…the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, light from light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made…
With Christmas coming up I have to admit that I’ve always found this passage from the Nicene Creed, defining the details of the Church’s teachings on the virgin birth, a bit troubling on a number of levels. What does it actually mean in literal, concrete terms? What is its authority based on? How does the authority of this creed compare with the authority of the Bible? Is it still possible to believe this in any literal sense? What does it say about someone’s faith if they don’t believe it? What does it say about their standing within the Church as an organization if they don’t believe it?
The process of fathering a son is something I know a little about in practice. As most parents have known for quite some time, it has to do with sufficiently well-timed intercourse culminating in male orgasm occurring within the vagina. Once that happens, biologically speaking, the father’s reproductive work is done. Any other contributions to the “begetting” process have to wait until next time. So what the heck is this “eternally begotten” process all about? I agree that the begetting process is at its best when it is not done too quickly, but stretching it out eternally? How is that possible, even for God?
Obviously a divine eternal erection was not what the delegates to the Council of Nicea 1680 years ago had in mind with this phrase. Painting a picture of God as the ultimate copulater would have been the furthest thing from their minds. Of all the fourth century church fathers St. Augustine had the most to say about the matter of sex, due primarily to his sense of guilt issues regarding his pre-conversion sexual hedonism, but he was far from the only one to consider sex to be “yucky” and inherently sin-producing, if not directly sinful. The image of God in the Christian Church of the fourth century was anything but sexy. Likewise their honorary titles as “church fathers” had nothing to do with their sex lives as such. So what were these stodgy old bishops on about with this eternal begetting shtick?
The only way to make sense of this attribute for Jesus is in the context of an antiquated understanding of reproductive biology, based on the teachings of Aristotle. In simple terms, Aristotle believed that the best analogy for what the sperm does to the bloody reproductive material found within the woman is what a signet ring does to hot wax, or what a branding iron does to a cow’s ass: it sets a distinct pattern on the material there, making it conform as much as possible to the father’s trademark design. Where the mother contributes the basic raw material; the father was believed to contribute the complete functional design for the new person. Using another analogy, the mother provides the clay; the father’s sperm “sculpts” it into a person.
Furthermore, according to this way of thinking, the male “imprint” brought about through copulation is never an entirely perfect one. The better the “begetting” goes, the more like the father the resulting child turns out to be, but human men never entirely get what they want in this regard. Since a man can’t actually see the target that he’s shooting at in there, sometimes his liquid branding iron misses its target entirely, and no baby at all results. Sometimes it hits the target indirectly, or not completely square on, resulting in a baby that less perfectly displays on the pattern that the father’s ejaculate was trying to imprint. Some little details end up missing sometimes. According to Aristotle (and Aquinas) that is actually where little girls come from: slight mishaps in the process of men trying to father sons.
But God being God, as the church fathers saw it, He was not limited in his pattern-setting to that one critical, passionate moment where the sperm hits the bloody stuff; God could keep on “re-branding” Jesus and re-establishing the fatherly pattern in him throughout his life. This process of producing the paternal image in the bloody material substance found in his mother would not be limited to just getting the girl pregnant; it would be an on-going from before the time of Mary’s birth until after the time of Jesus’ death. The virgin birth was just one incidental step along the way; God was and is continuously re-shaping Jesus to make him more completely typical of the divine.
Except that reproductive biology really doesn’t work that way. Aristotle and his students were fundamentally wrong about how sex works, and how light works and how souls works for that matter. We now know with a fair amount of certainty that the pattern for the baby comes in equal parts from mother and father, and as products of the begetting process, daughters are not somehow partially defective sons, but complete human beings unto themselves, demonstrating just as much begetting success as any son does. Both in pattern and in physical substance, children are a combination of their fathers and their mothers. Asserting otherwise is just factually, and in many respects morally, wrong.
So there’s really no getting around the fact that the Nicene Creed is based on a complete, and rather sexist, misunderstanding of reproductive biology. Mendel’s work in genetics in the late 19th century essentially proved this. So now what can we do about it?
To start with we have to deal with the issue of the presumption of authoritative flawlessness in ancient religious texts in general. Fundamentalists’ frequent favorite verse in the Bible, which I had to memorize at about 12 years old, is 2 Timothy 3:16: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction and for instruction in righteousness.” This verse is taken as proof that every word in the Bible must be taken as flawlessly straight from God. But there are more than a few problems with such an interpretation. Strictly speaking, the “scripture” that St. Paul was referring to here would be the Jewish Torah; so rather than emphasizing the flawlessness issue, what is really being addressed here, in context, is the matter of maintaining respect for the Jewish scriptures among the increasing Gentilized body of Christian believers. Beyond that there is one other reference in the Bible to something being “God-breathed” (as the better translations have it in 2 Timothy): Adam’s human soul (Genesis 2:7). If we don’t consider human souls to be inherently flawless, in terms of logical consistency we shouldn’t take the turn of the phrase in 2 Timothy to indicate that Biblical writings are inherently flawless either.
But setting aside the literal meanings and proper hermeneutics for the moment, according to church tradition, due in large part to religious people’s emotional need to feel “sure” about things, the idea of “God’s inspiration” giving authority to the official pronouncements of the church underpins the whole concept of “sound doctrine,” which provides the grounds on which systematic theologians and “canon lawyers” of various sorts professionally distinguish between “orthodoxy” and “heresy”. Acknowledging that the core assertion of the Nicene Creed is based on nothing but a scientific mistake that was broadly accepted as fact in fourth century culture fundamentally screws up this whole system! If you can’t trust divine inspiration to keep the teachings of the Nicene Creed flawless, how can you trust the flawlessness of the canon of the New Testament, which these same church fathers progressively adopted over the course of the generation following the Council of Nicea? If you can’t trust Nicea, what can you trust?
Even more fundamental than that though, how do we go about making sense of Christology and the doctrine of the trinity when our most foundational and authoritative statement on those subjects is based on a complete scientific misunderstanding? We’re talking about a much bigger conundrum here than just the early church’s flat earth assumptions and misunderstandings of the physical locations of heaven and hell; we’re talking about the core understanding of who/what we worship, and why!
It’s sort of like getting down to filling in the last ten numbers on a rather difficult sudoku, and then realizing that somehow you’ve ended up with two sixes in the third column; somewhere along the way you’ve made a basic mistake, and seeing how far back you have to go to undo that mistake can be a very frustrating and aggravating process. What we know for sure here is that the description of how the relationship between God the Father and Jesus, the Son, works in the Nicene Creed is based on a fundamental biological misunderstanding. How far back we have to go from there to straighten out this mess has yet to be properly determined.
I’m not going to offer my personal revised solution to this theological puzzle in this blog entry. I think it would be most fair to leave it open as a doctrinal question and allow leading members of each particular confessional tradition to offer their own dogmatic solutions. I thus ask each reader’s help in putting this matter forward to those they accept as theological leaders to see what they are able to do with it. Skeptics, meanwhile, can play with this consistency issue in the Christian tradition in whatever way they find most amusing.
For my part, I will close here by offering a few related personal meditations, for what they’re worth, for you to ponder over the remaining days of the holiday season:
- Certainty in matters of faith is over-rated. As good as certainty feels, there are always things about life that we can’t know for sure, and that apparently God doesn’t want us to know for sure. That doesn’t mean we should give up on further developing our understanding in theology any more than we should give up on physics or biology; but it does mean that in theology, as in natural sciences, we need to be careful how seriously we take the “laws” we discover or formulate, and we need to remain ready to have reality keep surprising us, in both positive and negative ways.
- Humanity is a marvelous puzzle unto itself. In thinking about the core theological mystery of Christmas –– how God could become man and still remain God –– we inevitably need to come back to the question of why we are so occupied with “god questions” to begin with, and what makes each of us (potentially) valuable as individuals to begin with. We still haven’t got the concept of how God’s breath makes each of us a living soul figured out entirely. That’s something we need to work out in more detail before we can finalize our Christological dogmas it would seem.
- Love doesn’t have to make sense to be valuable. In fact love hardly ever makes sense, but that doesn’t stop it from being the most valuable aspect of the human experience, and the strongest predictor of personal happiness in our lives regardless of our religious persuasions. The core message of Christmas, and Christianity in general, is that in spite of how screwed up we are, we are still loved, and that in turn should give us a capacity to love each other and live at peace with each other regardless of the other’s flaws. Granted, some people totally do not deserve to be loved. Since when is that a surprising realization? No, we will not be able to love everyone in the world without destroying ourselves in the process, because none of us have the capacity to make everyone else’s problems our own. The point is rather that we can at least get beyond issues of who deserves to be loved and who we can profit from lovingly connecting with. God’s love, shown through the life and death of Jesus, should give us a broader perspective than that.
And with those matters to mull over, I wish all of you a pleasant Christmas and a joyous start to the New Year.