Questions for Holy Week II: Should Creeds Betray Doctrinal Fallacies?

In the Church,* the Nicene Creed refers to a son begotten of a father.  Now, as I understand it, this creed is referring to what it believes to be God in both instances.  But here’s what I don’t get: the creed’s authors and adherents apparently claim to be monotheists who revere and worship only the creative force and origin of all things.  What’s up with that?  Their creed states rather clearly that they revere and worship (or at least believe in) a minimum two separate, distinct, and unequal entities – there may be a third too, but anything more than one is enough to contradict the claim of monotheism.

 The Nicene Creed makes a point of going on about the son being “begotten not made,” and there was significant thought that went into that distinction.  As I understand it, the point is to emphasize the similarity between the son and the father.  Indeed, the Creed underscores that similarity by suggesting that the son and father are one being.  And while that distinction should not be ignored, it does not solve the problematic inconsistencies and contradictions with the unity necessarily expressed by monotheists raised in the Creed by this issue of begetting.  The problem is that the difference between begetting and making in no way eliminates the presence of a source or cause or origin for that which was either begotten or made.  The fact that something that is begotten is of the same stuff as its source does not also imply that that which is begotten is the same entity as its source.  All that is implied is that there is most definitely a source.  I think it was C.S. Lewis who, in an explanation of the importance of the concept of begetting as opposed to making or creating in this creed, likened this to a human father and son.  I think that’s a great comparison.  Sure, I’m of the same stuff as my father.  But I’m not my father.  And the fact that I am begotten of my father neither makes me my father nor precisely the same as my father.  Rather, it makes my father (and mother, she played a big role too!) my source, and me his result or product or consequence.  Even if my father and I are completely equal in all other ways, he is still my source.  He begot me.  I cannot beget him.  A result, product, or consequence cannot be its own source.  Therefore, even though the difference is apparently minor, it renders us fully unequal.

So, if the question is about God, and it is a question about the God of origin, doesn’t it make sense to focus completely on that concept of origin?  And because origin, source, and cause are functional equivalents, shouldn’t a focus on the God of origin be only on that thing which has no source precisely because only something that has no source can ever truly be The Origin.  Clearly, the son of the Nicene Creed has a source, as that son is begotten; he is begotten of the father, who then is the source.  But is there another entity in the Creed that has no source and can thus be the true origin of all things?  Well, it doesn’t appear from the Creed that the father has a source, so this father could be the true origin of all things.  So why then, is the father not the supreme focus of followers of the Nicene Creed?  Does it not seem that these followers, by focusing on something other than the origin of all things, are focusing on a second tier of sorts?  Does it not make the most sense to focus on the source or power itself and not on the products or consequences of that power?  The Nicene Creed appears to recognize the existence of an entity without any other source.  But for some reason, the creed and its adherents afford reverence and worship to not only that sourceless entity but also its products.  And it appears from practice that that reverence and worship is meant to be equal despite the fact that the creed itself states, by giving a source and products, that those things that are revered are not equal, because a product cannot also be the source of its source.  This is odd indeed.

And finally, I must be sure no one is offended that the third god mentioned in the Nicene Creed is left out.  This spirit is said to proceed from the father and son discussed above.  Of course, in order to proceed the thing that is doing the proceeding must have at least a starting point, but, given the context, this spirit must have a source, or origin, or cause from which “to arise, originate, or result.”  The verb “proceed” is of course enough on its own to make this clear, but the preposition “from” also points to this spirit’s dependence on its source.  In contrast to the begetting done by the father of the son, here the Creed leaves fully unobscured, temporally or otherwise, the clear distinctions between this spirit and the other two gods that arise (that is, proceed) from the proceeding of the spirit from those two gods.

So, even if one is convinced from this creed that the father and son are not two distinct gods made up of one source god and another one distinct and dependent god, but two gods that are one god, one must still recognize the third distinct and dependent god who is not said to be one being with the first and second gods who are two gods that are one god.  That is, when finally including the (nearly forgotten) spirit, the Nicene Creed leaves us with at least two gods in the form of two gods that are one god plus one god that is one god.  Or, if one is not fully convinced that the first two gods that are one god are actually the same being (that is, two gods that are one god) because one of the two gods is the source of the other one of the two gods and therefore they cannot be two gods that are one god, the Nicene Creed leaves us with three gods in the form of one god that is the source of the second god which, together with the first god is the source of the third god.  In sum, the text of the Nicene Creed describes two gods that are one god plus another one god for a total of two gods, or it describes three gods.  But this creed most certainly does not describe one god.  So, are the authors and adherents of the Nicene Creed not monotheists?  Or are they monotheists who could stand to consider a new creed?

Now, I’m not suggesting unequivocally that a god who is one and two (or three or four or five or six or seven or eight or thirty-seven or six hundred fifty-nine or π, etc.) simultaneously is a complete impossibility.  It’s just quite strange that the adherents to the Nicene Creed – who, as I understand it, generally do believe that their tri-part god is three and one in simultaneous, perfect equality so as to be equally revered and worshipped –  are adherents to a creed that itself renders unequal the three parts of the tri-part god to which it refers.


 (I recently read an explanation of the Christian Trinity that did a better job of explaining how it doesn’t work than how it does.)


*I capitalize “Church” and not “the” in an attempt to allow any Christian readers to either include or exclude themselves from “this” Church that uses the Nicene or similar Creed while also trying to not to suggest that such a church constitutes The (as in the true) Church.  Mostly though I just want to avoid the vapid “well my church doesn’t believe that!” sort of comment.


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10 responses to “Questions for Holy Week II: Should Creeds Betray Doctrinal Fallacies?

  1. blraatikka

    Well done, sir. Your essay is well-reasoned, and your concluding paragraph was particularly stirring, although, of course, I completely disagree. I think you need to define “equality”– you imply that because the son issues from the father, they are not equal. This is based on an assumption. Also, I’m not saying you’re necessarily wrong (although I think you are), and I realize how difficult this all seems (it took the Church a while to settle on the Trinity doctrine), but perhaps you’re interpreting the fact that the Christian God can be described in three distinct (but overlapping) personalities as conclusive that there must be three completely separate gods– there might (or might not be) a slight leap of logic on that particular point.

  2. CGG

    You raise some certainly ponderous questions, Grantus Maximus. Firstly, you’ll find many Christians who claim to belong to theologically Trinitarian in belief, yet their focus is purely on 1/3 of the Trinity (i.e.: Baptists focus predominantly on Christ, Pentacostals on the Spirit, etc.). It is the opinion of this writer that most of these people are largely ignorant of Nicene Doctrine. Again, we are remiss if we gauge the validity of a faith based upon the consistency of its followers. But more importantly, I think you’re getting hung up on the semantics of Churchy language: a son who proceeds from a father. This is a simplification and humanization of a complexity, and probably was derived out of the purported sayings of Christ. If Christ’s understanding and directive of his Jewish God is “Abba,” then it’s easy to see why the depiction of Christ is as a son to God. But even now, we continue to view God as Father. For people who were raised with any kind of Christian upbringing, we are taught that Christ is still depicted as Son to God the Father. This becomes a difficulty when you reach an age to think for yourself if you still consider yourself a monotheist. And frankly, it is the last Christian straw for many thinking people. However, I present the notion that indeed Christ and Abba are the same, as is the Spirit, merely in 3 parts. Each can be removed from the triangle, (as Jews essentially do with Abba, Baptists with Christ, Pentacostals with Spirit) but what defines Trinitarian doctrine is an acknowledgement of all three congruously. You have previously argued that this makes Christ diminutive, since he supposedly proceeds from the Father. I disagree.

    What I am getting at is this: As a jew, you recognize the sovereignty of an Almighty God. If God is truly all sovereign, doesn’t God have multitudinous, nay, inestimable, components….of which Christ, spirit, and I dare say even us (created in God’s image) are a part? Christ is the part of Abba that is us: divine AND human, of proceeding from God. They are one in the same, as are we: eternally and limitlessly connected, plant, animal, people, earth, universe.

  3. GCC

    I am getting hung up on church language. And that’s my point, but the church language doesn’t affect my belief in the Christian Trinity. I certainly understand that the three are thought to be one in the same. But if that’s the thinking then why does the Creed not proclaim it? Why screw around with the whole begetting and proceeding and not just plainly say something like: “We believe that 3 gods are simultaneously 1 God however much sense that does or does not make” or “We believe that our one God, being totally unique, is comprised of three distinct but equal parts that are not to be considered at all separate” or “We believe in a composite God of 3 parts” or

    It’s not me who suggests the son is something less than the father, it’s the Creed. However, it could be that the Creed’s authors actually knew their scripture well and recognized that the son apparently considered himself to be something less than the father.

    Also, Jews don’t remove anything from any triangle. There is no triangle.

  4. GCC


    I tried to define equality (or full equality) toward the end of the second paragraph of the post. Here it is again a bit more clear: “A result, product, or consequence cannot be its own source. [The source begets the product. The product cannot beget the source.] Therefore, even though the difference is apparently minor, [the source and prodcut are rendered] fully unequal.

    The point is that things that are not fully equality do not deserve equal reverence. The Creed implies that it’s three parts are not fully equal yet its adherents give them equal reverence. One must be wrong. Either the Creed is right and they three parts don’t deserve equal reverence. Or the adherents are right and their Creed conflicts with their practice.

    Also, I’m not sure what part you disagree with. Is it that you don’t think the language renders the 3 gods unequal?

    Lastly, I actually don’t find any of this to be difficult. I’m not suggesting that there must be 3 separate gods. I’m saying that the Nicene Creed says there is. For those that do find the Trinity difficult, I wonder why they would spend so much time settling on a doctrine and then doing so with such horribly imprecise language.

  5. John

    These questions are all addressed in unending detail in patristic texts and the proceedings of the first four ecumenical councils. In particular, your question on God the Father as ultimate source essentially refers to the filioque controversy that has divided Orthodoxy from Catholicism since after the insertion of the word into the Nicene Creed at the Council of Toldeo in 589. None of the above can be understood without reference to Arian heretical disuptes.

    Some essential readings and references with which to start:

    On the Trinity:

    On filioque:

    On Arianism:

    (The above are from the old Catholic Encyclopedia, which is often politically charged, but the patristic references are excellent.)

    As for the precision of language, one could argue that the theologians of the 4th-8th centuries knew their Scriptures far better than anyone today. Not only was the copying of Biblical texts a lengthy and intensely personal process, but they also did not have the (dis)advantage of chapter and verse divisions and English translations; moreover, unlike most modern Christians, they understood the value of Augustine’s Biblical hermeneutics.

    To understand the mysteries of the Trinity requires a great deal of study. It is, after all, a facet of Tradition (with a capital T) because the word does not appear in the NT.

  6. First problem. The Creed does not indicate or teach that the persons are separate individual beings. Distinction does not imply separation. The persons are equal in terms of what they are even if they are not in terms of who they are. The fundamental distincton here is one of person and nature. God is one as to nature and three as to person.

    The point of homoousious is not to show the similarity of father and son but identity of essence or nature. The notion that they were similar beings was the position the creed was crafted against. The notion of begetting is not meant to eliminate a distinction of sourcehood or cause. In fact the Creed indicates that the Son’s person is eternally caused by the Father. Begetting requires a kind of sourcehood that isn’t a kind of making. This is why the key term is homoousious, one essence.

    True you aren’t your father in terms of person, but the creed doesn’t say that the Son is the person of the Father. And while it is true that you share the same nature in a specific way and that way is at best analogous to God, that doesn’t of itself show that what the creed has in mind is mistaken or incoherent.

    The Son and the Spirit while eternally from the Father are also the origin of things created from nothing, which will be everything else. So the Son and the Spirit have no source in terms of being contingent beings. They are eternally from the Father and this is why your comments about something that has a source can’t be a true origin. You are equivocating on the term origin.
    The importance of the Son in the creed is because the Son reveals the Father and the Spirit, which is why space is devoted to the Son and his mission.
    In the Creed the Spirit is not a third God. He would need to be a separate being, but the key term in the creed of homoousious, one essence precludes the spirit and the son from being separate and individual beings. So your conception is a strawman. The language of procession is drawn from Jesus words which indicate a pre-temporal activity. Consequently the Spirit is not a created person.

    As for the filioque, the spirit from the father and the son, this is a later and specifically western addition to the creed and so not representative of Christianity as a whole.

    So nothing here is actually a representation of trinitarianism, but of some other view, namely tri-theism. If you are going to critique a position, you need to figure out what it is first and it seems this has not been accomplished.

  7. GCC


    Welcome to the discursion! Thanks a lot for your excellent comment. It appears you have an interesting site as well, so I’ll be making my rounds over there to read your stuff.

    The point here is that the Nicene Creed indicates a source for at least two of the three entities, regardless of how closely related or similar those entities are in essence or anything else.

    It seems that we agree that the three entities discussed in the Creed are not fully equal. The comment indicates quite clearly that the three entities are not equal as to who they are even though they may be equal in what they are. That’s precisely my point. These entities can share every single characteristic (and everything else for that matter) except one: The effect (the latter two entities) cannot also be the cause of their cause. This difference is the key to their inequality, according to the Nicene Creed.

    It appears that there’s an emphasis on the concept of being “eternally begotten” in an effort to demonstrate that the Creed’s son and spirit have no source, and can therefore be the origin of all things. Since my point is about the imprecision of the language of this creed in expressing what its adherents believe, I’ll start from that point of view. Whether the begetting that happens is historical, eternal, or anything else, we are only dealing with a modification of the act of begetting. The begetting, and thus presence of a source, isn’t removed by an adverb. So, whether the begetting process happened before time as we understand it, or it continuously happens on another plane of time that we cannot experience, or (fill in your own temporal modification of the begetting process), it is still a process of begetting which includes a cause and an effect. The cause would be necessary, and the effect would be contingent.

    I think the part of this comment that most addresses the point I’m trying to make is missing some words, so I’m not completely sure what it’s really trying to say: “[The Son and Spirit] are eternally from the Father and this is why your comments about something that has a source can’t be a true origin.” Using context though, I’m going to try to piece something together.

    It is suggested that the son and spirit are the “origin of things created from nothing.” Fine. Then the leap is made that that implies necessarily that the son and spirit have no source. Not fine. How does that work? That’s not in the Creed. Things that have sources are very often the source of subsequent things. So it’s entirely possible that a begotten son and a proceeding spirit, which find their source in a father, could then be the creative force and source for something (even everything) else. All this thinking does is further underscore the apparent tiers the Creed considers to exist between then elements of its god, and then further on down the line to Creation.

    I think I like the analysis of the spirit relative to the term homoousious. (Would a simple – and human – way to explain the unity of essence be to describe the spirit as an appendage of the father, a part of the father?) Although, I don’t see in the Creed a specific reference to the spirit being of one essence with the father or anyone else, so again, while the concept of the spirit being of one essence with everybody else is a good one, the Creed doesn’t appear to speak to that. Furthermore, being of the same essence still does not eliminate the source/product relationship indicated by the begetting and proceeding. If the focus is on the unity of essence, then the Creed could leave out the begetting and proceeding, no? Something like: “We believe in the Son and the Holy Spirit, through whom in being one essence with the Father all things were made.” It could use some poetic modification, but it seems to cover the homoousious thing nicely. I don’t see how the term “origin” can be equivocal. I see even less how my use of it could be considering I set it next to other words in an effort to further clarify its already exceedingly clear meaning.

    I agree that it’s important to recognize that the filioque issue should not be considered to be representative of all Christianity. I much prefer the earlier version actually. I also think it may very well be right that this post does not discuss Trinitarianism, but rather tritheism. And, again, that’s the point. The post discusses the language of the Nicene Creed, which seems to lean rather tritheist. Which leads me to say finally, and again again, I’m not saying that what the Nicene Creed has in mind is mistaken. I’m saying that what I understand the Nicene Creed to have in mind is muddled and confused by its language.

  8. No, the Creed indicates the existence of three hypostases or persons. You are confusing person with being. This is a standard distinction between Ousia and hypostasis in Nicene and post-Nicene theology.

    The issue of causation was also handled at the time in a distinction between agennatos and agenatos with one term denoting cause qua deity and cause qua hypostasis. With regard to the first all the persons of the Trinity are the final cause of things created, with respect to the second, only the Father is the eternal cause of the Son and the Spirit’s persons. Since in the later case it is an eternal causation, you are conflating the two in order to make your point, which is why your argument depends on a strawman.

    The problem is not in fact the imprecision of the language, the problem is an unfamiliarity with the theological discussions both before and after the construction of the creed. You aren’t raising anything that wasn’t discussed in exhaustive detail already.

    As I already noted the begetting is atemporal, so to speak of before and after is a category mistake. Consequently there is no “process.” Furthermore since God ad intra is not being, necessity and contingency are not applicable. This was discussed in depth by the post-Nicene theologians such as Athanasius as well as those known as the three great Cappadocians, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, and Gregory Nazianzen. As a matter of logic, it doesn’t follow that if the cause is necessary that the effect is contingent since necessity can be transferred through logical implication. You confuse contingency with all forms of dependency since it is logically possible for an effect while dependent on its cause for it to be the case that it is impossible for the effect to be otherwise.

    As I noted before and above, the F,S and HS are all the source of all created things, while it is also true that the Son and the Spirit are eternally caused qua hypostasis by the Father. The problem is that you think that all causation and dependence implies that the effect is created and it doesn’t. This is why you haven’t really grasped the Christian position.

    The fact that it may not be explicit in the Creed is irrelevant since it was discussed at length and anyone familiar with the literature of the time as well as the contemporary scholarly literature on Nicene Trinitarianism knows this. Its common knowledge. I’d suggest becoming familiar with (that means actually reading the literature for yourself) the literature first rather than working simply from the Creed which is a summary.

    No, appendage would not be adequate since that would be a different instance of the same type, hence two beings or two deities. The section on the Spirit was constructed not at Nicea, but at Constantinople in 381 against the Pneumatomochoi who denied the full divinity of the Spirit. Consequently its language denoting the Spirit as “Lord” and “Creator of Life”, titles ascribed to deity. If you don’t find that compelling, then I’d suggest reading the primary and secondary literature on the Neo-Arianism of the late Arian controversy from 360-381. Its not a controversial point. Basil’s On the Holy Spirit is a primary source text demonstrating the belief that the Spirit is of the same essence as the F and the S. The problem is that you are reading the Creed as a modern person without an awarness of its history and the theology surrounding it so what you may or may not see is not an adequate guide to the intentions of its constructors and hence what the creed in fact means in its statements and terms.

    Being of the same essence is not supposed to eliminate the language that the person (but not the essence) of the Son and the Spirit are from the Father since that is clear biblical language.
    As for Tri-theism, the Creed does not explicitly advocate it and its crafters and defenders explicitly argued against Tri-theism. So if you think the creed teaches it, you are going to have to give an argument to show that it does. So far, I haven’t seen one that shows how we get from what the creed in fact means to the idea of tri-theism. What you have done is import rather physical conceptions for key terms back into the creeds text and then concluded from that that it teaches tri-theism, rather than working from the intentions of its crafters and defenders as explicated in primary source literature. Consequently, I think the confusion is located elsewhere than the creed.

  9. GCC


    Thanks for another great comment. Looks like there are some good reading suggestions too. I can’t now but I’ll respond soon.

    I’m glad you happened upon this post.

  10. GCC,

    If you’re serious, there are a number of scholarly books on the subject.

    Hanson’s, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, is massive, exhaustive and the standard work right now.

    Anatolios’, Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought, is also excellent.

    Barnes and William’s, Arianism After Arius

    Nicea and its Legacy by Lewis Ayres

    And last but not least, Behr’s, The Way To Nicea, and his The Nicene Faith, are also quite helpful

    These are all well recognized scholars and works and anyone working in the field at any major university in the English speaking world will be aware of them. I hope that helps.

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