Saturday, August 13, 2005

Novatian and the Trinity

The word “Trinity” actually does not appear in Novatian. In fact, he appears to be unaware of God’s putative triunity even on the conceptual level. Kelly thinks that those who argue that the presbyter’s theology presaged post-Nicene orthodoxy may have misconstrued his concepts in some way.[1] Then, again, perhaps the difficulty lies with Novatian’s theologically imprecise statements. For instance, Edmund Fortman suggests that what Novatian holds concerning the Son’s generation “is not so clear.”[2] Fortman inclines toward the view that Novatian believed the Son was an eternal hypostatic distinction generated by the Father, but he points out that “It is difficult to escape the impression that Novatian is not clear about his own thought on this matter.”[3] One thing does appear to be unambiguous, however. Novatian borders on ditheism and subordinationism in order to make sense of the Father and Son’s purported ontological relationship and he virtually ignores the holy spirit in his treatise. For instance, one text that shapes his thought regarding the Son is the apostle Paul’s account of Christ’s self-emptying kenotic act (De Trinitate 22.5-6). Novatian construes Philippians 2:6 as a passage that delineates the Son’s inequality in comparison with the Father. This is why Edmund Hill notes:

For Novatian, to argue the divinity of Christ, which he does with great vigor, actually involves arguing his inequality to the Father. The assumption is that Christ can only be both divine and other than the Father if he is divine in a different and lesser degree. Novatian interprets the famous text of Phil 2:6, ‘who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,’ as meaning that though Christ was divine, in the form of God, he never dreamt of claiming equality with God.[4]

But if Novatian believes that the Son is divine “in a different and lesser degree” than the Father, it makes one wonder how he can simultaneously posit an eternal generation for the Son and remain coherent in his thought. Furthermore, in what sense could the Son be “fully God” for the Roman presbyter, if his divinity is inferior to his Father’s mode of being God? Of course, there are rival interpretations of Novatian’s De Trinitate that merit attention. These interpretations will be considered at some future point.

[1] Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 126.

[2] Fortman, Triune God, 121.

[3] Fortman, Triune God, 121.

[4] Mystery of the Trinity, 52.

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