As the Spirit and Son bring us to the Father, they not only prompt us to confess his origin-less divinity but also that he is the fruitful root of the Trinity. Out of the Father’s eternal fecundity, Hilary taught us, he lovingly gives in the eternal generation of the Son and procession of the Spirit. What is more, in God’s unfathomable goodness, this fecundity rooted in the Father generously abounds freely causing the creation of the world: “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.”
While the controversies surrounding the Nicene Creed of the fourth century did not directly concern the Father, they did radically shape how the Father is conceived in relation to the Son and Spirit – that is, the way in which he is Father. And while the historical script from AD 325 to 381 advances the status of the Son and Holy Spirit, it does so in the environment of a long shadow cast by the Father. Giving attention to this “shadow” helps us understand what it means to confess, as the Church does at the opening of the Nicene Creed, “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty.”
The Father’s “Shadow”
Pre-Nicene theologians would often speak of the dependence of the Son and Spirit upon the Father and, thereby, argue to some extent for the superiority of the Father. The most influential pre-Nicene theologian for setting the script of the fourth century was Origen of Alexandria. He is a fascinating figure because his theology influenced both sides of the Nicene debates. With regard to the Father, it did not appear to be Origen’s intention to subordinate the Son and Spirit to him. Nonetheless, his theology communicated a clear separation between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The pro-Nicene theologians of the fourth century advance the theological script with the same biblical characters but with greater attention to the whole of Scripture’s pattern of naming the persons of the Godhead. The beneficial result was they faithfully drew out both the unity and diversity between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Within this maturing story culminating in the Nicene Creed, the fourth-century script focuses upon the status of Son and Holy Spirit yet does so always in “dialogue” with the Father.
One might say that rather than being a central protagonist in the narrative surrounding the Nicene Creed, the Father is a “supporting” character; but only a supporting character in the sense that Gandalf is a supporting character within the story of The Lord of the Rings. Gandalf is a character who is not central in terms of physical or verbal presence, yet nonetheless dominates indirectly through his specific background and relations with the main characters. The example of Gandalf highlights a character who is often known through how others respond to him and how he affects key situations in the narrative. The Lord of the Rings is not about him per se, but the story cannot be told without him and the intricate web of relations his character upholds. He looms over everything.
The remainder of this article with illustrate this precise point through two pro-Nicene theologians who were crucial to the final victory of Nicene thought in the Church. First, we will learn from Hilary of Poitiers (AD c. 315 – 367) who was from modern day France and wrote in Latin yet travelled to the eastern part of the Roman Empire and dialogued with Greek-speaking theologians. Second, we will learn from Gregory of Nazianzus (AD 329 – 390) who is known as one of the Cappadocian Fathers. Gregory was from modern day Turkey and for a time presided over the proceedings of the Council of Constantinople (381), which was responsible for the final form of the Nicene Creed we recite today.
Hilary of Poitiers on the Fruitful Father
The focus of Hilary’s Trinitarian arguments was on generation from the Father, which he often articulated in terms of an eternal “birth” (Latin: Nativitas). Hilary’s theological reasoning began with the Trinitarian names revealed in the New Testament. In particular, in his monumental work On the Trinity Hilary focuses on the words “Father” and “Son” as leading to the centrality of the birth to our understanding of the Trinity. When we confesses “Father” or “Son” we are immediately led, through these divine names and their mutual entailments, to a confession that the Son is begotten of the Father. Through the eternal birth Hilary stresses that the Father and Son have the same nature, while also insisting that there exists a real distinction (though not a separation) between them. The unity and distinction of the Father and Son revealed through the birth is explained within Hilary’s thought by examining the “gift” given from the Father and received by the Son.
In explaining the eternal birth Hilary uses languages that initially makes an orthodox Trinitarian theologian nervous:
The Father is greater than the Son, and surely greater, since he allows him to be as great as he himself is, since he bestows the image of his
unbegotten nature upon him by the mystery of the birth, since he begets him from himself into his own form.
While Hilary will use language of “greater” for the Father because of his gift of the divine nature to the Son through the order of the eternal birth, at the same time he will say the Son is “not less” because of his full reception of the gift from the Father.
Through Hilary’s emphasis on eternal birth he highlights what he sees as the Father’s identity. Though he is appropriately reticent in his speech on this point, what explains the Father’s giving through the birth points to something about the Father’s character. In On the Trinity 9.61 Hilary says, “God does not know how to ever be anything else than love, nor to be anything else than the Father.”