Samuel Clarke’s ‘The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity’

Samuel Clarke was an eighteenth century Anglican clergyman and philosopher, and a friend of Sir Isaac Newton. He participated in the trinitarian debates following the Reformation, and authored his book The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity to sum up, prove, and defend his views on the Trinity.

The book is divided into three parts, proceeded by an introduction, in which he lays out the principle of sola scriptura as necessary for a right understanding of Christian doctrine, and qualifies certain aspects of the following work. In the first part of the book, he endeavors to extensively categorize all New Testament texts which refer to the Trinity or some aspect of it. In the second part, he gives a series of theses or propositions, in which he states his views. He grounds these propositions in the texts listed in the first section. In the third section, he compares his views, which he believes to be none other than what scripture teaches regarding the Trinity, with the liturgy and doctrinal standards of the church of England, wherein he shows firstly the many areas of agreement, and then treats those which appear to disagree.

Samuel Clarke’s book on the Trinity is one of the best written in the last millennium, in the opinion of this author. He is careful in his examination of scripture, precise in his articulation and argumentation, and is generally correct on nearly all the points he contends for.

Leaving aside the essence or essences of the persons of the Trinity, Clarke insists on limiting the discussion to the persons and Their attributes, roles, and properties. As this is the way scripture speaks of the Trinity, this is helpful.

Here are some highlights from Clarke’s 55 propositions:

I. There is one Supreme Cause and Original of Things; One simple, uncompounded, undivided, intelligent Being, or Person; who is the Author of all Being, and the Fountain of all Power.

II. With This First and Supreme Cause or Father of all Things, there has existed from the Beginning, a Second divine Person, which is his Word or Son.

III. With the Father and the Son, there has existed from the Beginning, a Third divine Person, which is the Spirit of the Father and of the Son.

IV. What the proper Metaphysical Nature, Essence, or Substance of any of these divine Persons is, the scripture has no where at all declared; but describes and distinguishes then always, by their Personal Characters, Offices, Powers and Attributes.

V. The Father (or First Person) Alone is Self-existent, Underived, Unoriginated, Independent; made of None, begotten of None, Proceeding from None.

VI. The Father (or First Person) is the Sole Origin of all Power and Authority, and is the Author and Principle of whatsoever is done by the Son or by the Spirit.

VII. The Father (or first person) Alone, is in the highest, strict, and proper sense, absolutely Supreme over All.

VIII. The Father (or First Person) is absolutely speaking, the God of the Universe; the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God of Israel; of Moses, of the Prophets and Apostles; and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

IX. The scripture, when it mentions the One God, or the Only God, always means the Supreme Person of the Father.

X. Whenever the Word, God, is mentioned in Scripture, with any High Epithet, Title, or Attribute annex’d to it; it generally (if not always) means the Person of the Father.

XI. The Scripture, when it mentions GOD, absolutely and by way of Eminence, always means the Person of the Father.

XII. The Son (or second Person) is not self-existent, but derives his Being or Essence, and all his Attributes, from the Father, as from the Supreme Cause.

XIII. In what particular Metaphysical Manner, the Son derives his Being or Essence from the Father, the Scripture has no where distinctly declared; and therefore men ought not to presume to be able to define.

XIV. They are therefore equally worthy of Censure, who either on the one hand presume to affirm, that the Son was made out of Nothing; or, on the other hand, that He is the Self-existent Substance.

XV. The Scripture, in declaring the Son’s Derivation from the Father, never makes mention of any Limitation of Time; but always supposes and affirms him to have existed with the Father from the Beginning, and before All Worlds.

XVI. They therefore have also justly been censured, who pretending to be wise above what is written, and intruding into things which they have not seen; have presumed to affirm that there was a time when he Son was not.

XVII. Whether the Son derives his Being from the Father, by Necessity of Nature, or by the Power of his Will, the Scripture hath no where expressly declared.

XVIII. The Word or Son of the Father, sent into the World to assume our Flesh, and die for the Sins of Mankind; was not the internal Reason or Wisdom of God, an Attribute or Power of the Father; but a real Person, the same who from the Beginning had been the Word, or Revealer of the Will, of the Father to World.

XIX. The Holy Spirit (or Third Person,) is not Self-existent, but derives his Being or Essence from the Father, (by the Son,) as from the Supreme Cause.

XX. The Scripture, speaking of the Spirit of God, never mentions any Limitation of Time, when he derived his Being or Essence from the Father; but supposes him to have existed with the Father from the Beginning.

XXI. In what particular metaphysical Manner the Holy Spirit derives his Being from the Father, the Scripture hath no where at all defined, and therefore men ought not to presume to be able to explain.

XXII. The Holy Spirit of God does not in scripture generlly signify a mere Power or Operation of the Father, but a real Person.

XXIII. They who are not careful to maintain these personal characters and distinctions, but while they are solicitous (on the one hand) to avoid the errours 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.)

XXIV. The Word, God, in the New Testament, sometimes signifies the Person of the Son.

XXXIII. The Word, God, in Scripture, never signifies a complex Notion of more persons than One; but always means One person only, viz. either the person of the Father singly, or the person of the Son singly.

XXXIV. The Son, whatever his metaphysical Essence or Substance be, and whatever divine Greatness and Dignity is ascribed to him in Scripture; yet in This He is evidently Subordinate to the Father, that He derives his Being and Attributes from the Father, the Father Nothing from Him.

XXXV. Every Action of the Son, both in making the World, and in all other his Operations; is only thr Exercise of the Father’s Power, communicated to him after an ineffable manner.

XXXVI. The Son, whatever his metaphysical Nature or Essence be; yet, in this while Dispensation, in the Creation and Redemption of the Worl, acts in all things according to the Wil, and by the Mission or Authority of the Father.

XXXVII. The Son, how great soever the metaphysical Dignity of his Nature was, yet in the whole Dispensation entirely directed all his Actions to the Glory of the Father.

XXXIX. The reason why the Scripture, though it styles the Father God, and also stiles the Son God, yet at the same time always declares there is but one God; is because in the Monarchy of the Universe, there is but One Authority, original in the Father, derivative in the Son: The Power of the Son being, not Another Power opposite to That of the Father, nor Another Power co-ordinate to That of the Father; but it self The Power and Authority of the Father, communicated to, manifested in, and exercised by the Son.

XLIII. Upon These Grounds, absolutely Supreme Honour is due to the Person of the Father singly, as being Alone the Supreme Author of all Being and Power.

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“The Father Almighty”?

Over the course of this blog, a significant amount of attention has already been given to examining the first clause of the Nicene Creed, which reads “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty…” I have mostly focused on the Creed’s identification of the “one God” with the person of the “Father” in particular- a teaching that is foreign to the formal theology of most Christians today, yet as I have attempted to show, is not only proven from scripture (see Demonstration From Scripture that the One God is the Father in Particular), but was also the ecumenical teaching of the early church for the first few centuries (see I believe in one God, the Father Almighty).

In both the case of scripture and the teaching of the early church, the title “one God” is not applied exclusively to the person of the Father in order to deny the divinity of the Son, Who shares in His Father’s dominion over all things. Rather, scripture, and the early church fathers, styled the Father alone the “one God” because He alone is the supreme uncaused Cause of all, and the supreme Authority and head over all- even over His Son and Spirit.

I have often wondered, however, at the inclusion of the word “Almighty” in the first clause of the Nicene Creed. Why say “Almighty” instead of any other of a host of attributes and perfections we could speak of in relation to God? Why not include His perfection, holiness, justice, goodness, and love? Compared to other systematic treatments of God’s attributes, both prior to and since the Council of Nicea, this would be an extremely abridged treatment of the attributes of God. So why “Almighty” in particular, and why, also, is it included specifically in conjunction with the person of the Father, and not the Son and Holy Spirit?

One answer I recently encountered to these questions comes from Samuel Clarke’s excellent book on the Trinity On the Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity. He suggests that rather than understand the Greek word used for “Almighty” in scripture and the Creed as referring to the essential attribute of God’s unlimited power and ability, it is better understood as referring to ‘supreme authority’.

If this reading is legitimate, it makes sense of the Nicene Creed’s language in particularly associating “Almighty” with the person of the Father. “Almighty” understood in terms of supreme authority would not be an essential attribute proper to a communicable divine nature, but would rather refer to God’s role as supreme head over all things, even over His own beloved and only-begotten Son, and His Holy Spirit. If the word refers not to an attribute of the divine nature, but to the Father’s role as Supreme Authority over all, then it makes perfect sense why it would be included in the first clause of the Nicene Creed as a descriptor of the Father only, and also makes much sense of its usage in scripture.

The New Testament, for example, uses the term “Almighty” nine times, always for the person of the Father in particular. It is never used of the Son or the Holy Spirit. If Clarke’s reading of “Almighty” as a special prerogative of the Father is correct, it makes a lot of sense in light of the way scripture uses the term. The Father alone is the Supreme Authority over all; thus he alone is called “Almighty”.

This explanation seems compelling, and makes more sense than reading “Almighty” in the Nicene Creed as merely being a grossly abridged description of God’s essential attributes. It also fits with the way it is used throughout the scriptures. Further, this understanding is supported by the Greek word for “Almighty” itself- the word literally rendered is ‘ruler over all’. This fact alone seems to confirm Clarke’s assessment, and combined with scripture’s application of this title solely to the Father presents a compelling case that when scripture speaks of the Father “Almighty” it is making reference to His sole and supreme authority over all.

 

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“No other God besides Me”- the Trinity, or the Father?

Isaiah 43:11 and Isaiah 45:5-6 are very similar passages:

“I, even I, am the Lord, And besides Me there is no savior.” Isa 43:11 NKJV

“I am the Lord, and there is no other; There is no God besides Me. I will gird you, though you have not known Me, That they may know from the rising of the sun to its setting That there is none besides Me. I am the Lord, and there is no other;” Isa 45:5-6 NKJV

Arguments For Unitarianism

Hippolytus of Rome on the One God Being the Person of the Father in Particular

Hippolytus of Rome is among the earliest orthodox church fathers to defend classical trinitarianism against classical modalism when it became an issue in the late second and early third centuries. Sabellius himself stayed at Rome; Hippolytus directed his treatise against Noetus, another classical modalist.

Sabellius and Noetus, however, were not bishops, and Sabellius was condemned by council for his heresy. But the church of Rome’s problems with modalism were not over; the bishops of Rome themselves, Popes Zephyrinus and Callixtus, were classical modalists, and for this reason were strongly opposed by Hippolytus.

Hippolytus was elected as a rival bishop of Rome, and continued to oppose the papacy. During a period of peresecution Hippolytus was enslaved and put to hard labor in Roman mines, likely dying as a martyr.

Hippolytus wrote much in opposition to modalism; his teaching the classical doctrine that the one God of the Christian faith is the Father was only a small part of that. On that point he wrote:

“For it is right, in the first place, to expound the truth that the Father is one God, “of whom is every family,” “by whom are all things, of whom are all things, and we in Him.”” Against the Heresy of One Noetus, 3.

“If, therefore, all things are put under Him with the exception of Him who put them under Him, He is Lord of all, and the Father is Lord of Him, that in all there might be manifested one God, to whom all things are made subject together with Christ, to whom the Father hath made all things subject, with the exception of Himself. And this, indeed, is said by Christ Himself, as when in the Gospel He confessed Him to be His Father and His God. For He speaks thus: “I go to my Father and your Father, and to my God and your God.”” Against the Heresy of One Noetus, 6.

With these brief statements Hippolytus adds his name to a long list of early Christian theologians who articulated this scriptural truth. For more quotes on this topic, see I believe in one God, the Father Almighty

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Novatian of Rome on the One God Being the Person of the Father in Particular

Third-century Latin church father Novatian of Rome is not well-known today, but was an important figure in his time. He was an anti-pope, meaning he opposed the bishop of Rome, and was elected as a rival bishop. This caused a lot of controversy, which is not within the scope of this post to explore.

Novatian is noteworthy regardless of other shortcomings he may have had for his small contribution to trinitarian doctrine, in his treatise Concerning the Trinity. In it he elucidates his understanding of trinitarianism. In doing so he argues for both the divinity of Christ and the doctrine that the one God is the person of the Father, and defends the biblical truth that the Father is the one God by showing it is compatible with the doctrine of the Son’s divinity.

Church History

Aphrahat of Assyria On the One God Being the Person of the Father in Particular

Aphrahat of Assyria is not a household name in Western Christianity, but his Demonstrations serve as a valuable window into the theology and practice of the churches of the middle east around the time of the Nicene Council. By the time of the council, the Christian church stretched from Britain in the West to India and China in the East, and had not yet been divided by the later schisms that have left so many churches cut off from one another. In English, at least, it is difficult to find the writings of ante-nicene and Nicene era Christian authors who lived farther East than Persia. Most of those commonly known in the West today come from Europe, North Africa, and the Western edge of the Asian continent. Who knows what excellent theologians may have lived in the ancient churches of India and China, today unknown to later generations.

Aphrahat’s writings prove themselves a rare treat to Western Christians as a chance to peer into the often overlooked but enormous ancient churches of the East, where Syriac, instead of Greek or Latin, was used by the churches.

Aphrahat of Assyria, however far he was geographically from other orthodox fathers we may be familiar with such as Irenaeus of Lyons (modern-day France), was not far from them at all in his theology. Like Irenaeus and the fathers at the Nicene Council, Aphrahat taught that the one God is very same person who is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ:

“For if they worship, and honour with the name of worship, the heathen— those who in their heathen wickedness deny even the name of God — and yet do not worship them as their maker, as though they worshipped them alone, and so do not sin; how much more does it become us to worship and honour Jesus, Who converted our stubborn minds from all worship of vain error, and taught us to worship and serve and minister to the one God, our Father and our Maker. ” (Demonstrations, on Jesus Christ the Son of God)

We see Aphrahat express the classical trinitarian belief that men are brought by the Lord Jesus Christ to the one God, Who is our Father and Creator. The one God is not to Aphrahat the Trinity conceived of as though it were a single person, but rather the one God is explicitly the person we know as Father, to Whom the Lord Jesus Christ stands in relation as His only-begotten Son, and the Holy Spirit as His Spirit.

Aphrahat’s belief on this important point of doctrine stands in agreement with both scripture and the teaching of other orthodox fathers of the ante-nicene and nicene eras, as can be see here: I believe in one God, the Father Almighty

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