Concerning the ante-nicene patristic writers -- that is, those of the first 3 centuries -- Moses Stuart writes that
"the great body of the early and influential Christian Fathers, whose works are extant, believed that the Son of God was begotten at a period not long before the creation of the world: or, in other words, that he became a separate hypostasis, at or near the time, when the ework of creation was to be performed. If this can be shewn, the fact that they believed in the eternal generation of the Son of God, or at least their unanimity in receiving this doctrine, cannot surely be admitted"(Stuart).
Stuart's point here is a response to Bishop Bull's assertion that we ought to adopt the doctrine of the eternal generation on the ground that the early church writers held to it unanimously, or that it at least constitutes support for it. Stuart's investigation is two-fold:
1) Is the generation of the Son of God eternal?
2) Is that generation voluntary or necessary?
First, we will look at Justin Martyr. Martyr writes:
"God in the beginning, before any thing was created, begat a Rational power from himself; which is called by the Holy Ghost, Glory of the Lord, and sometimes Son, Wisdom, Angel, God, Lord, Logos. Sometimes also he calls him Leader. In the form of a man he appeared to Joshua, the son of Nun. All the above names he bears, because he ministers to the will of the Father, and was begotten by the will of the Father...Something like this, we see happens to ourselves. When we utter a reasonable eword, we beget reason but not by abscission so that our reason is diminished. Another thing like this we see, in respect to fire; which suffers no diminution by kindkling another fire, but still remains the same."
1) Only that which is created can have a name.
2) God created the Logos when he decided to create the spatiotemporal universe.
The Logos is therefore spoken of as having been begotten by the will of the Father. No refined distinction between necessary and contingent will is broached here. Justin's analogy makes it clear that he saw the Logos as a kind of internal faculty in God, as just as reason is in an internal element in us. The Logos became a distinct being temporally, when God decided according to His will to beget the Logos. Stuart notes that to the extent that we can speak in any meaningful respect of an 'eternal' Logos, the Logos was only eternally pre-existent in the mind of God, but certainly not eternally begotten.
Stuart quotes Justin Martyr further:
"The Father of the universe, who is unbegotten, has no name; for to have a proper name, implies that there is one antecedent to the person named, who has given the appellation. For the titles, Father, God, Creator, Lord, Sovereign, are not properly names, but appellations deduced from his beneficence and his operations. But his Son, who only is properly called Son, the Logos, who existed with him before the creation, and was generated when in the beginning he created and adorned all things by him, is called Christ, because God anointed and adorned all things by him."
It is thus clear that Justin Martyr rejected the doctrine of eternal generation as traditionally understood. That the Logos was eternal, he held in a sense, and that he was generated, he certainly held. But his "Logology", so to speak, is not one which would be accepted of contemporary Trinitarians, whether or not they accept eternal generation. Indeed, Stuart notes Justin Martyr's logic: it is precisely because the Logos is a temporal creation that he can be said to possess a name. "The immanent Logos seemes to be acknowledged as eternal; but his generation is definitely stated to be only antemundane. He was...coexisting with t he Father, or existing in him, before the creation; but...begotten in time, when the act of creation was about to be performed"(Stuart).
Stuart quotes Justin Martyr on the temporal generation of the Logos:
"We have the Son of God described in the memoirs of the Apostles; and we call him the Son of God, and consider him as coming forth...from the Father, before the creation, by his power and will." Justin Martyr therefore seems to have regarded Christ as God's first creation, but a creation nonetheless.
The Logos theology of Athenagoras is quite similar. He writes in his Apology:
"I have sufficiently proved that we (Christians) are not atheists, who believe in one eternal God, unbegotten, invisible, impassible, incomprehensible, known only by reason and understanding, surrounded by light, and beauty, and spirit, and indescribable power; who by his Word, created, adorned, and preserves all things. We acknowledge also a Son of God. Nor must any one think it ridiculous, that God should have a Son. For not as the poets feign, who exhibit gods nothing better than men, do we think either concerning God the Father, or concerning the Son. But the Son of God is the Word of the Father, in idea and in operation; for by him and through him were all things made, inasmuch as the Father and Son are one. The Son, moreover, being in the Father, and the Father in the Son, by a oneness and energy of spirit; the Son of God is the understanding and reason of the Father. What the Son is, I will briefly declare. He is the first progeny of the Father, not as made, (for God, from the first, being eternal understanding, had the Logos in himself, being eternally a reasonable Intelligence;) but he came forth to be the idea and operation of all material things. With this account,agrees the Spirit of prophecy. The Lord, saith he, created me in the beginning of his ways, for his works."
Athenagoras is thus a great deal more explicit in affirming the eternality of the Logos, yet affirms that the Logos was immanent in the mind of God and was only subsequently generated. Thus Moses Stuart:
"The first born of God is not to be considered as made, like the creation, or other intelligneces; for he existed eternally in God as his...understanding and reason. But he came forth to be the idea and operation, i.e. the deviser and maker, of all material things. In proof of this, the same passage is cited, from Proverbs 8:22 to which Justin appeals, for confirmation of his views; a passage which, supposing wisdom to mean the Logos and that the Septuagint Version is correct, (as Justin, Athenagoras, and other Christian Fathers believed) is well adapted to give countenance to their theory respecting the generation, or hypostatical origin of the Son"(Stuart).
Next, we will look at the 2nd century writer Tatian. Stuart quotes him:
"the Lord of the universe, being himself the substance of all things, whilst as yet nothing was created, existed alone. In so far as he possessed all power and was the substance of things visible and invisible, all things were with him. With him, also, by virtue of his rational power, existed the Logos himself, who was in him. But by his will, the Logos leaped forth from his simple being; and not going into an empty sound, he became the first born work of the Father. This we know to be the beginning of the world. He became [the first born work] by communication, not by abscission; for what is abscinded, is separated from that whence it is abscinded. But that which is derived by communication - does not diminish that from which it is taken. From one torch we may light many torches, and still the light of the first torch is not diminished. So when the Logos proceeded [came forth] from the power of the Father, it did not deprive him who begat the Logos of reason. Even so, I speak and you hear me; and yet by the transition of my word to you, I who speak am not at all deprived of the faculty of reason."
The language and analogies are clearly quite similar to that found in Justin Martyr. The Logos existed from eternity past in the mind of God, but only became a distinct entity when God created the Logos by His will. Indeed, Stuart notes that Tatian was a disciple of Justin Martyr, and it ought to therefore come as no surprise that his language and understanding of the Logos is similar, if not identical, to that of Justin Martyr's.
Stuart next turns to Theophilus. He quotes him thus:
"They (the prophets) have harmoniously taught us, that God made all things out of nothing. For nothing is coeval with God. But he, being his own place, and in want of nothing, and existing before the worlds, was desirous to make man, by whom he might be known. For him he prepared the world. Now he who is created is exposed to want; but he, who is uncreated, needs nothing. God, then, having his Logos immanent in his own bowels, began him with his own wisdom, emitting him...before all things. This Logos he had as an assistant in the work of creation,a nd by him he made all things..."
Stuart writes that there is thus, in Theophilus, no less than the others Ante-Nicene writers, a "real procession or emanation from god the Father, as the original source of all Being."
Stuart quotes Theophilus further, lest there be any doubt of his undersetanding of the doctrine:
"God, the Father of the universe...is incomprehensible, and cannot be contained in any place. But his Logos, by whom he made all things - assuming the person of the Father - came into paradise in his persons and conversed with Adam. For the holy Scripture teaches us, that Adam said he heard a voice. Now what else is a voice, but the Word of God, who is his Son; not as poets and mythologers speak of the sons of God, born from carnal intercourse; but, as truth declares, the Logos who was always immanent (...laid up, deposited) in the heart of God. Before any thing was made, he had him for a counsellor, who was his understanding and his reason. But when God desired to make what he had purposed to make, he begat this Logos...the first born of all creation. Not that the Father deprived himself of reason; but having begotten the Logos, he converses always with his Logos (or reason). This, the holy Scriptures and all inspired men teach; of whom John says, In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God; shewing that, at first, God was alone, and his Logos in him. Afterwards he says, and the Logos was God. All things were made by him; and without him was nothing made. The Logos, therefore, being God, and produced from God, when it seemed good to the Father of the universe, he sends him to any particular place, etc."
Stuart then quotes Irenaeus, as a light shining in the darkness of bad Logos theology:
"God...being all mind and all Logos, what he thinks he speaks, and what he speaks he thinks. His thought is Logos; and his Logos, mind; and the Father himself is the Mind which comprises all. Whoever therefore speaks of the mind of God, as if externally produced...makes him composite; as if God were one thing, and his essential mind another."
He next quotes Irenaeus replying to the Gnostics, who, like many of the other Ante-Nicene Fathers, held that the Logos had in eternity past been immanent to the mind of God and only became a distinct being around the time of creation:
"but the prophet says concerning him, Who shall declare his generation? but you, divining about the birth of the Father, and transferring the utterance of the words by the human tongue to the Word of God, are justly detected by us, as not understanding either human or divine things."
Stuart notes that Irenaeus likewise rejects the popular analogy of comparing the Son to the emanation of sunlight from the sun:
"If, says he, they (the Gnostics) speak of an emission [emanation] of God's understanding, they separate and divide the understanding of God. Where and whence did it emanate? Whatever emanates is received by something; but what was t here more ancient than the mind of God, by which it could be recieved, when it was sent forth."
He quotes Irenaeus once more:
"Since the Supreme God is all mind, and all Logos, as we have before said; and nothing in him is more ancient, or later, or anterior; but he remains entirely equal, and alike, and one; no emission of this nature can take place."
Stuart notes that apart from this rejection of a temporal generation of the Logos, Irenaeus does not seem to taught any sort of doctrine of eternal generation. The only generation of which Irenaeus seems to be aware is a temporal generation, and he emphatically rejects it. Stuart notes that Irenaeus acknowledges the Deity of Christ and ascribes to Him all the attributes of Deity, such as that of sovereignty and eternality. Yet there is nothing to suggest that Irenaeus believed in anything like an eternal generation of the Logos.
Stuart next deals with Clement of Alexandria, whose views on the Logos, he says, seem to be contradictory, and whose quotations, given below, seem difficult to reconcile with one another (and with such an assessment other patristic writers seem to agree):
"The image of God is his Logos; and the divine Logos is the genuine Son of understanding, the original light of light."
"Plato in his Phaedrus, speaking of truth, explains it as an idea. An idea is the thought of the Divinity, which barbarians call the Logos of God. [By barbarians, he means the heathen Greeks]. The Logos coming forth...became the creator of the owrld. Afterwards, when the Logos became flesh he begat himself."
"There is one unbegotten Being, the Almighty God. And there is one begotten before all things, by whom all things were made. For Peter truly says, there is one God, who created the beginning...This is he, who is called Wisdom by the prophets, the teacher of all creatures, the counsellor of God, who from ancient time, from the foundation of the world, at divers times and in various ways, instructed and perfecfted [men]".
Stuart notes that he also refers to the Logos as "the first created wisdom"
It is in such passages that Clement of Alexandria seems to teach that the Logos was a creature. There are other passages, however, which Stuart produces which seem to say the opposite. In one place the Logos is described as
"the older by birth among intelligible things; the timeless beginning and firstling of beings, by whom we must learn the original cause; the father of all, the most ancient and most beneficient of all."
It is in the aforementioned passage which Clement seems to describe the Logos as eternally preexistent. But is this eternally preexistent Logos only eternal as an immanent being in the mind of God, or is His distinction likewise eternal? It is not clear from the text, and it is furthermore not clear as to how such a text can be reconciled with his other statements. Moses Stuart accepts the aforementioned solution, namely, that the Logos existed from eternity past as an immanent creature to the mind of God, but was generated at a temporal moment, in accordance with the opinions of many of the other Ante-Nicene Fathers.
Indeed, he does refer to the Logos as "aidios", which is the Greek word for "eternal." It is possible that he changed his mind at some point and came to regard the Logos as eternally distinct, and it seems just as possible that he did not. Only God knows what Clement of Alexandria believed about the Logos.
Stuart next turns to the eminently clear Tertullian, quoting him accordingly:
"God before the creation, was alone, his own world and place; alone, because there was nothing extrinsic to him. Yet not alone, for he had with him what he had in him, viz, his own reason. For God is a rational being, and his reason was in him first, and so all things were derived from him; which reason is his understanding. The Greeks call this Logos, and we, Sermo. On this account, we are accustomed, by merely interpreting the word [Logos] to say, that the Word was in the beginning with God: when we should say, to speak correctly, Reason was first; for God from the beginning was not sermonalis but rationalis."
Thus, the Logos was the Reason as God existing immanently in him from eternity past. It is not until the temporal generation of the Logos, according to Tertullian, that the Logos existed as a distinct being:
"As soon as God had determined to bring into substance and form those things, which he had arranged within himself by his reason and his Logos (Sermone) he first produced the Word himself, having in him his own reason and wisdom, that the universe might be made by him."
"Then the Word himself assumed his form and beauty, sound and voice, when God said, Let there be light. This is the perfect nativity of the Word, when he proceeds from God, formed by him first mentally (ad cogitatum) by the name of wisdom - then generated in fact (ad effectum), etc."
Tertullian even answers objections to the notion that the Word was generated when God first spoke. Stuart quotes him:
"But I reply, that nothing can proceed from God which is inane and void; so that what proceeded from him does not relate to any thing inane and void: nor could that want substance, which proceeded from him, who made so many substances, and is himself so great a substance."
Tertullian, addressing Hermogenes, says the following, as quoted in Stuart's work:
"He (God) is not Father - always, because he is always God. For he could not be a Father before he had a Son; as there cannot be a judge, before there is a crime. There was a time, when the Son was not [as Son] - who might make the Lord a father."
He quotes Tertullian further against Hermogenes, disputing the position take by the latter that matter is eternal rather than created, temporal substance:
"Let Hermogenes acknowledge, that the Wisdom of God is spoken of as born and formed; lest we sehould believe that any thing besides God only was unborn and unformed. For if within God, what was from him and in him, was not without a beginning, namely his Wisdom, borna nd formed from the time when the mind of God began to be agitated about the formation of the world; much more must we deny that what was without God was eternal."
Stuart next turns to Origen. He says of the Alexandrian,
"No doubt can be fairly entertained, that Origen believed in the eternal generation of the Son. For the hypostatic existence of the Logos, he strongly contends; and as clearly declares, that he was the Son from eternity. He unequivocally rejects all similies, drawn from human generation or production and takes a decided stand against any application of the emanation-philosophy or the doctrine of emanation, prolation, or emimssion from God, to the explanation of this subject. The immutability of the divine nature was a truth which he regarded with strong approbation; and every thing which seemed to interfere with it, he rejected. So great a change as the Deity must suffer, by the generation of a Son in time, appeared therefore irreconcilable with his views of the divine nature. And on the same general ground of reasoning, he maintained the eternity of the world"(Stuart).
Though he is to be commended for his doctrine of the eternality of the distinctness of the Son, this seems to have more to do with the immutability of God than with the integrity of the distinct existence of the Son, as is evidenced by his belief that the world itself must have eternally pre-existed alongside God. In any case, he certainly explicitly rejected the notion that the Logos had been temporally generated. Stuart quotes Origen:
"Some...understand the phrase [came from God] of the generation of the Son; from which, they say, it follows that the Son was begotten from the being of the Father. It follows, that they must describe the Father and Son as corporeal, and that the Father is divided. These are the dogmas of men, who never even dreamed of an invisible and incorporeal nature."
Stuart notes that Origen does accept a doctrine of eternal generation. "He compares the generation or rather the eternity of the generation of the Son, with the splendour that is coetaneous with light"(Stuart).
Rather than using Scripture to affirm the eternal generation of the Son of God, it was clearly because of philosophical considerations:
"It was Origen's philosophy, therefore, which led him to embrace the doctrineof eternal generation; the same philosophy which led him to maintain the eternity of the world, or of the creation.
To defend the immutability of god he took the strange position, that a change in his relation in respect to dependent beings, necessarily implied a change in the creator and governor of them; or that all the relations implied by the names of God, which are found in the Bible, must have been eternal. That he embraced the doctrine of eternal generation, kin consequence of being guided by such philosophy, will not serve much to recommend this doctrine to considerate inquirers of the present day"(Stuart).
Stuart next turns to Dionysius of Alexandria. Stuart adduces two quotes from Dionysius of Alexandria, in order to demonstrate his heterodox views concerning the temporal creation of the Logos:
"The Son of God is created and made - eand as he is a created being, he existed not before he was made."
"God was not always Father; the Son was not always: but the supreme God was once without the Logos, and the Son was not, before he was begotten; for he is not eternal, but came into being afterwards"(Stuart).
Lucian of Antioch is of particular importance for our purpose. He penned a creed according to which Christ is described as having been "begotten before all ages...the first born of every creature." Stuart notes that there is nothing here with which the heterodox Ante-Nicene writers would have objected, since they did hold to the eternality of the Logos; only, they held that he was immanent to the mind of God before His generation, and that the only way in which He could be spoken of as having existed in eternity past is in the mind of God.
Indeed, as Stuart notes, Methodius spoke of the Logos as "the first begotten of God...who was before the ages" and "the most exalted and ancient of the Eons, and the first [or head] of archangels." And yet, this did not prevent him from speaking of this same Logos as having resulted from temporal creation: "The beginning we must say, is the Father and Maker of all; from which sprung the most just Logos."
Concerning Cyprian of Carthage, Stuart argues that he most likely held that the Logos was immanent to the mind of God prior to His generation. He notes that Cyprian cites Sirach 24:3, reading "I came forth from the mouth of the most High, the first born before every creature", and concludes from this citation, and for his warm regard for Tertullian, who certainly held to such a view, that he most likely held to such a view himself.
Novatian seems to have held to a similar view. Stuart quotes him:
"God the Father - creator - unorginated, invisible, immense, immortal, eternal, the only god - from whom, when he pleased, the Word his Son was born; which one must not understand of a sound from the percussion of the air, nojr of a voice forced from the lungs, but of a power substantially produced from God - Therefore, when the Father willed it, he proceeded from the Father - who was in the Father..."
The views of Lactantius are likewise similar:
"In what manner did God proecreate [the Son]? The divine work cannot be understood and fully explained by any one; but still, the holy Scriptures teach us, by admonishing us, that the Son of God is the Word of God, and that other angels are spirits [breaths]. For a word is breath uttered with a voice signifying something. but since a word and a breath are uttered through different organs (e.g. the breath proceeds through the nostrils, and the word through the mouth) there is, a great difference between the Son of God and the other angels. They proceeded from God as silent breaths; for they were not created to instruct, but to perform ministerial service. He, indeed although a spirit too, yet proceeded from the mouth of God, with a noise and sound, i.e., as a word, for the reason he was about to use his voice in addressing the people, i.e. he was to be a teacher of divine doctrines. With propriety, therefore, he is called the Word of God, because God, by his indescribable power, formed into the image of his own majesety, the vocal spirit which proceeded from his mouth, who was conceived, not in the womb but in the mind, and who flourishes with his own understanding and wisdom..."
It is not until Dionysius of Rome, that we may have found an ante-nicene patristic writer to have approached the position of Athanasius, according to whom the Son is eternally begotten of the Father. Stuart sums up his assessment of the evidence:
"With the exception of this single father, I have not been able to find testimonies in any other early writer of eminence, in favour of the doctrine of eternal generation, as stated in the Nicene creed. Origen, and probably some of his immediate disciples, maintained this doctrine; but on different grounds from those of the Council of Nice. Their ground of argument was rather philosophical than Scriptural; believing that a generation in time would detract from the immutability of the divine nature. The creed attributed to Lucian is indefinite; the anathema added at the close of the baptismal formula, somewhat uncertain in its origin. The genuineness of the creed attributed to Gregory Thaumaturgus, is very suspicious; altogether too much so to be relied on. Irenaeus, more scriptural and less tainted with philosophy than any of the early fathers, Greek or Roman, has forborne, in any special manner, to explain his views on the point in question, holding all speculations about it to be unlawful; although from one of his expressions, it appears probable that he embraced the common doctrine"(Stuart).
Stuart concludes, that while there may have been some minute beginnings of the doctrine in the Ante-Nicene writers, it differs radically and substantially from the position of eternal generation held by Athanasius, and professed in the Nicene Creed.
Stuart, Moses. "Letters on the Eternal Generation of the Son." Andover. 1822.