The Grievous Error of the Fourth Lateran Council

When doctrinal error is mentioned in respect to the Fourth Lateran Council, a number of issues could be brought up depending on what tradition is examining the council. Protestants reject its teaching on transubstantiation as error; Eastern Orthodox reject its teaching on the Filoque; the Oriental Orthodox would reject its Chalcedonian articulation of the hypostatic union. Everyone but the papists themselves takes issue with the council’s strong assertion of papal supremacy and authority (written, conveniently, by the Pope himself, as all the canons). But in this article, I want to draw attention to a lesser-known doctrinal error the council did much to promote: the anti-trinitarian doctrine of semi-modalism.

The Fourth Lateran Council is not primarily known today for its decisions regarding the doctrine of the Trinity. The thirteenth-century Papal Council, held in a Roman palace, dealt with a host of issues, including crusades, defining and officially confessing the doctrine of transubstantiation, the filioque, and papal authority. Yet its impact on trinitarian doctrine for Roman Catholicism is actually very great (the council is generally rejected by protestant and Eastern churches, as it took place after the Great Schism, and prior to the Reformation, with significant parts of its rulings being rejected by the Reformers).

The council’s importance to Rome’s views on the Trinity is primarily because of the council’s dealings with Abbot Joachim of Fiore’s treatise on the Trinity, in which Joachim accused Peter Lombard of teaching heresy in his famous Sentences. The heresy Joachim had in view was none other than semi-modalism. Abbot Joachim recognised that teaching that the Trinity was a single conscious thing who is the three real persons of Father, Son, and Spirit, is far different than scripture’s teaching of that the one God is only one person, the Father, and made efforts to draw attention to this departure from scripture’s teaching. He correctly pointed out that Peter Lombard’s semi-modalism effectively made the Trinity itself into a fourth divine person, ultimately to the destruction of the doctrine of the Trinity.

The bishop of Rome and the council he had called did not agree with Abbot Joachim’s assessment. His teachings on the subject were condemned, and the council affirmed the already well-entrenched heresy of semi-modalism as the official Roman Catholic belief, as they officially redefined the doctrine of consubstantiality to no longer teach that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share one and the same divine nature to instead mean than the Father, Son, and Spirit were the same conscious “reality”- in concept, a person. They avoided the language of “person” for this reality, denying Abbot Joachim’s criticism that conceiving of the Trinity this way was to believe in a fourth person of the Trinity, since to admit such would be obviously heretical.

This equivocation on the terminology of “person” and on the subject of consubstantiality have continued down to our own day, as semi-modalists continue to follow the pattern of substituting out another word besides “person” for the singular, personal, conscious, rational reality that they teach is the three persons of the Father, Son, and Spirit. They call this “thing” the “essence” or “substance” which exists in the three persons of the Trinity, while originally the Nicene church fathers introduced this language not to indicate that a person was three persons, but to speak of the single divine nature shared by the three persons of the Trinity. This fact can be seen clearly from their own writings.

Hilary of Poitiers, for example, wrote thus:

“IV. If any one dares to say that the Unborn God, or a part of Him, was born of Mary: let him be anathema.

42. The fact of the essence declared to be one in the Father and the Son having one name on account of their similarity of nature seemed to offer an opportunity to heretics to declare that the Unborn God, or a part of Him, was born of Mary. The danger was met by the wholesome resolution that he who declared this should be anathema. For the unity of the name which religion employs and which is based on the exact similarity of their natural essence, has not repudiated the Person of the begotten essence so as to represent, under cover of the unity of name, that the substance of God is singular and undifferentiated because we predicate one name for the essence of each, that is, predicate one God, on account of the exactly similar substance of the undivided nature in each Person.” (De Synodis)

Even in the post-nicene period, this classical understanding of co-essentiality can be clearly seen in the Chalcedonian Definition when it says:

“We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in divine nature and also perfect in human nature; truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body; co-essential with the Father according to the divine nature, and co-essential with us according to the human nature; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the divine nature, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the human nature…”

Notice Christ is said to be co-essential with man according to his human nature. This is consistent with an understanding of essence as a general nature considered in abstract, such as human nature, or the divine nature. Christ being co-essential with man literally means he is of the same human nature as all other men. By way of parallel, which is obviously drawn by the Definition, Christ is also eternally co-essential with the Father as His Son, in that He has from all eternity the same divine nature as the Father. This same understanding can also be seen articulated by Basil the Great (see: https://contramodalism.com/2018/01/12/basil-the-great-on-the-distinction-between-essence-and-person/ ).

In contrast, the idea that co-essentiality would somehow mean that the subjects were one “thing”, with its own real concrete existence, does not fit at all with the Chalcedonian Definition. Christ is co-essential with man- yet there is no real existence to the human nature considered in abstract. Human nature finds real existence in human persons; but considered in abstract, it is only an idea, lacking concrete existence. Yet if we apply the Fourth Lateran Council’s semi-modalistic re-definition of co-essentiality to the Chalcedonian Definition, this is exactly the way we must understand it. Yet clearly, this idea is nonsensical.

So we are able to see a medieval papal redefinition of co-essentiality:

“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)

This redefinition of co-essentiality is erroneous, as it ultimately makes the Father, Son, and Spirit into a single person who is all three together. This doctrine is mutually exclusive to the classical doctrine of the Trinity taught by scripture and the orthodox church fathers of the Nicene and Ante-Nicene eras which is summed up in the Nicene Creed.

The Roman Catholic Church needs to abandon this grievous error and return to the classical trinitarianism contended for by such Western church fathers as Irenaeus of Lyons and Novatian. Those of other traditions should take heed of this error hidden among the historically more conspicuous problems with the rulings of the Fourth Lateran Council. We may be thankful that both Protestant and Eastern churches are free from commitment to the canons of this council, and thus are not, like the Roman Catholic church, bound to the heresy of semi-modalism in an official capacity by the ruling of the Papal council.

Semi-modalism in the Liturgy of St. James

The Liturgy of St. James is renowned as being one of the oldest liturgies in Christianity, supposedly going back all the way to the apostle James the brother of the Lord. Although the liturgy is reputed to have an apostolic origin, it continued to see modification for several centuries, the version used today perhaps dating back to the fifth or sixth centuries.

Because of such modifications to an ancient document, it is of course difficult to ever say with absolute certainty what is original and what is not. Certain things can easily be conjectured to be additions however as they bear the mark of later theological controversies that a first century liturgy would not have spoken to. The language in many places is seen to date from the post-nicene era.

One such instance of an anachronism in the liturgy is that its second paragraph is expressly semi-modalistic, something otherwise unheard of in orthodox churches in the ante-nicene era. It says:

“II Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, the triune light of the Godhead, which is unity subsisting in trinity, divided, yet indivisible: for the Trinity is the one God Almighty, whose glory the heavens declare, and the earth His dominion, and the sea His might, and every sentient and intellectual creature at all times proclaims His majesty: for all glory becomes Him, and honour and might, greatness and magnificence, now and ever, and to all eternity. Amen.”

A more explicitly semi-modalistic statement would only be possible if it came right out and called the Trinity as a whole a “person” (like Cornelius Van Til did: https://contramodalism.com/2018/01/15/van-tils-views-on-the-trinity/ ).

We see that this liturgy expressly contradicts the Nicene Creed, which begins by defining the one God of the Christian faith as the person of the Father saying “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty…” Instead the Liturgy defines the one God as the Trinity itself.

That the Trinity is treated as a single person is also abundantly clear, as it goes on to use singular personal pronouns such as “his” for the Trinity several times.

It is sad to see semi-modalism encapsulated in the Liturgy which is perhaps in its original form the oldest liturgy we have still in use. The liturgy of St. James is commonly used by various Eastern churches, including the Syriac Orthodox church and occasionally by the Eastern Orthodox Church, which despite this part of its liturgy, is actually making great strides in returning to classical trinitarianism such as that articulated by the Nicene Creed (see: https://contramodalism.com/tag/eastern-orthodox/ ).

Trinitarian Heresy In the London Baptist Confession of 1689

The London Baptist Confession of 1689 says in its second chapter:

“The Lord our God is but one only living and true God; whose subsistence is in and of himself, infinite in being and perfection…

In this divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit, of one substance, power, and eternity, each having the whole divine essence, yet the essence undivided: the Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son; all infinite, without beginning, therefore but one God, who is not to be divided in nature and being, but distinguished by several peculiar relative properties and personal relations; which doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on him.”

Here we see them begin their treatment of the Trinity by saying that the one God is a person “whose subsistence is in and of himself”. Subsistence is a philosophical term for person, when it refers to something of a rational nature, such as God, or an angel, or a man. What is more clear in identifying him as a single person is their explicit use of singular personal pronouns.

Had they stopped there and called this person who is the one God the Father of our Lord, there would have been no disagreement either with scripture or with the faith of the ancients. But we see further in the chapter that they expressly identify this person of the one God as being “three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit”. So they have explicitly declared the one God to be a single subsistence who is three subsistences, or put into common language, one person who is three persons.

If anyone doubts that this was the intention of those who framed the confession let them notice that later in the same paragraph quoted above they again use a singular personal pronoun in regard to all three together taken as one God, making again explicit their erroneous belief in that the one God is one person who is three, instead of being identical with the Father of our Lord as the scriptures teach (see: We Believe in One God, the Father Almighty).

And so this baptist plagiarism of the Westminster Confession of Faith is shown to be expressly semi-modalistic. The Westminster Confession maintains a better statement on these matters, being ambiguous enough to be taken either orthodoxly or otherwise, unlike the baptist modification that specifies an anti-trinitarian belief explicitly. 

Until this articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity is recognized as being  problematic, there is little hope of seeing reform in this area among those who subscribe to this confession.

The Need to Be Discerning Regarding the Doctrine of the Trinity

Scripture calls Christians to “Test all things; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21 NKJV). This is important when we come to the doctrines of the Christians faith, since scripture warns that there are many false teachers and antichrists who have gone forth teaching false doctrine, twisting the scriptures to their own destruction (1 John 2:18-22).

In the face of so many false teachers, it is important to see every point of doctrine proven from scripture before we believe it, in order to have certainty regarding every point of doctrine, rather than merely being carried away with strange theories, mere probabilities, and false teachings.

On this subject, fourth century church father Cyril Archbishop of Jerusalem said:

“Have thou ever in thy mind this seal, which for the present has been lightly touched in my discourse, by way of summary, but shall be stated, should the Lord permit, to the best of my power with the proof from the Scriptures.  For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell thee these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures.  For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures.”

It is necessary then, to have clear demonstration form the scriptures on every point of doctrine, so that we have a sure and true knowledge of what is true.

In the Protestant tradition, this idea is greatly emphasized as part of doctrine of Sola Scriptura. Protestantism broke with the Roman Catholic church in large part over the doctrines regarding how a person is saved and brought into fellowship with God (this area of doctrine is called soteriology).

Protestants disagreed with the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on soteriology because they saw that it was contrary to what scripture teaches. They examined the Roman doctrines on the basis of scripture, and found that they contradicted them. So they instead sought to articulate what scripture teaches on soteriology as accurately as possible.

This caused a great deal of controversy. In the midst of this controversy, a great deal of work was put into how to best and most accurately articulate soteriology. Hundreds of well-known theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries expended a great deal of energy to articulate these doctrines in an extremely detailed and thorough way. To this day, as a result, many modern Protestants are still very articulate in this area of doctrine. Even those who are largely untrained in theology and doctrine are often able to articulate soteriology in some detail, and are able to distinguish between their own understanding of it and the Roman Catholic position.

The outlook of critically examining what is being said on the topic of soteriology in order to avoid accepting false teaching that cannot be proven from scripture is a common one among believing Protestants. This is in large part because the doctrinal truths regarding how a person is reconciled to God are recognized as being extremely important, and that importance leads people to take the issue seriously and not just accept anything they hear without seeing actual proof from scripture.

This attitude is largely non-existent, however, in regards to the doctrines pertaining to the Trinity. This is unfortunate because these doctrines are foundational even to soteriology itself. Rejection of them constitutes a rejection of Christianity. What is at the core of what is being dealt with in trinitarian doctrine is the very identities of the persons of God, His Son, and His Holy Spirit. Who is the God we are reconciled to and forgiven our sins by in the gospel? Who is the Lord Jesus Christ through Whom we have this salvation? Who is the Spirit Christians are sealed with? It is these questions that are ultimately at stake in trinitarian doctrine.

Christians need to strive to have an attitude that is more obedient to the scripture’s command to “test everything, and hold fast that which is good” in respects to the doctrine of the Trinity. Too often it seems like the attitude people take towards trinitarian doctrine is far different than that they have towards soteriology. Unlike soteriology, trinitarian doctrine is regarded as something esoteric and mysterious, to be accepted from trustworthy teachers without question or criticism- without discernment. This opens the door to receiving false teaching, intentional and otherwise. Just as many recognize a need to exercise careful discernment in respect to the gospel, lest they believe a false gospel, so we must also exercise discernment in respect to the doctrine of the Trinity, lest we find ourselves believing a false doctrine of the Trinity.

Just as it is not sufficient for us to believe a point of doctrine related to soteriology that a notable and respected theologian has taught without also critically examining what is being taught and making sure it can be proven from scripture, so also we need to do more than just ‘take Augustine’s word for it’ with respect to the Trinity. The fact that men like Augustine, Calvin, and Van Til have said or not said something on any point of doctrine does nothing to make that point of doctrine true or false. Even the godliest, wisest, most intelligent men err. No amount of good intentions makes it impossible to make an honest mistake, or to misunderstand something. We need to be willing to do the work of looking critically at what theologians tell us about the doctrine of the Trinity- and only accepting that which we see truly proven from the scriptures. Without a critical attitude on these doctrines, we open ourselves up to adopt all the errors and mistakes of those we learn from, in addition to all they teach correctly.

Reclaiming the Language of the Nicene Creed

The Nicene Creed, which is historically one of the most important trinitarian confessions, begins by saying “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty…”. Scripture speaks this way as well:

“This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” John 17:3 NAS

“…yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.” 1 Corinthians 8:6 NAS

But the equation of the “one God” with the person of the Father in particular is something that many modern Christians are uncomfortable with. There are actually quite a few legitimate reasons why this might be the case.

Many anti-trinitarian heresies comandeer this sort of language to try to argue against the divinity of Christ. Jews, Arians, Socinians, Muslims, and various other anti-trinitarian heresies all argue that the one God is the Father in particular in order to exclude the Son from divinity. They try to weaponize what the Nicene Creed lays out as the first article of the Christian faith, in order to deny the second.

In light of this, it is understandable that the language of “the one God being the Father” would make some people uncomfortable.

Despite this, I would argue that we must seek to reclaim the language of scripture on this matter, rather than cast it aside because if its misuse by heretics. Defining the “one God” of the Christian faith as the Father is something scripture does, and language scripture uses. Its the way that God chose to reveal these truths to us. We must seek to embrace the langauge scripture uses on this matter, while being careful at the same time to distinguish what we believe from anti-trinitarian heresies.

This is precisely what the early church did. Although in the first few centuries of Christianity the church was faced with several heresies attacking the fundamental articles of the faith, including the divinity of Christ, hereies which often twisted and misused scripture in doing so, the early church did not reject the concepts and language of scripture that were being misused. Rather, they contended for them, and carefully distinguished what they were saying from the false teaching of the various heretical sects. This is why the Nicene Council, for example, although writing in opposition to Arianism in the defense of trinitarianism, did not shy away from saying that the “one God” is “the Father Almighty” in the very document in which they were articulating the doctrine of the Trinity. Its misuse by heretics did not stop them from embracing the doctrine that the one God is the person of the Father- instead they sought to demonstrate how this truth is compatible with the other doctrines that scripture teaches that Arianism opposed.

Augustine vs. Athanasius on the Identity of the “One God”

Between Augustine and earlier church fathers like Athanasius of Alexandria there exists a great deal of doctrinal agreement. But there are also some crucial areas of disagreement between these two influential theologians.

As has been previously noted on this blog, Augustine was a strong early proponent of the idea that the one God of the Christian faith is the Trinity conceived of as a single person itself. We see this idea expressed in his own writings in the following:

“That one God, therefore, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, who will not appear, except for joy which cannot be taken away from the just…” (On the Trinity, Book 1, Ch. 13)

“…neither here does it appear plainly whether it was any person of the Trinity that appeared to Abraham, or God Himself the Trinity, of which one God it is said, You shall fear the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.” (Book 2, Ch. 10)

“O Lord the one God, God the Trinity, whatever I have said in these books that is of Yours, may they acknowledge who are Yours; if anything of my own, may it be pardoned both by You and by those who are Yours. Amen.” (Book 15, Ch. 28)

In contrast, Athanasius was clear in affirming the well-established doctrine that the one God of the Christian faith is the person of the Father in particular:

“But if this is not to be seen, but while the creatures are many, the Word is one, any one will collect from this, that the Son differs from all, and is not on a level with the creatures, but proper to the Father. Hence there are not many Words, but one only Word of the one Father, and one Image of the one God.” (Against the Arians, Discourse II.)

“For there is One God, and not many, and One is His Word, and not many; for the Word is God, and He alone has the Form of the Father.” (Against the Arians, Discourse III.)

“For the Word, being Son of the One God, is referred to Him of whom also He is; so that Father and Son are two, yet the Monad of the Godhead is indivisible and inseparable. And thus too we preserve One Beginning of Godhead and not two Beginnings, whence there is strictly a Monarchy” (Against the Arians, Discourse IV.)

“For the one God makes and creates; but Him He begets from Himself, Word or Wisdom.” (Against the Arians, Discourse IV.)

Not least of all would be the opening line of the Nicene Creed, a creed which Athanasius not only affirmed and spent his life defending the truthfulness of its content, which begins by saying:

“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible…”

Although Augustine would allege the support of scripture for his position, in light of the language of scripture, it is clear which of these viewpoints actually represents the biblical position:

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.” Ephesians 4:4-5 NAS

“This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” John 17:3 NAS

“…yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.” 1 Corinthians 8:6 NAS

Semi-modalism: A Study in the Bizarre

A person who is three persons. A single mind controlling three individuals. A plurality of persons with a single united consciousness. An intelligence speaking and acting through three manifestations. An intelligent ‘thing’ that exists as a three rational persons.

What am I talking about? Science fiction, or semi-modalism?

Hard to tell, isn’t it?

In fact, I would be so bold as to say that without further description, it would be downright impossible to tell. I could be referring to something similar to the alien monster from John Carpenter’s science fiction masterpiece The Thing, or I could be talking about the intelligent “thing” that semi-modalists say is the three real persons of the Trinity (and yes, I have actually had it articulated to me by them in those terms).

What I am trying to point out here is how bizarre semi-modalism is. Now an idea seeming bizarre, of course, does not mean that it isn’t true, and I will grant that there is a good bit of subjectivity that goes into deciding what is bizarre and what isn’t. But in the case of semi-modalism, we are dealing with doctrinal error, serving to obscure the glory of God and to harm the church. Semi-modalism isn’t false because its bizarre, but in the vast and varied sea of doctrinal errors that Christianity has encountered throughout history, I would argue semi-modalism ranks among the most bizarre (although anyone who has studied ancient pseudo-gnosticism like that of Basilides and Valentinius knows semi-modalism still doesn’t take first place).

Along this line of thinking, I would suggest that if we did not live in a world where semi-modalism had gained longterm ascendency throughout much of the church, such that people became used to and familiar with its underlying ideas and terminology, semi-modalism would actually sound very strange to most Christians. The idea that there is a personal “triune God” who is Father, Son, and Spirit might sound perfectly normal if you’ve been indoctrinated with the ideas and have grown used to the lingo, but really, its a very weird idea being put forward.

To demonstrate this, step back from the doctrine of the Trinity for a moment and consider metaphysical personhood in general. Consider human persons for example. The idea that one human person can be multiple other human persons would break most classical philosophical definitions of personhood entirely. Imagine three men who shared one mind, one consciousness, who were three and yet at the same time, all just different parts of a single intelligent person who controlled them all. That is bizarre. And because we would never even consider such an idea in respect to humans outside of science fiction, its easy to recognize its oddity, and, if we really consider what personhood is, its impossibility.

Yet when we come to the Trinity we are fed the exact same sorts of ideas by semi-modalism. Yet they are accepted.

This too, is bizarre.