Moses Stuart (1780-1852) was a brilliant American Bible scholar and theologian, who has been called the father of exegetical studies in America. He wrote commentaries, debated a famous unitarian, and in the very engaging and carefully reasoned Letters on the Eternal Generation of the Son, he argued that the patristic doctrine of eternal generation of Son by Father was (1) without biblical support, and (2) inconsistent with the true or full divinity of the Son, which implies self-existence (and so not being in any sense derived from or caused by another).
Stuart is a trinitarian, and I would call him a negative mysterian. But he is very learned, and despite this expresses himself very clearly. The book is full of insights about historical theology. His discussion of early patristic views relating to the “eternal generation” of the Logos is very careful, and very helpful. (pp. 14-76)
Here’s a particularly insightful passage about the Arian controversy, which is a good balance to the partisan catholic accounts which are still being written.
I would not intimate a doubt that the Nicene fathers meant… to oppose the doctrines of Arius. But in what respects was the opposition made? …The answer is not difficult to any one who reads attentively and understandingly the history of those times… …that the Son of God, in respect to his nature as Logos, was a derived Being, both parties fully acknowledged. In regard to Arius, this will not be questioned; and in regard to his opponents, the Nicene creed is demonstrative evidence of this. The point mainly disputed was, whether Christ was derived from God by generation and from eternity; or whether he was produced by creative power, and was “the beginning of the creation of God.”
[I don't] call in question the comparative superiority of the Nicene doctrine, over that of Arius, in respect to spiritual ideas of the divine nature; or in respect to consistency. Both believed Christ to be the creator of the world, and the object of religious worship. …While both parties, then, acknowledged a derived Divinity; while both agree to call him God; and to represent him as the creator of the world, and the object of religious worship; and only disputed about the manner and time of his generation; I have felt it to be no presumption to say, that Arius and the Nicene fathers differed much less, in real sentiment, than is generally supposed.
What was wanting in respect to cause of dispute, however, they supplied by vehemence of manner, and warmth of feeling. Both parties were bent on carrying their point. That the Nicene fathers succeeded, is a matter of sincere joy to me. …But after all, to represent [the Logos] as derived and dependent; what is this but to stop short of assigning full, essential, supreme divinity to the Logos? (pp. 158-9, original italics, bold added)
Earlier Stuart opines that “A subordinate God is, to my mind, a contradiction in terms; unless the word God is used in a metaphorical sense.” (p. 157) Given the context of monotheism here, where by a God we mean a perfect self, it is hard to disagree, for aseity or independence seems an important perfection. To spell out Stuart’s contradiction: a subordinate God would be both independent (because a God) and not (because subordinate, i.e. eternally or temporally generated by another), or equivalently, both independent and dependent.
Interestingly, some present evangelicals follow Stuart. Whereas many trinitarians think the generation and procession claims are very important, and the key somehow to the Three being one God, some trinitarinas nowadays reject these as unsupported by the Bible and inconsistent with the “full divinity” of Christ.
I’d have to agree, on both scores. The old patristic proof-texts for eternal generation as procession are surprisingly flimsy.
Did those early “fathers” just not notice that such derivation seems to make the Father somewhat greater than the other two?
No – to the contrary! Many of them insisted on the point, for this is how they defended their theory as truly monotheistic. The one true God, they argued, just was the Father, aka YHWH. These other two, yes are called “Gods” and are addressed as “God,” and do various things for God, but the one true God, for them, was the Father.
I’d have to agree with this last point as well.
I’m feeling mighty agreeable today.