The 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)