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Preeminent Role of God the Father in the Trinity: What about the Council of Nicea and the Nicene Creed - Part 2F

by Karl Kemp  
8/12/2016 / Bible Studies

We continue this study on the preeminent role of God the Father in the Trinity with section 14 (of the 29 sections of this paper) here in Part 2F.

14. Some Excerpts from "Lectures on the History of the Eastern Church" that deal with the Council of Nicea by Arthur Penrhyn Stanley (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1884, 422 pages). I'm especially interested in information that will help us understand the word "homoousios" that was included in the Nicene Creed. One thing that has been frustrating about this study is the widely differing opinions regarding some details. (Even more important was the widely different definitions for the meaning of key words, and the definitions would change.) For one obvious example, I have read that Athanasius was not at Nicea (I don't believe that can be true); I have read that he played a very minor role at Nicea; and this book we are discussing now says that he played a very major role at Nicea. We don't really have to know the answer to this question. His bishop, Alexander of Alexandria, had a lot of authority and he respected Athanasius, and it seems quite possible that Athanasius, who was competent and persuasive and put a lot of emphasis on the Bible, could have played a major role if Alexander agreed. I believe it is worthwhile for me to include these excerpts in this paper, but I cannot guarantee that every detail is accurate. From what little I have read about the author of this book, he is considered to be a competent scholar, but somewhat liberal.

One view is that they ended up using the ancient confession of faith that went back before the days of Eusebius at Caesarea for a starting point for the Nicene Creed at the suggestion of Eusebius. Constantine had already read and approved using that confession. (See page 126-127.) When you read the ancient confession of faith from Caesarea, which is included in Stanley's book, it is clear that there are quite a few differences between that confession and the Nicene Creed. Also, Eusebius of Caesarea was suspect in the opinion of some because he had offered some support for Arius in the past. The article on "Nicea, Council of, Nicene Creed," by H. J. Vogt, in the "Encyclopedia of Early Christianity" (edited by Everett Ferguson; Garland Publishing, 1970) says, "In constructing the creed...the council evidently neither inserted 'homoousios' into the creed from Caesarea nor formulated a completely new confession. Instead, it adopted a text related to the confession of Jerusalem - as later attested in Cyril of Jerusalem's 'Catechetical Orations'..." (page 650). I'm confident that they didn't start with a new confession. The first part of the confession of faith from Caesarea is quite close to the Nicene Creed.

"The Arian minority were willing to adopt it [to adopt the creed before 'homoousios' was added]. But this very fact [that they were willing to adopt the creed] was in the eyes of the opposite party a fatal difficulty. They were determined to find some form of words which no Arian could receive. ... At last the weapon which they had been seeking to cut off the head of their enemy, was suddenly drawn from his own scabbard. [I'm skipping the footnotes.] A letter was produced from Eusebius of Nicomedia [who was a very important bishop and the spokesman for the Arians], in which he declared that to assert the Son uncreated would be to say, that He was 'of one substance' ('Homoousion') with the Father - and therefore that to say, 'He was of one substance,' was a proposition evidently absurd.

The letter produced violent excitement. There was the very test of which they were in search. The letter was torn in pieces to mark their indignation, and the phrase which he [Eusebius of Nicomedia] had pledged himself to reject became the phrase which they pledged themselves to adopt. ... As soon as it was put forth a torrent of invective was poured out against it by the Arians. ..." (pages 128-129). [Keep in mind that the Arians believed that there was a time that the Son did not exist and that He was created out of nothing; He clearly, according to their viewpoint, wasn't of the same substance with God the Father.] According to Stanley, after this word was added and the Emperor agreed, "Hosios of Cordova [Spain] rose and announced the completion of the 'Faith' or 'Creed' of the Council of Nicea. The actual Creed was written out and read..." (page 132).

On page 135 Stanley spoke of the fact that Eusebius of Caesarea and others didn't like the addition of the word "homoousios" because it was subject to wrong interpretations, including oneness (modalism). In fact the word had been used in a oneness (one Person) way by Sabellius in the past. However, they accepted the Nicene Creed. For one thing, Eusebius spoke with Constantine and was assured "that the word ["homoousios"] as he understood it, involved no such material unity of the Persons in the Godhead as Eusebius feared might be deduced from it. It is totally clear that Eusebius was not in any way agreeing to any interpretation that ruled out the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father.

I haven't seen any evidence that Athanasius, or anybody else, was arguing for the idea that the Son is not eternally subordinate to the Father at Nicea (even though he and/or others may have already rejected the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father), which Athanasius clearly did later. For one thing, even if he (or anybody else) wanted to promote that idea at Nicea, it was clear that that idea would be rejected by the large majority. It is clear that the primary thing they wanted to accomplish at Nicea was to totally reject the heretical teaching of Arius, that there was a time when the Son didn't exist and that He was created out of nothing, ideas that didn't line up with the deity of the Son of God. Clearly "homoousios," "of the same substance," with the Father (even when it was understood in a way that left plenty of room for the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father) excluded any idea of the Son's being created out of nothing and confirmed His deity.

15. A Few Excerpts from the article on "Homoousios" by Fredrick W. Norris from the "Encyclopedia of Early Christianity" (edited by Everett Ferguson [Garland Publishing, 1990], pages 434-435). "The majority of the council, however, were conservatives who found 'homoousios' to be unbiblical [the word wasn't used in the Bible] and supported a significant priority of the Father. [[The next sentence confirms that Norris means that "the majority of the council" "supported a significant priority [preeminence] of the Father [and eternal subordination of the Son to the Father]."]] Thus, at Nicaea the term had only a generic meaning, one affirming the full deity of the Son, not a numerical identity of essence. ..." (page 434). The generic meaning of 'homoousios' leaves plenty of room for the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father. As we have discussed, many Christians who believe in "a numerical identity of essence [substance]" also believe in the eternal subordinate role of the Son to the Father. Others, including Giles, say that we cannot believe both of these things. As I have mentioned, I am not going to try to answer that question, but I have to reject any view of the same-substance unity of the three Persons that rules out the eternal subordination of the Son, or that requires believing that there is only one center of consciousness in the Trinity, with one will and one mind.

"In the 360s, the 'homoousios' was applied to the Spirit (Athanasius, 'Ep. Serap. 1.2, 20-21; 3.7). Gregory of Nazianzus ('Or.' 31.50) noted in [AD] 380 that various views existed [on the meaning of 'homoousios']. ... During the fifth and sixth centuries, a numerical unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was understood as the meaning of 'homoousios' " (page 435). Apparently the words "numerical unity" are intended here to exclude any eternal subordination of the Son to the Father. By then ("the fifth and sixth centuries") the influence of Athanasius (AD296-373); the three Cappadocians (Basil the Great, AD330-379; Gregory of Nazianzus, AD329-389; and Gregory of Nyssa, about AD332-396); and Augustine (AD354-430), which we have discussed and will discuss further, played a significant role in bringing about this change.

16. Some Excerpts from J. N. D. Kelly under the heading "The Contribution of Augustine" (pages 271-279) in the chapter "The Doctrine of the Trinity" in the book "Early Christian Doctrines" (Harper & Row, 1960, 1965, 1968, 1978).

"It was Augustine...who gave the Western tradition its mature and final expression" (page 271). " contrast to the tradition which made the Father its starting point, he begins with the divine nature itself. It is this simple, immutable nature or essence...which is Trinity.... The unity of the Trinity is thus set squarely in the foreground, SUBORDINATIONISM OF EVERY KIND BEING RIGOROUSLY EXCLUDED [my emphasis]. Whatever is affirmed of God is affirmed equally of each of the three Persons. Since it is one and the same substance which constitutes each of Them, 'not only is the Father not greater than the Son in respect of divinity, but Father and Son together are not greater than the Holy Spirit, and no single Person of the Three is less than the Trinity itself. ..." (page 272). I am not including Kelly's footnotes here or in the rest of these excerpts from him.

"...the Trinity possesses a single, indivisible action and a single will; its operation is 'inseparable.' ... In his [Augustine's] own words, 'where there is no difference of natures, there is none of will either.' Lastly, Augustine faces the obvious difficulty which his theory suggests, viz. that it seems to obliterate the several roles of the three Persons. ... ...since each of the Persons possesses the divine nature in a particular manner, it is proper to attribute to each of Them, in the eternal operation of the Godhead, the role which is appropriate to Him in virtue of His origin. It is a case of what later Western theologians were to describe as appropriation.

This leads to the distinction of the Persons, which Augustine sees is grounded in Their mutual relations within the Godhead. While They are identical considered as the divine substance, the Father is distinguished as Father because He begat the Son, and the Son is distinguished as Son because He is begotten. ... The question then arises what in fact the Three are. [Kelly goes on to mention that Augustine doesn't like the traditional word "Persons," but he consented to use the word in order to be able to say something. For one thing, he needed to affirm "the distinction of the Three against Modalism."] His own positive theory was the original and, for the history of Western Trinitarianism, highly important one that the Three are real or subsistent relations. ... The Three, he goes on to claim, are relations, as real and eternal as the factors of begetting, being begotten and proceeding (or being bestowed) within the Godhead which gave rise to them. Father, Son, and Spirit are thus relations in the sense that whatever each of Them is, He is in relation to one or both of the others. ... [Kelly goes on to mention that it is difficult to understand this "unless schooled in technical philosophy." I have not been schooled in technical philosophy. As this paper shows, I have to disagree with much that Augustine says here.]" (pages 273-275). It seems clear to me that Augustine's view subordinates the three distinct, very real Persons that the New Testament emphasizes. The Bible doesn't teach three Gods, but it puts the emphasis on the three Persons who interact with one another and do the things that each of the Persons do perfectly, including love one another. The Bible has very little to say about the same-substance unity of the three Persons, but the Son is of the substance of the Father (He wasn't created out of nothing, as Arius said).

17. Further Discussion Regarding Augustine and His Viewpoint. Robert Letham has a chapter on Augustine in his book, "The Holy Trinity" (pages 184-200). I'll quote a relevant sentence from page 197 of that chapter: "Augustine has his 'attention riveted on the essential unity' [Prestige, G. L., "God in Patristic Thought," 1952, page 236], and so the persons are not 'objective realities in their own right, but expressions of real relations inherent in the divine being' [Bray, G., "The Filoque Clause in History and Theology," Tynbul 34:91-144]." And I'll include a few more excerpts from Letham here: "Augustine has exerted an overpowering influence in the Western church up to the present day. We saw how he makes the divine essence, not the person of the Father, the foundation for his doctrine of the Trinity. Western theology has followed by starting from the one essence. ..." (pages 204-205). "Western theology has often said that the East exhibits a tendency toward tritheism [three Gods] by starting with the Father rather than the one divine essence. [I believe we should start with the three Persons, with the Father having the preeminent role, as presented in the Bible, not with the divine essence, which involves quite a bit of speculation.] There is little evidence for this. ..." (page 211). "In the West, the danger of modalism [oneness] is very real, evident in all Western theology down to Barth and Rahner. Later chapters will provide evidence for this. If we start with divine unity, the persons become problematic as real, personal, permanent, irreducible, and eternal ontological distinctions. Colin Gunton [who was quoted earlier in this paper] has argued forcibly that the Augustinian model has bred atheism and agnosticism. ("Colin Gunton, 'Augustine, the Trinity, and the Theological Crisis of the West,' SJT 43 (1990): 33-58.") [That is a very serious charge. Solid, Bible-centered evangelical Christians have been spared most of these problems, but many (or most) are weak when it comes to understanding the Trinity.] Indeed, most Western Christians are practical modalists [Christians who deny the Trinity and believe there is only one Person in God]. Certainly, the Trinity is little more than an arithmetical conundrum to Western Christianity" (page 212).

WILL WE SEE GOD THE FATHER IN HEAVEN (ALONG WITH SEEING GOD THE SON)? Yes! See Rev. 22:4; Matt. 5:8; 18:10; 1 Cor. 13:12; and 1 John 3:1-2. One reason I mention this here is that this insight serves to strongly confirm that God the Father really is a distinct Person that we will see and worship and interact with, along with the Son (and the Holy Spirit). I don't know that we will see the Person of the Holy Spirit, but I'm sure that we will worship Him and be able to interact with Him too. (I don't know how Augustine would answer this question, but I doubt that I could be satisfied with his answer.)

18. Augustine Wasn't Always Right, Far from It in My Opinion. I believe Augustine (AD354-430) seriously missed the balanced truth regarding the Trinity (as we have been discussing). Augustine was very influential, including influencing some Protestant reformers (including Martin Luther and John Calvin), and I know that he made many positive contributions to the Body of Christ, but I have found over the years quite a few places where he (from my point of view) hurt the Body of Christ in some serious ways with some of his teaching. Every error was magnified because of his great influence. I'll give some key examples: Augustine came up with the revolutionary, out-of-Biblical-balance idea (but an idea that large numbers of Christians have accepted), that mankind is so fallen that we have no capacity to cooperate with God's grace or to have faith. Therefore, God must choose some people (the elect) and give them faith. See pages 3-8 of my "Paper on Faith" on my internet site (Google to Karl Kemp Teaching).

As part of that package, Augustine came up with the revolutionary idea that, since the salvation of the elect is totally dependent on God (God gives us faith and ensures that we will persevere to the end), it isn't possible for the elect to fail to inherit eternal glory. That's where once saved, always saved came from. You don't find that doctrine being taught by the early Christian writers before Augustine. See my paper "Once Saved, Always Saved?" on my internet site; see pages 20-24 and the Appendix that starts at the bottom of page 25. (I am aware that my "Once Saved, Always Saved?" on my internet site has some unusual spacing between some letters/words. The pdf document that I uploaded was perfect. I don't know what happened.)

I included two other examples on pages 3-8 of my "Paper on Faith" where Augustine changed his viewpoint from what I believe was right to a viewpoint that was wrong. He began to favor the viewpoint that the apostle Paul was speaking of a born-again Christian in Rom. 7:14-25. He qualified that viewpoint by saying that if the apostle was speaking of a Christian in those verses he was speaking only of the Christian having wrong thoughts and desires, which the Christian resisted, not of the Christian actually sinning, but that qualification was quickly abandoned by many. From that time on many Christians began to interpret Rom. 7:14-25 of born-again Christians, including the apostle Paul, actually sinning, which was a view unknown before then in the early Christian writings. (I haven't seen any examples of Christians teaching that view of Rom. 7:14-25, which includes Christians actually sinning, before Augustine helped open that door which needs to be shut. And if you found a few examples, they would be the great exception to the dominant viewpoint.) See my paper "The Interpretation of Romans Chapter 7 and Righteousness and Holiness" on my internet site, especially pages 7-9.

In my "Paper on Faith" I also briefly dealt with the fact that Augustine was very influential in changing from the correct pre-millennial viewpoint, which he previously held, to what John Walvoord calls the amillennial viewpoint. I quote a few paragraphs from John Walvoord there.

I'll mention two other topics where, from my point of view, Augustine was quite influential in a negative direction. In my paper "Verse-by-Verse Studies of Ephesians Chapters 1-4; and Romans 8:16-39" on my internet site, I have a heading, "Augustine and the Donatists" (pages 76-77). I show there that Augustine began to argue that it was permissible to use force to compel schismatics and heretics to return to the true church, outside of which there is no salvation. Many evil (very evil) things have taken place among "Christians" because of ideas like that. And in my paper "Free Will? Liberal Christianity. Are Christians Punished for Sins We Commit After We Become Christians? Tertullian and the Montanists" I show that Augustine was quite influential in getting the doctrine of purgatory accepted. See pages 27-28.

19. I'll Quote Part of what John M. Frame Says under the Heading "Subordination" in "The Doctrine of God," which is Vol. 2 of the "The Theology of Lordship" series (P&R Publishing, 2002, 864 pages). "... As we have seen, the Father sends the Son into the world, and the Son joyfully obeys the Father's will. ... In the end, he delivers up the kingdom to his Father (1 Cor. 15:24) and himself becomes one of the subjects in his Father's kingdom (v. 28). [We must understand that the Son will continue to reign with the Father in the eternal kingdom that follows the millennial kingdom (cf., e.g. Rev. 22:1).] ...

So we may summarize by saying that biblical Trinitarianism denies ontological subordination ["ontological subordination" would deny that the Son was God in His being, nature, essence, substance], but affirms economic subordination of various kinds. [I'll quote two sentences from Frame's page 706: "The economic Trinity is the Trinity in its relation to creation, including the specific roles played by the Trinitarian persons throughout the history of creation, providence, and redemption. These are roles that the persons of the Trinity have freely entered into; they are not necessary to their being."] But there is a third kind of subordination that has been debated for many centuries and has been much discussed in recent literature. That might be called eternal subordination of role.

Both Eastern and Western thinkers have regularly affirmed that God the Father has some sort of primacy over the other two persons. Theologians have used phrases like...'fountain of deity' and...'fountain of the Trinity' to describe the Father's distinct role in the Trinity. [Frame has a footnote: "This is a central point in the theology of the Cappadocian fathers. See, for example, Fortman, 'The Triune God,' page 76. Among Reformation thinkers, see Ursinus, 'Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism,' page 135."] That the Father has some sort of primacy is implicit in the name Father, and of course the doctrines of eternal generation [of the Son] and procession [of the Spirit] suggest that the Father has some sort of unique 'originative' role. ... The Son and the Spirit are voluntarily subordinate to the commands of the Father ["commands" is a strong word to use, too strong], because that kind of subordination is appropriate to their eternal nature as persons. ...

This kind of subordination is not the ontological subordination of Arius [where Arius denied the deity of the Son]. Nor is it merely economic, for it has to do with the eternal nature of the persons, the personal properties that distinguish each one from the others. ... We may put it this way: There is no subordination within the divine nature that is shared among the persons: the three are equally God. However, there is a subordination of role among the persons, which constitutes part of the distinctiveness of each. Because of that subordination of role, the persons subordinate themselves to one another in their economic relationships with creation.

But how can one person be subordinate to another in his eternal role while being equal to the other in the divine nature? Or, to put it differently, how can subordination of role be compatible with divinity? Does not the very idea of divinity exclude this sort of subordination?

The biblical answer, I think, is no. ... Subordination, in the sense of serving others in love, is clearly a divine attribute, one that serves as an explicit model for our behavior. Such service does not compromise the full deity of the Son and the Spirit; rather, it manifests their deity.

... ...other writers have made a case for the 'eternal submission' of the Son and the Spirit, as I have done above. [Frame has a footnote: "See Stephen D. Kovach and Peter R. Schemm, Jr., 'A Defense of the Eternal Subordination of the Son,' JETS 42 (1999), 461-76 [we'll discuss that article next], and Dahms, 'The Subordination of the Son.' For other titles and a brief summary of the debate, see Wayne Grudem, 'Systematic Theology' (Zondervan, 1994), page 251."] They argue that there is a hierarchy of role within the Trinity, and that that hierarchy does not compromise the equality of nature, glory, and honor among the persons. ...

The notion that subordination to authority demeans a person is absurd on the face of it. ... We should not be at all surprised to find that such submission reflects the very life of the Trinity" (pages 719-722).

I'll include one last sentence, a very important sentence, from what Frame says on page 725, under the heading "Trinitarian Models." "The New Testament...presents the Trinity, not as three aspects of a single mind, but as three real persons, conversing, loving, sending, and so on." This last sentence sure sounds Biblical to me! However, many argue for one center of consciousness, one will and one mind, and the idea that the Son cannot be eternally subordinate to the Father, based on their understanding of the same-substance unity ("homoousios") of the three Persons. Of course I am not suggesting that their viewpoint disqualifies them from being sincere, true Christians, but I believe that viewpoint is wrong and significantly confuses the issue.

20. Some Excerpts from the Paper "A Defense of the Doctrine of the Eternal Subordination of the Son" by Stephen D. Kovach and Peter R. Schemm that was just mentioned by Frame (JETS 42/3, September 1999, pages 461-476).

I'll quote a little from what the authors say under the heading "Scriptural Witness to the Eternal Subordination of the Son" (pages 470-472). "... 'The biblical data put beyond doubt the subordination of the Son' (Henry, "God, Revelation and Authority." Vol. 5. "The God who Stays" [Word, 1982], page 207)" (page 470). Carl F. H. Henry (1913-2003) was a well-respected evangelical scholar. I regret that I didn't have opportunity to read what he said on this topic. I assume it would be beneficial.

And I'll quote part of what the authors say under the sub-heading "The Divine Agency of the Son." "According to Scripture, there are three major agencies or eternal roles of the Son. First he is the agent of creation. [They refer to John 1:3 and Col. 1:16; then they say:] "1 Corinthians 8:6 [They also mention John 1:3; Col. 1:16; and Heb. 1:3] explains that while God the Father is the originator of all things, the Lord Jesus Christ is the great agent 'through' whom all things came into being. The Corinthian passage [1 Cor. 8:6] is especially relevant to the Trinitarian discussion because, as can be clearly seen in comparison, it supplied vocabulary for the Nicene Creed in several places. This leads Paul Rainbow to conclude: 'From this earliest form of the creed [Nicene Creed] we can see that the Father and the Son are united in being, but ranked in function.' [I'll skip the footnote.]

The second eternal agency of the Son is that of redemption. ... The Son obeyed the Father and accomplished redemption for us.... The third eternal function of the Son is as agent of the restoration of creation to the Father at the end of time. In 1 Cor. 15:28, the Apostle Paul teaches that after Christ returns [comes] a second time to judge the world and put everything under the Father's feet, he will once again voluntarily subordinate himself to God the Father. This element of subordination should be viewed in relation to 1 Cor. 15:24. Having brought all powers under his domain, the Son will voluntarily surrender his authority, power, and prerogatives to God the Father. [That is, after He has completed the mission assigned to Him by the Father. I'll skip their footnote.] The purpose is that God the Father may be all in all. ...the unchallenged reign remains with God the Father alone. [As I have pointed out, the Lord Jesus will continue to reign with the Father in the eternal state (cf., e.g., Rev. 22:1). We will be reigning too (Rev. 22:5).]

Finally, all of this scriptural evidence provides a backdrop for 1 Cor. 11:3 which states that God [the Father] is the head of Christ. While there have been many disagreements about the meaning of the word 'head,' its meaning of authority is not only based on the natural meaning of the [Greek] word 'kephale' but also the scriptural claim that God is the eternal origin of all things and Christ is the eternal agent (1 Cor. 8:6). [They have a footnote: For an extended discussion of this issue see Grudem, "Systematic Theology" 459-460.] In summary, then, the Son is eternally subordinate to God the Father both in relation and role" (pages 471-472).

Lastly, I'll quote a small part of what the authors say in the lengthy Conclusion. "Since the historical position of Christian orthodoxy is to accept the doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son [As I demonstrate in this paper, many, very much including the influential Athanasius and Augustine, have not accepted this doctrine. I believe we should accept the eternal subordination of the Son, but the FULL deity of the Lord Jesus must be maintained, even emphasized.], it is not surprising that most evangelical systematic theologians in the twentieth century have also adopted this position as reflecting both Scripture and church history [In a footnote they list nine such systematic theologians. They go on to list two who do not accept the doctrine of the eternal subordination of the Son. As we discuss in this paper, large numbers of Christians after Nicea have rejected the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father. I believe they are wrong.] ..." (page 473).

We will continue this study starting with section 21 (of the 29 sections), "Some Excerpts from, and Interaction with, the Book 'Decoding Nicea' by Paul F. Pavao."

Copyright by Karl Kemp Karl Kemp worked as an engineer in the space field throughout the 60s. He became a born-again Christian in 1964. He received an MA in Biblical Studies in 1972. He has been a Bible teacher for 45 years. See the website for more info on his books, papers, etc.

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