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Credo 15 - ... begotten, not made

Tuesday, July 17, 2007
In the 4th century, Arius, an eloquent and morally upright priest of the philosophically rich but riven city of Alexandria, drew on the text of Proverbs 8:22-31 to expound his view of God’s absolute uniqueness.

Arianism taught that God was “the only eternal, the only one without beginning… utterly one, a monad”. Notably, Arius said, “there was [a ‘time’], when he [Christ] was not”. The Scriptures appeared to support this, particularly at Proverbs 8:22 when Wisdom – taken to mean Christ the Logos – is said to be created: “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old.” Arianism thus reduced Christ to a created being, albeit the first and greatest, through whom all else, all creatures, were made. Nevertheless, Christ himself was made and hence not divine, nor eternal and uncreated like God. Essentially, Arianism made the Son subordinate to the Father, not truly God by nature or in his very being.

St AthanasiusOne vital consequence of this denial of Christ’s divinity, as St Athanasius indicated, is that were Christ just a creature, he could not by his Incarnation and redemptive work on the Cross ‘deify’ us. For only One who is God and Son of God by nature can make others gods and sons of God by grace.

In 325, the first ecumenical council was convened at Nicaea to respond to the Arian crisis which was becoming hugely influential. The bishops – reputedly, 318 of them – condemned the Arian position and affirmed that the Son was co-eternal with the Father and “the only-begotten generated from the Father… not made.” Arius had considered this generation of the Son from the Father to be in effect a creation, hence the clear statement that the Son was not made; his generation is not creation.

How then is this ‘generation’ to be understood? The relationship of any father to son is not of maker to creature but the communication of one’s own being and substance. Moreover, in the Trinity, as St Thomas Aquinas explains, the personal being of the Father is fatherhood, such that to be the Father is eternally to be begetting the Son, and to be the Son is eternally to be begotten. Thus, Father and Son are “event-like attributes” intrinsic to God’s very being. If, as Arius thought, there was a time when the Son was not, then there was a time too when God was not Father; this would be impossible, for “begetting and fatherhood belong first to God”. Therefore, as St Gregory of Nyssa taught, “without the Son, the Father has neither existence nor name.”

Hence, even today, one cannot simply replace the language of Father and Son, with e.g. ‘Creator’ and ‘Redeemer’, without doing violence to our Christian belief in who God is.

Lawrence Lew OP


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