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Who does not recognize in this, the grossness of Tertullian made still grosser? It is not enough to say, with Tertullian, that the Logos was produced in that moment, when God said Let there be light; but the fact that the breath of God was propelled from the mouth, in an audible word, instead of flowing silently through the nostrils, makes the difference in nature, between the Son and the angels.
In respect to spiritual ideas of the divine Being, we may well ask, How much had Lactantius advanced, by his profession of Christianity, beyond his previous heathen condition?
But I find myself already in the fourth century, and with unfeigned pleasure recur to my original design, to investigate the opinions of only the early fathers. Here then I stop; and here I will end this long letter, and tedious, but I hope not useless investigation, after two or three remarks.
I have forborne to recite the testimonies of
Bishop of Rome, A. D. 255-269; not because I intended to pass him by, but to continue unbroken the testimonies of those, who appeared to be of an opinion, similar to that of Justin and others before cited. I take this opportunity of saying, that Dionysius appears, from the fragment of his address to the Sabellians and their opponents in Africa, preserved by Athanasius,* to have been very nearly, if not quite, of the same opinion with that expressed in the creed of the Council of Nice.
* Athanas. de decret. Synod. Nic. § 26. Tom. I. p. 231. 332. edit. Benedict.
With the exception of this single father, I have not been able to find testimonies in any other early writer of eminence, in favour of the doctrine of eternal generation, as stated in the Nicene creed. Origen, and probably some of his immediate disciples, maintained this doctrine; but on different grounds from those of the Council of Nice. Their ground of argument was rather philosophical than Scriptural; believing that a generation in time, would detract from the immutability of the divine nature. The creed attributed to Lucian is indefinite; the anathema added at the close of the baptismal formula, somewhat uncertain in its origin. The genuineness of the creed attributed to Gregory Thaumaturgus, is very suspicious; altogether too much so to be relied on. Irenaeus, more scriptural and less tainted with philosophy than any of the early fathers, Greek or Roman, has forborne, in any special manner, to explain his views on the point in question, holding all speculations about it to be unlawful; although from one of his expressions, it appears probable that he embraced the common doctrine.
But waving all the difficulties which lie in the way of obtaining satisfactory evidence in favour of the doctrine of eternal and necessary generation, from the opinions of the fathers and creeds just named; and conceding that they are to be reckoned in favour of this doctrine; can I say with you, that "the early Christian writers constantly declared that it was firmly to be believed?" With the evidence before me, which the preceding pages develope, it is impossible for me to say this. I retire then from the investigation of the historical fact, which has thus far occupied me, with overwhelming doubts of the position which you have advanced in re
gard to it; and sick, to the bottom of my heart, of all the philosophical speculations among the fathers, on the manner in which the distinctions or persons of the Godhead are related to each other.
REV. AND DEAR SIR,
Having completed my investigation of the opinions of the early Fathers, I might now proceed to the scriptural investigation of the doctrine in question. But there is an inquiry which has occurred to my own mind, and which I presume will naturally occur to the mind of others, respecting the rise of the Nicene Creed, that ought not to be passed in silence. If the predominant opinion of the leading Fathers, in the second and third centuries, be such as has now been represented; how came it to pass, that a general Council of several hundred bishops, assembled at Nice in A. D. 325, should by an overwhelming majority adopt and sanction the doctrine of eternal generation?
A protracted and laboured answer to this question, would be out of place here. I shall only state in a few words, the views which, so far as I am acquainted with the subject, I have been led to entertain.
(1.) The Arian party had made a great schism in the church; and the natural consequence of the strong opposition to it, which arose from some of the most distinguished divines of that time, was a revolt to an opinion, which seemed to be very conspicuously oppo
site. Arius maintained that Christ was a created being and produced in time. His opponents took opposite ground in both these respects; averring that he was begotten and eternally begotten.
(2.) The difficulties, which continually arose out of the opinions of Justin, Tertullian, and others of the same sentiments, became more and more palpable, as the church became more enlightened in respect to the true nature of the divine Being, and of the doctrines of the New Testament, and were farther removed from the religion and philosophy of the heathen. How the Logos could be God and yet be begotten in time, was a difficulty at which multitudes were stumbled; and if this were in truth conceded, the way to embrace Arianism seemed to be open, and accompanied with little difficulty. It was the natural effect of more enlightened ideas of the divine Nature, and of a wish to remove a stumbling block from the path of plain Christians, that the generation of the Son should come to be regarded as eternal.
The Nicene Creed is unquestionably a very great advance, in respect to rational views of God, upon the predominant speculations of the second and third Centuries, in regard to this subject. Whatever difficulties may attend it, I think no one, enlightened in regard to the spirituality and immutability of the divine Nature, can now hesitate to say, that it is incomparably preferable to the sentiments of most of the fathers whose views have been developed in the preceding pages. The Son, who is acknowledged as God, has divine honours and attributes ascribed to him. He differs from the Father, only in the fact that he is begotten, or derived from him; but still is represented as always coexistent
with him. To all who believe in the true divinity of Christ, this must appear incomparably more consistent than the doctrine of simple antemundane generation. And indeed, so satisfactory has this view been to the Church in general, that ever since the time of the council of Nice, with the exception of the occasional predominancy of Arianism, it has been acquiesced in by far the greater part of the Christian world. In respect to this fact, I have no doubt; and I most cheerfully concede it. I acknowledge that I feel strongly moved by its influence; and I hesitate whether it would not be adventurous, and whether it may not subject me to the imputation of hankering after new and paradoxical opinions, to endeavour to establish the correctness of a sentiment, which differs from that which has been so generally received. But of this more hereafter.
After all, the fact that the Nicene creed maintains the doctrine of eternal generation, cannot prove, by itself, that the leading fathers of the two preceding centuries actually maintained this sentiment. We know that the Church has changed its opinions on various points of religious doctrine, at different times, by the influence of popular and learned men, and powerful reasoners. works of the Antenicene fathers must speak for themselves; and to them I have already made the appeal. Until the testimonies which have been adduced are shown to be irrelevant, or nugatory, whatever may be the difficulties of accounting for the sentiments of the Council of Nice, I must believe, that the Antenicene fathers, in general, did not maintain the doctrine of elernal and necessary generation.
Having expressed with so much freedom my views respecting the sentiments of most of the early fathers, I