Sunday, December 04, 2005

Novatian and the Eternal Generation

For Novatian, God the Father is the unbegotten, ingenerate, unlimited and atemporal deity. Therefore, he accordingly suggests that the ingenerate and incomparable God has always been Father, even before he produced a Son.[1] God did not have a Son until he willed “the sacred and divine nativity” of the Logos, a Stoic-informed doctrine familiar to readers of Justin, Tertullian and Lactantius, among others (inter alios). Here one again witnesses the philosophical distinction between the logov endiaqetov ("the immanent word”) and the logov proforikov (“the expressed word”).[2] With customary rhetorical flourish, Novatian writes:

Thus God the Father, the Founder and Creator of all things, who only knows no beginning, invisible, infinite, immortal, eternal, is one God; to whose greatness, or majesty, or power, I would not say nothing can be preferred, but nothing can be compared; of whom, when He willed it, the Son, the Word, was born, who is not received in the sound of the stricken air, or in the tone of voice forced from the lungs, but is acknowledged in the substance of the power put forth by God, the mysteries of whose sacred and divine nativity neither an apostle has learnt, nor prophet has discovered, nor angel has known, nor creature has apprehended.[3]

The problem with this Novatian text stems from its explicit mention of the Father willing the Son’s mysterious preternatural nativity. The mention of divine willing implies that the Son’s generation is both non-eternal (infected with temporality) and contingent: Novatian does not appear to believe that the logov is eternally a hypostatic entity known as the Son. God could have elected to generate the Son, on this reading of the text, or he could have elected not to generate him; thus the contingent nature of the Word’s nativity.

Novatian evidently implies that Son’s generation is an act of God the Father’s supreme voluntas, “something he chose to do but need not have done.”[4] Yet, one would expect the Son’s generation to be non-contingent, if he is fully God and eternally generated by the Father.[5] Novatian, however, evidently posits a contingent nativitas for the Son that emanates from the preeminent will of God.[6]

Besides intimating that the Son’s generation is contingent, a mysterious generation of the Son by means of divine volition further seems to entail that the Father’s decision to bring forth the Son of God (in tempo or ab aeternitate) was somewhat arbitrary and undeniably voluntaristic. Does Novatian possibly avoid such problematics in his formulation of the Son’s prima nativitas, however? Maybe he does circumvent making the Son’s generation conditional or non-necessary. The following paragraphs will explore this issue in the light of De Trinitate 31.

2. Novatian on the Son’s Contingent Generation from the Father

While Kelly claims that Novatian believed God was always Father with a personal (i.e. substantial) Son, he admonishes his readers that the Roman theologian is nonetheless “far from envisaging the idea of eternal generation” and generally thinks of the Father and Son’s relationship in terms of a moral, rather than an essential unity.[7] Novatian himself contends that the divine perfections “in the true sense”[8] belong solely to God the Father:

And still, nevertheless, the Father is proved to be one God; while by degrees in reciprocal transfer that majesty and divinity are again returned and reflected as sent by the Son Himself to the Father, who had given them; so that reasonably God the Father is God of all, and the source also of His Son Himself whom He begot as Lord.[9]

Consequently, Kelly argues that the presbyter only avoids ditheism “by strongly subordinating” the Son to the Father or by positing filiation as “a passing moment in the divine life of the Father.”[10]

[1] Kelly writes: “Further, in his reasoning about time, Novatian would have it that the Father was always Father; but he would also have it that he who had no origin or source should come before him who had” (Early Christian Doctrines, 125. Cf. Lonergan, The Way to Nicea.

[2] See M. Colish, Stoic Tradition.

[3] De Trinitate 31.

[4] Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 125.

[5] If the Son’s generation is non-contingent, this means that given the fact of the Son’s generation, it is not possible that the Son’s generation not obtain. Employing the tools of modal logic, one could say that the eternal generation would thus obtain in all possible worlds, if it were non-contingent. It would therefore be necessary, rather than contingent.

[6] Hans von Balthasar tries to avoid this conclusion by postulating an ontological identity of divine freedom and necessity deitas ad intra. In this case, the Father’s generative act vis-à-vis the Son is both free and necessary. It is thus neither constrained per se nor arbitrary since it “coincides” with the “act-quality” of God’s essence (Margaret M. Turek, Towards a Theology of God the Father, 96-99). Even if this move adequately accounts for what supposedly transpires in the triune Godhead simpliciter, it is not so certain that Balthasar accounts for the problems in Novatian’s thought.

[7] Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 126.

[8] Ibid.

[9] De Trinitate 31.

[10] Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, 126. Theologians normally distinguish between functional, ontological and theanthropic subordination where the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are concerned. Kelly apparently alludes to ontological subordination in his comments pertaining to Novatian, though he does not make his meaning explicit.

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