Now Q comes with spring arm action
and dyno bud (optional)!
The Nicene Creed claims that
(Q) The Son is begotten from the substance of the Father.
The term ‘begotten’ is just an older English term for ‘generated’. In the ancient world, ‘generation’ was a technical term for biological reproduction (e.g., when humans make baby humans, when trees make baby trees, and so on). In this post, I want to describe how Athanasius takes Q to imply a derivation view of the trinity.
1. Q and generation.
In the 4th century, most thought that a biological father produces a child by giving up a part of himself (his seed). That seed grows in the womb and becomes a child. Also, it was thought that the seed contains the father’s essence/kind-nature, and that’s why biological parents produce offspring of the same kind.
One of the key ideas here is that the child comes ‘out of’ the father, or better: ‘out of the substance/essence of the father’. Many church fathers, Athanasius included, tried to capture this notion by using the analogy of light coming out of the sun, or water flowing out of a spring.
Q’s wording thus could easily have suggested to the ancient ear that the Son is the Father’s natural offspring, and that’s how Athanasius takes it. He argues at length that the Son is the Father’s natural Son, not an adopted Son. The Son is really generated by the Father.
However, the Father is incorporeal, so he can’t break off a part of his substance and give it to the Son. Instead, the Father must share his substance with the Son. What does that mean? Well, given all this talk about daddies giving up parts of themselves to make children, it seems to me pretty natural to think of it like this: the ‘substance of the Father’ becomes a constituent of the Son.
To use a well-trodden analogy, if we compare the Son to a bronze statue, we might say that the Father’s substance is like the bronze, and the Son is like the statue, so the Father’s substance is a constituent of the Son similar to the way that the bronze is a constituent of the statue.
2. Q and God
In my first post, I said that ‘Divinity’ is that which makes the divine persons divine. How does Divinity fit into the picture? One option would be to say that Divinity is identical to the Father’s substance. Okay, but what, precisely, is the Father’s substance? If we assume that the Father’s substance is identical to the Father — it just is the Father — then it follows that Divinity is identical to the Father.
If we say that, then there’s a sense in which Divinity belongs more properly to the Father than it does to the Son. The Father is divine because he just is Divinity, but the Son is only divine because Divinity is one of his constituents. Think of the bronze statue again. A lump of bronze is bronze because it just is bronze, but a statue is bronze only because one of its constituents is bronze.
This is the central claim of the derivation view. The basic idea is just that Divinity belongs, strictly speaking, to the Father, but not the Son (and Spirit). The Son (and Spirit) have Divinity in some kind of derivative way. Let’s call this DV, for the ‘derivation view’:
(DV) Divinity belongs more properly to the Father than to the Son.
(We could state this point in a different way by saying that homoousious is an asymmetrical relation.)
This does not mean that the Son and Spirit have a lesser kind of divinity, nor does it mean that they are not God/divine. If we assume that a God (or a divine thing) is anything that has Divinity, then the Father, Son, and Spirit are all God/divine on this view. The Father has Divinity (properly), so the Father is God/divine. The Son and Spirit have Divinity too (because the Father shares his Divinity with them), so they are God/divine too.
I have described here only one version of the derivation view, namely the Nicene/Athanasian view. Athanasius’s notion of the Father as a constituent in the Son seems to me a helpful way to conceptualize the derivation view. But one needn’t think of the Father as a constituent of the Son. One could have a different account. But anyone who maintains DV in some form or other holds some version of a derivation view.