John Henry Newman

The Arians of the Fourth Century

Chapter II
Section 3

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John Henry Newman (1801-1890)

The Arians of the Fourth Century

Chapter II:
The Teaching of the Ante-Nicene Church in Its Relation to the Arian Heresy

Section 3:
The Ecclesiastical Doctrine of the Trinity

This being the general Scripture view of the Holy Trinity, it follows to describe the Ecclesiastical Doctrine, chiefly in relation to our Lord, as contained in the writings of the Fathers, especially the Ante-Nicene.

Scripture is express in declaring both the divinity of Him who in due time became man for us, and also His personal distinction from God in His pre-existent state. This is sufficiently clear from the opening of St. John’s Gospel, which states the mystery as distinctly as an ecclesiastical comment can propound it. On these two truths the whole doctrine turns, viz. that our Lord is one with, yet personally separate from God. Now there are two appellations given to Him in Scripture, enforcing respectively these two essentials of the true doctrine; appellations imperfect and open to misconception by themselves, but qualifying and completing each other. The title of the Son marks His derivation and distinction from the Father, that of the Word (i.e. Reason) denotes His inseparable inherence in the Divine Unity; and while the former taken by itself, might lead the mind to conceive of Him as a second being, and the latter as no real being at all, both together witness to the mystery, that He is at once from, and yet in, the Immaterial, Incomprehensible God. Whether or not these titles contain the proof of this statement, (which, it is presumed, they actually do,) at least, they will enable us to classify our ideas: and we have authority for so using them. “The Son,” says Athanasius, “is the Word and Wisdom of the Father: from which titles we infer His impassive and indivisible derivation from the Father, inasmuch as the word (or reason) of a man is no mere part of him, nor when exercised, goes forth from him by a passion; much less, therefore, is it so with the Word of God. On the other hand, the Father calls Him His Son, lest, from hearing only that He was the Word, we should consider Him such as the word of man, impersonal, whereas the title of Son, designates Him as a Word which exists, and a substantial Wisdom.”

Availing ourselves of this division, let us first dwell on the appellation of Son, and then on that of Word or Reason.


Nothing can be plainer to the attentive student of Scripture, than that our Lord is there called the Son of God, not only in respect of His human nature, but of His pre-existent state also. And if this be so, the very fact of the revelation of Him as such, implies that we are to gather something from it, and attach in consequence of it some ideas to our notion of Him, which otherwise we should not have attached; else would it not have been made. Taking then the word in its most vague sense, so as to admit as little risk as possible of forcing the analogy, we seem to gain the notion of derivation from God, and therefore, of the utter dissimilarity and distance existing between Him and all beings except God His Father, as if He partook of that unapproachable, incommunicable Divine Nature, which is increate and imperishable.

But Scripture does not leave us here: in order to fix us in this view, lest we should be perplexed with another notion of the analogy, derived from that adopted sonship, which is ascribed therein to created beings, it attaches a characteristic epithet to His Name, as descriptive of the peculiar relation of Him who bears it to the Father. It designates Him as the Only-begotten or the own Son of God, terms evidently referring, where they occur, to His heavenly nature, and thus becoming the inspired comment on the more general title. It is true that the term generation is also applied to certain events in our Lord’s mediatorial history: to His resurrection from the dead; and, according to the Fathers, to His original mission in the beginning of all things to create the world; and to His manifestation in the flesh. Still, granting this, the sense of the word “only-begotten” remains, defined by its context to relate to something higher than any event occurring in time, however great or beneficial to the human race.

Being taken then, as it needs must be taken, to designate His original nature, it witnesses most forcibly and impressively to that which is peculiar in it, viz. His origination from God, and such as to exclude all resemblance to any being but Him, whom nothing created resembles. Thus, without irreverently and idly speculating upon the generation in itself, but considering the doctrine as given us as a practical direction for our worship and obedience, we may accept it in token, that whatever the Father is, such is the Son. And there are some remarkable texts in Scripture corroborative of this view: for instance, that in the fifth chapter of St. John, “As the Father hath life in Himself, so hath He given to the Son to have life in Himself…What things soever the Father doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise. For the Father loveth the Son, and showeth Him all things that Himself doeth…As the Father raiseth up the dead and quickeneth them, even so the Son quickeneth whom He will…that all men should honour the Son even as they honour the Father. He that honoureth not the Son, honoureth not the Father which hath sent Him.”

This is the principle of interpretation acknowledged by the primitive Church. Its teachers warn us against resting in the word “generation,” they urge us on to seize and use its practical meaning. “Speculate not upon the divine generation (gennesis),” says Gregory Nazianzen, “for it is not safe…let the doctrine be honoured silently; it is a great thing for thee to know the fact; the mode, we cannot admit that even Angels understand, much less thou.” Basil says, “Seek not what is undiscoverable, for you will not discover;…if you will not comply, but are obstinate, I shall deride you, or rather I weep at your daring:…believe what is written, seek not what is not written.” Athanasius and Chrysostom repel the profane inquiry argumentatively. “Such speculators,” the former says, “might as well investigate, where God is, and how God is, and of what nature the Father is. But as such questions are irreligious, and argue ignorance of God, so is it also unlawful to venture such thoughts about the generation of the Son of God.” And Chrysostom; “I know that He begat the Son: the manner how, I am ignorant of. I know that the Holy Spirit is from Him; how from Him, I do not understand. I eat food; but how this is converted into my flesh and blood, I know not. We know not these things, which we see every day when we eat, yet we meddle with inquiries concerning the substance of God.”

While they thus prohibited speculation, they boldly used the doctrine for the purposes for which it was given them in Scripture. Thus Justin Martyr speaks of Christ as the Son, “who alone is literally called by that name”: and arguing with the heathen, he says, “Jesus might well deserve from His wisdom to be called the Son of God, though He were only a man like others, for all writers speak of God as the ‘Father of both men and gods.’ But let it not be strange to you, if, besides this common generation, we consider Him, as the Word of God, to have been begotten of God in a special way.” Eusebius of Cæsarea, unsatisfactory as he is as an authority, has nevertheless well expressed the general Catholic view in his attack upon Marcellus. “He who describes the Son as a creature made out of nothing,” he says, “does not observe that he is bestowing on Him only the name of Son, and denying Him to be really such; for He who has come out of nothing, cannot truly be the Son of God, more than other things which are made. But He who is truly the Son, born from God, as from a Father, He may reasonably be called the singularly beloved and only-begotten of the Father, and therefore He is Himself God.” This last inference, that what is born of God, is God, of course implicitly appeals to, and is supported by, the numerous texts which expressly call the Son God, and ascribe to Him the divine attributes.

The reverential spirit in which the Fathers held the doctrine of the gennesis, led them to the use of other forms of expression, partly taken from Scripture, partly not, with a view of signifying the fact of the Son’s full participation in the divinity of Him who is His Father, without dwelling on the mode of participation or origination, on which they dared not speculate. Such were the images of the sun and its radiance, the fountain and the stream, the root and its shoots, a body and its exhalation, fire and the fire kindled from it; all which were used as emblems of the sacred mystery in those points in which it was declared in Scripture, viz. the mystery of the Son’s being from the Father and, as such, partaker in His Divine perfections. The first of these is found in the first chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, where our Lord is called, “the brightness of God’s glory.” These illustrations had a further use in their very variety, as reminding the Christian that he must not dwell on any one of them for its own sake. The following passage from Tertullian will show how they were applied in the inculcation of the sacred doctrine. “Even when a ray is shot forth from the sun, though it be but a part from the whole, yet the sun is in the ray, inasmuch as it is the ray of the sun; nor is its substance separated, but drawn out. In like manner there is Spirit from Spirit, and God from God. As when a light is kindled from another, the original light remains entire and undiminished, though you borrow from it many like itself; so That which proceeds from God, is called at once God, and the Son of God, and Both are One.”

So much is evidently deducible from what Scripture tells us concerning the generation of the Son; that there is, (so to express it,) a reiteration of the One Infinite Nature of God, a communicated divinity, in the Person of our Lord; an inference supported by the force of the word “only begotten,” and verified by the freedom and fulness with which the Apostles ascribe to Christ the high incommunicable titles of eternal perfection and glory. There is one other notion conveyed to us in the doctrine, which must be evident as soon as stated, little as may be the practical usefulness of dwelling upon it. The very name of Son, and the very idea of derivation, imply a certain subordination of the Son to the Father, so far forth as we view Him as distinct from the Father, or in His personality: and frequent testimony is borne to the correctness of this inference in Scripture, as in the descriptions of the Divine Angel in the Old Testament, revived in the closing revelations of the New; and in such passages as that above cited from St. John’s Gospel. This is a truth which every Christian feels, admits, and acts upon; but from piety he would not allow himself to reflect on what he does, did not the attack of heresies oblige him. The direct answer which a true religious loyalty leads him to make to any question about the subordination of the Son, is that such comparisons are irreverent, that the Son is one with the Father, and that unless he honours the Son in all the fulness of honour which he ascribes to the Father, he is disobeying His express command. It may serve as a very faint illustration of the offence given him, to consider the manner in which he would receive any question concerning the love which he feels respectively for two intimate friends, or for a brother and sister, or for his parents: though in such cases the impropriety of the inquiry, arises from the incommensurableness, not the coincidence, of the respective feelings. But false doctrine forces us to analyze our own notions, in order to exclude it. Arius argued that, since our Lord was a Son, therefore He was not God: and from that time we have been obliged to determine how much we grant and what we deny, lest, while praying without watching, we lose all. Accordingly, orthodox theology has since his time worn a different aspect; first, inasmuch as divines have measured what they said themselves; secondly, inasmuch as they have measured the Ante-Nicene language, which by its authors was spoken from the heart, by the necessities of controversies of a later date. And thus those early teachers have been made to appear technical, when in fact they have only been reduced to system; just as in literature what is composed freely, is afterwards subjected to the rules of grammarians and critics. This must be taken as an apology for whatever there is that sounds harsh in the observations which I have now to make, and for the injustice which I may seem incidentally to do in the course of them to the ancient writers whose words are in question.

“The Catholic doctors,” says Bishop Bull, “both before and after the Nicene Council, are unanimous in declaring that the Father is greater than the Son, even as to divinity [paternity?]; i.e. not in nature or any essential perfection, which is in the Father and not in the Son, but alone in what may be called authority, that is in point of origin, since the Son is from the Father, not the Father from the Son.” Justin, for instance, speaks of the Son as “having the second place after the unchangeable and everlasting God and Father of all.” Origen says that “the Son is not more powerful than the Father, but subordinate ([hypodeesteron]); according to His own words, ‘The Father that sent Me, is greater than I.’ ” This text is cited in proof of the same doctrine by the Nicene, and Post-Nicene Fathers, Alexander, Athanasius, Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, Chrysostom, Cyril, and others, of whom we may content ourselves with the words of Basil: “ ‘My Father is greater than I,’ that is, so far forth as Father, since what else does ‘Father’ signify, than that He is cause and origin of Him who was begotten by Him?” and in another place, “The Son is second in order to the Father, since He is from Him; and in dignity, inasmuch as the Father is the origin and cause of His existence.”

Accordingly, the primitive writers, with an unsuspicious yet reverent explicitness, take for granted the ministrative character of the relation of both Son and Spirit towards the Father; still of course speaking of Them as included in the Divine Unity, not as external to it. Thus Irenæus, clear and undeniable as is his orthodoxy, still declares, that the Father “is ministered to in all things by His own Offspring and Likeness, the Son and Holy Ghost, the Word and Wisdom, of whom all angels are servants and subjects.” In like manner, a ministry is commonly ascribed to the Son and Spirit, and a bidding and willing to the Father, by Justin, Irenæus, Clement, Origen, and Methodius, altogether in the spirit of the Post-Nicene authorities already cited: and without any risk of misleading the reader, as soon as the second and third Persons are understood to be internal to the Divine Mind, connaturalia instrumenta, concurrent (at the utmost) in no stronger sense, than when the human will is said to concur with the reason. Gregory Nazianzen lays down the same doctrine with an explanation, in the following sentence: “It is plain,” he says, “that the things, of which the Father designs in Him the forms, these the Word executes; not as a servant, nor unskilfully, but with full knowledge and a master’s power, and, to speak more suitably, as if He were the Father.”

Such is the Scriptural and Catholic sense of the word Son; on the other hand, it is easy to see what was the defect of this image, and the consequent danger in the use of it. First, there was an appearance of materiality, the more suspiciously to be viewed because there were heresies at the time which denied or neglected the spiritual nature of Almighty God. Next, too marked a distinction seemed to be drawn between the Father and Son, tending to give a separate individuality to each, and so to introduce a kind of ditheism; and here too heresy and philosophy had prepared the way for the introduction of the error. The Valentinians and Manichees are chargeable with both misconceptions. The Eclectics, with the latter; being Emanatists, they seem to have considered the Son to be both individually distinct from the Father, and of an inferior nature.—Against these errors we have the following among other protests.

Tertullian says, “We declare that two are revealed as God in Scripture, two as Lord; but we explain ourselves, lest offence should be taken. They are not called two, in respect of their both being God, or Lord, but in respect of their being Father and Son; and this moreover, not from any division of substance, but from mutual relation, since we pronounce the Son to be individual with and inseparable from the Father.” Origen also, commenting upon the word “brightness,” in the first chapter of the Hebrews, says, “Holy Scripture endeavours to give to men a refined perception of its teaching, by introducing the illustration of breath. It has selected this material image, in order to our understanding even in some degree, how Christ, who is Wisdom, issues, as though Breath, from the perfection of God Himself…In like manner from the analogy of material objects, He is called a pure and perfect Emanation of the Almighty glory. Both these resemblances most clearly show the fellowship of nature between the Son and Father. For an emanation seems to be of one substance with that body of which it is the emanation or breath.” And to guard still more strongly against any misconception of the real drift of the illustration, he cautions his readers against “those absurd fictions which give the notion of certain literal extensions in the Divine Nature; as if they would distribute it into parts, and divide God the Father, if they could; whereas to entertain even the light suspicion of this, is not only an extreme impiety, but an utter folly also, nay not even intelligible at all, that an incorporeal nature should be capable of division.”


To meet more fully this misconception to which the word Son gave rise, the ancient Fathers availed themselves of the other chief appellation given to our Lord in Scripture. The Logos or Sophia, the Word, Reason, or Wisdom of God, is only by St. John distinctly applied to Christ; but both before his time and by his contemporary Apostles it is used in that ambiguous sense, half literal, half evangelical, which, when it is once known to belong to our Lord, guides us to the right interpretation of the metaphor. For instance, when St. Paul declares that “the Word of God is alive and active, and keener than a two-edged sword, and so piercing as to separate soul and spirit, joints and nerves, and a judge of our thoughts and designs, and a witness of every creature,” it is scarcely possible to decide whether the revealed law of God be spoken of, or the Eternal Son. On the whole it would appear that our Lord is called the Word or Wisdom of God in two respects; first, to denote His essential presence in the Father, in as full a sense as the attribute of wisdom is essential to Him; secondly, His mediatorship, as the Interpreter or Word between God and His creatures. No appellation, surely, could have been more appositely bestowed, in order to counteract the notions of materiality and of distinct individuality, and of beginning of existence, which the title of the Son was likely to introduce into the Catholic doctrine. Accordingly, after the words lately cited, Origen uses it (or a metaphor like it) for this very purpose. Having mentioned the absurd idea, which had prevailed, of parts or extensions in the Divine Nature, he proceeds: “Rather, as will proceeds out of the mind, and neither tears the mind, nor is itself separated or divided from it, in some such manner must we conceive that the Father has begotten the Son, who is His Image.” Elsewhere he says, “It were impious and perilous, merely because our intellect is weak, to deprive God, as far as our words go, of His only-begotten co-eternal Word, viz. the ‘wisdom in which He rejoiced.’ We might as well conceive that He was not for ever in joy.” Hence it was usual to declare that to deny the eternity of our Lord was all one as saying that Almighty God was once without intelligence: for instance, Athenagoras says, that the Son is “the first-born of the Father; not as made, for God being Mind Eternal, had from the beginning reason in Himself, being eternally intellectual; but as issuing forth upon the chaotic mass as the Idea and Agent of Creation.” The same interpretation of the sacred figure is continued after the Nicene Council; thus Basil says, “If Christ be the Power of God, and the Wisdom, and these be increate and co-eternal with God, (for He never was without wisdom and power,) then, Christ is increate and co-eternal with God.”

But here again the metaphor was necessarily imperfect; and, if pursued, open to misconception. Its obvious tendency was to obliterate the notion of the Son’s Personality, that is, to introduce Sabellianism. Something resembling this was the error of Paulus of Samosata and Marcellus: who, from the fleeting and momentary character of a word spoken, inferred that the Divine Word was but the temporary manifestation of God’s glory in the man Christ. And it was to counteract this tendency, that is, to witness against it, that the Fathers speak of Him as the Word in an hypostasis, the permanent, real, and living Word.


The above is a sketch of the primitive doctrine concerning our Lord’s divine nature, as contained in the two chief appellations which are ascribed to Him in Scripture. The opposite ideas they convey may be further denoted respectively by the symbols “of God,” and “in God”; as though He were so derived from the simple Unity of God as in no respect to be divided or extended from it, (to speak metaphorically,) but to inhere within that ineffable individuality. Of these two conditions of the doctrine, however, the divinity of Christ, and the unity of God, the latter was much more earnestly insisted on in the early times. The divinity of our Lord was, on the whole, too plain a truth to dispute; but in proportion as it was known to the heathen, it would seem to them to involve this consequence,—that, much as the Christians spoke against polytheism, still, after all, they did admit a polytheism of their own instead of the Pagan. Hence the anxiety of the Apologists, while they assail the heathen creed on this account, to defend their own against a similar charge. Thus Athenagoras, in the passage lately referred to, says; “Let no one ridicule the notion that God has a Son. For we have not such thoughts either about God the Father or about the Son as your poets, who, in their mythologies, make the Gods no better than men. But the Son of God is the Word of the Father [as Creator] both in idea and in active power…the Father and the Son being one. The Son being in the Father, and the Father in the Son, in the unity and power of the Spirit, the Son of God is the Mind and Word of the Father.” Accordingly, the divinity of the Son being assumed, the early writers are earnest in protecting the doctrine of the Unity; protecting it both from the materialism of dividing the Godhead, and the paganism of separating the Son and Spirit from the Father. And to this purpose they made both the “of God,” and the “in God,” subservient, in a manner which shall now be shown.

First, the “in God.” It is the clear declaration of Scripture, which we must receive without questioning, that the Son and Spirit are in the one God, and He in Them. There is that remarkable text in the first chapter of St. John which says that the Son is “in the bosom of the Father.” In another place it is said that “the Son is in the Father and the Father in the Son.” (John xiv. 11.) And elsewhere the Spirit of God is compared to “the spirit of a man which is in him” (1 Cor. ii. 11.). This is, in the language of theology, the doctrine of the coinherence; which was used from the earliest times on the authority of Scripture, as a safeguard and witness of the Divine Unity. A passage from Athenagoras to this purpose has just been cited. Clement has the following doxology at the end of his Christian Instructor. “To the One Only Father and Son, Son and Father, Son our guide and teacher, with the Holy Spirit also, to the One in all things, in whom are all things, &c.…to Him is the glory, &c.” And Gregory of Neocæsarea, if the words form part of his creed, “In the Trinity there is nothing created, nothing subservient, nothing of foreign nature, as if absent from it once, and afterwards added. The Son never failed the Father, nor the Spirit the Son, but the Trinity remains evermore unchangeable, unalterable.” These authorities belong to the early Alexandrian School. The Ante-Nicene school of Rome is still more explicit. Dionysius of Rome says, “We must neither distribute into three divinities the awful and divine Unity, nor diminish the dignity and transcendant majesty of our Lord by the name of creature, but we must believe in God the Father Almighty, and in Christ Jesus His Son, and in the Holy Spirit; and believe that the Word is united with the God of the universe. For He says, I and the Father are One; and, I am in the Father, and the Father in Me. For thus the Divine Trinity and the holy preaching of the monarchia will be preserved.”

This doctrine of the coinherence, as protecting the Unity without intrenching on the perfections of the Son and Spirit, may even be called the characteristic of Catholic Trinitarianism as opposed to all counterfeits, whether philosophical, Arian, or Oriental. One Post-Nicene statement of it shall be added. “If any one truly receive the Son,” says Basil, “he will find that He brings with him on one hand His Father, on the other the Holy Spirit. For neither can He from the Father be severed, who is of and ever in the Father; nor again from His own Spirit disunited, who in It operates all things…For we must not conceive separation or division in any way; as if either the Son could be supposed without the Father, or the Spirit disunited from the Son. But there is discovered between them some ineffable and incomprehensible, both communion and distinction.”

Secondly, as the “in God” led the Fathers to the doctrine of the coinherence, so did the “of God” lead them to the doctrine of the monarchia; still, with the one object of guarding against any resemblance to Polytheism in their creed. Even the heathen had shown a disposition, designedly or from a spontaneous feeling, to trace all their deities up to one Principle or arche; as is evident by their Theogonies. Much more did it become that true religion, which prominently put forth the Unity of God, jealously to guard its language, lest it should seem to admit the existence of a variety of original Principles. It is said to have been the doctrine of the Marcionists and Manichees, that there were three unconnected independent Beings in the Divine Nature. Scripture and the Church avoid the appearance of tritheism, by tracing back, (if we may so say,) the infinite perfections of the Son and Spirit to Him whose Son and Spirit They are. They are, so to express it, but the new manifestation and repetition of the Father; there being no room for numeration or comparison between Them, nor any resting-place for the contemplating mind, till They are referred to Him in whom They centre. On the other hand, in naming the Father, we imply the Son and Spirit, whether They be named or not. Without this key, the language of Scripture is perplexed in the extreme. Hence it is, that the Father is called “the only God,” at a time when our Lord’s name is also mentioned, John xvii. 3, 1 Tim. i. 16, 17, as if the Son was but the reiteration of His Person, who is the Self-Existent, and therefore not to be contrasted with Him in the way of number. The Creed, called the Apostles’, follows this mode of stating the doctrine; the title of God standing in the opening against the Father’s name, while the Son and Spirit are introduced as distinct forms or modes, (so to say,) of and in the One Eternal Being. The Nicene Creed, commonly so called, directed as it is against the impugners both of the Son’s and of the Spirit’s divinity, nevertheless observes the same rule even in a stricter form, beginning with a confession of the “One God.” Whether or not this mode of speaking was designed in Scripture to guard the doctrine of the Unity from all verbal infringement (and there seems evidence that it was so, as in 1 Cor. viii. 5, 6), it certainly was used for this purpose in the primitive Church. Thus Tertullian says, that it is a mistake “to suppose that the number and arrangement of the Trinity is a division of its Unity; inasmuch as the Unity drawing out the Trinity from itself, is not destroyed by it, but is subserved.” Novatian, in like manner, says, “God originating from God, so as to be the Second Person, yet not interfering with the Father’s right to be called the one God. For, had He not a birth, then indeed when compared with Him who had no birth, He would seem, from the appearance of equality in both, to make two who were without birth, and therefore two Gods.”

Accordingly it is impossible to worship One of the Divine Persons, without worshipping the Others also. In praying to the Father, we only arrive at His mysterious presence through His Son and Spirit; and in praying to the Son and Spirit, we are necessarily carried on beyond them to the source of Godhead from which They are derived. We see this in the very form of many of the received addresses to the Blessed Trinity; in which, without intended reference to the mediatorial scheme, the Son and Spirit seem, even in the view of the Divine Unity, to take a place in our thoughts between the Father and His creatures; as in the ordinary doxologies “to the Father through the Son and by the Spirit,” or “to the Father and Son in the unity of the Holy Ghost.”

This gives us an insight into the force of expressions, common with the primitive Fathers, but bearing, in the eyes of inconsiderate observers, a refined and curious character. They call the Son, “God of God, Light of Light,” &c., much more frequently than simply God, in order to anticipate in the very form of words, the charge or the risk of ditheism. Hence, also, the illustrations of the sun and his rays, &c., were in such repute; viz. as containing, not only a description, but also a defence of the Catholic doctrine. Thus Hippolytus says, “When I say that the Son is distinct from the Father, I do not speak of two Gods; but, as it were, light of light, and the stream from the fountain, and a ray from the sun.” It was the same reason which led the Fathers to insist upon the doctrine of the divine generation.

Chapter II
Section 2

Chapter II
Section 4