Thinking Trinity: The Radical Homoousion

When in A.D. 325 the bishops of the Council of Nicaea declared (1) that Jesus Christ is begotten “from the substance of the Father” and (2) that he is “of one substance” (homoousios) with the Father, they probably did not foresee the momentous dogmatic consequences of their confession. They certainly did not believe they were implementing a theological revolution. Their choice of homoou­sios, though controver­sial, was intended primarily to exclude Arius’s ontological subordi­nation of Christ, expressed in his slogan “There was once when the Son was not.” Such a clear and unambiguous assertion of the creaturehood of the Son was just too much. In response the council fathers asserted that the Son is homoousios with the Father. They no doubt disagreed among themselves on the precise meaning of the term. They simply knew that it was a term to which Arius could not subscribe. The strategy worked. Arius and his supporters were condemned, the bishops returned to their episcopal sees, and the homoousion was promptly forgotten. The Nicene confession did not become the official creed of the imperial Church. The consubstantiality of the Father and the Son did not become the dogmatic criterion by which to interpret the identity of Jesus Christ. Bishops continued to teach as they had done before the council. The debates continued.

Some twenty-five to thirty years later, though, St Athanasius of Alexandria would resurrect the Nicene confession. The crucial document is his treatise De Decretis. Athana­sius here interprets the Nicene fathers as decisively asserting the full and equal divinity of Jesus Christ, excluding any hint of ontological subordination. With reference to the claim that Christ is “from the substance of the Father,” Athanasius writes:

The council wished to banish the impious phrases of the Arians and to inscribe the words confessed by the Scriptures: that the Son is not from non-being but from God; that he is Word and Wisdom, neither creature nor something made, but from the Father as his own (idion) offspring. But the party of Eusebius, compelled by their longstanding perversity, wished the designation of his being “from God” to be taken as something in common with us and the Word of God to be no different from us in this respect, as it is written: “one God from whom are all things” (1 Cor 8:6) and “the old things have passed away; behold all that is new has come to be; and all this is from God” (2 Cor 5:17, 18). So the fathers of the council, seeing their deceit and the machinations of their impiety, finally found it necessary to proclaim the “from God” more clearly and to write “the Son is from the essence of the Father” (ek tēs ousias tou theou), so that “from God” may not be considered to be the same and equal in the case of the Son as it is with things that have come to be; but that it may be confessed that while all others are creatures, the Word is uniquely from the Father. For even if all things are said to be from God, this is altogether otherwise than how the Son is. In the case of created things, they are said to be from God in that they do not exist randomly and unaccountably; neither do they attain their origination by chance, as those who speak of an origination that comes about from the intertwining of atoms and of like parts; nor, as certain heretics say, is there another creator, nor, as again others say, do all things have their subsistence through some angels. Rather, all things are said to be from God because the existent God, by himself and through the Word, brought all things that formerly did not exist into being. But the Word is said to be and is alone from the Father because he is not a creature; and the Son’s being “from the essence of the Father” is indicative of this sense, which does not pertain to anything that has come into being. (Decr. 19)

That Christ is “from the substance of the Father” differentiates him from all beings who have been made by the Father from out of nothing. Christ is not a creature. His procession from the Father ineffably occurs within the one Godhead. He is God from God, light from light, true God from true God.

With reference to the Nicene claim that the Son is “consubstantial with the Father,” Athanasius explains that the Nicene Fathers wanted to assert not just the likeness of the Son to the Father but their unity in being and agency:

But the bishops … found it necessary again to gather together the sense of the Scriptures and to speak more clearly the things which they said before, and to write, “the Son is one in essence (homoousion) with the Father,” in order to signify that the Son is not only like, but from the Father as the same in likeness (tauton tē homoiōsei), and in order to show that the likeness and inalterability of the Son is other than the imitative likeness that is ascribed to us and which we attain through virtue by keeping the commandments … But since the generation of the Son from the Father is other than that which pertains to the nature of human beings and he is not only like (homoios) but also inseparable from the essence (ousia) of the Father and he and the Father are one, as he himself said (Jn 10:30), and the Word is always in the Father and the Father in the Word (cf. Jn 10:38)—as is the radiance in relation to the light (for this is what the phrase means)—the council, understanding all this, aptly wrote “one in essence” (homoou­sion). They did this in order to overturn the perversity of the hypocrites and to show that the Word is other than the things which come to be. For immediately after writing it, they added: “But those who say that the Son of God is from non-being or is a creature or changeable or made or from another essence (ousia), these the holy and catholic Church anathematizes.” In saying this, they made it manifestly clear that “from the essence” and “of one essence” are abrogations of the trite slogans of the impious: such as that he is a “creature” and “made” and something which has come into being (genēton) and changeable and that he was not before he was generated. The one who thinks such things is contradicting the council. (Decr. 20)

For if we say that the Word is from the essence of God (let this at last be confessed by them!), what is that except to say that he is truly and eternally of the essence from which he is begotten? For he is not different in kind, as if he were something foreign and dissimilar (anomoion) that is mixed in with the essence of the Father. Nor is his likeness merely extrinsic, as if he were in some other respect or completely of a different essence (heteroousios), just as brass shines like gold and silver and tin. These are foreign to one another and of different natures and are separate in their natures and their powers. Brass is not proper (idion) to gold, any more than a pigeon is from a dove. Even though they are considered to be like (homoia) each other, they are neverthe­less different in essence. Therefore, if that is how the Son is, then he is a creature like us and not one in essence (homoousios). But if the Son is Word, Wisdom, Image of the Father, and Radiance, then it follows reasonably that he is “one in essence.” (Decr. 23)

Eusebius of Caesarea would no doubt have dissented from Athanasius’s account of the Council of Nicaea; but the Alexandrian’s interpretation of the dogmatic significance of the homoousion won the day. It was confirmed at the 381 Council of Constantinople and received into the dogmatic consciousness of the Church. From this point on there could be no going back on the Nicene definition. Subordination of the eternal Son is irreversibly excluded: Jesus Christ is of one being/essence/substance with God the Father. The jigsaw puzzle is complete. Alasdair Heron elaborates on the significance of the Athanasian victory:

First of all—and this is by no means unimportant—it must be stressed that so far as Athanasius was concerned it was not the word homoousios itself that was of central importance, but what the word stood for. There was no substantial change in his position when he came more and more to use homoousios in his writings: it served simply to focus and concentrate the entire debate with Arianism. What it meant for Athanasius was simply this: that the reality of God himself is present with us and for us in Christ. “One ousia” means “one divinity”, “one activity”, “one presence”, “one glory”, “one power and energy”: all that the Father is, the Son is also, except that the Father is Father, the Son, Son. This was the decisive difference between Athanasius and Arianism; for any assertion of this kind was, in the Arian horizon, strictly incorrect and untrue. For Arius and his followers, however, the point might be expressed, decorated or qualified, the Son is not God as the Father is God; for Athanasius, he is. (“Homoousios with the Father,” in The Incarnation, p. 67)

But if the Son is truly and fully divine, then deity itself must be reenvisioned. The Hellenistic apprehension of degrees of divinity is finally overturned. Christians could no longer think of Jesus as a semi-divine intermediary between God and the world. The one God is the Father with his equally divine Son and equally divine Holy Spirit.

(26 February 2014; rev.)

(Go to “The Secret of the Homoousion”)

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12 Responses to Thinking Trinity: The Radical Homoousion

  1. Robert Fortuin says:

    An interesting and unintended theological “kicking-the-can-down-the-street” occurs – after Nicaea the importance of Christological questions is heightened and new challenges arise. In what way can it be said that Christ is both God and man without violating the integrity of both?

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    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      Bad and probably heretical analogy time! If God is the author of creation in the way that a writer writes characters in a book, the characters in the book are fundamentally different from the author in kind – he is not part of the book and cannot be found within it, but is nevertheless fundamental to its existence.
      What then do we say of an author who writes themselves in as a character in the story? The character is both a character and the author, completely in both respects.

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      • Robert Fortuin says:

        I think it is a helpful analogy but not without difficulties: the creator become creature – did he create himself?

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        • Iain Lovejoy says:

          If Jesus is wholly human, then his humaife must be, being human, created (I.e. written into the story). The Son as a person of the Trinity is not created, however, being, as God, something wholly other than a character in the story.
          If I understand the concept of the Trinity correctly, the Son is a distinct person in the Trinity independently of the incarnation.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            While yet we can’t think of the Incarnation as occurring in a moment of time within the life of the Trinity. Does this make the incarnation timeless, a permanent fixture of sorts within the Trinity?

            And remind me someone, why is it that divine simplicity gets a bad rap but the incarnation a pass?

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          • Grant says:

            I would say, if I remember correctly, you can say Jesus human nature is created, but the Person of the Son is Jesus the Christ, that is there are two natures, not two Persons (at least that is my understanding). So, the Person of the Son is He who is revealed in Jesus of Nazereth, and this Jesus the Son of God.

            I would also think that while the Son was in His divine nature (without human nature) logically prior to creation (which would include said nature) within the eternal Life of the Trinity, which transcends our finite concepts and dimensions (such as time). From creation’s perspective I would say He always been Jesus of Nazereth, the Lamb that was slain since the foundation if the Cosmos. That the Incarnation is the heart of creation, and the pointband heart of creation and calling to be from nothing, particularly remembering that God who is infinite Being (and beyond Being) transcends finite creation’s limitations of time, and so therefore does the Incarnation.

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          • Robert Fortuin says:

            The aporia remains: the incarnation is both prior to, distinct from, and yet somehow also within creation.

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          • Grant says:

            Perhaps that isn’t surprising that there seems such paradoxes, given it is Incarnation of God the Son. As with all things relating to God and the Life of the Trinity, it transcends our finite nature and ability to conceive or fully understand or describe. It is where we are Moses, taking our shoes off because we stand on holy ground, at the threshold of mystery and what can be known and grasped (particularly with the burning bush representing the Theotokos and the Incarnation).

            Somehow it is all true of the Incarnation, that is both prior to, distinct from and yet within creation. Yet how this is we cannot know, just that it is.

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  2. John Grinnell says:

    “We see most eloquent orators voiceless as fish concerning Thee, O Jesus our Saviour; for they are at a loss to say how Thou art perfect man yet remainest God immutable…”

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  3. John Grinnell says:

    “For the Logos of God (who is God) wills always and in all things to accomplish the mystery of his embodiment.” Maximus Confessor Ambigua 7 1084D

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    • brian says:

      The cosmic dimension of the Incarnation is often neglected in modern Western thought. The flesh of Christ is also the flesh of the universe made new. Interesting to me that most folks who are willing to concede souls to infernal eternity as acceptable collateral damage are also those who are likely to dismiss the full breadth of what Christ’s resurrected body accomplishes.

      To Robert: Yes, like how being is pure mediation, and thus not discoverable except as instantiated in the res with respect to essence, the ens with respect to esse, the gift is easily missed because not a determinate thing; in Christology one runs up against a transcendence that is both origin and eschatological, imminent because transcendent, historical because also outside of time, though the outside is also within. Still think Bulgakov tells this story best amongst moderns. And there are those who think theology is boring . . . well, that’s bad theology then.

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      • Robert Fortuin says:

        Yes it’s too easy to fall in the diastematic binaries of in/out, before/after, below/above, I/you, etc. We just can’t help ourselves and we are at a complete loss. Here is the astonishing ‘announcement’ and reality of the incarnation with which we are confronted – the diastematic and the adiastematic are contained as one, together yet without violation of either. A boundary is broken while preserving its integrity: no mere man, yet fully man. Idols are shattered by the truth embodied.

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