Begotten not Made – or, Why Santa Claus slaps heretics.

St Nicholas smacks Arius at the council of Nicea.

The pop icon Santa Claus is a caricature of a real person, St. Nicholas, bishop of Myra, who died in 343 AD and attended the first Ecumenical Council in Nicea (325). St Nicholas is famous for his charity, care for the poor, selfless life, zeal and suffering for the faith. Speaking of his zeal, also famous is the story that he slapped Arius in the face during the Council of Nicea. It seems as though Santa is not so jolly if you deny the deity of Christ. If you’re a heretic, you should be thankful if an empty stocking on Christmas day is all that befalls you.

The following are Arius’ claims as far as they can be gathered from Athanasius (in his Discourses Against the Arians)

  1. There is one unoriginate being, God the Father
  2. There are creatures which have been made
  3. Creatures could not have been made by the Father, so a mediator was needed
  4. The mediator was the Word, the Son
  5. There was a time when he was not, he came to be
  6. Therefore, there also was a time when God was not the Father

Common to Arian and the Fathers was the idea of Wisdom. Human making is mediated by an idea, a blueprint of the thing to be made. As this is applied to the Word – all things were already there in the Wisdom, in the mind of God before things were created. The mind of God is the antecedent exemplar of all things created for God creates the Word according to his wisdom, his intellect. What then is the status of this wisdom, this mind? According to Arius, this wisdom and word was prior to the creation of all things, but was itself brought into being.

Who is this creature through whom all creatures came into being? The best metaphysics of the time affirmed that there were basically two kinds of beings: divine and created (out of nothing). There was a basic division between creator and creature. The question then becomes in which side the Son should be placed. For Athanasius, it is through union with the Son that we are saved by being divinized, and so he has to be divine. The question then becomes how to allow for the existence of two divine beings, while avoiding polytheism.

Athanasius argued that the wisdom and the power of God are as eternal as God himself. How then could God be distinguished from his wisdom? How can two things be distinguished that are so internally related to one another? Jesus always refers to God as his Father, and so the Father/Son language was standard. What is unique about generation is that parents generate their children and therefore the children are not the same individuals as their parents (like extensions), but different individuals; at the same time, there is a communication of the human nature, and therefore they have identical human natures. The nature a parent communicates to his child is something internal to the parent, and it is communicated in its totality. This was a perfect model of identity of nature and distinction of persons.

Can this be applied to God? This is when the moment of negation comes in. Just as it is the whole of human nature that is communicated to the children, so in the case of divine generation the Father communicates his own entire divine nature to the Son, and they are distinct persons. The whole divine nature is communicated, and so there is an identity of nature between the Father and the Son, so that the Son shares the same essence of the Father, being therefore a natural Son, not something created out of nothing. Everything else has the power to become sons of the Father only by participation, not by essence.

Making is an external act, and requires parts and temporality, as well as the will of the maker. In the case of the communication of the nature of the Father, this is an eternal act of divine generation apart from the will of the Father. The language of participation and of adoption is Scriptural and used by the Fathers, as they repeatedly emphasized, especially in their discussions of theosis, that we are children by grace, but not by nature.

St Athanasius of Alexandria (298-373 AD)

One of the distinctions between human generation and divine generation is that the former involves materiality, even though it is the whole of the human nature that is communicated. It also involves time; and it is a communication of a generically identical nature, not numerically identical nature. Peter begets a man, not Peter. Human nature exists in numerically distinct individuals. No human individual can exhaust human nature, because it exists always divided and multiplied, concretized in different individuals.

Divine nature, on the other hand, is indivisible. There is only one nature, and that is the nature of the Father that is communicated to the Son and the Holy Spirit. They inhere in each other, one God fully sharing the same numerical identical nature.

What then guarantees the distinction between the persons? The model of generation has the virtue of preserving both the identity of natures and the distinction of persons. The sharing of the numerically identical nature guarantees the unity of God, and generation requires that the Son is not the same as the Father. The distinction is also maintained by the relations between the persons.

The power and monarchy of the Father lies precisely in the fact that he shares the totality of his essence and power with the Son and the Holy Spirit. I am not capable of sharing the totality of my power with another human being. The paradox is that the almighty power of the Father is exercised in sharing the totality of his power and superiority with the Son and the Holy Spirit, eternally generating and spirating them equal to himself. This paradoxical monarchy that sublates itself refutes modern criticisms which argues that monarchy and equality of persons are mutually exclusive. This is an important aspect of Trinitarian theology that needs to be expounded in contemporary discussions.

The divine begetting is not temporally successive. The word or wisdom through which the Father makes the world cannot be a third entity, other than the Father. Athanasius insists that the Son is the natural, proper offspring of the Father. Creatures are contingent beings who need to participate in the being of God, the one who is (ὁ ὤν).

There are two ways something can be an image of something else: in a complete, perfect way, or in an imperfect way. As Plato says in the Timaeus, time is the moving image of eternity.[1] We are created in the image of God in an incomplete way, but the Son is the perfect image of the Father, because he receives the totality of the Father’s nature. God cannot find himself completely in a creature. To say that Christ is the image of the Father is to say that he is also divine and a perfect reflection and expression of the Father. We are created in the image of the Son, and only through the Son we share the image of the Father.

Athanasius also uses the term “work;” a creature is a thing made, produced. The Son is not a work because there is a difference between what is generated and what is made. This is the opposite of what Arius argued, when he equated begotten (γεννηθέντα) with made (ποιηθέντα). Things made are contingent upon the will, but not things generated. The Father’s generation of the Son is eternal and necessary, but God’s creation of the world is contingent and temporal.


[1] “When the father creator saw the creature which he had made moving and living, the created image of the eternal gods, he rejoiced, and in his joy determined to make the copy still more like the original; and as this was eternal, he sought to make the universe eternal, so far as might be.

Now the nature of the ideal being was everlasting, but to bestow this attribute in its fullness upon a creature was impossible. Wherefore he resolved to have a moving image of eternity, and when he set in order the heaven, he made this image eternal but moving according to number, while eternity itself rests in unity; and this image we call time. For there were no days and nights and months and years before the heaven was created, but when he constructed the heaven he created them also.

They are all parts of time, and the past and future are created species of time, which we unconsciously but wrongly transfer to the eternal essence; for we say that he “was,” he “is,” he “will be,” but the truth is that “is” alone is properly attributed to him, and that “was” and “will be” only to be spoken of becoming in time, for they are motions, but that which is immovably the same cannot become older or younger by time, nor ever did or has become, or hereafter will be, older or younger, nor is subject at all to any of those states which affect moving and sensible things and of which generation is the cause. These are the forms of time, which imitates eternity and revolves according to a law of number.

Moreover, when we say that what has become is become and what becomes is becoming, and that what will become is about to become and that the non-existent is non-existent-all these are inaccurate modes of expression. But perhaps this whole subject will be more suitably discussed on some other occasion.”

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2 Responses to Begotten not Made – or, Why Santa Claus slaps heretics.

  1. Pingback: Slap an Arian Day, or the Feast of St. Nicholas of Myra « Juicy Ecumenism

  2. Pingback: Slap an Arian Day, or the Feast of St. Nicholas of Myra

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