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“’Subordinationism’, it is true was pre-Nicene orthodoxy” [Henry Bettenson, The Early Christian Fathers p. 239.]. RPC Hanson (The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, p. xix.) even wrote:

“With the exception of Athanasius virtually every theologian, East and West, accepted some form of subordinationism at least up to the year 355.

If Hanson is right, then the delegates at Nicaea, who accepted the Nicene Creed, must have read that creed as consistent with their subordinationist views. The creed starts with the words:

“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty ... And in one Lord Jesus Christ.”

This seems to exclude the Son as that “one God” and as “Almighty.” But the creed goes on to describe the Son as:

"God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God … homoousion with the Father"

This seems to describe the Son as equal with the Father and would be inconsistent with Hanson’s statement that the delegates at Nicaea were subordinationists. For that reason, I ask: What evidence is there that the original framers of the 325 Nicene Creed intended it to be read in subordinationist ways?

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    In addition to curiousdannii suggestion, maybe it's helpful to clarify that the kind of subordination you are asking is not simply economic/relational, which is no problem for Trinitarian Christians (see this GotQuestions website article which distinguishes Biblical economic (relational) subordination vs heretical ontological subordination). Dec 23, 2021 at 14:38
  • To properly answer this question, we need to clarify what Bettenson means by subordination. In essence? In power or authority? In origin/logical precedence?
    – bradimus
    Dec 23, 2021 at 19:16
  • @bradimus and and gratefuldisciple I will see what I can get. But three points quickly. (1) The early fathers did not make formal distinction between kinds of subordination. (2) Bettenson's statement is simply a summary of what the early fathers believed. To see what kind of subordination, we must go to the church fathers themselves. (3) Kevin Giles wrote: "some evangelicals honestly admit that eternal role subordination by necessity implies subordination in person or being." But I will read on to see what I can find.
    – Andries
    Dec 24, 2021 at 4:06
  • I read the Gotquestions recommended article. It states that the Father, Son and Spirit are equal ontologically (in nature and attributes) but that the Son and the Spirit are subordinate to the Father in terms of the roles they voluntarily assume, also called economic subordination. But if they are eternally subordinate in terms of roles, what difference does it make to say that they are ontologically equal? If they are eternally subordinate in terms of roles, are they not subordinate full stop?
    – Andries
    Dec 24, 2021 at 4:38
  • Something else, when I read Aquinas a while ago, he used relational subordination in a different sense; not for roles but for origin (Son is begotten, the Spirit proceeds). So, it seems to me as if the Catholic and Protestant definitions with respect to the types of subordination differ.
    – Andries
    Dec 24, 2021 at 4:39

2 Answers 2

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'I and the Father are one', John 10:30, and 'My Father is greater than I', John 14:28, express both equality (of nature) and subordination (in relationship) which the Nicene Fathers fully appreciated and expressed.

These two aspects are written in to the Nicene documents and appear especially in the extensive writings of Athanasius.

I would have thought that any student of the Nicene period would appreciate this.

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    Succinct and pointed. +1 Dec 23, 2021 at 13:12
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    @Andries This GotQuestions website article explains Nigel's point further to distinguish Biblical economic (relational) subordination vs heretical ontological subordination. Dec 23, 2021 at 14:25
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Subordination in the Nicene Creed

You ask

What evidence is there that the original framers of the 325 Nicene Creed intended it to be read in subordinationist ways?

The short answer is that the Council clearly intended to

  • Affirm the Son as having His origin within the Father.
  • Deny there is any difference or distinction in the nature of the Father and Son.

The semantics of subordination can be debated, but the evidence favors the conclusion that the Council did not intend the Symbol to indicate that the Son was in any way lesser than the Father. The opponents of Nicaea seem to hang their arguments on two points.

  • The Son is lesser than the Father because he is of a different nature from the Father.
  • The Son is lesser than the Father because he has his a beginning/is dependent on the Father for existence.

The first is explicitly excluded in the Symbol. The second is disavowed by Athenasius in his commentary on the Council's proceedings.

Before explaining this answer we must acknowledge several difficulties in the question. Among them are

  • Determining the intent of any author will be biased by the reader. This applies to both our reading of the Creed and the Council's reading of the Ante-Nicaean fathers.
  • There are few extent primary sources on the thoughts of the Council, and the principle one is Athenasius's De Decretis.
  • The term subordination has been prominent in recent Christian theological debates. We must take care to not conflate inappropriately Bettenson's use of the word with current uses[^1].

Separating the Father from the Son

You note that

The creed starts with the words:

"We believe in one God, the Father Almighty ... And in one Lord Jesus Christ."

This seems to exclude the Son as that "one God" and as "Almighty."

This may not mean to exclude the Son from One God but rather suggest unity with the One God. Note that the Creed parallels 1 Corinthians 8:6.

yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. (1 Corinthians 8:6 NRSV)

The Nicaean Fathers adapted this as

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ [...] by whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth

While Paul does maintain a separation between them in that the all things are from the Father but are through Jesus, he also unites them in the act of creation. To both Jewish and Greek readers, this declares Jesus as divine and places him beyond Creation.

If Paul intended this verse to be a reworking of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4), then this unequivocally unites Jesus with the Father rather than suggesting separation. (Paralleling 1 Corinthians 8:6 with Deuteronomy 6:4 is a matter of interpretation, but one that I think is well supported.)

If Paul did not intend this, he is still using language that identifies Jesus as the Logos of the Father. Of course there are some interpretations that separate the nature of the Logos from the One, the Father, making the Logos a creation or emanation of the Father. In this case, the Logos is of a different nature than the Father. He is of a nature that can mediate between the eternal nature of the Father and the temporal nature of creation. That is, the Logos is fundamentally different from the Father. Further, phrases from the Creed such as "Light of Light" are not incompatible with such a separation. However, the Creed quickly suppresses the idea that there is any difference in nature by declaring (as you noted) that Jesus is "homoousion with the Father".

This seems to indicate that the Council intended to eliminate a subordination of the Son to the Father by means of nature. We will see below that Athenasius further attacked in De Decretis this idea of a secondary/mediator creator (demiurge) separate from the Father.

Created or Begotten, Contingent or Essential

One of the arguments put forth by some Arians[^2] was that the Son is lesser than the Father because the Son had a beginning but the Father did not. We should note that the use of 'created' in reference to the Son should not be understood in the same manner as 'God created the world'. Rather, Arian's acknowledged that the cosmos was created through the Son, but that the Son was created/begotten 'before' this. Arius himself wrote in a letter to his fellow Arian Eusebius, Bishop of Nicomedia:

But we say and believe, and have taught, and do teach, that the Son is not unbegotten, nor in any way part of the unbegotten; and that He does not derive His subsistence from any matter; but that by His own will and counsel He has subsisted before time, and before ages, as perfect God, only begotten and unchangeable, and that before He was begotten, or created, or purposed, or established, He was not. For He was not unbegotten. We are persecuted, because we say that the Son has a beginning, but that God is without beginning.

It would seem that Arian faction would not object had the Creed read,

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, the only-begotten, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, by whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth

Indeed, it seems likely that they would not oppose the addition of the phrase "begotten of the Father before all worlds" that was later made at Constantinople. However, they were insistent that the Son has a beginning (even if this beginning is outside of time) while God the Father does not have a beginning. Even the Nicaean inclusion of 'the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, [...] consubstantial with the Father' does necessarily eliminates the Arian argument that the Son has a beginning.

Athenasius later argued that it is impossible for the Son to both have an beginning and not be part of Creation. (As mentioned above, this passage also attacks the idea that the Father could not participate in creation of the temporal world.)

But let us suppose that the other creatures could not endure to be wrought by the absolute Hand of the Unoriginate and therefore the Son alone was brought into being by the Father alone, and other things by the Son as an underworker and assistant, for this is what Asterius the sacrificer has written, and Arius has transcribed and bequeathed to his own friends, and from that time they use this form of words, broken reed as it is, being ignorant, the bewildered men, how brittle it is. For if it was impossible for things originate to bear the hand of God, and you hold the Son to be one of their number, how was He too equal to this formation by God alone? and if a Mediator became necessary that things originate might come to be, and you hold the Son to be originated, then must there have been some medium before Him, for His creation; and that Mediator himself again being a creature, it follows that he too needed another Mediator for his own constitution. And though we were to devise another, we must first devise his Mediator, so that we shall never come to an end. And thus a Mediator being ever in request, never will the creation be constituted, because nothing originate, as you say, can bear the absolute hand of the Unoriginate. And if, on your perceiving the extravagance of this, you begin to say that the Son, though a creature, was made capable of being made by the Unoriginate, then it follows that other things also, though originated, are capable of being wrought immediately by the Unoriginate; for the Son too is but a creature in your judgment, as all of them. And accordingly the origination of the Word is superfluous, according to your irreligious and futile imagination, God being sufficient for the immediate formation of all things, and all things originate being capable of sustaining His absolute hand.

De Decretis 3:8

If Athenasius is expressing the opinion of the Council, and he claims to be doing so, then Nicaea intended to disavow the idea that the Son is in some way lesser than the Father because the Son had a beginning and the Father did not.

Even if the Son does not a beginning, it could be argued that the Son is lesser than the Father since the Father must necessarily (in a logical sense if not a temporal sense) must precede the Son. Athenasius counters this by stating that if God is unchanging, then the Father is always Father. And if the Father is always Father, the Son must necessarily and always be. The begetting of the Son is not act or choice of the Father, but part of his nature. If the Father necessarily exists by his nature (and it is assumed that he does), then the Son necessarily exists by the same means. Although we can say the light has its origin in the fire or the stream in the fountain, the fire cannot exist without the producing the light nor the fountain the stream. Likewise, Athenasius argues that without Son, the Father is not God.

This then is quite enough to expose the infamy of the Arian heresy; for, as the Lord has granted, out of their own words is irreligion brought home to them. But come now and let us on our part act on the offensive, and call on them for an answer; for now is fair time, when their own ground has failed them, to question them on ours; perhaps it may abash the perverse, and disclose to them whence they have fallen. We have learned from divine Scripture, that the Son of God, as was said above, is the very Word and Wisdom of the Father. For the Apostle says, 'Christ the power of God and the Wisdom of God;' and John after saying, 'And the Word was made flesh,' at once adds, 'And we saw His glory, the glory as of the Only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth,' so that, the Word being the Only-begotten Son, in this Word and in Wisdom heaven and earth and all that is therein were made. And of this Wisdom that God is Fountain we have learned from Baruch, by Israel's being charged with having forsaken the Fountain of Wisdom. If then they deny Scripture, they are at once aliens to their name, and may fitly be called of all men atheists, and Christ's enemies, for they have brought upon themselves these names. But if they agree with us that the sayings of Scripture are divinely inspired, let them dare to say openly what they think in secret that God was once wordless and wisdomless; and let them in their madness say, 'There was once when He was not,' and, 'before His generation, Christ was not;' and again let them declare that the Fountain begat not Wisdom from itself, but acquired it from without, till they have the daring to say, 'The Son came of nothing;' whence it will follow that there is no longer a Fountain, but a sort of pool, as if receiving water from without, and usurping the name of Fountain.

De Decretis 4:15

Since Athenasius asserts that the Father is not God without the Son, it seems difficult to infer that the Son is subordinate to the Father.

Keeping or Changing Tradition

It should not be a surprise that both the pro-Nicaean and anti-Nicaean sides claimed that they were in agreement with them. In part this is a result of an imprecision in language and thought. As can seen by the arguments of Arius and Athenasius, logically changing ideas such as the whether or not the Son had a beginning even if that beginning was before time, care must be taken to examine the implication of these statements. There were certainly ante-Nicaean fathers who used subordinationist language, and it is likely that some of them believed exclusively believed it, care must be taken before asserting that is was the majority position prior to the Council. Take for example Theognostus of Alexandria. In Book 2 of Hypotyposes he refers to the Son as a creature, suggesting an Arian viewpoint. Later he states as quoted by Athenasius

The essence of the Son is not one procured from without, nor accruing out of nothing, but it sprang from the Father’s essence, as the radiance of light, as the vapour of water; for neither the radiance, nor the vapour, is the water itself or the sun itself, nor is it alien; but it is an effluence of the Father’s essence, which, however, suffers no partition. For as the sun remains the same, and is not impaired by the rays poured forth by it, so neither does the Father’s essence suffer change, though it has the Son as an Image of Itself.

Had he heard the arguments of Arius and Athenasius, with which would he have agreed?

[^1]: I don't have a copy of Bettenson, so I can not comment his use of subordination.

[^2]: I use the term Arian in the broadest sense to include various semi-Arian pre- and post-Nicaean positions. I am aware that these were not all the position of Arius.

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