(continued from part 1) The person who changed the catholic mainstream from two- to one-stage logos theory was the massively influential Origen of Alexandria (185-254). He holds the Son and Spirit to exist eternally, but because of God. He thinks that God (ho theos), aka the Father, is divine in himself, and that he eternally makes the Son divine, who in turn makes the Holy Spirit divine. (See his Commentary on the Gospel of John, 2.17-8, 75-7) But for Origen, the Son and Spirit are not divine in the same way as the Father, so as to make them the Father’s equal in power, knowledge, goodness, and so on. (See, e.g. On First Principles I.3)
In his On Prayer 15, Origen goes so far as to argue that “we should not pray to anyone begotten, not even to Christ Himself, but only to the God and Father of all,” though in a later writing he backs off this prohibition and allows prayer to Christ, who as high priest will “bear our prayer, when it has reached him, up to his God and our God and to his Father and the Father of people who live according to the word of God.” (Against Celsus 8.26; cf. John 20:17)
When, then, did mainstream, non-monarchian Christians come to hold that the Son and Spirit never came into existence? As best I can tell, no earlier than around the time of Origen’s On First Principles. (c. 216-32) Earlier “logos theologians” who speculate on the pre-human life of Jesus all seem to presuppose that he came into existence a finite time ago, when it was time to create.
How early did mainstream Christians come to insist that the Son is not “ontologically subordinate to,” neither less great nor less divine than the Father? As best I can tell, the first real assertion of this was the creed at Nicea in 325, in rebuke of the catholic presbyter Arius, who basically held to the older two-stage logos theory, and insisted more loudly than most on the subordination of the Son and Spirit to the Father. Before this dispute, just about all mainstream Christians held that the Son was in various ways less than God his Father. Against this, Nicea claimed that the Son is “true God from true God,” i.e. from the Father.
When did catholic theologians first insist on this same fully divine status for the Holy Spirit?
- Officially, the first statement is the creed of Constantinople in 381, but the full divinity of the Spirit was famously argued for by some “pro-Nicene” partisans in the preceding few decades, such as
- Basil of Caesarea (c. 329-379) in his “On the Holy Spirit” (374)
- Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329-390) in his Fifth Theological Oration “On the Holy Spirit” [aka Oration #31], (c. 379), and
- Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-394) in his “On the Holy Trinity” (380) or his Great Catechism (385).
- While all of these stop short of saying the Spirit to be one essence with / consubstantial with (homoousios) the Father and the Son, this was their view.
- It just would have been viewed as too new, too innovative, to express it so.
- While these three bishops agree that the Holy Spirit is as divine as the Father and Son, we mustn’t forget that they were arguing for their life, aggressively fighting many other catholic Christians who held different views. As Gregory of Nazianzus tell us around 379,
“Amongst our own experts, some took the Holy Spirit as an active process, some as a creature, some as God. Others were agnostic on this point out of reverence, as they put it, for Scripture, which has given no clear revelation either way.” (Oration 31, ch. 5, p. 120)
Gregory also tells us that his catholic opponents taunted him:
“But what do you say… about the Holy Spirit? Where did you get this strange, unscriptural ‘God’ you are bringing in?” (Oration 31, ch 1, p. 117)
Consider the views today which will get you declared a heretic on the Trinity: that Jesus and/or the Holy Spirit is less divine that the Father, and that Jesus and/or the Holy Spirit is not eternal. Hold to any of these, and they will say that you are not a trinitarian, or at least, not a good, orthodox one. But you might have been a fully catholic Christian is good standing, even a bishop, and held to all those views, and you might even have expressed these views as a leading, mainstream apologist in the year 200, and beyond, to the applause of your peers.
Suppose that you hold such views now, but you don’t want to be rejected as a heretic. One option is for you to change those views. Another, is to obtain a time machine, and to travel back to the year 200. There, you will be safe.
Here’s another use for a time machine. If you think it is obvious, blindingly obvious, that the Bible teaches the eternality and full divinity of both Jesus and the Holy Spirit, you can jump into that time machine, go back to the year 200, and solve a great mystery. Why did erudite Christian writers then – bishops, theologians, apologists – not see these blindingly obvious teachings in the Bible?
For whatever reason, they had to wait until 380, when the emperor Theodosius I decided for them that the pro-Nicenes were correct. In January or February of 380, Theodosius had decreed that
“It is Our will that all peoples ruled by the administration of Our Clemency shall practice that religion which the divine Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans… we shall believe in the single deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost under the concept of equal majesty and of the Holy Trinity.
We commend that persons who follow this rule shall embrace the name of catholic Christians. The rest, however, whom We judge demented and insane, shall carry the infamy of heretical dogmas. Their meeting places shall not receive the name of churches, and they shall be smitten first by Divine Vengeance, and secondly by the retribution of hostility which We shall assume in accordance with the Divine Judgment.” (Theodosian Code 16.1.2, quoted in Freeman, AD 381, p. 25)
Technically, this was not yet an enforceable law, but only a declaration of imperial policy. But the writing was on the wall. Theodosius arrived in Constantinople in November of 380 and promptly deposed the bishop and many lesser clergy who would not bow to the pro-Nicene cause. He forcibly installed Gregory as bishop, then in May of 381, Theodosius assembled a meeting of 150 eastern bishops to, as one historian says, “ratify the new order.” (Davis, The First Seven Ecumenical Councils, p. 119) This they did, May-July 381. But in January of that year, the emperor had already begun to enforce his religious policy, and this continued with further orders after the synod as well. In 451, a council assembled by a later emperor retroactively elevated this 381 synod to authoritative status, as being an ecumenical council. But at the time, as one historian observes, “No one could call this a full council of the Church, nor did it see itself as such.” (A.D. 381, p. 94)
Gregory of Nazianzus, who’d ended up presiding over the 381 council (though he quit in exasperation before it was done) bitterly wrote afterward that he’d “never seen a good outcome to any synod, or a synod which produced deliverance from evils rather than the addition to them… rivalries and maneuvers always prevail over reason.” (Letter 130, quoted in A.D. 381, p. 97)
In thinking about the Trinity, 380 and 381 are perhaps the most important dates to remember.