The Trinitarian Beliefs of the Ante-Nicene Period Pt. 2

The Case of Origen

In this section (, I am going to quote from the third chapter of Fortman’s book where he discusses Origen’s Trinitarian views. All bold, capital and/or underline emphasis will be mine.


The second point is the procession of the Son from the mind of the Father, as ‘will proceeds from understanding.’ Here is one of the earliest presentations of an immanent intellectual processions of the Son from the Father that excludes all materiality from the Father and Son and marks out a line of thought that will reach its crest in the theology of Aquinas. The third point is the appearance of the word homoousios. If the text is authentic, and there ‘seems to be no cogent reason why it should not be,’43 then Origen is here the first to use the word homoousios in speaking of the Son’s basic relation with the Father. What did he mean by ‘consubstantial’? Basically homoousios meant ‘of the same stuff’ or ‘substance.’44 However, ‘of the same substance’ might mean ‘of generically the same substance’ or ‘of identically the same substance.’ In later theology ‘consubstantial’ will mean that the Son is ‘of identically the same substance as the Father,’ possesses the same identical substance as the Father, and thus is God in the strictest sense as much as the Father. But in the light of Origen’s subordinationism it would seem that he understood consubstantial only in its generic sense, even though his monotheism should point toward ‘identity of substance.’

Was Origen a subordinationist? The answer must be both no and yes. He was not a subordinationist in the later Arian sense, for he did not consider the Son a creature, produced out of nothing and in such a way that there was a moment when the Son was not. Verbally at times he called the Son a creature (ktisma) and created, but only because he with many others understood Prov 8.22 of the Son. But he always taught that the Son issued from the Father by way of unitive eternal generation and not by way of separative production ad extra.

In other ways, however, he was definitely subordinationist, for he made the Son inferior to and subordinate to the Father. For only the Father was God in the strict sense, ho theos, autotheos. The Son was only theos, a ‘secondary God,’ who possessed the Godhead only by participation or derivation. He did not see the oneness of Father and Son as an identity of substance but rather as a moral union of virtually identical wills or a union like that of man and Christ to form one spirit. He considered the Son the Father’s minister and said ‘we should not pray to any generate being, not even to Christ, but only to the God and Father of the universe’ (Or. 15.1; Cels. 8.13). He said openly that the Son was inferior to the Father: ‘we… declare that the Son is not mightier than the Father but inferior to Him’ (Cels. 8.15); ‘we say that the Savior and the Holy Spirit are very much superior to all things that are made, but also that the Father is even more above them than they are themselves above creatures even the highest’ (Jo. 13.25).

Origen tried to build a harmonious synthesis of strict monotheism and a Platonic hierarchical order in the Trinity–and failed. Along with a great deal of excellent theology he handed down an unfortunate mixture of truth and error that would exert an unhappy influence on Greek theology for a long time.

Holy Spirit

The status and the origin of the Holy Spirit baffled Origen. He felt that the matter had been left open by the Church (Princ. 1), but owing to the lack of Biblical and traditional data he did not know what to think.

At times he seems to affirm the divinity of the Holy Spirit quite clearly, for he says that everything was made except the nature of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and that nowhere is it stated that the Holy Spirit is a creature (Princ. 1.3.3; 2.2.1). The Spirit ‘is ever with the Father and the Son; like the Father and the Son He always is, and was, and will be‘ (Ep. ad. Rom. 6.7). He is ‘associated in honor and dignity with the Father and Son’ (Princ. praef. 4).

In other passages, however, the Spirit is definitely inferior to the Son (Jo. 2.6.), and where the Father’s action extends to all beings, the Son’s to all rational creatures, the Holy Spirit’s only extends to the saints (Princ. 1.3.1-8).

What disturbed Origen most was the origin of the Holy Spirit: was He born like the Son or created (Princ. praef. 4.3). Since ‘all things were made by’ the Word, the Holy Spirit too must be His work (Jo. 2.6). Origen had reason to be disturbed, for he was facing one of the deepest aspects of the trinitarian mystery, the eternal origin and distinction of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. In one passage: ‘God the Father from whom both the Son is born and the Holy Spirit proceeds (Princ. 1.2.13), Origen expressed the origin of the Holy Spirit as procession from the Father, as St. John had expressed it and the Greek Church would continue to express it. But elsewhere he saw only two possibilities for the Holy Spirit, that He was born or that He was made. He could not accept the Holy Spirit’s origination as generation, and so he chose to view the Holy Spirit as ‘made by the Father through the Son’ (Jo. 2.6.). He was moving dimly toward a third type of origination that is neither generation nor creation but which will later be called ‘spiration’ by the Council of Lyons (Denz 850).


Origen is trinitarian in his thought: ‘We, however, are persuaded that there are really three persons [treis hypostaseis], the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’ (Jo. 2.6.). For him ‘statements made regarding Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are to be understood as transcending all time, all ages, and all eternity‘ (Princ. 4.28), and there is ‘nothing which was not made, save the nature of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit‘ (Princ. 4.35). ‘Moreover, nothing in the Trinity can be called greater or less’ (Princ. 1.3.7).

Other writers before Origen had regarded the three as distinct, but often they looked to this distinction only as manifested in the economy. Origen, however, clearly maintains that each of the three is a distinct hypostasis, an individual existent from all eternity and not just as manifested in the economy. This is one of his most important contributions to Greek theology and stems directly from his belief in the eternal generation of the Son. (Chapter Three. The Pre-Nicene Phase, pp. 54-58)

Lord willing, I will be posting more in this series in the near future.

Further Reading

Origen’s Christology (



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