Hilary of Poitiers on Correct and Incorrect Understandings of Co-essentiality

In the midst of the Arian controversy of the fourth century, orthodox Christians struggled over how to best articulate the doctrine of the Trinity in a way that would exclude both Arianism, which regarded Christ as a creature, and Modalism, which regarded the three persons of the Trinity as being a single person. The Nicene Creed ended up serving as a solution; it clearly distinguished between the distinct persons of the Trinity “one God, the Father Almighty”, “one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God”, and “the Holy Spirit”, thus excluding Modalism, while also defining that Christ was “begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the essence of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of the same essence as the Father”, to the exclusion of Arianism.

The language of the Son being begotten “from the essence of the Father” and being “of the same essence” were included specifically to confess the divinity of Christ, contra Arianism. The point of this confession that the Son was co-essential with the Father was that He was eternally of the same divine nature as the Father; thus truly God in nature from all eternity.

While this language was orthodox when used with this meaning, a great many orthodox bishops were weary of the language, especially the language that the Son is “of the same essence” as the Father, since this language had been used by modalists in articulating their heresy. This terminology became the subject of much controversy in the approximately fifty years between the Council of Nicea and Council of Constantinople, where the Nicene Creed was again finally confirmed by the church, not only because the Arians opposed it, but also because many orthodox bishops wanted to avoid the language that had been previously condemned because of its use by modalists. These orthodox bishops worried that such language may be intended to confess modalism by making the Father, Son, and Spirit out to be a single person. For this reason, many did not accept the decision of Nicea for many years, although consensus was eventually reached by the time of the Council of Constantinople in 381, in large part thanks to the efforts of Athanasius in favor of the terminology.

Because the language of essence (ousia in Greek) and co-essentiality (‘homoousias’ in Greek) was the subject of so much controversy, and is not used in scripture, it became the subject of quite a bit of writing by orthodox church fathers such as Athanasius and Hilary of Poitiers. Hilary of Poitiers, writing on the regional synods held by Eastern churches in the intervening period between the Council of Nicea in 325 and the Council of Constantinople in 381, gave an extremely helpful explanation of what the language meant in his work On the Synods of the Easterners.

In this work he goes into detail in explaining what the orthodox framers of the Nicene Creed intended by the language of ‘essence’ and ‘co-essentiality’, as well as the various ways that the language could be misunderstood heretically, which he acknowledged gave some legitimacy to those who opposed such language for fear of it carrying a heretical meaning. Hilary urges that it must be carefully defined, and understood according to the orthodox intention of the Nicene Council, and that so long as it is understood rightly, it must be accepted as orthodox.

Sadly, in later church history, the language and concept of co-essentiality was indeed twisted contrary to its original meaning (see: https://contramodalism.com/tag/fourth-lateran-council/). Semi-modalism thrives off of a twisting of the doctrine of co-essentiality that teaches that ultimately the persons of the Father, Son, and Spirit are together a singular person who exists as all three; the person of “God the Trinity”. The concern of orthodox church fathers like Hilary that such language would be misunderstood if not carefully defined has truly been realized, and needs to be corrected.

In this post, I hope to examine and highlight Hilary’s insightful teaching on this subject. I urge the reader to pay special attention to Hilary’s teaching that co-essentiality understood rightly teaches not that the Father and Son are one concrete “thing”, nor a single person, but that they are of exactly the same and identical divine nature, as two truly distinct persons. Note also the ways in which he says the concept can be misunderstood heretically, and how much this sounds precisely like semi-modalism. To the interested reader, I highly recommend the entire work, available online here: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3301.htm.

Hilary of Poitiers writes:

“Many of us, beloved brethren, declare the substance of the Father and the Son to be one in such a spirit that I consider the statement to be quite as much wrong as right. The expression contains both a conscientious conviction and the opportunity for delusion. If we assert the one substance, understanding it to mean the likeness of natural qualities and such a likeness as includes not only the species but the genus, we assert it in a truly religious spirit, provided we believe that the one substance signifies such a similitude of qualities that the unity is not the unity of a monad but of equals. By equality I mean exact similarity so that the likeness may be called an equality, provided that the equality imply unity because it implies an equal pair, and that the unity which implies an equal pair be not wrested to mean a single Person [here he predicts semi-modalism]. Therefore the one substance will be asserted piously if it does not abolish the subsistent personality or divide the one substance into two, for their substance by the true character of the Son’s birth and by their natural likeness is so free from difference that it is called one [note that the substance is one not because it is one existing “thing” which is the Father and Son, but because the Father and Son have an exactly identical nature].

68. But if we attribute one substance to the Father and the Son to teach that there is a solitary personal existence although denoted by two titles: then though we confess the Son with our lips we do not keep Him in our hearts, since in confessing one substance we then really say that the Father and the Son constitute one undifferentiated Person [semi-modalism]. Nay, there immediately arises an opportunity for the erroneous belief that the Father is divided, and that He cut off a portion of Himself to be His Son. That is what the heretics mean when they say the substance is one: and the terminology of our good confession so gratifies them that it aids heresy when the word ὁμοούσιος is left by itself, undefined and ambiguous. There is also a third error. When the Father and the Son are said to be of one substance this is thought to imply a prior substance, which the two equal Persons both possess. Consequently the word implies three things, one original substance and two Persons, who are as it were fellow-heirs of this one substance. For as two fellow-heirs are two, and the heritage of which they are fellow-heirs is anterior to them, so the two equal Persons might appear to be sharers in one anterior substance. The assertion of the one substance of the Father and the Son signifies either that there is one Person who has two titles, or one divided substance that has made two imperfect substances, or that there is a third prior substance which has been usurped and assumed by two and which is called one because it was one before it was severed into two. Where then is there room for the Son’s birth? Where is the Father or the Son, if these names are explained not by the birth of the divine nature but a severing or sharing of one anterior substance?

69. Therefore amid the numerous dangers which threaten the faith, brevity of words must be employed sparingly, lest what is piously meant be thought to be impiously expressed, and a word be judged guilty of occasioning heresy when it has been used in conscientious and unsuspecting innocence. A Catholic about to state that the substance of the Father and the Son is one, must not begin at that point: nor hold this word all important as though true faith did not exist where the word was not used. He will be safe in asserting the one substance if he has first said that the Father is unbegotten, that the Son is born, that He draws His personal subsistence from the Father, that He is like the Father in might, honour and nature, that He is subject to the Father as to the Author of His being, that He did not commit robbery by making Himself equal with God, in whose form He remained, that He was obedient unto death. He did not spring from nothing, but was born. He is not incapable of birth but equally eternal. He is not the Father, but the Son begotten of Him. He is not any portion of God, but is whole God. He is not Himself the source but the image; the image of God born of God to be God. He is not a creature but is God. Not another God in the kind of His substance, but the one God in virtue of the essence of His exactly similar substance. God is not one in Person but in nature, for the Born and the Begetter have nothing different or unlike. After saying all this, he does not err in declaring one substance of the Father and the Son. Nay, if he now denies the one substance he sins.

70. Therefore let no one think that our words were meant to deny the one substance. We are giving the very reason why it should not be denied. Let no one think that the word ought to be used by itself and unexplained. Otherwise the word ὁμοούσιος [co-essential] is not used in a religious spirit. I will not endure to hear that Christ was born of Mary unless I also hear, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was GodJohn 1:1 I will not hear Christ was hungry, unless I hear that after His fast of forty days He said, Man does not live by bread aloneMatthew 4:4 I will not hear He thirsted unless I also hear Whosoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirstJohn 4:13 I will not hear Christ suffered unless I hear, The hour has come that the Son of man should be glorified. I will not hear He died unless I hear He rose again. Let us bring forward no isolated point of the divine mysteries to rouse the suspicions of our hearers and give an occasion to the blasphemers. We must first preach the birth and subordination of the Son and the likeness of His nature, and then we may preach in godly fashion that the Father and the Son are of one substance. I do not personally understand why we ought to preach before everything else, as the most valuable and important of doctrines and in itself sufficient, a truth which cannot be piously preached before other truths, although it is impious to deny it after them.

71. Beloved brethren, we must not deny that there is one substance of the Father and the Son, but we must not declare it without giving our reasons. The one substance must be derived from the true character of the begotten nature, not from any division, any confusion of Persons, any sharing of an anterior substance. It may be right to assert the one substance, it may be right to keep silence about it. You believe in the birth and you believe in the likeness. Why should the word cause mutual suspicions, when we view the fact in the same way? Let us believe and say that there is one substance, but in virtue of the true character of the nature and not to imply a blasphemous unity of Persons. Let the oneness be due to the fact that there are similar Persons and not a solitary Person [here classical trinitarianism is vindicated in teaching that God and His Son are co-essential in that they are identical in nature, having the same divine nature, and semi-modalism is refuted for teaching that the Trinity of three persons is itself a solitary person].

72. But perhaps the word similarity may not seem fully appropriate. If so, I ask how I can express the equality of one Person with the other except by such a word? Or is to be like not the same thing as to be equal? If I say the divine nature is one I am suspected of meaning that it is undifferentiated: if I say the Persons are similar, I mean that I compare what is exactly like. I ask what position equal holds between like and one? I enquire whether it means similarity rather than singularity. Equality does not exist between things unlike, nor does similarity exist in one. What is the difference between those that are similar and those that are equal? Can one equal be distinguished from the other? So those who are equal are not unlike. If then those who are unlike are not equals, what can those who are like be but equals?

73. Therefore, beloved brethren, in declaring that the Son is like in all things to the Father, we declare nothing else than that He is equal. Likeness means perfect equality, and this fact we may gather from the Holy Scriptures, And Adam lived two hundred and thirty years, and begot a son according to his own image and according to his own likeness; and called his name SethGenesis 5:3 I ask what was the nature of his likeness and image which Adam begot in Seth? Remove bodily infirmities, remove the first stage of conception, remove birth-pangs, and every kind of human need. I ask whether this likeness which exists in Seth differs in nature from the author of his being, or whether there was in each an essence of a different kind, so that Seth had not at his birth the natural essence of Adam? Nay, he had a likeness to Adam, even though we deny it, for his nature was not different. This likeness of nature in Seth was not due to a nature of a different kind, since Seth was begotten from only one father, so we see that a likeness of nature renders things equal because this likeness betokens an exactly similar essence. Therefore every son by virtue of his natural birth is the equal of his father, in that he has a natural likeness to him. And with regard to the nature of the Father and the Son the blessed John teaches the very likeness which Moses says existed between Seth and Adam, a likeness which is this equality of nature. He says, Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill Him, because He not only had broken the Sabbath, but said also that God was His father, making Himself equal with GodJohn 5:18 Why do we allow minds that are dulled with the weight of sin to interfere with the doctrines and sayings of such holy men, and impiously match our rash though sluggish senses against their impregnable assertions? According to Moses, Seth is the likeness of Adam, according to John, the Son is equal to the Father, yet we seek to find a third impossible something between the Father and the Son. He is like the Father, He is the Son of the Father, He is born of Him: this fact alone justifies the assertion that they are one [this paragraph refutes those who try to make the oneness of the Father and Son, and their co-essentiality, to consist of being one subsisting “thing”; rather, their essential oneness lies in the two persons each distinctly possessing the exact same divine nature, and so there only being one divine nature between the two of Them].

74. I am aware, dear brethren, that there are some who confess the likeness, but deny the equality. Let them speak as they will, and insert the poison of their blasphemy into ignorant ears. If they say that there is a difference between likeness and equality, I ask whence equality can be obtained? If the Son is like the Father in essence, might, glory and eternity, I ask why they decline to say He is equal? In the above creed an anathema was pronounced on any man who should say that the Father was Father of an essence unlike Himself. Therefore if He gave to Him whom He begot without effect upon Himself a nature which was neither another nor a different nature, He cannot have given Him any other than His own. Likeness then is the sharing of what is one’s own, the sharing of one’s own is equality, and equality admits of no difference. Those things which do not differ at all are one. So the Father and the Son are one, not by unity of Person but by equality of nature [contrast this with later articulations of co-essentiality, like that of the Fourth Lateran Council, which redefined it to mean a unity of persons into a single person, only avoiding the term “person”; Van Til would later come out and express the belief frankly, calling the Trinity itself a single “person”. We see from Hilary’s own words here how antithetical this view is to the intention of the orthodox church fathers of the Nicene era].

75. Although general conviction and divine authority sanction no difference between likeness and equality, since both Moses and John would lead us to believe the Son is like the Father and also His equal, yet let us consider whether the Lord, when the Jews were angry with Him for calling God His Father and thus making Himself equal with God, did Himself teach that He was equal with God. He says, The Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father doJohn 5:19 He showed that the Father originates by saying Can do nothing of Himself, He calls attention to His own obedience by adding, but what He sees the Father do. There is no difference of might, He says He can do nothing that He does not see because it is His nature and not His sight that gives Him power. But His obedience consists in His being able only when He sees. And so by the fact that He has power when He sees, He shows that He does not gain power by seeing but claims power on the authority of seeing. The natural might does not differ in Father and Son, the Son’s equality of power with the Father not being due to any increase or advance of the Son’s nature but to the Father’s example. In short that honour which the Son’s subjection retained for the Father belongs equally to the Son on the strength of His nature. He has Himself added, Whatever things He does, these also does the Son likewiseJohn 5:19 Surely then the likeness implies equality. Certainly it does, even though we deny it: for these also does the Son likewise. Are not things done likewise the same? Or do not the same things admit equality? Is there any other difference between likeness and equality, when things that are done likewise are understood to be made the same? Unless perchance any one will deny that the same things are equal, or deny that similar things are equal, for things that are done in like manner are not only declared to be equal but to be the same things.

76. Therefore, brethren, likeness of nature can be attacked by no cavil, and the Son cannot be said to lack the true qualities of the Father’s nature because He is like Him. No real likeness exists where there is no equality of nature, and equality of nature cannot exist unless it imply unity, not unity of person but of kind. It is right to believe, religious to feel, and wholesome to confess, that we do not deny that the substance of the Father and the Son is one because it is similar, and that it is similar because they are one.

77. Beloved, after explaining in a faithful and godly manner the meaning of the phrases one substance, in Greek ὁμοούσιον, and similar substance or ὁμοιούσιον, and showing very completely the faults which may arise from a deceitful brevity or dangerous simplicity of language, it only remains for me to address myself to the holy bishops of the East. We have no longer any mutual suspicions about our faith, and those which before now have been due to mere misunderstanding are being cleared away…”

This treatment of co-essentiality is instructive for modern Christians. To those familiar with later articulations of co-essentiality by semi-modalists, it should be clear that they have fallen into exactly the sorts of errors Hilary of Poitiers warned against by conceiving of the essence shared by the persons of the Trinity as a singular personal subsistence; in other words, a person. Hilary’s words make it clear that semi-modalistic misunderstandings of co-essentiality are not faithful to the original meaning of the doctrine and terminology employed by the Nicene Creed and orthodox church fathers. We must reject the later innovations of semi-modalism and return to the classical understanding of co-essentiality articulated by the Nicene church fathers if things are to improve.

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 as heretical; 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 three distinct persons of one essence, 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 error 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 Hilary of Poitiers. 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 error of semi-modalism in an official capacity by the ruling of the Papal council.

Semi-Modalism In the Dutch Reformed Confessions

Cornelius Van Til is known for coming out and openly admitting his belief that the Trinity itself, that group of three divine persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is itself a single person. While many prior to him clearly treated the Trinity as a person, they eschewed the terminology, as it is obviously nonsensical. Yet the concept that there is a single consciousness, a single person, who is the entire Trinity, and exists as all three real persons of the Trinity, can be seen going back to Augustine.

Cornelius Van Til, coming from a Dutch Reformed heritage, had been strongly indoctrinated with this semi-modalistic version of the doctrine of the Trinity, and it is therefore not surprising that he conceptually held to it. Van Til deserves accolade for actually coming out and clearly stating his true belief that the Trinity is a person (see: https://contramodalism.com/tag/cornelius-van-til/ ), yet he cannot by any means be considered the source of the idea itself.

We can clearly see that the Dutch Reformed tradition’s confessional documents, which sum up their doctrinal beliefs, are semi-modalistic. This can be seen by critically examining both the Second Helvetic Confession and Belgic Confession’s chapters on the doctrine of the Trinity:

“GOD IS ONE. We believe and teach that God is one in essence or nature, subsisting in himself, all sufficient in himself, invisible, incorporeal, immense, eternal, Creator of all things both visible and invisible, the greatest good, living, quickening and preserving all things, omnipotent and supremely wise, kind and merciful, just and true. Truly we detest many gods because it is expressly written: “The Lord your God is one Lord” (Deut.6:4). “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:2-3). “I am the Lord, and there is no other god besides me. Am I not the Lord, and there is no other God beside me? A righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me” ((Isa. 45:5, 21). “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6).

GOD IS THREE. Notwithstanding we believe and teach that the same immense, one and indivisible God is in person inseparably and without confusion distinguished as Father, Son and Holy Spirit so, as the Father has begotten the Son from eternity, the Son is begotten by an ineffable generation, and the holy Spirit truly proceeds from them both, and the same from eternity and is to be worshipped with both.” (Second Helvetic Confession, Chapter 3)

“In keeping with this truth and Word of God we believe in one God, who is one single essence, in whom there are three persons, really, truly, and eternally distinct according to their incommunicable properties— namely, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Father is the cause, origin, and source of all things, visible as well as invisible. The Son is the Word, the Wisdom, and the image of the Father. The Holy Spirit is the eternal power and might, proceeding from the Father and the Son.

Nevertheless, this distinction does not divide God into three, since Scripture teaches us that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit each has a distinct subsistence distinguished by characteristics— yet in such a way that these three persons are only one God. It is evident then that the Father is not the Son and that the Son is not the Father, and that likewise the Holy Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son. Nevertheless, these persons, thus distinct, are neither divided nor fused or mixed together. For the Father did not take on flesh, nor did the Spirit, but only the Son. The Father was never without the Son, nor without the Holy Spirit, since all these are equal from eternity, in one and the same essence. There is neither a first nor a last, for all three are one in truth and power, in goodness and mercy.” (Belgic Confession, Article 8)

First lets examine the quote from the Second Helvetic Confession. Towards the beginning it says “God is one in essence or nature, subsisting in himself, all sufficient in himself, invisible, incorporeal, immense, eternal, Creator of all”. This is in itself somewhat ambiguous- a classical trinitarian could also speak of the one God Who is one in essence or nature -the Father, as per the Nicene Creed- while acknowledging that the Son and Spirit also share that same divine nature. In fact, if this whole paragraph were speaking of the Father, there is nothing objectionable about it at all. Many orthodox church fathers speak in very similar ways.

The key difference however between the Second Helvetic Confession and the orthodox church fathers is that the fathers would have identified the subject of that paragraph as the person of the Father (see: https://contramodalism.com/2017/03/08/i-believe-in-one-god-the-father-almighty/ ). This fits with the singular personal pronouns used, as well. But unfortunately, the Second Helvetic didn’t intend it this way. Rather the next paragraph begins by saying: “Notwithstanding we believe and teach that the same immense, one and indivisible God is in person inseparably and without confusion distinguished as Father, Son and Holy Spirit…”.

Here we see that the Confession directly equates the singular person spoken of in the first paragraph with the real three persons of the Trinity together; that is, it teaches that there is one person who is three persons. The Confession has in the first paragraph spoken of a singular person: not just by using explicitly singular personal pronouns, but by saying “subsisting in himself” they very clearly regard the subject as a person (in historic philosophical language, subsistence=person, while substance=essence). Yet when we come to the second paragraph, this singular subsistence/person is identified as being three subsistences/persons. Thus, it clearly teaches semi-modalism, only barely coming short of Van Til’s later articulation of it by not expressly using the word “person” for the Trinity as a whole.

Next, we come to the quote from the Belgic Confession. It begins saying “In keeping with this truth and Word of God we believe in one God, who is one single essence, in whom there are three persons, really, truly, and eternally distinct according to their incommunicable properties— namely, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” This is mainly where we see semi-modalism. The second paragraph does not seem to contain anything expressly semi-modalistic, and the third paragraph is only ambiguous when it says that the three persons are one God, since this could be taken in a classical sense to mean that they all share one divine nature, or in a semi-modalistic sense to say that the three are one person. So much for the second and third paragraphs, then.

Returning to the first paragraph of the Belgic Confession, we must note firstly that it fails to correctly identify the one God as the Father. Instead, it equates the one God with the essence/divine nature, which exists in the three real persons of the Trinity. But it does more than this; it confesses the one God to be a person who is the essence, which in turn has the three persons of the Trinity in it.

That it treats the “one God” here as a person is obvious from the singular personal pronoun used- “one God, who is one single essence”. If this is slightly baffling to the reader, they should not be surprised; essence and person are distinct philosophical categories. Confounding them cannot but result in doctrinal error (see: https://contramodalism.com/tag/essence-vs-person/ ).

Yet this is precisely what appears to be done here, as the one God, regarded as a person, is equated with the essence which exists in the three real persons of the Trinity. This twisting of the patristic formulation of the Trinity “one essence in three persons” to “one person in three persons” is semi-modalism.

So there you have it; the Helvetic Confession and Belgic Confession, upon close examination, are shown to teach semi-modalism. This doesn’t mean that the Confessions as a whole are not useful and valuable for their articulations of other areas of doctrine, but it is important that their teaching on the Trinity be recognized as problematic, or else more Christians will fall into these same errors.

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/ ).

False Teaching on the Trinity 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 NKJV).

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, Unitarians, 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 the divine nature, denying His 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, such as the divinity of the Son.