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#27 Is God the Father Causally Prior to the Son?

October 22, 2007

You have stated that ‘One nice way of expressing God’s priority to creation is to say that God is causally but not temporally prior to the beginning of the universe’ (Q & A: 'Creation and Time').

Also, J.P. Moreland in his book Scaling the Secular City has also stated (in p. 41) ‘Prior to the first event--where prior means “ontologically prior,” not “temporally prior”--there was no time, space, or change of any kind.’

1) What is the difference between saying God is causally prior, ontologically prior, or temporally prior to the universe? Can you define each of these, i.e., causally prior, ontologically prior, or temporally prior? Also, are causally prior and ontologically prior synonymous?

2) Is saying ‘God is causally prior to the universe’ the same as saying ‘God is the cause of the universe’? Or is it possible for God to be the cause of the universe yet not be causally prior to the universe? If so, how?

3) How would you interpret Jude 1:25 “to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” i.e. “before all time”? Is it possible to say “before all time” without implying a time “before all time”? If so, how?

4) Also, how would you interpret the Nicene Creed “...begotten of the Father before all ages...”?

5) At least some early church fathers seemed to believe that in the Trinity, the Father is the source/cause of the Son. For example, John of Damascus in An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book I, Chapter 8, ‘Concerning the Holy Trinity,’ states,

“And we mean by this, that the Son is begotten of the Father and not the Father of the Son, and that the Father naturally is the cause of the Son: just as we say in the same way not that fire proceedeth from light, but rather light from fire. So then, whenever we hear it said that the Father is the origin of the Son and greater than the Son, let us understand it to mean in respect of causation. And just as we do not say that fire is of one essence and light of another, so we cannot say that the Father is of one essence and the Son of another: but both are of one and the same essence.”

Also, Augustine, in ‘A Sermon to Catechumens on the Creed’, states,

“Imagine to yourselves fire as father, its shining as son; see, we have found the coevals. From the instant that the fire begins to be, that instant it begets the shining: neither fire before shining, nor shining after fire. And if we ask, which begets which? the fire the shining, or the shining the fire? Immediately ye conceive by natural sense, by the innate wit of your minds ye all cry out, The fire the shining, not the shining the fire. Lo, here you have a father beginning; lo, a son at the same time, neither going before nor coming after. Lo, here then is a father beginning, lo, a son at the same time beginning. If I have shown you a father beginning, and a son at the same time beginning, believe the Father not beginning, and with Him the Son not beginning either; the one eternal, the other coeternal.”

So would you describe John of Damascus’ and Augustine’s view of the Trinity, where the Father is the source/cause of the Son, as:

a) the Father is causally prior to the Son? Why/why not?
b) the Father is ontologically prior to the Son? Why/why not?
c) how would you describe John of Damascus’ and Augustine’s view of the Trinity, where the Father is the source/cause of the Son?


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Dr. craig’s response


What an interesting question! I’ll address your queries in order.

1. Causal priority has to do with what’s called causal directionality. That is to say, if A and B are causally related as cause and effect, is A the cause of B, or is B the cause of A? Temporal priority has to do with whether A is earlier than B. Notice that even if A and B exist or occur at the same time, so that there is no temporal priority of one to the other, the question of causal priority still makes sense. To borrow an illustration from Kant, a heavy ball’s resting on a cushion is the cause of a depression in the cushion, even if the ball has been resting on the cushion from eternity past. Some philosophers who believe that the future is as real as the past or present think that there can be cases where causal priority can actually run in the opposite direction of temporal priority: first the effect occurs and then later comes the cause, so that although A is causally prior to B, B is temporally prior to A! As for ontological priority, that would indicate that some being’s existence presupposes the existence of another being. I think that in this context it basically comes to the same thing as causal priority. (In another context, one might say, for example, that a substance or thing is ontologically prior to the thing’s properties.)

2. To say that God is causally prior to the universe is to say that God is the cause of the universe.

3. I love Jude 25! It basically lays out the view of divine eternity that I defend, namely, that God exists timelessly without creation and forever in time ever since the beginning of time at creation. It uses an excusable façon de parler (manner of speaking) to describe the state of God’s existing without the universe as “before” time. The philosopher will understand this to be an ordinary language expression of the idea that time had a beginning, whereas God did not.

4. The notion of the Son’s being eternally begotten of the Father, which appears in the Nicene Creed, is a vestige of the primitive Logos Christology of the early Greek Apologists, men such as Justin Martyr, Tatian, and Athenagoras. I have discussed this development in my chapter on the Trinity in Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (IVP: 2003), an expanded version of which you’ll find on this site under “Scholarly Articles: Christian Doctrines.”

The Greek Apologists sought to explain the doctrine of the Trinity by holding that God the Father, existing alone without the world, had within Himself His Word or Reason (Greek: Logos) or Wisdom (cf. Prov. 8.22-31), which somehow proceeded forth from Him, like a spoken word from a speaker’s mind, to become a distinct individual who created the world and ultimately became incarnate as Jesus Christ. The procession of the Logos from the Father was variously conceived as taking place either at the moment of creation or, alternatively, eternally. The Holy Spirit, too, might be understood to proceed from God the Father’s mind. Here’s how Athenagoras describes it:

The Son of God is the Word of the Father in Ideal Form and energizing power; for in his likeness and through him all things came into existence, which presupposes that the Father and the Son are one. Now since the Son is in the Father and the Father in the Son by a powerful unity of Spirit, the Son of God is the mind and reason of the Father… He is the first begotten of the Father. The term is used not because he came into existence (for God, who is eternal mind, had in himself his word or reason from the beginning, since he was eternally rational) but because he came forth to serve as Ideal Form and Energizing Power for everything material… The… Holy Spirit. . . we regard as an effluence of God which flows forth from him and returns like a ray of the sun (A Plea for the Christians 10).

According to this doctrine, then, there is one God, but He is not an undifferentiated unity. Rather certain aspects of His mind become expressed as distinct individuals.

The Logos doctrine of the Apologists involves a fundamental reinterpretation of the Fatherhood of God: God is not merely the Father of mankind or even, especially, of Jesus of Nazareth, rather He is the Father from whom the Logos is begotten before all worlds. Christ is not merely the only-begotten Son of God in virtue of his Incarnation; rather he is begotten of the Father even in his pre-incarnate divinity. This view becomes enshrined in the Nicene Creed as orthodoxy.

5. Protestants bring all doctrinal statements, even Conciliar creeds, before the bar of Scripture. In this case one has to say honestly that nothing in Scripture warrants us in thinking that God the Son is begotten of the Father in His divine, rather than in merely His human, nature. The vast majority of contemporary New Testament scholars recognize that even if the word traditionally translated “only-begotten” (monogenes) carries a connotation of derivation when used in familial contexts--as opposed to meaning merely “unique” or “one of a kind” as many scholars maintain--nevertheless the biblical references to Christ as monogenes (John 1.1, 14, 18; cf. Revelation 9.13) do not contemplatesome pre-creation or eternal procession of the divine Son from the Father, but have to do with the historical Jesus’ being God’s special Son (Matthew 1.21-23; Luke 1-35; John 1.14, 34; Galalatians 4.4; Hebrews 1.5-6). I John 5.18 does refer to Jesus as ho gennetheis ek tou theou (the one begotten of God), which is the crucial expression, but there is no suggestion that this begetting is eternal or has to do with his divine nature. Rather, Christ’s status of being the Only-Begotten has less to do with the Trinity than with the Incarnation. This primitive understanding of Christ’s being begotten is still evident in Ignatius’s description of Christ as “one Physician, of flesh and of spirit, begotten and unbegotten, . . . both of Mary and of God” (Ephesians 7). There is here no idea that Christ is begotten in his divine nature. Indeed, the transference by the Apologists of Christ’s Sonship from Jesus of Nazareth to the pre-incarnate Logos has helped to depreciate the importance of the historical Jesus for Christian faith.

Theologically, it seems to me, the doctrine of the generation of the Logos from the Father cannot, despite assurances to the contrary, but diminish the status of the Son because He becomes an effect contingent upon the Father. Even if this eternal procession takes place necessarily and apart from the Father’s will, the Son is less than the Father because the Father alone exists in Himself, whereas the Son exists through another. Such derivative being is the same way in which created things exist. Despite protestations to the contrary, Nicene orthodoxy does not seem to have completely exorcised the spirit of subordinationism introduced into Christology by the Greek Apologists.

For these reasons evangelical theologians have tended to treat the doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son from the Father with benign neglect. If we do decide to drop from our doctrine of the Trinity the eternal generation and procession of the Son and Spirit from the Father, how should we construe the intra-Trinitarian relations? Here I find it useful to distinguish between the ontological Trinity and the economic Trinity. The ontological Trinity is the Trinity as it exists of itself apart from God’s relation to the world. The economic Trinity has reference to the different roles played by the persons of the Trinity in relation to the world and especially in the plan of salvation. In this economic Trinity there is subordination (or, perhaps better, submission) of one person to another, as the incarnate Son does the Father’s will and the Spirit speaks, not on His own account, but on behalf of the Son. The economic Trinity does not reflect ontological differences between the persons but rather is an expression of God’s loving condescension for the sake of our salvation. The error of Logos Christology lay in conflating the economic Trinity with the ontological Trinity, introducing subordination into the nature of the Godhead itself.

So I regard God the Father as neither ontologically nor causally prior to God the Son, and I view Augustine and the Damascene’s views as extra-biblical and unfortunate.

- William Lane Craig