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God’s Essence

For many people today, the doctrine of the Trinity defines what it means to be a Christian. How did the idea of the consubstantiality of the Godhead come about?
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Last month we posed the question, what is God’s “essence?” If we were to define God at the very core of His being, how would we do it?

The ante-Nicene theologians wrestled with this question until it was settled at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. Two leading Christians, Arius and Athanasius, were at the center of a debate regarding the identity of God and His Son. Arius argued that the Son was subordinate to the Father, a view that had been predominant in Christianity before the council. However, as Christian thought developed over the centuries, theologians crept ever close to the idea that the Son was not only God but equal with the Father.

It was that which Athanasius supported and which became enshrined in the Nicene Creed. One word sums up the crux of the controversy, homoousian. It means “of the same substance” and became key to the decision at the council and found its way into the Nicene Creed. Here is the relevant excerpt from it with the idea of homoousion expressed in the term “consubstantial:”

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; through Him all things were made.

While the Nicene Creed has been heralded as one of the defining moments in the enshrining of the Trinity in Christianity, the debate raged on for centuries, and Arianism (the alternate view at the council to what became the Trinity) continued its popularity despite the outcome of the council.

However, for many people today, the doctrine of the Trinity defines what it means to be a Christian. How did the idea of the consubstantiality of the Godhead come about? The word homoousian isn’t Biblical, although the word ousia (substance) occurs twice in Luke 15. But you won’t find anywhere, from Genesis to Revelation, any word that describes the substance of God, let alone homoousian. So, why was it this word that was at the center of the debate?

For centuries, church theologians had been wrestling with the relationship between God and Jesus. As I mentioned above, the predominant view before the Nicene Council was “subordinationism,” the idea that Jesus is less than God the Father in some way. Arius, for example, believed that Jesus pre-existed as a divine being but was created by God. Other views ranged from him being a mere man adopted by God, a man specially created by God, to another divine being who pre-existed but was not Very God.

For instance, the man who coined the term Trinitas (Trinity), Tertullian, who lived between AD 155-220, believed that only God the Father existed at a point in time in history. Later, the Son and Holy Spirit emerged from His substance or essence: “The Father is the whole substance, whereas the Son is something derived from it… Thus, the Father is distinct from the Son, being greater than the Son, in as much as he who begets is one, and he who is begotten is another.” (Against Praxeas 9).

The main argument for moving away from subordinationism to the consubstantiality of the Father and Son was that God is immutable, i.e., He does not change. The idea makes perfect logical sense if you believe in the deity of Jesus. If he is God and God cannot change, he must have always existed and been God in the fullest sense. Otherwise, there must have been something that changed that would nullify the immutability of God.

For Biblical Unitarians like the Christadelphians, these things are meaningless. Because we reject the idea of the deity and pre-existence of Jesus, we don’t wrestle with such a question. However, it is worth thinking about what led to the concept of the consubstantiality of God and Jesus because it helps us see how often theology can completely miss the point.

Let’s ask our opening question again. What is God’s essence? Part of the answer to that question from a Trinitarian would be something to do with the consubstantiality of the Father and Son. But, as I pointed out above, the Bible doesn’t even talk about God’s substance. Where did such a notion arise? The only inkling we have of God being made of anything is that He is spirit (John 4:24).

But what is spirit? Is it a substance? The Bible teaches us that God created all things—everything in the Universe. Science backs the Bible up by telling us that there was a beginning, and before that beginning, no space, time or matter existed. So, even if the idea of God having a “substance” meant anything, whatever that substance is would be outside the realm of our ability to observe or understand it.

God is love. That is the point.

The ante-Nicene theologians wrestled with metaphysical concepts more in line with classical philosophy like Platonism than the Bible. The Scriptural record does not discuss the substance of God or that Jesus was of the same substance. It is very telling that the Nicene Creed required non-scriptural language to define its terms. What the Bible does teach us is things like, “God is love.” (1 John 4:16). That is the point.

The relationship between God and Jesus is not about substance, essence or nature. It’s about spiritual qualities. John the Baptist told the people, “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” (Matt 3:9). The New Testament writers are at pains to tell us that biological or physical descent is of no value to God. He is interested in our faith, our character, not our lineage. The same is true for the relationship between God and His son.

The question is not about biology, chemistry or physics; it’s about what kind of person Jesus is, the Son of God. To further emphasize the point, think about the phrase “the only-begotten Son of God.” It’s a famous description of Jesus from passages like John 3:16 in the KJV: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son.” The ante-Nicene theologian Origen took hold of this title of Christ to develop his theory of eternal generation. The argument also has to do with the immutability of God. If God doesn’t change and Jesus is God, he must always have been begotten of the Father.

This is how Origen put it: “We recognize that God was always the Father of his only-begotten Son, who was indeed born of him and draws his being from him, but is yet without any beginning.” (On First Principles 1.2.2).

“This is an eternal and everlasting begetting, as brightness is begotten from light; for he does not become Son in an external manner, through the adoption of the Spirit, but is Son by nature.” (On First Principles 1.2.4).

The idea made its way into the Nicene Creed with the words, “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father.” The argument is made stronger by the rule that “like begets like.” For example, you will never find a horse giving birth to an elephant. A horse will always beget a horse. Likewise, if Jesus is the Son of God, and like begets like, then whatever is begotten of God must likewise be God. Origen spent most of his life in Alexandria, and Athanasius, the 20th bishop of Alexandria, was an Origenist in his theology.

Trinitarian dogma, therefore, has a lot of background in the writings of Origen. However, while Trinitarians laud the theory of eternal generation in backing up their idea that Jesus is the eternally begotten Son of God, it is perhaps less well known that Origen extrapolated his idea in applying it to believers as well:

“The Savior is eternally begotten by the Father, so also, if you possess the ‘Spirit of adoption’ (Rom 8:15) God eternally begets you in him according to each of your works, each of your thoughts. And being begotten you thereby become an eternally begotten son of God in Christ Jesus.” (Homilies on Jeremiah 9:5).

Also, just like most of the ante-Nicene theologians, Origen believed that Jesus was subordinate to the Father and the Holy Spirit was a creation of God. Like Tertullian, who came before him, he was not a Trinitarian and would be classified as a heretic by today’s standards.

Let’s analyze the phrase “the only begotten Son of God” because something somewhat surprising will reveal itself. If you look at any modern version like the ESV, you will find that the word “begotten” has been removed from the phrase. The reason for this is a historical misunderstanding of the Greek word monogenes translated “only begotten” in the KJV and as understood by the ante-Nicene theologians when they read the Greek text.

The word is made up of mono, meaning “only” and genes. Early lexicographers assumed this comes from the root gennao—“to beget.” However, more up-to-date scholarship has determined instead that it comes from the Greek verb ginomai—“to be” hence translations like “only,” “only one,” or “unique.”

There’s good evidence that this is the correct way to look at monogenes in the Bible. The exact phrase “only begotten son” (monogenes) is used of Isaac’s relationship with Abraham in Hebrews 11:17. Again, in modern translations, see how it’s translated something like “only son” instead. Hebrews here refers to the event recorded in Genesis 22 when Abraham offered up his “only son” (vs 2, 16). However, Isaac wasn’t Abraham’s only son. After Abraham died, Ishmael was still alive, “Isaac and Ishmael, his sons buried him.” (Gen 25:9).

Either there’s a contradiction going on here, or there’s something else we need to understand. Like its Greek equivalent in Hebrews 11, the phrase “only son” in Genesis 22 is translated from one word in Hebrew—yahid and could have been translated something like “unique,” “darling,” or “precious.” In other words, the word “one” isn’t to do with something numerical, but the quality or type of son Isaac was to Abraham. And, just like Jesus, he was, of course, the seed of promise, unlike Ishmael.

If we take this principle to the New Testament, we can see the importance of Jesus being God’s monogenes. God has more than one son. Adam is called his son (Luke 3:38), as is Solomon and others. But there’s something unique and special about Jesus, and it has nothing to do with substance or essence. The example of Isaac and Ishmael helps teach this point too. Out of Abraham’s two sons, who was the more physically related to him? Isaac’s birth was a miracle. Abraham’s body was as good as dead, and Sarah was not only infertile but had gone through menopause—her womb was dead (Rom 4:19). Whether or not Abraham and Sarah had physical relations when Isaac was conceived doesn’t change the fact that the flesh was a non-factor in his birth. On the other hand, Ishmael was the fleshly and physical son of Abraham, and a DNA test would have found out that they were of the same substance.

God is not interested in one’s physical descent.

Paul brings out the lesson when he writes, “it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.” (Rom 9:8). In other words, being a child of God is not about biology, chemistry and physics. This is where the ante-Nicene theologians missed the point. They misunderstood what monogenes means, but, more importantly, they didn’t consider the principle that God is not interested in one’s physical descent. Jesus being the son of God, has nothing to do with him needing to be of the same substance as God.

There’s one more interesting point about what it means to be a child of God. Above I pointed out that monogenes does not come from the root “to beget”—gennao. However, that word is used in two of the contexts most famous for the phrase “only begotten Son”—John 1 and John 3. We cited John 3 above, but look at the context. Earlier, in Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus, he said, “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (vs 3). The word for “born” here is gennao, but Jesus applies it to believers. Not only that, but the phrase is better translated “born from above,” and Jesus goes on to explain what he means—“That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (vs 6). Jesus is talking, of course, about one’s spiritual rebirth in Christ.

In John 1, where monogenes is used of Jesus in verse 14, just before it, we read this:

“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (vs 12-13).

Again, the word “born” here is gennao, and Jesus explains what he means, that someone being born of God doesn’t have anything to do with physical descent.

Think about what this means from the point of view of the argument that like begets like. Jesus isn’t even described as begotten (in the sense of the word gennao) of God—it’s believers who are! Not only that, but look at John 3:6 again—“That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” Isn’t that precisely the law “like begets like”? If, as the Trinitarian argument goes, something that God begets must necessarily be of the same substance and eternal nature as God, it follows that in John 3 that must apply to believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. They are consubstantial with the everlasting God, for “God is spirit,” and believers are “born of the Spirit.”

God is raising children for His ultimate purpose. Our elder brother in God’s family is our Lord Jesus Christ. As the prime example of what it means to be a child of God, we need to understand what it means for Jesus to be God’s Son. It’s not about biological (if that term can even be used concerning God) descent or eternal generation; it’s about the spiritual qualities associated with being in God’s image and likeness. The doctrine of the Trinity deflects attention away from what it means to be a child of God.

Richard Morgan,
Simi Hills Ecclesia, CA


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Norm Duke
2 years ago

Ancient history tells us there is something in the human psyche that draws people to the idea that there has to be more than one God. Why? Perhaps the thought of just one God is actually frightening and having multiple gods seems more human(??).

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