A Summary of Basil’s Against Eunomius, Book 1

There are many reasons to find the exchange between Eunomius, Basil of Caesarea, and Gregory of Nyssa fascinating. I can think of three. First, it gives us historical insight into how prominent pro-Nicene thinkers defended their view. Second, it provides a way to think about the Trinity that many fail to consider. And third, some of Eunomius’ arguments sound similar to those offered by some other Trinitarians to the effect that each of the divine Persons must have aseity.

These summaries cannot replace your own reading of the text! Much of what I say here is, no doubt, colored by my own understanding. I recognize that I may need to revisit this post and change some things over time.

I quote from the English translation by DelCogliano and Radde-Gallwitz. I have not introduced what we might call the “Eunomian controversy” because this post is already long enough and, consistent with what I just said, you should read the introduction to the English translation yourself.  You may also want to consult John Behr’s The Nicene Faith (Volume 1), chapter 1 and the entirety of The Nicene Faith (Volume 2).

I don’t provide page numbers for quotations because I number each of the sections the translators provide. This is sufficient for anybody to find the quotations, so it saves me some time.

Book Summary

Following Aetius the Syrian, Eunomius claims that the Son is unlike the Father in substance (1.1). He does this in a work he calls an “apology,” and he uses that description of his work for a number of reasons (1.2). He even tries to show that the terms he’s using in his “apology” go back to the fathers (1.3-1.4a).

Eunomius proposes a confession of faith, but he fails to add to this confession what he really claims about God. He thinks that the term “unbegotton” refers to the substance of God, and that the Son is unlike the Father in substance (1.4b). This adds to the “rule” of the fathers, and so it doesn’t seem like Eunomius should have appealed to them in the first place (1.5a).

Eunomius provides an argument for the claim that “unbegotten” refers to God’s substance and that, unless this is the case, God is honored merely by “conceptualization,” which is unworthy of God (1.5b). Basil responds to these points in reverse order.

Basil explains what “conceptualization” means (1.6), and then argues that “unbegotten” is a conceptualization about God (1.7). Just like the term “incorruptible,” it is a term that truly applies to God. He then points out that if Eunomius thinks terms worthy of God must refer to his essence, then all of God’s attributes mean the same thing (1.8). Instead, Eunomius should recognize that “unbegotten” is a privative term (like “incorruptible”; 1.9) and that there are many names that truly apply to God (1.10).

Next, Basil asks Eunomius where he gets the idea that he can know God’s substance (1.12). Apparently he has knowledge that the Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob didn’t have (1.13). In reality, comprehension of God’s substance transcends every created, rational nature (1.14).

“Unbegotton” does not refer to God’s substance (“what it is”), but rather to what God is like (1.15). Specifically, it tells us that God has life without beginning, and that he is “from no one.”

The term “unbegotten” has to be considered in relation to the term “Father.” Eunomius tries to separate the two (1.16). But if “unbegotten” and “Father” mean the same thing (as Basil claimed in section 1.5), then Eunomius is wrong that the unbegotten cannot have a begotten.

Basil then turns to Eunomius’ claim that God, as unbegotten, is “incomparable.” Fundamentally, this just denies what the New Testament says about the Father and the Son (1.17-1.18).

On another level, Eunomius thinks God is incomparable because of a number of mistaken ideas he has. It is not the case that if the Father and the Son are comparable by nature that the Son consists of the Father’s matter (1.19). Nor does it require some sort of order in time (1.20). Eunomius has a mistaken notion of time anyway (1.21). Finally, it doesn’t follow that if God is not composite, that the Son cannot be like him in substance (1.22).

If the Father and Son have any likeness it is due to substance and their identity of power. And contrary to Eunomius’ claim, they can be distinguished as a cause and effect are distinguished (1.23). Even the Jews recognized that Jesus was claiming to be like the Father (1.24a).

Because Eunomius ignores a self-evident principle, he is inconsistent in his claim that the Father is greater than the Son (1.24b). And there are many things that “greater than” can mean. Since things aren’t generally considered “greater than” with reference to substance, even Eunomius should accept that the Father is “greater than” the Son with reference to cause or principle (1.25). In the end, Eunomius just contradicts himself when he says that God is incomparable (1.26).

Even worse, to say that God is incomparable is to demote the Son, the Only-Begotten, and to be opposed to the good (1.27).

Section Summaries

1.1. “As far as I can tell, the first one who dared to declare openly and teach that the only-begotten Son was unlike the God and Father in substance was Aetius the Syrian.” Eunomius perfected his impiety. To refute Eunomius, then, is to refute Aetius. Basil will “focus on the blasphemy he has uttered regarding the grandeur of the glory of the Only-Begotten,” and then “attempt to make his blasphemy as clear as day for all.”

1.2. Eunomius titles his work an “apology,” and he does so for at least three reasons. First, to avoid the appearance that he is introducing and defending new ideas. Second, to give the impression that they are given “out of necessity.” That is, he is responding to those who slander him. For these two reasons, Eunomius thinks he can “[escape] the suspicion of innovation.” Third, it causes his audience to side with him, because people “accustomed to kindness” side with those who are at a disadvantage.

Eunomius fails to name his slanderers because he can’t. There are none from Seleucia, Constantinople, Bithynia, or any of the rest. So, Eunomius “is intentionally lying.”

1.3. Eunomius says that his readers should not think an idea is true simply because it is the majority opinion, nor that they should give “more attention to the contingent of those who have gone before.” It is impious and ridiculous to ignore those who have gone before us. If we did, we would treat them as less worth than Eunomius’ “impious fabrication.” Eunomius thinks that those who come after him will continue to see things the way he does, so he is clearly arrogant. Other things Eunomius says make his arrogance plain.

1.4. Eunomius uses “simple and undefined” terms and shows that even some of the fathers used them. He thinks this means they agree with his position. Again, he’s doing this to “escape the suspicious of innovation” and to lead the unexpecting into “the snares of his sophisms.”

He proposes this faith:

We believe in one God, the almighty Father, from whom are all things [1 Cor 8:6], and in one only-begotten Son of God, God the Word, our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things [1 Cor 8:6], and in one Holy Spirit, the Paraclete.

If he were being honest, he would have added these statements:

  1. We believe that unbegottenness is the substance of the God of the universe.
  2. We believe that the Only-Begotten is unlike the Father in substance.

Eunomius commits a performative contradiction by saying that the faith of the fathers “is insufficient for the resolution of the accusation made against him.” If he really believed that, then why did he try to quote the fathers to show his position has merit?

1.5. If the rule and the norm are actually the rule and the norm, they “do not need any supplementation for their precision,” as Eunomius is doing.

Here’s what Eunomius claims about God. First, God did not come into existence by himself or by another; the first option is absurd and the second means he wouldn’t be God.

Basil responds with three points. For one, if it’s really just obvious that God is unbegotten, then why does Eunomius feel the need to prove it? This is like proving that the sun is the brightest of the stars in heaven at high noon. It makes him look foolish, since we really don’t need “the syllogisms of Aristotle and Chrysippus [the Stoic] to teach us that the unbegotten was not begotten.” For another, Eunomius is already begging the question. He states outright that “according to truth the maker must pre-exist what comes into existence,” and hopes that it just follows that “the Son was begotten from nothing.” Furthermore, Eunomius is too hung up on the word “unbegotten,” since that word itself isn’t in Scripture. It is better to stick to the term “Father,” for these reasons:

The term “Father” means the same as “unbegotten,” yet it has the additional advantage of implying a relation, thereby introducing the notion of the Son. For the one who is really Father is the only one who is from no other, and being “from no one” is the same as being “unbegotten.” Accordingly, we should not designate him the “unbegotten” instead of “Father,” at least if we are not going to claim a wisdom superior to the teachings of the Savior, who said: Go, baptize in the name of the Father [Mt 28:19], but not in the name of the unbegotten.

Second, Eunomius claims that God “is unbegotten, or rather, that his unbegottenness is unbegotten substance.”

In response, Basil says that if it is the case that God’s unbegottenness is “consequent” to him, then it must be external to him and not his substance. So, Eunomius’ “ploy is destined to fail.”

Note: The translators note that Basil misconstrues Eunomius’ point here, intentionally or otherwise (footnote 41).

Third, unless we admit that God is unbegotten, Eunomius says we do not “repay him the most necessary debt of all.” To do otherwise is to “honor God in name alone by human conceptualization,” and that honor ends when the very act of speaking ceases. So, his claim is that “honoring God with conceptualizations is unworthy of God,” according to Basil.

Note: Since it’s crucial for the following, I’m going to provide some context on this idea of “contextualization” (Greek epinoia) that the translators give in the introduction. They say:

The term “conceptualization” comes to denote both the act of reflection and the concepts devised from it. When mythological poets invented the conceptualization of the hippocentaur, they did so by imaginatively combining the concepts of horse and human. Aetius’s and Eunomius’s worry is that using this kind of reflection in theology will necessarily yield fictions along the lines of the hippocentaur. (p. 48)

Furthermore, what Basil goes on to do in the sections following this is to say that “unbegotton” really is a “conceptualization” and therefore is not God’s essence. Hence the translators explain:

This term is merely what we say when, reflecting on the life of God and casting our minds backwards, so to speak, we note that this life has no beginning. It makes sense within a temporal framework to deny that God’s life has a beginning and an end; such a denial serves a useful function in purifying our minds. But it is mistaken to claim that terms derived from time-bound perspectives state God’s very essence. Indeed, Basil famously claims in this text and elsewhere that humans cannot know what God is. “Unbegotten” merely tells us “what God is like”—not “what God is.” (p. 49)

Hopefully this makes the following sections more intelligible.

1.6. What is “conceptualization” anyway? Does it really signify something non-existent, like centaurs and Chimaera? This doesn’t seem right: a falsehood remains in the mind even after the pronunciation of the falsehood ends.

Conceptualizations aren’t just about false things anyway:

After an initial concept has arisen for us from sense perception, the more subtle and precise reflection on what we have conceived is called conceptualization. For example, the concept of grain exists in everybody as something simple, by means of which we recognize grain as soon as we see it. But when we examine grain in detail we come to consider more things about it and use different designations to indicate the different things that we have conceived. For the same grain can be called at one time “fruit,” at another time “seed,” and again at another time “nourishment.” It is “fruit” as the result of farming that has been completed, “seed” as the beginning of farming to come, and “nourishment” as what is suitable for the development of the body of the one who eats it.

1.7. We see something close to this understanding of “conceptualization” in Scripture, as when Christ calls himself “door,” “way,” “bread,” etc. These words don’t all mean the same thing. “On the basis of his different activities and his relation to the objects of his divine benefaction, [Christ] employs different names for himself.”

Both “unbegotten” and “incorruptible” are conceptualizations and confessions that truly apply to God. With regard to the first, “Whenever we consider ages past, we find that the life of God transcends every beginning and say that he is ‘unbegotten.’” If this is so, how can Eunomius say that this conceptualization does not repay God what he is due?

1.8. Does Eunomius think that other words about God only give him what he is due if they refer to his essence? After all, he thinks that conceptualizations are not fitting for God. If this is what he thinks, this is absurd. Then God’s creative power, providence, etc. are all his substance, and therefore all mean the same thing.

Let’s suppose that this is the case anyway. If so, this doesn’t affect the case that the Son is like the Father in essence. For then terms like “unchangeable,” “invisible,” etc. apply to the essence of the Son.

So, if only “unbegotten” refers to the Father’s essence, why does Eunomius insist on this ad hoc position?

1.9. Eunomius thinks that “unbegotten” isn’t said of God “by way of privation.” Clearly he is relying on the wisdom of the world (particular, Aristotle’s Categories), and Basil isn’t. But more can be said.

“Unbegotten” is said of God in a way similar to “incorruptible,” “immortal,” etc. (Some call terms like these “privatives.”) “Incorruptible” means God has no corruption and “immortal” means that God cannot undergo dissolution. Similarly, the term “unbegotten” means that “no begetting is present” to God. If Eunomius thinks that only the first terms are privatives while “unbegotten” is not, what’s his reasoning?

1.10. There isn’t one “name” that encompasses God’s nature. Rather, there are some names that tell us what is “present” in God, and others that say what is not. “From these two [kinds of names] something like an impression of God is made in us, namely, from the denial of what is incongruous with him and from the affirmation of what belongs to him.”

If “unbegotten” is God’s substance, and if it is a privative term, then this implies that God’s substance is not present to him. This is absurd.

1.11. Eunomius’ reasons about the way that it could be true that God is unbegotten, and concludes that “unbegottenness” (footnote 73) “must be unbegotten substance.” Basil admits, “As for me, I too would say that the substance of God is unbegotten, but I would not say that unbegottenness is the substance.”

Even if we grant that “unbegotten” is understood “neither by way of conceptualization, nor by way of privation,” it doesn’t follow that it must be understood as God’s substance. For, as Basil has argued, the disjunction Eunomius offers isn’t the only option: It could be the case that “unbegottenness” is considered by way of conceptualization and as a privative.

1.12. Where does Eunomius think he’s getting knowledge of God’s substance? Is it from a “common notion”? “But this tells us that God exists, not what God is.” Is it from the “Spirit’s teaching”? Can’t be, since David (Psalm 138:6), Isaiah (53:8), and Paul (Romans 11:33) doesn’t claim such knowledge. Is Eunomius greater than these men?

The fact of the matter is, Eunomius can’t even tell us what the substance of “earth” is, let alone the substance of God. Its comprehension isn’t gained from any of the senses, so it must be from some rational account. (For what Basil means by “comprehension,” see footnote 83.)

1.13. But the comprehension of the earth cannot be from some rational account either. If it could, the author of Genesis wouldn’t have ignored it. So, where does Eunomius get the idea he can comprehend earth, let alone God? He owes us an answer.

God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Exodus 3:15). And yet God didn’t bother to reveal his name to them (Exodus 6:2-3), let alone his substance. But apparently God has revealed his very name and substance to Eunomius.

1.14. The comprehension of God’s nature transcends every created, rational nature. The Father is known only by the Son (Matthew 11:27), and the Spirit knows what belongs to God (1 Corinthians 2:10-11). How can their knowledge of “the very substance” be unique if other rational natures can comprehend it? (In fact, Eunomius denies that that Christ contemplates “the power and goodness and wisdom of God,” so clearly he thinks he can know something about God that Christ can’t!)

In contrast to Eunomius, Basil states:

It is to be expected that the very substance of God is incomprehensible to everyone except the Only-Begotten and the Holy Spirit. But we are led up from the activities of God and gain knowledge of the Maker through what he has made, and so come in this way to an understanding of his goodness and wisdom. For what can be known about God is that which God has manifested [Rom 1:19] to all human beings.

Whatever is expressed about God’s substance in Scripture is figurative or allegorical. Otherwise one would come to believe God is material and composite.

Since it has been shown that God’s substance is incomprehensible, Basil now turns to examine “unbegottenness itself, both what it is and how it is considered in the case of the God of the universe.”

1.15. Unbegottenness does not refer to “what it is,” but rather with “what it is like.” Put differently:

When our mind scrutinizes whether God who is over all [Rom 9:5] has some cause superior to himself, then, unable to conceptualize any, it designates the fact that his life is without beginning as “unbegotten.” When we talk about human beings and say that this person has come from that person, we are not relating the “what it is” of each but the “from where he has come.” Similarly, when we talk about God, the term “unbegotten” does not signify his “what” but that he is “from no source.”

When Luke gives the genealogy of Jesus “according to the flesh,” it does not
“indicate the substances of those enumerated but recount[s] the proximate origin from which each one came.” When he says that Adam came from God and stops there, we know that God came from no one. And since in the human case “from someone” doesn’t refer to the human substance, neither does “from no one” refer to God’s substance. If someone were to ask, “What is Adam’s substance” and they were told “He was made directly by God,” this doesn’t tell us what Adam’s substance is at all.

So, “unbegotten” tells us what God is like (that which is “from no one”), but does not tell us what he is.

1.16. Again, the notion of “unbegotten” is this: “that it does not have the origin of its being from another source.”

Eunomius only considers the term “unbegotten” in relation to “the God of the universe.” His claim is that if God is unbegotten, he “could never admit a begetting,” since this would result in giving a share of his own begottenness and would fail to be comparable to (or have fellowship with) the begotten.

However, what’s he’s doing in his argument is ignoring the terms “Father” and “Son” and only using “unbegotten” and “begotten.” But then he switches to considering the persons. The problem is that, by ignoring “Father” and “Son,” the phrase “he could never admit a begetting” is ambiguous. It could mean either:

  1. “[T]hat begetting is not applicable to his proper nature, since it is impossible for an unbegotten nature to come under begetting.”
  2. “[T]hat he does not admit of generating another.”

Eunomius meant (2) by the phrase. The consequence of it is that “he does not admit of becoming Father, and so he does not ‘give a share of his own proper nature to the one who is begotten.'”

Note: Basil seems (and I’m unsure of this) to also be saying that what Eunomius actually argued for was (1), and he simply assumes that (2) follows because he ignores what “Father” and “Son” mean.

1.17. If Eunomius means (2) by “he could never admit a begetting,” then it follows that “God is not Father and there is no” Son.

Now what of Eunomius’ claim that the unbegotten would “escape all comparison” with the begotten? Basil’s response is this:

If there is no comparison of the Son with the Father and no fellowship with the one who has begotten him, the apostles are liars and the gospels are liars. . . . If he has no comparison whatsoever with the Father, how could he say to Philip: Have I been with you for so long a time and you do not see me, Philip [Jn 14:9]? How could he say: The one who sees me sees the one who sent me [Jn 12:45]? How could the Son show in himself the one who neither admits comparison nor possesses any fellowship with him? That which is unknown is not comprehended through that which is unlike and foreign to it, but it is natural for something to become known by what has affinity with it.

1.18. Eunomius’ claim that God would “escape all comparison or fellowship with the one who is begotten” means he must deny a number of things:

  • That God has set his seal on the Son (John 6:27).
  • That Christ is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15).
  • That the Son existed in the form of God (Philippians 2:6).
  • That everything that the Son has, the Father has (John 17:10).
  • That the Father grants to the Son life in himself (John 5:26).
  • That the Son is the radiance and character of God’s subsistence (Hebrews 1:3), even though “it is impossible to conceive an image of something that is incomparable or for there to be a radiance of something with which it has no fellowship by nature.”

1.19. In another part of his Apology, Eunomius just assumes what he wants and sees what follows from his assumptions. One assumption has to do with commonality of substance.

By confessing that commonality of the substance of the Father and the Son, Basil does not mean this is “a kind of doling out and division of pre-existent matter into the things that come from it.” Rather, it means that “one and the same formula of being is observed in both” such that “whatever one may assign to the Father as the formula of his being, the very same also applies to the Son.”

1.20. Why does Eunomius think that commonality of substance requires some sort of order in time? For “things whose substance is common,” this doesn’t need to be the case. In fact, “it is impossible that the God of the universe has not co-existed from eternity with his image who has radiated light non-temporally.”

There are other ways things are ordered, and we need to distinguish them. The first is natural order (e.g., the order of effects and their causes), and the second is deliberative order (e.g., the order of parts in a structure, the order of logical propositions, etc.). Eunomius only considers deliberative order. But he does not consider, say, the natural order of fire and the light which comes from it:

In [this case] we say that the cause [i.e., the fire] is prior and that which comes from it [the light] is secondary. We do not separate these things from one another by an interval, but through reasoning we conceptualize the cause as prior to the effect.

So then why does Eunomius “refuse to accept that there is order in God”? It can be the case that “the Father is ranked prior to the Son in terms of the relation that causes have with what comes from them” without it being the case that he differs in nature or is prior in time.

1.21. Eunomius thinks that he has a good definition of time. Is that the case? If time is “a certain kind of motion of the stars,” what’s the interval between the time the earth came to be and when the stars came to be? The stars were made on the fourth day of creation. Or when the sun stood still for Joshua, was there no time? Rather, it is the case that, “All motion is measured by time, whether of the stars, of living creatures, or of anything else that moves.”

1.22. After this, Eunomius says that it is impossible “for anything to exist within the substance of God.” And nothing can be linked to God’s substance either. There’s no reason left to liken the begotten with the unbegotten. So Eunomius says nobody is stupid enough to say the Son is equal to the Father because this contradicts Christ’s claim that “the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28). God is completely incomparable.

But how does it follow that if God is not composite, then the Son cannot be like him?

1.23. Not even Eunomius is crazy enough to deny that the Son is incorporeal, without form, without figure, and other such things true of the Father. But if so, how can it be impious to compare that which is without form (the Son) to another without form (the Father), etc.? Both the Father and the Son are free of composition, so it seems they have some likeness after all.

If they are both free of composition, their likeness cannot be due to form or shape; rather, it has to do with substance. Furthermore, their equality cannot be due to mass or size, but rather to identity of power. That the Father and Son are equal in power is evident from 1 Corinthians 1:24 and John 5:19.

Eunomius also says that likeness, comparison, or fellowship in substance between the Father and Son doesn’t allow for difference. But why? “Not even the difference that exists between causes and their effects?” Even the Jews recognized that Jesus made himself equal to God (John 5:18).

1.24. The Jews inferred that Jesus made himself equal to God because he called God his Father. “For ‘he has God as his father’ necessarily entails that ‘he is equal to him.'” Eunomius agrees with the first statement and denies the second; the Jews don’t.

As for “the Father is greater than I,” Eunomius hasn’t considered Philippians 2:6.

In any case, Eunomius needs to give up one of these two claims:

  1. “Father” refers to activity rather than substance.
  2. The Father is greater than the Son.

Any cause must be proportional to its effect: a greater cause means a greater effect, and a lesser cause a lesser effect. If the Father is greater than the Son, for Eunomius, then the cause (the Father) fails to have a proportional effect (the Son), which violates this self-evident principle.

If this principle holds, God is able to make the effect equal in proportion to his activity. But then Eunomius can’t say that the Father is greater than the Son.

Note: From “Hence one of the two following alternatives is necessarily mistaken” onward, Basil seems to just be rephrasing what he has just said. Only he has stated the first alternative as a negative, which makes reading this in English rather confusing. Hopefully I’ve grasped what he’s getting at here, but this is one part of Book 1 I’m sure I’ll need to revisit.

1.25. “Greater than” is said “either according to the account of cause, or according to excess of power, or according to preeminence of dignity, or according to superabundance of mass.”

Eunomius says “greater than” should not be understood according to mass (i.e., that the Father has more mass than the Son). Neither should he say this on account of power, since Christ “is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:24). Also, when Christ says “I and my Father are one,” he clearly means that they have identical power. And since the Son shares God’s throne, “greater than” can’t refer to dignity.

What remains is “greater than” with reference to cause. Basil says:

Since the Son’s principle comes from the Father, it is in this sense that the Father is greater, as cause and principle. For this reason too the Lord said the following: The Father is greater than I [Jn 14:28], clearly meaning insofar as he is Father. But what else does “Father” signify, other than that he is the cause and the principle of the one begotten from him?

Furthermore, “Generally speaking, a substance is not said to be greater or lesser than a substance, even according to [Eunomius’] wisdom.” (See footnote 137.) That being the case, “greater than” with respect to cause does not imply “greater than” with respect to substance, as even Eunomius should admit.

1.26. Eunomius is really good at making contradictions, even contradictions with himself. If it’s the case, as he concludes, that God is “incomparable,” then how can he really be “greater than” anything? Being “greater than” something means that some comparison is made, and so God isn’t incomparable after all. If God is really incomparable, then God’s substance can’t be compared with the Son’s substance, and can’t really be said to be “greater than” his.

In effect, what Eunomius does is reduce the Only-Begotten to something less than what he is. He denies the Son his honor, and thereby denies the Father (John 5:23; Luke 10:16).

1.27. Eunomius accepts that the Son is inferior to the Father to the same extent that all other things are, since the Father is incomparable. So then the Son is equal with all other things to that extent. How, then, can the Son “be different from creatures with which he has affinity?” And how can it be that “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30)? Clearly in John 10:30 Jesus is comparing himself with the Father, and “these words [express] their indistinguishability of nature.”

Furthermore, if Jesus tells us to “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), he is telling us to gain (insofar as we are able) likeness to “the God of the universe.”

For these reasons, God can’t be as utterly incomparable as Eunomius thinks he is. The position contradicts itself, and is opposed to the good.

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