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

by Karl Kemp  
8/13/2016 / Bible Studies

We continue this study of the preeminent role of God the Father in the Trinity here in Part 2G with section 21.

21. Some Excerpts from, and Interaction with, the Book "Decoding Nicea" by Paul F. Pavao ("The Greatest Story Ever Told," 2011, 2014, 462 pages). It is obvious that Pavao has spent a lot of time working on this project. I don't agree with him on every detail, but I have learned from his ministry.

Part III of this book, which just contains chapters 15 and 16, is called "The Trinity before Nicea," and in the Table of Contents it is called "Homoousios before Nicea." We will discuss chapter 15 first, "The Trinity: 'Homoousios.' " This is a long chapter (pages 251-286), and Pavao gets into a lot of details. I cannot say that I believe he gets every detail right, and I believe it is oversimplified, but I believe we need to very seriously consider what he says.

I'll quote a paragraph near the beginning of chapter 15 that shows where Pavao is going in this chapter and in chapter 16: "The in depth and perhaps overwhelming look at the early Christian view of the Trinity in this chapter and the next are, I believe, necessary to establish that the Nicene view of the Trinity was both orthodox and apostolic. It does not need to be improved, but to be received as the early Christians received it" (page 253).

What does "homoousios" mean in the Nicene Creed, according to Pavao? On page 262 he says: "Eusebius of Caesarea, after discussing 'homoousios' with the council, wrote back to his church in Caesarea to explain what it meant: 'That [the Son of God] is 'homoousios' with the Father then simply implies that the Son of God has no resemblance to created things but is in every respect like the Father only who begat him; that he is of no other substance or essence but of the Father. ...." (Pavao's quotation came from " 'The Ecclesiastical History of Socrates Scholasticus' 1:8.")

Pavao went on to say that "This is what the council itself said that it meant by the term. [[(This double bracket goes on for two paragraphs.) I believe this is overstated. If the council had made it clear that this is all they meant by 'homoousios,' it is difficult to explain how so many after Nicea are convinced that 'homoousios' in the Nicene Creed includes the need to reject any eternal subordination of the Son to the Father in His role. (However, as I make it clear in this paper, I agree that most of the bishops at Nicea agreed that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father in His role.) For one thing, the emperor Constantine, who played a major role at Nicea, was interested in uniting all Christians, and it served his purposes to allow ambiguity in the meaning of the creed. (This is true for many treaties and covenants. Very often both sides want to be able to sell the treaty/covenant back home.) He wasn't motivated to carefully define the meaning of every word in ways that would cause some (or many) to reject it.

Based on what I have read, when Athanasius (who was there at Nicea, but who wasn't yet a bishop at that time), the Cappadocians, and Augustine later interpreted the Nicene Creed to deny the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father, they were not speaking in terms of changing the Nicene Creed, but supposedly affirming it. That would have been very difficult to do if "the council had made it clear what they meant by 'homoousios,' " if they had make it clear that the Nicene Creed left room for some eternal subordination of the Son to the Father. Anyway, it is clear that Athanasius and most of those gathered to Nicea agreed that Arius was wrong to deny the deity of the Lord Jesus, saying things like there was a time that He didn't exist and that He was created out of nothing (being created out of nothing is quite different than being of the substance of God the Father). The council agreed that that is heretical.]] It corresponds exactly with what earlier Christians said about the relationship between the Father and the Son.

[I'm still quoting from Pavao.] I apologize in advance for inundating you with all the quotes which follow [We need this information.], but I want you to see that the idea that the Son is 'begotten, not made, "homoousios" with the Father,' was not a novel concept dreamed up by the bishops of Nicea. [Pavao is writing from the point of view that "homoousios" is fully compatible with the eternal subordination of the Son.] It is brought up in the pre-Nicene writings over and over again" (page 262). Pavao goes on to quote from many pre-Nicene writers for eight pages. None of these quotations use "homoousios," but some of them use "ousios" (being, essence, substance, nature), and some of them speak of the Son's being begotten by the Father; He was of the substance of the Father; He was not created out of nothing; and He always existed. Some of the quotations demonstrate the viewpoint that the Word, the Logos, was in God the Father before He was generated, which would make Him of the substance of the Father. Some of the quotations are more helpful than others.

I am not satisfied with Pavao's discussion of John 1:1 on pages 275-276. (He mentions that he only had one year of Greek.) I'll quote part of what he says: Referring to the second use of the word "God" in John 1:1, he says, "the word 'God' is the adjective." It is a noun, not an adjective, and we should translate is as a noun. John was referring to God the Son. The word "God" is typically reserved for God the Father in the New Testament, but there are several very important verses that use the word "God" for the Son, including this one. These verses strongly confirm the deity of the Son of God (God the Son), but they do not confuse Him with the Person of God the Father. Earlier in John 1:1 we were informed that the Word (the Logos; referring to the Son of God) was WITH God the Father in the beginning, before any creating had taken place. The Son eternally existed.

I don't believe the following is adequate: "my first year Greek teacher explained that John 1:1 could best be translated, 'The Word has the character and nature of God,' or, 'The Word is exactly like God.' ... My thought is, why bother with all those words when we have a word that exactly suits the purpose? God, used as an adjective, is 'divine.' ...." I believe it is important to translate literally here: "God." The translation "divine" seems quite inadequate here. I believe that many readers will lose quite a bit if we translate divine.

Pavao's Chapter 16: "The Trinity at Nicea" (pages 287-321). Speaking for large numbers of Christians in our day Pavao says, "we have to admit that we have adopted a view of the Trinity that is different from Nicea. We would never write a creed that says, 'We believe in one God, the Father, and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit.' ..." (page 291). These words of the Nicene Creed tend to communicate the Biblical idea of the preeminent role of God the Father, while at the same time emphasizing the full deity of the Lord Jesus (God the Son). The New Testament doesn't hesitate to speak of God the Father as the "one God" (cf. 1 Cor. 8:4, 6; Eph. 4:6; 1 Tim. 2:5; and Jude 1:25). The Nicene Creed doesn't get into the details of the Holy Spirit, it only mentions His existence. Pavao goes on to point out with many examples that in our day we typically hear of the one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I suppose that Pavao's primary concern is that large numbers of Christians in our day have lost the Biblical idea (and the dominant viewpoint of the Christians before Nicea and at Nicea) of the eternal preeminent role of God the Father (eternal subordinate role of God the Son). How many in our day would ever speak of the Father as "the one God."

I'll quote three sentences from what Pavao says under the heading "The Pre-Nicene Explanation of the Trinity." "The Son does the will of the Father. There is only one divine rule, and the rule comes from the Father. God sends the Son; the Son does not send the Father" (page 299).

I'll quote part of what Pavao says under the heading "Subordinationism." "...some sort of subordinationism is unavoidable. The Father sent the Son, not vice versa. The Father loved the world and gave his Son for it, not vice versa. The Son always does the will of the Father, not vice versa. ...

Modern Christians [many modern Christians], holding to a co-equal Trinity, generally believe that the Father was only greater than the Son while the Son was on earth. [However, we must understand (as this paper demonstrates) that many Christians, including large numbers of evangelicals, who believe in "a coequal Trinity" (in the ontological equality of the three Persons; in the identical, same-substance unity of the three Persons) also believe in the eternal subordinate role of God the Son.] On the other hand, every pre-Nicene or Nicene writer who addresses John 14:28 believes that the Father is eternally greater than the Son.... Such a belief is called subordinationism." Pavao goes on to quote from six pre-Nicene writers to demonstrate this point. Quotations like this are important.

I'll quote part of what Pavao says under his next heading, "Comments on Subordinationism," which is quite relevant to the topic of this paper (pages 302-305). I'll quote his first two paragraphs:

"Today subordinationism is seen as borderline heresy. What amazes me is that the early Christians themselves are seen as borderline heretics for embracing subordinationism. [[It is necessary to define what we mean by subordinationism. There is a gigantic difference between saying that the Father has a preeminent role in the Trinity and making statements that could be understood to conflict with the full deity of the Lord Jesus. There is widespread agreement that several statements in the pre-Nicene writings overstate the subordinate role of God the Son (it isn't all that surprising to find true Christians making statements that aren't fully acceptable), but they, unlike Arius, were not saying that the Son was created out of nothing and denying His deity. Those who agreed with the pre-Nicene Fathers had to reject the teaching of Arius, and they did.]]

Somewhere we have forgotten that the faith was handed down in full by the apostles and meant to be preserved by the church. Paul asked the Thessalonians to hold fast to his traditions, not to improve on them? (2 Thess. 2:15)" (page 302).

I agree with Pavao's point that many are criticizing the eternal subordination viewpoint of the pre-Nicene writers when they need to see that the Bible teaches the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father in His role. I have mentioned that I believe that you can find some subordination statements in the pre-Nicene writings that go too far with subordination. Pavao doesn't make that point. I have a lot of respect for the writings of the pre-Nicene writers in general, but it is clear to me that they said some things that were wrong on several topics. For one thing, they didn't always pass on exactly what the apostles taught, and sometimes they were addressing topics that the apostles had not commented on.

I believe that what Pavao says on pages 308-312 under the heading "No One Has Seen God at Any Time" is quite important. After mentioning that the early Christian writers believed that the Son of God (in the days before His incarnation) often appeared in the Old Testament, Pavao quoted from "The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers," Series II, Vol. 1, Note 31. I'll quote part of that Note: "Augustine [AD354-430] seems to have been the first of the Fathers to take a different view, maintaining that such Christophanies were not consistent with the identity of essence between Father and Son.... [I believe Augustine was wrong. The excerpt goes on to say that Augustine said it was an angel that appeared] (cf. De Trin. III. 11)." As we discuss in this paper, Augustine, for one thing, wrongly put too much emphasis on the same-substance unity of God and came up with some wrong ideas about the Trinity based on that emphasis. (He may well have overstated the identical oneness of that unity too, going rather far beyond what the pre-Nicene Christians and at least most of the Christians at Nicea believed.) For one thing, the New Testament puts most of the emphasis on the three Persons of the Trinity, all three Persons being deity (God) in a full sense, while guarding against the unbiblical idea of three Gods.

This is all that I will quote from "Decoding Nicea" by Paul Pavao. It must be understood, of course, that I haven't begun to cover all of the relevant information that he includes in these chapters we have briefly discussed.

I'll include a brief excerpt from under the article "The Doctrine of the Trinity: Did It Develop over Time?" Paul Pavao is arguing against the widespread belief "that the doctrine of the Trinity was developed over time and then finalized at Nicea." He believes that it "did not develop but is taught throughout the earliest Christian writings after the apostles." I believe there is an important truth included here, but that it is also overstated. It seems that the doctrine of the Trinity did develop to some extent. Tertullian (AD160-230), for example, undoubtedly had some insight regarding the Trinity that went beyond earlier understanding of the Trinity.

I'll quote what Pavao quoted from Irenaeus (AD130-200), a very well respected early Christian Father. (He also quoted from several other pre-Nicene Christian writers in this article, and this article is part of a series of articles on his internet site on the Trinity and Nicene Creed.) Pavao is quoting from Irenaeus' "Against Heresies" in the "Ante-Nicene Fathers" series, Vol. 1. (I have this ten-volume series.)

"If anyone...says to us, 'How then was the Son produced by the Father?' we reply to him that no one understands that production or generation...which is in fact altogether undescribable. (II.28:6)." Even more clearly he says: "One God the Father is declared, who is above all.... The Father is indeed above all, and he is the head of Christ, but the himself the head of the Church (V:18:3)." "There is one God, the Father over all, and one Word of God, who is through all, by whom all things have been made. (V:18:2)." There is nothing here that goes beyond the apostolic teaching on the Trinity.

I'll also quote part of what Pavao says on the same internet site in "The Council of Nicea: Part III [that deals with] 'Homoousios.' " He points out that the pre-Nicene Christians and the orthodox Christians at Nicea insisted that the Son of God was of the same substance with the Father. The idea of Arius that He was created out of nothing was totally rejected. The following excerpts from this article will help us understand what was at stake here:

"... Athenagoras, a Christian apologist writing in A. D. 168 tells us: 'We employ language that makes a distinction between God and matter and the natures of both.' ("A Plea for the Christians" 24) The question being asked at the Council of Nicea was: Is Christ of the substance of God, or is he made of matter like us and the angels? ... The unity of substance between the Father and the Son [the Son was of the substance of the Father] and the distinction between the Son and matter, from which all else is made, is often discussed by Pre-Nicene Christian writers. ...." The Council of Nicea dealt first and foremost with the heretical teaching of Arius. He didn't believe in the deity of the Son; he didn't believe He always existed, and he believed that He had been created out of nothing HE WAS NOT OF THE SUBSTANCE OF GOD THE FATHER.

22. Some Excerpts from Norman L. Geisler's "Systematic Theology [In One Volume]" (Bethany House, 2003, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2011) 1664 pages. These excerpts were all taken from chapter 40, "God's Unity and Trinity" (pages 537-564).

I'll quote a short section under the heading "Three Different Persons Are God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." "In addition to declaring God to be one in nature or essence, the Scriptures affirm that there are three distinct persons who are God. All are called God, and all have the same essential characteristics of a person.

Personhood is traditionally understood as one who has intellect, feelings, and will. All three of these characteristics are attributed to all three members of the Trinity in Scripture (see below [not included in these excepts]). Essentially, personhood refers to an 'I,' a 'who,' or a subject. Each 'I' in the Trinity possesses (by virtue of its one common nature) the power to think, feel, and choose. Personhood itself is the I-ness or who-ness" (page 541).

I'll quote part of what Geisler says under the heading "There Is a Functional Order in the Trinity." "All members of the Trinity are equal in essence, but they do not have the same roles. It is a heresy (called subordinationism) to affirm that there is an ontological subordination of one member of the Trinity to another, since they are identical in essence (examine the 'ontological argument for God's existence' in chapter 2 [of Geisler's book]); nonetheless, it is clear that there is a functional subordination; that is, not only does each member have a different function or role, but some functions are subordinate to others. ...

The Function of the Father: By His very title 'Father' and His label of 'the first person of the Trinity,' it is manifest that His function is superior to that of the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Father, for example, is presented as the Source, Sender, and Planner of salvation.

The Function of the Son. The Son, on the other hand, is the Means, Sent One, and Achiever of salvation. The Father sent, and the Son came to save us; the Father planned it, but the Son accomplished it on the cross. That is why it is a heresy (called patripassianism) to claim that the Father suffered on the cross - only the Son suffered and died. Further, the Son is eternally 'begotten' or 'generated' [Geisler has a footnote here that I won't include.] from the Father.... ...

In brief, the Father is the Planner, the Son is the Accomplisher, and the Holy Spirit is the Applier of salvation to believers. The Father is the Source, the Son is the Means, and the Holy Spirit is the Effector of salvation - it is He who convicts, convinces, and converts [Geisler has a footnote, "See appendix six" (not included in these excerpts).]

One final word about the nature and duration of this functional subordination in the Godhead: It is not just temporal and economical [when dealing with the world external to the Trinity]; it is essential and eternal. For example, the Son is an eternal Son.... ... His submission to the Father was not just for time but will be for all eternity. Paul wrote: 'Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom of God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority, and power.... When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything [not including the Father Himself] under him, so that God [God the Father] may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:24, 28)" (pages 549-550).

23. Some Excerpts from "God in Patristic Thought" by G. L. Prestige (S. P. C. K., 1952), 318 pages. These excerpts are quite important regarding the meaning that the Council of Nicea intended for homoousios. I'll quote from chapter 10, "The Homoousion." Prestige is referring to the Nicene Council. "The term ["homoousios"] was officially laid down, with no suggestion of its being a definition of the unity of God, but solely as a definition of the full and absolute deity of Christ. ... far as the Council of Nicea is concerned, the problem of the divine unity did not arise. ...

The official interpretation laid down by the Council of Nicea left the problem of the divine unity unsolved. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that, from the first, the party which can later be designated Athanasian regarded the term homoousios as containing within itself the true and proper solution of the problem also. ... Athanasius, like Eusebius [of Caesarea], states that the object of his friends was to exclude any description of Christ as a creature [created out of nothing] or any other distinctively Arian formula. But in doing so he makes it perfectly clear that Christ's full and absolute deity involved identity, and not mere likeness of substance with the Father. [[(This double bracket continues for two paragraphs.) I haven't seen it confirmed that Athanasius rejected any subordination of the Son to the Father at the time of the Council of Nicea. Anyway, I believe it is totally clear that the Son was/is of the substance of the Father. Tertullian believed that the Son is of the substance of the Father, but he also believed in the eternal subordination of the Son while Athanasius ended up rejecting any subordination of the Son.

When did Athanasius "[make] it perfectly clear" that he understood that "homoousios" did not leave any room for the subordination of the Son? Prestige went on to say that it must be doubted that this fuller viewpoint was expressed at Nicea. For one thing, it was clear that there would be a very strong reaction against that fuller viewpoint. Apparently Athanasius made these things perfectly clear at a later time. I'll quote a relevant sentence from Khaled Anatolios from section 11 of this paper: "And although Athanasius probably was not a significant figure at Nicea and MAINTAINED A DISCREET SILENCE ABOUT THAT COUNCIL FOR OVER A DECADE [(my emphasis) even though he became the bishop of Alexandria in 328, which was a bishopric of key importance], he did emerge in the 350s as one of its [the Council of Nicea and the Nicene Creed's] leading defenders [which included understanding "homoousios" of the Nicene Creed in a way that ruled out any eternal subordination of the Son, for one thing]" (page 28).]] ... (pages 211-213).

Like I mentioned, I don't know what Athanasius believed regarding the fuller sense of homoousios at the time of the Council of Nicea (perhaps the information is available, but I haven't seen it). Did that fuller sense exclude all eternal subordination of the Son to the Father? Whether it did, or didn't, I believe that the Bible teaches some eternal subordination of the Son, but an eternal subordination that is fully compatible with the full deity of God the Son. Furthermore, did that fuller sense of homoousios include for Athanasius at the time of the Council of Nicea the ideas (ideas accepted by him and many others later) of one center of consciousness with one mind and one will in the identical same-substance unity of the one God that cannot be divided? Anyway, as we have discussed, apparently Athanasius (and those who agreed with him) did not argue for these things at the Council of Nicea, even if they believed in them at that time, knowing that they would be rejected.

I'll also quote a little from chapter 11, "Identity of Substance." "The employment of homoousios by Athanasius to express substantial identity [identity of substance] was a new development in the Greek language. ... But there were precedents in another tongue [Latin]. It has been well observed that Athanasius did not invent the term, nor set great store by the word itself, as distinct from the truth which it was meant to convey. The same is true of the Nicene fathers; they found it the most apt expression for their purpose of excluding Arianism. The only bishops, present at Nicea, to whom the word antecedently implied unity as well as equality in the godhead, were the five or six Westerns, of which Hosius was chief.... ... ...they [the Westerns] perceived that it [homoousios] was a convenient translation of their own formula 'unius substantis' ["one substance" in Latin]" (pages 219-220). He went on to mention that Tertullian (AD160-230), who was of the Western church and wrote in Latin, spoke of the "one substance" of the three Persons long before the days of the Council of Nicea (AD 325) and the days of Athanasius (AD296-373). It is very important to point out though that Tertullian also believed in the eternal subordinate role of the Son of God, but not in a way that denied His full deity. I also want to repeat the important point that many Christians who believe in the identical, same-substance unity of the three Persons/the ontological equality of the three Persons also believe in the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father. This can get a little complicated, but the dominant point that I want to make in this paper seems clear to me: The Son of God is eternally subordinate to God the Father in His role. And I have to believe that any understanding of the same-substance unity/ontological equality of the three Persons that rules out the eternal subordinate role of the Son, or that requires belief in one center of consciousness with one will and one mind in the Trinity IS WRONG. However, we must believe in the full deity of the Son.

We will start section 24, "Some Excerpts from "Athanasius: A Theological Introduction" by Thomas G. Weinandy in Part 2H of this paper.

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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