Words and phrases usually have a pools of meaning, encompassing several related ideas, and having multiple definitions. Like other terms, the phrase “one God” gets used a few different ways, and its helpful to distinguish between those different uses. In this article I’d like to take a moment to distinguish between three different uses of the phrase “one God”, the first two being legitimate, and the last illegitimate:
- The first and primary signification of the phrase “one God” is for a person, the person Who is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Nicene Creed uses the phrase this way, saying “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things…” This is the same way scripture uses the phrase, as can be seen explicitly from such passages as Eph 4:4-5 and 1 Cor 8:6, which says “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.” (NAS). There is much to say on this topic, but in giving a mere definition here we have said enough.
- The secondary signification of the phrase “one God” is for the divine nature considered in abstract. This usage is not found in the scriptures, but is compatible with it. The word “God” is sometimes used as a name for the divine nature; therefore, another way of speaking of the singular divine nature is “one God”. This language was popularized by the orthodox fathers such as Athanasius during the Nicene era when much emphasis was placed on the Son and Spirit possessing a nature exactly identical with that of the Father. This language is not illegitimate but can sometimes be unhelpful, in part because of the confusion caused by the third usage of the term.
- The third and illegitimate signification of the phrase “one God” is for the Trinity as a whole/the divine nature considered as a person. This usage can be seen in Augustine’s exposition of semi-modalism and has been popular with semi-modalists since. This usage combines the first two definitions and by confusing the categories of person and essence, and uses the phrase to signify an essence that is conceived of as a person who is three persons.
We must recognize that it is natural for man to consider God, the one God, as a person. We know that he is a rational individual, not merely an abstract idea of divinity. The one God, man naturally understands, is a person, with real existence, Who can be interacted with, receiving prayer and worship, and giving response. The one God judges, acts, creates, etc.
An abstract idea of the divine nature, on the other hand, does not act, think, or have any real existence; it is merely an idea of something that only finds real existence in persons. We can relate to and interact with the one God; and this is always the way scripture treats the matter as well. Therefore we naturally understand that this phrase is first and foremost proper to God’s person, and only secondarily to His nature considered in abstract (thus the primary and secondary definitions).
But scripture also makes it clear that not only do we relate to and interact with this one God in some vague way, but that we relate to Him in particular as our Father; and as one Who is eternally the Father of one only-begotten Son, Who send forth His Spirit speaking by the mouths of prophets. The problem that is the third definition arises when men stop using the phrase according to its primary and biblical meaning. When it is instead applied primarily to the essence, the divine nature which exists in the persons considered in abstract, it is understandable that this is then wrongly conceived of as a person; for as we have said, all men know the one God is a person. If then, that title is taken from the Father by some, and given only to the divine nature, it is only then natural that men will begin to regard that nature as a person.
And there perhaps we have the conceptual origins of semi-modalism; as men began to think of the one God as an essence that existed in three persons, they began applying the properties of personhood to that essence, since they knew that the one God is a person, and to be treated as such.