The Medieval Reform Attempt That Tried to Rescue the Church From Semi-modalism

Anyone following this blog will be aware of my contention that the church fathers of the Nicene and Ante-Nicene era articulated the classical doctrine of the Trinity as scripture reveals it and the apostles handed it down orally, but that later, in the post-nicene era, the false teaching of semi-modalism became prevalent in the western church starting in the fifth century, and eventually left no quarter of the church unaffected by its crafty lies.

There are, however, reasonable questions that can be asked as to how exactly this change took place. How could the church trade in its orthodox trinitarianism, such as that articulated by the Nicene Creed, for semi-modalism, a false teaching antithetical to the classical doctrine of the Trinity? Where was the opposition to these changes?

The full answer to these questions is beyond the scope of this post. We must remember that since the late second century the Roman church had seriously struggled with classical modalism, and seems to have never fully escaped the sway of modalism afterwards, in one form or another. We must also remember that both the heresy of Arianism itself, as well as the special philosophical language introduced by orthodox Christians to combat it, caused an immense amount of doctrinal confusion in the century following Nicea. A growing linguistic and cultural divide between the Latin-speaking western churches and the Greek-speaking eastern churches also made it easier for things to get out of hand.

But even a several centuries after Augustine had lead most of the Latin church into a whole-hearted embrace of semi-modalism, opposition to this false doctrine can still be seen. One effort at reform in particular stands out because it received the attention of an “ecumenical” council (meaning, it was inclusive of European churches only, by this time, since the great schism had already excluded most professing Christians from the catholic church in the minds of the Latin churchmen).

The effort I speak of was of one Abbot Joachim. Abbott Joachim in the thirteenth century condemning the writings of Peter Lombard, who had authored his famous Sentences in the previous century, a work which became a staple textbook of semi-modalistic medieval scholasticism. Abbot Joachim condemned Lombard for teaching that the essence, that is, the divine nature shared by the persons of the Trinity, was itself a person, and thus introducing a fourth person into the Trinity. He bravely and boldly took a stand against semi-modalism, authoring a controversial book on the subject in hopes of providing a doctrinal corrective to the semi-modalism he saw Lombard as teaching.

This book apparently created quite a lot of controversy in his time, as he gained the attention of a Papal council for his efforts. But semi-modalism, by this time, had already gained wide acceptance by the Latin church, led by the historically modalistic church of Rome.

The Fourth Lateran Council, instead of taking action to combat semi-modalism as Joachim’s work recommended, defended the false teaching of semi-modalism, and condemned Abbot Joachim. This represents a tragic moment in church history, in this author’s opinion.

Part of the decision given by the council read as follows:

“We therefore condemn and reprove that small book or treatise which abbot Joachim published against master Peter Lombard concerning the unity or essence of the Trinity, in which he calls Peter Lombard a heretic and a madman because he said in his Sentences, “For there is a certain supreme reality which is the Father and the Son and the holy Spirit, and it neither begets nor is begotten nor does it proceed”. He asserts from this that Peter Lombard ascribes to God not so much a Trinity as a quaternity, that is to say three persons and a common essence as if this were a fourth person. Abbot Joachim clearly protests that there does not exist any reality which is the Father and the Son and the holy Spirit-neither an essence nor a substance nor a nature — although he concedes that the Father and the Son and the holy Spirit are one essence, one substance and one nature…

We however, with the approval of this sacred and universal council [universal as in Roman Catholic only, lest the Eastern Orthodox or Coptics seem to be slandered by this shameful decision], 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. Thus there is a distinction of persons but a unity of nature. Although therefore the Father is one person, the Son another person, and the Holy Spirit another person, they are not different realities, but rather that which is the Father is the Son and the Holy Spirit, altogether the same; thus according to the orthodox and catholic faith they are believed to be consubstantial [notice they redefine the consubstantiality at Nicea]. For the Father, in begetting the Son from eternity gave him His substance as he himself testifies: What the Father gave me is greater than all. It cannot be said that the Father gave him part of his substance and kept part for himself since the Fathers substance is indivisible, in as much as it is altogether simple. Nor can it be said that the Father transferred his substance to the Son in the act of begetting, as if he gave it to the Son in such as way that he did not retain it for himself; for otherwise he would have ceased to be substance. It is therefore clear that in being begotten the Son received the Father’s substance without it being diminished in any way, and thus the Father and the Son have the same substance. Thus the Father and the Son and also the Holy Spirit proceeding from both are the same reality.”

This sad statement, masquerading as the decision of an ecumenical council, skillfully avoids calling the Trinity as a whole or the divine nature/essence a person, and in fact denies it. Instead it leaves us with the extremely ambiguous and unhelpful confession that the Trinity as a whole is one “reality”.

While it avoids out-and-out expressing semi-modalism, the council’s summary of the faith is still ultimately semi-modalistic. The council claims that there is “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” and calls this “supreme reality” the “one principle of all things, creator of all things invisible and visible, spiritual and corporeal; who by his almighty power at the beginning of time created from nothing both spiritual and corporeal creatures, that is to say angelic and earthly, and then created human beings composed as it were of both spirit and body in common.” Notice, this one “reality” which is the Father, Son, and Spirit is a “he”. Thus they clearly treat this ‘thing’ as a person, although they do not come out and say such expressly.

It is worth noting that the decision of the council records that Abbot Joachim provided a great deal of scriptural testimony to prove his contentions. This seems to have ultimately have been ignored in favor of the above confession, which does not even seem to make any attempt to prove what it is saying from scripture.

For those who will take the decision of this Papal council as proof that semi-modalism is true, little can be done to help; but anyone who will acknowledge that we must see every point of doctrine proven from scripture before we will believe it will find that the council’s decision provides little more than the opinions of men, who, in this case, were wrong.

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