Kimel’s review of What is the Trinity – Part 3
What Origen actually says vs. what trinitarians wish that he’d said.
What Origen actually says vs. what trinitarians wish that he’d said.
In part 3 of his review of my book What is the Trinity?, called “Ante-Nicene Subordinationism and the Unitarian Narrative” our Orthodox friend Al Kimel claims that I’ve misunderstood Origen.
First, a picky point: the subordinationism in historical catholic theology goes way past Nicea (325). It’s prominent in the years 325-381, and persisted for some time after they started to stomp it out in 381. Nor was the 325 statement always understood to remove all (ontological) subordination! Perhaps it should be more like Ante-Chalcedon subordinationism.
…until the ecumenical councils of Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381). At this point, he claims, the unitarian wheels fell off and a very different Deity began to be proclaimed and dogmatically imposed.
As I say in the book, there is no mention or hint of a tripersonal God in the 325 creed. In the 381 version, I hold that the Trinity is implicit. Is the Trinity “a different deity”? Well, it’s a fictional deity, unfortunately. Many trinitarians will say, though, that it’s the same deity as the Father, who according to the NT is the one true god, aka God. This would seem to require relative identity theory; but I won’t go there now.
Our reviewer then quotes the “Athanasian” creed, as if this expresses “the” doctrine of the Trinity. I know this has become a popular creed for trinitarians, but as I discuss in the book, it’s not easy to find any actual view there – just as with Augustine, whose writings are clearly a main source for the anonymous creed writer. Fr. Kimel rightly notes, though, how strikingly different that creed is from the many earlier ones which start by confessing belief in “one God, the Father Almighty.”
He describes these earlier creeds as having “‘unitarian’ structure,” I guess because he doesn’t want to admit that they’re unitarian, in that they presuppose a unipersonal God. But I don’t know what he means by “structure” there, or why he put quotes around the word “unitarian.” Such statements plainly presuppose that the one God just is the Father himself. They are unitarian creeds; it is a mere distraction to say only the “structure” (but not the content?) is unitarian.
Naturally, he would like to find some sort of trinitarian theology much earlier in church history than the late 4th c.
But perhaps we should look earlier than the fourth century for the decisive departure from the allegedly unitarian Deity of the New Testament—namely, to the mid-second century when Christians began to interpret their triadic faith in light of Hellenistic philosophy.
When trinitarians can’t find a triadic God were they would like to find one, they often postulate something else that is “triadic” (triple in some way or other). Thus, our reviewer says that 2nd c. Christians had a “triadic” faith. What does this mean? The statement will be false if “triadic” means having to do with a tripersonal God. But in what sense might it be true? I don’t know. Perhaps just, a (unitarian) faith that involves using a three-part baptismal formula based on Matthew 28:19?
In any case, Fr. Kimel quotes me discussing the theology of Origen (mid 3rd c.):
… other things which are to some degree divine must “participate in” or “imitate” God, who is the universal divinity, to various degrees. Thus, the Son and Spirit, as divine, get their degree of divinity ultimately from the Father, that is, from God himself. And for some, the Spirit gets his indirectly, by way of the Son. … there is a triad of three divine beings, with the second and third ultimately depending on the first for their existence and divine nature/essence. In this way, the members of the trinity share the universal essence divinity. It is the result of God (either eternally or a long time ago) as it were producing inferior copies of himself, putting a degree or amount of his divinity into two others.
Fr. Kimel comments,
Here we see the decisive movement from Jewish monolatry to philosophical monotheism.
I disagree. Jewish monolatry (worship of exactly one) has been changed by the time of Paul; early Christians worship the risen and exalted man Jesus, now honored as “the Lord.” Two are worshiped, in both Philippians 2 and in Revelation 5. That’s not monolatry! But it is monotheism. The second, despite what our Muslim friends will assert, does not obviously entail the first.
Beginning with the Apologists, divinity is identified as ultimate reality and the unconditioned ground of being. God is a monadic being whose properties include reason, wisdom, goodness. Once having decided to create a cosmos, he needs to generate a second divine self, the Logos, to mediate the divine act of creation. This being now stands between Deity and the world.
Yes, this is basically right – for the Platonists. “Unconditioned ground of being” is probably going too far for some of them. And it is clear in most of the logos theorists (c. 150 on) that God somehow can’t create directly – a strange limitation for an omnipotent being, if you think about it!
One might even argue that the positing of metaphysical mediators began with the Apostles Paul and John. After all, it’s pretty strange hearing Paul asserting that the entirety of creation exists through the man Jesus [1 Cor 8:6] or John declaring that “all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (Jn 1:3).
Well, that’s how the logos theorists taught us to read Paul and John. It’s not clear that this is correct, though. Briefly, it’s not clear that 1 Cor 8 has to do with the Genesis creation, and it’s not clear that the “Logos” or Word of John 1 is supposed to be personally identical to the man Jesus. The idea that God can’t directly interact with the cosmos is foreign to the Bible; see the many theophanies of the OT, or God speaking at Jesus’s baptism.
But why the need for one or more intermediaries between the absolute Creator and the cosmos?
More importantly, how is this not polytheism?
Yeah, that’s what all the “monarchian” catholics objected, c. 150-250. Christians still, in that time, instinctively named God the Father as creator – despite having had Paul and John’s writings available for many decades.
Clearly neither Apostle thought he was compromising the monotheistic commitment of their Jewish faith,
Right, because there is still only one god – the Father. Jesus is, in contrast, the unique “Lord,” clearly understood by all the NT writers to be under God. The Father, for them, is Jesus’s god. This can neither be disputed, nor, unfortunately, can it be reconciled with any known Trinity theory. Hence, the clash between NT and later theologies.
…yet here they are identifying the crucified and exalted Nazarene as an agent of divine creation (for analysis of Jewish monotheism and the divinity of Jesus, see Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel).
I do not recommend that book! It is the source of much confusion. I’m surprised to see my Orthodox friend recommend it too, as Dr. Bauckham suggests that the old language is outdated, and he’s trying to replace it with his confused language of “the divine identity.”
Is this Jesus divine, semi-divine, quasi-divine, or perhaps just an exalted creature?
We’d better get clear on what we mean by “divine” before we hazard an answer!
He then gives an interesting quote from Dr. David Bentley Hart:
…For Christians who thought in [broadly Platonist, subordinationist] terms, this almost inevitably implied that the Logos had been, in some sense, generated with respect to the created order, as its most exalted expression, certainly, but also somehow contingent upon it. Thus Christian apologists of the second century often spoke of the Logos as having issued from the Father in eternity shortly before the creation of the world. (“The Hidden and the Manifest,” The Hidden and the Manifest, pp. 143-144)
Well, contingent only on God, or maybe we could say or his decision to create. In other the words, this Logos exists because God needs an intermediary to create, and he is intending to create.
The metaphysical result is a hierarchical chain of being, with a series of mediators between the immutable One and the world of change and multiplicity. Hart’s analysis jives with Tuggy’s observation that the Logos theorists of the second and third centuries consistently speak of degrees of divinity: the Father is perfectly divine in the simplicity of his being; the Son is in some sense less divine; the Spirit even less so.
Right. Again quoting me,
Elaborating this scheme, in the 1st and 2nd centuries it became popular for platonic philosophers to posit some transcendent triad, three sources of the cosmos, the primary among which is always the ultimate source, with the other two standing between this and the cosmos. In the latter half of the 2nd century, philosophically minded Christians too started touting their own triad and coined the words we now translate as “Trinity” (Greek, trias; Latin, trinitas) to refer to it.
[Kimel adds:] Given the Hellenistic worldview which everyone inbreathed, it is hardly surprising that early Christian theologians would interpret the biblical narrative of the Father, Son, and Spirit in subordinationist terms. To have done otherwise would have required a metaphysical revolution.
Keep in mind that most believers would have been thoroughly non-philosophical. And others might have been more influenced by the Stoics. So, they weren’t all Platonists, although that philosophy had a lot of prestige in these times. I view this as a failure within the Christian community. There weren’t enough Christian scholars to talk back to the Platonists, to temper their influence, or to push back against ideas that really did not fit apostolic tradition. Too little philosophy, in my view, not too much! Yes, I know that people like Origen did not just uncritically accept all Platonic claims. But there should have been more independent-minded people loving God with their minds, to reign in the creeping dominance of divine timelessness, simplicity, the cosmological scheme of Plato’s Timaeus, and hazy ideas about universals and “humanity,” and the whole Platonist anti-matter ethos.
I must admit here, that many of my biblical unitarian brethren would just say phooey on all philosophy. I would answer them that there is no getting rid of philosophy; it can’t be done! As nowadays, the solution for bad science is good science, even then, the solution to bad philosophy was pushback from people no so enamored of the Platonic and Stoic traditions.
Even the great Origen appears to have maintained the subordinationist structure:
The God and Father, who holds the universe together, is superior to every being that exists, for he imparts to each one from his own existence that which each one is; the Son, being less than the Father, is superior to rational creatures alone (for he is second to the Father); the Holy Spirit is still less, and dwells within the saints alone. So that in this way the power of the Father is greater than that of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and that of the Son is more than that of the Holy Spirit, and in turn the power of the Holy Spirit exceeds that of every other holy being. (First Principles 1.3.9; fragment 9)
Yes. Not a slavish or stupid Platonist, but very influenced by that school.
Origen is a critical figure for both the unitarian and Trinitarian narratives of the development of Christian doctrine during the first four centuries. Tuggy sees Origen as continuing the subordinationist Logos tradition, while noting (though without comment) Origen’s crucial innovation—namely, his assertion of the eternal pre-existence of the Son and Spirit. Why is this important? Because it means that at no point did God ever exist apart from the Son whom he has begotten. God exists eternally in relation to his Son; the Son exists eternally in relation to his Father. …Christ is intrinsic to the divine being and constitutes the identity of the Creator.
Whoah! A trinity of glaring non sequiturs at the end here!
Notice what is happening here. Through (all too quick) speculation, Fr. Kimel is trying to show how Origen etc. really imply something that is hopefully trinitarian. But these are not their ancient lines of argument. The situation is being “reverse engineered.” And not successfully. If you find this spinning persuasive, I say, read Origen’s Commentary on John , his short Dialogue with Heraclides, and his Against Celsus.
A century later St Athanasius would echo his fellow Alexandrian: “God, in that he ever is, is ever Father of the Son” (De decretis 12). Origen thus quietly subverts the subordinationist framework in which he is theologizing.
I don’t get it. Seems wholly compatible with subordinationism. We can say that priority in time (existing before) is one kind of superiority one being may have to another. But it’s not the only kind! Being may completely overlap in time, or both be timeless, and yet one may be greater in various ways than the other.
Fr. Kimel goes on to quote Dr. Lewis Ayres as saying that for Origen, the Son is “intrinsic to the nature of God.”
No! For Origen, God and the Logos are two beings.
[Ayres continues]…Origen argues that Father and Son are ‘correlative’ terms. The name Father implies the existence of a child, and if God is truly called Father, the Son’s generation must be eternal.
It’s a dodgy argument, though. I can truly say things like, “My father grew up in California” – but of course then he was not my father, or anyone’s father. If God was only a Father-to-be at some point… so what?
The Son’s existence thus seems to be essential to God’s being what God from all eternity wills to be. Thus we see that while the Father is superior to the Son, Origen works to make the Son intrinsic to the being of God: subordinationism is an inappropriate word for describing this theological dynamic. (Nicaea and Its Legacy, pp. 22-23; also see John Behr, The Way to Nicaea, chap. 7)
I would ask Dr. Ayers here what he means by “intrinsic.” As best I can tell, for ancient thinkers it is properties which are essential to a thing, and these must all be intrinsic (I think they analyze relations as really being sort of directed or vector-like intrinsic properties). Logos, though, is supposed to be a being, not a mere property. I’m not sure than what he means by saying that on this theology the Logos is “essential to” the Father.
Sometimes we mean by “essential” just whatever properties or relations which a thing must have or stand in, so long as that thing exists. Roughly: ways it must intrinsically be, or must be related to some other thing(s).
Tuggy has evidently overlooked this crucial point, thus marring both his presentation of Origen and his analysis of the fourth-century debates on the nature of God. This leads me to make the following observation: Dr Tuggy is strongest when he is writing on the analytic philosophical discussions of the Trinity; he is weakest when he writes on the Church Fathers (excepting, perhaps, Tertullian, whom he seems to know pretty well).
Sorry, but I don’t think that I have overlooked any crucial point here, or that I have misinterpreted Origen. Honestly, the above sounds like his prejudice against analytic philosophers coming out, the idea that we are all mere logic choppers who are mentally rigid, and so cannot get their heads around historically important sources. But my training, and a lot of my work, has been on older material. And a lot of analytic philosophers are very careful readers of historical works.
Origen is not all that hard to interpret on these things, so long as we take care to work around the corruption problems in On First Principles. He thinks the one God just is the Father, and that the Father eternally causes a lesser divine being, the Logos, who in turn eternally causes the yet lesser, but divine Spirit.
In sum, our reviewer feels the sting of the plausible unitarian historical narrative that I briefly outline in the book. So he wants to undermine that narrative, and rehabilitate the trinitarian narrative. I don’t see that he’s really got anywhere in the first project. For the second, let’s see what he does in his next installment.