Oneself in Another

Oneself in Another June 27, 2017

In his study of The Power of God in the Trinitarian theology of Gregory of Nyssa, Michel Rene Barnes distinguishes what he calls “Nicene” theology from later “pro-Nicene” theology. One of the key issues has to do with the conception of divine power, and the way it is elaborated in connection with the Father-Son relation. 

Arians taught a “double power” theory: “Both Arius and Asterius seem to have taught that titles like Wisdom, Power, Word are used in two senses. In the first of these two senses, such titles refer to specific qualities or properties in God. . . . In the second of the two senses, Wisdom, Power, Word are primarily (but not exclusively) titles of the Son. These titles refer primarily to the Son because of his status as perfect creature, but other creatures may properly be called by these titles insofar as they fulfill God’s will” (128-9).

The pro-Nicene position links nature and power. God is simple. His being and attributes are identical. If He has one nature, He must have one power, a power shared by all the Persons who share the divine nature. This is the position of Augustine, who concludes (in Book 7 of de Trinitate) that the Father cannot generate a Son who is powerful without having His own power. The Persons share in one power. 

Augustine spends Book 6 trying out what Barnes describes as the “Nicene” position, represented above all by Athanasius. Athanasius takes 1 Corinthians 1:24 at face value: Christ the Son is the Wisdom and Power of God. Wisdom and Power are names of the Son. Since the Son is the Father’s own, inherent in the Father’s being as Father, in the bosom of the Father, the Son is the Father’s own (idios) Wisdom and Power. In part, this is an anti-Arian argument (what isn’t in Athanasius): If the Son is God’s Wisdom and Power, and the Son, on Arian premises, isn’t eternal, then once God was without Wisdom and Power. Denying the Son’s eternity is an insult to the Father, implying that the Father was once foolish and impotent.

Athanasius’s position can be pressed beyond what Athanasius explicitly affirms. The Son is the Father’s own wisdom, power, and godhead, yet the Son is also another. The Father possesses His power and wisdom only in and by the Son. It is His own, but it is His own in another. The Father is Himself only as He begets the Son who is His Power and Wisdom, just as the Son is Himself only by being begotten by the Father. A sonless Father would be without power and wisdom (and hence without Godhead as such); a fatherless Son would be a similarly pathetic being. Neither could be Himself without the other. If the Father is radically dependent on the Son He begets, and the Son dependent on the Father who begets Him, Father and Son are both radically ecstatic, each having His “own” being in the other. 

Augustine considers this interpretation of 1 Corinthians 1:24 nonsensical: How can anyone generate power without a prior possession of power? That objection assumes a questionable understanding of power. It assumes that power itself is a quasi-substance rather than inherently relational. Or, it treats power on the model of physical power, which one possesses “in oneself.”

In fact, most forms of power are ecstatic. Does a general have power “in himself” distinct from and prior to his capacity to deploy troops and weapons? No; his power consists precisely in His ability to delegate, to make others do things. A general’s power is entirely dependent on the actions of others; it is lodged outside himself. Even the most brutish tyrant has to get others to act, though he may do it with physical threats. The most powerful human beings are the ones whose power is most diffused. 

One might say: With God, it’s different. Human power is dependent on others, while the Father has power “in Himself.” That’s what makes Him God. That rebuttal assumes an answer to the question in dispute, whether or not the Father’s power is, like human power, dependent on another, the Son. Athanasius argues that it is, and calls on Paul for support. If power is inherently ecstatic, then Augustine’s question of whether the Father has power “in Himself” is itself nonsensical. 

With the suggestion that God’s being and attributes are themselves relationally qualified, that the Father has power only in the Son and the Son is the Father’s power only as He is begotten by the Father, Athanasius opens out in a direction similar to that of the “personalist” theologies of the past two centuries. The gap between “classical” and “modern” Trinitarian conceptions isn’t as wide as some have suggested.


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