The Gospel Coalition Australia


The Ordered Godhead: (4) Athanasius and Nicea

This is the fourth of a miniseries from Andrew Moody & Mark Baddeley responding to the current debate on trinitarian relations. See part 1, part 2 and part 3.

One of the shortcomings of the debate, as it has been conducted to this point in the blogosphere, is how little substantial engagement there has been with the Nicene Fathers themselves. Assertions have been made about what is, and is not consistent Nicene theology on the basis of the Athanasian Creed, Augustine’s notions of the persons as relations, or Puritan theories on the simplicity of God. But this is highly anachronistic. To understand the councils we must read the Fathers associated with them. There is no other path.

To this end, my plan in this post is to take us on a very brief introduction to the mind of Athanasius’. We'll see how understanding what he meant by "eternal begetting" helps us understand Nicea too. 

Eternally Begotten – An Undiscovered Country

The World of Athanasius is not our world and his categories are not ours. For him Scriptural referrences to the Son are to be understood as either descriptions of who the Son is by virtue of his eternal relationship with the Father, or as descriptions of who the Son is by virtue of having taken on flesh. Later categories—economic versus immanent, and the office of the Mediator do not feature.

This is partly because those categories can't solve the problems Athanasius is addressing. For example, simply invoking the economic Trinity (the Trinity revealed in history) doesn't help the more basic question of how Jesus can be equal with God without being a rival to God. The problem is the same whether we are talking about the Son in eternity or in the flesh.

But Athanasius sees Jesus' ontological equality arising out of inequality vis á vis the Father.

If there then is rivalry of the Son towards the Father, then be such words uttered against Him…But…if the Son on coming, glorified not Himself but the Father…and saying to the multitudes, 'I came down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him that sent Me;' and teaching the disciples, 'My Father is greater than I,' and 'He that honoureth Me, honoureth Him that sent Me;' if the Son is such towards His own Father, what is the difficulty, that one must need take such a view of such passages? (Against the Arians, 3.24.7)

For Athanasius the Father's greatness with regard to the Son is not simply due to the Son’s taking on human nature, but speaks to the eternal relationship. Yet, paradoxically, this is the reason for affirming that the Son is genuinely equal than the Father.

[T]he Son too says not, ‘My Father is better than I,’ lest we should conceive Him to be foreign to His Nature, but ‘greater,’ not indeed in greatness, nor in time, but because of His generation from the Father Himself, nay, in saying ‘greater’ He again shows that He is proper to His essence. (Against the Arians, 1.13.58)

Here Athanasius contrasts the language of ‘greater’ in John 14:28 with that of ‘better’ in Hebrews, arguing that the use of ‘greater’ in John points to the Son’s fundamental equality with the Father. The Father is not greater with respect to greatness or priority in time, but because of the Son’s generation from the Father, and hence it indicates that the Son is proper to the Father’s essence.

This shows us how foreign the thinking of Nicene theology is from our habits of mind. The Father is genuinely greater than the Son. And it is precisely because of this that the Son’s genuine, ontological, equality with the Father is established. It is not, as we might say that he is ‘ontologically equal but functionally subordinate’ – both the subordination and equality have to do with what he is.

The Nature of the Eternal Begetting

A further difference is that, unlike much modern theology, Athanasius was quite prepared to compare the Father's begetting the Son to other analogies drawn from the created sphere.

The Father, possessing His existence from Himself, begat the Son, as we said, and did not create Him, as a river from a well and as a branch from a root, and as brightness from a light, things which nature knows to be indivisible… (Statement of Faith, 4)

That is, the begetting of the Son by the Father is analogous to the issuing of a river from a well or of rays of light from a light source. Herein is a powerful argument for the unity of the Father and the Son, for light and its brightness are indivisible. Neither exists without the other. Where a spring is, its river is also. While they can be distinguished, they cannot be divided. So too, Athanasius maintains, the Father and the Son are indivisible. Where one is, the other is, and so, in the case of the Son, he exists as eternally as the Father.

There is something analogous between creation and begetting. Creating involves God producing something as an act of will, produces something external from him, and in no way his equal—a creature. Begetting is an act of the Father’s nature, and produces something homoousios with him.

We can see at this point Athanasius’ understanding of the implications of the Nicene Creed’s language that the Son is ‘begotten not created’. The contrast is present in the Creed because there is something analogous between creation and begetting—both involve something being produced by God. However, the difference between them is so important that they are held up as contrasts—creating involves God producing something as an act of will, produces something external from him, and in no way his equal—a creature. Begetting is an act of the Father’s nature, and produces something homoousios with him and in every way his equal:

…what is according to nature transcends and precedes counselling. A man by counsel builds a house, but by nature he begets a son; and what is in building began to come into being at will, and is external to the maker; but the son is proper offspring of the father's essence, and is not external to him; wherefore neither does he counsel concerning him, lest he appear to counsel about himself. As far then as the Son transcends the creature, by so much does what is by nature transcend the will. (Against the Arians, 3.62)

Nevertheless, we should be clear that Athanasius (and the Nicene creed before him) really does believe that the Father, ontologically, produces the Son in an eternal way. It is analogous to the way a father produces a child, a light produces radiance, a fountain produces a river, and a root produces a tree. In the words of the Nicene Creed the Son really is ‘God from God, light from light, true God from true God’. 

Implications of the Eternal Begetting for the Son

Behind these analogies, and controlling the way that Athanasius appeals to them, stands his understanding of how Scripture’s names for the Son function.  

[Christ] is Himself the Word of God, and the Wisdom, and the Image, and the Hand, and the Power; for God's offspring is one, and of the generation from the Father these titles are tokens. For if you say the Son, you have declared what is from the Father by nature; and if you think of the Word, you are thinking again of what is from Him, and what is inseparable; and, speaking of Wisdom, again you mean just as much, what is not from without, but from Him and in Him; and if you name the Power and the Hand, again you speak of what is proper to essence; and, speaking of the Image, you signify the Son; for what else is like God but the offspring from Him?
(De Synodis, 17 italics added; c.f. Against the Arians, 1.8.28)

For the Son is the Father's Word and Wisdom; whence we learn the impassibility and indivisibility of such a generation from the Father. For not even man's word is part of him, nor proceeds from him according to passion; much less God's Word; whom the Father has declared to be His own Son, lest, on the other hand, if we merely heard of `Word,' we should suppose Him, such as is the word of man, impersonal; but that, hearing that He is Son, we may acknowledge Him to be living Word and substantive Wisdom. (De Synodis, 41) 

To correctly understand who the Son is, we must ‘unite’ his titles, allowing each to inform the others, for each title contributes an important element to our understanding. Because the Son is the Word his generation from the Father is impassible and indivisible, nothing like human reproduction. Because the Word is the Son he is not impersonal, but is the living Word. Similarly, because the Son is the Father’s radiance, it is appropriate to look at the relationship between a light and its brightness to understand the nature of the begetting. Taken together, the Son’s titles or names illuminate the nature of begetting and the nature of the begotten. They are all tokens ‘of the generation from the Father.’

To correctly understand who the Son is, we must ‘unite’ his titles, allowing each to inform the others, for each title contributes an important element to our understanding. They are all tokens ‘of the generation from the Father.’

Because the Son is not external to the Father, like creation, but is the proper offspring of the Father’s essence, the implication is that the Son shares the Father’s essence, a point that Athanasius makes explicit.

And why are the attributes of the Father ascribed to the Son, except that the Son is an Offspring from Him? and why are the Son's attributes proper to the Father, except again because the Son is the proper Offspring of His Essence? And the Son, being the proper Offspring of the Father's Essence, reasonably says that the Father's attributes are His own also; whence suitably and consistently with saying, 'I and the Father are One,' He adds, 'that ye may know that I am in the Father and the Father in Me.' … Since then the Son too is the Father's Image, it must necessarily be understood that the Godhead and propriety of the Father is the Being of the Son. (Against the Arians 3.23.5)

The Son has what he has due to his likeness to the Father, and his nature as a true Son. While the Father has everything from himself, the Son has everything from the Father. The Son’s equality with the Father derives from his nature as the Son and everything he has is an eternal gift from the Father. In this way, Athanasius maintains the full equality of the Son with the Father yet avoids collapsing the Son into the Father—the danger of modalism (Sabellianism). 

Unlike later theories which imagine the Father and Son as distinguished only by their relations – mutually constitute each other in a ‘flat’ conception of the Trinity – Athanasius’ understanding is asymmetrical. The Father really is the Source and Cause of the Son, and the Son’s various names—Son, Word, Image, Radiance—all are tokens of the Father’s eternal production of the Son. The names have substantive meaning. 

The Implications of the Eternal Begetting for the Father

Yet, if the Father constitutes the Son, it is also true that the Son conditions the Father. Begetting means that the Father is in the Son, and that the Son is proper to the Father,[1] which means the Father cannot be himself without the Son. To deny the Son his status as the eternally begotten is to deny that God is truly Father, ‘robbing’ him of his word, and reducing God to a barren fountain, ‘a sort of pool, as if receiving water from without, and usurping the name of Fountain.’[2] It is to deny that God’s nature is inherently generative and productive. 

Without eternal begetting there is also no way for the Father to create. God created through his Word and Wisdom, but if the Son is not begotten from the Father then the Father lacked both. The Father has no wisdom and no word that is not his own Son. Take the Son from him and you take his Word and Wisdom from him. 

If the Father did not beget the Son, then his divine essence is not fruitful but barren, and the Father is nothing more than a dry fountain.[3] It is the eternal productivity of the Father in producing the Son that gives us reason to think that his nature is inherently creative and so he has the ‘framing energy’ needed to create.[4] Thus, Athanasius’ doctrine of creation is inherently Trinitarian, grounded upon the begetting of the Son by the Father. No begetting, no creation. The Father’s Fatherhood, his begetting of the Son, is the ground of a Christian doctrine of creation. 

For Athanasius, as in the Nicene Creed, the works of the Father and Son are distinguished with regard to creation. It's the Father who created all things By virtue of his inherently creative nature. However, he made all things by his Word and in Wisdom: the Nicene Creed does not picture the Son as co-Creator with the Father, but as the one ‘through (or by) whom all things were made’. Both persons were involved in the one divine act, but they were involved in ways reflecting their distinct personal nature. 


When we read the Nicene Creed in light of Athanasius, we see that the eternal begetting of the Son by the Father is of immeasurable significance. The Son’s equality with the Father, his being of the same essence as the Father, his differentiation with the Father, and the ability of his names to communicate a knowledge of who he actually is as Word, Image, Radiance, Son; all these things derive from the fact that he is ‘God from God, light from light, true God from true God.’ Everything in our understanding of who the Son is immanently (and how he acts in creation) is because the Father really does eternally produce the Son. 

In my next post we'll see how this pattern expresses itself in the relationships of the Father and Son.


[1] Against the Arians 3.23.3; De Decretis, 20,23

[2] De Decretis, 15 

[3] But if He is Son, as the Father says, and the Scriptures proclaim, and 'Son' is nothing else than what is generated from the Father; and what is generated from the Father is His Word, and Wisdom, and Radiance; what is to be said but that, in maintaining 'Once the Son was not,' they rob God of His Word, like plunderers, and openly predicate of Him that He was once without His proper Word and Wisdom, and that the Light was once without radiance, and the Fountain was once barren and dry? (Against the Arians 1.5.14)

[4] But if there be not a Son, how then say you that God is a Creator? Since all things that come to be are through the Word and in Wisdom, and without This nothing can be, whereas you say He hath not That in and through which He makes all things. For if the Divine Essence be not fruitful itself, but barren, as they hold, as a light that lightens not, and a dry fountain, are they not ashamed to speak of His possessing framing energy? (Against the Arians 2.14.2)

Mark Baddeley lectures Doctrine at Queensland Theological College in Brisbane. He is married to Jennie and they have two children. He also serves as an elder at Redlands Presbyterian church. Mark is undertaking doctoral work on Athanasius and his view of the atonement. His other research interests include: the doctrines of grace, the Trinity, patristics, and Calvin’s theology. In his spare time, Mark enjoys gardening, board games, reading, obscure TV shows and exploring the possibilities of his BBQ.

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