— “Daddy, why do trees branch out?”
— “So you can climb in them, Jimmy.”
Patristic scholars tell us that the doctrine of the trinity was really developed in the 4th century. The question is: what exactly is the ‘development’? If you read many of those scholarly big books on patristic theology, you’ll occasionally come across the idea that there were two major theories of the trinity floating around in the 4th century: the ‘derivation view’ and the ‘generic view’. But what exactly are these two views, and who held them?
In this series, I would like to explain the ‘derivation view’ and the ‘generic view’. My take on this is derived from (pardon the pun) Richard Cross. He explains his views on this in his article, ‘On Generic and Derivation Views of God’s Trinitarian Substance’, Scottish Journal of Theology 56 (2003): 464-480). In this first post, we need to set the stage and cover some of the background.
1. Some basic definitions
First, then, let’s set out some basic definitions for the derivation view and the generic view. To do that, first consider this question: what is it that makes a divine person divine? For our purposes here, let’s assume that there is some entity which, when possessed by a person, is necessary and sufficient to make that person divine. This entity can be defined in various ways: as a property or trope, as a bundle of properties or tropes, as a substance, as some other kind of a part or constituent — anything you like. Fortunately, we don’t need to say precisely what this entity is right now, so for the moment, let’s just call it Divinity.
Now, whatever Divinity is, classical theism maintains that there is only one of them in the Godhead. There are not three Divinities, one for each divine person. There is just one Divinity, and all three persons share it. But how exactly should we understand this ‘sharing’? There are (at least) two options here.
The first option is called the derivation view. On this view, Divinity belongs properly to the Father, though it’s shared with the Son and Spirit. As a rough analogy, imagine if three people lived in the same house, but only one of them owned it. The derivation view holds something like this: Divinity is like the house, belonging properly to one person, though shared with the other two.
The other option is called the generic view. On this view, Divinity belongs equally to all three persons. Again, to use a rough analogy, if three people jointly owned a house, the house would properly belong to all three equally. The house would not belong to any one person more than the others. This is the basic idea behind the generic view: Divinity is like the house, belonging equally to all three persons.
So those are the basic definitions for the derivation view and the generic view. In future posts, I will describe these ideas more fully. But before I do that, we need to talk briefly about some history.
2. Some historical background: Nicea and Q
(T1) The Son is begotten from the Father.
But the Council added to T1 a curious little qualification (let’s call this Q, for ‘the Qualification’):
(Q) The Son is begotten from the substance of the Father.
The next time the Christians got together to discuss these matters in a big way was at the Council of Constantinople in 381. Interestingly, this Council decided to drop Q from the Creed, replacing it with T1 instead. I’ll have more to say about that later.
Perhaps everybody’s lives would have been easier if Q had died in 381, but Q lived on, a rogue statement that shows up here and there to instigate theological controversy. (For example, the scholastics regularly discussed Q, and in our own day theologians like Colin Gunton and John Zizioulas discuss it too.)
In any case, historically, it’s very hard to know just what the participants of the Nicene Council actually meant by Q. In the next post, I will explain how Athanasius interpreted Q, for his interpretation of Q is what we today frequently think of as the 4th century version of the ‘derivation view’.