Significant Changes in Homoousian Creeds in the Post-Nicene Era

The ‘Homoousian’ fathers were those church fathers who during the trinitarian controversies of the fourth century favored the Greek word ‘homoousias’, to describe the relationship of the Son to the Father. This word was employed in this manner by the Nicene Creed, and was highly controversial. To understand why the word was controversial we must first understand that it was a philosophical term not understood the same way by everyone.

Secondly we must note that its meaning prior to the trinitarian controversies of the fourth century was effectively equivalent to the modern English word “being”. Just as “being” in English can  be used in significantly different ways, to indicate either a nature/genus, or an individual (such a “human being”), so ‘ousia’ could be understood to indicate an individual, or a nature shared by many individuals. Therefore, when initially introduced to theological discussion, the word “ousia” was actually used to indicate an individual, with Sabellius, an early classical modalist, using the term ‘homoousias’ (same ousia) to say that the Father and Son were the same person. Similarly, Paul of Samosata used the term ‘homoousias’ to portray the Son as a part of the Father’s person, and thus the same person, or ‘homoousias’. This idea, and the word itself, were therefore condemned by church council, which rather proclaimed that Christ was ‘heteroousias’ or a different ousia, that is, in this usage, a distinct person.

When the Nicene Council used the term to describe the Son’s relationship to the Father, it was intended by its authors to be understood differently. Now, instead of ‘ousia’ indicating person, it was intended to indicate nature. Athanasius and the Nicene Council intended the word as used in the Creed to communicate that the Son of God, as His true Son and not merely a creature, shares His Father’s divine nature, and has the same divine nature as He. Thus ‘homoousias’ was intended to mean ‘same nature’, not ‘same person’ as heretics had previously used it.

While the intention behind the Nicene council’s use of the word was a good and orthodox one, changing the way the word was being used, and using a word that had been condemned as heretical, understandably resulted in widespread controversy, with the vast majority of Eastern bishops opposing the usage of the word for these reasons. They initially proposed the term ‘homoiousias’ instead, meaning “like ousia”; this was largely motivated not by thinking that the Son’s nature was not the same as that of the Father, but out of concern that saying the Son was the same ousia would be to say that the Son was the same person; therefore, they would declare that the person of the Son was like the person of the Father by the term ‘homoiousias’. They agreed that the Son had the same divine nature as the Father, but viewed ousia the same way it had previously been used, as equivalent to person. Therefore, it was blatantly modalistic in their thinking.

To add further difficulty, some of those who supported the Nicene Creed and use of the word ‘homoousias’ actually did intend it in a modalistic way, such as Marcellus of Ancyra, who was condemned for teaching modalism. The heretical usage of the term, therefore, was by no means a thing of the past. Just as many homoousian bishops, therefore, suspected those who rejected the term of Arian tendencies, the majority of orthodox Eastern bishops likewise suspected those who favored ‘homoousias’ of modalism.

With all these difficulties surrounding the terminology of ‘ousia’, which is not used in scripture, it is easy to see why eventually the church opted to give up the language of ‘ousia’ altogether and simply say that the Son was “like” (homoi) the Father. This likeness was understood to include that the Son had the same divine nature as the Father, although He is a distinct person from Him. This language prevailed for some twenty years until emperor Theodosius I purged the church of bishops who would not accept ‘homoousias’, and insisted that the Nicene formula be the lone confession of the church. After these decisions were made by the emperor without the consent of the church, the emperor called the council of Constantinople in 381 to make his decision official for the church, those who disagreed with his decision not being allowed to participate.

The church was now wholly homoousian, and things quickly went in a modalistic direction, although this was not how men like Athanasius and Hilary of Poitier had intended the word. By observing Creeds accepted by the homoousians after 381, we can see how things changed over the next few decades.

Whereas the first two ‘homoousian’ creeds, those of Nicea in 325 and Constantinople in 381, had both shared in common that they began by acknowledging “one God, the Father Almighty”, this important first article of the faith quickly disappears from later Creeds and confessions, despite the fact that this is not only the language and teaching of scripture, but was also the clear teaching of the ante-nicene fathers (see I believe in one God, the Father Almighty).

That the one God is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, His only-begotten Son, is an important point of Christian doctrine, and an integral part of classical trinitarianism as taught by scripture and witnessed to by the early church. But both due to semi-modalism’s emphasis on the “one essence”, or one divine nature shared by the persons as “one God”, as well as the association of the doctrine that ‘the one God is the Father in particular’ with Arianism, which had blended that scriptural truth with its errors, later Homoousian theologians greatly de-emphasized the church’s historic belief that the one God is the person of the Father in particular. Thus when we come to these creeds, we find a very lacking trinitarianism, and something that cannot be considered classical trinitarianism at all.

First let us examine an excerpt from the decision of the Council of Rome held in the same year as that of Constantinople, 381:

“If anyone shall think aright about the Father and the Son but does not hold aright about the Holy Ghost, anathema, because he is a heretic, for all the heretics who do not think aright about God the Son and about the Holy Ghost are convicted of being involved in the unbelief of the Jews and the heathen; and if anyone shall divide the Godhead, saying that the Father is God apart and the Son God, and the Holy Ghost God, and should persist that they are called Gods and not God, on account of the one Godhead and sovereignty which we believe and know there to be of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost -one God- or withdrawing the Son and the Holy Ghost so as to suggest that the Father alone is called God and believed in as one God, let him be anathema…

…This is the salvation of the Christians, that believing in the Trinity, that is in the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, and being baptized into the same one Godhead and power and divinity and substance, in Him we may trust.”

Much could be said on this. Let us note that there is a failure to identify the Father as the one God. The idea of doing so is mentioned only in respect to doing so in denial of the Son and Spirit’s divinity, which is condemned; yet that He is the one God, even while His Son and Spirit share His divine nature and have the same divine nature, is not explained. Not only is this significant change noteworthy, but we see that in place of the traditional grounding of monotheism, namely, the person of the Father as the one supreme uncaused Cause of all and one Supreme Authority over all, the grounding of monotheism is innovated to be the one common divine nature the persons share, and one lordship over creation They share (see Why Are We Monotheists?). Additionally, this is the among the earliest instances of a singular personal pronoun (“Him”) being used for the Trinity as a whole, or for the single divine nature the persons share; such language betrays the semi-modalism of the council.

In the previous centuries Rome had been home to multiple modalist bishops, such as Callixtus. Sabellius had been at Rome, as had Noetus. One must wonder from this and following developments if Rome ever truly supported an orthodox understanding of ‘homoousias’, or if they accepted it so readily during the fourth century controversies as a convenient way to express their own native modalism. Certainly this would not be the last step that Rome took to lead the church away from classical trinitarianism to semi-modalism, as the papal anti-christ later officially redefined the concept of co-essentiality in a semi-modalistic way in the Fourth Lateran Council.

Next we see the Creed of the First Council of Toledo (400 AD):

“1. We believe in one true God, Father and Son and Holy Spirit, creator of that which is visible and invisible, through whom everything in heaven and on earth was created.

2. This one God also has one divine name – the Trinity.

3. The Father is not the Son, but he has the Son, who is not the Father.

4. The Son is not the Father, but is by nature the Son of God.

5. Also the Spirit is the Paraclete, who himself is neither the Father nor the Son, but proceeds from the Father.

6. Therefore the Father is unbegotten, the Son begotten, the Paraclete not begotten, but is proceeding from the Father

7. It is the Father whose voice is heard from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”

8. It is the Son who said, “I came forth from the Father and I came into this world from God.”

9. It is the Paraclete himself about whom the Son said, “Unless I go to the Father, the Paraclete will not come to you.”

10. This Trinity is distinct in persons, of one substance, virtue, power and undivided majesty, unable to be differentiated.

11. Besides him there is no one else with a divine nature, neither angel nor spirit nor anything else of excellence which one ought to believe to be God.

12. Therefore, this Son of God, being God, born from the Father before everything, the beginning of all, made holy the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary and assumed true humanity from her without procreation through a man’s seed,

13. that is, the Lord Jesus Christ.

14. His body was neither imaginary nor did it merely have form but had substance.

15. And so he had hunger and thirst and suffered pain and wept and felt every kind of bodily hurt.

16. In the end he was crucified, died and was buried, and rose on the third day;

17. afterwards he spoke with his disciples;

18. he ascended to heaven on the fortieth day.

19. This Son of Man is also named the Son of God; however, the Son of God is God and should not be called a son of man.

10. We truly believe in the resurrection of the human body.

21. However the soul of man is not a divine substance or a part of God, but rather a creation which by divine will is imperishable.

Anathemas:

1. Therefore if anyone should say or believe that this world was not made by the omnipotent God and his instruments, let him be anathema.

2. If anyone should say or believe that God the Father is himself the Son or the Paraclete, let him be anathema.

3. If anyone should say or believe that God the Son is himself the Father or Paraclete, let him be anathema.

4. If anyone should say or believe that the Paraclete, the Spirit, is either the Father or the Son, let him be anathema.

5. If anyone should say or believe that the human Jesus Christ was not assumed by the Son of God, let him be anathema.

6. If anyone should say or believe that the Son of God as God suffered, let him be anathema.

7. If anyone should say or believe that the human Jesus Christ, as a human, was incapable of suffering, let him be anathema.

8. If anyone should say or believe that there is one God of the Old Testament and another of the Gospel, let him be anathema.

9. If anyone should say or believe that the world was made by another God that by the one of whom it is written, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” let him be anathema.

10. If anyone should say or believe that the human body will not rise after death, let him be anathema.

11. If anyone should say or believe that the human soul is a part or substance of God, let him be anathema.

12. If anyone should say or believe that there is another Scripture than that which the Catholic Church accepts or believes to be held as authoritative or has venerated, let him be anathema.” (Translated by GLT and PSAM- source )

Here we see again that the first article of the faith is neglected, and in its place, the Trinity is identified as the one God of Christianity. Rather than identifying the one God with the Father as scripture does, the one God is given the name “Trinity”. Modalism is ostensibly avoided by declaring that the Father, Son, and Spirit are not each other; the issue of making Them out to be a single person, which is the heart of the modalist heresy, is not directly addressed.

Signs of semi-modalism can be found in this Creed, but it is not as explicit as other authors such as Augustine make it. In points 10-11 of the Creed, we see the Trinity get identified as a “him”; which serves to illustrate that when the Trinity is made out to be the one God, conceiving of it as a person is soon to follow, for it is obvious that the one God is a person. The misidentification of the this person with the Trinity as a whole, rather than as the person of the Father as scripture reveals, is heterodox, and indicative of semi-modalism.

Was Arianism Ever Really A Serious Threat to the Church?

As we examined in Athanasius Contra Mundum? and Homoian Creeds, much of the common popular modern narrative of the church in the fourth century being overrun by Arian bishops and emperors, with only Athanasius standing in the gap against the onslaught of heresy, is not historically accurate. Certainly, Athanasius played an important role in the trinitarian controversies of the fourth century, and there is much good he contributed. He was certainly one of the strongest and most relentless opponents of Arianism, and enjoyed good success against it. But at no point was the church truly overrun by Arianism, nor were there any emperors who accepted Arius’s teaching or would be willing to call themselves Arian. Rather, we observed, a great many church councils in the decades following Nicea which met to deal with trinitarian issues, often overseen by an emperor, fully and unequivocally rejected and condemned Arianism.

This strong rejection, however, did not keep them from getting labeled ‘Arian’ and semi-arian by their more radical counterparts, the minority of bishops committed to the Nicene articulation of the Trinity and especially the word “homoousias’. When we seek to understand the so-called semi-arians, we see that they did not accept Arianism at all, but rather received this derogatory label for their opposition to the word ‘homoousias’- a word which they rejected not because they supported Arianism, which they strongly condemned, but because the word was feared to carry a modalistic meaning. Thus the reaction against the Nicene articulation is best seen not as pro-Arian but anti-homoousian. As we saw in the previous posts mentioned, this led the church at large to find other ways to articulate the same doctrine of the Trinity which Nicea sought to communicate, but in different language which would not be so easily misunderstood.

Understanding this provides us with a much different view of the immediate post-nicene church than is often presented; rather than Arianism running rampant and enjoying both political and theological ascendency, it was roundly condemned by all but a small minority of actual Arians.

The so-called Arian councils, then, were mostly not really Arian. The homoiousian and homoian councils held after Nicea rejected Arianism strongly. We cannot then, on the basis of any historical evidence, conclude that Arianism at its most successful in the Roman empire was but a minority of quickly condemned individuals in the fourth century church. Whats more, it did not even truly flourish prior to Nicea, as some have presented the matter.

Prior to Nicea, Arius began the controversy by accusing his bishop, Alexander of Alexandria, of teaching modalism. Arius began espousing his heresy in response, and was quickly condemned, not just by the church in Alexandria, but by a regional synod which represented the broader African churches. When Arius did not experience success there, he and his small group of associates traveled elsewhere, and were condemned elsewhere. In 325, the year the council of Nicea met, another council met prior to Nicea in Syria which had broad representation of bishops from Syria and the surrounding regions. This council of Antioch condemned Arianism strongly, and called those bishops who supported Arius to repentance. Arius and his followers, then, had already been formally condemned and excommunicated by large portions of the church before the council of Nicea ever even met. When it did meet, the entire church condemned Arius and his heretical teachings. From this we see that Arianism never truly flourished in the established churches of the Roman empire, for as we have discussed above already, the church’s rejection of his false teaching continued through the post nicene era.

One must wonder why then is Arianism so frequently presented as having flourished, and gained ascendency? A brief search of the internet will have you believe that prior to Nicea, Arianism spread throughout the church like wildfire, and that after Nicea nearly the entire Roman empire and the churches within it were unashamedly Arian; and yet the historical evidence, not the least of which are the creeds composed by the church during this era, show that this was not at all the case. Why do so many throughout history since find it important to label so much of the trinitarian teaching of the fourth century church “Arian” when it could not be more explicitly opposed to Arianism?

It would be easy to wonder if this is not in large part because while the councils of the mid-fourth century were not Arian, they were not semi-modalists either. They confess classical trinitarianism in their Creeds, the same trinitarianism we can find in the writings of the Ante-Nicene fathers, and in the holy scriptures themselves. They never make the persons of the Trinity out to be a single person, and didn’t use the term ‘homoousias’, that would later be redefined by the semi-modalists to support their heresy (see The Grievous Error of the Fourth Lateran Council). The Nicene creed the semi-modalists could twist; but the Macrostich leaves them no room to bring in their false teaching. One must wonder how much this motivates them to label the one orthodox and the other Arian, even though they both teach the same exact doctrine.

Whatever the motivation for the popular narrative is, it has indeed been effective at hiding a large portion of the fourth century church’s official teaching on the Trinity from the majority of Christians for a long time. A person cannot learn Arianism from the Macrostich, the Creed of Sirmium of 351, or the Homoian Creed; but they will learn classical trinitarianism, as the scriptures teach, from such statements of faith. One must wonder then how much the attack on such Creeds and their authors really comes from opposition to Arianism, versus how much is motivated by an opposition to classical trinitarianism itself.

While the real threat Arianism itself posed to the church, then, can be seen to actually have been relatively small, it has done far more damage than perhaps most realize. Arianism never threatened to become the dominant theology of the church; but in a much more indirect way, it has done unspeakably great damage nonetheless. This is because Arianism can really be seen as a catalyst that aided in the widespread acceptance semi-modalism in place of classical trinitarianism in the post-nicene era. Arianism was and is constantly painted as a sort of theological boogeyman, lurking in the dark shadows of church history, which anyone we disagree with on christology must surely be in very near danger of falling into, even if they are not.

By painting Arianism as the opposite end of the spectrum from semi-modalism, any move away from semi-modalism, however legitimate it may be, is easily painted as a move in the direction of Arianism, even when no tenet of Arianism is accepted. Classical trinitarianism in the fourth century can be labeled “semi-arian”, and therefore be so completely discredited that no one will seriously consider that it just might be what scripture teaches. In truth, without the largely imaginary threat of Arianism, semi-modalism may have never have experienced the success it has, for the fear of Arianism was a great factor in its success.

The continued existence of Arianism outside the bounds of the Roman empire among the barbarian tribes of Europe only further strengthened these fears in the post-nicene era, allowing Arianism to continually be painted as a serious threat for centuries to come, especially in the western churches. Such fear is can be a powerful tool in pushing people all the way to the opposite end of the theological spectrum, running them away from Arianism right past orthodoxy and into error in the opposite direction, semi-modalism.

Arianism’s acceptance and emphasis of certain doctrinal elements of classical trinitarianism (such as the Father being the “one God”, see I believe in one God, the Father Almighty and Why Are We Monotheists?) served to successfully stigmatize these points of doctrine in such a way that while the church never officially rejected them, they have been greatly de-emphasized from Christian doctrine. This has left holes in the church’s trinitarianism, where important parts of classical and biblical trinitarianism have been left out, and not without dire consequences. Moving forward this left the church with a mutilated trinitarianism, or really, semi-modalism (see Semi-modalism as the Greatest Problem Facing the Church Today).

Because of the role Arianism has played in semi-modalism’s success, it is important for the church to treat the history of Arianism more realistically. Arianism is undoubtedly a great evil and a damnable heresy, but the way its history gets distorted by semi-modalists to promote their own false teaching must be recognized. The church will also greatly be helped by learning from the orthodox fathers of the fourth century who did not accept ‘homoousias’ and yet believed and taught classical trinitarianism using other modes of expression. Finally and most importantly we must not allow Arianism’s acceptance of certain points of biblical doctrine cause us to reject them on the grounds of that association. All heresy blends truth with error, and Arianism is no different. If we allow that blending to cause us to reject part of the truth, we have given the Devil a victory despite our rejection of Arianism.

Samuel Clarke on Why Classical Trinitarianism is Not Tritheism

(From Clarke’s answer is recorded in the the fourth edition of Samuel Clarke’s Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity and Related Writings.)

Objection. “Three Divine Beings––must needs be conceived as Three Gods, notwithstanding any Subordination of the Second and Third Being to the First; or else we must free the Pagan World from the Absurdity of Polytheism, and the Guilt of Idolatry; these being generally, if not always, founded upon a Subordination of many Deities to the One Supreme.”

Answer. The Difference between Christianity and Paganism, is This. The Pagans acknowledged many FALSE (fictitious) Gods, and many FALSE (fictitious) Lords: On the contrary, Christians acknowledge the One TRUE God, and only One TRUE Lord or Mediator. There are (saith St. Paul) that are called, (that is, there were feigned by the Heathens,) Gods many, and Lords many; But to Us [Christians,] there is but One God, [viz.] the Father, Of whom are all things; and One Lord, [viz.] Jesus Christ, By whom are all things. Now to say, that besides the One True God, there cannot be also One True Lord or Mediator; is an Argument, not against my Scheme in particular; but ’tis the Argument which Deists use, (with what Reason, I have elsewhere shown,) against Christianity in general. Or to say, that there is also indeed One True Lord or Mediator, but that That One True Lord is the same Individual with the One True God; What is This, but to affirm in other Words, that the One Lord Jesus Christ, BY whom are all things, is the One God, the Father, OF whom are all things? Which is overturning the Apostle’s whole Argument, and introducing an absolute Confusion of Persons. Our One God, says the Apostle, is the Father: If then the One Lord, Jesus Christ, be That One God, whom the Apostle defines to be the Father, of whom are all Things; is not this expressly affirming that the Son is the Father? Than which, nothing can be more hard to understand, or to reconcile with the whole Doctrine of Scripture.

But why must Three Divine Beings, of Necessity be conceived as Three Gods? One God, the Almighty Father; and One Lord, the Only-begotten Son of That Almighty Father; and One Holy Spirit of God, the Spirit of That Almighty Father; are in our Creed represented to us as Three distinct Agents: And yet they are no more Three Gods, than they are Three Almighty Fathers, which is (according to the Creed) the Definition of God. One God, to whom Mediation is made; and One Mediator, making intercession for us to That One God, (which is St. Paul’s manner of speaking;) are no more Two Gods; than an Advocate with the Father, and the Father with whom that Advocate is, (which is St. John’s manner of expressing the same thing,) are Two Fathers. One Spirit, One Lord, One God and Father of all, who is above all; are by the Apostle represented to us, as Three distinct Agents: And yet they can no more truly be said to be Three Gods, than Each of them singly, (or than All of them together,) can be truly said to be The God and Father of All, who is Above All; Which is the Apostles Definition of the One Supreme God. Three perfectly co-ordinate, and equally Supreme Persons or Agents, (whatever Distinctness, or whatever Unity of Nature be supposed between them,) must of Necessity be conceived to be Three Gods, that is, Three Supreme Independent Governors of the Universe; because the proper Notion of God in Scripture, and in natural Reason also, as to all moral and religious Regards, is his being absolutely (greek word), Supreme Ruler over All, and (greek word), (Eph. iv. 6.) the Father or Author of all things: But, This Character being preserved entire, no other Power whatsoever ascribed or communicated to other Agents or Persons, can justly cause us to conceive more Gods than One. How and in what Sense the Son, though he be not That One God and Father of All, who is above All, may yet truly and properly be stiled God; has been largely explained in the foregoing Papers.

But now on the other side, if the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be conceived to be All but One Individual Being; it follows of Necessity that the Son and Holy Spirit have no Being at all; Which is an insuperable Difficulty in This learned Author’s (the author of the work wherein the objection was made against Clarke) Scheme. For if each of these Characters belong to One and the same Individual Being; and the Father Alone be (as is acknowledged) That Whole Being; it follows evidently that the Son and Holy Spirit, either are Themselves The Father, (which he is not willing to allow;) or else have no real Being, no Existence at all, but can only be Modes, Powers, Characters, or different Denominations of That One Supreme, that One Simple and Uncompounded Being, which is the Father of All. The plain Consequence of which is, that our Mediator and Redeemer is only a Mere Man, in whom God the Father manifested himself after an extraordinary manner and that the Holy Spirit is nothing but a mere Virtue or Operation of the Father. Which Notion, how much soever it may be defended, as an Hypothesis, by bare Reason, (as may be seen in the Socinian Writers;) yet I can by no means see how it is to be reconciled with what is taught in Scripture. Besides: Since this Learned Writer always supposes his own Scheme, to be the same and That which from the Time of the Forth Century has been stiled Orthodox; it deserves to be remarked on the contrary, that by his plainly making the Son to be, not (greek word), but (greek word) with the Father, that is, One and the same Individual Being; his Affection in reality appears to be the same with that, which from before the Days of Photinus to the Times of the Schoolmen, has by the Council of Nice, and all following Councils been condemned as Heterodox.

 

 

Athanasius Contra Mundum?

Jerome’s famous quip “Athanasius versus the world” has been echoed throughout church history as a dramatic characterization of the Arian controversy, in which Athanasius became the sole defender of orthodoxy amid a church that had been given over to Arianism, and was ruled over by Arian emperors. Indeed, Jerome’s imagination cannot be blamed too much for this summary, as Athanasius himself presents his situation as something close to that throughout his writings. According to Athanasius, Arianism was a widespread heresy that deceived at times the bulk of the church. Athanasius is looked back upon as one who alone had the wisdom to see through Arian attempts to subvert the church through ambiguous creedal wording, who insisted despite the odds that the word “homoousias” must be accepted to describe the relation of the Son to the Father as the only possible safeguard against the rampant heresy.

And yet while Athanasius was certainly orthodox in his theology and effective in his efforts to rid the church of Arianism, we must question the validity of some points of this popular narrative. Among the most glaringly odd things in this narrative, as told by Athanasius in his own writings, were the myriad synods held by the Arians after the council of Nicea in which they rejected the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity and proclaimed their faith. While Athanasius treats the councils that met and Creeds they composed after Nicea as Arian, other orthodox authors such as Hilary of Poitiers, who likewise favored the “homoousian” articulation of the Trinity and rejected Arianism, did not view these most of these synods as such. Rather, Hilary saw the majority of these synods as orthodox, even though they often eschewed the controversial term “homoousias” (see Hilary of Poitiers on Correct and Incorrect Understandings of Co-essentiality).

The historical facts appear different when we look at more than merely Athanasius’s recounting of events. When we actually observe the many councils held in the decades following Nicea, we see that the many church fathers assembled at these councils did not accept Arianism at all, but rather condemned it just as strongly as the council of Nicea had. They did, however, often reject the word “homoousias”, as the word was associated with modalism, and so favored other expressions to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity.

The substance of their doctrine, however, was no different than that held by the orthodox homoousian fathers; the Son was acknowledged to be of exactly the same divine nature as the Father, and co-eternal with Him. They simply wished to express their belief in classical trinitarianism without using the controversial word “homoousias” -a word which was ultimately not necessary to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity orthodoxly (this fact is most clearly demonstrated by the fact that scripture teaches the doctrine of the Trinity without the word, and most of the pre-Nicene fathers were also able to accurately articulate their beliefs on the Trinity without employing the word). Correctly understood as fathers like Athanasius and the Council of Nicea intended it, the word ‘homoousias’ could be helpful in articulating classical trinitarianism; but the word proved to be too confusing, and was ill understood by the majority of Christians. Its meaning was ambiguous, and allowed for other meanings than that intended by men like Athanasius and Hilary.

Because of this most synods held after the council of Nicea during the Arian controversy avoided the term; in Athanasius’s eyes, this made them Arian. But this opinion is not supported by truth, as these councils took great pains to show that they rejected Arianism, explicitly condemning it, and teaching the doctrine of the Trinity as the church in previous centuries had; without the word ‘homoousias’. Among these councils were that of Antioch in 345, and the Council of Sirmium in 351.

Athanasius’s willingness to at times label everyone who would not articulate the doctrine of the Trinity in exactly the same words as he as “Arian” reveals him to have really been a bit of a radical; the vast majority of the church supported using more traditional language, while still believing the same orthodox doctrine. He slanderously labeled large assemblies of bishops who rejected Arianism and embraced orthodoxly just as strongly as he did as “Arian”, as well as emperors who rejected Arianism. Understandably, neither the church nor these emperors appreciated this; thus we may find that “Athanasius versus the world” was indeed true, but was more self-inflicted than it is usually made out to be. Athanasius did not face widespread opposition because of widespread support for the Arian heresy, but because he was himself a radical who insisted that everyone who rejected the wording he favored was an Arian.

Homoian Creeds

In the midst of the raging Arian controversy, much was made of the Greek word ‘ousia’; the pro-Nicene Homoousian bishops, such as Athanasius arguing that the Son must be confessed as ‘homoousias’ (of the same essence) with the Father, and the conservative majority of bishops favoring instead the term ‘homoiousias’ (like in essence) to describe the relationship of the Son to the Father.

Both terms can be understood identically to mean that the Son’s essence is identical to and equal with that of the Father; the point of such emphasis was to declare the true divinity of the Son over and against Arians, who argued that the Son was merely a creature. Both the Homoousian and Homoiousian bishops held the opposite term in suspicion; those who favored ‘homoiousias’ rejecting ‘homoousias’ as a modalistic term which implied that the Son was the same person as the Father, as Sabellius had used it, while the Homoousians rejected ‘homoiousias’ as too vague of a term that would ultimately allow moderate Arians to agree with the church’s confession. Thus the church of the fourth century was strongly divided over these modes of expression.

Into the mix came a more moderate proposition which quickly gained widespread acceptance; that the highly controversial philosophical terminology of ‘ousia’ ought to be abandoned altogether, in favor of using scriptural expressions to describe the relationship of the Son to the Father. Instead of using philosophical terms that were not understood the same way by all parties, and were difficult for the average Christian to understand, these bishops urged that instead the Son ought to simply be described as being “like” the Father, as scripture says. These bishops readily confessed that the Son was of the same divine nature as the Father, thus granting what the Homoousians ostensibly wanted to signify by the term, as well as what the orthodox Homoiousians intended to signify by the term.

These bishops were labeled “Homoians” by their opponents; from the Greek word “homoi”, meaning “like”. They argued that the best course was to describe the Trinity in the same terminology as scripture did, and that it was prudent to eschew the language of “ousia” altogether, instead describing the Son’s co-divinity with the Father in other language, as the scriptures and the pre-Nicene church fathers had successfully done.

The Homoian description of the Son as “like” the Father is shown completely accurate upon examination; the person of the Son is not entirely identical to the person of the Father, as the Son is distinguished by His personal properties from the Father; namely, the Son is begotten of the Father, whereas the Father is entirely unbegotten and uncaused. The Son, however, is the “image of the invisible God” and “like” the Father because as the only-begotten Son of God He eternally has the same divine nature as the Father. By confessing that the Son is “like the Father is all things” with the exception of the Father’s personal properties, they confessed that the Son had the same divine nature as the Father, since likeness in “all things” must necessarily include divinity.

After the eventual political success of the Homoousian party, the Homoians and the councils in which they expressed their beliefs were slandered as being Arian, down to our own time. This label is completely inaccurate; the Creeds composed by the “Homoians” expressly reject Arianism, as is proven from their own statements below. They simply express classical orthodox trinitarianism without using the word ‘homoousias’, as scripture also does.

The first Creed to examine is the Macrostich (or long-lined) Creed composed by the Council of Antioch in 345. The authors of the Creed took great pains to ensure that they excluded Arianism entirely, as can be seen from their own words, in which, just as the Nicene Creed did, they reject the tenets of Arianism that the Son was a creature and that He was not eternal with the Father. Likewise, they express their belief in the co-divinity of the Son with the Father:

“We believe in one God the Father Almighty, the Creator and Maker of all things, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named.

And in His Only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ, who before all ages was begotten from the Father, God from God, Light from Light, by whom all things were made, in heaven and one the earth, visible and invisible, being Word and Wisdom and Power and Life and True Light, who in the last days was made man for us, and was born of the Holy Virgin, crucified and died and was buried, and rose again from the dead on the third day, and was taken up into heaven, and sat down on the right hand of the Father, and is coming at the consummation of the age to judge the living and the dead, and to render to everyone according to his works; whose kingdom endured unceasingly unto all the ages; for He sits on the right hand of the Father, not only in this age, but also in that which is to come.

And we believe in the Holy Ghost, that is, the Paraclete, which, having promised to the apostles, He sent forth after the ascension into heaven, to teach them and to remind of all things; through whom also shall be sanctified the souls of those who sincerely believe in Him.

But those who say that the Son was from nothing, or from other subsistence and not from God; and that there was a time or age when He was not, the catholic and holy church regards as aliens. Likewise those who say that there are three Gods, or that Christ is not God, or that before the ages He was neither Christ nor Son of God, or that Father and Son or Holy Ghost are the same, or that the Son is ingenerate, or that the Father begat the Son not by choice or will: the holy and catholic church anathematizes.

1. For neither is it safe to say that the Son is from nothing, (since this is no where spoken of Him in divinely inspired Scripture,) nor again of any other subsistence before existing beside the Father, but from God alone do we define Him genuinely to be generated. For the divine Word teaches that the Ingenerate and Unbegone, the Father of Christ, is One.

2. Nor may we, adopting the hazardous position, ‘There was once when He was not,’ from unscriptural sources, imagine any interval of time before Him, but only the God who has generated Him apart from time; for through Him both times and ages came to be. Yet we must not consider the Son to be co-unbegun and co-ingenerate with the Father; for no one can be properly called Father or Son of one who is co-unbegun and co-ingenerate with Him. But we acknowledge that the Father who alone is unbegun and ingenerate, has generated inconceivably and incomprehensibly to all; and that the Son has been generated before ages, and in no wise to be ingenerate Himself like the Father, but to have the Father who generated Him as His beginning; for ‘the head of Christ is God’ (1 Corinthians 11:3).

3. Nor again, in confessing three realities and three persons, of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost according to the Scriptures, do we therefore make Gods three; since we acknowledge the self-complete and ingenerate and unbegun and invisible God to be one only, the God and Father (John 20:17) of the Only-begotten, who alone has being from Himself, and alone vouchsafes this to all others bountifully.

4. Nor again, in saying that the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is one only God, the only ingenerate, do we therefore deny that Christ also is God before ages; as the disciples of Paul of Samosata, who say that after the incarnation He was by advance made God, from being made by nature a mere man. For we acknowledge, that though He be subordinate to His Father and God, yet, being before ages begotten of God, He is God perfect according to nature and true, and not first man and then God, but first God and then becoming man for us, and never having been deprived of being.

5. We abhor besides, and anathematize those who make a pretence of saying that He is but the mere word of God and unexisting, having His being in another – now as if pronounced, as some speak, now as mental – holding that He was not Christ or Son of God or mediator or image of God before ages; but that He first became Christ and Son of God, when He took our flesh from the virgin, not quite four hundred years ago. For they will have it that then Christ began His kingdom, and that it will have an end after the consummation of all and the judgment. Such are the disciples of Marcellus and Scotinus of Galatian Ancyra, who, equally with Jews, rejected Christ’s existence before ages, and His Godhead, and unending kingdom, upon pretence of supporting the divine monarchy. We, on the contrary, regard Him not as simply God’s pronounced word or self, and Son of God and Christ, being and abiding with His Father before ages, and that not in foreknowledge only, and ministering to Him for the whole framing whether of things visible or invisible. For it is He to whom the Father said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’ (Genesis 1:26), who also was seen in His own person by the patriarchs, gave the law, was spoken by the prophets, and at last became man and manifested His own Father to all men, and reigns to never-ending ages. For Christ has taken no recent dignity, but we have believed Him to be perfect from the first and like in all things to the Father.

6. And those who say that the Father and Son and Holy Ghost are the same, and irreligiously take the three names of one and the same reality and person, we justly proscribe from the Church, because they suppose the illimitable and impassible Father to be also limitable and passable through His becoming man. For such are they whom Romans call Patripassians, and we Sabellians. For we acknowledge that the unchangeable Godhead and that Christ who was sent fulfilled the economy of the Incarnation.

7. And at the same time those who irreverently say that the Son has been generated not by choice or will, thus encompassing God with a necessity which excludes choice and purpose, so that He begat the Son unwillingly, we account as most irreligious and alien to the Church; in that they have dared to define such things concerning God, beside the common notions concerning Him, so, beside the intention of divinely inspired Scripture. For we, knowing that God is absolute and sovereign over Himself, have a religious judgment that He generated the Son voluntarily and freely. Yet, as we have a reverent belief in the Son’s words concerning Himself (Proverbs 8:22), ‘The Lord created me a beginning of His ways for His works,’ we do not understand Him to have been originated like the creatures or works which through Him came to be. For it is irreligious and alien to the ecclesiastical faith, to compare the Creator with handiworks created by Him, and to think that He has the same manner of origination with the rest. For divine Scripture teaches us assuredly and truly that the Only-begotten Son was generated sole and solely. Yet, in saying that the Son is in Himself, and both lives and exists like the Father, we do not on that account separate Him from the Father, imagining place and interval between their union in the way of bodies. For we believe that they are united with each other without mediation or distance, and that they exist inseparably. All the Father encompassing the Son, and all the Son hanging and adhering to the Father, and alone resting on the Father’s breast continually. Believing then in the all-perfect triad, the most holy, that is, in the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and calling the Father God, and the Son God, yet we confess in them, not two Gods, but one dignity of Godhead, and one exact harmony of dominion, the Father alone being head over the whole universe wholly, and over the Son Himself, and the Son subordinated to the Father; but, excepting Him, ruling over all things after Him which through Himself have come to be, and granting the grace of the Holy Ghost unsparingly to the saints at the Father’s will. For that such is the account of the Divine Monarchy towards Christ, the sacred oracles have delivered to us.

Thus much, in addition to the faith before published in epitome, we have been compelled to draw forth at length, not in any officious display, but to clear away all unjust suspicion concerning our opinions among those who are ignorant of our affairs; and that all in the West may know, both the audacity of the slanders of the heterodox, and as to the Orientals, their ecclesiastical mind in the Lord, to which the divinely inspired Scriptures bear witness without violence, where men are not perverse.”

Notice that Christ is described as “God of God” and as sharing “one dignity of Godhead” with the Father. That there is any difference between the Father and Son in time is explicitly denied, as is the notion that the Son is a creature. Arianism, Modalism, and tritheism are all rejected explicitly by this so-called “Arian” council. It should be obvious therefore to anyone with a knowledge of actual Arianism that this council cannot possibly be considered Arian. Rather, in the Macrostich we find one of the best statements of classical trinitarianism produced in the fourth century.

The Macrostich, however, was by no means the only Council of the fourth century to express its belief in classical trinitarianism in a “Homoian” manner; the Council of Thrace in 359 authored the following statement:

“We believe in one only true God, Father Almighty, of whom are all things. And in the only-begotten Son of God, who before all ages and before every beginning was begotten of God, through whom all things were made, both visible and invisible; alone begotten, only-begotten of the Father alone, God of God; like the Father that begat Him, according to the Scriptures, whose generation no one knows except only the Father that begat Him. This only-begotten Son of God, sent by His Father, we know to have come down from heaven, as it is written, for the destruction of sin and death; begotten of the Holy Ghost and the virgin Mary, as it is written, according to the flesh. Who companied with His disciples, and when the dispensation was fulfilled, according to the Father’s will, was crucified, died and was buried, and descended to the world below, at whom Hell himself trembled. On the third day He rose from the dead and companied with His disciples forty days. He was taken up into Heaven, and sits on the right hand of His Father, and is coming at the last day of the Resurrection, in His Father’s glory, to render to everyone according to his works. And we believe in the Holy Ghost, which the only-begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ, both God and Lord, promised to send to man, the Comforter, as it is written, the Spirit of Truth. This Spirit He Himself sent after He had ascended into Heaven and sat at the right hand of the Father, from there to come to judge both the living and the dead.

But the word ‘substance,’ which was too simply inserted by the Fathers, and, not being understood by the people, was a cause of scandal through its not being found in the Scriptures, it has seemed good to us to remove, and that for the future no mention whatever be permitted of the ‘substance’ of the Father and the Son. Nor must one ‘essence’ be named in relation to the person of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. And we call the Son like the Father, as the Holy Scriptures call Him and teach; but all the heresies, both those already condemned, and any, if such there be, which have risen against the document thus put forth, let them be anathema.”

We see here the anathemas of earlier councils upheld, and thus, Arianism is excluded.

The Council of Selucia in the same year wrote:

“We decline not to bring forward the authentic faith published at the Dedication at Antioch; though certainly our fathers at the time met together for a particular subject under investigation. But since ‘coessential’ and ‘like-in-essence,’ have troubled many persons in times past and up to this day, and since moreover some are said recently to have devised the Son’s ‘unlikeness’ to the Father, on their account we reject ‘coessential’ and ‘like-in-essence,’ as alien to the Scriptures, but ‘unlike’ we anathematize, and account all who profess it as aliens from the Church. And we distinctly confess the ‘likeness’ of the Son to the Father, according to the Apostle, who says of the Son, ‘Who is the image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1:15)

And we confess and believe in one God, the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.

And we believe also in our Lord Jesus Christ, His Son, generated from Him impassibly before all the ages, God the Word, God from God, Only-begotten, Light, Life, Truth, Wisdom, Power, through whom all things were made, in the heavens and on the earth, whether visible or invisible. He, as we believe, at the end of the world, for the abolishment of sin, took flesh of the holy virgin, and was made man, and suffered for our sins, and rose again, and was taken up into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and is coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

We believe also in the Holy Ghost, which our Savior and Lord named Paraclete, having promised to send Him to the disciples after His own departure, as He did send; through whom He sanctifies those in the Church who believe, and are baptized in the name of Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

But those who preach anything beside this faith the catholic Church regards as aliens. And that to this faith that is equivalent which was published lately at Sirmium, under sanction of his religiousness the Emperor, is plain to all who read it.”

That Creed of the Council of Sirmium in 359 reads as follows:

“The catholic faith was published in the presence of our master, the most religious and gloriously victorious Emperor, Constantius, Augustus, the eternal and august, in the consulate of the most illustrious Flavii, Eusebius and Hypatius, in Sirmium on the eleventh of the Calends of June

We believe in One only and true God, the Father Almighty, creator and framer of all things.

And in one only-begotten Son of God, who, before all ages, and before all origin, and before all conceivable time, and before all comprehensible essence, was begotten impassibly from God; through whom the ages were disposed and all things were made; and Him begotten as the only-begotten, only from the only Father, God from God. Like to the Father who begat Him, according to the Scriptures; whose origin no one knows save the Father alone who begat Him. We know that He, the only-begotten Son of God, at the Father’s bidding came from the heavens for the abolishment of sin, and was born of the virgin Mary, and conversed with the disciples, and fulfilled the Economy according to the Father’s will, and was crucified, and died and descended into the parts beneath the earth, and regulated the things there, whom the gate-keepers of hell saw (Job 38:17) and shuddered; and He rose from the dead the third day, and conversed with the disciples, and fulfilled all the Economy, and when the forty days were full, ascended into the heavens, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and is coming in the last day of the resurrection in the glory of the Father, to render to everyone according to his works.

And in the Holy Ghost, whom the only-begotten of God Himself, Jesus Christ, had promised to send to the race of men, the Paraclete, as it is written, ‘I go to my Father, and I will ask the Father, and He shall send unto you another Paraclete, even the Spirit of truth He shall take of mine and shall teach and bring to your remembrance all things’ (John 14:16, 17, 26, 16:14)

But whereas the term ‘essence,’ has been adopted by the Fathers in simplicity, and gives offence as being misconceived by the people, and is not contained in the Scriptures, it has seemed good to remove it, that it be never in any case used of God again, because the divine Scriptures nowhere use it of Father and Son. But we say that the Son is like the Father in all things, as also the Holy Scriptures say and teach.”

The authors of this Creed too are slandered as Arians by their opponents; yet they explicitly reject Arianism, and no Arian could agree with the words quoted above. The eternality of the Son, and His divinity, are clearly stated; and if it is Arianism only to not use the word “homoousias” then the Apostles must also have been Arians, seeing as they expressed their belief in the Trinity without the word. But in truth, as can be seen from these statements of faith, the word ‘homoousias’ is not necessary for an accurate expression of what scripture teaches, and classical trinitarianism does not suffer without it. Semi-modalists, however, cannot do without it, for without the word to twist their entire false scheme of doctrine is taken away, and they are left only with three persons of the Trinity, the ousia no longer being given them to make into a fourth person.

In the year 360 we have a Creed from the Council of Constantinople:

“We believe in one God, Father Almighty, from whom are all things.

And in the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from God before all ages and before every beginning, by whom all things were made, visible and invisible, and begotten as only-begotten, only from the Father only, God from God, like to the Father that begat Him according to the Scriptures; whose origin no one knows, except the Father alone who begat Him. He as we acknowledge the only-begotten Son of God, the Father having sent Him, came here from the heavens, as it is written, for the undoing of sin and death, and was born of the Holy Ghost, of Mary the virgin according to the flesh, as it is written, and conversed with the disciples, and having fulfilled the whole Economy according to the Father’s will, was crucified and died and was buried and ascended to the parts below the earth, at whom hades itself shuddered; who also rose from the dead on the third day, and abode with the disciples, and forty days being fulfilled, was taken up into the heavens, and sits on the right hand of the Father to come in the last day of the resurrection in the Father’s glory, that He may render to every man according to his works.

And in the Holy Ghost, whom the only-begotten Son of God Himself, Christ, our Lord and God, promised to send to the race of man, as Paraclete, as it is written, ‘the Spirit of truth’ (John 16:13), which He sent to the them when He had ascended into the heavens.

But the name of ‘essence,’ which was set down by the Fathers in simplicity, and, being unknown by the people, caused offense, because the Scriptures do not contain it, it has seemed good to abolish, and for the future to make no mention of it at all; since the divine scriptures have made no mention of the essence of Father and Son. For neither ought ‘subsistence’ to be named concerning Father, Son and Holy Ghost. But we say that the Son is like the Father, as the divine Scriptures say and teach; and all the heresies, both those which have been already condemned, and whatever are of modern date, being contrary to this published statement, be they anathema.”

If then, all the previously condemned heresies are equally condemned by this council, what will those say who wish to portray every council other than those of Nicea and Constantinople in 381 as Arian? How can Arianism, which is condemned in so many of these councils, be excluded from such a statement which says that all previously condemned heresies are likewise condemned by this council? The subterfuge then that this statement is Arian will not hold; rather we must ask, what motivates one to try to label it so? What do they fear in such councils which condemn Arianism, that they must be pretended to be Arian, so as to stigmatize them and hide their teaching from the eyes of the church?

It is a clever tactic of the semi-modalists to turn away the eyes of the church from such statements of classical trinitarianism, lest the church recognize that the absurd philosophizing of the scholastics is neither biblical nor necessary, and that the doctrine of the Trinity can be stated biblically without them. Such statements are neither paradoxical, nor excessively complicated and impossible for the average Christian to understand, but describe the faith we know from scripture in the language of scripture.

But while these statements, the products of several assembles of very many bishops from all over the world, are hidden away from the church under the label of “Arian” (although they all condemn the Arian heresy), these semi-modalists insist rather that we should accept the so-called “Athanasian Creed”, a statement as ambiguous in its meaning as it is in its authorship, both of which are unknown. Yet this private composition, written in the middle ages and paraded around under the name of a man who never read it, is insisted on as a doctrinal standard of trinitarianism, while these many statements which have the actual authority of many bishops and churches behind them, whose authors are known, are rejected without cause.

The church will be benefitted greatly by learning from these simple confessions, and from recognizing that the true faith can just as easily exist without needing to talk of the “essence” and “substance” of the persons of the Trinity. So long as the orthodox meaning of such expressions as “homoousias” is accepted, and it is understood and believed that God’s Son and Holy Spirit share the same divine nature as He, what difference does it make what combination of words is used to express these truths? For it is not the words themselves which matter, but the thing indicated by them.

Source for Creeds: http://www.fourthcentury.com/conciliar-creeds-of-the-fourth-century/

 

Were the Homoiousians Right?

“Homoi-ousias”, which means “like essence” was the Greek word favored by the conservative majority of bishops during the Arian controversy of the fourth century to describe the essential relationship between the Son and the Father. It was put forward as a suggested alternative to the word employed by the Council of Nicea “Homo-ousias”, which means “same essence”, and to the Arian term “Heteroousias”, meaning “different essence”. As Hilary of Poitiers explains in De Synodis (see Hilary of Poitiers on Correct and Incorrect Understandings of Co-essentiality), both ‘Homoiousias’ and ‘Homoousias’, when understood in an orthodox fashion, mean the same thing. If the Son and Father have the same divine nature, or essence, as scripture teaches, then certainly “homoousias” is a fitting word; yet likewise, saying that the Son is like the Father in His essence, meaning, that He is exactly like the Father in His essence, or identical to Him, as can be indicated by “homoiousias”, means the same thing.

But both of these words (as nearly all words do) have a variety of possible meanings; they can each be taken in multiple different ways. For this reason, they were not always meant or understood in an orthodox fashion in the Nicene controversy; both words had ways they could be understood that are heretical. ‘Homoiousias’ allowed for moderate Arians to accept the term because ultimately saying that the Son is of ‘like essence’ with the Father can be taken either as ‘exactly alike’ (which is orthodox), or merely ‘similar, with minor differences’ (which is Arian). For this reason the pro-Nicene, and thus pro-‘homoousian’ minority frequently leveled the charge against the homoiousians that they were semi-arian (even while many of them, ultimately, were not).

Likewise “homoousias” could also be taken in a heretical way, in a modalistic fashion, in which “same essence” was not intended to mean that the Father and Son were distinct persons who shared a common divine nature, but rather that the Father and Son were somehow one subsistent or personal thing.

“Essence” or Greek ‘ousia’ in general was not spoken of nearly as much in the pre-nicene era; it was once the Nicene Council introduced ‘homoousias’ into the Creed that the alternative ‘homoiousias’ became popular. Why? Because not only was it possible to misunderstand ‘homoousias’ in such a way that it would mean that the Father and Son were ultimately a single person, but the word actually already had a history of being used that way by the time of the Arian controversy. Thus, many orthodox bishops desired another term to use.

“Homoousias” was associated with Sabellius, an early modalist, and was also used by later ante-nicene modalist Paul of Samosata. The local council which condemned his teaching as heretical actually condemned the word “homoousias” as heretical, as well, on the basis of its modalistic usage. For this reason when this word which had a strong association with modalism, and tendency to be understood in a modalistic way, was employed by the Nicene Council, many of the church fathers at the time objected, although the orthodox ‘Homoousian’ fathers made efforts to explain to orthodox meaning of the word which they intended to communicate by it.

Eventually, with much explaining, “homoousias”, despite the grave concern by many that the word was modalistic, won the day, eventually being accepted at the Council to Constantinople in 381. “Homoiousias” came to be associated with the “semi-arians”, and eventually with Arianism at large, as time went on, in large part thanks to the polemics of semi-modalists in centuries following. From the time of the Nicene controversy onward, it has been a popular polemic against anyone not favorable term ‘homoousias’ to label them as being in some way Arian, even when the difference is merely one of terminology and not meaning.

However, this language of the Son being “homoousias” with the Father did not take long to again take on an ultimately modalistic meaning, as semi-modalism redefined the entire concept of consubstantiality which the word stood for to mean that the Father and Son were ultimately a single person, “God the Trinity”. Such redefining can be seen in the Fourth Lateran Council, as well as in the influential writings of Augustine (see Augustine’s Trinitarian Heresy). The concept of co-essentiality was twisted to no longer mean that the persons of the Son and Holy Spirit have the same divine nature as the Father, but rather to say that the Father, Son, and Spirit are all one subsistent thing, or person. Thus a term that had indicated generic unity, or identicality of nature, was now altered to indicate that the three persons of the Trinity were numerically one, or one person.

Those homoiousian Christians of the fourth century then, as well as those who favored the term “homoian” (which sought to leave the unscriptural term “essence” or “ousia” out of the discussion altogether, and merely confess that the Son is “like” the Father) were ultimately vindicated in their misgivings about the term “homoousias”. They protested it for fear it was Sabellian- that was its history, and it was worried that it would again be taken in such a way in the future. The Homoiousians and Homoians (who were slandered as being Arian by the Homoousian minority) were right; this is exactly what happened.

Although they are often slandered for their misgivings about the word, the Homoian and Homoiousian bishops of the fourth century have ultimately been vindicated in respect to their distrust of the word ‘homoousias’. The very thing they warned could happen did, in the post-nicene era.

While homoousian consubstantiality, as intended by its original authors such as Athanasius, is entirely orthodox, it introduced a shift in emphasis from the persons of the Trinity to the divine nature They share, and an emphasis on this one divine nature being the “one God” of Christianity. Perhaps in overreaction to Arianism, Homoousian Christians eventually gave up the confession that the one God is the Father, and instead emphasized the divine nature as Christianity’s one God.

This shift in language was doomed to result in semi-modalism. In scripture, the “one God” is always a person, and such is the natural way to think of God: as personal. Scripture, however, as the early church did, specifies that this one God is the person of the Father in particular; the Son is His Son, the Holy Spirit, His Spirit (see I believe in one God, the Father Almighty). By shifting the focus onto the essence as the one God of Christianity, Homoousian Christians in the post-nicene era doomed the church to fall into thinking of the essence as a person, therefore, since the one God is a person. Using what was ultimately the title of a single person for the divine nature shared by all three persons led to natural confusion, and what we see down to the present day, a personifying of the divine nature as a fourth person in the Trinity (see Semi-modalism and the Introduction of a Four-Person Trinity).

The homoousians didn’t merely pioneer this change in language, but emphasized conceptually that monotheism depended on the fact that there is one divine nature shared by the persons of the Trinity. While this fact is true, the unity of God does not depend on the fact that there is one divine nature, but on the fact that there is one Father, one supreme uncaused Cause of all, and Supreme Authority over all. For in the case of three men there is also a unity of nature, one human nature being common to all human persons; yet all human persons are not one man, but many men. And besides, even the fact that the persons all share one divine nature is dependent on the person of the Father, since He is in Himself the very definition of that divine nature, without cause or source; and yet is Himself the Source of that divine nature to His Son and Spirit, as They have the divine nature from the Father in eternal generation and procession, respectively.

This emphasis, then, on the divine nature as the unity of God, instead of the Father, has proven detrimental throughout the many centuries since. Semi-modalism easily grows out of such an emphasis, because, as mentioned above, three persons merely being of one nature does not make them “one God”, any more than three men being of one human nature makes them one man. If then, this unity of nature is insisted on as the explanation of Christian monotheism, is necessarily must be altered to mean something beyond a mere unity of nature: a unity of person. To deny the charge of tritheism on the basis of a Nicene understanding of co-essentiality alone is impossible; therefore, since the classical grounding of monotheism was abandoned, the new one developed was to redefine co-essentiality to mean not merely that the three persons share one essence, but are one “being”; a vague term, which, in fact, ends up being conceptually equated with person (see also Equivocation Over the Term “Person”).

Because this is recognized as modalistic to treat the three persons as one person, the language of the three being one “person” was never embraced by the church broadly; yet conceptually, that is what co-essentiality has been redesigned to signify in the post-nicene understanding. Accordingly, the response of those committed to a post-nicene scholastic redefinition of co-essentiality, as can be seen in the Fourth Lateran Council (see The Grievous Error of the Fourth Lateran Council), is to accuse those articulating a classical understanding of co-essentiality of being tritheists, failing to recognize that the grounding of Christian monotheism is not that the Son and Spirit of God share His divine nature (although this is true), but that there is one supreme uncaused Cause of all, Who is one Supreme Authority over all, the Father (see Why There is Only One God: One Supreme Cause and Why There is Only One God: Headship).

It was not, therefore, the emphasis on the persons of the Trinity sharing one essence, or one divine nature, that was the fatal flaw of homoousian theology, so to speak, but the Homoousians’ emphasis of this unity of nature as the grounding of Christian monotheism, combined with the abandonment of the classical grounding of Christian monotheism. This unbiblical shift led directly into the widespread acceptance of semi-modalism, to the destruction of the classical trinitarianism the original Homoousians contended for.

Arianism, with its emphasis on the Father’s role as the one God, the supreme uncaused Cause of All, and the Supreme Authority over all, served as a catalyst for this change, as these ideas naturally became associated with a heretical Christology. The result of this was important aspects of classical trinitarianism being divided up between Arianism and the Homoousians; the Arians emphasizing the Father as the one God, and ground of monotheism, and the Homoousians emphasizing the co-divinity of the persons of the Son and Holy Spirit with the Father. While Arians always rejected the Homoousian emphasis, initially Homoousian Christians accepted the Arian emphasis as an aspect of orthodox trinitarianism. But as time went on, Arian association with these ideas led to a de-emphasizing of these concepts in Homoousian theology, although they were never actually repudiated. Arianism can thus be argued to have done more damage to the cause of classical trinitarianism by stigmatizing elements of classical trinitarianism by association with its heresy than it did by actually promulgating a heretical Christology, which over the scheme of history has ultimately not been successful in maintaining a large following. But by attacking the classical trinitarian doctrine of the Son and Spirit’s co-divinity with the Father, Arianism enticed the church to over-react in the opposite direction by overemphasizing the doctrine of co-essentiality to the eclipsing of other elements of classical trinitarianism.

The first cracks in Homoousian theology can be seen within its first generation, which accepted the classical trinitarian doctrines that the Father is the one God, the supreme uncaused Cause of all, and the Supreme Authority over all, as they shifted emphasis from these doctrines to the fact that the Son and Spirit share the Father’s divine nature. In order to emphasize the truth of the Son and Spirit’s co-essentiality with the Father, otherwise orthodox Homoousian theologians began twisting scripture to read it as speaking of the divine nature, rather than the person of the Father, in certain passages; the first intimations of the semi-modalism that would sweep the church in the following generations.

For example, Athanasius wrote:

“For what is nearer [God] than the Cherubim or the Seraphim? And yet they, not even seeing Him, nor standing on their feet, nor even with bare, but as it were with veiled faces, offer their praises, with untiring lips doing nought else but glorify the divine and ineffable nature with the Trisagion. And nowhere has any one of the divinely speaking prophets, men specially selected for such vision, reported to us that in the first utterance of the word Holy the voice is raised aloud, while in the second it is lower, but in the third, quite low,—and that consequently the first utterance denotes lordship, the second subordination, and the third marks a yet lower degree. But away with the folly of these haters of God and senseless men. For the Triad, praised, reverenced, and adored, is one and indivisible and without degrees (ἀσχηματιστός). It is united without confusion, just as the Monad also is distinguished without separation. For the fact of those venerable living creatures (Isa. vi.; Rev. iv. 8) offering their praises three times, saying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy,’ proves that the Three Subsistences443 are perfect, just as in saying ‘Lord,’ they declare the One Essence.” (Athanasius, On Luke 10:22)

Ambrose of Milan, of the first generation of post-nicene Homoousians, similarly wrote:

“Dominations and powers fall down before Him — you speak evil of His Name! All His Saints adore Him, but the Son of God adores not, nor the Holy Spirit. The seraphim say: Holy, Holy, Holy! Isaiah 6:3

107. What means this threefold utterance of the same name Holy? If thrice repeated, why is it but one act of praise? If one act of praise, why a threefold repetition? Why the threefold repetition, unless that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are one in holiness? The seraph spoke the name, not once, lest he should exclude the Son; not twice, lest he should pass by the Holy Spirit; not four times, lest he should conjoin created beings [in the praise of the Creator]. Furthermore, to show that the Godhead of the Trinity is One, he, after the threefold Holy, added in the singular number the Lord God of Sabaoth. Holy, therefore, is the Father, holy the Son, holy likewise the Spirit of God, and therefore is the Trinity adored, but adores not, and is praised, but praises not.” (Ambrose of Milan, De Fide, Book 2, Chapter 12)

Both Athanasius and Ambrose explain the vision of Isaiah 6 as pertaining to the whole Trinity, instead of the Father, as can be understood from the parallel passage in Revelation 4 (see Examining Scripture: The “Lord God Almighty” of Revelation Chapter 4). They both read a Homoousian understanding of the Trinity -with its supreme emphasis on the unity of the divine nature- into the passage, explaining the three repetitions of “Holy” as indicating the three persons, and the singular “Lord God” as indicating the singular essence, or divine nature. This interpretation is seriously flawed, choosing to forcibly insert Homoousian theology into scripture where it is not spoken of, contrary to the interpretation offered in the New Testament in Revelation 4 which clarifies this as referring to the person of the Father, “the Lord God Almighty,” alone.

What may also be noted here is that although both Ambrose and Athanasius usually avoid treating the Trinity as a person (unlike later generations of Homoousian theologians), by making this strained interpretation of the passage in order to seemingly provide more biblical support for Nicene trinitarianism, they fall into regarding the Trinity as a single person; for the vision in Isaiah 6 clearly treats the “Lord God” on the throne not as an impersonal essence, as the divine nature considered in abstract is, but as a person, who speaks to Isaiah and sends him as a prophet.

By taking passages of scripture that refer to a single person of the Trinity and saying they speak of the essence, the groundwork for future semi-modalism was laid, which would blatantly treat the essence or Trinity as a whole as a person. Although this misinterpretation can be regarded as a relatively minor mistake on its own, it would be amplified into a completely different theology by later theologians, such as Augustine of Hippo (see Augustine vs. Athanasius on the Identity of the “One God”).

Does the Name ‘LORD’ Being Applied to Multiple Persons of the Trinity Mean They Are All Really One Person?

Semi-modalism is a false doctrine which teaches that God is a person who is three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This belief is as unbiblical as it is absurd; for a general treatment of it see Modalism has evolved and Semi-modalism and the Introduction of a Four-Person Trinity.

A very common line of thinking for semi-modalists and those deceived by them makes an attempt to present a biblical case for the doctrine, which runs as follows: The LORD is the God of the Bible, the one and only God; The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are all each called by the name “LORD”; therefore, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are together all really the one person named ‘LORD’, Who is simultaneously the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

This simple syllogism seems at first glance to present a genuinely biblical case for semi-modalism; but the argument breaks down when we examine it in detail. A major assumption of the argument is that there is ultimately only one person called by the name ‘LORD’; this assumption is easily shown false. The scriptures use the name ‘LORD’ for multiple distinct persons without ever indicating that this is meant to indicate that They are collectively a single person; in fact to draw such a conclusion is to import one’s own idea into scripture without any warrant from the text.

Rather than teaching that the Father and Son are called by the same name ‘LORD’ because They are somehow together a single person, scripture explains this sharing of God’s name with His Son in the following terms:

“I am no longer in the world; and yet they themselves are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one even as We are.” (John 17:11 NAS)

“While I was with them, I was keeping them in Your name which You have given Me; and I guarded them and not one of them perished but the son of perdition, so that the Scripture would be fulfilled.” (John 17:12 NAS)

“For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name,” (Philippians 2:9 NAS)

“[the Son] having become as much better than the angels, as He has inherited a more excellent name than they.” (Hebrews 1:4 NAS)

These passages of scripture clearly teach that the Father, Who scripture alone calls the “one God”, gave the Son His own name. This is not the name “Father”, but the name which is described as being “above every name”. Those even a little familiar with the supreme glory ascribed to the Covenant name of God, “LORD”, in the Old Testament scriptures should be able to instantly know which name this refers to. The name “LORD” is this name the Son was given by the Father, to which every knee shall bow.

It is fitting that the Son should share in the glory of the Father’s name, when we consider His identity as His eternal Son, Who eternally reflects His glory in His own distinct person, eternally being of the very same divine nature as the Father, because He is from the Father. Just as the Son is God of the same divinity as the Father, yet not without cause, but owes His divinity to His origin from the Father by eternal generation, and received it from the Father (John 5:26), so also accompanying this the Son has even received the very name of God, “LORD”, from His Father, to be called by it as His own name.

For this reason, we not only see the New Testament apply Old Testament verses that refer to a person named “LORD” in reference to the Son, but even throughout the Old Testament we can clearly see the pre-incarnate Son called by this name; repeatedly the Angel of the LORD is called “LORD” Himself, even while He is clearly distinguished from the LORD in heaven, whose Messenger (or Angel; the Hebrew word is the same for both) He is. Thus as the church fathers pointed out, we read in Genesis 19:24 that “Then the LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven,” (NAS); we clearly see the distinct persons of both the Father and the Son being called by the same name “LORD”.

The syllogism employed by the semi-modalists is shown false then, on the grounds of its faulty assumption that the name “LORD” belongs to one person only. For although it belongs properly to the Father, the one God, as His own name, scripture reveals to us that He has bestowed this same glorious name on His own only-begotten Son as well.