Sunday, July 1, 2018

Novatian of Rome: did he teach the ontological subordination of the Son ???


Over the last few days, I read Daniel Lloyd's 2012 dissertation concerning the early Church Father, Novatian of Rome (link to PDF copy HERE). It had been almost a decade since I last did any in depth study on Novatian; as such, Lloyd's dissertation was a helpful reminder that Novatian wrote the first full length treatise on the Trinity in Latin. It also brought back to mind something I wrote back on June 3, 2009:

"Though he claimed that Jesus was God, he did so with certain qualifications, and reserved the title “one God” for the Father alone (as does the Bible and the rest of the ECFs)." (LINK)

In older my posts on Novatian, I relayed the fact that he taught the subordination of the Son to the Father, but I did not delineate what form of subordination he espoused. It was probably a good thing that I did not do so, for those earlier studies into Novatian's Trinitarian thought took place a couple of years before I began my extensive research into the important issue of the Monarchy of God of the Father. I now fully realize that limiting the title "one God" exclusively to the Father does not preclude the fact that the Father communicated His full divinity to the Son—i.e. the Son is truly "God from God." As such, I do not believe that the subordination Novatian taught was an ontological subordination.

As my examination of Lloyd's dissertation unfolds, I want readers to understand that I shall do so with three important premises in mind: first, Novatian was not a proto-Arian, for he clearly affirmed that the Son was derived from the Father's substance—that he 'always existed'—and was not created ex nihilo; second, there is a very real sense in which Novatian can be deemed a proto-Nicene Trinitarian, for he maintained the Son was 'God from God'; and third, that much of the subordination language employed by Novatian is compatible with the basic framework of the Monarchy of God the Father motif.

Now, with that said, even though I think Lloyd's dissertation is a valuable contribution worth reading, I do so with a certain reservations, for Lloyd believes that Novatian taught the ontological subordination of the Son. Later on in this post, I will provide the reasons why I believe that Lloyd's conclusion is mistaken; but for now, would like to open the examination of the dissertation with some excerpts:

This dissertation evaluates Novatian of Rome‘s theology of the Son in his De Trinitate. It argues that Novatian presents the Son as ontologically subordinate to the Father, which is not a conclusion shared by a majority of recent scholars. This conclusion is reached by comparing Novatian‘s presentation of the Father‘s divinity with that of the Son. The first half of this work, therefore, demonstrates the manner by which Novatian affirms that the Father is transcendent, supreme, and unique in His attributes. Novatian employs a range of concepts and terms found in Christian and non-Christian sources. Specifically, I present and analyze Novatian‘s indebtedness to technical terminology of divine ontology and divine attributes which were common to his intellectual environment, especially in Middle Platonism. I show that Novatian expresses the Father‘s transcendence through negative theology, but also acknowledges an array of necessary attributes such as oneness and simplicity. (Page 3 of the PDF document - bold emphasis mine.)

In the next paragraph, Lloyd writes:

Novatian‘s understanding of the Son‘s nature depends on his conviction that the Father alone is supreme in all of His divine attributes. The arguments Novatain assembles to identify the Son as God do not suggest that the Son‘s divinity is based on the idea of equality with the Father... Although Novatian embraces the Son‘s derivation from the Father in terms of a shared substance (what I identify as an ontological connection/relationship), he consistently speaks of the Son‘s attributes as diminished and less than the Father‘s. (Ibid.)

Lloyd's introduction (pages 1-21) is revealing, beginning with his definition of "ontological subordination"; note the following:

By ontological subordination, I mean that Novatian treats the Son as having a divine nature or divine attributes which are unequal to those of the Father, the Supreme God. My understanding of Novatian‘s ontological subordination comes from my analysis of Novatian‘s interaction with the theological philosophy of his time as well as his articulation of the Word Christology tradition. (Page 1)

He then writes:

I conclude in this dissertation that Novatian presents a sophisticated theology of the Son based on a Christology resembling that of Justin. Too often, scholars have attempted to peg Novatian‘s theology within the confines of a description either as an orthodox advancement or a regression of Tertullian‘s Trinitarian and Christological theology. Although Tertullian‘s work plays a significant influence on Novatian‘s theology, Novatian‘s thought should be presented according to its own structure. This structure arises from Novatian‘s emphasis on the distinction of the Father as unique and supreme. (Pages 1-2)

Novatian resided in Rome, and his De Trinitate was composed there. Lloyd points out that:

During the second century and the first half of the third, Rome was one of the critical crossroads of theological reflection and development, with many prominent figures living in or having direct contact with the Roman community. Persons whose writings we still possess include Hermas, Justin Martyr, Tatian, and Hippolytus. Other significant theological figures, such as Marcion, Valentinus, Basilides, and Sabellius, also lived in Rome. (Pages 2-3)

As for the primary sources that were probably used by Novatian, Lloyd writes:

There is little dispute about the primary sources on which Novatian relied. Thes include Justin, Theophilus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, and possibly Irenaeus. Scholars have also identified Cicero, Seneca, and Apuleius as prominent philosophers whom Novatian utilized. (Page 3)

A bit later (pages 6-10), Lloyd provides a brief outline of Novatian's De Trinitate, and then starts a section under the heading, "A Response to Novatian Scholarship". In this section, he divides the scholars who have written on Novatian into three "group[s]". The first group, "understands the inequalities Novatian identifies between the Father and Son as indicating the Son‘s ontological subordination to the Father." The second, "argues that Novatian assumes only a subordination in terms of the Son‘s lesser authority or rank, and members of this group make the case that Novatian teaches the equality of the Father and Son‘s divinity." The third, "believes that Novatian never resolves the theological tension between his suggestions of equality and inequality." Immediately after the above division of scholars into three groups, Lloyd writes:

I disagree with both the second and the third group, and I will demonstrate that Novatian advocates the Son‘s ontological subordination to the Father. Furthermore, my analysis shows that Novatian understands the Son‘s personal subordination in rank or authority to the Father as a supplement and complement to his central teaching of the Son‘s ontological subordination. (Page 10)

In the following pages (10-18) he references scholars that he believes are representatives of each of the three groups, but then qualifies his groupings, stating: "By categorizing scholars into three groups, I do not mean to suggest that each group presents homogeneous interpretations of all the topics used to evaluate Novatian‘s teaching about the Son." The last paragraph of this section sets the tone for the rest of the dissertation:

Scholars like DeSimone, Keilbach, and D‘Ales, who see Novatian‘s theology as marooned between the teachings of the Son‘s ontological subordination and teachings of the Son‘s equality with the Father, address Novatian‘s view of divine substance. They presume that Novatian‘s claim of a shared substance between the Father and the Son implies ontological equality. In light of this interpretation, Novatian‘s insistence on the diminished attributes of the Son stand as a confusing rejoinder to divine equality, which these scholars take to be expressed in the Son‘s sharing in the divine substance. In response to this suggestion, I will argue that Novatian does not make the Father‘s sharing of the divine substance with the Son equivalent to the Father‘s sharing the divine attributes, which make Him unique and supreme. Novatian‘s theology proposes that the Father shares his substance with the Son (i.e., the ontological connection) even though the Son receives a diminished divine nature (i.e., the Son is ontologically subordinate to the Father).

So, even though Lloyd admits, "that the Father shares his substance with the Son", he maintains, "the Son receives a diminished divine nature". As such, he believes Novatian taught, "the Son is ontologically subordinate to the Father."

Chapter I discusses the influence of Middle Platonism and Stoicism on Christian writers as a whole, while focusing on points of contact with Novatian's De Trinitate; three philosophers get extended attention: Cicero, Apuleius, and Alcinous. Chapter II examines the probably influence of a number of the pre-Novatian Church Fathers—e.g. Aristides,  Irenaeus, Justin, Tertullian, Theophilus. Chapter III explores Novatian's understanding of how mankind obtains knowledge of God. Chapter IV presents undeniable evidence that Novatian identifies "the One God" as God the Father.

Though chapters I-IV are informative, it is chapter V where things get really interesting for me. Concerning this chapter, Lloyd writes:

I will be addressing topics related to the Word‘s generation as it is associated with creation and recreation, as well as the Word‘s distinction from and relationship with the Father in the works of Justin, Theophilus, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Tertullian. Novatian‘s dependence on all of these writers is either clearly demonstrable or very likely. (Page 139)

Whilst chapter V addresses the Christologies of Justin, Theophilus, Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Tertullian, chapter VI targets Novatian's Christology, wherein a number of Biblical passages referenced by Novatian are examined.

Chapter VII opens with the following:

As discussed in chapter 6, Novatian identifies the Son as God while also declaring that the Father is the one and Supreme God. All scholars agree that Novatian teaches a divine hierarchy or subordination related to the pre-eminence of the Father over the Son. However, scholars continue to debate whether this hierarchy of the Father over the Son also constitutes diminished attributes in the Son, which is another way of speaking about ontological subordination. (Page 238)

In the next paragraph, he writes:

In this chapter, I will demonstrate that Novatian teaches the Son‘s ontological subordination to the Father against those scholars who believe that Novatian holds to the ontological equality of the Father and the Son. I also will discuss Novatian‘s insistence that the Son and Father share an ontological connection, in relation to his teaching of the Son‘s ontological subordination. The Father shares His divine substance with the Son, which makes the Son divine. This unique sharing in substance constitutes an ontological connection between the Father and Son. At the same time, Novatian denies that the Son‘s divine attributes equal those of the Father, which means that the Son is ontologically subordinate to the Father. (Ibid.)

The above points to the formative principle embraced by Lloyd which has caused him to conclude that Novatian taught the ontological subordination of the Son to the Father: "Novatian denies that the Son‘s divine attributes equal those of the Father, which means that the Son is ontologically subordinate to the Father." He maintains that the Father's attributes as the fount of divinity, begetter of the Son, and unqualified transcendence—i.e. the Father does not interact directly with His creation, but does so through the Son— precludes the Son from being ontologically equal with Him. This is where I fundamentally disagree with Lloyd—the fact that the Father possesses certain attributes exclusively does not categorically rule out ontological equality. Further, a number of statements in Novatian's De Trinitate, strongly suggest the ontological equality of the Son with the Father; note the following selections:

YET observe : when we declare that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God the Creator, was manifested in the substance of a true body, we must not seem to have capitulated, or to have provided the foundation of an argument, to other heretics, who in this connection maintain that He was solely and simply man, and accordingly are anxious to prove that He was a bare man, and nothing more. We use such language as to the substance of His body, as not to assert that He is simply and solely man, but to maintain that, according to the Scriptures, He was also God, through the entry of the Divinity of the Word into the union of the two natures. (The Treatise of Novatian on the Trinity, translated by Herbert Moore, p. 52 - link to PDF copy HERE)

Holy Scripture as plainly proclaims that Christ is God, as it proclaims God as very man ; it describes Jesus Christ as man, as clearly as it describes the Lord Christ as God...The very nature of things compels us to believe Him to be man, Who is of man, and compels us equally to believe Him to be God, Who is of God ; otherwise, if He is not God, when He is of God, He is not man, though He be of man. (Ibid. p. 54)

Obviously, therefore, every one who acknowledges Him to be God finds salvation in Christ Who is God, and every one who does not recognize Him as God will find that he has lost that salvation, since he cannot find it except in Christ Who is God. (Ibid. p. 57)

It is God, and God only, to Whom it belongs to know the secrets of the heart ; Christ sees the secrets of the heart. It is God, and God only, to Whom it belongs to forgive sins ; Christ, again, forgives sins. (Ibid. p. 62)

To no man does it belong to declare, "I and the Father are one" ; Christ alone, in the consciousness of His Divinity, utters this declaration. The Apostle Thomas, convinced at last by all the proofs of His Godhead, and by the facts, makes the response to Christ, "My Lord and my God." (Ibid. p. 62)

If Christ is only man, how is it that "whatsoever things the Father doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise," when a man cannot do works like the heavenly works of God? If Christ is only man, how is it that "As the Father hath life in himself, so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself," when a man cannot have life in himself in the manner of God the Father, seeing that he does not exist in an eternity of glory, but is made of the material of mortality ? (Ibid. pp. 65, 66)

As the Jews in their blindness looked only at the carnal side of His Being, He passed over in silence the frailty, which is of the world, attaching to His body, and spoke here only of His Divinity, which is not of the world ; His purpose being to lead them to weigh His claims to Divinity, so that they might believe Him to be truly God, with as much readiness as they had shown to believe Him to be only man. He wished to overcome their unbelief in regard to His Divinity, by forbearing to mention, for the time being, His human estate, but simply setting against it His Divinity. (Ibid. pp. 68, 69 - bold emphasis mine.)

If Christ is only man, how does He say, "I proceeded forth and came from God," l when it is an accepted fact that man was made by God, and did not proceed forth from God ? The Word of God proceeded forth from God, as man did not proceed ; of Him it is said, "My heart hath brought forth a good word." Since this word is of God, it of course is with God ; and as it was not uttered without effect, it of course makes all things. For all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made." But this Word, through Whom all things were made is God "and the Word," John says, "was God." God then proceeded forth from God, since the Word Who proceeded forth is God, Who proceeded forth from God. (Ibid. p. 69)

If Christ is only man, what is the meaning of His saying "I and the Father are one ?" How can "I and the Father be one," if He is not both God and Son? He can only be said to be one with the Father, on the ground that He is of the Father, and is Son, and born of Him found to have proceeded forth from Him. All this proves Him to be God as well as man. (Ibid. p. 71)

Thus in dealing with the charge of blasphemy, He says that He is the Son, not the Father, but so far as He was concerned with His Own Divinity, by the statement that "I and the Father are one," He proved that He is the Son, and God. He is then God ; but God in the sense of Son, not of Father. (Ibid. p. 72)

The following selection is a very interesting take on John 17:3

If Christ is only man, why did He lay down for us a rule of faith in such terms as this : "This is life eternal, that they should know thee the one and true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent"? If He did not wish Himself, as well as the Father, to be understood to be God, why did He add, "and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent" unless He wished to be acknowledged as God? Otherwise, He would have added, "and the man Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent." But He made no such addition ; the truth which He delivered to us was not that He was man only. He coupled Himself with God; such a conjunction could only mean, that He wished men to recognize Him also to be what He is God. We are then to believe, according to the rule laid down, in the Lord, the one true God, and in logical sequence, in Jesus Christ, Whom He has sent. He would never have coupled Himself, as we said, with the Father, unless He had wished to be acknowledged as God, as well as man. He would have distinguished Himself from God, if He had wished not to be acknowledged as God. (Ibid. pp. 74, 75)

From the final chapter, we read:

He has an origin, in that He is born, and through the Father, in some mysterious manner, although He has an origin, as born, He is germane to Him, in the matter of His birth, seeing that He is born of the Father, Who alone has no origin. He, then, at such time as the Father willed, proceeded from the Father ; and He Who was in the Father, because He was of the Father, was thereafter with the Father, because He proceeded from the Father, being none other than the Divine Personal Substance, Whose name is the Word, through Whom all things were made, and without Whom nothing was made. For all things are after Him, since they are through Him, and of course He is before all things (but after the Father), seeing that all things were made through Him. He proceeded from the Father, at Whose will all things were made, God, assuredly, proceeding from God, constituting the Second Person after the Father, as Son, yet not robbing the Father of the unity of the Godhead. (Ibid. pp. 135, 136 - bold emphasis mine.)

Where Lloyd sees ontological subordination in Novatian, I see support for the Monarchy of God the Father. Those familiar with my posts on the Monarchy of God the Father are aware that this fundamental motif is found in a number of post-Nicene Church Fathers, Eastern Orthodox theologians, and notable Roman Catholics such as Aquinas, Bonaventure, and Scheeben—these authors use a good deal of the same language that Novatian employs.

Even though Novatian at times emphasizes the "Father is greater" than the Son, this does not mean that he categorical rejected ontological equality. A good number of noted Christian theologians/writers have concluded that the directly related John 14:28 passage is dealing with the Son's divine nature, and not his human nature—e.g. Alexander-Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzen, Hilary of Poitiers, John of Damascus, Thomas Aquinas.

During these current studies on Novatian, I came across a 19th century Anglican scholar who clearly supports at least three key aspects of the Monarchy of God the Father. Note the following:

Is it contended that in such sayings as that addressed to His disciples, 'My Father is greater than I,' He abandoned any pretension to be a Person internal to the Essential Life of God ? It may suffice to reply, that this saying can have no such force, if its application be restricted, as the Latin Fathers do restrict it, and with great apparent probability, to our Lord's Manhood. But even if our Lord is here speaking, as the Greeks generally maintain, of His essential Deity, His Words still express very exactly a truth which is recognised and required by the Catholic doctrine. The Subordination of the Everlasting Son to the Everlasting Father is strictly compatible with the Son's absolute Divinity; it is abundantly implied in our Lord's language ; and it is an integral element of the ancient doctrine which steadily represents the Father as Alone Unoriginate, the Fount of Deity in the Eternal Life of the Ever-blessed Trinity. (H. P. Liddon, The Divinity of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, p. 202 - 1897 edition - bold emphasis mine.)

Novatian in his concluding chapter (XXXI - pp. 134ff.) explains to his readers how, "the Son must be less than the Father"; it is due to the fact that he has is origin from the Father. Concerning this issue, John of Damascus cogently wrote:

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. (Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book I, Chapter 8 - NPNF vol. 9, page 9, second section.)

If such respected Trinitarians as Athanasius, Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzen, Hilary of Poitiers, John of Damascus, Thomas Aquinas, and Matthias Joseph Scheeben can endorse a sense in which the Son is less Father with respect to his divine nature due to the fact that the Father is the Fount of Divinity and the origin of the Son—via the act of eternal begetting—why not Novatian? If those same men can maintain that the origin of the Son from the Father does not entail any loss in the divinity that is communicated, why not Novatian?

Perhaps Lloyd would greatly benefit from an in depth study into the doctrine of the Monarchy of God the Father...


Grace and peace,

David