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

by Karl Kemp  
8/14/2016 / Bible Studies


We continue here in Part 2H of this paper, starting with section 24 of this 29 section paper.

24. Some Excerpts from "Athanasius: A Theological Introduction" by Thomas G. Weinandy (MPG Books Ltd., 2007, 150 pages).

In the first sentence of the Preface, Weinandy points out that Athanasius (about AD296-373), along with Basil (about 330-379), Gregory of Nazianzus (about 329-389), and Chrysostom (about 347-407) are traditionally considered the four great Doctors of the Eastern Church. Later on that page (page 21) he says, "Chapter four [of this book] looks at Athanasius' understanding of the ontological relationship between the Father and the Son so as to establish their oneness of being." That is the primary chapter that I am interested in for this paper. "...the Son is equally God in unity of being with the Father" (page 24). This book makes it clear that Athanasius also differentiated between the three Persons of the Trinity. The Father is the source of the Son's existence, yet "they are one as water remains united to the source from which it springs." And "the Father created and governs all in and through the Word [the Son]" (page 23).

Chapter 4, "Athanasius: Defender and Interpreter of Nicea" (pages 49-80).

"Almost everyone prior to the Council of Nicea...presupposed that the Father alone and singularly constituted the fullness of the Godhead, when they attempted to conceive and articulate the Christian understanding of the unity and distinction between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. ... However, because of this presupposition, there was also an inbuilt necessity to conceive the Son and the Holy Spirit not only as deriving their being from the Father, but also as less divine than the Father and so subordinate to him, for he alone embodied the whole of the Godhead. There was a hierarchical conception within the Trinity. [[I have a problem with Weinandy's words "less divine." From my point of view, since the Son is deity (God, God the Son) in a totally full sense, I cannot conceive Him being "less divine" (deity) than God the Father, but I totally agree that the pre-Nicene Christians believed (and I do to) that the Son has an eternal subordinate role to God the Father in the Trinity. (But that doesn't make the Son "less divine." He isn't the Father, but He is FULLY God, God the Son!) As we discuss throughout this paper, the Bible demonstrates the eternally subordinate role of the Son to the Father. The apostles and those taught by them believed this; the pre-Nicene Christians believed this; and most of the Christians who signed the Nicene Creed believed this. They also believed in the unity of the three Persons (of the same substance), with a mutual love beyond measure. They did not believe in three Gods.]]" (page 50).

"The non-scriptural 'homoousios' [the word wasn't used in the Bible] is that controversial word and concept that was conscripted to secure the full divinity of the Son and so protect the right reading and interpretation of the New Testament faith [He has a footnote which I'll skip]" (page 62). Weinandy goes on to say that there has been much difference of opinion regarding how those who signed the Nicene Creed understood the meaning of the word. He discusses two viewpoints. The first view (I believe it is the correct view), which represents "the common scholarly opinion [but many disagree too]" that "the majority of the Fathers...simply wanted to uphold the full divinity of the Son without addressing the question of the divine unity [I'll skip his footnote]. [They clearly believed in unity between the Father and the Son; the New Testament makes this point clear, but they did not believe in an identical, same-substance (oneness, but not modalism) unity that cannot be divided that doesn't leave room for the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father (or that requires Christians to believe in one center of consciousness with one will and one mind in the Trinity).] Eusebius of Caesarea, who provides a rather grudging endorsement of the Council's creed in his letter to his diocese, emphasizes only that the Son is fully divine, and never addresses the question of divine unity [I'll skip his footnote]" (pages 62-63). It is clear that Eusebius strongly believed in the eternal subordinate role of the Son, and that 'homoousios' can be understood in a way, and was understood in a way, at Nicea that leaves room for that subordination.

"The second option would be to understand 'homoousion' as the Father and the Son being one and the same substance in the sense that they were one and the same being or entity - one and the same God. Scholars have tended to think that this interpretation is highly unlikely. [[Even though this view excludes modalism/oneness the way they explain it, I don't believe it is correct. Although large numbers of Christians have accepted this viewpoint (to some significant extent because of the after-Nicea teaching of Athanasius, the Cappadocians, and Augustine), I don't believe it is supported by the Bible, not to mention that the pre-Nicene believers and most of the bishops at Nicea did not agree with this view that includes the ideas that in "this one and the same being or entity" there is no room for any eternal subordination of the Son to the Father or that there is one center of consciousness with one will and mind. My primary reason for writing this paper is to try to show that, although the Son of God is fully deity with the Father, He is eternally subordinate to the Father in His role. And as I have mentioned, I believe the Son Himself is the primary Person (along with the Holy Spirit) who wants to emphasize the preeminent role of the Father and to see the Father glorified to the max. Weinandy goes on to show that he doesn't agree with the "scholars [who] have tended to think that this second option is highly unlikely."]] ... What Nicea had done, and it will fall to Athanasius to defend, to clarify and interpret this proper understanding [the "second option"], IS RADICALLY TO RECONCEIVE THE WHOLE CHRISTIAN UNDERSTANDING OF GOD [my emphasis]. [This is a significant point that Weinandy is making here, but I don't believe "the whole Christian understanding of God" needed to be radically reconceived. Many changes introduce errors.] No longer does the Father alone embody or constitute the one nature of God, but rather, since God is the Father, the one nature of God, what the one God is, is the Father begetting the Son. The Father begetting the Son is eternally and so immutably and unalterably, constitutive of what the one God is. ...there is one God and the one God is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.... The Nicene doctrine of the 'homoousion' [He is speaking of a later interpretation of 'homoousios,' one that didn't play much of a role, if any, at Nicea, one that, for one thing, doesn't leave any room for the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father that we read about in the Bible] is one of the most important breakthroughs and one of the most significant insights in the whole of Christian history of Christian doctrine. How many of the fathers themselves realized its significance cannot be answered, but, as we will shortly see, Athanasius, in the course of his long, ardent and passionate defense, did" (pages 63-64).

"The simple truth that Athanasius is emphatically confirming is that 'when we call God Father, at once with the Father we signify the Son's existence' ["Contra Arianos, 3.6]" (page 67). "...the Son, as the Father's Word and Wisdom, must eternally co-exist with the Father as radiance must by necessity accompany light and as water must by necessity spring forth from a fountain [See 'Contra Arianos,1.11-12, 19, 25 and 2.34-36, 40. Also 'De Decretis 12.]" (page 68). I wouldn't object to much of this if it was not being used to supposedly prove that the Son cannot be eternally subordinate to the Father, etc. The Bible, it seems to me, clearly shows that the Son is eternally subordinate to the Father in His role, and it speaks repeatedly of the three distinct Persons, not of an identical, same-substance/essence (oneness, but not modalism) unity of the three Persons that cannot be divided.

"For Athanasius, the Father and Son are not identical as to who they are, in that they do not possess one and the same substantial identity as a single subject ('monoousion'). Rather, the Father and the Son, as distinct subjects, are identical as to what they are ('homoousion'), that is, they are both the one God [See 'De Decritis, 23]" (page 77).


25. Philip Schaff Discusses the Fact that the Nicene Fathers, Like their Predecessors (the Pre-Nicene Fathers) Teach the Eternal Subordination of the Son to the Father. (Volume 3, "Nicene and Post-Nicene, Christianity," [Eerdmans, 1984 reprint, copyright 1910], pages 670-683). On page 683 he has a lengthy footnote that lists quite a few scholars who wrote in the last few hundred years who agree with the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father. (Schaff wrote this in 1910.) I'll just quote part of his long first sentence of the footnote and one other sentence here: "All important scholars since Petavius [according to Wikapedia he was a French Jesuit theologian (1583-1652)] admit the subordination in the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity; e.g., Bull [George Bull, English theologian (1634-1710)], in the fourth...section of his famous Defensio fidei Nicea...treats quite at large of the subordination of the Son to the Father.... But while Baur and Dorner (though from different points of view) recognize in this a defect of the Nicene doctrine [in other words, they believe the Nicene fathers were wrong to allow the subordination of the Son to the Father], to be overcome by the subsequent development of the church dogma [Schaff's viewpoint fits here], the great Anglican divines Cudworth...Pearson, Bull, Waterland (and among American divines Dr. Shedd) regard the Nicene subordinationism as the true, Scriptural, and final form of the trinitarian doctrine and make no account of Augustine, who went beyond it [in other words, they don't agree with Augustine]."


26. Some Excerpts from Chapter VI, "The Trinity," of Vol. 1 of "Systematic Theology" by Charles Hodge (Eerdmans, 1986 reprint, originally published 1871-73). I'll quote part of what Hodge says under the heading "The Mutual Relation of the Persons of the Trinity." "On this subject the Nicene Doctrine includes: 1. The principle of the subordination of the Son to the Father.... But this subordination does not imply inferiority. For as the same divine essence with all its infinite perfections is common to the Father, Son, and Spirit, there can be no inferiority of one person to the other in the Trinity. ...for the divine essence common to the several persons is self-existent and eternal. The subordination intended is only that which concerns the mode of subsistence and operation, implied in the Scriptural facts that the Son is of the Father...and that the Father operates through the Son...."

The view expressed by Wayne Grudem (and some others) in this paper has much in common with what Hodge says here. Grudem speaks of ontological equality and relational subordination. Many, including Kevin Giles, say that you cannot believe both of these things. As I have mentioned, I am sidestepping that question to some extent, which gets into some complicated issues (including the definition of some words and concepts) and tends to get into some philosophical speculation regarding the Trinity. However, as I have mentioned, I believe that any view regarding the same-substance (homoousious) unity of God (including those of Athanasius, Augustine, and Giles), or regarding ontological equality, that doesn't leave room for the eternal subordination that I read about in the Bible must be wrong; so too regarding any viewpoint that requires believing that there is one center of consciousness and one will and one mind in the Trinity.

It's not easy to try to analyze God (this is holy ground and we need to exercise humility!), and we are limited to what He has chosen to reveal to us. "Facts" that scientists thought they understood regarding the basics of the physical universe, things like space, time, energy, matter, and velocity have been recently upended (in the last hundred years or so) through the now (to a significant extent) proven theories of Einstein. Who would have believed that an increase in velocity or gravitational forces slow down time, for example, but these things are demonstrated every day, for example, where the clocks on satellites need to be calibrated to compensate for the effects of the decreased gravity of the earth for a satellite in orbit (being above the earth), which speeds up time, and the increased velocity of the satellite by putting it in orbit, which slows down time. How much more should we be humble when we make pronouncements about the Trinity who created our universe. Learning more about the basics of the existence of the triune God and His non-physical dimension may well upend some of our (for-sure?) ideas about the three Persons of the Trinity. However, I believe the preeminent role of God the Father stands fixed by the Scriptures. So too for three centers of consciousness, with three wills and three minds, in the three Persons of the Trinity.

I'll quote part of what Hodge says under his #3: "The third point decided [at the Council of Nicea] concerning the relation of the persons of the Trinity, one to the other, relates to their union. As the essence of the Godhead is common to the several persons, they have a common intelligence, will, and power. ... The three are one God, and therefore have one mind and one will. ..." (pages 460-462). Hodge is agreeing here with much that Athanasius and many others have said. In agreement with Grudem and many others, I don't believe this viewpoint lines up with the Bible. I believe it reads too much into what homoousios means, quite a bit more than what most of the bishops who signed the Nicene Creed believed it means. However, it is significant that Hodge (unlike Athanasius and many others) believes in the "subordination [of the Son] as to mode of subsistence and operation."

Hodge has a lot more to say, but I'll just quote a few sentences from his page 464 under the heading "Subordination." "Gieseler says that Augustine effectually excluded all idea of subordination in the Trinity by teaching the numerical sameness of essence [the identical, same-substance unity] in the persons of the Godhead. This does indeed preclude all priority and all superiority as to being and perfection. But it does not preclude subordination as to mode of subsistence and operation. This is distinctly recognized in Scripture, and was as fully taught by Augustine as by any of the Greek fathers, and is even more distinctly affirmed in the so-called Athanasian Creed, representing the school of Augustine, than in the Creed of the Council of Nice." However, as we discuss in this paper, both Augustine and the Athanasian Creed ruled out all eternal subordination of the Son to the Father.


27. A Little Information Regarding the Cappadocians and the Greek Noun "Homoiousios [Note the "oi," not "oo," in the middle of this word]."

I'll quote a little from what Robert Letham says under the heading "Homoiousians," note the "oi" ("The Holy Trinity" [P&R Publishing, 2004], pages 124, 125). This movement that started in the 350s (some 25 years after the Council of Nicea) was led at first by Basil of Ancyra. "Since they claimed that the Son is of similar or like substance ('homoiousios' [that is the meaning of this Greek noun]) to the Father, they were anti-Arian, but wanted to avoid the Sabellianism [believing in one-Person oneness of God] that they saw inherent in the Nicene 'homoousios.' ... ACCORDING TO THE HOMOIOUSIANS, THE SON IS LIKE THE FATHER, WITH FULL DIVINITY AND PERSONAL DISTINCTION [my emphasis]. Likeness of 'ousia,' it was felt, preserves against the twin dangers of seeing the Son as a creature, on the one hand, and of confusing the Son with the Father, on the other. The distinction is that the Father generates and the Son is generated. The Father and the Son are father and son in a real sense, and the Son is coeternal with the Father.

... [Basil of Ancyra] considered the homoousios blurs the distinction between the Father and the Son by identifying them. [That is a very real problem.] ...

It is from the ranks of the homoiousians that the main forces for the Trinitarian settlement emerged - Basil the Great and the other Cappadocians. ...." Athanasius, who was strong for the identical, same-substance unity of the three Persons of the Trinity that cannot be divided, considered these Christians to be brothers in the Lord, which opened a dialogue that eventually led to large numbers of the homoiousians, including the Cappadocians, to adopt the viewpoint of Athanasius. However, the Cappadocians put a strong emphasis on the three Persons too.

I'll quote a little from the eleven-page article "Trinitarian Dogma of Cappadocian Fathers" by Christopher W. Myers that was submitted to Liberty University. "It was from the homoiousios tradition that the Cappadocians emerged. Because of their origin of thinking, we observe their explanation of the Trinity to begin with an explanation of the three and then moving to the one. ... Basil was the theologian of the East who adopted the homoousion language for the Godhead and showed his fellow Homoiousions that the Nicene faith indeed did not engender any Sabellian [one Person oneness] tendencies. ... (page 2).

For one thing, Basil realized that the Arians would accept homoiousios, but not homoousios (see page 3). The anti-Arians didn't want to use words that the Arians would accept. They wanted to show where they were wrong, seriously wrong.


28. Some Excerpts from "The Trinity & Subordinationism: The Doctrine of God & the Contemporary Gender Debate" by Kevin Giles (InterVarsity Press, 2002, 282 pages). Based on what I have read, Kevin Giles can probably be considered the number-one critic of the idea of the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father in our day. He has done his homework, and you can learn from what he says, but I believe he is wrong to deny that there is an eternal subordination of the Son to the Father in His role. However, I believe, with Giles and all true evangelicals, that we must agree that the Son is fully deity with the Father. He was not created out of nothing, as Arius said, but one way, or another, He is of the substance of the Father. I also agree with Giles that some who believe in the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father in His role have wrongly stated that Athanasius, Augustine, and the Athanasian Creed (and others) support their viewpoint.

The pre-Nicene (before the Council of Nicea) Christians believed in the deity of the Son and there was widespread agreement that one way, or another, He was of the substance of the Father (He certainly wasn't begotten out of nothing), but they also believed in the eternal subordination of the Son, and not just during the few years that He lived on the earth. What Giles says on pages 60-62 under the heading "Ante-Nicene Subordination" is very important. (Ante-Nicene means the same thing as pre-Nicene: before the Council of Nicea in AD 325.) His first sentence is, "It is generally conceded [including being conceded by Giles] that the ante-Nicene Fathers were subordinationists." He goes on to give examples to the end of page 62.

Giles is sure, however, that any subordination is an error on their part, except for the subordination of the Son that took place during the brief time He lived on the earth as a man (the God-man). As I have mentioned, I don't believe that everything those early Fathers said regarding the subordination of the Son was fully adequate, but I believe that they learned of the deity and the eternal subordination of the Son (not that these two items are of equal importance) from the teaching of the apostles (which includes the all-important New Testament), who learned it from the Lord Jesus and revelation from God.

It seems clear to me that Giles needs to consider a question (I don't believe he addresses this question in this book): How is it that there was a supposed rather total acceptance at the Council of Nicea of the idea that the Son could not be eternally subordinate to the Father in His role? What brought about that large change from what the pre-Nicene Christians believed? Giles believes that the Nicene Creed rejected the idea of the eternal subordination of the Son, and many agree with him. I'm sure they are wrong.

There is no basis that I know of to say that the viewpoint of the Christians (especially the bishops who had to accept or reject the Nicene Creed) who gathered to Nicea in AD 325 had changed from the pre-Nicene viewpoints. I'll mention the dates of the death of several pre-Nicene Fathers that were all within a hundred years of AD 325: Tertullian (AD 230); Hippolytus (236); Origen (about 255) and Novatian (257). And Eusebius of Caesarea (AD263-339), a Christian church historian, who was a key leader at Nicea, was strong on the eternal subordinate role of the Son of God. He is often mentioned in discussions of the Council of Nicea.

We have already discussed the fact that most of those gathered to Nicea did not agree with the idea that the Nicene Creed (very much including the word "homoousios" that became part of the creed) didn't leave any room for the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father, and we will discuss this further as we continue. They did agree, of course, that the creed ruled out the heretical subordination of Arius and those who followed him, a subordination that effectively denied the deity of the Son.

It is true that by sixty years after the Council of Nicea many Christians would have agreed with the viewpoint that the Nicene Creed ruled out any eternal subordination of the Son to the Father, and apparently the numbers would have continued to increase as time went on. As we have discussed, a big part of that change took place through the ministries of Athanasius (AD296-373), Augustine (AD354-430), and to some significant extent the three Cappadocians (Gregory of Nyssa, AD355-394; Basil of Caesarea, AD330-379; and Gregory of Nazianzus, AD329-389). Giles discusses all of them in this book. I'll quote a little of that as we continue.

It seems clear to me and many others that the original intent of those who signed the Nicene Creed, along with the dominant view of the pre-Nicene Christians, along with the much more important teaching of the apostles and the New Testament itself, agree with the eternal subordination of the Son in His role to the Father, along with His full deity. This is important information. I base what I believe first and foremost on the Bible, but it seems quite significant that the pre-Nicene Christians and the original intent of the Nicene Creed agree with what I believe the Bible teaches. I don't believe we should assume that the changes brought about to some significant extent by Athanasius, the three Cappadocians, and Augustine finally brought us to the truth. It seems clear to me that they read too much into what it means for the Son to be of the same-substance as the Father, very much including their idea that the Son cannot be eternally subordinate to the Father in His role. As I mentioned, some changes are bad - they take us away from the truth. Church history is packed with examples.

It seems clear to me that we should not discard that pre-Nicene view, which made room for some eternal subordination of the Son to the Father, and especially when that early view lines up with what I believe the Bible teaches. At the same time, we always need to be looking for the balanced truth of what the Bible teaches, and there is room to incorporate some of the insights of Christians like Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Augustine (and Giles). They were trying to be faithful to the Bible. I am not attempting to answer every question in this paper. I am mostly just trying to show that the Bible teaches an eternal subordination of the Son to the Father in His role, and it is quite important to see that the Bible doesn't teach there is one center of consciousness in the Trinity, with one will and one mind.

"Athanasius rejected the idea that the Son was eternally subordinated either in his being or in his works or functions. For Athanasius the three divine persons are one in being and one in action. Who they are and what they are cannot be separated. Thus Athanasius never depicts the Father commanding [commanding clearly seems to be the wrong word to use, but the Son always perfectly does the Father's will] and the Son obeying. ... Athanasius's key allies in the fight against Arianism in the latter part of his life were the Cappadocian fathers.... ..." (page 14).

We will continue discussing Kevin Giles viewpoint in the last part of this paper, Part 2I (that's a capital i).

Copyright by Karl Kemp

http://www.karlkempteachingministries.com 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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