Thursday, May 26, 2016

John of Damascus on the Trinity - selections from his Expositio Fidei Orthodoxæ (Exposition of the Orthodox Faith)

My studies into the Church Fathers began in the early 1980's with my purchase of the Schaff-Roberts 38 volume set. This set begins with the Apostolic Fathers and ends with Second Council of Nicaea in 787 (also known as the Seventh Ecumenical Council). Though I have read the entire set, my main focus has been on the period between Justin Martyr and Augustine; supplementing the 38 volumes with hundreds of germane books, articles, essays, theses and dissertations. I would like to shift that focus—at least for now—to the period that followed the advent of Muhammad and the rise of Islam. This shift has been prompted by my recent reading of the book, The Orthodox Church in the Arab World 700 - 1700 (Google Books). I purchased this book after some online research revealed that a number of the anthologies included apologetic treatments on the doctrine of the Trinity. I wanted to see how Trinitarian Christians—in lands of early Islamic rule—defended the Christian view of God.

Now, though the above book is a collection of anthologies from Christians who wrote in Arabic, this post is going to focus on a Christian whose corpus was written in Greek—John of Damascus (b. John Mansur ca. 650 [or 675?] - ca. 749). I am starting this shift in studies with John Damascene, for as the introduction of book points out his apologetic works on Islam, "represent the earliest direct Orthodox responses to Islam" (p. 19). Though John Damascene was fluent in Arabic, he wrote in Greek, and this because the Muslim conquerors of Damascus, the Umayyad's, "maintained the Byzantine administrative system and even for a time kept Greek as the language of bureaucracy" (p. 16).

John of Damascus occupies a unique position among the Church Fathers, and this for a number of reasons: first, as mentioned above, he produced "the earliest direct Orthodox responses to Islam"; second, his works influenced the subsequent Christian apologists who wrote in Arabic, works that were being produced a mere generation after those of John Damascene; and third, not only was he held in high esteem among Arab Christians, but also among Eastern Orthodox and Latin Christians—quoted by such Latin notables as Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas—he was even elevated to the position of "Doctor of the Church" by Pope Leo XIII in 1890.

Rather than start with John Damascene's apologetic works that are directed to Muslims, I think it best to begin with his elucidations on the Trinity that are found in his rather extensive Expositio Fidei Orthodoxæ (Exposition of the Orthodox Faith) [1]. Though written after his apologetic treatments on Islam, I am convinced that the insights gleaned from this later work are essential for one to obtain a good understanding of his theology. The following selections are from S. D. F. Salmond's English translation in volume IX of The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers -second series (PDF copy HERE):

We have, then, adequately demonstrated that there is a God, and that His essence is incomprehensible. But that God is one and not many is no matter of doubt to those who believe in the Holy Scriptures. For the Lord says in the beginning of the Law: I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt. Thou shall have no other Gods before Me. And again He says, Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord. And in Isaiah the prophet we read, For I am the first God and I am the last and beside Me there is no God. Before Me there was not any God, nor after Me will there be any God, and beside Me there is no God. And the Lord, too, in the holy gospels speaketh these words to His Father, And this is life eternal, that they may know Thee the only true God. (Book I, Chapter V - p. 4.)

So then this one and only God is not Wordless. And possessing the Word, He will have it not as without a subsistence [2], nor as having had a beginning, nor as destined to cease to be. For there never was a time when God was not Word: but He ever possesses His own Word, begotten of Himself, not, as our word is, without a subsistence and dissolving into air, but having a subsistence in Him and life and perfection, not proceeding out of Himself but ever existing within Himself. For where could it be, if it were to go outside Him? For inasmuch as our nature is perishable and easily dissolved, our word is also without subsistence. But since God is everlasting and perfect, He will have His Word subsistent in Him, and everlasting and living, and possessed of all the attributes of the Begetter. For just as our word, proceeding as it floes out of the mind, is neither wholly identical with the mind nor utterly diverse from it (for so far as it proceeds out of the mind it is different from it, while so far as it reveals the mind, it is no longer absolutely diverse from the mind, but being one in nature with the mind, it is yet to the subject diverse from it), so in the same manner also the Word of Gods in its independent subsistence is differentiated from Him from Whom it derives its subsistence : but inasmuch as it displays in itself the same attributes as are seen in God, it is of the same nature as God. For just as absolute perfection is contemplated in the Father, so also is it contemplated in the Word that is begotten of Him. (Book I, Chapter VI - pp. 4, 5.)

After explaining in chapter VII (pp. 5, 6) that in addition to the Word, God also has His Spirit, John Damascene goes on to expound his understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity:

Concerning the Holy Trinity

We believe, then, in One God, one beginning, having no beginning, uncreate, unbegotten, imperishable and immortal, everlasting, infinite, uncircumscribed, boundless, of infinite power, simple, uncompound, incorporeal, without flux, passionless, unchangeable, unalterable, unseen, the fountain of goodness and justice, the light of the mind, inaccessible; a power known by no measure, measurable only by His own will alone (for all things that He wills He can), creator of all created things, seen or unseen, of all the maintainer and preserver, for all the provider, master and lord and king over all, with an endless and immortal kingdom: having no contrary, filling all, by nothing encompassed, but rather Himself the encompasser and maintainer and original possessor of the universe, occupying all essences intact and extending beyond all things, and being separate from all essence as being super-essential and above all things and absolute God, absolute goodness, and absolute fulness : determining all sovereignties and ranks, being placed above all sovereignty and rank, above essence and life and word and thought: being Himself very light and goodness and life and essence, inasmuch as He does not derive His being from another, that is to say, of those things that exist: but being Himself the fountain of being to all that is, of life to the living, of reason to those that have reason; to all the cause of all good: perceiving all things even before they have become: one essence, one divinity, one power, one will, one energy, one beginning, one authority, one dominion, one sovereignty, made known in three perfect subsistences and adored with one adoration, believed in and ministered to by all rational creation, united without confusion and divided without separation (which indeed transcends thought). (We believe) in Father and Son and Holy Spirit whereinto also we have been baptized. For so our Lord commanded the Apostles to baptize, saying, Baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

(We believe) in one Father, the beginning, and cause of all: begotten of no one: without cause or generation, alone subsisting: creator of all: but Father of one only by nature, His Only-begotten Son and our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ, and Producer of the most Holy Spirit. And in one Son of God, the Only-begotten, our Lord, Jesus Christ: begotten of the Father, before all the ages: Light of Light, true God of true God: begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father, through Whom all things are made: and when we say He was before all the ages we shew that His birth is without time or beginning: for the Son of God was not brought into being out of nothing, He that is the effulgence of the glory, the impress of the Father's subsistence, the living wisdom and power, the Word possessing interior subsistence, the essential and perfect and living image of the unseen God. But always He was with the Father and in Him, everlastingly and without beginning begotten of Him. For there never was a time when the Father was and the Son was not, but always the Father and always the Son, Who was begotten of Him, existed together. For He could not have received the name Father apart from the Son: for if He were without the Son, He could not be the Father: and if He thereafter had the Son, thereafter He became the Father, not having been the Father prior to this, and He was changed from that which was not the Father and became the Father. This is the worst form of blasphemy. For we may not speak of God as destitute of natural generative power: and generative power means, the power of producing from one's self, that is to say, from one's own proper essence, that which is like in nature to one's self. (Book I, Chapter 8 - pp. 6, 7.)

A bit later, from the same chapter, we read:

Accordingly the everlasting God generates His own Word which is perfect, without beginning and without end, that God, Whose nature and existence are above time, may not engender in time. But with man clearly it is otherwise, for generation is with him a matter of sex, and destruction and flux and increase and body clothe him round about, and he possesses a nature which is male or female. For the male requires the assistance of the female. But may He Who surpasses all, and transcends all thought and comprehension, be gracious to us.

The holy catholic and apostolic Church, then, teaches the existence at once of a Father: and of His Only-begotten Son, born of Him without time and flux and passion, in a manner incomprehensible and perceived by the God of the universe alone: just as we recognise the existence at once of fire and the light which proceeds from it: for there is not first fire and thereafter light, but they exist together. And just as light is ever the product of fire, and ever is in it and at no time is separate from it, so in like manner also the Son is begotten of the Father and is never in any way separate from Him, but ever is in Him. But whereas the light which is produced from fire without separation, and abideth ever in it, has no proper subsistence of its own distinct from that of fire (for it is a natural quality of fire), the Only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father without separation and difference and ever abiding in Him, has a proper subsistence of its own distinct froth that of the Father.

The terms, 'Word' and 'effulgence,' then, are used because He is begotten of the Father without the union of two, or passion, or time, or flux, or separation : and the terms 'Son' and 'impress of the Father's subsistence,' because He is perfect and has subsistence s and is in all respects similar to the Father, save that the Father is not begotten : and the term 'Only-begotten' because He alone was begotten alone of the Father alone. For no other generation is like to the generation of the Son of God, since no other is Son of God. For though the Holy Spirit proceedeth from the Father, yet this is not generative in character but processional. This is a different mode of existence, alike incomprehensible and unknown, just as is the generation of the Son. Wherefore all the qualities the Father has are the Son's, save that the Father is unbegotten, and this exception involves no difference in essence nor dignity, but only a different mode of coming into existence. We have an analogy in Adam, who was not begotten (for God Himself moulded him), and Seth, who was begotten (for he is Adam's son), and Eve, who proceeded out of Adam's rib (for she was not begotten). These do not differ from each other in nature, for they are human beings: but they differ in the mode of coming into existence. (Book I, Chapter 8 - pp. 7, 8.)

After explaining the difference between ἀγένητον and ἀγέννητον, John then writes:

For the Father alone is ingenerate (ἀγέννητον), no other subsistence having given Him being. And the Son alone is generate, for He was begotten of the Father's essence without beginning and without time. And only the Holy Spirit proceedeth from the Father's essence, not having been generated but simply proceeding. For this is the doctrine of Holy Scripture. But the nature of the generation and the procession is quite beyond comprehension. (Book I, Chapter 8 - p. 8.)

And in the next paragraph we read his interpretation of John 14:28:

So then, whenever we hear it said that the Father is the origin of the Son and greater than the Son, let us understand it to mean in respect of causation. Book I, Chapter 8 - p. 9 - bold emphasis mine.)

He ends the chapter with the following:

The subsistences then we say are perfect, that we may not conceive of the divine nature as compound. For compoundness is the beginning of separation. And again we speak of the three subsistences as being in each other, that we may not introduce a crowd and multitude of Gods. Owing to the three subsistences, there is no compoundness or confusion: while, owing to their having the same essence and dwelling in one another, and being the same in will, and energy, and power, and authority, and movement, so to speak, we recognise the indivisibility and the unity of God. For verily there is one God, and His word and Spirit. (Book I, Chapter 8 - p. 10.)

I shall end my quotations from Salmond's translation here—with the hope that interested readers will take the time to read the entire work—and will move on to my own thoughts on what we have read.

Clearly, John Damascene stands firmly within Nicene and post-Nicene Byzantine/Eastern Orthodox traditon. He quotes from the Nicene Creed and follows suit with a number of earlier Greek Church Fathers (e.g. Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa) by placing an emphasis on the Father as, "the beginning and cause of all : begotten of no one : without cause or generation", while maintaining the full equality of the nature that he shares with the Son and Spirit; as such, we can add John Damascene to our list of Church Fathers who support the Monarchy of God the Father.

Grace and peace,



1. Expositio Fidei Orthodoxæ (Exposition of the Orthodox Faith) is actually part 3 of a larger work titled The Fount of Knowledge (Πηγὴ γνώσεως). Part 1 deals with philosophical issues; and part 2 with heresies. (For the Greek texts, see Migne's, Patrologia Graeca vol. 94 - PDF copy here.)

2. The Greek word that Salmond consistently translates as subsistence/s is ὑπόστασις. John provides the following definition for this term in part 1 of his The Fount of Knowledge:

The term hypostasis has two meanings. Sometimes it means simple existence. In this sense, substance and hypostasis are the same thing, which is why certain of the holy Fathers have said: 'the natures, that is to say, hypostases.' At other times, it means the existence of an individual substance in itself. In this sense, it signifies the individual, that which is numerically different, which is to say, Peter and Paul, or that certain horse...

One should know that the holy Fathers used the term hypostasis and person and individual for the same thing, namely, that which by its own subsistence subsists of itself from substance and accidents, is numerically different, and signifies a certain one, as, for example, Peter, and Paul, and this horse. Hypostasis has been so called from its ὑφεστάναι, or subsisting. (Saint John of Damascus - Writings, trans. by Frederic H. Chase, Jr. - Vol. 37 of the Fathers of the Church series, pp. 66-68 - Google Books preview here.)

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Gregory of Nazinazus on the Father as "greater" than the Son (John 14:28)

I have been rereading the Orations of Gregory Nazianzen (Nazianzus). I started with the 19 orations translated into English by Martha Vinson, published by the Catholic University of America Press (volume 107 in the Fathers of the Church series - Google preview). None of these orations are included in the collection of Gregory's works published in volume VII of The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (second series - PDF copy).

From Oration 20 we read:

We must neither be so partial to the Father that we actually strip him of his fatherhood, for whose father would he in fact be if his son were different in nature and estranged from him along with the rest of creation? Nor by the same token, should we be so partial to Christ that we fail to preserve this very distinction, his Sonhood, for whose son would he in fact be if there were no causal relationship between his Father and himself? Nor again should we diminish the Father's status as source, proper to him as Father and generator, since he would be the source of small and worthless things were he not the cause of deity contemplated in the Son and Spirit. It is our duty then both to maintain the oneness of God and to confess three individual entities, or Persons, each with his distinctive property.

The oneness of God [i.e. the Father] would, in my view, be maintained if both the Son and Spirit are causally related to him alone without being merged or fused into him and if they all share one and the same divine movement and purpose. And all three individually existing entities will be maintained if we do not think of them as fusing or dissolving or mingling, lest those with an excessive devotion to unity end up destroying the whole. And the individual properties will be maintained if, in the case of the Father, we think and speak of him as being both source and without source (I use the term in the sense of causal agent, fount, and eternal light)...The Father, then, is without source: his existence is derived neither outside nor from within himself. In turn, the Son is not without source if you understand "Father" to mean causal agent, since the Father is the source of the Son as causal agent... (Pages 111, 112.)

The teaching of Gregory that the Father is the "causal agent", "source", "fount" of the Son (and Spirit) is a foundational aspect of his doctrine of the Trinity, and is found in a number of his works. Directly related to this teaching is his understanding of the Father as "greater" (John 14:28) than the Son. Note the following from Oration 30:

As your third point you count the Word Greater ; and as your fourth. To My God and your God. And indeed, if He had been called greater, and the word equal had not occurred, this might perhaps have been a point in their favour. But if we find both words clearly used what will these gentlemen have to say? How will it strengthen their argument ? How will they reconcile the irreconcilable? For that the same thing should be at once greater than and equal to the same thing is an impossibility; and the evident solution is that the Greater refers to origination, while the Equal belongs to the Nature ; and this we acknowledge with much good will. But perhaps some one else will back up our attack on your argument, and assert, that That which is from such a Cause is not inferior to that which has no Cause ; for it would share the glory of the Unoriginate, because it is from the Unoriginate. And there is, besides, the Generation, which is to all men a matter so marvellous and of such Majesty. For to say that he is greater than the Son considered as man, is true indeed, but is no great thing. For what marvel is it if God is greater than man ? Surely that is enough to say in answer to their talk about Greater. (NPNF 7.312.)

Gregory follows the majority of pre-Nicene Church Fathers that the Biblical description of the Father being "greater" than the Son (John 14:28) should not be limited to the Son's incarnation; and that, the Father is in a very concrete sense "greater" than the Son because he is the "causal agent" of the Son.

My rereading of Gregory's orations has impressed upon me some important aspects of his reflections on the doctrine of the Trinity: first, the monarchy of God the Father, which includes His function as the "causal agent", "source", "fount" of the Son and Holy Spirit; second, his emphasis on the individuality of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, without diminishing their equality of nature; and third, his ability to refute both Sabellianism and Arianism at the same time while engaged in the process of expounding his own Trinitarian thought.

Grace and peace,


Saturday, April 30, 2016

The employment of the term "God" - some cogent reflections from an essay by Fr. John Behr

Yesterday, I finished reading an essay from the book, Orthodox Readings of Augustine (Google Books preview), by Fr. John Behr, "Calling upon God as Father: Augustine and the legacy of Nicaea" (pages 153-165).

The essay opens with the following:

The past century was not a good one for Blessed Augustine: during its course, he was subject to increasingly servere criticism for his trinitarian theology. This misfortune occurred as the so-called "de Régnon paradigm"—that the Greeks began with the three and moved to the unity, while the Latins began with the one before treating the three... (p. 153)

Fr. Behr then provides examples from both perspectives (i.e. Greek and Latin), which include Vladmir Lossky, John Zizioulas, Karl Rahner and Catherine LaCugna. But he then writes:

Against this general tendency [support for the "de Régnon paradigm"], nevertheless, there have appeared more recently new voices arguing that the situation is, if truth be told, not so bleak. Michel Barnes annd Lewis Ayres (though there are others), have argued that Augustine, in fact, shares many features of trinitarian theology with the Cappadocians, so that there is a generally recognizable "pro-Nicaean" trinitarian theology common to both Greek and Latin traditions, depsite variations not only between them but also within them. Augustine's contribution, therefore, is not a radically new turn, but a deepened, more clearly articulated expression of a common body of inherited belief. (pp. 155, 156)

[For some further examples, see THIS THREAD.]

Within pages 156-161, Fr. Behr presents some solid support for this newer assessment. However, the last portion of the essay raises some serious questions and issues which Fr. Behr believes are still problematic. Note the following:

While the two alternatives of the so-called "de Régnon paradigm" may have been reconciled, there nevertheless remain some fundamental questions—questions not so much of the grand order of metaphysical or ontological claims regarding the ultimate ground of reality, nor even the grammar by which we speak of such things, but, much more prosaically concerning the employment of the term "God." St. Gregory the Theologian knew that he was on unchartered, even unscriptural, territory in using the term "God" of the Holy Spirit, even if it can be argued that scripture does so in other words. Augustine, on the other hand, does not seem to be aware that he is using the term "God" of the Trinity in a radically new manner, one that is not only different but also problematic. The concern of the Cappoadocians, following Athanasius, Origen, and Irenaeus, was not the implications of how one affirms that each divine person is God and the one God, singularly and collectively, but the reverse: how to affirm the one God is Father. (p. 161)

And a bit later we read:

The continual emphasis on the one God as Father, goes back to the Pauline assertion that formed architecture of later creeds: for Christians he says, "there is but one God and Father . . . and one Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 8:6). The one God confessed in the first article of the creeds of Nicaea and Constantinople is unambiguously the Father.

...the monarchy that is so frequently spoken about with regrad to Cappodocian trinitarian theology is not simply the monarchy of the Father, but the monarchy of the one God as Father, the Father of an eternally present Son, consubstantial with him, and the Spirit who proceeds from him, without whom he cannot even be thought let alone addressed. (p. 162)

After affirming that, "Jesus is the Son and Word" and is, "as fully divine as the Father", as well as, "true God from true God", he then writes:

To speak of "the triune God" or "trinitarian God," the one God who is three, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, sounds not only odd, but distinctly modalist."

Fr. Behr then states that the difference between the Greek and Latin trinitarian theologies, "is not that of the so-called 'de Régnon paradigm'," but rather, "the difference between starting from the one God who is Father, and beginning with the Father, Son, and Spirit who are each, and together, the one God." (p. 163)

The entire essay is a must read IMHO, as well as the rest of the contributions in this informative collection.

Grace and peace,


Friday, April 15, 2016

Aquinas on John 14:28 and John 5:19

A few days ago, I got involved in a thread started by Dr. Edgar Foster—at his blog Foster's Theological Reflections—under the title: Question of the Day for Trinitarians.

Among other issues, Dr. Foster and I discussed Aquinas's understanding of Jesus statement that, "the Father is greater than I" (John 14:28). I stated, that Aquinas believed that it could be understood to apply to both of Jesus' natures (i.e. divine and human); Edgar (who is quite knowledgeable and no novice when it comes to Aquinas), is of the opinion that Aquinas limited the interpretation to his human nature only. I quoted in our combox discussion the same selection from Aquinas's commentary on the Gospel of John that I provided in my April 1, 2016 thread, Clear elements of Nicene Monarchism..., which I believe supports my take. Here is that selection again:

1971 One could also say, as Hilary does, that even according to the divine nature the Father is greater than the Son, yet the Son is not inferior to the Father, but equal. For the Father is not greater than the Son in power, eternity and greatness, but by the dignity of a grantor or source. For the Father receives nothing from another, but the Son, if I can put it this way, receives his nature from the Father by an eternal generation. So, the Father is greater because he gives; but the Son is not inferior, but equal, because he receives all that the Father has: "God has bestowed on him the name which is above every name" (Phil 2:9). For the one to whom a single act of existence (esse) is given, is not inferior to the giver. [LINK to online source.]

The above did not convince Edgar of my position, so to add strength to my view, I am providing yet another selection from Aquinas's commentary on the Gospel of John, this time from John 5:19:

746 To get the true meaning of Christ’s statement, we should know that in those matters which seem to imply inferiority in the Son, it could be said, as some do, that they apply to Christ according to the nature he assumed; as when he said: “The Father is greater than I” (below 14:28). According to this, they would say that our Lord’s statement, the Son cannot do anything of himself, should be understood of the Son in his assumed nature. However, this does not stand up, because then one would be forced to say that whatever the Son of God did in his assumed nature, the Father had done before him. For example, that the Father had walked upon the water as Christ did: otherwise, he would not have said, but only what he sees the Father doing.

And if we say that whatever Christ did in his flesh, God the Father also did in so far as the Father works in him, as said below (14:10): “The Father, who lives in me, he accomplishes the works,” then Christ would be saying that the Son cannot do anything of himself, but only what he sees the Father doing in him, i.e., in the Son. But this cannot stand either, because Christ’s next statement, For whatever the Father, does, the Son does likewise, could not, in this interpretation, be applied to him, i.e., to Christ. For the Son, in his assumed nature, never created the world, as the Father did. Consequently, what we read here must not be understood as pertaining to Christ’s assumed nature.

747 According to Augustine, however, there is another way of understanding statements which seem to, but do not, imply inferriority in the Son: namely, by referring them to the origin of the Son coming or begotten from the Father. For although the Son is equal to the Father in all things, he receives all these things from the Father in an eternal begetting. But the Father gets these from no one, for he is unbegotten. According to this explanation, the continuity of thought is the following: Why are you offended because I said that God is my Father, and because I made myself equal to the Father? Amen, amen, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of himself. As if to say: I am equal to the Father, but in such a way as to be from him, and not he from me; and whatever I may do, is in me from the Father.

748 According to this interpretation, mention is made of the power of the Son when he says, can, and of his activity when he says, do. Both can be understood here, so that, first of all, the derivation of the Son’s power from the Father is shown, and secondly, the conformity of the Son’s activity to that of the Father.

749 As to the first, Hilary explains it this way: Shortly above our Lord said that he is equal to the Father. Some heretics, basing themselves on certain scriptural texts which assert the unity and equality of the Son to the Father, claim that the Son is unbegotten. For example, the Sabellians, who say that the Son is identical in person with the Father. Therefore, so you do not understand this teaching in this way, he says, the Son cannot do anything of himself, for the Son’s power is identical with his nature. Therefore the Son has his power from the same source as he has his being (esse); but he has his being (esse) from the Father: “I came forth from the Father, and I have come into the world” (Jn 16:28). He also has his nature from the Father, because he is God from God; therefore, it is from him that the Son has his power (posse).

So his statement, the Son cannot do anything of himself, but only what he sees the Father doing, is the same as saying: The Son, just as he does not have his being (esse) except from the Father, so he cannot do anything except from the Father. For in natural things, a thing receives its power to act from the very thing from which it receives its being: for example, fire receives its power to ascend from the very thing from which it receives its form and being. Further, in saying, the Son cannot do anything of himself, no inequality is implied, because this refers to a relation; while equality and inequality refer to quantity. (Bold emphasis in the original.) [LINK]

In my opinion, I think the above comments make it quite clear that Aquinas applies John 14:28 and John 5:19 to both of Jesus' natures. Would be very interested in hearing from others on this issue...

Grace and peace,


Friday, April 1, 2016

Clear elements of Nicene Monarchism from an esteemed, 19th century Catholic theologian

Important elements of Nicene Monarchism include the priority of the Father over the Son and the Holy Spirit, and the etiological principle that the Father is the cause/source of both the person and substance of the Son and Holy Spirit. Though post-Augustine Catholic theologians rarely place an emphasis on the above aspects of Trinitarian thought (unlike many Anglican and Eastern Orthodox theologians), I remained convinced that the Catholic tradition has never denied those teachings. For instance, I found vestiges of Nicene Monarchism in the thought of Thomas Aquinas, who taught:

One of the most important 'relational' distinctions between the three persons of the Trinity is that, "the Father is the principle of the whole Godhead" (P1.Q.39.A5), the "fontal principle of the entire divinity" (fontale principium totius divinitatis - Aquinas, Commentum in Lib. 1 Sententiarum, D.34.Q.2) [See THIS THREAD for more on this issue.]

In his commentary on the Gospel of John (verse 14:28), we read:

1971 One could also say, as Hilary does, that even according to the divine nature the Father is greater than the Son, yet the Son is not inferior to the Father, but equal. For the Father is not greater than the Son in power, eternity and greatness, but by the dignity of a grantor or source. For the Father receives nothing from another, but the Son, if I can put it this way, receives his nature from the Father by an eternal generation. So, the Father is greater because he gives; but the Son is not inferior, but equal, because he receives all that the Father has: "God has bestowed on him the name which is above every name" (Phil 2:9). For the one to whom a single act of existence (esse) is given, is not inferior to the giver. [LINK to online source.]

So, although I had found snippets of Nicene Monarchism in post-Augustine Catholic theologians, it was not until I had recently read the English translation of Matthias Joseph Scheeben's, Die Mysterien des Christentums (The Mysteries of Christianity), that I came across definitive support for Nicene Monarchism within the Catholic tradition. The following germane selections will be from the B. Herder Book Co. 1947 English edition, translated by Cyril Vollert.

From Chapter IV - The Productions of the Second and Third Persons, we read (all bold emphasis mine):

The term "generation" is of course employed, in the first place, to indicate that the production of the Second Person in God is wholly different from creation, the act by which non-divine beings come into existence. Creation is a free act of the divine will, whereby God calls into being things which of themselves were nothing, and communicates to them an existence which is essentially different from His own. But God brings forth His interior Word by communicating to Him His own being, His own substance. The Word proceeds from the Father's innermost substance, which passes over to the Word and places Him in full possession of the very nature that is proper to the Father. (Page 87.)

In God, in whom all that is found scattered in creatures is one, faith reveals to us the production of the Word from the substance of the Father. This Word is an intelligible image of its principle, because it proceeds from the latter's cognition and manifests it. It is likewise a real. substantial, personal image, because the cognition and also the object of the cognition, are expressed and impressed in this Word. The Second Person in the Godhead is produced because the First Person wills to utter and attest Himself, to express and manifest His nature. The Second Person receives the Father's nature in order to exhibit and manifest it in Himself. What then is to prevent us from saying that He is truly generated, nay, that in accord with the words of Holy Scripture, all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is so-called after the generating fatherhood of His principle? (Page 91.)

Then, in a footnote (#4, p. 91 ff.) Scheeben provides a quotation from Aquinas' Summa Contra Gentiles (IV.11), a work I had read in the 90's, long before my studies into Nicene Monarchism, and quite frankly, failed to recall its importance to Nicene Monarchism. Note the following:

We must note that what is generated is said to be conceived, so long as it remains in the parent. God's Word is begotten of God in such wise that He does not depart from the Father but remains in Him. Therefore God's Word may rightly be said to be conceived of God. This is the reason why the Wisdom of God affirms: 'The depths were not as yet, and I was already conceived' (Prov. 8:24). (Page 92.)

A bit later, from the same footnote, we read:

Again, what is brought forth issues from the womb. For a similar reason the generation of God's Word, which is called birth to indicate his perfect distinction from His Father, is called birth from the womb, according to Psalm 109:3" 'From the womb before the day star I begot Thee." However, the distinction of the Word from the speaker does not prevent the Word from existing in the speaker. Hence, just as the Word is said t0 be begotten or brought forth from the womb, to indicate His distinct existence, so to show that this distinction does not exclude the Word form existence in the speaker, revelation assures us that He 'is in the bosom of the Father' (John 1:18).

Finally, we must advert to the fact that carnal generation of animals is effected by an active and a passive principle. The father has an active, the mother a passive part. Hence for procreation of offspring the father has one function, the mother a different one: the father confers nature and species on the progeny, whereas the mother, as passive and receptive principle, conceives and gives birth. Procession is predicated of the Word inasmuch as God understands Himself: but the divine intelligence involves no passive element, but is wholly active, so to speak, since the divine intellect is not in potency but exclusively in act. Therefore in the generation of God's Word there is no maternal function, but only a paternal function. Hence the various functions which pertain to the father and the mother in carnal generation, are attributed by Scripture to the Father in His generation of the Word: the Father is said to give life to the Son (cf. John 5:16), to conceive Him, and to bring Him forth. (Page 93.)

Towards the end of the chapter, Scheeben, provides some insightful commentary on the issue of 'relation' as it pertains to the three persons of the Godhead/Trinity. Scheeben writes:

The communication of the essence from one person to the others involves no separation or partition of the essence. On the contrary, the essence can be transmitted to one of the other persons only if this person enters into relationship with the First Person and is united to Him in oneness of essence.

Furthermore, the first principle is one, the original possessor of the divine nature is one, and the distinction among persons proceeds from this one principle. The distinction issues from the unity, and is in turn stabilized by this same unity. for the Second and Third Persons are distinct from the First Person only because they have their origin from Him and stand in relation to Him by virtue of this origin...(Page 115.)

The Father unites the other two persons with and in Himself as their common root and source; for He is the common principle of both. (Page 116.)

In ending, I would like to say that it is quite reassuring (and refreshing) to discover a 'heavy-weight' Catholic theologian who espouses a number of the propositions concerning the Godhead that I have been defending over the last few years.

Grace and peace,


Saturday, March 26, 2016

Jesus Christ, the Angel of Jehovah, and Michael the Archangel - part 3

Part 3 of this ongoing series will focus primarily on Dr. Douglas F. Kelly's contributions concerning "The angel of the Lord" (Jehovah) and "Theophanies", published in his Systematic Theology - Volume One (2008 - Google Books).

Dr. Kelly begins his section on the "angel of the Lord" at page 465:

The angel of the Lord

Angels in both Old and New Testaments are usually 'messengers of God', often, 'ministering to those who are heirs of salvation' (Heb. 1:14). They are created spirits who can at times appear in human form. But they can also be identified with God Himself. Such is the case with the angel who speaks to Hagar, promising, 'I will multiply thy seed exceedingly' (Gen. 16:7). The, after the angel leaves, Hagar 'called the name of the LORD that spake unto her, Thou God seest me...' (v. 13). At the sacrifice of Isaac (which was divinely prevented), the angel of the LORD said to obedient Abraham: 'I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me' (Gen. 22:12). Not to withhold Isaac from the angel was not to withhold him from God Himself. Thus, theangel is identified with the Lord. Jacob in his strange night of wrestling with 'a man' Genesis 32:30 (who is termed 'angel' in Hosea 12:4) says: 'I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.' The 'angel of the Lord' speaks to Jacob in Genesis 33:10-31, and makes it clear that He is the same as 'the God of Bethel.' Moses met the angel of the Lord in the burning bush, which was the same as meeting the Lord (Exod. 3:2-6). After the people of God had entered the Promised Land, the angel of the Lord says: '... I made you to go up out of Egypt, and have brought you into the land which I sware unto your fathers; and I said, I will never break my covenant with you' (Judg. 2:1). Malachi 3:1, identifies the messenger (or angel) of the covenant with God Himself: 'Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts.'

As Herman Bavinck writes:

... the subject which speaks through the angel of Jehovah far surpasses a created angel. The church-fathers before Augustine were unanimous in explaining this Angel of Jehovah as a theophany of the Logos...So much is clear: that in the Mal'akh Yhwh who is pre-eminently worthy of that name, God (esp. his Word) is present in a very special sense. This is very evident from the fact that though distinct from Jehovah this Angel of Jehovah bears the same name, has the same power, effects the same deliverance, dispenses the same blessings, and is the object of the same adoration. [53]

Thus, the mysterious appearance of the angel of the Lord indicates a certain diversity within the one Being of God, for He is at the same time both distinct from God and also one with God. Such passages indicate that God's Being is not an impoverished monad. Instead, His Being has a rich inner diversity.

53. Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God, translated by William Hendriksen (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1979 reprint), 257.

The OT passages quoted by Dr. Kelly, when reflected upon with the assessment from Dr. Bavinck in mind, seems to modify an absolute understanding that all the references to the 'Angel of Jehovah' have a created angel in mind (contra Augustine). 

Dr. Kelly immediately follows the above with his take on "Theophanies":

Some of the appearances of holy angels are traditionally called 'theophanies' (i.e. manifestations of God). 'In these theophanies we note that on occasions the A. V. or the LXX speak of an angel, and sometimes the angel. This is no discrepancy, of course, but merely two ways of translating the Hebrew construct state.' [54] Knight goes on to list fifteen theophanies. We have already discussed several of them (i.e. Gen. 16:7-14; 21:17-19; 22:11-18; 31:11-13; 32:4-12; Exod. 3:2-6; Judg. 2:1-5).

54. George F. Knight, A Biblical Approach to the Doctrine of the Trinity, 25.

Dr. Kelly then examines 9 more passages: Gen. 18:1-22; 19:1; 48:15-16; Exod. 14:19-22; Josh. 5:13-16; Judg. 6:11-24; 13:2-23; Zech. 1:12; and 3:6-10. (Page 466.)

He concludes this section with the following assessment:

Before the rise of biblical higher criticism, the Christian theological tradition, both East and West, Catholic and Protestant, generally understood the Old Testament theophanies to be pre-incarnate appearances of the Second Person of the Trinity, Christ Himself. The nineteenth-century Swiss Reformed scholar, Louis Gaussen, helpfully summarized much of the traditional interpretation on this point, as we see in Appendix II to this chapter. (Page 467.)

From the above mentioned appendix, we read:

Chapter Seven Appendix Two - The Traditional Christian Interpretation of Old Testament Theophanies as Pre-Incarnate Appearances of Christ (as summarized by Louis Gaussen) [From Louis Gaussen, Sermons par Gaussen, 1847.]

In the main part of Chapter 7 we considered some Old Testament passages that speak of the mysterious angel of the Lord, and undertood them to be intimations of the pre-incarnate Son of God. But more remains to be said about this foreshadowing of the Holy Trinity. Dr. Louis Gaussen has carefully explicated the appearances of the angel of the Lord in a relatively brief compass. (Page 479.)

Dr. Kelly then translates the germane portion from Gaussen's, "Gédéon devant l'Ange de l'Eternal" [from the French in, Sermons par Gaussen, 1847.]

In the selection provided by Dr. Kelly, Gaussen lists, "several very simple principles, by which we may grasp in a very precise and certain manner the right opinion on this important subject" (pp. 479-483). Of the five that he provides, the following is the first:

The first of these principles is nothing else than one fact; here it is: every time in the Holy Bible that we are faced with appearances of this mysterious Angel, whom the Holy Spirit calls 'the Angel of the Face' (Isa. 63:9); 'the Angel of the Covenant' (Mal. 3:1), or 'the Angel of the LORD God' or 'Angel of Jehovah', one understands Him to be attributing constantly all the most incommunicable names of the omnipotent God; and not only the names, but also His attributes and works; and not only His attributes, names, and works, but also the worship which everywhere God claims for Himself alone. (Pages 479, 480.)

The second principle, "is the principle of divine unity." The third, "will be only one assertion, which flows directly from the first two, and which is nearly the same as they are. Here it is: The Being who, in the Bible, attributes to Himself the names, the works. the characteristics, and even the worship of almightly God, cannot be a creature." (Page 481.)

The fourth, "which is no less questionable: THE ANGEL OF HIS FACE, who appears so often to the elect of God in the Old Testament, could not be God the Father." (Page 481.)

And the fifth:

It was the Angel of the LORD, O Christians, it was the same Saviour, the same Master, the Comforter, whom we are commissioned to proclaim in the flesh; and also it was therefore already He who was appearing before His incarnation, in preparation for His mission of incomprehensible abasement in which He would come down at a later time in order to save us. (Page 481.)

Gaussen provides additional commentary and Scriptural support for all five principals. At end of his translation, Dr. Kelley adds the following summary:

Most Old Testament scholars for the last century (even conservative ones) have been considerably more restrained in definitely identifying all appearances of the angel of the Lord as the pre-incarnate Christ. Even if Gaussen is at times overconfident in focusing the scope of all passages he quotes exclusively to the Second Person of the Trinity, still, I cannot see that he is essentially wrong either exegetically or theologically, in assuming that in most cases of theophanic appearances of the angel of the Lord, the pre-incarnate Christ is most likely referred to. Many Church Fathers, medieval scholastics, and sixteenth-century Reformers held to much the same understanding of the angel of the Lord, and I can find no compelling reason to part company with them on this point. (Page 483.)

The conviction held by the ante-Nicene Church Fathers, Gaussen, Gill, Hengstenberg, Liddon, et al., that, "in most cases of theophanic appearances of the angel of the Lord, the pre-incarnate Christ is most likely referred to", is also my view;  and like Dr. Kelly, "I can find no compelling reason to part company with them on this point."

Grace and peace,