Saturday, September 10, 2005

Novatian and Causal Priority

Is it possible that Novatian employs the Aristotelian category of causal priority to outline the generative relationship evidently obtaining between the Father and the Son? Is he asserting that the Father precedes the Son with respect to causality and only causality? Maybe this explanatory move does resolve certain supposed inconsistencies found in De Trinitate. After all, it is conceptually possible that the presbyter does have causal priority in mind when he places the Father before the Son in some sense and to some degree.[1] While possible, however, even this view does not fail to be unproblematic for at least two reasons.

First, Lossky points out that the language of causality with respect to the Godhead is inadequate and somewhat defective. Nomenclature that posits causality of God conatively attempts to articulate the monarchy of the Father and his alleged relation of origin with the Son and holy spirit. Lossky argues that causality is an unsatisfactory expression of the Father’s relationship with the Son since there is evidently neither posteriority nor priority of any form in the Trinity.[2] The Father, strictly speaking, does not cause the Son and the Son is not an “effect” of the Father, contends Lossky. Bulgakov affirms that the Son and Holy Spirit essentially are: they do not come to be or originate by means of the Father.[3] While Novatian had not developed his thought on the Father and Son to the same extent as post-Nicene theologians such as the Cappadocians had, he must have known at least some of the philosophical conclusions that appear to follow from the premises of Aristotelian causal priority. Novatian certainly knew that if God is timeless, eternal or atemporal, then there is neither before nor after, neither causality nor effect subsisting between the Father and the Son. Since the presbyter does seem to affirm the immanent atemporality of God, it does not appear that he simultaneously acknowledges (in any univocal sense) the causal priority of the Father in relation to the Son.

Second, certain passages from De Trinitate lead one to believe that causal priority does not satisfactorily account for Novatian’s delineation of the Father-Son relationship. We have already scrutinized his claim: “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.”[4] According to this portion of De Trinitate, the Father precedes the Son in that he existed as Father qua Father “before” he generated the Son. Furthermore, God the Father has no beginning, whereas the Son does originate from the paternal figure of the Godhead. Moreover, Novatian is somewhat vague when it comes to delineating the Father’s priority with respect to the Son, using the qualifying expressions “in some degree” and “in some sense.”[5]

Alternatively, other sections from the document that became a vade mecum in the West lead one to believe that Novatian may indeed consider Aristotelian causal priority a factor in the mysterious generation of the Son: “And reasonably, He is before all things, but after the Father, since all things were made by Him, and He proceeded from Him of whose will all things were made. Assuredly God proceeding from God, causing [constituting] a person second to the Father as being the Son, but not taking from the Father that characteristic that He is one God.”[6] In the final analysis, therefore, one may justifiably conclude with Fortman that much of what Novatian writes about the “eternal generation” of the Son is not all that clear. Nonetheless, there seems to be sufficient evidence that the presbyter undoubtedly did not believe that the Son was a distinct eternal hypostasis, but rather an entity resembling the anhypostatic logov endiaqetov that God makes the logov proforikov. Nonetheless, the presbyter affirms that God is inherently paternal before the Son’s nativity occurs. Therefore, he probably thinks of God as a Father properly or non-metaphorically, unlike Lactantius and Tertullian. This existential priority of the Father in relation to the Son is coherent when one tries to understand the concept through the metaphysical lens of Stoicism, which conceives of relata in terms of corresponding accidental dispositions.

[1] De Trinitate 31.

[2] See Vladimir Lossky, In the Image and Likeness of God, 82-83; Leonardo Boff, Trinity and Society, 140-147.

[3] Sergius Bulgakov writes that the hypostases “do not originate. They exist eternally. The interrelation of the hypostases, as the interrelation of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, should be understood not on the basis of their origination but on the basis of their concrete self-definition” (The Comforter, 136. Italics in original)

[4] De Trinitate 31.3-4.

[5] De Trinitate 31.

[6] De Trinitate 31.3-4.

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