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Do You Believe in the Son of God?

“If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater; for this is the witness of God which He has testified of His Son. 10 He who believes in the Son of God has the witness in himself; he who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed the testimony that God has given of His Son. 11 And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. 12 He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (1 John 5:9-12 NKJV)

The truth laid out in these verses is simple- he who has the Son has life; he who does not believe in the Son of God, does not have life. Salvation comes through Jesus Christ, the one Mediator between God and man (1 Tim 2:5), and no one comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6).

To believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, then, is manifestly required for salvation. The confession that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” is central to the true Christian faith (Matt 16:16).

Yet tragically, many professing Christians deny the Son of God. They do this by embracing Augustinian trinitarianism.

Surely such a statement must seem shocking to many. But consider this- if one believes that the Lord Jesus Christ is the Supreme God, the one God, the Almighty, rather than His Son, then a person does not truly believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.

You see, to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God requires more than that we simply repeat the words “Son of God”. We must believe what scripture means by the phrase, or it profits us nothing. And scripturally, the Son of God is a distinct individual from the one God, the Supreme God, the Father. To believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God requires us to believe that He is a different person than the God whose Son He is.

Most modern trinitarians simply do not believe this. They are quick to confess their faith that Jesus Christ is not the Father, but the Son of the Father; yet by denying the identity of the one God with the person of the Father, their confession that Christ is the Son of the Father does not equate to a confession of Him as the Son of God.

Rather, they view the one God as the Trinity of three ‘persons’. This Trinity is, in their thinking, the one God, the Supreme God, the Almighty. This person is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The problems with this anti-scriptural view are manifold; but one of the most alarming is that it severely alters the relationship of the Son with God. Rather than the Son being the Son of God, and a distinct person from Him, this view presents the Son as part of God -a person out of three who is the one God- rather than the Son of God.

This view is still able to maintain the Son’s identity as Son of the Father, since within this “tri-personal God” the ‘person’ of the Son relates to the ‘person’ of the Father as a distinguishable entity, which is begotten by the Father. Thus a Father-Son distinction is maintained, at least at a certain limited level. But since the God is not synonymous with the Father in this view, this in no way equals believing that Christ is the Son of God. This Father-Son distinction is all deemed to be “within God”. Thus the Lord Jesus Christ is confessed to be the Son of the Father, yet denied to be the Son of God.

This all stems from the root problem of denying the historic first article of the Christian faith- that there is “one God, the Father Almighty”, as so many ancient creeds begin. Both the scriptures and the Christians of the first several centuries of church history are clear in stating the identity of the one God with the Father (see here). As Paul the apostle wrote, “For us there is one God, the Father, from Whom are all things” (1 Cor 8:6). And the Lord Jesus Christ defined eternal life, saying “this is eternal life, that they may know You [the Father], the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” (John 17:3 NKJV).

Those then who deny that the one God is the Father Almighty in particular, set themselves not only at odds with classical Christianity as seen in the writings of the church fathers, but more importantly deny a central truth taught by the holy scriptures. In doing so God’s glory is obscured, and the church is harmed, being deprived of important truth. But worse still, such a denial ultimately results in a denial of the basic and necessary Christian doctrine that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.

Augustinian trinitarianism, then, or semi-modalism, as I prefer to call it, is not simply some innocuous error. It does not only work against the glory of God and the good of His people- it is, if held sincerely, a damnable denial of the Christian faith, by constituting a denial of Christ Himself. By denying the identity of the Father and the Supreme God, the one God, the Almighty, this heresy makes Jesus Christ out to not truly be the Son of God, but merely a part of His own self. Confessing that Jesus is the Son of the Father is not enough- He must be believed in as the Son of God. “And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. 12 He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (1 John 5:9-12 NKJV)

Highlights from Maximinus’s Debate With Augustine

The debate between Augustine of Hippo and Maximinus the Homoian is well worth reading for anyone interested in understanding the theology of either Augustine or the Homoians. Maximinus’s lengthly explanations of his views provide one of the best primary sources we have on the details of fifth-century Homoian trinitarianism. It is noteworthy for its close resemblance to the theology of prominent second and third-century church fathers such as Justin Martyr and Novatian of Rome. Below are a few brief selections from Maximinus’s portion of the debate.

These excerpts show, among other things, that Maximinus and the Homoians at large, as represented by the ecumenical council of Arminium, were not Arians, as they are so often slandered as being. The thematic stress on the Father’s supremacy and infinitude, although something Arians agreed with, can be seen in the ante-nicene fathers going back to Novatian, Irenaeus, and Justin Martyr; it is by no means a mark of Arianism.

Maximinus said:

“In the case of God you should use a worthy comparison. I am, of course, displeased and pained at heart over what you go on to say, namely, that a human being generates a human being, a dog a dog. You should not use so foul a comparison for such greatness.†106

15, 7. “Who does not know that God begot God, that the Lord begot the Lord, that the King begot the King, that the Creator begot the Creator, that the Good begot the Good, that the Wise begot the Wise, that the Merciful begot the Merciful, and that the Powerful begot the Powerful? In generating the Son, the Father took nothing away from the Son. He is not envious, but as the source of goodness he begot this great good.†107 All of creation bears witness to his goodness, in accord with your statement, which I highly praise.†108 You drew from the divine scriptures the words, From the creation of the world his invisible reality, having been understood, is seen through those things that have been made, even his everlasting power and divinity (Rom 1:20).”
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“Moreover, it is proper and a mark of order that you employ worthy comparisons. After all, you are speaking of God, of that immensity, to which, even if one draws a comparison as great as possible in terms of human thought or even in accord with the authority of the divine scriptures, one finds that the comparison is inadequate in every respect to him who is incomparable.

15, 10. “In accord with the testimonies that I have produced, I say that the Father alone is the one God, not one along with a second and a third, but that he alone is the one God. If he alone is not the one God, he is a part.†122 I deny, after all, that the one God is composed of parts; rather, his nature is unbegotten, simple power. The Son before all ages is himself begotten as power. The apostle spoke of this power of the Son, When you and my spirit are gathered together with the power of the Lord Jesus (1 Cor 5:4). I state and profess what the holy gospels teach us. I state and profess that the Holy Spirit is also power in his proper character. The Lord bore witness concerning him, when he said to his disciples, Remain in the city of Jerusalem, until you are clothed from on high with power (Lk 24:49).
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15, 12. “The apostle says, The blessed and alone powerful, the King of kings. He calls the Father alone powerful, not because the Son is not powerful. Listen to the Holy Spirit crying out and bearing testimony to the Son, Lift up the gates, you†125 princes; be raised up, eternal gates, and the king of glory will enter. He continues, Who is this king of glory? Listen to the answer, The Lord strong and powerful (Ps 23:7-8). How can he fail to be powerful, when every creature proclaims his power?

15, 13. “How can he fail to be wise, when the Holy Spirit cries out in praise of his wisdom and says, How magnificent are your works, O Lord! You have made all things in wisdom (Ps 103:24). Since all things were made through Christ, the Holy Spirit undoubtedly praises him when he says, You have made all things in wisdom. Since that is so, we must ask how blessed Paul can say, The blessed and alone powerful. In my opinion, he calls him alone powerful, because he is alone incomparable in power. In awe before his incomparability, the prophet said, O God, who is like you? (Ps 82:2). Do you want to know that he alone is powerful? Look at the Son and admire the power of the Son. Recognize in the Son that the Father is alone powerful, because he has begotten one so powerful. In his immense power the Father begot the powerful creator.†126 In his power that he received from the Father, the Son did not create the creator, but established creation. He says, All things have been handed over to me by my Father (Mt 11:27). In awe of this power of God the Father, Paul said, The blessed and alone powerful. Job was a powerful and true man. We read, That man was a true and just worshipper of God, and in further describing his region, it says that he was powerful and great among all those in the East (Jb 1:1.3). How then can the Father alone be powerful? It says alone, because no one is comparable to him, because he alone has such greatness, such might, such power.

“In the same way, the blessed apostle Paul proclaims that the Father alone is wise, when he says, God who alone is wise (Rom 16:27). But we must look for an explanation of why he alone is wise, since Christ is also wise. You have already cited Christ the power of God and wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:24). We too have given testimonies that he created all things in wisdom. But the Father alone is truly wise. We believe the scriptures, and we venerate the divine scriptures. We do not want a single particle of a letter to perish, for we fear the threat that is stated in these divine scriptures, Woe to those who take away or add! (Dt 4:2). Do you want to know how great is the wisdom of the Father? Look at the Son, and you will see the wisdom of the Father. For this reason Christ himself said, One who has seen me has also seen the Father (Jn 14:9). That is, in me he sees his wisdom; he praises his might; he glorifies the Father who, one and alone, has begotten me, one and alone, so great and so good before all ages. He did not look for material out of which to make him, nor did he take someone as an assistant. Rather, in the way he knew, he begot the Son by his power and his wisdom.†127 We do not profess, as you say when you falsely accuse us, that, just as the rest of creation was made from nothing, so the Son was made from nothing like a creature. Listen to the authority of statement of the Synod; for our fathers in Ariminum said this among other things, ‘If anyone says that the Son is from nothing and not from God the Father, let him be anathema.’†128 If you want, I will offer testimonies. For the blessed apostle John speaks as follows, One who loves the Father also loves him who was born from him (1 Jn 5:1).
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“This is painful to hear, for you do not compare that great magnificence to the nobility of the soul, but to the fragility of the body. Flesh is, of course, born from the body, a bodily offspring. But the soul is not born from a soul. If, then, our soul generates without corruption and passion, not experiencing any lessening or any defilement, but lawfully in accordance with God-given rights generates an offspring, in wisdom giving its consent to the body,†130 it itself remains whole. How much more will the omnipotent God do so?†131 I said just before that words fail us in every human comparison with God,†132 though we try to put it as best we can. How much more incorruptibly has the incorruptible God the Father begotten the Son? He has, however, begotten him. Note my carefulness, for I have the testimonies of the holy scriptures, Who will tell of his generation? (Is 53:8). He begot as he willed, as one with power,†133 taking nothing away; he begot one with power without any envy entering in.
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“You say that God is one. Show me whether the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are one God or whether we should call the Father alone God, whose Son, Christ, is our God. Are you urging us to profess one God the way the Jews do? From the subjection of the Son, are we not shown, as the Christian faith holds, that there is one God whose Son is our God, as we have said? Believe Paul that the Father and the Son are not a single one (unus), as he proclaims in nearly every letter. He says, Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2; Gal 1:3 and Eph 1:2). He also says, One is God the Father, from whom are all things, and we are in him,
and one is the Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and we are in him†166 (1 Cor 8:6). This is the one whom we Christians preach as the one God, and the Son proclaims that he is good, when he says, No one is good save the one God (Mk 10:18). It is not that Christ is not good, for he says, I am the good shepherd (Jn 10:11). It is not that the Holy Spirit is not good; hear the prophet as he cries out, Your good Spirit will lead me in the right path (Ps 142:10). Hear too the witness of the Savior who says, A good man brings forth good things from the treasure of his heart (Lk 6:45). Moreover, every creature of God is very good. If a creature is good, if man is good, if the Holy Spirit is good, if Christ is good, we must investigate how there is one who is good. The Savior, of course, said, No one is good save the one God, because he is the source of goodness and has received his goodness from no one. Christ has received his goodness from his Father so that he is good, and every good creature of God has received through Christ its goodness. But whether it is the Son or those who were made through him, each has drawn his goodness from that one source of goodness in accord with the measure of his faith. But the Father has received his goodness from no one. Thus Christ says, No one is good save the one. In that way, then, there is one God, because there is one who is incomparable, because there is one who is immense, as we have already stated.†167
15, 24. “We do not deny that the Son loves the Father, for we read the scripture, So that this world may know that I love the Father, and I do just as he has commanded me (Jn 14:31). It is clear that the Son is loved and loves and that he carries out the commandment of the Father, as he says. Thus they are one, in accord with his words, The Father and I are one (Jn 10:30). Insofar as he says, He who has seen me has also seen the Father (Jn 14:9), we must believe with certain faith that he who sees the Son sees and understands the Father through the Son.

15, 25. “You professed that the Father is greater on account of the form of the servant.†168 That strikes me as quite foolish. We know that you also said that he was made less than the angels in the form of the servant.†169 You have not sufficiently proclaimed†170 the glory of God in professing that the Father is greater than the form of the servant. Even the angels are greater than the form of the servant. Christ did not come to teach us that the Father is greater than the form of the servant. Rather, the Truth came to us to teach and instruct us that the Father is greater than the Son and greater than this Son who is the great God. We glorify the Father and profess that he is greater than the great God; we proclaim that he is higher than the high God. Is this the honor we owe to God that the Father is greater than the servant form?

15, 26. “You say that the divinity showed itself to the Patriarchs, and just before that you said that the divinity was invisible.†171 The Father, who is invisible, surely did not show himself. Otherwise, if we say that the Father was seen, we make a liar of the apostle, who says, No human being has seen him or can see him (1 Tm 6:16). Moreover, we find ourselves not only in opposition to the New Testament, but we are equally in opposition to the Old Testament as well. After all, Moses speaks this way too, No one can see God and live (Ex 33:20).

“This same Moses wrote in the Book of Genesis that from that first man up to the incarnation it was always the Son who was seen. If you demand testimonies, you have, of course, the passage in which the Father speaks to the Son, Let us make man to our image and likeness. There follows, And God made man (Gn 1:26-27). Which God made him if not the Son? You yourself have explained this in your treatises.†172 This Son, then, who is the prophet of his Father, also said, It is not good that man be alone; let us make a helper for him like him (Gn 2:18). This Son appeared to Adam in accord with what we read that Adam said, I heard your voice as you walked in paradise, and I hid myself because I was naked. You certainly have what God said to him, And who told you that you were naked unless you have eaten from that tree about which I commanded you that you not eat? (Gn 3:10-11). This God was seen by Abraham;†173 if you are willing to believe, the only-begotten God himself declared in the gospel that the Son was seen by Abraham. He said, Abraham, your father, rejoiced to see my day, and he saw it and he was glad (Jn 8:56). This Son was also seen by Jacob in the form in which he was to come, that is, in the form of a man; he is found to have wrestled with Jacob as a foreshadowing of what was to come. Jacob said, I have seen the Lord face to face, and my life has been preserved, and the name of this place was called The Vision of God. The God, who wrestled with Jacob, foreshadowing what we see fulfilled in the passion of Christ, attested to this. He said to Jacob, Your name will no longer be called Jacob, but your name will be Israel (Gn 32:28), that is, one who sees God. We prove that he was seen in the New Testament as well. The apostles said of him, And we have seen his glory, the glory as if of the Only-Begotten by the Father (Jn 1:14). But, if you claim, as you try to do, that the Father was seen, all the scriptures are for you filled with lies. Paul proclaims that the Father is invisible, and in the gospel the Lord affirms it.

“You often make the accusation against us that we boldly and presumptuously say things that we should not say. That will be up to the judgment of the reader to test. After all, we do not speak to obtain praise from someone, but out of the desire to strengthen the brotherhood we have. Perhaps you wanted to challenge us to make an answer so that those you have observed to belong to us might agree, as I said, with what you profess. For this reason, I had to answer you on account of the fear of God. It was not only by your words that you tried to take from me the discipleship of these men; you also gave me your treatise to which I had to answer those things which you have professed concerning the invisibility of the omnipotent God. Though with another intention, still in your own words, you stated that the Holy Spirit was seen in the form of a dove as well as in the form of fire and that the Son was seen in the form of man, but that the Father was seen neither in the form of a dove nor in the form of a man. He never turned himself into any forms and is never changed. Scripture says of him, I am who I am, and I have not changed (Ex 3:14 and Mal 3:6). The Son who, of course, had already been established in the form of God has, as you have stated, taken the form of the servant, but the Father has not. Likewise, the Holy Spirit took the form of the dove, but the Father did not. Acknowledge, then, that there is one who is invisible; there is one who is incomprehensible and immense. I pray and desire to be a disciple of the divine scriptures; I believe that Your Holiness recalls that I earlier gave the response that, if you produced the evidence that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit have one power, one substance, one deity, one majesty, one glory, that, if you state this from the divine scriptures, if you produce any passage of scripture, we are eager to be found disciples of the divine scriptures.”

“I, Maximinus, bishop, have signed this.”

The Twin Errors of Arian and Athanasian Christology

The doctrine of eternal generation is central to the doctrine of the Trinity; that the Son is begotten from the Father before the ages is the basis for several important parts of the doctrine of the Trinity, including the distinct personal existence of the Son, His Godhood, and His eternal sonship. That the Father begat the Son before the ages is the very reason why the Father is eternally Father, and the Son eternally Son, and is the basis for the relationship They have with one another. It is without a doubt then, one of the most crucial doctrines in Christian theology.

That the Father begat the Son, is of course, an analogy of language. When we speak of ‘begetting’ in creatures, we refer to something bodily and carnal, in the procreation of progeny by a father. When scripture uses this language to communicate divine truths about God and His Son to us, we are of course to understand this analogy then as being exactly that; an analogy. To take it in too literal a sense, and to draw too literal of a parallel between the idea in relation to creation and the divine generation of the Son, will inevitably result in error in this important doctrine. And in light of how central this doctrine is to a biblical understanding of the Trinity and Christian theology, errors in this doctrine tend to have major ramifications.

One of the central aspects of one of the most famous doctrinal errors in history hinged upon a misunderstanding of this concept. Arius, in articulating the Son’s eternal generation from the Father, wrongly applied the analogy too literally; he took that which is true in the case of creatures, and applied it back onto God illegitimately, in a way that scripture does not intend us to. Arius reasoned, that since in the case of human generation, a son does not exist prior to his generation by his father, that the Son of God, therefore, did not always exist, because He was generated, and therefore, like a human son, must have not existed prior to His generation from the Father.

Arius’s logic in respect to humanity holds up; although perhaps a son may be said to exist in potentiality prior to his generation, a human son does not personally exist until he is begotten by his father, at which point he takes on a distinct personal existence. A human son, in the process of being generated, goes from nonexistence to existence, and so, as Arius correctly reasoned, does not exist prior to being begotten.

But Arius erred in his reasoning, by thinking that the same would be true in respect to God and His Son; He ignored God’s uniqueness, and the way in which God is different than man, in how he thought through this analogy’s application to the Son’s divine generation. God, after all, is eternal, and unchanging. This means that as He is Father, He has always been Father, eternally, and unchangingly. There is no point in time at which God went from not being Father, to being Father; He is so eternally and unchangingly. This is totally different than man, who goes from not being a father to being a father at some point in time, and who is always changing throughout his life.

Additionally, God’s generation of His Son took place before and outside of time (since time, being part of creation which was made through the Son, did not yet exist, so to speak). Since man was created in time, and only knows a temporal existence, this is a difficult concept for us to grasp. Since we are temporal creatures, all human generation takes place in time; but the Father begat the Son outside of time, and so, the situation, in that respect, is not analogous to our human experience. Thus conclusions drawn about the Son’s generation on the basis of a parallel in this respect are doomed to be flawed.

Arius erred greatly, then, when he proclaimed that just as a human son does not exist prior to his generation, so the Son of God did not exist prior to His generation, and there was a time when He was not, and that the Father was without the Son. The ultimate basis for this error was that Arius, in learning from the analogy of generation that God has given us in the scriptures to reveal His relationship with the Son, did not take into account God’s uniqueness, and the ways that God and man differ. Had he better taken into account the differences between God and man, that God does not change, and that His begetting of His Son was atemporal and outside of time rather than within it, he would not have made such errors. There can never have been a time when the Son was not, for the Son was begotten before time was created; and Son the Son has always been with the Father, and the Father is eternally and unchangingly Father.

Despite the vast difference between Arian and Athanasian theology, the Athanasian view of eternal generation errs in fundamentally the same way; it takes the analogy of human generation and applies it to God and His Son in an illegitimate way, because, as Arius’s doctrine did, it ignores God’s uniqueness, and the differences between God and man. It takes that which is true of man and not of God, and applies it back onto God, thereby using a good analogy that God gave us in the scriptures to reveal His relationship with His Son, to ultimately misrepresent that relationship.

What I mean is this: the Athanasian view of eternal generation reasons from the true fact that human father and son are defined by the same, identical set of ontological attributes, that therefore, God and His Son must also have the same exact set of ontological attributes. Every created son inherits as set of natural ontological properties from his father which he shares with his father; and so, it is reasoned, the Son of God inherits the ontological properties of His Father. Just as man, as a rational, mortal animal, begets from himself another individual who is equally a rational, mortal animal, so it is reasoned that the invisible, infinite God begat from Himself and equally invisible, infinite Son.

Yet this parallel, like that which Arius drew, flounders on the fact of God’s utter uniqueness, and the differences between God and man, which this view fails to take into account. For man to have an ontological equal is expected; we were created in such a way, and with such a nature, that we pass down to our descendants an identical set of ontological properties. This is true broadly in creation, and so everything reproduces after its own kind. Yet God is utterly unique; He tells us plainly that He has no ontological equal: “To whom would you liken Me, And make Me equal and compare Me, That we would be alike?” (Isaiah 46:5 NASB). And the Son likewise testified that “the Father is greater than I.” (John 14:28 NASB). God is ontologically unique, as, for instance, He alone of all things has no cause, source, or origin. All other things are caused by the Father; the Son is eternally begotten from the Father; the Spirit eternally proceeds from Him; and all creation was made by Him through the Son; yet He alone of all things simply is, eternally and unchangingly, without any cause, source or origin. And so God, in being unoriginate, is utterly unique. And having a unique existence, He has certain attributes that are simply impossible for other beings to share.

Among these is His infinitude. God, the Father, alone, of all things, is absolutely infinite, being beyond all bound, all limitation, and all measurement. Having no origin and no superior, He simply eternally and unchangingly is and exists, and there are no external limits upon Him whatsoever; but He, as the cause as source of all, sets the limits and bounds of all other things. And all other things, no matter how transcendent and great they may be, in having an origin of some sort or another, are in that sense as well, bound and limited. And it is impossible, according to the very nature of things, that there could be two infinite persons or beings; for if one were greater than the other, the greater would be a limit to the lesser, and so, only the greater would be infinite; and if two were conceived of as equal, each would pose a limit to the other, and constitute a measure of the other, and so, neither would be infinite. The Father then, being infinite, is alone infinite; and this ontological attribute is not communicable to another.

The mistake of Athanasian theology, then, is to suppose that all of God’s ontological attributes, like those of men, are such that can be communicated to another individual by generation, so as to result in another distinct person who is ontologically equal to the first. God’s attributes are far different than man’s; and while all of man’s natural ontological attributes are such that can be communicated to his offspring by generation, God, being unique, possesses attributes which according to the very nature of things are impossible to communicate to another. The Son is certainly like the Father, and bears the image of His Father (as in the case of a human father and son also); yet the Son does not for this reason possess all the same ontological attributes as His Father. While He transcends all creation, for example, as the one through Whom all creation was made and is upheld in its existence, He is not, like His Father, absolutely infinite. While the Son is light from light, no one will say that a finite light is ontologically identical to an infinite light; although the former is the perfect image of, and the exact representation of the latter, both being truly light. So the Son, begotten of the Father before the ages, is like His Father, and is the Image of His Father; yet not in such a way that we should imagine that He shares in all the unique ontological traits of the Father.

The mistake, then, of Athanasian and Arian christology is the same: both apply what is true in the case of human generation to God, although it is not applicable, because of the differences between God and man. By failing to account for these differences, both make the mistake of attributing things that are true in the case of creatures, but not of God and His Son, to God and His Son. Arian christology neglects that God’s generation of His Son took place outside of time, and that the Father is unchanging, and so, eternally Father. Athanasian christology neglects that God is utterly unique, and that as such, not all of His ontological attributes are communicable. Arianism denies that the Father is eternally Father, and that the Son is eternal in His existence, and Athanasian christology denies the Father’s ontological uniqueness, and creates a logical quandary that leads men to modalism; for in proclaiming that the Son is equally infinite with the Father, it leads men to think that the Son is the same person as the Father, since it is impossible that there be more infinite persons than one, and so, in order to make the Son infinite, He is also made to be the same person as the Father Himself.

Consubstantiality And Subordinationism In Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Novatian

Four prominent ante-nicene authors -Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Novatian- all speak, on the one hand, of the Son as being of the same substance as the Father; yet, on the other, all of them deny the ontological equality of the Son with the Father, teaching that the Father possesses certain ontological attributes that the Son does not. In this article, I want to examine their particular pre-nicene understanding of co-essentiality, looking at both what it was and was not, and how it drastically differs from the later Athanasian doctrine of co-essentiality.

In sum, the ante-nicene view of co-essentiality found in these fathers entails that the Son is, to speak crudely by way of analogy, composed of the same stuff as the Father. Just as one fire kindled from another, or light from light, are the same thing in their substance, so the Son is taught to be the same generic substance as the Father. Yet substance here is not equivalent to the idea of nature; unlike in Athanasian co-essentiality, the Son being the same substance as the Father, in the theology of these authors, does not entail Him having the same nature as the Father.

Since Athanasian co-essentiality treats ‘substance’ and ‘nature’ as equivalent, this may be a confusing idea for many. But this distinction best explains the teaching of these ante-nicene fathers on the subject. To clarify what we mean here, we must contrast what, according to the ante-nicene conception of the these fathers, a ‘substance’ was, compared to ‘nature’.

A substance, in the idea of these fathers, was, effectively, what something was; what it was composed of. A nature, on the other hand, is effectively a fixed set of properties which define what a thing is ontologically. That means that while there is overlap in these ideas, they were not identical. An illustration will help: a chair, and a boat, may be made of the same wood; and so the substance of both is the same, being composed of the same wood. Yet the nature of the chair and of the boat, will reasonably be considered to be the same by no one, since the properties which define the wooden chair differ significantly from the properties which define the boat made of the same wood.

Similarly, we may use the analogy of the sun and a ray from the Son, as some of the fathers do. Both the sun and the ray, according to their reckoning, are composed of the same thing, the same substance. What the sun is, the ray is. Yet the ray, compared to the sun, is by no means ontologically identical to the sun; and the nature of a ray, compared to the sun, will be found to not be the same, the set of properties which define one differing from the set of properties which define the other. The temperature of the sun, the brightness of its light, how closely one may approach to it without being burned, etc, compared to the ray, will all be different. Yet, according to the reckoning of these fathers, the sun and its ray are both composed of a common substance.

So in the reckoning of the these fathers, the Father and Son share one substance;

“And that this power which the prophetic word calls God, as has been also amply demonstrated, and Angel, is not numbered [as different] in name only like the light of the sun but is indeed something numerically distinct, I have discussed briefly in what has gone before; when I asserted that this power was begotten from the Father, by His power and will, but not by abscission, as if the essence of the Father were divided; as all other things partitioned and divided are not the same after as before they were divided: and, for the sake of example, I took the case of fires kindled from a fire, which we see to be distinct from it, and yet that from which many can be kindled is by no means made less, but remains the same.” (Justin, Dialogue With Trypho, Ch 128)

When Justin declares that the Son is begotten from the Father like fire kindled from fire, he clearly intimates that the Son is the same substance as the Father, yet without any change to the Father.

“So then the Father is Lord and the Son is Lord, and the Father is God and the Son is God; for that which is begotten of God is God. And so in the substance and power of His being there is shown forth one God; but there is also according to the economy of our redemption both Son and Father. Because to created things the Father of all is invisible and unapproachable, therefore those who are to draw near to God must have their access to the Father through the Son.” (Irenaeus, Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, 47).

So Irenaeus says the Son shows forth that there is one God, because, although He is a distinct person from the Father, yet in sharing in the substance and authority of the Father, He shows forth that the Father is one God, and there is no other, as He (the Son) is of no other substance, and rules with no other power, than that of His Father.

“…especially in the case of this heresy [Modalism], which supposes itself to possess the pure truth, in thinking that one cannot believe in One Only God in any other way than by saying that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are the very selfsame Person. As if in this way also one were not All, in that All are of One, by unity (that is) of substance; while the mystery of the dispensation is still guarded, which distributes the Unity into a Trinity, placing in their order the three Persons— the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost: three, however, not in condition, but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as He is one God, from whom these degrees and forms and aspects are reckoned” (Tertullian, Against Praxeas, Ch 2)

And so Tertullian says that while the Son differs from the Father in form, He is one substance with Him.

“And thus by the word of the angel the distinction is made, against the desire of the heretics, between the Son of God and man; yet with their association, by pressing them to understand that Christ the Son of man is man, and also to receive the Son of God and man the Son of God; that is, the Word of God as it is written, as God; and thus to acknowledge that Christ Jesus the Lord, connected on both sides, so to speak, is on both sides woven in and grown together, and associated in the same agreement of both substances, by the binding to one another of a mutual alliance — man and God by the truth of the Scripture which declares this very thing…  The true and eternal Father is manifested as the one God, from whom alone this power of divinity is sent forth, and also given and directed upon the Son, and is again returned by the communion of substance to the Father.” (Novatian, On the Trinity, Ch 24, 31)

And so Novatian ascribes to the Son the substance of God, and that there is a “communion of substance” between the Father and Son.

So while they all saw the Son, as being genuinely and uniquely generated from the Father (not, as a creature, brought into existence out of nothing), as sharing one substance with the Father, yet they did not, for that reason, ever suppose the Son to be ontologically equal to the Father in all His attributes. For all these same fathers teach the ontological subordination of the Son to the Father, in no uncertain terms, ascribing the attributes of infinitude and invisibility solely to the Father. And Novatian does not hesitate to proclaim that the Son is not identical to the Father in nature, but only “of like nature with the Father in some measure” (On the Trinity, Ch 31). This will only make sense, as being congruent with what was quoted of him above, if we recognize that he did not understand substance and nature to be the same thing.

These fathers draw an ontological distinction between the Father and the Son, in proving that the Angel of the Lord is the Son, not the Father, as they employ the argument that the Father could not have appeared to the men of old, because of His infinitude and invisibility. Being infinite and invisible, it would be impossible to have been seen by men in a certain space; but the Son could do so. The obvious and unavoidable implication of the argument being that the Son did not possess these attributes equally with the Father, or else the same actions would have been equally impossible for Him to undertake, on account of Him having those same attributes of invisibility and infinitude.

So Justin in taught:

“Moses, then, the blessed and faithful servant of God, declares that He who appeared to Abraham under the oak in Mamre is God, sent with the two angels in His company to judge Sodom by Another who remains ever in the supercelestial places, invisible to all men, holding personal intercourse with none, whom we believe to be Maker and Father of all things…  Even if this were so, my friends, that an angel and God were together in the vision seen by Moses, yet, as has already been proved to you by the passages previously quoted, it will not be the Creator of all things that is the God that said to Moses that He was the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, but it will be He who has been proved to you to have appeared to Abraham, ministering to the will of the Maker of all things, and likewise carrying into execution His counsel in the judgment of Sodom; so that, even though it be as you say, that there were two–an angel and God–he who has but the smallest intelligence will not venture to assert that the Maker and Father of all things, having left all supercelestial matters, was visible on a little portion of the earth.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Ch 56, 60)

And in chapter 127 of his Dialogue With Trypho, Justin says:

“These and other such sayings are recorded by the lawgiver and by the prophets; and I suppose that I have stated sufficiently, that wherever God says, ‘God went up from Abraham,’ or, ‘The Lord spake to Moses,’ and ‘The Lord came down to behold the tower which the sons of men had built,’ or when ‘God shut Noah into the ark,’ you must not imagine that the unbegotten God Himself came down or went up from any place. For the ineffable Father and Lord of all neither has come to any place, nor walks, nor sleeps, nor rises up, but remains in His own place, wherever that is, quick to behold and quick to hear, having neither eyes nor ears, but being of indescribable might; and He sees all things, and knows all things, and none of us escapes His observation; and He is not moved or confined to a spot in the whole world, for He existed before the world was made. How, then, could He talk with any one, or be seen by any one, or appear on the smallest portion of the earth, when the people at Sinai were not able to look even on the glory of Him who was sent from Him; and Moses himself could not enter into the tabernacle which he had erected, when it was filled with the glory of God; and the priest could not endure to stand before the temple when Solomon conveyed the ark into the house in Jerusalem which he had built for it? Therefore neither Abraham, nor Isaac, nor Jacob, nor any other man, saw the Father and ineffable Lord of all, and also of Christ, but [saw] Him who was according to His will His Son, being God, and the Angel because He ministered to His will; whom also it pleased Him to be born man by the Virgin; who also was fire when He conversed with Moses from the bush.”

So Justin treats it as impossible that the Father could have done the things the Angel of the Lord did; so, he reasons, the Angel must have been the Son. He says we must not imagine that God moved from place to place, because He is immense and omnipresent; yet He ascribes to the Son being a certain place; the very thing that he argues would be impossible for the Father due to His very nature, He says was done by the Son, clearly indicating that He did not believe the Son shared the attributes under discussion with His Father. For had the Son shared these attributes equally, on account of which it was impossible for the Father to do such things, it would have been equally impossible for the Son to perform them.

And Irenaeus, in his Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, employed the same argument, to show that the Angel of the Lord was the Son, and could not have been the Father:

“For it was not the Father of all, who is not seen by the world, the Maker of all who said: Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool: what house will ye build me, or what is the place of my rest? and who comprehendeth the earth with his hand, and with his span the heaven —-it was not He that came and stood in a very small space and spake with Abraham; but the Word of God, who was ever with mankind, and made known beforehand what should come to pass in the future, and taught men the things of God.”

Irenaeus here is not so explicit as Justin, but it is clear that the argument is one and the same, and so, the logic of it is also the same. If he does not intend to show a difference between the Father and Son, as Justin did, then we must wonder what purpose quoting passages about God’s immensity and infinitude would be, other than that to say that on account of these it is impossible that He is the one Who appeared in a “very small space”. Whereas for the Son it was possible, which can only be so if He is not thought to be equally infinite with the Father.

Irenaeus also says, “to created things the Father of all is invisible and unapproachable, therefore those who are to draw near to God must have their access to the Father through the Son.” (Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, 47); thus declaring that the Father in invisible and unapproachable to created things, while the Son is not, and so declares a difference between them; men drawing near to the Father through the Son, not only after the Son’s incarnation, but also prior to the incarnation.

And Tertullian, in Chapter 16 of Against Praxeas, wrote along the same lines:

Moreover, how comes it to pass, that the Almighty Invisible God, whom no man has seen nor can see; He who dwells in light unapproachable; 1 Timothy 6:16 He who dwells not in temples made with hands; Acts 17:24 from before whose sight the earth trembles, and the mountains melt like wax; who holds the whole world in His hand like a nest; Isaiah 10:14 whose throne is heaven, and earth His footstool; Isaiah 66:1 in whom is every place, but Himself is in no place; who is the utmost bound of the universe — how happens it, I say, that He (who, though) the Most High, should yet have walked in paradise towards the cool of the evening, in quest of Adam; and should have shut up the ark after Noah had entered it; and at Abraham’s tent should have refreshed Himself under an oak; and have called to Moses out of the burning bush; and have appeared as the fourth in the furnace of the Babylonian monarch (although He is there called the Son of man) — unless all these events had happened as an image, as a mirror, as an enigma (of the future incarnation)? Surely even these things could not have been believed even of the Son of God, unless they had been given us in the Scriptures; possibly also they could not have been believed of the Father, even if they had been given in the Scriptures, since these men bring Him down into Mary’s womb, and set Him before Pilate’s judgment-seat, and bury Him in the sepulchre of Joseph. Hence, therefore, their error becomes manifest; for, being ignorant that the entire order of the divine administration has from the very first had its course through the agency of the Son, they believe that the Father Himself was actually seen, and held converse with men, and worked, and was thirsty, and suffered hunger (in spite of the prophet who says: The everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, shall never thirst at all, nor be hungry; Isaiah 40:28 much more, shall neither die at any time, nor be buried!), and therefore that it was uniformly one God, even the Father, who at all times did Himself the things which were really done by Him through the agency of the Son.”

See his argument, that it is absurd and impossible to suppose that God the Father could have been seen, and been present in a particular location, and have, as the Angel of the Lord, in his view, even suffered hunger and thirst, and yet all these things he readily ascribes to the Son. He does not say anything along the lines of that the Son is equally invisible, and infinite, and impassible, but instead treats it as to be expected that the Son was not defined by these qualities, while the Father is.

And Novatian, in chapters 17-18 of his treatise on the Trinity, is even more explicit than the rest:

“What if the same Moses everywhere introduces God the Father infinite and without end, not as being enclosed in any place, but as one who includes every place; nor as one who is in a place, but rather one in whom every place is, containing all things and embracing all things, so that with reason He can neither descend nor ascend, because He Himself both contains and fills all things, and yet nevertheless introduces God descending to consider the tower which the sons of men were building, asking and saying, Come; and then, Let us go down and there confound their tongues, that each one may not understand the words of his neighbour. Whom do they pretend here to have been the God who descended to that tower, and asking to visit those men at that time? God the Father? Then thus He is enclosed in a place; and how does He embrace all things? Or does He say that it is an angel descending with angels, and saying, Come; and subsequently, Let us go down and there confound their tongues? And yet in Deuteronomy we observe that God told these things, and that God said, where it is written, When He scattered abroad the children of Adam, He determined the bounds of the nations according to the number of the angels of God. Neither, therefore, did the Father descend, as the subject itself indicates; nor did an angel command these things, as the fact shows. Then it remains that He must have descended, of whom the Apostle Paul says, He who descended is the same who ascended above all the heavens, that He might fill all things, that is, the Son of God, the Word of God. But the Word of God was made flesh, and dwelt among us. This must be Christ. Therefore Christ must be declared to be God.

Behold, the same Moses tells us in another place that God was seen of Abraham. And yet the same Moses hears from God, that no man can see God and live. If God cannot be seen, how was God seen? Or if He was seen, how is it that He cannot be seen? For John also says, No man has seen God at any time; and the Apostle Paul, Whom no man has seen, nor can see. But certainly the Scripture does not lie; therefore, truly, God was seen. Whence it may be understood that it was not the Father who was seen, seeing that He never was seen; but the Son, who has both been accustomed to descend, and to be seen because He has descended. For He is the image of the invisible God, as the imperfection and frailty of the human condition was accustomed sometimes even then to see God the Father in the image of God, that is, in the Son of God. For gradually and by progression human frailty was to be strengthened by the image to that glory of being able one day to see God the Father. For the things that are great are dangerous if they are sudden. For even the sudden light of the sun after darkness, with its too great splendour, will not make manifest the light of day to unaccustomed eyes, but will rather strike them with blindness.

And lest this should occur to the injury of human eyes, the darkness is broken up and scattered by degrees; and the rising of that luminary, mounting by small and unperceived increments, gently accustoms men’s eyes to bear its full orb by the gentle increase of its rays. Thus, therefore, Christ also — that is, the image of God, and the Son of God— is looked upon by men, inasmuch as He could be seen. And thus the weakness and imperfection of the human destiny is nourished, led up, and educated by Him; so that, being accustomed to look upon the Son, it may one day be able to see God the Father Himself also as He is, that it may not be stricken by His sudden and intolerable brightness, and be hindered from being able to see God the Father, whom it has always desired. Wherefore it is the Son who is seen; but the Son of God is the Word of God: and the Word of God was made flesh, and dwelt among us; and this is Christ.”

The Father, then, according to Novatian, is invisible to mortal men, and infinite, and immense; and for these reasons it is absurd and impossible to suppose that He appeared to the patriarchs, but it must rather have been the Son; Who he then pre-supposes is different than the Father in those respects, or else his argument makes no sense. But a little while later, Novatian specifies that the Son is ontologically subordinate to the Father even more clearly, in chapter 31 of the same treatise:

“And He [the Son] is always in the Father, unless the Father be not always Father, only that the Father also precedes Him — in a certain sense — since it is necessary — in some degree — that He should be before He is Father. Because it is essential that He who knows no beginning must go before Him who has a beginning; even as He is the less as knowing that He is in Him, having an origin because He is born, and of like nature with the Father in some measure by His nativity… Assuredly God proceeding from God, causing a person second to the Father as being the Son, but not taking from the Father that characteristic that He is one God. For if He had not been born — compared with Him who was unborn, an equality being manifested in both — He would make two unborn beings, and thus would make two Gods. If He had not been begotten — compared with Him who was not begotten, and as being found equal — they not being begotten, would have reasonably given two Gods, and thus Christ would have been the cause of two Gods. Had He been formed without beginning as the Father, and He Himself the beginning of all things as is the Father, this would have made two beginnings, and consequently would have shown to us two Gods also. Or if He also were not the Son, but the Father begetting from Himself another Son, reasonably, as compared with the Father, and designated as great as He, He would have caused two Fathers, and thus also He would have proved the existence of two Gods. Had He been invisible, as compared with the Invisible, and declared equal, He would have shown forth two Invisibles, and thus also He would have proved them to be two Gods. If incomprehensible, if also whatever other attributes belong to the Father, reasonably we say, He would have given rise to the allegation of two Gods, as these people feign.”

It is clear, then, that of these fathers, some of the most eminent Christian writers of the second and third centuries, all believed that the Son is not ontologically equal with the Father, the Father alone being infinite and invisible, according to them.

And their teaching on this point will be observed to be both scripturally sound and reasonable; for the scriptures again and again teach that no man can see the Father and live (Exodus 33:20), and that no man has seen God at any time (John 1:18), and that no man has seen or can see the Father, Who dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim 6:16); yet the Son was seen face to face by many men of old prior to the incarnation, as these fathers have said; and John tells us that Isaiah saw his glory (John 12:41).

The Father, also, is infinite, not being limited by anything, knowing no external bounds, being beyond all measure and limitation. For “Great is the Lord, and highly to be praised, And His greatness is unsearchable.” (Psalm 145:3 NASB). And “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!” (Romans 11:33 NASB). “Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, In heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps.” (Psalm 135:6 NASB). God then is infinite, beyond all measure and all limitation. And this includes having a beginning; for to have an origin is itself to experience some limitation; and the Father has no beginning, no origin, or cause, or source. But the Son, on the other hand, has the Father Himself as the Author of His being, and the Beginning of His life, and the Cause of His person. The Father alone then, is infinite, as Novatian also testifies:

“And thus He is declared to be one, having no equal. For whatever can be God, must as God be of necessity the Highest. But whatever is the Highest, must certainly be the Highest in such sense as to be without any equal. And thus that must needs be alone and one on which nothing can be conferred, having no peer; because there cannot be two infinites, as the very nature of things dictates. And that is infinite which neither has any sort of beginning nor end. For whatever has occupied the whole excludes the beginning of another. Because if He does not contain all which is, whatever it is — seeing that what is found in that whereby it is contained is found to be less than that whereby it is contained — He will cease to be God; being reduced into the power of another, in whose greatness He, being smaller, shall have been included. And therefore what contained Him would then rather claim to be God. Whence it results that God’s own name also cannot be declared, because He cannot be conceived. For that is contained in a name which is, in any way, comprehended from the condition of His nature. For the name is the signification of that thing which could be comprehended from a name. But when that which is treated of is such that it cannot be worthily gathered into one form by the very understanding itself, how shall it be set forth fittingly in the one word of an appellation, seeing that as it is beyond the intellect, it must also of necessity be above the significancy of the appellation?” (On the Trinity, Ch 4)

And as Novatian says, there cannot, according to the nature of things, be two infinite beings or persons; for if one were greater than the other, the greater would be a limit to the other, and only one would in fact be infinite. Of if we were to conceive of two equally infinite, this would be an impossibility, as each would constitute a certain limit to, and measure of, the other. There can then only be one infinite person; and this we know is the Father. The Son is manifestly limited by the Father, when He says “Therefore Jesus answered and was saying to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner.” (John 5:19 NASB); and again “I can do nothing on My own initiative. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is just, because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” (John 5:30 NASB). And if anyone will simply believe the words of Christ, rather than seek to explain them away so that they may vindicate the opinions of Athanasius, the truth of the matter will appear plain to them, that the Son, being ever willingly and lovingly subject to the will of the Father, is limited in some sense, by the Father; while the Father, being Himself under the authority of none, is absolutely unlimited. For it is always the Father Who works through the Son, and not the other way around, showing that the Son always does the Father’s will, being subject to Him as an obedient and perfect Son, while the Father is subject to none, being Himself supreme over all.

And from this it will appear, that since there cannot be two infinite persons (a person being a rational individual being), that either the Father alone is absolutely infinite, and the Son is not, or else the Son is infinite, by being the same person as the Father. For it is clear that in this matter, the Father can have no equal. So either the Son will be equal with the Father by being the Father Himself, which is the demonic heresy of Sabellianism, or else the Son is Himself, as a truly distinct person from the Father (that is, as a true Son), not infinite as the Father is. The idea then, that the Son may be, as a distinct person from the Father, ontologically equal to Him, is shown to be nothing more than an inconsistent fiction; hear the Father say “To whom would you liken Me, And make Me equal and compare Me, That we would be alike?” (Isaiah 46:5 NASB). God has no ontological equal; and while His Son transcends all creation, as the one through Whom all things were made, and through Whom their existence is upheld, yet we must then believe His own words when He says “the Father is greater than I.” (John 14:28 NASB).

Those then, who seek to make the Son ontologically identical to His Father in all His attributes, on account of His being generated from the Father before the ages, neglect God’s utter uniqueness, and that not all of His ontological attributes are communicable to another person, by the very nature of things.

The reasoning of Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Novatian, then, is vindicated by the scriptures, that the Father alone is invisible and infinite; and so, not only in respect to causality and authority, but also ontologically, is greater than the Son. Yet as we have shown above, they did not, for this reason, think that the Son was of any other substance than that of the Father. And so it sufficiently shown that these fathers distinguished between substance, and nature and attributes; ascribing to the Son that He is of one substance with the Father, while He is also ontologically subordinate to the Father in some of His attributes.

And so the Son is the true Son of the Father, begotten of Him before creation, as fire from fire, as light from light; and that one is light is infinite, the other only transcendent of creation, will not take away from the fact that both the infinite light and the transcendent light begotten from it are both light; and yet, no one will on account of that fact, rightly make that which merely transcends creation, equal with that which is absolutely infinite. And though the ray and the sun are both rightly regarded as sun, and reckoned to be of one and the same substance, no one will consider the ray identical to the sun in all its attributes. But these things, being lesser, bear the image of that which is greater by their common substance. And so the unbegotten God, the Father, will rightly be regarded as ontologically greater than the only-begotten God, His Son.

This ante-nicene reckoning of consubstantiality, then, is shown to be consistent with the holy scriptures and the best logic; resolving the difficulties that arose from the later, Athanasian view of co-essentiality, which, in declaring the Son of the same substance as the Father, make Him out to be entirely identical to Him ontologically; and so deny that the Son was seen by men prior to the incarnation, as the scriptures teach, and introduce the absurdity of two infinite beings. For in proclaiming that the Son is invisible and infinite, equally with the Father, the Athanasian view sets itself irreconcilably opposed to scripture, and dooms itself to resort to modalism, inasmuch as the Son can never be maintained to be equally infinite with the father, unless He is made to be the very person of the Father Himself. And for this reason, an Athanasian view of co-essentiality has never been held for very long, except that it results in semi-modalism.

Observations of Novatian of Rome’s Trinitarianism

Novatian of Rome famously authored a treatise on the Trinity in the early third century, about a hundred years prior to the Nicene controversy. This work is of much interest as a relative rarity- the ante-nicenes did not write as much on the Trinity overall as later fathers would, nor did their writing that dealt with the Trinity usually appear in a treatise directed specifically toward that subject, rather than as part of an overview of Christian doctrine.

Novatian’s treatise gives us a detailed account of what third century trinitarian orthodoxy looked like, and as such is interesting to compare with what would become the orthodoxies of the Nicene and post-nicene eras. We can assume that the views expressed in his treatise were considered orthodox by the church at the time he wrote, both because of the way he himself speaks in the treatise, as representing the orthodoxy of the catholic church, and also because, due to the fact that Novatian was already a highly controversial figure during his time, had what he wrote fallen short of the orthodoxy of his era, his numerous and powerful opponents would have had both ample reason and ability to expose and condemn what he wrote as heretical.

Understanding Novatian’s trinitarian theology, then, helps us understand what would have been considered within the bounds of trinitarian orthodoxy of the church a century prior to Nicea.

Novatian’s treatise is thirty-one chapters long, beginning with a description of God, dealing with His attributes and roles, in which Novatian makes it clear that this one God is both Father and Creator. He emphasizes God’s uniqueness and transcendence, with special focus given to God’s utter uniqueness in being without origin, cause, or beginning. From God’s ‘unoriginateness’, Novatian argues in chapter four that He is immutable, since that which is without birth or creation cannot change. From this He argues that God is simple, immortal, and incorruptible. This may be noted to strongly resemble the arguments that Arius would later make, emphasizing the Father’s uniqueness in contrast even with the Son, and proclaiming that the Son, since He was begotten, was mutable.

In the same chapter Novatian argues that God (the Father) alone is infinite, because it is impossible that there should be two infinites.

After spending considerable time on the one God, the Father, Novatian turns to examine the Son beginning in chapter nine, giving a detailed examination of His manhood and Godhood. Novatian does not follow the same train of thought Arius later would; despite having proclaimed that only that which was without origin is immutable and immortal, proclaims that the Son according to His divinity was immortal and incorruptible. Thus we see in the trinitarianism of the early third century the seeds of each party of the fourth century, at once saying things that would later be applauded by both Arians and Homoousians, which neither side would consider compatible.

In the respect to the incarnation Novation in chapter twenty-four Novatian expressly mentions that the Son, as being both God and man, has two substances. In this respect he foreshadows Chalcedonian christology nicely. Yet Novatian goes about declaring the Son to have both a human substance and a divine substance, one from His human mother, and one from God His Father, in a way that later ‘orthodoxy’ would utterly reject.

Firstly we may note that Novatian strongly implies that the Son was human and had a human nature inasmuch that He had a human body- yet by all appearances, he seems to have thought that in Christ the pre-existent Logos took the place of a human soul. We see this in chapter 25:

“When, therefore, Christ is understood to be mingled and associated as well of that which God is, as of that which man is — for the Word was made flesh, and dwelt in us— who cannot easily apprehend of himself, without any teacher and interpreter, that it was not that in Christ that died which is God, but that in Him died which is man? For what if the divinity in Christ does not die, but the substance of the flesh only is destroyed, when in other men also, who are not flesh only, but flesh and soul, the flesh indeed alone suffers the inroads of wasting and death, while the soul is seen to be uncorrupted, and beyond the laws of destruction and death?”

Other men, Novatian says, have both flesh and soul, in contrast to the Son, Who was the Word and flesh, apparently lacking a human soul.

This carries heavy implications of course for Novatian’s understanding of the Son’s divine nature as well. If the Son were homoousias with the Father, ontologically identical to Him in essence, one would expect that the Son would be infinite and transcendent like the Father, not able to merely take the place of a human soul in a human body, but in some inexplicable way being united to a whole human being.

But Novatian does not leave us to wonder based on this if he thinks the Son’s divine nature is identical to that of the Father. After briefly turning attention to the Holy Spirit as a third distinct person in chapter twenty-nine, and enumerating His operations, Novatian spends the remaining two chapters giving a detailed apology to both Modalists and Ebionites, as to how the Son can be a second person Who is God in addition to the Father, while there is only one God.

In it, in chapter thirty-one which I will quote at full length below, Novatian adds a great deal of clarity to his christology. The Father is the one God, the Son is a distinct person (rational individual being), begotten of Him before creation, through Whom creation was made. The Son is thus co-eternal with the Father, yet is from the Father as His Cause and Beginning. The Son is subordinate to the Father, the one God, and thus does not in any way make a second God.

In respect to causality, the Son is subordinate as being caused by the Father, Who is Himself the uncaused Cause of all. The Son is also subordinate to the Father in authority, a divine monarchy being laid out as in the other ante-nicenes, in which monotheism is argued to consist not so much in their being one ontological nature shared by the persons of the Trinity, but by the fact that the Father, the one God, has authority (that is, Godhood) over all things, both His Son, and over the whole created universe made through Him, even while the Son, as the firstborn Son of the Father through Whom are all things, enjoys God-given authority over the created universe.

Additionally, according to Novatian the Son is subordinate to the Father in ontological attributes. His nature is not “the same nature”, ‘homoousias’, with the Father, but is described as being of “like nature with the Father in some measure” (Ch 31). Simply saying ‘like nature’ would be somewhat ambiguous, and allow for some essential differences. But when it is added that His nature is like that of the Father not entirely or completely, but “in some measure”, it is clear that Novatian does not believe the Son to be ontologically equal with the Father. Or perhaps better said, as noted earlier, it appears third century ante-nicene ‘orthodoxy’ did not assert that the Son was ontologically equal with the Father.

A bit later in the same chapter, Novatian specifies again that the Son is not ontologically equal with His Father in His divine attributes, in his thinking. Novatian declares that the Son does not make a second God because while the Father is invisible, the Son is visible, thus proclaiming an inequality. Likewise Novatian says the Son does not share the attribute of incomprehensibility with the Father, nor whatever other attributes belong to the Father specifically. For all this, see chapter thirty-one quoted in full at the end of this article.

In conclusion, for Novatian, the Son is God and man, not merely “God” in respect to dominion (although he does give focus to that), but also in substance. Yet this is not consubstantiality, but the assertion that the Son is of a similar nature to the Father. As to the Son being “God” in reference to the Son’s authority, much attention is also given. Novatian says that the Son was begotten of the Father for the very purpose that He might be God and Lord (both there terms signifying dominion and authority, not nature), and deals with this relationship of authority in detail at the end of chapter thirty-one, where he teaches that the Son is subject to the Father as His God, being under His authority, while the Father has given the Son Godhood (dominion) over all creation, which the Son exercises according to the Father’s will, and on His behalf.

In this context, divinity is clearly being spoken of as authority. Novatian declares that there is no inequality or dissonance between the divinity of the Father and the Son relative to creation; both are God over creation, the authority the Son exercises over creation being the Father’s own authority. The reason given for this equality is not essence, but is given: “For all things being subjected to Him as the Son by the Father, while He Himself, with those things which are subjected to Him, is subjected to His Father, He is indeed proved to be Son of His Father; but He is found to be both Lord and God of all else.” A little later Novatian goes on to speak of the Son “remit[ting] to the Father the whole authority of His divinity”. The Father glorifies the Son with divinity (that is, dominion) over creation, while the Son continually refers that authority back to His own Father, Who is also His God.

Whatever Novatian believed of did not believe, of course, does not make any given doctrine true. We must ascertain what is true from the holy scriptures, not fallible men. This article is not meant as an endorsement of Novatian’s theology, especially respecting the Son’s essential subordination to the Father. It is, however, of great relevance to historical theology to note the differences between ante-nicene orthodoxy and post-nicene orthodoxy.

Chapter 31:

“Thus God the Father, the Founder and Creator of all things, who only knows no beginning, invisible, infinite, immortal, eternal, is one God; to whose greatness, or majesty, or power, I would not say nothing can be preferred, but nothing can be compared; of whom, when He willed it, the Son, the Word, was born, who is not received5297 in the sound of the stricken air, or in the tone of voice forced from the lungs, but is acknowledged in the substance of the power put forth by God, the mysteries of whose sacred and divine nativity neither an apostle has learnt, nor prophet has discovered, nor angel has known, nor creature has apprehended. To the Son alone they are known, who has known the secrets of the Father. He then, since He was begotten of the Father, is always in the Father. And I thus say always, that I may show Him not to be unborn, but born. But He who is before all time must be said to have been always in the Father; for no time can be assigned to Him who is before all time. And He is always in the Father, unless the Father be not always Father, only that the Father also precedes Him,—in a certain sense,—since it is necessary—in some degree—that He should be before He is Father. Because it is essential that He who knows no beginning must go before Him who has a beginning;5298 even as He is the less as knowing that He is in Him, having an origin because He is born, and of like nature with the Father in some measure by His nativity, although He has a beginning in that He is born, inasmuch as He is born of that Father who alone has no beginning. He, then, when the Father willed it, proceeded from the Father, and He who was in the Father came forth from the Father; and He who was in the Father because He was of the Father, was subsequently with the Father, because He came forth from the Father,—that is to say, that divine substance whose name is the Word, whereby all things were made, and without whom nothing was made. For all things are after Him, because they are by Him. And reasonably, He is before all things, but after the Father, since all things were made by Him, and He proceeded from Him of whose will all things were made. Assuredly God proceeding from God, causing a person second to the Father as being the Son, but not taking from the Father that characteristic that He is one God. For if He had not been born—compared with Him who was unborn, an equality being manifested in both—He would make two unborn beings, and thus would make two Gods. If He had not been begotten—compared with Him who was not begotten, and as being found equal—they not being begotten, would have reasonably given two Gods, and thus Christ would have been the cause of two Gods. Had He been formed without beginning as the Father, and He Himself the beginning of all things as is the Father, this would have made two beginnings, and consequently would have shown to us two Gods also. Or if He also were not the Son, but the Father begetting from Himself another Son, reasonably, as compared with the Father, and designated as great as He, He would have caused two Fathers, and thus also He would have proved the existence of two Gods. Had He been invisible, as compared with the Invisible, and declared equal, He would have shown forth two Invisibles, and thus also He would have proved them to be two Gods. If incomprehensible, if also whatever other attributes belong to the Father, reasonably we say, He would have given rise to the allegation of two Gods, as these people feign. But now, whatever He is, He is not of Himself, because He is not unborn; but He is of the Father, because He is begotten, whether as being the Word, whether as being the Power, or as being the Wisdom, or as being the Light, or as being the Son; and whatever of these He is, in that He is not from any other source, as we have already said before, than from the Father, owing His origin to His Father, He could not make a disagreement in the divinity by the number of two Gods, since He gathered His beginning by being born of Him who is one God. In which kind, being both as well only-begotten as first-begotten of Him who has no beginning, He is the only one, of all things both Source and Head. And therefore He declared that God is one, in that He proved Him to be from no source nor beginning, but rather the beginning and source of all things. Moreover, the Son does nothing of His own will, nor does anything of His own determination; nor does He come from Himself, but obeys all His Father’s commands and precepts; so that, although birth proves Him to be a Son, yet obedience even to death declares Him the minister of the will of His Father, of whom He is. Thus making Himself obedient to His Father in all things, although He also is God, yet He shows the one God the Father by His obedience, from whom also He drew His beginning. And thus He could not make two Gods, because He did not make two beginnings, seeing that from Him who has no beginning He received the source of His nativity before all time.5300 For since that is the beginning to other creatures which is unborn,—which God the Father only is, being beyond a beginning of whom He is who was born,—while He who is born of Him reasonably comes from Him who has no beginning, proving that to be the beginning from which He Himself is, even although He is God who is born, yet He shows Him to be one God whom He who was born proved to be without a beginning. He therefore is God, but begotten for this special result, that He should be God. He is also the Lord, but born for this very purpose of the Father, that He might be Lord. He is also an Angel, but He was destined of the Father as an Angel to announce the Great Counsel of God. And His divinity is thus declared, that it may not appear by any dissonance or inequality of divinity to have caused two Gods. For all things being subjected to Him as the Son by the Father, while He Himself, with those things which are subjected to Him, is subjected to His Father, He is indeed proved to be Son of His Father; but He is found to be both Lord and God of all else. Whence, while all things put under Him are delivered to Him who is God, and all things are subjected to Him, the Son refers all that He has received to the Father, remits again to the Father the whole authority of His divinity. The true and eternal Father is manifested as the one God, from whom alone this power of divinity is sent forth, and also given and directed upon the Son, and is again returned by the communion of substance to the Father. God indeed is shown as the Son, to whom the divinity is beheld to be given and extended. And still, nevertheless, the Father is proved to be one God; while by degrees in reciprocal transfer that majesty and divinity are again returned and reflected as sent by the Son Himself to the Father, who had given them; so that reasonably God the Father is God of all, and the source also of His Son Himself whom He begot as Lord. Moreover, the Son is God of all else, because God the Father put before all Him whom He begot. Thus the Mediator of God and men, Christ Jesus, having the power of every creature subjected to Him by His own Father, inasmuch as He is God; with every creature subdued to Him, found at one with His Father God, has, by abiding in that condition that He moreover “was heard,” briefly proved God His Father to be one and only and true God.”

 

Do You Worship the Same God as Irenaeus?

One of Irenaeus’s main points throughout his writings, that he makes again and again, is that the one God, the Maker of all things, the Almighty, is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. The one God and the Father are the exact same person; just as much as the Son is the Son of the Father, so He is the Son of the one God; just as the Son is not the Father, He is not the one God (although He is God). In the face of the old gnosticism, this was an important point to stress; the prominent heresies of his day denied the identity of the Father and the one God, just as the prominent heresy of our day does as well.

The below quote from Irenaeus, is, to this author, quite striking:

“Wherefore I do also call upon you, Lord God of Abraham, and God of Isaac, and God of Jacob and Israel, who is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of Your mercy, has had a favour towards us, that we should know You, who has made heaven and earth, who rule over all, who is the only and the true God, above whom there is none other God; grant, by our Lord Jesus Christ, the governing power of the Holy Spirit; give to every reader of this book to know You, that You are God alone, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical, and godless, and impious doctrine.” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 3, Ch 6.)

A question well worth asking is, do you worship the same God Irenaeus here prayed to? Can you pray to the one God as the Father of the Son, and speak of Him granting you the grace of the Holy Spirit through His Son? Or have you been led astray into confusion by false teachers, who make the Father, Son, and Spirit out to be one and the same person, the same one God? Is the person you pray to the same person the early church prayed to, or one they did not know? If the whole Trinity, Father, Son, and Spirit, is the one God to which you pray, then who will you have to intercede for you? Who will mediate between you and the one to whom you pray, if Christ, the one mediator between God and man, is the very same person you need a mediator by whom to approach? Who will sanctify you to approach the one God, Who will help your weakness in prayer, and intercede for you with deep groanings, if the Holy Spirit is the one you approach in need of such intercession and groanings?

The Statement of Faith from George Williams’: An Attempt to Restore the Supreme Worship of God the Father Almighty

Samuel Clarke’s Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity did not go unnoticed; it sparked lasting debate in the church of England and led to the acceptance of Clarke’s scriptural trinitarianism- effectively identical to that of the Homoians of the fourth century, and in keeping with the orthodoxy of the ante-nicene church fathers- among many in the Church of England, as well as within various non-conformist churches. English Presbyterianism bears a strong classical trinitarian legacy during the 18th century, and Clarke’s scriptural ideas also found a home in English Baptist churches. The following statement of faith is taken from one of many classical trinitarian works written during this era.

Taken from George Williams’ An Attempt to Restore the Supreme Worship of God the Father Almighty, 1764. Available on Google Books here.

The doctrine of the divine Trinity as set forth in Holy Scripture.

Of the One God and Father of all Who is above all.

There is One only living and true God: Existing of himself, by the necessity of his own Nature: absolutely independent, eternal, omnipresent, unchangeable, incorruptible; without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, knowledge, and wisdom; of perfect liberty and freedom of will; of infinite goodness, justice, and truth; The God of gods, and Lord of lords, a great God, Mighty, and Terrible; that frustrateth the tokens of liars, and maketh diviners mad: the high and lofty One, inhabiting eternity, whose Name is holy: Who is the King Eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God; whose glorious Name is exalted above all blessing and praise: the Maker and Lord of all things, himself derived from none, made of none, begotten of none, proceeding from none: by whom all creatures material and immaterial, visible and invisible, animate and inanimate, rational and irrational, mortal and immortal, in Heaven and in Earth were made; by whom the land and waters, the air and sun and stars, the heaven and the heaven of heavens, and all things that are therein; plants, and beasts, and men; angels and archangels; were created out of nothing: from whom the Spirit of Truth, the Comforter and Sanctifier of all holy Men, proceedeth or is sent forth: of whom lastly the Son himself, the Saviour and Redeemer of the World, in an in effable manner, before all Ages was begotten. This is the supreme Father and Lord of all, who dwelleth in Light inaccessible; whose majesty no thought can comprehend; whose glory no eye can behold: whose power no strength can resist; from whose Presence no swiftness can flee; whose knowledge no secrecy can conceal itself from; whose justice no art can evade; whose goodness no creature but partakes of.  This is the God of the universe, whom even the heathen world has always acknowledged. This is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God who brought the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ; of whom, and through whom, and to whom are all things; to whom be glory and dominion forever.

To this God and Father of all, is to be directed that absolute and supreme worship, by which he is acknowledged to be alone, the Maker and Judge of all; by whose incomprehensible power the world was created; by whose unerring providence the universe is governed; by whose supreme authority our Lord was sent forth to redeem us; by whose good pleasure the Holy Spirit is given to sanctify us; to whose glory every tongue now confesses that Jesus is the Lord: — To him we are to pray for the remission of our sins; and that our repentance may be accepted, through the powerful intercession of Christ our great High Priest: and that our Hearts may be renewed by the inspiration of his Holy Spirit: and to Him we are to give continual thanks for his original and undeserved goodness in sending his Son at first to be the Saviour of the World, and to be unto us a propitiation through faith in his blood; and for the continuation of that goodness, in affording us the perpetual assistance of the Holy Ghost. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be glory through Jesus Christy for ever. Amen.

Of the Son.

With the First and Supreme Cause or Father of all things, there has existed from the beginning, a second divine Person, who is his Word or Son. This Divine Person, who after and by his incarnation became our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, had a Being in the Bosom of his Father, and was Partaker of his Father’s Glory. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, i. e. was with the Father; and the Word was God, that is, was Partaker of his Father’s Glory, of his divine power and authority in creating and governing the world. The same Scriptures declare, that he, by the appointment of the Father, is our Saviour, Mediator, Intercessor and Judge; that having been in the form of God, he emptied himself as that glory, and willingly took upon him the form of a servant; and died to make our repentance available; and now sits at the right Hand of God, to interceed for us; and governs the whole Church, according to the will of his Father; and searches and tries the hearts of men at present, and will finally judge them according to their Works.— That we offer up all our prayers in his Name; (whatsoever, says he, ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you, John xv. 16.) that we rely upon his merits, depend upon his intercession, obey him as our Lord, love him as our Saviour, fear him as our Judge. — Worthy is the Lamb that was slain, to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing: and every creature— heard I saying, blessing, and honour, and glory, and power be unto him that sitteth on the Throne, and to the Lamb for ever and ever. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and has made us Kings and Priests unto God and his Father, to him be glory and dominion for evermore.

Of the Holy Spirit.

Concerning the Holy Ghost the Scripture declares, that he is a divine Person, proceeding, or being sent forth from the Father; and in other Places he is called the Spirit of the Son, and said to be sent forth from him. Into the manner of his derivation, we ought not to presume to enquire, but to be content with what the Scripture reveals to us, of his being in a singular manner, in a manner which we cannot presume to understand or explain, the Spirit of God; that we acknowledge him to be the divine Inspirer of the Prophets, both of the Old and New Testament; and the immediate Worker of all those signs and wonders in proof of the Christian Dispensation; that he is also the Sanctifier of all hearts, and the immediate Distributer of all the gifts of God, for the edification of his Church; that therefore we receive and believe his testimony, as delivered in the inspired Writings; obey his good motions; be solicitous to obtain his gifts and graces; and infinitely careful not to grieve and quench and drive him from us, lest we be found to do despite unto the Spirit of Grace, which is in Scripture represented as a more unpardonable Fault than offending against the Person of our Saviour himself.

Semi-Modalism & the Rule of Faith

The ancient “rule of faith” was a doctrinal standard employed by the early churches. It was used as a baptismal creed, a creed memorized by new converts and recited prior to baptism (off of which later creeds like that of Nicea and Arminium were based). Following the baptismal formula instituted by Christ, to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the ancient baptismal creed followed this same outline, giving a brief confession of the identities of the Father, Son, and Spirit, coupled with a brief summary of the gospel under the head of the Son’s identity. In this way the ‘rule of faith’ can be seen as a summary of the Christian faith as presented in the scriptures, summarizing the identity of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, and the message of the gospel, as Paul said he delivered “as of first importance” in 1 Corinthians 15.

This ancient summary of the faith was held to by the churches as the teaching they had received from the apostles, which they had received from oral tradition, and was confirmed by demonstration from the holy scriptures. Irenaeus of Lyons, for example sets forth this rule as the standard of true Christian doctrine in both his Against Heresies, and his Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching. In Against Heresies he uses the rule of faith as the standard of Christian orthodoxy, against which the heretical claims of the various pseudo-gnostic sects were set in contradiction. Their contradiction of the rule of faith showed them to be heretics; on the other hand, faithful adherence to the rule would prevent one from falling into heresy. In Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, Irenaeus sets about demonstrating each point of the rule of faith from the holy scriptures, showing thereby that each point is beyond a doubt known to be true.

In Against Heresies, Irenaeus sums up the rule as follows:

“1. The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” and  the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.” (Book 1, Chap 10.)

He goes on to explain:

“2. As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shineth everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.” (Ibid)

In Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, he sums it up in these words:

“This then is the order of the rule of our faith, and the foundation of the building, and the stability of our conversation: God, the Father, not made, not material, invisible; one God, the creator of all things: this is the first point of our faith. The second point is: The Word of God, Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord, who was manifested to the prophets according to the form of their prophesying and according to the method of the dispensation of the Father: through whom all things were made; who also at the end of the times, to complete and gather up all things, was made man among men, visible and tangible, in order to abolish death and show forth life and produce a community of union between God and man. And the third point is: The Holy Spirit, through whom the prophets prophesied, and the fathers learned the things of God, and the righteous were led forth into the way of righteousness; and who in the end of the times was poured out in a new way upon mankind in all the earth, renewing man unto God.”

He goes on to explain that the rule is grounded in the baptismal formula of Matthew 28:

“And for this reason the baptism of our regeneration proceeds through these three points: God the Father bestowing on us regeneration through His Son by the Holy Spirit. For as many as carry (in them) the Spirit of God are led to the Word, that is to the Son; and the Son brings them to the Father; and the Father causes them to possess incorruption. Without the Spirit it is not possible to behold the Word of God, nor without the Son can any draw near to the Father: for the knowledge of the Father is the Son, and the knowledge of the Son of God is through the Holy Spirit; and, according to the good pleasure of the Father, the Son ministers and dispenses the Spirit to whomsoever the Father wills and as He wills.”

Tertullian similarly employed the rule of faith against heretics. He describes the rule of faith as the dogmatic standard of Christianity, a summary of the faith, which was beyond question to true Christians. No contradiction of the rule was to be allowed; such was heresy, and made the one denying the rule no true Christian at all. On the other hand, areas of theology which were not addressed in the rule were regarded as something that Christians were free to search out a knowledge of from the scriptures, to speculate on, and to disagree with one another on. The rule of faith was the standard of Christian doctrine which could not be denied; doctrines not addressed in it were free to be explored. In his book Against Praxeas, Tertullian sums up the rule as follows:

“We, however, as we indeed always have done (and more especially since we have been better instructed by the Paraclete, who leads men indeed into all truth), believe that there is one only God, but under the following dispensation, or οἰκονομία, as it is called, that this one only God has also a Son, His Word, who proceeded from Himself, by whom all things were made, and without whom nothing was made. Him we believe to have been sent by the Father into the Virgin, and to have been born of her — being both Man and God, the Son of Man and the Son of God, and to have been called by the name of Jesus Christ; we believe Him to have suffered, died, and been buried, according to the Scriptures, and, after He had been raised again by the Father and taken back to heaven, to be sitting at the right hand of the Father, and that He will come to judge the quick and the dead; who sent also from heaven from the Father, according to His own promise, the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete, the sanctifier of the faith of those who believe in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Ghost. That this rule of faith has come down to us from the beginning of the gospel, even before any of the older heretics, much more before Praxeas, a pretender of yesterday, will be apparent both from the lateness of date which marks all heresies, and also from the absolutely novel character of our new-fangled Praxeas.” (Chapter 2)

In Against Heresies, Tertullian gives the following summary of the rule, and explanation regarding a Christian’s freedom to speculate on other doctrines:

“Now, with regard to this rule of faith— that we may from this point acknowledge what it is which we defend — it is, you must know, that which prescribes the belief that there is one only God, and that He is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through His own Word, first of all sent forth; that this Word is called His Son, and, under the name of God, was seen in diverse manners by the patriarchs, heard at all times in the prophets, at last brought down by the Spirit and Power of the Father into the Virgin Mary, was made flesh in her womb, and, being born of her, went forth as Jesus Christ; thenceforth He preached the new law and the new promise of the kingdom of heaven, worked miracles; having been crucified, He rose again the third day; (then) having ascended into the heavens, He sat at the right hand of the Father; sent instead of Himself the Power of the Holy Ghost to lead such as believe; will come with glory to take the saints to the enjoyment of everlasting life and of the heavenly promises, and to condemn the wicked to everlasting fire, after the resurrection of both these classes shall have happened, together with the restoration of their flesh. This rule, as it will be proved, was taught by Christ, and raises among ourselves no other questions than those which heresies introduce, and which make men heretics. So long, however, as its form exists in its proper order, you may seek and discuss as much as you please, and give full rein to your curiosity, in whatever seems to you to hang in doubt, or to be shrouded in obscurity. You have at hand, no doubt, some learned brother gifted with the grace of knowledge, some one of the experienced class, some one of your close acquaintance who is curious like yourself; although with yourself, a seeker he will, after all, be quite aware that it is better for you to remain in ignorance, lest you should come to know what you ought not, because you have acquired the knowledge of what you ought to know. Your faith, He says, has saved you Luke 18:42 not observe your skill in the Scriptures. Now, faith has been deposited in the rule; it has a law, and (in the observance thereof) salvation.” (Chapter 13-14)

Similarly, the rule of faith was, as mentioned above, used as the baptismal creed of the various churches. The ancient creed of Jerusalem, for example, read thus:

“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before the ages, true God, by whom all things were made, who was incarnate and made man, crucified and buried, and the third day ascended into the heavens, and sat down at the right hand of the Father, and is coming to judge quick and dead.

And in the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete, who spake by the prophets;

And in one holy catholic Church; and resurrection of the flesh; and in life everlasting.”

All of these summaries of the Christian faith contain, as Irenaeus said, a skeleton of three articles: 1) the identity of the Father, 2) the identity of the Son, and 3) the identity of the Holy Spirit. The ancient heresies the church faced were considered heresies precisely because they contradicted this rule in one way or another. The Ebionites, for example, ancient unitarians, who denied the pre-existence of the Son, and regarded Him as a mere man, taught a different Christ, and so denied the second article of the faith. The gnostic heresies denied the identity of the Maker of all things and the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, thus denying the first article of the faith. The Modalists, by teaching that all three persons of the Trinity were one God, one person, denied the second and third articles of the faith by seeking to take away the distinct existence of the Son and Spirit as distinct persons from the Father, and so denied the first as well by denying the true fatherhood of God. When Arianism later came along, it was likewise condemned for contradicting the second article of the faith, by teaching that the Son, through Whom all things were made, was actually a creature Himself, and so taught a false Christ. All these heresies had in common that they struck at the true identities of the persons of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit; by doing so, they set themselves in opposition to true Christianity.

A critical examination of semi-modalism (as summed up, for instance, in the Pseudo-Athanasian Creed) in relation to the rule of faith shows that like the aforementioned heresies, semi-modalism denies the rule of faith as well. A complex and self-contradictory idea in itself, semi-modalism contradicts the rule of faith on multiple points. Semi-modalism is the belief that the Trinity is one person who is three person, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the three persons are confessed to be equal in authority, and to together be “one God”. This one God, the Trinity, is deemed to be the Almighty, and the Maker of all things.

In sum, semi-modalism denies the rule of faith in the following ways:

1) Semi-modalism denies the first article of the faith by teaching the non-identity of the Father and the one God.

2) Semi-modalism denies the first article of the faith by denying that the Father is the Almighty.

3) Semi-modalism, by making all three persons of the Trinity into a single person, denies the second and third articles of the faith by taking away the distinct existence of the Son and Spirit as two distinct persons besides the one God.

4) Semi-modalism denies the second article of the faith by denying that Christ is the Son of the one God.

Let’s examine each point:

Firstly, semi-modalism denies the first article of the faith by teaching the non-identity of the Father and the one God. This is the most immediately obvious way that semi-modalism contradicts the rule of faith; while the ancient rule of faith begins by confessing with the scriptures that the one God is the Father particularly (1 Cor 8:6, Eph 4:6), semi-modalism defines the one God as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together. This difference is highly significant when we recall that the purpose of these statements is to correctly identify the persons of the Trinity; who is the Father? The rule of faith answers, ‘the one God, the Almighty, the Maker of all things’. Or asked conversely, Who is the one God? The rule of faith answers clearly: the Father, the Almighty, the Maker of all. Semi-modalism changes these answers, and takes these prerogatives away from the Father, applying them instead to the Trinity conceived of as a single person.

Since this first point focuses on the Father’s identity as the one God, let’s begin there. Godhood, biblically, is dominion; to be God is to possess dominion. As Sir Isaac Newton observed:

“This Being [God] governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all: And on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God Pantokrator [Greek word usually translated “Almighty”], or Universal Ruler. For God is a relative word, and has a respect to servants; and Deity is the dominion of God, not over his own body, as those imagine who fancy God to be the soul of the world, but over servants. The supreme God is a Being eternal, infinite, absolutely perfect; but a being, however perfect, without dominion, cannot be said to be Lord God; for we say, my God, your God, the God of Israel, the God of Gods, and Lord of Lords; but we do not say, my Eternal, your Eternal, the Eternal of Israel, the Eternal of Gods; we do not say, my Infinite, or my Perfect: These are titles which have no respect to servants. The word God usually signifies a Lord; but every lord is not a God. It is the dominion of a spiritual being which constitutes a God; a true, supreme, or imaginary dominion makes a true, supreme, or imaginary God.” (Newton, General Scholium)

For the Father to be God, then, denotes His dominion; that He is called simply “God” without qualification, and “the one God” (1 Cor 8:6), and “the only true God” (John 17:3), then, is on account of His supreme dominion over all, as Eph 4:6 says, “one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.” (NASB) That He is called the “one God” and “only true God” are not said to deny that the word “God” may be used of other persons, but by way of eminence, as denoting that He is supreme over all. As Paul wrote in 1 Cor 8:5-6, “For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth, (as there be gods many, and lords many,) 6 But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him.” (KJV). It is clear, then, that the rule of faith is wholly correct in declaring that the one God is the Father in particular.

Semi-modalism, on the other hand, denies this title to the Father, and gives it to a person who does not in reality exist, the Trinity conceived of as a person. That the Trinity is believed to be a person is clear from, among other things, the very fact that the title “one God” is applied to it. For let us consider what the significance of the phrase is: as we have said, Godhood, or deity, is dominion; corresponding to this, a God, then, is by definition a person who possesses Godhood; just as a Lord is a person who possesses lordship, and a King is a person who possesses regal authority. To call something a “God”, then, denotes that it is a person who possesses Godhood, that is, dominion (for which reason judges and saints in the Old Testament, could be called “gods”, and Satan, as the wicked ruler of this world, and as possessing a degree of dominion over the world, is called “the god of this world”). To call the Trinity a God, “one God”, then, is to declare the Trinity, according to the very meaning of the term “God”, to be a person who possesses Godhood (or dominion). To declare the Trinity to be one God is to take a personal title, which can only be used of a single person, and apply it to the Trinity: thus in declaring the Trinity to be “one God” semi-modalism necessarily confesses the Trinity to be a single person.

This person is treated as such; he is also called “one Lord” according to the pseudo-Athanasian Creed, another title that properly denotes a single person who possess lordship, thus again affirming the personhood of the Trinity as a whole. Likewise, in semi-modalism the Trinity is treated as a person by the ubiquitous usage of singular personal pronouns for the Trinity as a whole, and the Trinity, spoken of under such language, even receives prayer and hymns directed to it as its own person; for example:

“This is our God;
This is one God;
This is the one and only God;
O Blessed Trinity.

To him we all pray,
The one whom we implore,
The one who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
O Blessed Trinity.” (3rd Hymn of Marius Victorinus)

The identity of the person who has supreme dominion over all, as is denoted by the phrase, “one God”, then, is according to semi-modalism a person never mentioned in the scriptures, a person who is the Trinity itself as a whole. This is contrary to the scriptural claim of the rule of faith, which expressly identifies the “one God”, that person who possesses dominion over all, as the Father in particular. Semi-modalism seeks to take this unique prerogative away from the Father, and give it to another person; it is clear then, that semi-modalism here contradicts the ancient rule of faith.

The second point upon which semi-modalism contradicts the rule of faith is very similar to the first: Semi-modalism denies the first article of the faith by denying that the Father is the Almighty.

The ancient rule of faith almost always includes this detail, that not only is there one God, the Father, but that He is Almighty. To modern ears this may seem strange; our conception of what is signified by “Almighty” usually pertains to strength in the sense of ability; it is one of many divine attributes, and its constant inclusion in the first article of the rule of faith can seem out of place. Why only list one of many attributes, and always that one?

The reason for this is because “Almighty” in its original meaning was not talking about ability or strength, but authority; the Greek word rendered “Almighty” is ‘Pantokrator’, which literally means, ‘Ruler over all’, or ‘Supreme Ruler’. Not talking about innate or natural ability at all, but about authority, this term is limited by scripture to the person of the Father alone, and the early church, likewise kept this association. Its inclusion in the rule of faith can be seen as an explanation of what is meant by “One God”: there is one God, because there is one Almighty, one Pantokrator, only one person Who has supreme dominion and authority over all absolutely- the Father.

As we said above, this is the essence of Christian monotheism; while there are many to whom the word “god” can be applied to in a limited sense, there is only one, according to the scriptures, who has dominion over all absolutely, and so, one God, the Father. As all things are from the Father, and He has dominion over all that is from Him, so He rightly has dominion over all things. As Irenaeus said “God is not ruler and Lord over the things of another, but over His own; and all things are God’s; and therefore God is Almighty, and all things are of God.” (Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching)

The theological significance of the term “Almighty” then, has to do primarily with authority, not natural ability. Since this term then signifies a ‘Supreme Ruler’, it is firstly evident that the title must belong to a person, since all rulers are necessarily persons; and secondly, it is evident that this title can belong to only one person, and no more, by the very nature of its meaning. To be Ruler over all, or Supreme Ruler, Almighty, is to have dominion over all absolutely; this then admits of no equal, since if there were another with equal authority, then the original subject, not being Ruler over His equal, would not be Ruler over all. If there is an Almighty, a Pantokrator, then, He alone can be such, by the very definition of the term; and the rule of faith, like scripture, clearly tells us this is the Father, Who is the One God.

Semi-modalism, however, insists on making all three persons of the Trinity equal in authority:

“13. So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty…. 25. And in this Trinity none is afore or after another; none is greater or less than another. 26. But the whole three persons are coeternal, and coequal.” (Pseudo-Athanasian Creed)

This declaration that the Son and Spirit have equal authority with the Father, then, is a denial that the Father is Almighty. It is not possible to have three with equal authority, and yet have a supreme authority; none having greater authority over the other, none is supreme over the others, and so there is no absolutely supreme authority. If the three persons are equal, none of them rules over all, none is Pantokrator, none is Almighty. Semi-modalism is then, on this point squarely opposed to the rule of faith.

But semi-modalism, nonetheless, being self-contradictory, claims nonetheless that there is one Almighty- the Trinity as a person.

“14. And yet they are not three almighties, but one Almighty.” (Pseudo-Athanasian Creed)

Again, the Trinity is clearly treated as a single person in this case, since it is being declared to be the Supreme Ruler over all. If the Trinity is then a ruler of any kind, then it is, according to the meaning of the words, a person who rules; no ruler is not a person. Semi-modalism then once again attempts to rob the Father of one of his prerogatives and apply it instead to the Trinity conceived of as a person.

In sum, semi-modalism, when it declares the Trinity to be one person who is Almighty, declares the Almighty to be a different person than the rule of faith does; on the other hand, if a semi-modalist objects that they do not think the Trinity is a person, yet make the persons out to be equal in authority, they will still deny the rule of faith, by denying not only that the Father is Almighty, but that there is any Almighty, any Supreme Ruler over all, at all. All-in-all, semi-modalism shows itself to be irreconcilably at odds with the rule of faith on both the identity of the one God, and the identity of the Supreme Ruler over all, both of Whom the rule declares to be one and the same person, the Father.

In our third point, we consider that semi-modalism denies the second and third articles of the faith by taking away the distinct existence of the Son and Spirit as two distinct persons besides the one God, by making all three persons of the Trinity into a single person. By making the Trinity out to be a single person, as classical modalism did, semi-modalism denies the real identities of the Son and Holy Spirit. To put the matter simply: in the rule of faith, the Son and Spirit are two distinct persons besides the one God; in semi-modalism, the Son and Spirit are effectively part of the one God as “persons of” or “within” the one God.

We see this come to bear especially clearly in scholastic articulations of semi-modalism. In short, the Father, Son, and Spirit are defined as not being three individual realities (that is three persons), but as only one individual reality, as per the Fourth Lateran Council.

“We, however, with the approval of this sacred and universal council, believe and confess with Peter Lombard that there exists a certain supreme reality, incomprehensible and ineffable, which truly is the Father and the Son and the holy Spirit, the three persons together and each one of them separately. Therefore in God there is only a Trinity, not a quaternity, since each of the three persons is that reality — that is to say substance, essence or divine nature-which alone is the principle of all things, besides which no other principle can be found. This reality neither begets nor is begotten nor proceeds; the Father begets, the Son is begotten and the holy Spirit proceeds.” (From Canon 2)

In this defining of Father, Son, and Spirit as one individual reality, semi-modalism is no different than classical Sabellianism. The Trinity itself is defined as a single supreme reality or being which is the principle of all things. If the Father, Son, and Spirit are all one rational individual Being (the very definition of a person), then the true distinct existence of the Son and Spirit as two other distinct rational Beings (that is, two distinct persons) in addition to the first is denied. The Son and Spirit are made to no longer be the Son of the one God and the Spirit of the one God, but mere “modes of subsistence” within him. The reality of both the Son and Spirit’s distinct existence from the Father in consumed into a single “supreme reality” which is all three. Rather than being worshipped as the Son of the Almighty, Christ is worshipped as the Almighty, as being, ultimately, the self-same person with the Father. Rather than being worshipped as the Son of the one God, the Son and Spirit are worshipped as themselves being the one God, as being one person with the Father.

As Samuel Clarke wrote:

“They who are not careful to maintain these personal characters and distinctions, but while they are solicitous (on the one hand) to avoid the errors of the Arians, affirm (in the contrary extreme) the Son and Holy Spirit to be (individually with the Father) the Self-existent Being: These, seeming in the Words to magnify the Name of the Son and Holy Spirit, in reality take away their very Existence; and so fall unawares into Sabellianism, (which is the same with Socinianism.)” (Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity, Thesis 23)

This is quite at odds with the ancient rule of faith, which everywhere treats the Son and Spirit as truly distinct persons besides the Father. The Son in being Son, must necessarily be a distinct person; likewise, in being our “one Lord” He most clearly is a person, for a Lord is a person who possess lordship. The rule of faith, likewise, in teaching that the Spirit spoke through the prophets and was sent by the Son unto believers, teaches His existence as a third distinct person. Semi-modalism’s denial, then, of the distinct personal existence of the Son and Spirit, constitutes a clear denial of the second and third articles of the rule of faith.

Finally, let us examine our fourth point, related to the last, that semi-modalism denies the second article of the faith by denying that Christ is the Son of the one God. This is quite simple; if Christ is merely a person of the one God, a mere mode of subsistence of the one God, the Trinity conceived of as a person, as semi-modalism makes Him out to be, then He is not Himself the Son of the one God. For a Son, anyone will admit, is a distinct person from the person whose Son they are. They must be another besides the one whose Son they are, who relates to that person as a Father. If Christ is a mere subsistence of the one God, as semi-modalism says, then He relates to the one God as a mode of His subsistence, not as His Son; He is not begotten of Him, but rather is Him. On the other hand, if He were the Son of the one God, as the rule of faith says, then He must be another distinct individual being besides the one God, begotten from Him. He will no longer then be considered a mode of subsistence of the one God, but His Son. In short, Christ can either be the Son of the one God, or a mode of subsistence of one God, a person of God. The rule of faith teaches the former, semi-modalism the latter; their teachings are mutually exclusive.

In the end, then, we are forced to the conclusion that semi-modalism constitutes a rejection of the rule of faith; in total, it denies all three articles, and strikes at the very heart of what the rule of faith sets out to clearly confess: the identities of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. While the rule of faith, with scripture, says that the Father is the one God, the Almighty, Ruler over all, semi-modalism denies this, assigning these prerogatives to another person neither mentioned in the rule of faith nor scripture, “God the Trinity”, “the triune God”, the Trinity conceived of as a person, a god every bit as fictitious as those of Marcion and the gnostics of old, against which the same rule of faith was asserted to convict them of heresy. Likewise, while scripture and the rule of faith teach us to believe in the Son and Holy Spirit as two distinct persons in addition to the one God, semi-modalism ultimately denies the very existence of the Son and Spirit along with Sabellius and Praxeas of old, by making them out to be one and the same individual reality or being with the Father. Finally, while the rule of faith, like scripture, declares Jesus Christ to be the Son of the one God, semi-modalism denies this by making Him out to be nothing more than a subsistence or ‘person’ of the one God, denying that the Son relates to the one God as a Son.

To anyone willing to look at these matters objectively, it should be clear that semi-modalism blatantly contradicts the rule of faith at several points. That those who expound semi-modalism do not admit the contradiction between their heresy and the rule of faith should be of no surprise, and does nothing to lessen the real contradiction between these two opposing systems of doctrine. Arians too, we may recall, would not admit to violating the rule of faith with their heresy either; but sought to cunningly evade detection by means of equivocation. So semi-modalists do the same, yet, as in the case of the Arians, in truth it is inescapable that their doctrine contradicts the rule of faith, when their beliefs are brought out into the open.

In the end, one must choose between that ancient faith handed down once for all, as taught by the scriptures and preserved by the early church in the rule of faith, and semi-modalism. By the standards of that ancient rule, semi-modalism is every bit as much heresy as Sabellianism and Gnosticism; in its elaborate speculative denials of the first article of the faith, it bears a strong resemblance to gnosticism indeed; one might say semi-modalism is the new gnosticism. And like gnosticism of old, Christians will do well to shun it as the heresy it is, and in instead hold fast to that apostolic rule of faith, that ancient and scriptural safeguard against heresy.