[This will be the first of a series of posts on the Trinitarian views of the early church fathers, particularly focused on the way in which they view the relationship between the Father and Son. I don’t know how long this series will be, but as a general outline of what each post will look like, I plan to include 1) a brief biography of the author, 2) the author’s own statements on the Father and Son in their full context, and 3) a concluding summary of these statements in my own words. Let others consider these fathers of Trinitarianism heretical anti-Trinitarians if they dare, but if so, may they also show such from Scripture.]
Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria at the time of the construction of the Nicene Creed, was the primary opponent of Arius up to that point in time. He was principally concerned with communicating “knowledge of the Trinity” which had been received as “the apostolic doctrines of the Church” (link). It was of him that Athanasius, his deacon, wrote (link):
…when Alexander of blessed memory had cast out Arius, those who remained with Alexander, remained Christians; but those who went out with Arius, left the Saviour's Name to us who were with Alexander, and as to them they were hence-forward denominated Arians. Behold then, after Alexander's death too, those who communicate with his successor Athanasius, and those with whom the said Athanasius communicates, are instances of the same rule; none of them bear his name, nor is he named from them, but all in like manner, and as is usual, are called Christians.
In agreeing with Alexander’s statements regarding the subordination of the Son to the Father, then, I show that I am not presenting a historical novelty but rather upholding a mainstream view of the fathers of the Nicene Creed. More importantly, in holding this view I no more count myself as among those who diminish the deity of the Son as would these authors; rather, this view allows me to be able to pay proper respect to the words of the Son Himself who said, “My Father is greater than I.”
11. And let these things be now urged according to our power against those who, with respect to matter which they know nothing of, have, as it were, rolled in the dust against Christ, and have taken in hand to calumniate our piety towards Him. For those inventors of stupid fables say, that we who turn away with aversion from the impious and unscriptural blasphemy against Christ, of those who speak of His coming from the things which are not assert, that there are two unbegottens. For they ignorantly affirm that one of two things must necessarily be said, either that He is from things which are not, or that there are two unbegottens; nor do those ignorant men know how great is the difference between the unbegotten Father, and the things which were by Him created from things which are not, as well the rational as the irrational. Between which two, as holding the middle place, the only begotten nature of God, the Word by which the Father formed all things out of nothing, was begotten of the true Father Himself. As in a certain place the Lord Himself testified, saying, “Every one that loves Him that begot, loves Him also that is begotten of Him.”
12. Concerning whom we thus believe, even as the Apostolic Church believes. In one Father unbegotten, who has from no one the cause of His being, who is unchangeable and immutable, who is always the same, and admits of no increase or diminution; who gave to us the Law, the prophets, and the Gospels; who is Lord of the patriarchs and apostles, and all the saints. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God; not begotten of things which are not, but of Him who is the Father; not in a corporeal manner, by excision or division as Sabellius and Valentinus thought, but in a certain inexplicable and unspeakable manner, according to the words of the prophet cited above: “Who shall declare His generation?” Since that His subsistence no nature which is begotten can investigate, even as the Father can be investigated by none; because that the nature of rational beings cannot receive the knowledge of His divine generation by the Father. But men who are moved by the Spirit of truth , have no need to learn these things from me, for in our ears are sounding the words before uttered by Christ on this very thing, No man knows the Father, save the Son; and no man knows who the Son is, save the Father. That He is equally with the Father unchangeable and immutable, wanting in nothing, and the perfect Son, and like to the Father, we have learned; in this alone is He inferior to the Father, that He is not unbegotten. For He is the very exact image of the Father, and in nothing differing from Him. For it is clear that He is the image fully containing all things by which the greatest similitude is declared, as the Lord Himself has taught us, when He says, “My Father is greater than I.” And according to this we believe that the Son is of the Father, always existing. “For He is the brightness of His glory, the express image of His Father's person.” But let no one take that word always so as to raise suspicion that He is unbegotten, as they imagine who have their senses blinded. For neither are the words, “He was,” or “always,” or “before all worlds,” equivalent to unbegotten. But neither can the human mind employ any other word to signify unbegotten. And thus I think that you understand it, and I trust to your right purpose in all things, since these words do not at all signify unbegotten. For these words seem to denote simply a lengthening out of time, but the Godhead, and as it were the antiquity of the only-begotten, they cannot worthily signify; but they have been employed by holy men, while each, according to his capacity, seeks to express this mystery, asking indulgence from the hearers, and pleading a reasonable excuse, in saying, Thus far have we attained. But if there be any who are expecting from mortal lips some word which exceeds human capacity, saying that those things have been done away which are known in part, it is manifest that the words, He was, and always, and before all ages, come far short of what they hoped. And whatever word shall be employed is not equivalent to unbegotten. Therefore to the unbegotten Father, indeed, we ought to preserve His proper dignity, in confessing that no one is the cause of His being; but to the Son must be allotted His fitting honour, in assigning to Him, as we have said, a generation from the Father without beginning, and allotting adoration to Him, so as only piously and properly to use the words, “He was,” and “always,” and “before all worlds,” with respect to Him; by no means rejecting His Godhead, but ascribing to Him a similitude which exactly answers in every respect to the Image and Exemplar of the Father. But we must say that to the Father alone belongs the property of being unbegotten, for the Saviour Himself said, My Father is greater than I.
While he is everywhere cautious not to speculate as to the nature of eternal generation, in the first paragraph, Alexander abuses the stupidity of those who argue that a denial that the Son is a creation ex nihilo from the Father implies “two unbegottens.” This is a false dichotomy. The nature of the Son is said to hold a “middle place” between creation and the “true Father Himself” from whom He was begotten – here, interestingly, Theodoret, a 5th century early church historian, records Alexander as having said “the self-existent Father” instead of “true Father Himself” (link).
Either way, this middle place preserves the Father’s “proper dignity” as alone unbegotten or without cause, the implication of which is that the Son, because of His generation from the Father, is caused [yet not thereby created]. This is a peculiar property of the Father, and as such, it does not imply a rejection of the Godhead or deity of the Son. For like the Father, the Son is eternal and immutable, having always existed. In fact, as being the perfect image of His Father, He is no different except insofar as He is not unbegotten: “in this alone is He inferior to the Father.” This is the position of “the Apostolic Church.”