« Prev 6. Examination of the Nicene Doctrine. Next »

§ 6. Examination of the Nicene Doctrine.

A. Subordination.

A distinction must be made between the Nicene Creed (as amplified in that of Constantinople) and the doctrine of the Nicene fathers. The creeds are nothing more than a well-ordered arrangement of the facts of Scripture which concern the doctrine of the Trinity. They assert the distinct personality of the Father, Son, and Spirit; their mutual relation as expressed by those terms; their absolute unity as to substance or essence, and their consequent perfect equality; and the subordination of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son, as to the mode of subsistence and operation. These are Scriptural facts, to which the creeds in question add nothing; and it is in this sense they have been accepted by the Church universal.

But the Nicene fathers did undertake, to a greater or less degree, to explain these facts. These explanations relate principally to the subordination of the Son and Spirit to the Father, and to what is meant by generation, or the relation between the Father and the Son. These two points are so intimately related that they cannot be considered separately. Yet as the former is more comprehensive 463 than the latter, it may be expedient to speak of them in order, although what belongs to the one head, in a good degree belongs also to the other.

The ambiguity of the word ὁμοούσιος has already been remarked upon. As οὐσία, a may mean generic nature common to many individuals, not unum in numero, but ens unum in multis, so ὁμοούσιος (consubstantial) may mean nothing more than sameness of species or kind. It is therefore said, that “the term homoousion, in its strict grammatical sense differs from monoousion or toutoousion, as well as from heteroousion, and signifies not numerical identity, but equality of essence or community of nature among several beings.”475475Schaff’s History of the Christian Church, vol. iii. p. 672. “The Nicene Creed,” Dr. Schaff adds, “does not expressly assert the singleness or numerical unity of the divine essence (unless it be in the first article: ‘we believe in one God’), and the main point with the Nicene fathers was to urge against Arianism the strict divinity and essential equality of the Son and Holy Ghost with the Father. If we press the difference of homoousion from monoousion, and overlook the many passages in which they assert with equal emphasis the monarchia or numerical unity of the Godhead, we must charge them with tritheism.”

Gieseler goes much further, and denies that the Nicene fathers held the numerical identity of essence in the persons of the Trinity. The Father, Son, and Spirit were the same in substance as having the same nature, or same kind of substance. This he infers was their doctrine not only from the general style of their teaching, and from special declarations, but from the illustrations which they habitually employed. The Father and the Son are the same in substance as among men father and son have the same nature; or as Basil says, Father and Son differ in rank, as do the angels, although they are the same in nature. Gieseler says that the numerical sameness of nature in the three divine persons, was first asserted by Augustine. It was he, according to Gieseler, who first excluded all idea of subordination in the Trinity.476476Kirchengeschichte, vol. vi. § 60, p. 323. Bonn, 1855. “Athanasius and Hilary understood the proposition, ‘There is one God’ of the Father. Basil the Great and the two Gregories understood by the word God a generic idea (Gattungsbegriff), belonging equally to the Father and the Son. Basil in the ‘Apologia ad Cæsarienses,’ says, ἡμεῖς ἕνα θεὸν, cὐ τῷ ἀριθμῷ, ἀλλὰ τῇ φύσει ὁμολογοῦμεν, and endeavours to show that there can be no question of number in reference to God, as numerical difference pertains only to material 464things. Augustine on the contrary expressly excludes the idea of generic unity,477477De Trinitate, VII. vi. edit. Benedictines, vol. viii. p. 1314, d. and understands the proposition ‘there is one God’ not of the Father alone, but of the whole Trinity,478478Epistola, CCXXXVIII. iii. 18, vol. ii. p. 1304, a. and, therefore, taught that there is one God in three persons.” This, however, is the precise doctrine of the Nicene Creed itself, which affirms faith “in one God,” and not in three. Basil in the place quoted is refuting the charge of Tritheism. His words are, πρὸς δὲ τοὺς ἐπηρεάζοντας ἡμῖν τὸ τρίθεον, ἐκεῖνο λεγέσθω ὅτιπερ ἡμεῖς ἕνα θεὸν, etc.479479Epistola, VIII. edit. Migne, vol. iii. p. 115, e. On page 460 reasons have already been given for assuming that the sameness of substance taught by the Nicene fathers was not simply generic but numerical. On this subject Pearson, a thorough advocate of the Nicene Creed, says, “As it (the divine nature) is absolutely immaterial and incorporeal, it is also indivisible; Christ cannot have any part of it only communicated unto Him, but the whole, by which He must be acknowledged co-essential, of the same substance with the Father; as the Council of Nice determined, and the ancient fathers before them taught.”480480Pearson, On Creed, seventh edition, 1701, p. 135. If the whole divine essence belongs equally to the several persons of the Trinity, there is an end to the question, whether the sameness be specific or numerical. Accordingly the Bishop says: “The Divine essence being by reason of its simplicity not subject to division, and in respect of its infinity uncapable of multiplication, is so communicated as not to be multiplied; insomuch that He which proceedeth by that communication hath not only the same nature, but is also the same God. The Father God, and the Word God; Abraham man, and Isaac man: but Abraham one man, Isaac another man; not so the Father one God, and the Word another, but the Father and the Word both the same God.”481481Pearson, p. 133.

Gieseler says that Augustine effectually excluded all idea of subordination in the Trinity by teaching the numerical sameness of essence in the persons of the Godhead. This does indeed preclude all priority and all superiority as to being and perfection. But it does not preclude subordination as to the mode of subsistence and operation. This is distinctly recognized in Scripture, and was as fully taught by Augustine as by any of the Greek fathers, and is even more distinctly affirmed in the so-called Athanasian Creed, representing the school of Augustine, than in the Creed of the Council of Nice. There is, therefore, no just ground of objection to the 465Nicene Creed for what it teaches on that subject. It does not go beyond the facts of Scripture. But the fathers who framed that creed, and those by whom it was defended, did go beyond those facts. They endeavoured to explain what was the nature of that subordination. While denying to the Father any priority or superiority to the other persons of the Trinity, as to being or perfection, they still spoke of the Father as the Monas, as having in order of thought the whole Godhead in Himself; so that He alone was God of Himself (αὐτόθεος, in that sense of the word), that He was the fountain, the cause, the root, fons, origo, principium, of the divinity as subsisting in the Son and Spirit; that He was greater than the other divine persons. They understood many passages which speak of the inferiority of the Son to the Father, of the Logos as such; and not of the historical Son of God clothed in our nature. Thus Waterland482482Works, vol. i. p. 315. says of these fathers, “The title of ὁ Θεὸς, being understood in the same sense with αὐτόθεος, was, as it ought to be, generally reserved to the Father, as the distinguishing personal character of the first person of the Holy Trinity. And this amounts to no more than the acknowledgment of the Father’s prerogative as Father. But as it might also signify any Person who is truly and essentially God, it might properly be applied to the Son too: and it is so applied sometimes, though not so often as it is to the Father.”

Hilary of Poictiers expresses the general idea of the Nicene fathers on this point, when he says: “Et quis non Patrem potiorem confitebitur, ut ingenitum a genito, ut patrem a filio, ut eum qui miserit ab eo qui missus est, ut volentem ab ipso qui obediat? Et ipse nobis erit testis: Pater major me est. Hæc ita ut sunt, intelligenda sunt, sed cavendum est, ne apud imperitos gloriam Filii honor Patris infirmet.483483De Trinitate, III., Works, Paris, 1631, p. 23, a. See on this point Schaff’s History of the Christian Church, vol. iii. § 130. Gieseler’s Kirchengeschichte, vol. vi. § 60. Pearson, On the Creed, and especially, Bull’s Defence of the Nicene Creed, fourth edition.

Bishop Pearson484484Page 35. says the preëminence of the Father “undeniably consisteth in this: that He is God not of any other but of Himself, and that there is no other person who is God, but is God of Himself. It is no diminution to the Son, to say He is from another, for his very name imports as much; but it were a diminution to the Father to speak so of Him; and there must be some preëminence, where there is place for derogation. What the Father is, He is from none; what the Son is, He is from Him; what 466 the first is, He giveth; what the second is, He receiveth. The First is Father indeed by reason of his Son, but He is not God by reason of Him; whereas the Son is not so only in regard of the Father, but also God by reason of the same.” Among the patristical authorities quoted by Pearson, are the following from Augustine:485485In Joannis Evangelium Tractatus, xix. 13, edit. Benedictines, vol. iii. p. 1903, a.Pater de nullo patre, Filius de Deo Patre. Pater quod est, a nullo est: quod autem Pater est, propter Filium est. Filius vero et quod Filius est, propter Patrem est, et quod est, a Patre est.” “Filius non hoc tantum habet nascendo, ut Filius sit, sed omnino ut sit. . . . . Filius non tantum ut sit Filius, quod relative dicitur, sed omnino ut sit, ipsam substantiam nascendo habet.486486De Trinitate, v. xv. 16, vol. viii. p. 1286, c, d.

The Reformers themselves were little inclined to enter into these speculations. They were specially repugnant to such a mind as Luther’s. He insisted on taking the Scriptural facts as they were, without any attempt at explanation. He says: “We should, like the little children, stammer out what the Scriptures teach: that Christ is truly God, that the Holy Ghost is truly God, and yet that there are not three Gods, or three Beings, as there are three Men, three Angels, three Suns, or three Windows. No, God is not thus divided in his essence; but there is one only divine Being or substance. Therefore, although there are three persons, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, yet the Being is not divided or distinguished; since there is but one God in one single, undivided, divine substance.”487487Die Dritte Predigt a. Tage d. heil. Dreifaltigk, 5; Works, ed. Walch, vol. xiii. p. 1510.

Calvin also was opposed to going beyond the simple statement of the Scriptures.488488Institutio, I. xiii. 19, 20, edit. Berlin, 1834, part i. pp. 100, 101. After saying that Augustine devotes the fifth book on the Trinity to the explanation of the relation between the Father and the Son, he adds: “Longe vero tutius est in ea quam tradit relatione subsistere, quam subtilius penetrando ad sublime mysterium, per multas evanidas speculationes evagari. Ergo quibus cordi erit sobrietas et qui fidei mensura contenti erunt, breviter quod utile est cognitu accipiant: nempe quum profitemur nos credere in unum Deum, sub Dei nomine intelligi unicam et simplicem essentiam, in qua comprehendimus tres personas vel hypostaseis: ideoque quoties Dei nomen indefinite ponitur, non minus Filium et Spiritum, quam Patrem designari: ubi autem adjungitur Filius Patri, tunc in medium venit relatio: atque ita distinguimus inter personas. Quia vero proprietates in personis ordinem secum ferunt, 467ut in Patre sit principium et origo: quoties mentio sit Patris et Filii simul, vel Spiritus, nomen Dei peculiariter Patri tribuitur. Hoc modo retinetur unitas essentiæ et habetur ratio ordinis, quæ tamen ex Filii et Spiritus deitate nihil minuit: et certe quum ante visum fuerit Apostolos asserere Filium Dei illum esse, quem Moses et Prophetæ testati sunt esse Jehovam, semper ad unitatem essentiæ, venire necesse est.” We have here the three essential facts involved in the doctrine of the Trinity, namely, unity of essence, distinction of persons, and subordination without any attempt at explanation.

Calvin was accused by some of his contemporaries of teaching the incompatible doctrines of Sabellianism and Arianism. In a letter to his friend Simon Grynée, rector of the Academy of Basle, dated May, 1537, he says the ground on which the charge of Sabellianism rested, was his having said that Christ was “that Jehovah, who of Himself alone was always self-existent, which charge,” he says, “I was quite ready to meet.” His answer is: “If the distinction between the Father and the Word be attentively considered, we shall say that the one is from the other. If, however, the essential quality of the Word be considered, in so far as He is one God with the Father, whatever can be said concerning God may also be applied to Him the Second Person in the glorious Trinity. Now, what is the meaning of the name Jehovah? What did that answer imply which was spoken to Moses? I AM THAT I AM. Paul makes Christ the author of this saying.”489489Calvin’s Letters, vol. i. pp. 55, 56, edit. Presbyterian Board, Philadelphia. This argument is conclusive. If Christ be Jehovah, and if the name Jehovah implies self-existence, then Christ is self-existent. In other words, self-existence and necessary existence, as well as omnipotence and all other divine attributes, belong to the divine essence common to all the persons of the Trinity, and therefore it is the Triune God who is self-existent, and not one person in distinction from the other persons. That is, self-existence is not to be predicated of the divine essence only, nor of the Father only, but of the Trinity, or of the Godhead as subsisting in three persons. And, therefore, as Calvin says, when the word God is used indefinitely it means the Triune God, and not the Father in distinction from the Son and Spirit.


B. Eternal Generation.

As in reference to the subordination of the Son and Spirit to the Father, as asserted in the ancient creeds, it is not to the fact that exception is taken, but to the explanation of that fact, as given by the Nicene fathers, the same is true with regard to the doctrine of Eternal Generation. It is no doubt a Scriptural fact that the relation between the First and Second persons of the Trinity is expressed by the relative terms Father and Son. It is also said that the Son is begotten of the Father; He is declared to be the only begotten Son of God. The relation, therefore, of the Second Person to the First is that of filiation or sonship. But what is meant by the term, neither the Bible nor the ancient creeds explain. It may be sameness of nature; as a son is of the same nature as his father. It may be likeness, and the term Son be equivalent to εἰκών, ἀπαύγασμα, χαρακτήρ, or λόγος, or revealer. It may be derivation of essence, as a son, in one sense, is derived from his father. Or, it may be something altogether inscrutable and to us incomprehensible.

The Nicene fathers, instead of leaving the matter where the Scriptures leave it, undertake to explain what is meant by sonship, and teach that it means derivation of essence. The First Person of the Trinity is Father, because He communicates the essence of the Godhead to the Second Person; and the Second Person is Son, because He derives that essence from the First Person. This is what they mean by Eternal Generation. Concerning which it was taught, —

1. That it was the person not the essence of the Son that was generated. The essence is self-existent and eternal, but the person of the Son is generated (i.e., He becomes a person) by the communication to Him of the divine essence. This point continued to be insisted upon through the later periods of the Church. Thus Turrettin490490Locus III. xxviii. 40, edit. Edinburgh, 1847, vol. i. p. 260. says, “Licet Filius sit a Patre, non minus tamen αὐτόθεος dicitur, non ratione Personæ, sed ratione Essentiæ; non relate qua Filius, sic enim est a Patre, sed absolute qua Deus, quatenus habet Essentiam divinam a se existentem, et non divisam vel productam ab alia essentia, non vero qua habens essentiam illam a seipso. Sic Filius est Deus a seipso, licet non sit a seipso Filius.

Again,491491Ibid. xxix. 6, p. 262.Persona bene dicitur generare Personam, quia actiones sunt suppositorum; sed non Essentia Essentiam, quia quod gignit et gignitur necessario multiplicatur, et sic via sterneretur ad Tritheismum. 469Essentia quidem generando communicatur; sed generatio, ut a Persona fit originaliter, ita ad Personam terminatur.” This is the common mode of representation.

2. This generation is said to be eternal. “It is an eternal movement in the divine essence.”

3. It is by necessity of nature, and not by the will of the Father.

4. It does not involve any separation or division, as it is not a part, but the whole and complete essence of the Father that is communicated from the Father to the Son.

5. It is without change.

The principal grounds urged in support of this representation, are the nature of sonship among men, and the passage in John v. 26, where it is said, “As the Father hath life in Himself, so hath He given to the Son to have life in Himself.”

It is admitted that the relation between the First and Second persons in the Trinity is expressed by the words Father and Son, and therefore while everything in this relation as it exists among men, implying imperfection or change, must be eliminated, yet the essential idea of paternity must be retained. That essential idea is assumed to be the communication of the essence of the parent to his child; and, therefore, it is maintained that there must be a communication of the essence of the Godhead from the Father to the Son in the Holy Trinity. But, in the first place, it is a gratuitous assumption that, so far as the soul is concerned, there is even among men any communication of the essence of the parent to the child. Traducianism has never been the general doctrine of the Christian Church. As, therefore, it is, to say the least, doubtful, whether there is any communication of the essence of the soul in human paternity, it is unreasonable to assume that such communication is essential to the relation of Father and Son in the Trinity.

In the second place, while it is admitted that the terms Father and Son are used to give us some idea of the mutual relation of the First and Second persons of the Trinity, yet they do not definitely determine what that relation is. It may be equality and likeness. Among men Father and Son belong to the same order of beings. The one is not inferior in nature, although he may be in rank, to the other. And the son is like his father. In the same manner in the Holy Trinity the Second Person is said to be the εἰκών, the ἀπαύγασμα, the χαρακτήρ, the λόγος, the Word or Revealer of the Father, so that he who hears the Son hears the Father, he who hath seen the one has seen the other. Or the relation may 470 be that of affection. The reciprocal love of father and son is peculiar. It is, so to speak, necessary; it is unchangeable, it is unfathomable; it leads, or has led, to every kind and degree of self-sacrifice. It is not necessary to assume in reference to the Trinity that these relations are all that the relative terms Father and Son are intended to reveal. These may be included, but much more may be implied which we are not now able to comprehend. All that is contended for is, that we are not shut up to the admission that derivation of essence is essential to sonship.

As to the passage in John v. 26, where it is said the Father hath given to the Son to have life in Himself, everything depends on the sense in which the word Son is to be taken. That word is sometimes used as a designation of the λόγος, the Second Person of the Trinity, to indicate his eternal relation to the First Person as the Father. It is, however, very often used as a designation of the incarnate λόγος, the Word made flesh. Many things are in Scripture predicated of the Godman, which cannot be predicated of the Second Person of the Trinity as such. If in this passage the Son means the Logos, then it does teach that the First Person of the Trinity communicated life, and therefore the essence in which that life inheres, to the Second Person. But if Son here designates the Theanthropos, then the passage teaches no such doctrine. That it is the historical person, Jesus of Nazareth here spoken of, may be argued not only from the fact that He is elsewhere so frequently called the Son of God, as in the comprehensive confession required of every Christian in the apostolic age, “I believe that Jesus is the Son of God;” but also from the context. Our Lord had healed an impotent man on the Sabbath. For this the Jews accused Him of breaking the Sabbath. He vindicated Himself by saying that He had the same right to work on the Sabbath that God had, because He was the Son of God, and therefore equal with God. That He had power not only to heal but to give life, just as the Father had life in Himself, so had He given to the Son to have life in Himself. He had also given Him authority to execute judgment. He was to be the judge of the quick and dead, because He is the Son of man, i.e., because He had become man for us and for our salvation. His accusers need not be surprised at what He said, because the hour was coming when all who are in the grave shall hear his voice, and shall come forth, they who have done good, unto the resurrection of life, and they who had done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation. The subject of discourse, therefore, in the context, is the historical 471 person who had healed the impotent man, and who with equal propriety could be called God or man, because He was both God and man. What the passage teaches, therefore, concerns the constitution of Christ’s person as He appeared on earth, and not the nature of the relation of the Father and Son in the Godhead.

C. Eternal Sonship.

There is, therefore, a distinction between the speculations of the Nicene fathers, and the decisions of the Nicene Council. The latter have been accepted by the Church universal, but not the former. The Council declared that our Lord is the Eternal Son of God, i.e., that He is from eternity the Son of God. This of course involves the denial that He became the Son of God in time; and, consequently, that the primary and essential reason for his being called Son is not his miraculous birth, nor his incarnation, nor his resurrection, nor his exaltation to the right hand of God. The Council decided that the word Son as applied to Christ, is not a term of office but of nature; that it expresses the relation which the Second Person in the Trinity from eternity bears to the First Person, and that the relation thus indicated is sameness of nature, so that sonship, in the case of Christ, includes equality with God. In other words, God was in such a sense his Father that He was equal with God. And consequently every time the Scriptures call Jesus the Son of God, they assert his true and proper divinity. This does not imply that every time Christ is called the Son of God, what is said of Him is to be understood of his divine nature. The fact is patent, and is admitted that the person of our Lord may be designated from either nature. He may be called the Son of David and the Son of God. And his person may be designated from one nature when what is predicated of Him is true only of the other nature. Thus, on the one hand, the Lord of Glory was crucified; God purchased the Church with his blood; and the Son is said to be ignorant; and, on the other hand, the Son of Man is said to be in heaven when He was on earth. This being admitted it remains true that Christ is called the Son of God as to his divine nature. The Logos, the Second Person of the Trinity as such and because of his relation to the First Person, is the Son of God. Such is the doctrine of the Nicene Council, and that it is no less the doctrine of the Scriptures, is plain from the following considerations : —

1. The terms Father, Son, and Spirit, as applied to the persons of the Trinity, are relative terms. The relations which they express 472 are mutual relations, i.e., relations in which the different persons stand one to another. The First Person is called Father, not because of his relation to his creatures, but because of his relation to the Second Person. The Second Person is called Son, not because of any relation assumed in time, but because of his eternal relation to the First Person. And the Third Person is called Spirit because of his relation to the First and Second.

2. If, as the whole Christian Church believes, the doctrine of the Trinity is a Scriptural doctrine, and if, as is also admitted by all the parties to this discussion, it was the purpose of God to reveal that doctrine to the knowledge and faith of his people, there is a necessity for the use of terms by which the persons of the Trinity should be designated and revealed. But if the terms Father, Son, and Spirit do not apply to the persons of the Trinity as such, and express their mutual relations, there are no such distinctive terms in the Bible by which they can be known and designated.

3. There are numerous passages in the Scriptures which clearly prove that our Lord is called Son, not merely because He is the image of God, or because He is the object of peculiar affection, nor because of his miraculous conception only; nor because of his exaltation, but because of the eternal relation which He sustains to the First Person of the Trinity. These passages are of two kinds. First, those in which the Logos is called Son, or in which Christ as to his divine nature and before his incarnation is declared to be the Son of God; and secondly, those in which the application of the term Son to Christ involves the ascription of divinity to Him. He is declared to be the Son of God in such a sense as implies equality with God. To the former of these classes belong such passages as the following: Rom. i. 3, 4, where Christ is declared to be κατὰ σάρκα, the Son of David, and κατὰ πνεῦμα ἁγιοσύνης, the Son of God. That πνεῦμα ἁγιοσύνης does not here mean the Holy Spirit, much less a pneumatic state, but the higher or divine nature of Christ, is evident from the antithesis. As to his human nature, He is the Son of David; as to his divine nature, He is the Son of God. As to his humanity, He is consubstantial with man; as to his divinity, He is consubstantial with God. If his being the Son of David proves He was a man, his being the Son of God proves that He is God. Hence Christ was called Son before his incarnation, as in Gal. iv. 4, “God sent forth his Son, made of a woman.” It was the Logos that was sent, and the Logos was Son. Thus in John i. 1-14, we are taught that the Logos was in the beginning with God, that He was God, that He made all things, that He was 473the light and life of men, and that He became flesh, and revealed his glory as the Son of God. Here it is plain that the Logos or Word is declared to be the Son. And in the eighteenth verse of that chapter it is said, “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father (ὀ ὢν ἐις τὸν κόλπον τοῦ πατρός, He hath declared Him.” Here the present tense, ὀ ὤν, expresses permanent being; He who is, was, and ever shall be, in the bosom of the Father, i.e., most intimately united with Him, so as to know Him, as He knows Himself, is the Son. According to Chrysostom, this language implies the συγγένεια καὶ ἑνότης τῆς οὐσίας of the Father and the Son, which were not interrupted by his manifestation in the flesh. To the latter class belong such passages as the following: John v. 18-25, where Christ calls God his Father in a sense which implied equality with God. If sonship implies equality with God, it implies participation of the divine essence. It was for claiming to be the Son of God in this sense, that the Jews took up stones to stone Him. Our Lord defended Himself by saying that He had the same power God had, the same authority, the same life-giving energy, and therefore was entitled to the same honour. In John x. 30-38 there is a similar passage, in which Christ says that God is his Father in such a sense that He and the Father are one. In the first chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, it is argued that Christ does not belong to the category of creatures; that all angels (i.e., all intelligent creatures higher than man) are subject to Him, and are required to worship Him because He is the Son of God. As Son He is the brightness of the Father’s glory, the express image of his person, upholding all things by the word of his power. Because He is the Son of God, He is the God who in the beginning laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of his hands. They are mutable, but He is unchangeable and eternal.

There can, therefore, be no reasonable doubt that according to the Scriptures, the term Son as applied to Christ expresses the relation of the Second to the First Person in the adorable Trinity. In other words, it is not merely an official title, but designates the Logos and not exclusively the Theanthropos.

4. Another argument in proof of this doctrine is derived from the fact that Christ is declared to be “the only-begotten Son of God,” “his own Son,” i.e., his Son in a peculiar and proper sense. Angels and men are called the sons of God, because He is the Father of all spirits. Holy men are his sons because partakers of his moral nature, as wicked men are called children of the devil. 474God’s people are his sons and daughters by regeneration and adoption. It is in opposition to all these kinds of sonship that Christ is declared to be God’s only Son, the only person in the universe to whom the word can be applied in its full sense as expressing sameness of essence.

Objections to the Doctrine.

The speculative objections to this doctrine of eternal sonship have already been considered. If Christ is Son, if He is God of God, it is said He is not self-existent and independent. But self-existence, independence, etc., are attributes of the divine essence, and not of one person in distinction from the others. It is the Triune God who is self-existent and independent. Subordination as to the mode of subsistence and operation, is a Scriptural fact; and so also is the perfect and equal Godhead of the Father and the Son, and therefore these facts must be consistent. In the consubstantial identity of the human soul there is a subordination of one faculty to another, and so, however incomprehensible to us, there may be a subordination in the Trinity consistent with the identity of essence in the Godhead.

Psalm ii. 7.

More plausible objections are founded on certain passages of the Scriptures. In Ps. ii. 7, it is said, “Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee.” From this it is argued that Christ or the Messiah was constituted or made the Son of God in time, and therefore was not the Son of God from eternity. To this it may be answered, —

1. That the term Son, as used in the Scriptures, expresses different relations, and therefore may be applied to the same person for different reasons; or, have one meaning, i.e., express one relation in one place, and a different one in another. It may refer or be applied to the Logos, or to the Theanthropos. One ground for the use of the designation does not exclude all the others. God commanded Moses to say unto Pharaoh, “Israel is my son, even my first-born.” (Ex. iv. 22.) And He said of Solomon, “I will be his father and he shall be my son.” (2 Sam. vii. 14.) The word son here expresses the idea of adoption, the selection of one people or of one man out of many to stand to God in a peculiar relation of intimacy, affection, honour, and dignity. If for these reasons the theocratic people, or a theocratic king, may be called the Son of God, for the same reasons, and preeminently, the Messiah may be 475so designated. But this is no argument to prove that the Logos may not in a far higher sense be called the Son of God.

2. The passage in question, however, need not be understood of an event which occurred in time. Its essential meaning is, “Thou art my Son, now art thou my Son.” The occasion referred to by the words “this day” was the time when the Sonship of the king of Zion should be fully manifested. That time, as we learn from Rom. i. 4, was the day of his resurrection. By his rising again from the dead, He was clearly manifested to be all that He claimed to be, — the Son of God and the Saviour of the world.

3. There is another interpretation of the passage which is essentially the same as that given by many of the fathers, and is thus presented by Dr. Addison Alexander in his commentary on Acts xiii. 33, “The expression in the Psalm, ‘I have begotten thee,’ means, I am He who has begotten thee, i. e., I am thy father. ‘To-day’ refers to the date of the decree itself (Jehovah said, Today, etc.); but this, as a divine act, was eternal, and so must be the Sonship which it affirms.”

Acts xiii. 32, 38.

It may be urged, however, that in Acts xiii. 32, 33, this passage is quoted in the proof of the resurrection of Christ, which shows that the Apostle understood the passage to teach that Christ was begotten or made the Son of God when He rose from the dead. The passage in Acts reads thus in our version: “We declare unto you glad tidings, how that the promise which was made unto the fathers, God hath fulfilled the same unto us their children, in that He hath raised up Jesus again (ἀναστήσας); as it is also written in the second psalm, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee.” Here there is no reference to the resurrection. The glad tidings which the Apostle announced was not the resurrection, but the advent of the Messiah. That was the promise made to the fathers, which God had fulfilled by raising up, i.e., bringing into the world the promised deliverer. Compare Acts ii. 30; iii. 22, 26; vii. 31, in all which passages where the same word is used, the “raising up” refers to the advent of Christ; as when it is said, “A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me.” The word is never used absolutely in reference to the resurrection unless, as in Acts ii. 32, where the resurrection is spoken of in the context. Our translators have obscured the meaning by rendering ἀναστήσας “having raised up again,” instead of simply “having raised up,” as they render it elsewhere.


That this is the true meaning of the passage is clear from the succeeding verses. Paul having said that God had fulfilled his promise to the fathers by raising up Christ, agreeably to Psalm ii. 7, immediately adds as an additional fact, “And as concerning that He raised Him up from the dead, now no more to return to corruption, He said on this wise, I will give you the sure mercies of David. Wherefore he saith also in another psalm, Thou shalt not suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.” (Acts xiii. 34, 35.) The Apostle, therefore, does not teach that Christ was made the Son of God by his resurrection. But even, as just remarked, if He did teach that the Theanthropos was in one sense made the Son of God, that would not prove that the Logos was not Son in another and higher sense.

Luke i. 35.

The same remark is applicable to Luke i. 35: “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee; therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee, shall be called the Son of God.” Bishop Pearson, one of the most strenuous defenders of “eternal generation,” and of all the peculiarities of the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity, gives four reasons why the Theanthropos or Godman is called the Son of God. (1.) His miraculous conception. (2.) The high office to which he was designated. (John x. 34, 35, 36.) (3.) His resurrection, according to one interpretation of Acts xiii. 33. “The grave,” he says, “is as the womb of the earth; Christ, who is raised from thence, is as it were begotten to another life, and God, who raised him, is his Father.”492492Pearson on Creed, p. 106. (4.) Because after his resurrection He was made the heir of all things. (Heb. i. 2-5.) Having assigned these reasons why the Godman is called Son, he goes on to show why the Logos is called Son. There is nothing, therefore, in the passages cited inconsistent with the Church doctrine of the eternal Sonship of our Lord. The language of the angel addressed to the Virgin Mary, may, however, mean no more than this, namely, that the assumption of humanity by the eternal Son of God was the reason why He should be recognized as a divine person. It was no ordinary child who was to be born of Mary, but one who was, in the language of the prophets, to be the Wonderful, the Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Son of the Highest. It was because the Eternal Son was made of a woman, that that Holy Thing born of the virgin was to be called the Son of God.


It need hardly be remarked that no valid objection to the doctrine of the eternal Sonship of Christ, or, that He is Son as to his divine nature, can be drawn from such passages as speak of the Son as being less than the Father, or subject to Him, or even ignorant. If Christ can be called the Lord of glory, or God, when his death is spoken of, He may be called Son, when other limitations are ascribed to Him. As He is both God and man, everything that is true either of his humanity or of his divinity, may be predicated of Him as a person; and his person may be denominated from one nature, when the predicate belongs to the other nature. He is called the Son of Man when He is said to be omnipresent; and He is called God when He is said to have purchased the Church with his blood.

D. The Relation of the Spirit to the other Persons of the Trinity.

As the councils of Nice and Constantinople were fully justified by Scripture in teaching the eternal Sonship of Christ, so what they taught of the relation of the Spirit to the Father and the Son, has an adequate Scriptural foundation.

That relation is expressed by the word procession, with regard to which the common Church doctrine is, (1.) That it is incomprehensible, and therefore inexplicable. (2.) That it is eternal (3.) That it is equally from the Father and the Son. At least such is the doctrine of the Latin and all other Western churches. (4.) That this procession concerns the personality and operations of the Spirit, and not his essence.

The Scriptural grounds for expressing this relation by the term procession, are (1.) The signification of the word spirit. It means breath, that which proceeds from, and which gives expression and effect to our thoughts. Since Father and Son, as applied to the First and Second persons of the Trinity, are relative terms, it is to be assumed that the word Spirit as the designation of the Third Person, is also relative. (2.) This is further indicated by the use of the genitive case in the expressions πνεῦμα τοῦ πατρός, τοῦ υἱοῦ, which is explained by the use of the preposition ἐκ, as πνεῦμα ἐκ τοῦ πατρός. The revealed fact is that the Spirit is of the Father, and the Church in calling the relation, thus indicated, a procession. does not attempt to explain it. (3.) In John xv. 26, where the Spirit is promised by Christ, He is said to proceed from the Father.

That the Latin and Protestant churches, in opposition to the Greek Church, are authorized in teaching that the Spirit proceeds not from the Father only, but from the Father and the Son, is evident, 478because whatever is said in Scripture of the relation of the Spirit to the Father, is also said of his relation to the Son. He is said to be the “Spirit of the Father,” and “Spirit of the Son;” He is given or sent by the Son as well as by the Father; the Son is said to operate through the Spirit. The Spirit is no more said to send or to operate through the Son, than to send or operate through the Father. The relation, so far as revealed, is the same in the one case as in the other.

When we consider the incomprehensible nature of the Godhead, the mysterious character of the doctrine of the Trinity, the exceeding complexity and difficulty of the problem which the Church had to solve in presenting the doctrine that there are three persons and one God, in such a manner as to meet the requirements of Scripture and the convictions of believers, and yet avoid all contradiction, we can hardly fail to refer the Church creeds on this subject, which have for ages secured assent and consent, not to inspiration, strictly speaking, but to the special guidance of the Holy Spirit.

« Prev 6. Examination of the Nicene Doctrine. Next »
Please login or register to save highlights and make annotations
Corrections disabled for this book
Proofing disabled for this book
Printer-friendly version


| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |