The Orthodox Heretic

The unusual pairing of these two terms – orthodox and heretic – is not meant to be provocative but a genuine description of an early theologian who shaped what Christians still confess and yet he was also someone who got himself into trouble with the heresiarchs [over universalism and his anthropology]. I am referring to Origen (not Origin) whose understanding of the relationship of Jesus to the Father is the orthodox position. We are looking at the fine small and readable book by Ronald Heine, Classical Christian Doctrine: Introducing the Essentials of the Ancient Faith.

Origen articulated what is now called the “eternal generation of the Son.” We confess it as “begotten, not made.”

The issue was the belief from the New Testament that Jesus was divine/God. Does this mean “two Gods”? (We looked at this last week.) If Jesus is God, if the Father is God, what is the relationship of the Father to the Son? In particular, was there a time when the Son was not? If the Son had a beginning (made, not begotten) then how can he be God in the sense of eternal?

Origen appealed to two arguments for the eternal generation and eternity of the Son:

First, Origen used Aristotle’s way of defining terms and the issue here is about “correlatives”: if there is a Father, there is a Son. (If there is a slave, there must be a master.) There is no such thing as a Father without a Son, nor such a thing as a Son without their being a Father. And, correlatives have simultaneity: if the Father is essentially, or eternally Father, then there is an essential and eternal Son. Simultaneous to being Father there is Son. If the Father is eternally, there is the eternal Son.

Second, John 1:1 says “the Word was God” and not “the Word came to be God,” the latter implying a time when the Word was not God. Hence, the exegetical evidence states the Son is eternal because the Son is/was God.

Therefore, the Son’s relation to the Father is one of eternal generation (this refers to Fathering and “Son-ing”).

This is orthodox Christian christology.

Origen also believed deity was inherent to the nature of Christ though humanity is something the Son assumed.

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  • One thing I’ve become wary of doing in the last few years is affirming particular phrases that I’m not sure are actually biblical. In this case ‘eternally begotten’ seems to be a logical conclusion, but not necessarily a biblical one. One thing that makes me hesitant in this example is that all instances of Jesus being described as ‘begotten’ in the bible are his conception or birth, his resurrection, and his accession as priest or king. The reason I am wary of calling Origen’s idea, or any other patristic writer’s ideas, as ‘the’ orthodox position is not because it can’t be true, but because it is not explicitly biblical… hence, wouldn’t identifying their ideas (that are not explicitly biblical) as ‘the’ orthodox ones practically require taking their words as equally authoritative to the bible’s?

  • Jon G

    “if there is a Father, there is a Son. (If there is a slave, there must be a master.) There is no such thing as a Father without a Son, nor such a thing as a Son without their being a Father.”

    I find this to be kind of a weak argument. Not because Father’s don’t have sons or slaves masters, but the term “Father” came from the OT and you’ll have a hard time justifying that anybody in the OT thought God had a son in the way Trinitarians do. They called God Father because He fathered Creation, or the Nation of Israel, but not because of Jesus. This is EXACTLY why I have a problem with Trinitarians…they don’t seem to care how much the doctrine is a departure from what the OT authors believed. It’s almost an afterthought…

  • Andrew Dowling

    I find Origen the most intriguing of the Church Fathers, but I agree with you here . . . all sorts of neo-Platonic/Aristolian ideas got enmeshed into Christian orthodoxy in its early centuries that would have been very odd to Jesus’s Jewish disciples.

    A great example is the idea of God the Father and Jesus the Son. Jewish Christians in the 1st century used the term Son of God as a term of reverence-to be called a Son of God didn’t impart divinity, and it didn’t mean God had a “literal” divine son in human form in Jesus. That was an idea from pagan Rome, in which the Gods begat numerous sons and daughters on a regular basis (and as Roman emperors were called ‘Son of God,’ there’s the argument that calling Jesus Son of God was also a way to thumb at the established Roman Order ie Jesus is Lord, Caesar is Not etc.)

  • Mark –

    This is an interesting topic – the development of doctrine. We believe that many of our theological assumptions, though not explicit in Scripture, are at least implicit. But I also wonder if our assumptions about what is implicit and the development of certain doctrines were taken too far at times. Having said that, I also very much believe in respecting church tradition. We don’t have a canon without the church fathers (though I believe this falls under the providence of God), and it is the agreed upon canon (though there are about 4 accepted canons across varying church branches) that helps us formulate and develop a more clear & precise theology. The church agreed upon a canon; the church agreed upon implicit doctrines. It’s possible we went off track, though I am no conspiracy theorist, again respecting church history. I simply think my tradition of evangelicalism needs to take their foot of the pedal a little bit in regards to belief and proclamation that everything is so clear in Scripture. I think there is a little more breathing space in understanding theology.

    So this is why I appreciate some of the more narrative-historical hermeneutics from people like NT Wright, James Dunn, EP Sanders, and even more strongly Andrew Perriman ( We easily approach the Bible as a written systematic text given to tell us about the Trinity, the hypostasic union of Christ, etc. But the first century, second temple Jewish focus (of which is the context of our New Testament text) really didn’t approach things in such a way. You can find this is writings like Wright, but even more in Perriman.

    It’s a challenge that keeps me still seeking, still studying, and trying to remain humble in my conclusions.

  • scotmcknight

    Yes, but the “correlative” and “simultaneity” elements are not the whole of his argument. Also is the exegetical, from John 1:1, and the word “was” vs. “came to be.” This is a biblical argument that can’t be blamed on the Greek “categories” of Aristotle.

  • scotmcknight

    Jon G, I have the same response to the word “Father” for it can mean “creator” and not just “Father of the Son.” Yet, the NT clearly uses the word “Father” for God and if “Father” who then is the Son? Is not the word “Father” especially emphasized in John where also the word “Son” is prominent?

  • Jon G

    Yes, exactly, Andrew. I would much prefer if we understood the term “Son of Man/God” as “he who speaks for/represents Man/God” and in the case if Jesus, I believe since no human was ever sufficient before to properly represent Man/God, Jehovah did it Himself. God stepped in to fill the role that humans could not.

  • Jon G

    Honest question for you Scot, and I’m sure it’s because I’m naive to biblical translations, but isn’t John 1:1 literally read “…and God was the Word.” Instead of “and the Word was God”?

    I’m wondering if it’s not possible that we reverse the order because of commitments to Trinitarians doctrine rather than translation…

  • I suspect the starting point in Origen’s mind about Father correlating to Son is not “Father” language in the Hebrew Bible, but the curious way Yeshua spoke of his Father. The Jewish apostles made a jump from the vague hints of divinity on Yeshua’s self-descriptions to a realization of the connection between Yeshua and God that is analogous to the relationship of the Glory of the Lord to the Lord himself, or analogous to the relationship between God’s Spoken Word of creation to God himself.

  • scotmcknight

    Jon G, “predicates” and “subjects” are often reversed in a copula. How’s that for some grammar? In other words, “God was the Word” is literal. But “God” has no article and “Word” does so that it is “God” was “the Word,” perhaps tipping us off that “The Word was God” is the more precise translation.

  • Jon G

    Scot, I would totally agree that the NT uses “Father” and “God” as synonamous (especially Paul), and I would even go further to add that the NT emphasizes a relational aspect to “Father” whereas in the OT the term “Son of…” was vocational rather than relational, indeed that’s how Jesus taught us to pray (“Abba, Father”).
    However, just because we are taught in the NT to see the God of the OT in a lovingly patristic light, that doesn’t mean we need to go as far as saying that Jesus is a ‘relational’ son to the Father rather than a ‘vocational’ son. In other words, we can view God’s love for us in a parental-unconditional love sort of manner, without assuming that Jesus is in a “eternal begotten” (whatever that means) sort of relationship with the Father. I think what is being confused is the relational role with the vocational role of sonship.
    Another common example of that is in Jesus’ baptism. I’ll admit that it’s hard to explain away a literal account of seeing/hearing all three aspects of God at once (Jesus, a dove, and a booming voice), but I take the account of the baptism, not as saying we see three distinct personages but that Jesus is being ordained into a vocation (priest – or representative of God). After all, you have a cleansing act, an immediate testimony to Jesus’ age (priests had to be 30-50 years old – Num 4), and then his geneology. It is like an ancient resume.
    We take that passage to say that Jesus and the Spirit and the Father are distinct…but I think Luke is really telling us that Jesus is filling the role that all previous representatives couldn’t (the priests, kings, temples, etc.). Trinity is not the point to the passage.

  • Why NOT take their words as “equally authoritative,” at least in theological meaning? (over against relating events of the earliest “church” or Jesus’ life and words). In a careful analysis (over many, many years now) I can no longer see cause to grant a different order of “authority” or even “revelation” to biblical books vs. other wise, insightful, etc. similar books of the day, or before or since. They record the development of thought and religious practice primarily, although Jesus’ life and teaching did seem to have a kind of exemplary and/or “breakthrough” power and authority. But using supposedly “authoritative” Scripture to create a supposedly “systematic” theology has long gotten Christians in all kinds of trouble, most of it needless.

  • I feel like this actually reinforces my concerns. I don’t see ‘the Bible’ (working from a common definition of what texts that consists of) as laying out a systematic theology. Insisting, then, that a post-Biblical articulation of thought is the orthodox one (e.g. that all Christians must affirm that Jesus was ‘eternally begotten’) seems like it’s going too far in demanding us to believe something that was not explicitly ‘apostolic’ in origin. Especially when the writers we get such ideas from outright say that their own writings are not authoritative in the same was as the apostolic literature.

  • One thing is certain: eternal generation and thus consubstantiality are the crux of the matter—in that context during that time. I think the trick is to let the apparent antinomies lie.

  • Nathan Willard

    I think you missed part of the argument.

    “. . . if the Father is essentially, or eternally Father,
    then there is an essential and eternal Son.” If all we had was the OT we may only understand God the Father as Father in relation to creation, which would mean God would not be essentially, or eternally Father.”

    If you miss this point you miss the crux of Trinitarian thought.
    God is a being eternally and by nature in relationship as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is why we can say that God is Love; God did not just begin to love when he created other beings to love. So If God is essentially and eternally love then God must be essentially and eternally in relationship. (I can’t find the reference but I learned this idea from G.K. Chesterton. Until I read it I – though Trinitarian, mainly in my assertion that Jesus is God – did not care much about Trinitarian theology.)

  • Jon G

    I did not miss that part of the argument. I deny that argument. It is a bad argument.
    Firstly, we are time-bound creatures – in our existence and in our thinking. God is not. So it makes little sense to say that God MUST be anything in terms of eternality. If Time was created, say, at the Big Bang, then the question of “what came BEFORE the Big Bang” is a nonsensical question. Similarly, God could not be “eternal” until while outside of Time. Or if you want to say that “eternal” means outside of Time, then you still couldn’t used it to say that God has “always” been anything because “always” is a time-dependant term.
    Secondly, I have a problem with anyone, in our limited capacities, saying what God can or can’t essentially be. We are not capable of fully understanding God. That doesn’t mean we can’t THINK things about God, or have good inclinations about God…but beware of certainties.
    Now, the term “Father” was an anthropological term used by Biblical authors to describe thier encounters with God. That doesn’t mean that they were right or accurate. I’m not saying that I disagree with God as Father, just that it is one phrase used to help us understand God. It shouldn’t be taken literally and then built into doctrine and dogmas.

    “So If God is essentially and eternally love then God must be essentially and eternally in relationship.”

    I agree that God is Love, because He acts self-sacrificially in order to bring shalom to others, but let’s not get wrapped up in having to explain HOW He is Love…or at least let’s not assume one explanation is sufficient especially in light of our inability to understand the eternal.

  • christinaarcher

    It makes sense and is a very good explanation of an early Church Father.

  • Nathan Willard

    We can’t speak of God except from our very limited time/space bound perspective. So for the sake of speaking as sensically about a being who is beyond our senses and logic I’m willing to throw out any statements about God’s “eternal” being. But in regards to God’s “essential” – or should we say elemental – nature I do believe God is capable of revealing a glimpse of that nature to us? I believe God has revealed that God is a being in relationship – in essence triad not monad.

  • Jon G

    So, in other words, you’re saying God is dependant. He CAN’T be loving, in essence, unless there’s an object for him to love. I think that’s a dangerous assertion. Also, I think that’s a lot to take from one single verse in the Bible. What if John was just being poetic?

    Look, I see what you’re getting at but it’s a long way from evidence necessitating God having to be Triune.

  • Nathan Willard

    Yes, that’s what I’m saying. And since God is not dependent on another being, God must be in relationship with God. I think this is a wonderful assertion. And I don’t make it based upon one verse. I think there’s a little more biblical evidence than that for the triune nature of God. Still God does not need to be Triune, but I believe a non-Triune God would be very different from the God revealed in the Bible.

    Now I will admit that if we just left Scripture alone and didn’t try to explain it in a systematic manner we may be able to avoid such assertions. But since the door has been opened it can’t be closed; and much of what we do is simply try to counter what we feel is harmful teaching (heresy). In doing so we certainly at times must make distinctions which are a bit more black and white than reality actually is. We create models which help us simplify and understand reality, but we must remember these are just models. I certainly cannot comprehend God, but based upon Scripture I will assert that Jesus is God and in order for Jesus to be God, God cannot be a monad.

  • Jon G

    I should clarify, I meant “God is Love” only appears one time – at least explicitly. That claim necessitates your search for how God is Love in essence…which necessitates your search for how God has always been Love…which leads you to conclude with Trinity. Your impetus for God being Triune is that He is Love at essence and eternally.
    My point is that the start of your search is based on one verse and I don’t think that’s enough to build a doctrine around that most people claim is “essential”.
    I’ll concede that your Triune beliefs come from more than one verse but I deny that Trinity HAS to be the explanation for God’s being Love.

  • vkendall

    I am a bit late but feel I need to get in on this thread. I was in seminary when I discovered the Eastern Orthodox church. I converted and have not looked back. I feel it is important to point out that from an Orthodox perspective,

    Origen, though respected in some ways by the Orthodox church, had many ideas that the Church considers heretical. As such, it is important in reading his works that we have an experienced spiritual teacher and guide. I think a key phrase here from your post, Scot, is “First, Origen used Aristotle’s way of defining terms”. Orthodoxy is a faith much more of the heart than of the head. From what I have observed, Protestants tend to latch on to Origen more easily than many of the other fathers of the church, which is understandable from the Western “logical” perspective, but from the Orthodox side of things, he is rather a perilous position from which to view the whole of Orthodox teaching.

    The problem with the Protestant approach to teaching is that it is often difficult for one to admit that one’s own understanding of a text could be incomplete or in error. Many of the desert fathers of the Church teach “never trust yourself” in spiritual matters. (see “Unseen Warfare”, edited by St. Theophan the Recluse).

    I think you can see from the tone of the thread comments that we tend to get so focused on the logical understanding that we miss the whole spiritual point. Sometimes “I don’t understand” is an acceptable answer, and we must respond in faith and trust. . .”seeing through a glass darkly” et al.