[This will be the second 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. For the first, see here.]
Novatian was a third century early church father whose impressive intellectual capacities facilitated his near rise to the office of the bishop of Rome. Eusebius even records that his opponent Cornelius, who eventually secured the episcopate, admitted he was “remarkable” and “illustrious man,” a “defender of the doctrine of the Church,” though he clearly thought little of his moral character (link). While Jerome notes some of his letters which have apparently not survived, he particularly mentions that his work On the Trinity was “a great volume” and “a sort of epitome of the work of Tertullian” (link), a second century early church father credited as having coined the word “Trinity.” It is to this work (link) I now turn.
In his first eight chapters, Novatian uses Scripture to carefully and with appreciable nuance defend the doctrines of man as image of God, creation, and divine simplicity, timelessness, immutability, incomprehensibility, immanence, providence, accommodation, and perfection. On the whole, he is remarkably efficient. Noteworthy exegetical conclusions include that Isaiah 45:22 and Mark 10:18 both apply to the Father and that the “I AM” statements indicate divine immutability. These eight chapters each refer to the Father, after which he begins chapter 9 by writing:
The same rule of truth teaches us to believe, after the Father, also on the Son of God, Christ Jesus, the Lord our God, but the Son of God—of that God who is both one and alone, to wit the Founder of all things, as already has been expressed above. For this Jesus Christ, I will once more say, the Son of this God, we read of as having been promised in the Old Testament, and we observe to be manifested in the New, fulfilling the shadows and figures of all the sacraments, with the presence of the truth embodied. For as well the ancient prophecies as the Gospels testify Him to be the son of Abraham and the son of David.
He then lists many passages in the Old Testament which anticipate Christ and follows in chapter 10 with a refutation of Docetism. Here, it is sufficient to note that he is clear in his affirmation that the Father is “God who is both one and alone.” This is not to exclude divinity from Christ, as he proceeds to extensively demonstrate from Scripture in chapters 11-22, but from this prelude to his discussion of the Trinity there can already be seen an indication that the Father is God in a peculiar sense. Indeed, in chapter 16, Christ’s relationship with “the one true God” who sent Him – the Father – is why He too is able “to be understood to be God”:
We must not then lean to one side and evade the other side, because any one who should exclude one portion of the truth will never hold the perfect truth. For Scripture as much announces Christ as also God, as it announces God Himself as man. It has as much described Jesus Christ to be man, as moreover it has also described Christ the Lord to be God. Because it does not set forth Him to be the Son of God only, but also the Son of man; nor does it only say, the Son of man, but it has also been accustomed to speak of Him as the Son of God. So that being of both, He is both, lest if He should be one only, He could not be the other. For as nature itself has prescribed that he must be believed to be a man who is of man, so the same nature prescribes also that He must be believed to be God who is of God; but if he should not also be God when he is of God, no more should he be man although he should be of man. And thus both doctrines would be endangered in one and the other way, by one being convicted to have lost belief in the other. Let them, therefore, who read that Jesus Christ the Son of man is man, read also that this same Jesus is called also God and the Son of God.
Just as the reason Jesus is man is that He is by nature of man, so also the reason Jesus is God is that He is by nature of God. He is able to be called man and God because He is by nature the Son of Man and Son of God. He repeats this argument in chapter 21 when he says: “Christ is proved to be not man only, because He was the son of man, but also God, because He is the Son of God?” Thus, He is no more God-of-Himself than He is man-of-Himself. And in chapter 18, in addition to adducing yet another proof of the divinity of Christ, Novatian argues “He is of God, is rightly called God, because He is the Son of God.” In context, he also touches on the subordination of the Son to His Father:
What in the world is the reason that we should hesitate to call Him God, who in so many ways is acknowledged to be proved God? And if, moreover, the angel meets with Hagar, Sarah's maid, driven from her home as well as turned away, near the fountain of water in the way to Shur; asks and learns the reason of her flight, and after that offers her advice that she should humble herself; and, moreover, gives her the hope of the name of mother, and pledges and promises that from her womb there should be a numerous seed, and that she should have Ishmael to be born from her; and with other things unfolds the place of his habitation, and describes his mode of life; yet Scripture sets forth this angel as both Lord and God— for He would not have promised the blessing of seed unless the angel had also been God. Let them ask what the heretics can make of this present passage. Was that the Father that was seen by Hagar or not? For He is declared to be God. But far be it from us to call God the Father an angel, lest He should be subordinate to another whose angel He would be. But they will say that it was an angel. How then shall He be God if He was an angel? Since this name is nowhere conceded to angels, except that on either side the truth compels us into this opinion, that we ought to understand it to have been God the Son, who, because He is of God, is rightly called God, because He is the Son of God. But, because He is subjected to the Father, and the Announcer of the Father's will, He is declared to be the Angel of Great Counsel. Therefore, although this passage neither is suited to the person of the Father, lest He should be called an angel, nor to the person of an angel, lest he should be called God; yet it is suited to the person of Christ that He should be both God because He is the Son of God, and should be an angel because He is the Announcer of the Father's mind. And the heretics ought to understand that they are setting themselves against the Scriptures, in that, while they say that they believe Christ to have been also an angel, they are unwilling to declare Him to have been also God, when they read in the Old Testament that He often came to visit the human race. To this, moreover, Moses added the instance of God seen of Abraham at the oak of Mature, when he was sitting at the opening of his tent at noon-day. And nevertheless, although he had beheld three men, note that he called one of them Lord; and when he had washed their feet, he offers them bread baked on the ashes, with butter and abundance of milk itself, and urges them that, being detained as guests, they should eat. And after I this he hears also that he should be a father, and learns that Sarah his wife should bring forth a son by him; and acknowledges concerning the destruction of the people of Sodom, what they deserve to suffer; and learns that God had come down on account of the cry of Sodom. In which place, if they will have it that the Father was seen at that time to have been received with hospitality in company with two angels, the heretics have believed the Father to be visible. But if an angel, although of the three angels one is called Lord, why, although it is not usual, is an angel called God? Unless because, in order that His proper invisibility may be restored to the Father, and the proper inferiority be remitted to the angel, it was only God the Son, who also is God, who was seen by Abraham, and was believed to have been received with hospitality.
A messenger is subordinate to the one on whose behalf he relates a message. As Christ is the angel, He is subordinate to the Father or subject to His will. Now, it is true that this is related to economic activity, but the reason he is fit for this office has to do with the relations in the immanent Trinity. The Son is suited to the position in question because He is God’s Son, properly inferior in person though not in nature. The footnote to this reference to the Son’s “proper inferiority” in Volume 5 of The Ante-Nicene Fathers appropriately says: “The Nicene doctrine includes the subordination of the Son.” The subordination of the Son is no more economic than the invisibility of the Father who the Son images. And in chapter 22, Novatian uses Philippians 2 to note He is not only the image of God but also the form of God:
If Christ had been only man, He would have been spoken of as in the image of God, not in the form of God. For we know that man was made after the image or likeness, not after the form, of God. Who then is that angel who, as we have said, was made in the form of God? But neither do we read of the form of God in angels, except because this one is chief and royal above all — the Son of God, the Word of God, the imitator of all His Father's works, in that He Himself works even as His Father. He is — as we have declared — in the form of God the Father. And He is reasonably affirmed to be in the form of God, in that He Himself, being above all things, and having the divine power over every creature, is also God after the example of the Father. Yet He obtained, this from His own Father, that He should be both God of all and should be Lord, and be begotten and made known from Himself as God in the form of God the Father. He then, although He was in the form of God, thought it not robbery that He should be equal with God. For although He remembered that He was God from God the Father, He never either compared or associated Himself with God the Father, mindful that He was from His Father, and that He possessed that very thing that He is, because the Father had given it Him. Thence, finally, both before the assumption of the flesh, and moreover after the assumption of the body, besides, after the resurrection itself, He yielded all obedience to the Father, and still yields it as ever. Whence it is proved that He thought that the claim of a certain divinity would be robbery, to wit, that of equalling Himself with God the Father; but, on the other hand, obedient and subject to all His rule and will, He even was contented to take on Him the form of a servant — that is, to become man; and the substance of flesh and body which, as it came to Him from the bondage of His forefathers' sins according to His manhood, He undertook by being born, at which time moreover He emptied Himself, in that He did not refuse to take upon Him the frailty incident to humanity.
The Son did not grasp at the “claim of a certain divinity” – that is, that which is proper to the Father alone – because such would have been a robbery. Rather, the Son was always “mindful that He was from His Father, and that He possessed that very thing that He is, because the Father had given it Him.” Accordingly, He is neither autotheos nor aseity.
In chapters 23-28, Novatian concerns himself with refuting heretics on opposite extremes: those who think these Scriptures prove the Son is the Father, those who think the Son is not human, and those who think the Son is not God. In chapter 26, he again emphasizes the obedience, subjection, and derivation of the eternally begotten Son to and from the Father:
And I should have enough to do were I to endeavour to gather together all the passages whatever on this side; since the divine Scripture, not so much of the Old as also of the New Testament, everywhere shows Him to be born of the Father, by whom all things were made, and without whom nothing was made, who always has obeyed and obeys the Father; that He always has power over all things, but as delivered, as granted, as by the Father Himself permitted to Him. And what can be so evident proof that this is not the Father, but the Son; as that He is set forth as being obedient to God the Father, unless, if He be believed to be the Father, Christ may be said to be subjected to another God the Father?
He makes very similar points in the next chapter:
He is therefore the Son, not the Father: for He would have confessed that He was the Father had He considered Himself to be the Father; and He declares that He was sanctified by His Father. In receiving, then, sanctification from the Father, He is inferior to the Father. Now, consequently, He who is inferior to the Father, is not the Father, but the Son; for had He been the Father, He would have given, and not received, sanctification. Now, however, by declaring that He has received sanctification from the Father, by the very fact of proving Himself to be less than the Father, by receiving from Him sanctification, He has shown that He is the Son, and not the Father. Besides, He says that He is sent: so that by that obedience wherewith the Lord Christ came, being sent, He might be proved to be not the Father, but the Son, who assuredly would have sent had He been the Father; but being sent, He was not the Father, lest the Father should be proved, in being sent, to be subjected to another God.
It is evident Novatian considered that the economic and immanent Trinity are related, for the Father cannot be sent by the Son, nor can the Father be sanctified by the Son. The Son obeys, is less than, and is inferior to the Father. But again, this is strictly a comparison of the relations between persons, not of the natures of the persons. After a brief chapter on the Holy Spirit, Novatian fittingly concludes his treatise by considering how monotheism can be true if in Scripture both the Father and Son are called God. After citing numerous Scriptures demonstrating this to be the case, he concludes chapter 30 with several useful analogies to put heretics on the defensive:
And in the first place, we must turn the attack against them who undertake to make against us the charge of saying that there are two Gods. It is written, and they cannot deny it, that there is one Lord. What, then, do they think of Christ? — that He is Lord, or that He is not Lord at all? But they do not doubt absolutely that He is Lord; therefore, if their reasoning be true, here are already two Lords. How, then, is it true according to the Scriptures, there is one Lord? And Christ is called the one Master. Nevertheless we read that the Apostle Paul also is a master. Then, according to this, our Master is not one, for from these things we conclude that there are two masters. How, then, according to the Scriptures, is one our Master, even Christ? In the Scriptures there is one called good, even God; but in the same Scriptures Christ is also asserted to be good. There is not, then, if they rightly conclude, one good, but even two good. How, then, according to the scriptural faith, is there said to be only one good? But if they do not think that it can by any means interfere with the truth that there is one Lord, that Christ also is Lord, nor with the truth that one is our Master, that Paul also is our master, or with the truth that one is good, that Christ also is called good; on the same reasoning, let them understand that, from the fact that God is one, no obstruction arises to the truth that Christ also is declared to be God.
There is said to be one God, one Lord, one Master, and only one who is good, and yet in other places, other persons are also said to be God, Lord, master, and good. So even if there were a problem for monotheists, these other examples would pose a problem for Sabellians, tritheists, and other heretics too which, if they were to solve those cases, would solve the case for monotheists. The final chapter contains Novatian’s own solution, reproduced here in full:
Thus God the Father, the Founder and Creator of all things, who only knows no beginning, invisible, infinite, immortal, eternal, is one God; to whose greatness, or majesty, or power, I would not say nothing can be preferred, but nothing can be compared; of whom, when He willed it, the Son, the Word, was born, who is not received in the sound of the stricken air, or in the tone of voice forced from the lungs, but is acknowledged in the substance of the power put forth by God, the mysteries of whose sacred and divine nativity neither an apostle has learned, nor prophet has discovered, nor angel has known, nor creature has apprehended. To the Son alone they are known, who has known the secrets of the Father. He then, since He was begotten of the Father, is always in the Father. And I thus say always, that I may show Him not to be unborn, but born. But He who is before all time must be said to have been always in the Father; for no time can be assigned to Him who is before all time. And He is always in the Father, unless the Father be not always Father, only that the Father also precedes Him — in a certain sense — since it is necessary — in some degree — that He should be before He is Father. Because it is essential that He who knows no beginning must go before Him who has a beginning; even as He is the less as knowing that He is in Him, having an origin because He is born, and of like nature with the Father in some measure by His nativity, although He has a beginning in that He is born, inasmuch as He is born of that Father who alone has no beginning. He, then, when the Father willed it, proceeded from the Father, and He who was in the Father came forth from the Father; and He who was in the Father because He was of the Father, was subsequently with the Father, because He came forth from the Father — that is to say, that divine substance whose name is the Word, whereby all things were made, and without whom nothing was made. For all things are after Him, because they are by Him. And reasonably, He is before all things, but after the Father, since all things were made by Him, and He proceeded from Him of whose will all things were made. Assuredly God proceeding from God, causing a person second to the Father as being the Son, but not taking from the Father that characteristic that He is one God. For if He had not been born — compared with Him who was unborn, an equality being manifested in both — He would make two unborn beings, and thus would make two Gods. If He had not been begotten — compared with Him who was not begotten, and as being found equal — they not being begotten, would have reasonably given two Gods, and thus Christ would have been the cause of two Gods. Had He been formed without beginning as the Father, and He Himself the beginning of all things as is the Father, this would have made two beginnings, and consequently would have shown to us two Gods also. Or if He also were not the Son, but the Father begetting from Himself another Son, reasonably, as compared with the Father, and designated as great as He, He would have caused two Fathers, and thus also He would have proved the existence of two Gods. Had He been invisible, as compared with the Invisible, and declared equal, He would have shown forth two Invisibles, and thus also He would have proved them to be two Gods. If incomprehensible, if also whatever other attributes belong to the Father, reasonably we say, He would have given rise to the allegation of two Gods, as these people feign. But now, whatever He is, He is not of Himself, because He is not unborn; but He is of the Father, because He is begotten, whether as being the Word, whether as being the Power, or as being the Wisdom, or as being the Light, or as being the Son; and whatever of these He is, in that He is not from any other source, as we have already said before, than from the Father, owing His origin to His Father, He could not make a disagreement in the divinity by the number of two Gods, since He gathered His beginning by being born of Him who is one God. In which kind, being both as well only-begotten as first-begotten of Him who has no beginning, He is the only one, of all things both Source and Head. And therefore He declared that God is one, in that He proved Him to be from no source nor beginning, but rather the beginning and source of all things. Moreover, the Son does nothing of His own will, nor does anything of His own determination; nor does He come from Himself, but obeys all His Father's commands and precepts; so that, although birth proves Him to be a Son, yet obedience even to death declares Him the minister of the will of His Father, of whom He is. Thus making Himself obedient to His Father in all things, although He also is God, yet He shows the one God the Father by His obedience, from whom also He drew His beginning. And thus He could not make two Gods, because He did not make two beginnings, seeing that from Him who has no beginning He received the source of His nativity before all time. For since that is the beginning to other creatures which is unborn — which God the Father only is, being beyond a beginning of whom He is who was born — while He who is born of Him reasonably comes from Him who has no beginning, proving that to be the beginning from which He Himself is, even although He is God who is born, yet He shows Him to be one God whom He who was born proved to be without a beginning. He therefore is God, but begotten for this special result, that He should be God. He is also the Lord, but born for this very purpose of the Father, that He might be Lord. He is also an Angel, but He was destined of the Father as an Angel to announce the Great Counsel of God. And His divinity is thus declared, that it may not appear by any dissonance or inequality of divinity to have caused two Gods. For all things being subjected to Him as the Son by the Father, while He Himself, with those things which are subjected to Him, is subjected to His Father, He is indeed proved to be Son of His Father; but He is found to be both Lord and God of all else. Whence, while all things put under Him are delivered to Him who is God, and all things are subjected to Him, the Son refers all that He has received to the Father, remits again to the Father the whole authority of His divinity. The true and eternal Father is manifested as the one God, from whom alone this power of divinity is sent forth, and also given and directed upon the Son, and is again returned by the communion of substance to the Father. God indeed is shown as the Son, to whom the divinity is beheld to be given and extended. And still, nevertheless, the Father is proved to be one God; while by degrees in reciprocal transfer that majesty and divinity are again returned and reflected as sent by the Son Himself to the Father, who had given them; so that reasonably God the Father is God of all, and the source also of His Son Himself whom He begot as Lord. Moreover, the Son is God of all else, because God the Father put before all Him whom He begot. Thus the Mediator of God and men, Christ Jesus, having the power of every creature subjected to Him by His own Father, inasmuch as He is God; with every creature subdued to Him, found at one with His Father God, has, by abiding in that condition that He moreover was heard, briefly proved God His Father to be one and only and true God.
It’s difficult to summarize what is quite an articulate summary in itself, much more in a writer who was without much historic precedent for the doctrine. But to summarize anyway, Scripture manifests the Father to be the “one and only and true God” for the following reasons: the Father is the sole individual without a beginning in either a logical or chronological sense. He is the source of the Son who is immanently subject or subordinate to Him; that is, the Father has given the Son all He is and has, including divinity - the Son is from the Father, not from Himself. Therefore, He does nothing of His own will or determination but rather obeys the will, commands, and precepts of His Father. That which the Son is and does redounds to the Father whose majesty, greatness, and power is incomparable. Thus: “God proceeding from God, causing a person second to the Father as being the Son, but not taking from the Father that characteristic that He is one God.” And though He does not receive His Fathers’ properties of invisibility, beginning, etc., yet the Son is God, for He is eternally in and with His Father as the divine and begotten Son. He is logically caused, not chronologically, and in all this Novatian anticipates the arguments of Arius and his followers.
Is Novatian correct in all aspects? Undoubtedly not. And what questionable language he used must be understood in its original context, not read into from our own. But his Trinitarian peers recognized this to certainly be a first-class treatise of the time, and even now Novatian’s understanding far surpasses that of most Christians. Can it be imagined that so ardent an admirer of the man who was the first to call the “Trinity” by name and so remarkable an expositor of Scripture was really a closet Unitarian? If not, then who can deny that Trinitarianism is perfectly compatible with the subordination of the Son and monarchy of the Father in the immanent Trinity?