In the OT we find an obscure reference to the “eternal arms” of God:
“The everlasting God is a refuge, and underneath [you] are [his] eternal arms …” (Deut 33:27)
After many years I have argued (since a remote thread, “The Everlasting Arms of God” – Beliefnet, 2007) that the “eternal arms” of God are His Word and Spirit.
In the OT Hebrew, the words for “word” (in Greek logos) and for “spirit” (in Greek pneuma) are, respectively dabar and ruwach. A well known and often quoted verse in Psalms seems to corroborate that the image of God’s “arms” is used to refer to Word and Spirit:
“By the Lord’s word [dabar] the heavens were made; and by the breath [ruwach] of his mouth all their host.” (Psalm 33:6)
Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (+ c. 202 AD) took up this image of the word/logos/dabar and of the spirit/pneuma/ruwach as the two “arms” (or “hands”) of God over and over again. Here are the key quotations from his works (in particular, Against the Heresies and Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching – all the quotations are available online, from Christian Classics Ethereal Library, ANF01. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, by Philip Schaff)
“Now man is a mixed organization of soul and flesh, who was formed after the likeness of God, and moulded by His hands, that is, by the Son and Holy Spirit …” (Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, IV, pref. 4)
“For God did not stand in need of these [beings, the angels], in order to the accomplishing of what He had Himself determined with Himself beforehand should be done, as if He did not possess His own hands. For with Him were always present the Word and Wisdom, the Son and the Spirit, by whom and in whom, freely and spontaneously, He made all things …” (Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, IV, 20.1)
“For never at any time did Adam escape the hands [viz., the Son and the Spirit.] of God, to whom the Father speaking, said, “Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness.” And for this reason in the last times (fine), not by the will of the flesh, nor by the will of man, but by the good pleasure of the Father, [John i. 13] His hands formed a living man, in order that Adam might be created [again] after the image and likeness of God.” (Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, V, 1.3)
“For by means of the very same hands through which they were moulded at the beginning, did they receive this translation and assumption. For in Adam the hands of God had become accustomed to set in order, to rule, and to sustain His own workmanship, and to bring it and place it where they pleased.” (Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, V, 5.1)
“And therefore throughout all time, man, having been moulded at the beginning by the hands of God, that is, of the Son and of the Spirit, is made after the image and likeness of God …” (Irenaeus, Against the Heresies, V, 28.4)
“And, since God is rational [logikos], therefore by (the) Word [logos] He created the things that were made; and God is Spirit [pneuma], and by (the) Spirit He adorned all things: as also the prophet says: By the word of the Lord were the heavens established, and by his spirit all their power. [Ps. 33:6 LXX]” (Irenaeus, Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, 5)
“But man He formed with His own hands, taking from the earth that which was purest and finest, and mingling in measure His own power with the earth. For He traced His own form on the formation, that that which should be seen should be of divine form: for (as) the image of God was man formed and set on the earth. And that he might become living, He breathed on his face the breath of life; that both for the breath and for the formation man should be like unto God.” (Irenaeus, Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, 11)
As can be seen in the above quotations, there is a certain oscillation in Irenaeus’ use of “Word” and “Son”. I have no absolute evidence for this, but I believe that Irenaeus never intended “Son” to be used equivalently to refer to God’s eternal Word, as though the “Son” was an eternal (or at least pre-pre-existent) person. Irenaeus used “Son” to refer to God’s eternal Word in a proleptic sense, like shorthand for: “the eternal Word that, in the fullness of time, would have become the Son of God”.
Irenaeus is mostly known for a work that he wrote at a critical time in the development of Christian doctrine: On the Detection and Overthrow of Knowledge [Gnosis] Falsely So Called, commonly known as Against Heresies. The work was written about 175-185, and it was mainly devoted to exposing the heresies of various Gnostic sects, especially the most sophisticated group, the Valentinians. There is good evidence that it was Valentinus who introduced the idea of the Godhead existing as three hypostases or prosopa (“persons”) called the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (see A.H.B. Logan, “Marcellus of Ancyra (Pseudo-Anthimus), ‘On the Holy Church’: Text, Translation and Commentary. Verses 8-9.” Journal of Theological Studies, New Series, 51.1, April 2000:95).
Then, unfortunately, Origen (184/5–253/4 CE – the chief representative of the mysterian Alexandrian school of Christian theology), fully adopted the Valentinian “three hypostases” and introduced the further notion of “eternal generation of the Son”. By doing this, Origen established for good the core “ingredients” of the “trinity”, although still in a subordinationist version.
This kind of status quo, with the Subordinationist “trinity”, could have gone on indefinitely, were it not for Arius who, around 318 CE, precipitated the crisis, known after him as “Arian Controversy” with his affirmation that “there was when he was not” (viz. the Son was not co-eternal with the Father, an therefore was a creature), exposed the intrinsic weakness and instability of the whole Subordinationist “trinity” contraption, which depended essentially on a notion that was entirely Greek philosophical, and most incompatible with Hebrew scriptural monotheism: the “great chain of being”.
After over 60 years of wrangling, the Cappadocian scoundrels (Basil of Caesarea, his younger brother Gregory of Nyssa, and their mutual friend Gregory of Nazianzus, all active in the 2nd half of the 4th century AD) completed the job, settling for good the Arian Controversy, with their verbal idol, “one ousia in three hypostases”, which translates in the better known visual trinitarian idol …
Adapted from the Journal post by the same title (Word and Spirit: the “Everlasting Arms” of God, March 1, 2013) on January 8, 2015
© Mario Stratta (aka Miguel de Servet and MdS)