Nicaea and Its Legacy, pp. 22-23; also see John Behr, The Way to Nicaea, chap. 7)

Tuggy has evidently overlooked this crucial point, thus marring both his presentation of Origen and his analysis of the fourth-century debates on the nature of God. This leads me to make the following observation: Dr Tuggy is strongest when he is writing on the analytic philosophical discussions of the Trinity; he is weakest when he writes on the Church Fathers (excepting, perhaps, Tertullian, whom he seems to know pretty well).

Why did Nicaea happen and what did it mean? It’s time to now hear from the Trinitarian narrative.

(Go to “Trinity, Creation, and the Christian Distinction”)

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9 Responses to Ante-Nicene Subordinationism and the Unitarian Narrative

  1. Does Tuggy consider Philo of Alexandria’s Logos theology in his discussions?


  2. John Church says:

    Perhaps I’m dense, but there are times when I cannot clearly differentiate between when you relate actual church history and when you relate Dr. Tuggy’s specific take on church history (not that they’re mutually exclusive on all counts.)

    If I may take a moment of vulnerability: learning about the early subordinationism of the early fathers took quite a blow on my faith, but it seems, as I’ve been reading these, that the development towards the Nicene doctrine may not reflect a change in the faith itself, but a change in the philosophical framework in which it is viewed and assessed.

    I know that when I read the Scriptures, I see certain ideas expressed in them which seem to reflect the Nicene doctrines quite well. I have been hardpressed to see any ante-nicene treatment on verses such as Pau’s comment that “all the fullness of deity dwells bodily” in Christ, or Christ’s statement that he had glory in the Father “before the world began.” (Jn 17) I may not be looking hard enough, so If anyone wants to pass them my way, I’d welcome it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      John, I’ve been trying to present Dr Tuggy’s unitarian narrative as fairly as possible, within my limitations. I don’t know if he would agree that I have accurately presented his views, but your response suggests that I have at least come close to doing so.

      Stay tuned for the future articles. Perhaps they will address your concerns. Nonetheless, it’s good that you are wrestling with all of this.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      In the meantime, take a look at this article on the Trinity by Fr John Behr. This should buck up your spirits. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Robert Woodman says:

    This series you are writing could be a book, or at least a scholarly paper.


  4. Fr Al,

    Tuggy and others seem to think that early illiterate Christians were sitting around talking and developing doctrine. That’s NOT the formation of early Christology. The formation of early Christology occurred in how Christians understood who Christ is and who the Spirit is through their weekly liturgical life and how they prayed, administered mysteries, and sang with regard to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

    Pliny the Younger (d. 112) wrote that Christians “were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god.” A pagan outsider was able to deduce the the Christian belief in the deity of Christ.

    Christians understood Christ liturgically and they worshipped Him as Yahweh.

    By myself I have sworn;
    from my mouth has gone out in righteousness
    a word that shall not return:
    ‘To me every knee shall bow,
    every tongue shall swear allegiance. (Isaiah 45:12)

    Yahweh says that every knee will bow to Yahweh. And then we read that this will happen to “Jesus”:

    so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:20-11)

    The conclusion is that Jesus is Yahweh.

    Tuggy has it wrong. It wasn’t Origen in the 200s. It wasn’t even Paul in the 50s. It wasn’t even started by Daniel who posits two divine hypostases of “Ancient of Days” and “Son of Man.”

    It is clear in the Pentateuch that the “Malak of the Lord” is divine, is worshipped, is sacrificed to, is a Savior, and is divine:

    In Genesis 16:7–14. The Angel/Messenger of the Lord speaks as God in the first person, and in verse 13 Hagar identifies “the LORD that spoke to her” as “Thou God sees me”.
    In Genesis 22:11–15. The Angel/Messenger of the Lord appears to Abraham and refers to God in the first person.
    In Genesis 31:11–13 the Angel/Messenger of God says, “I am the God of Bethel.”
    In Exodus 3:2–4. The Angel/Messenger of the Lord appears to Moses in a flame in verse 2, and God speaks to Moses from the flame in verse 4.

    Margaret Baker’s book: “The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God” argues (with some things that we would disagree with) that Israelite religion ALWAYS allowed for a plurality of persons in the Godhead of Yahweh and that this is the most ancient form of Israelite religion.

    Does not Genesis begin with “us” and “the Word” and the “Spirit over the waters”?

    Here’s a post on whether Christ is the Pre-Incarnate Angel of the Lord using the Greek Fathers to argue in the positive:


  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    You quote DBH “Christian apologists of the second century often spoke of the Logos as having issued from the Father in eternity shortly before the creation of the world.” I don’t think I’ve ever encountered this – has anyone got any handy references they could pass along? Again, I can’t think of an example of a second-century Christian writer I have read who did not seem clearly distinct from any kind of Middle- or Neo-Platonist or Gnostic descending emanationist construction. Has anyone got any purportedly clinching citations to the contrary from those Christian writers?

    Liked by 1 person

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