Four prominent ante-nicene authors -Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Novatian- all speak, on the one hand, of the Son as being of the same substance as the Father; yet, on the other, all of them deny the ontological equality of the Son with the Father, teaching that the Father possesses certain ontological attributes that the Son does not. In this article, I want to examine their particular pre-nicene understanding of co-essentiality, looking at both what it was and was not, and how it drastically differs from the later Athanasian doctrine of co-essentiality.
In sum, the ante-nicene view of co-essentiality found in these fathers entails that the Son is, to speak crudely by way of analogy, composed of the same stuff as the Father. Just as one fire kindled from another, or light from light, are the same thing in their substance, so the Son is taught to be the same generic substance as the Father. Yet substance here is not equivalent to the idea of nature; unlike in Athanasian co-essentiality, the Son being the same substance as the Father, in the theology of these authors, does not entail Him having the same nature as the Father.
Since Athanasian co-essentiality treats ‘substance’ and ‘nature’ as equivalent, this may be a confusing idea for many. But this distinction best explains the teaching of these ante-nicene fathers on the subject. To clarify what we mean here, we must contrast what, according to the ante-nicene conception of the these fathers, a ‘substance’ was, compared to ‘nature’.
A substance, in the idea of these fathers, was, effectively, what something was; what it was composed of. A nature, on the other hand, is effectively a fixed set of properties which define what a thing is ontologically. That means that while there is overlap in these ideas, they were not identical. An illustration will help: a chair, and a boat, may be made of the same wood; and so the substance of both is the same, being composed of the same wood. Yet the nature of the chair and of the boat, will reasonably be considered to be the same by no one, since the properties which define the wooden chair differ significantly from the properties which define the boat made of the same wood.
Similarly, we may use the analogy of the sun and a ray from the Son, as some of the fathers do. Both the sun and the ray, according to their reckoning, are composed of the same thing, the same substance. What the sun is, the ray is. Yet the ray, compared to the sun, is by no means ontologically identical to the sun; and the nature of a ray, compared to the sun, will be found to not be the same, the set of properties which define one differing from the set of properties which define the other. The temperature of the sun, the brightness of its light, how closely one may approach to it without being burned, etc, compared to the ray, will all be different. Yet, according to the reckoning of these fathers, the sun and its ray are both composed of a common substance.
So in the reckoning of the these fathers, the Father and Son share one substance;
“And that this power which the prophetic word calls God, as has been also amply demonstrated, and Angel, is not numbered [as different] in name only like the light of the sun but is indeed something numerically distinct, I have discussed briefly in what has gone before; when I asserted that this power was begotten from the Father, by His power and will, but not by abscission, as if the essence of the Father were divided; as all other things partitioned and divided are not the same after as before they were divided: and, for the sake of example, I took the case of fires kindled from a fire, which we see to be distinct from it, and yet that from which many can be kindled is by no means made less, but remains the same.” (Justin, Dialogue With Trypho, Ch 128)
When Justin declares that the Son is begotten from the Father like fire kindled from fire, he clearly intimates that the Son is the same substance as the Father, yet without any change to the Father.
“So then the Father is Lord and the Son is Lord, and the Father is God and the Son is God; for that which is begotten of God is God. And so in the substance and power of His being there is shown forth one God; but there is also according to the economy of our redemption both Son and Father. Because to created things the Father of all is invisible and unapproachable, therefore those who are to draw near to God must have their access to the Father through the Son.” (Irenaeus, Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, 47).
So Irenaeus says the Son shows forth that there is one God, because, although He is a distinct person from the Father, yet in sharing in the substance and authority of the Father, He shows forth that the Father is one God, and there is no other, as He (the Son) is of no other substance, and rules with no other power, than that of His Father.
“…especially in the case of this heresy [Modalism], which supposes itself to possess the pure truth, in thinking that one cannot believe in One Only God in any other way than by saying that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are the very selfsame Person. As if in this way also one were not All, in that All are of One, by unity (that is) of substance; while the mystery of the dispensation is still guarded, which distributes the Unity into a Trinity, placing in their order the three Persons— the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost: three, however, not in condition, but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as He is one God, from whom these degrees and forms and aspects are reckoned” (Tertullian, Against Praxeas, Ch 2)
And so Tertullian says that while the Son differs from the Father in form, He is one substance with Him.
“And thus by the word of the angel the distinction is made, against the desire of the heretics, between the Son of God and man; yet with their association, by pressing them to understand that Christ the Son of man is man, and also to receive the Son of God and man the Son of God; that is, the Word of God as it is written, as God; and thus to acknowledge that Christ Jesus the Lord, connected on both sides, so to speak, is on both sides woven in and grown together, and associated in the same agreement of both substances, by the binding to one another of a mutual alliance — man and God by the truth of the Scripture which declares this very thing… The true and eternal Father is manifested as the one God, from whom alone this power of divinity is sent forth, and also given and directed upon the Son, and is again returned by the communion of substance to the Father.” (Novatian, On the Trinity, Ch 24, 31)
And so Novatian ascribes to the Son the substance of God, and that there is a “communion of substance” between the Father and Son.
So while they all saw the Son, as being genuinely and uniquely generated from the Father (not, as a creature, brought into existence out of nothing), as sharing one substance with the Father, yet they did not, for that reason, ever suppose the Son to be ontologically equal to the Father in all His attributes. For all these same fathers teach the ontological subordination of the Son to the Father, in no uncertain terms, ascribing the attributes of infinitude and invisibility solely to the Father. And Novatian does not hesitate to proclaim that the Son is not identical to the Father in nature, but only “of like nature with the Father in some measure” (On the Trinity, Ch 31). This will only make sense, as being congruent with what was quoted of him above, if we recognize that he did not understand substance and nature to be the same thing.
These fathers draw an ontological distinction between the Father and the Son, in proving that the Angel of the Lord is the Son, not the Father, as they employ the argument that the Father could not have appeared to the men of old, because of His infinitude and invisibility. Being infinite and invisible, it would be impossible to have been seen by men in a certain space; but the Son could do so. The obvious and unavoidable implication of the argument being that the Son did not possess these attributes equally with the Father, or else the same actions would have been equally impossible for Him to undertake, on account of Him having those same attributes of invisibility and infinitude.
So Justin in taught:
“Moses, then, the blessed and faithful servant of God, declares that He who appeared to Abraham under the oak in Mamre is God, sent with the two angels in His company to judge Sodom by Another who remains ever in the supercelestial places, invisible to all men, holding personal intercourse with none, whom we believe to be Maker and Father of all things… Even if this were so, my friends, that an angel and God were together in the vision seen by Moses, yet, as has already been proved to you by the passages previously quoted, it will not be the Creator of all things that is the God that said to Moses that He was the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, but it will be He who has been proved to you to have appeared to Abraham, ministering to the will of the Maker of all things, and likewise carrying into execution His counsel in the judgment of Sodom; so that, even though it be as you say, that there were two–an angel and God–he who has but the smallest intelligence will not venture to assert that the Maker and Father of all things, having left all supercelestial matters, was visible on a little portion of the earth.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Ch 56, 60)
And in chapter 127 of his Dialogue With Trypho, Justin says:
“These and other such sayings are recorded by the lawgiver and by the prophets; and I suppose that I have stated sufficiently, that wherever God says, ‘God went up from Abraham,’ or, ‘The Lord spake to Moses,’ and ‘The Lord came down to behold the tower which the sons of men had built,’ or when ‘God shut Noah into the ark,’ you must not imagine that the unbegotten God Himself came down or went up from any place. For the ineffable Father and Lord of all neither has come to any place, nor walks, nor sleeps, nor rises up, but remains in His own place, wherever that is, quick to behold and quick to hear, having neither eyes nor ears, but being of indescribable might; and He sees all things, and knows all things, and none of us escapes His observation; and He is not moved or confined to a spot in the whole world, for He existed before the world was made. How, then, could He talk with any one, or be seen by any one, or appear on the smallest portion of the earth, when the people at Sinai were not able to look even on the glory of Him who was sent from Him; and Moses himself could not enter into the tabernacle which he had erected, when it was filled with the glory of God; and the priest could not endure to stand before the temple when Solomon conveyed the ark into the house in Jerusalem which he had built for it? Therefore neither Abraham, nor Isaac, nor Jacob, nor any other man, saw the Father and ineffable Lord of all, and also of Christ, but [saw] Him who was according to His will His Son, being God, and the Angel because He ministered to His will; whom also it pleased Him to be born man by the Virgin; who also was fire when He conversed with Moses from the bush.”
So Justin treats it as impossible that the Father could have done the things the Angel of the Lord did; so, he reasons, the Angel must have been the Son. He says we must not imagine that God moved from place to place, because He is immense and omnipresent; yet He ascribes to the Son being a certain place; the very thing that he argues would be impossible for the Father due to His very nature, He says was done by the Son, clearly indicating that He did not believe the Son shared the attributes under discussion with His Father. For had the Son shared these attributes equally, on account of which it was impossible for the Father to do such things, it would have been equally impossible for the Son to perform them.
And Irenaeus, in his Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, employed the same argument, to show that the Angel of the Lord was the Son, and could not have been the Father:
“For it was not the Father of all, who is not seen by the world, the Maker of all who said: Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool: what house will ye build me, or what is the place of my rest? and who comprehendeth the earth with his hand, and with his span the heaven —-it was not He that came and stood in a very small space and spake with Abraham; but the Word of God, who was ever with mankind, and made known beforehand what should come to pass in the future, and taught men the things of God.”
Irenaeus here is not so explicit as Justin, but it is clear that the argument is one and the same, and so, the logic of it is also the same. If he does not intend to show a difference between the Father and Son, as Justin did, then we must wonder what purpose quoting passages about God’s immensity and infinitude would be, other than that to say that on account of these it is impossible that He is the one Who appeared in a “very small space”. Whereas for the Son it was possible, which can only be so if He is not thought to be equally infinite with the Father.
Irenaeus also says, “to created things the Father of all is invisible and unapproachable, therefore those who are to draw near to God must have their access to the Father through the Son.” (Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, 47); thus declaring that the Father in invisible and unapproachable to created things, while the Son is not, and so declares a difference between them; men drawing near to the Father through the Son, not only after the Son’s incarnation, but also prior to the incarnation.
And Tertullian, in Chapter 16 of Against Praxeas, wrote along the same lines:
Moreover, how comes it to pass, that the Almighty Invisible God, whom no man has seen nor can see; He who dwells in light unapproachable; 1 Timothy 6:16 He who dwells not in temples made with hands; Acts 17:24 from before whose sight the earth trembles, and the mountains melt like wax; who holds the whole world in His hand like a nest; Isaiah 10:14 whose throne is heaven, and earth His footstool; Isaiah 66:1 in whom is every place, but Himself is in no place; who is the utmost bound of the universe — how happens it, I say, that He (who, though) the Most High, should yet have walked in paradise towards the cool of the evening, in quest of Adam; and should have shut up the ark after Noah had entered it; and at Abraham’s tent should have refreshed Himself under an oak; and have called to Moses out of the burning bush; and have appeared as the fourth in the furnace of the Babylonian monarch (although He is there called the Son of man) — unless all these events had happened as an image, as a mirror, as an enigma (of the future incarnation)? Surely even these things could not have been believed even of the Son of God, unless they had been given us in the Scriptures; possibly also they could not have been believed of the Father, even if they had been given in the Scriptures, since these men bring Him down into Mary’s womb, and set Him before Pilate’s judgment-seat, and bury Him in the sepulchre of Joseph. Hence, therefore, their error becomes manifest; for, being ignorant that the entire order of the divine administration has from the very first had its course through the agency of the Son, they believe that the Father Himself was actually seen, and held converse with men, and worked, and was thirsty, and suffered hunger (in spite of the prophet who says: The everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, shall never thirst at all, nor be hungry; Isaiah 40:28 much more, shall neither die at any time, nor be buried!), and therefore that it was uniformly one God, even the Father, who at all times did Himself the things which were really done by Him through the agency of the Son.”
See his argument, that it is absurd and impossible to suppose that God the Father could have been seen, and been present in a particular location, and have, as the Angel of the Lord, in his view, even suffered hunger and thirst, and yet all these things he readily ascribes to the Son. He does not say anything along the lines of that the Son is equally invisible, and infinite, and impassible, but instead treats it as to be expected that the Son was not defined by these qualities, while the Father is.
And Novatian, in chapters 17-18 of his treatise on the Trinity, is even more explicit than the rest:
“What if the same Moses everywhere introduces God the Father infinite and without end, not as being enclosed in any place, but as one who includes every place; nor as one who is in a place, but rather one in whom every place is, containing all things and embracing all things, so that with reason He can neither descend nor ascend, because He Himself both contains and fills all things, and yet nevertheless introduces God descending to consider the tower which the sons of men were building, asking and saying, Come; and then, Let us go down and there confound their tongues, that each one may not understand the words of his neighbour. Whom do they pretend here to have been the God who descended to that tower, and asking to visit those men at that time? God the Father? Then thus He is enclosed in a place; and how does He embrace all things? Or does He say that it is an angel descending with angels, and saying, Come; and subsequently, Let us go down and there confound their tongues? And yet in Deuteronomy we observe that God told these things, and that God said, where it is written, When He scattered abroad the children of Adam, He determined the bounds of the nations according to the number of the angels of God. Neither, therefore, did the Father descend, as the subject itself indicates; nor did an angel command these things, as the fact shows. Then it remains that He must have descended, of whom the Apostle Paul says, He who descended is the same who ascended above all the heavens, that He might fill all things, that is, the Son of God, the Word of God. But the Word of God was made flesh, and dwelt among us. This must be Christ. Therefore Christ must be declared to be God.
Behold, the same Moses tells us in another place that God was seen of Abraham. And yet the same Moses hears from God, that no man can see God and live. If God cannot be seen, how was God seen? Or if He was seen, how is it that He cannot be seen? For John also says, No man has seen God at any time; and the Apostle Paul, Whom no man has seen, nor can see. But certainly the Scripture does not lie; therefore, truly, God was seen. Whence it may be understood that it was not the Father who was seen, seeing that He never was seen; but the Son, who has both been accustomed to descend, and to be seen because He has descended. For He is the image of the invisible God, as the imperfection and frailty of the human condition was accustomed sometimes even then to see God the Father in the image of God, that is, in the Son of God. For gradually and by progression human frailty was to be strengthened by the image to that glory of being able one day to see God the Father. For the things that are great are dangerous if they are sudden. For even the sudden light of the sun after darkness, with its too great splendour, will not make manifest the light of day to unaccustomed eyes, but will rather strike them with blindness.
And lest this should occur to the injury of human eyes, the darkness is broken up and scattered by degrees; and the rising of that luminary, mounting by small and unperceived increments, gently accustoms men’s eyes to bear its full orb by the gentle increase of its rays. Thus, therefore, Christ also — that is, the image of God, and the Son of God— is looked upon by men, inasmuch as He could be seen. And thus the weakness and imperfection of the human destiny is nourished, led up, and educated by Him; so that, being accustomed to look upon the Son, it may one day be able to see God the Father Himself also as He is, that it may not be stricken by His sudden and intolerable brightness, and be hindered from being able to see God the Father, whom it has always desired. Wherefore it is the Son who is seen; but the Son of God is the Word of God: and the Word of God was made flesh, and dwelt among us; and this is Christ.”
The Father, then, according to Novatian, is invisible to mortal men, and infinite, and immense; and for these reasons it is absurd and impossible to suppose that He appeared to the patriarchs, but it must rather have been the Son; Who he then pre-supposes is different than the Father in those respects, or else his argument makes no sense. But a little while later, Novatian specifies that the Son is ontologically subordinate to the Father even more clearly, in chapter 31 of the same treatise:
“And He [the Son] is always in the Father, unless the Father be not always Father, only that the Father also precedes Him — in a certain sense — since it is necessary — in some degree — that He should be before He is Father. Because it is essential that He who knows no beginning must go before Him who has a beginning; even as He is the less as knowing that He is in Him, having an origin because He is born, and of like nature with the Father in some measure by His nativity… Assuredly God proceeding from God, causing a person second to the Father as being the Son, but not taking from the Father that characteristic that He is one God. For if He had not been born — compared with Him who was unborn, an equality being manifested in both — He would make two unborn beings, and thus would make two Gods. If He had not been begotten — compared with Him who was not begotten, and as being found equal — they not being begotten, would have reasonably given two Gods, and thus Christ would have been the cause of two Gods. Had He been formed without beginning as the Father, and He Himself the beginning of all things as is the Father, this would have made two beginnings, and consequently would have shown to us two Gods also. Or if He also were not the Son, but the Father begetting from Himself another Son, reasonably, as compared with the Father, and designated as great as He, He would have caused two Fathers, and thus also He would have proved the existence of two Gods. Had He been invisible, as compared with the Invisible, and declared equal, He would have shown forth two Invisibles, and thus also He would have proved them to be two Gods. If incomprehensible, if also whatever other attributes belong to the Father, reasonably we say, He would have given rise to the allegation of two Gods, as these people feign.”
It is clear, then, that of these fathers, some of the most eminent Christian writers of the second and third centuries, all believed that the Son is not ontologically equal with the Father, the Father alone being infinite and invisible, according to them.
And their teaching on this point will be observed to be both scripturally sound and reasonable; for the scriptures again and again teach that no man can see the Father and live (Exodus 33:20), and that no man has seen God at any time (John 1:18), and that no man has seen or can see the Father, Who dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim 6:16); yet the Son was seen face to face by many men of old prior to the incarnation, as these fathers have said; and John tells us that Isaiah saw his glory (John 12:41).
The Father, also, is infinite, not being limited by anything, knowing no external bounds, being beyond all measure and limitation. For “Great is the Lord, and highly to be praised, And His greatness is unsearchable.” (Psalm 145:3 NASB). And “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!” (Romans 11:33 NASB). “Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, In heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps.” (Psalm 135:6 NASB). God then is infinite, beyond all measure and all limitation. And this includes having a beginning; for to have an origin is itself to experience some limitation; and the Father has no beginning, no origin, or cause, or source. But the Son, on the other hand, has the Father Himself as the Author of His being, and the Beginning of His life, and the Cause of His person. The Father alone then, is infinite, as Novatian also testifies:
“And thus He is declared to be one, having no equal. For whatever can be God, must as God be of necessity the Highest. But whatever is the Highest, must certainly be the Highest in such sense as to be without any equal. And thus that must needs be alone and one on which nothing can be conferred, having no peer; because there cannot be two infinites, as the very nature of things dictates. And that is infinite which neither has any sort of beginning nor end. For whatever has occupied the whole excludes the beginning of another. Because if He does not contain all which is, whatever it is — seeing that what is found in that whereby it is contained is found to be less than that whereby it is contained — He will cease to be God; being reduced into the power of another, in whose greatness He, being smaller, shall have been included. And therefore what contained Him would then rather claim to be God. Whence it results that God’s own name also cannot be declared, because He cannot be conceived. For that is contained in a name which is, in any way, comprehended from the condition of His nature. For the name is the signification of that thing which could be comprehended from a name. But when that which is treated of is such that it cannot be worthily gathered into one form by the very understanding itself, how shall it be set forth fittingly in the one word of an appellation, seeing that as it is beyond the intellect, it must also of necessity be above the significancy of the appellation?” (On the Trinity, Ch 4)
And as Novatian says, there cannot, according to the nature of things, be two infinite beings or persons; for if one were greater than the other, the greater would be a limit to the other, and only one would in fact be infinite. Of if we were to conceive of two equally infinite, this would be an impossibility, as each would constitute a certain limit to, and measure of, the other. There can then only be one infinite person; and this we know is the Father. The Son is manifestly limited by the Father, when He says “Therefore Jesus answered and was saying to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner.” (John 5:19 NASB); and again “I can do nothing on My own initiative. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is just, because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” (John 5:30 NASB). And if anyone will simply believe the words of Christ, rather than seek to explain them away so that they may vindicate the opinions of Athanasius, the truth of the matter will appear plain to them, that the Son, being ever willingly and lovingly subject to the will of the Father, is limited in some sense, by the Father; while the Father, being Himself under the authority of none, is absolutely unlimited. For it is always the Father Who works through the Son, and not the other way around, showing that the Son always does the Father’s will, being subject to Him as an obedient and perfect Son, while the Father is subject to none, being Himself supreme over all.
And from this it will appear, that since there cannot be two infinite persons (a person being a rational individual being), that either the Father alone is absolutely infinite, and the Son is not, or else the Son is infinite, by being the same person as the Father. For it is clear that in this matter, the Father can have no equal. So either the Son will be equal with the Father by being the Father Himself, which is the demonic heresy of Sabellianism, or else the Son is Himself, as a truly distinct person from the Father (that is, as a true Son), not infinite as the Father is. The idea then, that the Son may be, as a distinct person from the Father, ontologically equal to Him, is shown to be nothing more than an inconsistent fiction; hear the Father say “To whom would you liken Me, And make Me equal and compare Me, That we would be alike?” (Isaiah 46:5 NASB). God has no ontological equal; and while His Son transcends all creation, as the one through Whom all things were made, and through Whom their existence is upheld, yet we must then believe His own words when He says “the Father is greater than I.” (John 14:28 NASB).
Those then, who seek to make the Son ontologically identical to His Father in all His attributes, on account of His being generated from the Father before the ages, neglect God’s utter uniqueness, and that not all of His ontological attributes are communicable to another person, by the very nature of things.
The reasoning of Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Novatian, then, is vindicated by the scriptures, that the Father alone is invisible and infinite; and so, not only in respect to causality and authority, but also ontologically, is greater than the Son. Yet as we have shown above, they did not, for this reason, think that the Son was of any other substance than that of the Father. And so it sufficiently shown that these fathers distinguished between substance, and nature and attributes; ascribing to the Son that He is of one substance with the Father, while He is also ontologically subordinate to the Father in some of His attributes.
And so the Son is the true Son of the Father, begotten of Him before creation, as fire from fire, as light from light; and that one is light is infinite, the other only transcendent of creation, will not take away from the fact that both the infinite light and the transcendent light begotten from it are both light; and yet, no one will on account of that fact, rightly make that which merely transcends creation, equal with that which is absolutely infinite. And though the ray and the sun are both rightly regarded as sun, and reckoned to be of one and the same substance, no one will consider the ray identical to the sun in all its attributes. But these things, being lesser, bear the image of that which is greater by their common substance. And so the unbegotten God, the Father, will rightly be regarded as ontologically greater than the only-begotten God, His Son.
This ante-nicene reckoning of consubstantiality, then, is shown to be consistent with the holy scriptures and the best logic; resolving the difficulties that arose from the later, Athanasian view of co-essentiality, which, in declaring the Son of the same substance as the Father, make Him out to be entirely identical to Him ontologically; and so deny that the Son was seen by men prior to the incarnation, as the scriptures teach, and introduce the absurdity of two infinite beings. For in proclaiming that the Son is invisible and infinite, equally with the Father, the Athanasian view sets itself irreconcilably opposed to scripture, and dooms itself to resort to modalism, inasmuch as the Son can never be maintained to be equally infinite with the father, unless He is made to be the very person of the Father Himself. And for this reason, an Athanasian view of co-essentiality has never been held for very long, except that it results in semi-modalism.