trinitarian or unitarian? 3 – Irenaeus’s 2-stage Logos theory

two-handsThe earlier 2nd century catholic apologists like Justin, Tatian, and Athanagoras, were clearly two-stage theorists about the Logos/Word/Son.

That is, for them, the Logos existed from all eternity as an attribute of God, and was only at a certain time, just before or at the time of God’s creation, expressed, so as to exist as another alongside God (cf. Proverbs 8), by means of whom God created the cosmos.

So if by “Logos” you mean an intelligent agent, a powerful self that can be God’s helper in creation, then this has a finite history. (J.N.D. Kelly eloquently and accurately sums up their 2-stage view in his Early Christian Doctrines, pp. 95, 100.) The idea, though, that this agent used to be an attribute of the Father is evident nonsense.

A bit later, Origen clearly denies two-stage theory, in favor of a mysterious eternal generation of the Word/Logos by God – a one-stage theory.

Things are bit less clear with Irenaeus.

Frankly, the heavyweights disagree about him. One argues, I think weakly, that he’s a one-stager like Origen. (Wolfson, The Philosophy of the Church Fathers, 3rd ed. pp. 198-201). Another declares the question unresolvable, and correctly points out that Irenaeus emphasizes that no one can understand the generation of the Son – this is a stick to beat the gnostics with, who have very convoluted schemes of emanations. (Lamson, The Church of the First Three Centuries, p. 124.) Kelly, though, has a more convincing argument that he’s a two-stager after all, just as one would expect, given his context. (pp. 104-6)

But rather than compare these scholars’ arguments, let me get on with it, and give a few representative passages.

As it has been clearly demonstrated that the Word, who existed in the beginning with God, by whom all things were made, who was always present with mankind, was in these last days, according to the time appointed by the Father, united to His own workmanship, inasmuch as He became a man liable to suffering, [it follows] that every objection is set aside of those who say, “If our Lord was born at that time, Christ therefore had no previous existence.” For I have shown that the Son of God did not then begin to exist, being with the Father from the beginning; but when he became incarnate, and was made man, He commenced afresh the long line of human beings, and furnished us, in a brief, comprehensive manner, with salvation…  Against Heresies III.18.1

This seems to favor eternal generation, until you realize that at this period “in the beginning” can mean the time of God’s creating. So the above states that at that time, the Word existed. But this is compatible with both a one-stage and a two-stage theory.

Here’s another passage, which starts off sounding one-stage, but then drops in some proof-texts which suggest two-stage, and are left uncommented on.

I have demonstrated… that the Word, namely the Son, was always with the Father; and that Wisdom also, which is the Spirit, was present with Him, anterior to all creation, He declares by Solomon [in Proverbs 3:19-20]: “God by Wisdom founded the earth, and by understanding hath He established the heaven. By His knowledge the depths burst forth, and the clouds dropped down the dew.” And again [in Proverbs 8:22-5]: “The Lord created me at the beginning of His ways in His work: He set me up from everlasting, in the beginning, before He made the earth… he brought me forth.” And again [in Proverbs 8:27-31]: “When He prepared the heaven, I was with Him… I was He in whom He rejoiced, and throughout all time I was daily glad before His face, when He rejoiced at the completion of the world, and was delighted in the sons of men.”

There is therefore one God, who by the Word and Wisdom [i.e. the externalized Logos and the Holy Spirit] created and arranged all things…” Against Heresies IV.20.3-4, p. 488.

In the background here is the Philonic speculation that God, being radically transcendent, couldn’t create matter directly, but had to do so by means of “his two hands” – or two powers he somehow expresses or emanates out of himself for the task.

In sum, at most, the Logos, the pre-existent Son, is “eternal” in that he always existed as an attribute of God, the Father. Probably the assumption, though, is that the Logos was generated, and so began to exist as a self alongside God at some finite time ago, but before the creation of the heavens and the earth.

So, you be the judge:

  • The Son and Father and Spirit as equally divine persons, none greater than any other, and “persons” within a tri-personal deity? (trinitarian)
  • Or: the Father as greater than, because the source of (eternally, or in time) the Son and Spirit, but the one true God and Creator (in the ultimate sense) is the Father alone. (unitarian)

About Dale

Dale Tuggy is a Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Fredonia, where he teaches courses in analytic theology, philosophy of religion, religious studies, and the history of philosophy.

12 Responses to trinitarian or unitarian? 3 – Irenaeus’s 2-stage Logos theory

  1. villanovanus says:

    [1.] … for them [Justin, Tatian, and Athanagoras], the Logos existed from all eternity as an attribute of God, and was only at a certain time, just before or at the time of God’s creation, expressed, so as to exist as another alongside God (cf. Proverbs 8), by means of whom God created the cosmos.

    [2.] The idea, though, that this agent used to be an attribute of the Father is evident nonsense.

    [3.] In sum, at most, the Logos, the pre-existent Son, is “eternal” in that he always existed as an attribute of God, the Father.

    I have read your link from [2.]. Care to explain, also in view of [1.] and [3.], what exactly would be “evident nonsense”, and where would it leave all the Church Fathers who shared in this “evident nonsense”?

    Thanks,

    MdS

  2. Dale says:

    It seems impossible that either at the same time, or at two differing times, anything should be both a substance and an attribute of some other substance.

    This would leave them believing something which there is, I claim, strong reason to believe to be false.

  3. villanovanus says:

    @ Dale [#2, March 2, 2013 at 1:32 pm]

    Perhaps a little terminology check is necessary, here.

    Instead of (immaterial) God and His Logos, consider yourself and one of your arms, or even, say, your sperm(s).

    Question: according to your terminology, are you a substance? Is your arm a substance or an attribute of yours? Is your sperm (say, a successful one, before it turns into a baby) a substance or an attribute of yours?

    MdS

  4. Dale says:

    An attribute is not a part. An attribute is like: my weight, your height, being green, having an IQ of 120, etc. An arm or a sperm is a thing, not an attribute. Attributes only exist *in* things. The size of a sperm would be an attribute of it. A zygote (fertilized egg) seems to be a thing, not an attribute of anything.

    These fellows are thinking of the Logos as God’s reason or intelligence (at stage 1, earlier). Then, it becomes a substance/entity in its own right, a mighty self (the pre-human Jesus). Nonsense.

  5. Chad says:

    Let’s consider another quote from St. Irenaeus:

    2. Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere. (Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 3)

    So, maybe Irenaeus had the wrong view then, but we know what view he would hold now since we know what the Church of Rome teaches. :)

  6. Mark says:

    Dale,

    You conclusion is very accurate, if you really like to call the Fathers unitarians, you can, as long as you explain well what do you mean by that.

    BTW, is Augustianian trinitarianism also Unitarian, as there is only one object, the person is not real, nor even exist but being the mode of the one thing. Their God is not Father, nor Son nor HS, but the one simple essence which manifest itself in three modes.

  7. Abel says:

    Chad,
    You are quite right.
    Irenaeus would have been forced to fit in ‘with the pack’ or face some horrible fate.!
    Recant or burn!
    Best
    Abel

  8. villanovanus says:

    @ Dale [#4, March 2, 2013 at 4:52 pm]

    An attribute is not a part. An attribute is like: my weight, your height, being green, having an IQ of 120, etc. An arm or a sperm is a thing, not an attribute. Attributes only exist *in* things. The size of a sperm would be an attribute of it. A zygote (fertilized egg) seems to be a thing, not an attribute of anything.

    Your comment is affected by overzealous philosophical fussiness. Try to see it this way: it is NOT your arm (or your lucky sperm), per se, that is an attribute, BUT, your having an arm (or fertile sperms) that is an (essential) attribute. This is, of course, a poor analogy for what happens with God, because a man is still a man even if, accidentally (and for whatever reason), he is without an arm or without sperm, whereas God, being by definition perfect, is all He is, and has all He has essentially: so having Logos (and having Pneuma) are (the) two essential attributes of God: His arms (or hands), to use the mysterious metaphor at Deut 33:27, made clear by the dabar and ruwach at Psalm 33:6.

    These fellows [two-stage theorists about the Logos] are thinking of the Logos as God’s reason or intelligence (at stage 1, earlier). Then, it becomes a substance/entity in its own right, a mighty self (the pre-human Jesus). Nonsense.

    Really? Is what we read in the Scripture, kai ho logos sarx egeneto (“And the Word became flesh” – John 1:14) “nonsense”? Or “mere metaphor”? Would the metaphor be incompatible with the fact of the incarnation? What?

    MdS

  9. villanovanus says:

    So, you be the judge:

    The Son and Father and Spirit as equally divine persons, none greater than any other, and “persons” within a tri-personal deity? (trinitarian)
    Or: the Father as greater than, because the source of (eternally, or in time) the Son and Spirit, but the one true God and Creator (in the ultimate sense) is the Father alone. (unitarian)

    Once again, Dale is trying to force upon us his false dilemmaIt is simply a JOKE that Origen’s “trinity” (that he explicitly and repeatedly calls … Trinity), consisting of three (hierarchically subordinated) hypostases would be “unitarian”.

    MdS

  10. Dale says:

    I note that you’ve switched from asserting Origen to be a trinitarian, to asserting that he’s neither trinitarian nor unitarian.

    About Irenaeus, you are right that he commits to divine simplicity. This creates further problems, which I didn’t want to get into.

    I do think that John 1:14 is true, rightly understood.

  11. villanovanus says:

    @ Dale [#10, March 3, 2013 at 7:31 am]

    [a] I note that you’ve switched from asserting Origen to be a trinitarian, to asserting that he’s neither trinitarian nor unitarian.

    [b] About Irenaeus, you are right that he commits to divine simplicity. This creates further problems, which I didn’t want to get into.

    [c] I do think that John 1:14 is true, rightly understood.

    [a] It is you, not I, who insists on proposing a simplistic, nay false dilemma, but, as you insist, then I will repeat that Origen’s understanding of the Godhead, that he explicitly and repeatedly calls Trinity, consisting of three hierarchically subordinated hypostases, is far closer to “trinitarianism” (even in the eventual, restricted, Constantinopolitan sense of “co-equal, co-eternal”) than it is to “unitarianism”.

    [b] Pity, because Irenaeus’ position, whereby God’s Logos and Pneuma are NOT two distinct hypostases (although there are some inconsistencies and oscillations in his texts), BUT God’s “hands”, is, IMO, the ONLY possible way to reconcile Jewish Monotheism with Christian Monotheism, and even (in spite of further aporimes) with Muslim Monotheism.

    [c] And what, pray tell, is, according to you, the “right understanding” of John 1:14?

    MdS

  12. Hi Dale,

    Dale said:
    “Probably the assumption, though, is that the Logos was generated, and so began to exist as a self alongside God at some finite time ago, but before the creation of the heavens and the earth.”

    My Reply:
    You established clear evidence of two-stage Logos theology for various pre-Nicene fathers. I buy that hook, line, and sinker. But in the case of Irenaeus, you have not provided strong evidence that he taught two-stage Logos theology.

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