The inferiority of the Son to the Father, a doctrine explicitly maintained by ARIUS and later Arians. The term “of one substance” was designed to meet this claim. Another form of subordinationism maintains the inferiority of the Spirit to both Father and Son.
Arius, in the opinion of Archbishop Alexander I of Alexandria, taught that the Word did not always exist but was made by God out of what did not exist. The Son was a creature and a work of the Father, unlike in essence and not the true Word and Wisdom of the Father. He was subject to change like other rational creatures, alien and separate from the Father’s essence.
He had less than perfect knowledge of the Father; indeed, He had no knowledge of His own essence, for He was a mere instrument of God, made for the purpose of man’s creation.
The Nicene Creed met these points by insisting that the Son was begotten from the essence of the Father—begotten, not made, of the same substance as the Father. Yet subordinationism persisted in finding a clear statement in the so-called blasphemy of Sirmium, which denied the propriety of the terms “substance,” “same substance,” and “like substance,” since they referred to what was beyond human knowledge and were not found in Scripture: “It is certain that there is one God, all-ruling and Father.
There is no uncertainty that the Father is greater: It cannot be doubtful to anyone that the Father is greater than the Son in honor and dignity and renown and majesty, and in the very name of Father, since he himself bears witness. “He who sent me is greater than I.'”
Macedonius, bishop of Constantinople until his deposition in 360, was credited with the belief that while the Son was in essence like the Father, the Holy Spirit was merely an angelic servant. He argued that if the Spirit is unbegotten, then there must be two unbegotten beings. If the Spirit be begotten of the Father, then there are two sons and brothers in the Trinity; if he be begotten of the Son, then he would be God’s grandson. All of this is absurd; therefore the Spirit is a creature.
Terms and propositions that appear to support subordinationism have been found earlier than Arius, notably in ORIGEN. There is no greater and lesser among the divine triad, although the scope of activity varies from person to person (On First Principles 1.3.7). Yet the Father transcends the Son, at least as much as the Son and the Spirit transcend the best of other beings (Commentaria in Evangelium Joannis 13.25.151).
Further, Origen’s view on this point is affected by opposition to the Gnostic subordination of the Father or creator to the Son or redeemer (Contra Celsum 8.15). The coherence of Origen on this point has been defended by his interpreters; but the tensions are evident. The generation of the Son is eternal, as brightness from light (On First Principles 1.2.4), and there never was a time when the Son did not exist (4.4.28).
He is distinct both numerically (Commentaria in Evangelium Joannis 10.37.246) and substantially (On First Principles 1.2.2) from the Father. Yet he is begotten of the substance of God and is of the same substance (Fragmenta in epistolam ad Hebreos). For Origen the Father is agennetos, “ungenerated” (Commentaria in Evangelium Joannis 2.10.75), while the Son is a ktisma, “creature” (On First Principles 4.4.1) and theos, “god,” rather than ho theos, “the God” (Commentaria in Evangelium Joannis 2.2.16).
The Savior is in the middle, between the agenetos, “uncreated,” and the nature of all geneta, “created things” (Contra Celsum 3.34). He differs from genneta, “begotten things,” in his immediacy to God but stands over against the agennetos in the chain of genneta (On Prayer 15.1).
Yet the mystery of God is perhaps to be grasped among geneta only by Christ and the Holy Spirit (Commentaria in Evangelium Joannis 2.28.172). The Son and Holy Spirit, however, are both genetos and agenetos. The Arian controversy underlined the confusion that had existed between agennetos and agenetos.
Eusebius of Caesarea develops the concept of a Second God (Demonstratio evangelica 5.4.9-14), a term that indicates the problem of preserving the pure unity of the Father in contrast with the universality of the Son.
Confusing as the evidence is, there is a reasonable explanation. Origen was concerned with the dialectic of God becoming man, that man might become divine with the negation of negation, a Johannine theme developed by Irenaeus and others. The Arians were concerned with a hierarchy of being and exhibited the more wooden approach of some later Platonists in this area.
- Pollard, T. E. Johannine Christology and the Early Church. Cambridge, 1970.
- Prestige, G. L. God in Patristic Thought. London, 1936.
ERIC F. OSBORNE