9. The Doctrine of the Primogenitus

{199} Because our Lord is a Son, therefore it is that He could make Himself less than a Son; and, unless He had become less than a Son, we should not have learned that He was a Son, for His economical descent to the creature is the channel of our knowledge. This is what I have been insisting on; also, that, since His original Personality thus led on to His Temporal Procession, therefore it is not easy to determine when He acts as the Son, and when merely as the Minister of the Father, and the Mediating Power of the Universe. For instance, in treating of the doctrine of the Incarnation, we find it a question in controversy to determine, whether our Lord's ignorance of the Day of Judgment, Mark xiii. 32, is to be predicated of His Divine Person, or of His human nature, or of the Mediator, as such. Again, since He came "in the form of a servant," was He really made a servant? Again, since He took upon Himself a created nature, can we call Him a creature? He is a Priest, but how? as God or as man? has He, as Emmanuel, one will or two? If, then, these are questions to determine, even when we start from a fact so tangible as His humanity, can we wonder that there should be difficulties, and a danger of mistake, when even the most saintly and most acute minds exercise themselves in treating of what is beyond the phenomena of human experience, viz., His Syncatabasis, or original "Descent to the creature" in order to its existence, life, {200} rule, and conservation? For instance, I should have styled this Condescensio by the name of a "Mission," from the analogy of the Incarnation, except that I thought it not clear that "Mission" is an allowable term, theologically, to apply to it, and whether it should not rather be called a [proeleusis] or "going forth." Others have thought (I consider erroneously) that this [proeleusis] can be called, and has in early times been called, a gennesis, or divine generation. It requires experience in the history of theological terms to decide such questions; and we may freely grant that the early writers, who could not have the experience of times to them future, may have varied and erred in their language about our Lord, and that, in the interest of grievous heresies, without imputing to them any departure from orthodoxy themselves.

To show this in detail, I cannot do better than draw out the great Athanasius's account of our Lord's Syncatabasis, as involved in the creation and preservation of the universe, and then against his statements, so high in their authority, set some of the mistakes in relation to it which are to be found in the language or the thought of certain Ante-nicene writers, in spite of their general concurrence in his teaching. This I now proceed to do.

That it should have been the will of God to surround Himself with creatures destined to live for ever, after an eternity in which He was the sole Being in existence, is a mystery as great as any in religion, natural or revealed. If it were possible for change to attach to the Unchangeable, creation was the act in which change was involved; {201} and, in fact, in order to be intelligible, we are obliged to speak as if He then did pass from a state of repose to an age of unintermitted, everlasting action. The steps of the process in which this change (so to call it) consisted, as Athanasius and other Fathers describe them, are as follows:—

1. First, "He spoke the word;" to whom did God speak? to His Word and Son. "And it was done." Who did it? At the Father's bidding, the Son at once brought the work into effect.

2. But word and deed are consecutive acts, whereas with God they are one act. And to say that the Father addressed the Son is to draw a line, however fine, between the Two, whereas they are transcendently one and the same Being. When, then, it is said, "He spoke the Word," what is meant, is "He uttered the Logos," as elsewhere, "By the Word of the Lord were the heavens made." His Logos is His command, His effectual, self-operating command. Accordingly, it is more consistent with, more conservative of, the co-equality and indivisibility of the Father and His Word, to consider the Word not addressed, but as Himself the Divine Fiat, the Hypostatic Will and Operation, the Counsel, Idea, Design, Purpose, and Effective Force, the Wisdom and Power, which called up the universe out of nothing.

3. This going forth of the Hypostatic Wisdom and Power of God, manifesting Himself externally in creative act, was the commencement of His Temporal Economy, and the immediate introduction of His Syncatabasis.

4. For that first act of creation could not stand alone; {202} other acts necessarily followed. Creation and conservation must go together. The finite could not stand of itself; nay, the finite could not have borne the direct action of the Infinite upon it, as it started into existence under the Divine Hand, unless by the Infinite Itself it had been fortified to bear Its touch; otherwise it would have fallen back into its original nothing, annihilated by the very process of creation. In order, then, to give effect to His work, He who was at the first instant external to it, must, without a moment's delay, enter into it and give it a supernatural strength by His, as it were, connatural Presence (vid. supr. p. 73).

"The Word," says Athanasius, "when in the beginning He framed the creatures, condescended ([sunkatabebeke]) to them, that it might be possible for them to come into being. For they could not have endured His absolute, untempered nature, and His splendour from the Father, unless, condescending with the Father's love for man, He had supported them, and taken hold of them, and brought them into substance." Orat. ii. 64.

This was the first act of His Syncatabasis.

5. It was also the first act of grace, of a gift made to the creation, over and above its own nature, and accompanying that nature from the first:—a divine quality, by which the universe, in the hour of its coming into being, was raised into something higher than a divine work, and was in some sort adopted into a divine family and sonship, so that it was no longer a [geneton] but a [genneton], and that by the entrance, presence, manifestation in it of the Eternal Son. {203}

"By this condescension of the Word," says Athanasius, "the creation also is made a son through Him ([huiopoieitai he ktisis])." Ibid.; vid. also Orat. i. 56, and contr. Gent. 42.

6. Thus He who was the Son of God became in a certain sense Son towards the creation for the sake of it and in it. He was born into the universe, as afterwards He was born in Mary, though not by any hypostatic union with it. This birth was not a figure of His eternal generation, but of His incarnation, a sort of prelude and augury of it.

Thus Athanasius speaks of it:—"If," he says, "the Word of God is in the world, which is a body, and has taken possession of the whole and all its parts, what is wonderful or absurd in our affirming that of man too" (that is, in the Incarnation) "He has taken possession? … for if it becomes Him to enter into the world and to be manifested in the whole of it, also it would become Him to appear in a human body, and to make it the subject of His illumination and action." De Incarn. V. D. 41.

7. Thus the Only-begotten of the Father imputes his Divine Sonship to the universe, or rather makes the universe partaker of His Divine Fulness, by entering, or being (as it may be called) born into it; not, of course, as if He became a mere Anima Mundi, or put Himself under the laws of creation, but still by a wonderful and adorable descent, so as to be, in spite of His supreme rule, the First-born of his creation and of all that is in it, as He afterwards became the First-born of the predestinate, {204} and as St. Paul says, "is formed in their hearts." [Note]

"The Son is called First-born," says Athanasius, "not because He ranks with the creation, but in order to signify the framing and adoption of all things through Him ([tes ton panton demiourgias kai huiopoieseos]). Orat. iii. 9.

8. And, as the supernatural adoption of human nature under the gospel involves a real inward sanctification, so the elevation of the universe in the Divine Son includes an impress of His own likeness upon it. He made Himself its Archetype, and stamped upon it the image of His own Wisdom. He gave it order and beauty, life and permanence, and made it reflect His own perfections. As {205} He was the beginning of the creation of God, in respect of time, so was He its first principle or idea in respect to typical order.

"In my substance," says Athanasius, speaking in the name of Wisdom, "I was with the Father; but, by a condescension ([sunkatabasei])) to things made, I was applying to the works My own impress, so that the whole world, as being in one body, might be, not at variance, but in concord with itself." Orat. ii. 81.

9. It follows that, while the creation was exalted into sonship, the Son, in exalting it, was lowered. His condescension seemed to make Him one of His own works, though of course the first of them; for the greatest and highest glory of creation was not what it had by nature, but what it had by grace, and this was the reflection and image of Him who created it. Thus, as viewed in that reflection, He was a created wisdom, His real self being confused, so to speak, with the reflection of Him; as now we might speak of a crucifix as "golden," "silver," or "ivory," and as being made, when we are not really speaking of Him who was fixed to the Cross, but of His image.

"The only-begotten and Auto-Wisdom of God," says Athanasius, "is Creator and Framer of all things; but, in order that what came into being might not only exist, but be good, it pleased God that His own Wisdom should condescend to the creatures, so as to introduce an impress and semblance ([tupon kai phantasian]) of the image of Wisdom on all in common and on each, that the things which were made might be manifestly wise works, and worthy of God; … and, whereas He is not Himself a {206} creature, but the Creator, nevertheless, because of the image of Him created in the works, He says Himself of Himself, 'The Lord created Me a beginning of His ways for His works.'" Orat. ii. 78.

Thus much Athanasius:—I will corroborate his doctrine by various passages of Augustine, as they occur for the most part in the eighth volume of the Benedictine edition of his works.

He tells us that God created all things by His Word and Only-begotten Son: that in the Word "are all things that are created, even before they are created," and that "whatever is in Him is life, and a creative life;" that "whatever God was purposed to do, was already in the Word, nor would be in the things themselves, were they not in the Word;" that "all nature is corruptible, and thereby tends to nothing, because it is made out of nothing;" but that "as a speaker utters sounds, which have a meaning from the first, so, while God created the world from unformed matter, He withal created its form together with it;" that "while all nature tends to nothing, as coming out of nothing, it is really good as it comes from Him;" that "its good is threefold, consisting in proportion, beauty, and order;" that "those things which have any beauty are divine gifts;" that "the Word, who is equal to God, is the Art of the Omnipotent Artificer, by whom all things are made, an unchangeable and incorruptible Wisdom, abiding in Itself, changing all things;" that "He is a transcendent, living Art, possessed by the Omnipotent and Wise God, full of all ideas that live and are unchangeable;" that we must distinguish between {207} "the two titles 'Only-begotten' and 'First-born,' interpreting the former by the words 'In the beginning was the Word,' and the latter by the Apostle's saying that He is 'First-born among many brothers;'" that, since "they were not such by nature, by believing they received power; that His Son might be Only-begotten with the Father, and First-born towards us;" pp. 81-2, 177, 501-3, 553-5, 850-1, &c.

And this is precisely the doctrine of St. Thomas as regards the "First-born:"—"In quantum solus est verus et naturalis Dei Filius, dicitur unigenitus; in quantum per assimilationem ad ipsum alii dicuntur filii adoptivi, quasi metaphorice dicitur esse primogenitus." Qu. 41, art. 3 (p. 195, t. 20, ed. 1787). And what is true of the new holds of the original creation.

This doctrine, expounded by St. Athanasius, confirmed by St. Augustine and St. Thomas, is in tone and drift very unlike Arianism, which had no sympathy with the mysticism and poetry of Plato; but it had a direct resemblance to the Semi-Arian edition of the heresy, and, if put forward without its necessary safeguards and corrections, as we find them in those great doctors, was likely to open the way to it. To such instances of true doctrine incautiously worded, and imperfectly explained, I shall now proceed.

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Note

[Prototokos] is not an exact translation of Primogenitus, though Homer, as Petavius says, may use [tikto] for gigno. It is never used in Scripture for "Only-begotten." We never read there of the First-born of God, or of the Father; but First-born of the creation, whether the original creation or the new. The Presence of the Son interpenetrates and permeates the world, though in no sense as its soul. Pantheism in natural theology is the error parallel to Monophysitism in revealed. As far as I know, St. Athanasius does not use the comparison, which is found in the creed attributed to him, between the compound nature of man and the mystery of the Incarnation. If our Lord is not fettered by His human nature, when "made flesh," much less is he subjected to His own universe by becoming, as He has become, its First-born, its Archetype and Life. Athanasius protests against both errors in Incarn. V. D. 17. [ou gar sunededeto toi somati, alla mallon autos ekratei touto, k.t.l.] vid. the whole passage. At the time of writing these grand orations, contra Gent, and de Incarn., Athanasius was not more than twenty-five, perhaps only twenty-one; though they have the luxuriance of youth, yet they are standard works in theology.
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