Nicene and Ante-Nicene Fathers, Ser. II, Vol. IV:Early Church Fathers Index Previous Next
Against the Arians. (Orationes contra Arianos IV.): Excursus B. On §22 (Note 3).
Excursus B. On §22 (Note 3).
On the Meaning of the Formula πρὶν γεννηθῆναι οὐκ ἦν, in the Nicene Anathema.
It was observed on p. 75, note 4(b), that there were two clauses in the Nicene Anathema which required explanation. One of them, ἐξ ἑτέρας ὑποστάσεως ἢ οὐσίας, has been discussed in the Excursus, pp. 77–82; the other, πρὶν γεννηθῆναι οὐκ ἦν, shall be considered now.
Bishop Bull has suggested a very ingenious interpretation of it, which is not obvious, but which, when stated, has much plausibility, as going to explain, or rather to sanction, certain modes of speech in some early Fathers of venerable authority, which have been urged by heterodox writers, and given up by Catholics of the Roman School, as savouring of Arianism. The foregoing pages have made it abundantly evident that the point of controversy between Catholics and Arians was, not whether our Lord was God, but whether He was Son of God; the solution of the former question being involved in that of the latter. The Arians maintained that the very word Son implied a beginning, or that our Lord was not Very God; the Catholics said that it implied connaturality, or that He was Very God as one with God. Now five early writers, Athenagoras, Tatian, Theophilus, Hippolytus, and Novatian, of whom the authority of Hippolytus is very great, not to speak of Theophilus and Athenagoras, whatever be thought of Tatian and of Novatian, seem to speak of the divine generation as taking place immediately before the creation of the world, that is, as if not eternal, though p. 344 at the same time they teach that our Lord existed before that generation. In other words they seem to teach that He was the Word from eternity, and became the Son at the beginning of all things; some of them expressly considering Him, first as the λόγος ἐνδιάθετος, or Reason, in the Father, or (as may be speciously represented) a mere attribute; next, as the λόγος προφορικὸς, or Word, terms which are explained, note on de Syn. 26 (5). This doctrine, when divested of figure and put into literal statement, might appear nothing more or less than this,—that at the beginning of the world the Son was created after the likeness of the Divine attribute of Reason, as its image or expression, and thereby became the Divine Word, was made the instrument of creation, called the Son from that ineffable favour and adoption which God had bestowed on Him, and in due time sent into the world to manifest Gods perfections to mankind;—which, it is scarcely necessary to say, is the doctrine of Arianism.
Thus S. Hippolytus says,—
Τῶν δὲ γινομένων ἀρχηγὸν καὶ σύμβουλον καὶ ἐργατὴν ἐγέννα λόγον, ὃν λόγον ἔχων ἐν ἑαυτῶ ἀ& 231·ρατόν τε ὄντα τῷ κτιζομένῳ, κόσμῳ, ὁρατὸν ποιεῖ· προτέραν φωνὴν φθεγγόμενος, καὶ φῶς ἐκ φωτὸς γεννῶν, προῆκεν τῇ κτίσει κύριον. contr. Noet. 10.
And S. Theophilus:—
῎Εχων οὖν ὁ θεὸς τὸν ἑαυτοῦ λόγον ἐνδιάθετον ἐν τοῖς ἰδίοις σπλάγχνοις, ἐγέννησεν αὐτὸν μετὰ τῆς ἑαυτοῦ σοφίας ἐξερευξάμενος πρὸ τῶν ὅλων…ὁπότε δὲ ἠθέλησεν ὁ θεὸς ποιῆσαι ὅσα ἐβουλεύσατο, τοῦτον τὸν λόγον ἐγέννησε προφορικὸν, πρωτότοκον πάσης κτίσεως. ad Autol. ii. 10–22.
Bishop Bull, Defens. F. N. iii. 5–8, meets this representation by maintaining that the γέννησις which S. Hippolytus and other writers spoke of, was but a metaphorical generation, the real and eternal truth being shadowed out by a succession of events in the economy of time, such as is the Resurrection (Acts xiii. 33), nay, the Nativity; and that of these His going forth to create the worlds was one. And he maintains (ibid. Acts 3.9) that such is the mode of speaking adopted by the Fathers after the Nicene Council as well as before. And then he adds (which is our present point), that it is even alluded to and recognised in the Creed of the Council, which anathematizes those who say that the Son was not before His generation, i.e. who deny that the Son was before His generation, which statement accordingly becomes indirectly a Catholic truth.
I am not aware whether any writer has preceded or followed this great authority in this view 2209 . The more obvious mode of understanding the Arian formula is this, that it is an argument ex absurdo, drawn from the force of the word Son, in behalf of the Arian doctrine; it being, as they would say, a truism, that, whereas He was begotten, He was not before He was begotten, and the denial of it a contradiction in terms. This certainly does seem to myself the true force of the formula; so much so, that if Bishop Bulls explanation be admissible, it must, in order to its being so, first be shewn to be reducible to this sense, and to be included under it.
The point at issue between the two interpretations is this; whether the clause πρὶν γεννηθῆναι οὐκ ἦν is intended for a denial of the contrary proposition, He was before His generation, as Bishop Bull says; or whether it is what Aristotle calls an enthymematic sentence, assuming the falsity, as confessed on all hands, of that contrary proposition, as self-contradictory, and directly denying, not it, but He was from everlasting. Or, in other words, whether it opposes the position of the five writers, or the great Catholic doctrine itself; and whether in consequence the Nicene Fathers are in their anathema indirectly sanctioning that position, or stating that doctrine. Bull considers that both sides contemplated the proposition, He was before His generation,—and that the Catholics asserted or defended it; some reasons shall here be given for the contrary view.
1. Now first, let me repeat, what was just now observed by the way, that the formula in question, when taken as an enthymematic sentence, or reductio ad absurdum, exactly expresses the main argument of the Arians, which they brought forward in so many shapes, as feeling that their cause turned upon it, He is a son, therefore He had a beginning. Thus Socrates records Ariuss words in the beginning of the controversy, (1) If the Father begat the Son, He who is begotten has a beginning of existence; (2) therefore once the Son was not, ἦν ὅτε οὐκ ἦν; (3) therefore He has His subsistence from nothing, ἐξ οὐκ ὄντων ἔχει τὴν ὑπόστασιν. H. E. i. 5. The first of these propositions exactly answers to the οὐκ ἦν πρὶν γεννηθῆναι taken enthymematically; and it may be added that when so taken, the three propositions will just answer to the three first formulæ anathematized at Nicæa, two of which are indisputably the same as two of them; viz. ὅτι ἦν ποτὲ p. 345 δτε οὐκ ἦν· & 234·τι πρὶν γεννηθῆναι οὐκ ἦν· & 234·τι ἐξ οὐκ ὄντων ἐγένετο. On the other hand, we hear nothing in the controversy of the position which Bull conceives to be opposed by Arius (He was before His generation), that is, supposing the formula in question does not allude to it; unless indeed it is worth while to except the statement reprobated in the Letter of the Arians to Alexander, ὄντα πρότερον, γεννηθέντα εἰς υἱ& 231·ν, which is explained, de Syn. 16. note 12.
2. Next, it should be observed that the other formulæ here, as elsewhere, mentioned, are enthymematic also, or carry their argument with them, and that, an argument resolvable often into the original argument derived from the word Son. Such are ὁ ὢν τὸν μὴ ὄντα ἐκ τοῦ ὄντος ἢ τὸν ὄντα; and ἓν τὸ ἀγένητον ἢ δύο; and in like manner as regards the question of the τρεπτόν; Has He free will (thus Athanasius states the Arian objection) or has He not? is He good from choice according to free will, and can He, if He will, alter, being of an alterable nature? as wood or stone, has He not His choice free to be moved, and incline hither and thither? supr. §35. That is, they wished the word τρεπτὸς to carry with it its own self-evident application to our Lord, with the alternative of an absurdity; and so to prove His created nature.
3. In §32, S. Athanasius observes that the formula of the ἀγένητον was the later substitute for the original formulæ of Arius; when they were no longer allowed to say, “out of nothing,” and “He was not before His generation,” they hit upon this word Unoriginate, that, by saying among the simple that the Son was originate, they might imply the very same phrases “out of nothing” and “He once was not.” Here he does not in so many words say that the argument from the ἀγένητον was a substitute for the οὐκ ἦν πρὶν γεννηθῆναι, yet surely it is not unfair so to understand him. But it is plain that the ἀγένητον was brought forward merely to express by an appeal to philosophy and earlier Fathers, that to be a Son was to have a beginning and a creation, and not to be God. This therefore will be the sense of the οὐκ ἦν πρὶν γεννηθῆναι. Nay, when the Arians asked, Is the ἀγένητον one or two, they actually did assume that it was granted by their opponents that the Father only was ἀγένητος; which it was not, if the latter held, nay, if they had sanctioned at Nicæa, as Bull says, that our Lord ἦν πρὶν γεννηθῇ; and moreover which they knew and confessed was not granted, if their own formula οὐκ ἦν πρὶν γεννηθῆναι was directed against this statement.
4. Again, it is plain that the οὐκ ἦν πρίν γεννηθῆναι is used by S. Athanasius as the same objection with ὁ ὢν τὸν μὴ ὄντα ἐκ τοῦ ὄντος, &c. E.g. he says, We might ask them in turn, God who is, has He so become, whereas He was not? or is He also before His generation? whereas He is, did He make Himself, or is He of nothing. &c., §25. Now the ὁ ὢν τὸν μὴ ὄντα, &c., is evidently an argument, and that, grounded on the absurdity of saying ὁ ὢν τὸν ὄντα. S. Alexanders Encyclical Letter (vid. Socr. i. 6), compared with Ariuss original positions and the Nicene Anathemas as referred to above, is a strong confirmation. In these three documents the formulæ agree together, except one; and that one, which in Ariuss language is he who is begotten has a beginning of existence, is in the Nicene Anathema, οὐκ ἦν πρὶν γεννηθῆναι, but in S. Alexanders circular, ὁ ὢν θεὸς τὸν μὴ ὄντα ἐκ τοῦ μὴ ὄντος πεποίηκεν. The absence of the οὐκ ἦν πρὶν, &c., in S. Alexander is certainly remarkable. Moreover the two formulæ are treated as synonymous by Greg. Naz. Orat. 29. 9. Cyril, Thesaur. 4. p. 29 fin., and by Basil as quoted below. But indeed there is an internal correspondence between them, shewing that they have but one meaning. They are really but the same sentence in the active and in the passive voice.
5. A number of scattered passages in Athanasius lead us to the same conclusion. For instance, if the Arian formula had the sense which is here maintained, of being an argument against our Lords eternity, the Catholic answer would be, He could not be before His generation because His generation is eternal, as being from the Father. Now this is precisely the language Athanasius uses, when it occurs to him to introduce the words in question. Thus in Orat. ii. §57 he says, The creatures began to come to be (γίνεσθαι); but the Word of God, not having beginning (ἀρχὴν) of being, surely did not begin to be, nor begin to come to be, but was always. And the works have a beginning (ἀρχὴν) in the making, and the beginning precedes things which come to be; but the Word not being of such, rather Himself becomes the Framer of those things which have a beginning. And the being of things originate is measured by their becoming (ἐν τῷ γίνεσθαι), and at some beginning (origin) doth God begin to make them through the Word, that it may be known that they were not before their origination (πρίν γενέσθαι); but the Word hath His being in no other origin than the Father (vid. supr. §11, note 1), whom they themselves allow to be unoriginate, so that He too exists unoriginately in the Father, being His offspring not His creature. We shall find that other Fathers say just the same. Again, we have already come to a passage where for His generation, he substitutes making, a word which Bull would not say that either the Nicene Council or S. Hippolytus would use; clearly shewing that the Arians were not quoting and denying a Catholic statement in the οὐκ ἦν πρὶν, &c., but laying down one of their own. Who is there in all mankind, Greek or Barbarian, who ventures to rank among creatures One whom he confesses the while to be God, and says that “He was not before He was made, πρὶν ποιηθῇ.” Orat. i. §10. Arius, who is surely the best explainer of his own words, says the same; that is, he interprets generation by making, or confesses that he is bringing forward an argument, not opposing a dogma; Before His generation, he says, or creation, or destination (ὁρισθῇ), Rom. i. 4), or founding (vid. Prov. viii. 23), He was not; for He was not ingenerate. Theod., Hist. i. 4. Eusebius of Nicomedia also, in a passage which has already come before us, says distinctly, “It is plain to any one,” that what has been made was not before its generation; but what came to be has an origin of being. De Syn. §17.
6. If there are passages in Athanasius which seem to favour the opposite interpretation, that is, to imply that the Catholics held or allowed, as Bp. Bull considers, that before His generation, He was, they admit of an explanation. E.g. “How is He not in the number of the creatures, if, as they say, He was not before His generation? for it is proper to the creatures and works, not to be before their generation. Orat. ii. §22. This might be taken to imply that the Arians said, He was not, and Catholics He was. But the real meaning is this, How is He not a creature, if the formula be true, which they use, “He was not before His generation?” for it may indeed properly be said of creatures that “they were not before their generation.” And so again when he says, if the Son was not before His generation, Truth was not always in God, supr. §20, he does not thereby imply that the Son was before His generation, but he means, if it be true that, &c., if the formula holds, if it can be said of the Son, “He was not, &c.” Accordingly, shortly afterwards, in a passage already cited, he says the same of the Almighty Father in the way of parallel; God who is, hath He so become, whereas He was not, or “is He too before His generation?” (§25), not implying here any generation at all, but urging p. 346 that the question is idle and irrelevant, that the formula is unmeaning and does not apply to, cannot be said of, Father or Son.
7. Such an explanation of these passages, as well as the view here taken of the formula itself, receive abundant confirmation from S. Gregory Nazianzen and S. Hilary. What has been maintained is, that when S. Athanasius says, if the Son is not before His generation, then, &c., he does but mean, if it can be said, if the words can be used or applied in this case. Now the two Fathers just mentioned both decide that it is not true, either that the Son was before His generation, or that He was not; in other words, that the question is unmeaning and irrelevant, which is just the interpretation which has been here given to Athanasius. But again, in thus speaking, they thereby assert also that they did not hold, that they do not allow, that formula which Bull considers the Nicene Fathers defended and sanctioned, as being Catholic and in use both before the Council and after, viz. He was before His generation. Thus S. Gregory in the passage in which he speaks of did He that is make Him that is not, &c., and before His generation, &c., as one and the same, expressly says, In His case, to be begotten is concurrent with existence and is from the beginning, and that in contrast to the instance of men; who he says, do fulfil in a manner He who is, &c. (Levi being in the loins of Abraham), i.e. fulfil Bulls proposition, He was before generation. He proceeds, I say that the question is irrelevant, not the answer difficult. And presently after, mentioning some idle inquiries by way of parallel, he adds, more ill-instructed, be sure, is it to decide whether what was generated from the beginning was or was not before generation, πρὸ τῆς γεννήσεως. Orat. 29. 9.
8. S. Hilary, on the other hand, is so full on the subject in his de Trin. xii., and so entirely to the point for which I would adduce him, that but a few extracts of what might be made are either necessary or practicable. He states and argues on the formula expressly as an objection; Adjiciant hæc arguta satis atque auditu placentia; Si, inquit, natus est, cœpit; et cum cœpit, non fuit; et cum non fuit, non patitur ut fuerit. Atque idcirco piæ intelligentiæ, sermonem esse contendant, Non fuit ante quam nasceretur, quia ut esset, qui non erat, natus est. n. 18. He answers the objection in the same way. Unigenitus Deus neque non fuit aliquando non filius, neque fuit aliquid ante quam filius, neque quidquam aliquid ipse nisi filius, n. 15, which is in express words to deny, He was before His generation. Again, as Gregory, Ubi pater auctor est, ibi et nativitas est; et vero ubi auctor æternus est, ibi et nativitatis æternitas est, n. 21. And he substitutes being always born for being before birth; Numquid ante tempora æterna esse, id ipsum sit quod est, eum qui erat nasci? quia nasci quod erat, jam non nasci est, sed se ipsum demutare nascendo.…Non est itaque id ipsum, natum ante tempora æterna semper esse, et esse antequam nasci. n. 30. And he concludes, in accordance with the above explanation of the passages of Athanasius which I brought as if objections, thus: Cum itaque natum semper esse, nihil aliud sit confitendum esse, quam natum, id sensui, antequam nascitur vel fuisse, vel non fuisse non subjacet. n. 31.
9. It may seem superfluous to proceed, but as Bishop Bull is an authority not lightly to be set aside, a passage from S. Basil shall be added. Eunomius objects, God begat the Son either being or not being, &c.…to him that is, there needs not generation. He replies that Eunomius, because animals first are not, and then are generated, and he who is born to-day, yesterday did not exist, transfers this conception to the subsistence of the Only-begotten; and says, since He has been generated, He was not before His generation, πρὸ τῆς γεννήσεως, contr. Eunom. ii. 14. And he solves the objection as the other Fathers, by saying that our Lord is from everlasting, speaking of S. John, in the first words of his Gospel, as τῇ ἀ& 187·διότητι τοῦ πατρὸς τοῦ μονογενοῦς συνάπτων τὴν γέννησιν. §15.
These then being the explanations which the contemporary and next following Fathers give of the Arian formula which was anathematized at Nicæa, it must be observed that the line of argument which Bishop Bull is pursuing, does not lead him to assign any direct reasons for the substitution of a different interpretation in their place. He is engaged, not in commenting on the Nicene Anathema, but in proving that the Post-Nicene Fathers admitted that view or statement of doctrine which he conceives also implied in that anathema; and thus the sense of the anathema, instead of being the subject of proof, is, as he believes, one of the proofs of the point which he is establishing. However, since these other collateral evidences which he adduces, may be taken to be some sort of indirect comment upon the words of the Anathema, the principal of them in point of authority, and that which most concerns us, shall here be noticed: it is a passage from the second Oration of Athanasius.
While commenting on the words, ἀρχὴ ὁδῶν εἰς τὰ ἔργα in the text, The Lord has created me the beginning of His ways unto the works, S. Athanasius is led to consider the text first born of every creature, πρωτότοκος πασῆς κτίσεως: and he says that He who was μονογενὴς from eternity, became by a συγκατάβασις at the creation of the world πρωτότοκος. This doctrine Bp. Bull considers declaratory of a going forth, προέλευσις, or figurative birth from the Father, at the beginning of all things.
It will be observed that the very point to be proved is this, viz. not that there was a συγκατάβασις merely, but that according to Athanasius there was a γέννησις or proceeding from the Father, and that the word πρωτότοκος marks it. Bulls words are, that Catholici quidam Doctores, qui post exortam controversiam Arianam vixerunt,…illam τοῦ λόγου.…ex Patre progressionem (quod et συγκατάβασιν, hoc est, condescensionem eorum nonnulli appellarunt), ad condendum hæc universa agnovere; atque ejus etiam progressionis respectu ipsum τὸν λόγον a Deo Patre quasi natum fuisse et omnis creaturæ primogenitum in Scripturis dici confessi sunt. D. F. N. iii. 9. §1. Now I consider that S. Athanasius does not, as this sentence says, understand by primogenitus that our Lord was progressionis respectu a Deo Patre quasi natus. He p. 347 does not seem to me to speak of a generation or birth of the Son at all, though figurative, but of the birth of all things, and that in Him.
That Athanasius does not call the συγκατάβασις of the Word a birth, as denoted by the term πρωτότοκος, is plain from his own avowal in the passage to which Bull refers. Nowhere in the Scriptures, he says, is He called πρωτότοκος τοῦ Θεοῦ, first-born of God, nor creature of God, but Only-begotten, Word, Wisdom, have their relation to the Father, and are proper to Him. ii. 62. Here surely he expressly denies Bulls statement that first-born means a Deo natus, born of God. Such additions as παρὰ τοῦ πατρὸς, he says, are reserved for μονογενὴς and λόγος.
He goes on to say what the term πρωτότοκος does mean; viz. instead of having any reference to a προέλευσις from the Father, it refers solely to the creatures; our Lord is not called πρωτότοκος, because His προέλευσις is a type of His eternal generation, but because by that προέλευσις He became the Prototype of all creation. He, as it were, stamped His image, His Sonship, upon creation, and became the first-born in the sense of being the Archetypal Son. If this is borne out by the passage, Athanasius, it is plain, does not speak of any γέννησις whatever at the era of creation, though figurative; πρωτότοκος does but mean μονογενὴς πρωτεύων ἐν τῇ κτίσει, or ἀρχὴ τῆς κτίσεως, or πρωτότυπον γέννημα, or μόνος γεννητὸς ἐν τοῖς γενητοῖς; and no warrant is given, however indirect, to the idea that in the Nicene Anathema, the Fathers implied an allowance of the proposition, He was before His generation.
As the whole passage occurs in the Discourse which immediately follows, it is not necessary to enter formally into the proof of this view of it, when the reader will soon be able to judge of it for himself. But it may be well to add two passages, one from Athenagoras, the other from S. Cyril, not in elucidation of the words of Athanasius, but of the meaning which I would put upon them.
The passage from Athenagoras is quoted by Bull himself, who of course is far from denying the doctrine of our Lords Archetypal office; and does but wish in addition to find in Athanasius the doctrine of a γέννησις. Athenagoras says that the Son is the first offspring, πρῶτον γέννημα, of the Father, not as come to be, γενόμενον (for God being Eternal Mind had from the beginning in Himself the Word, as having Reason eternally, λογικὸς ὢν), but that while as regards matter heavy and light were mixed together (the passage is corrupt here), He went forth, προελθὼν, as an idea and energy, i.e. as an Agent to create, and a Form and Rule to create by. And then he goes on to quote the very text on which Athanasius is employed when he explains πρωτότοκος. And the Prophetic Spirit confirms this doctrine, saying, The Lord hath created me a beginning (origin) of His ways, for His works. Leg. 10.
And so S. Cyril, He is Only-begotten according to nature, as being alone from the Father, God from God, Light kindled from Light; and He is First-born for our sakes, that, as if to some immortal root the whole creation might be ingrafted and might bud forth from the Everlasting. For all things were made by Him, and consist for ever and are preserved in Him. Thesaur. 25 p. 238.
In conclusion it may be suggested whether the same explanation which has here been given of Athanasiuss use of πρωτότοκος does not avail more exactly to the defence of two of the five writers from the charge of inaccurate doctrine, than that which Bull has preferred.
As to Athenagoras, we have already seen that he does not speak of a γέννησις at all in his account of creation, but simply calls the Son πρῶτον γέννημα, i.e. πρωτότυπον γέννημα.
Nor does Tatian approach nearer to the doctrine of a γέννησις. He says that at the creation the Word ἔργον πρωτότοκον τοῦ πατρὸς γίνεται. τοῦτον ἴσμεν τοῦ κόσμου τὴν ἀρχήν. ad Græc. 5. Here the word ἔργον, which at first sight promises a difficulty, does in fact explain both himself and Athenagoras. He says that at creation the Word became, γίνεται, not a Son (figuratively), as Bull would grant to the parties whom he is opposing, but a work. It was His great condescension, συγκατάβασις, to be accounted the first of the works, as being their type; that as they were to be raised to an adoption and called sons, so He for that purpose might stoop to creation, and be called a work. As Tatian uses the word ἀρχὴ in the concluding clause, there is great reason to think that he is alluding to the very text which Athanasius and Athenagoras expressly quote, in which Wisdom is said to be created a beginning, ἀρχὴ, of ways, unto the works, εἰς τὰ ἔργα.
As to Novatian, Bishop Bull himself observes that it is a question whether he need be understood to speak of any generation but that which is eternal; nor does Pamelius otherwise explain him.
Waterland expresses the view here taken, and not Bishop Bulls; vol. i. p. 114. Bulls language, on the other hand, is very strong: Sæpe olim, ut verum ingenue fateai, animum meum subiit admiratio, quid effato isto, Filius priusquam nasceretur, non erat, sibi voluerint Ariani. De nativitate Christi ex beatissima Virgine dictum non esse exponendum constat.…Itaque de nativitate Filii loquuntur, quæ hujus universi creationem antecessit. Quis vero, inquam, sensus dicti hujus “Filius non erat, sive non existebat, priusquam nasceretur ex Patre ante conditum mundum?” Ego sane nullus dubito, quin hoc pronunciatum Arianorum oppositum fuerit Catholicorum istorum sententiæ, qui docerent, Filium quidem paulo ante conditum mundum inexplicabili quodam modo ex Patre progressum fuisse ad constituendum universa, &c. D. F. N. iii. 9. §2.
Next: Discourse II
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