Self-Sustained Existence vs Self-Caused Existence

Discussions of “self-existence” have historically been important to the debates surrounding trinitarian doctrine. That “self-existence” is an attribute of God, all parties agree. However, sharp disagreements have occurred over how this attribute of “self-existence” related to things like eternal generation.

Some have argued that since it is proper to the divine nature that the subject be self-existent, therefore, eternal generation cannot be true, since this teaches that the Son has His origin from the Father (such as many modern Protestants). Other have tried to modify the doctrine of eternal generation to attempt to say that the Son has His person from the Father in eternal generation, while rejecting the historical orthodox view that the Son also has His essence communicated to Him from the Father in eternal generation (such as Calvin, and others in the Reformed tradition who followed him). Others have ventured to deny the Son the attribute of self-existence since He is derived from the Father, having both His person and nature from the Father, in eternal generation (such as Samuel Clarke).

All of these explanations fall short because they all make the same error of not distinguishing between two distinct ideas in respect to self-existence: self-caused existence, and self-sustained existence. This distinction is both necessary logically, and proved by scripture. The distinction between these ideas should be a fairly straightforward one; there is a difference between being uncaused and being self-sustained in one’s existence.

We are told in scripture that not only did God create all things through His Son, but that He also upholds and sustains the existence of all things through His Son. For example, Colossians 1:17, speaking of Christ says “He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” (NAS). Similarly Hebrews 1:3 says “who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,” (NKJV). We see then that the existence of all creation is upheld by God through His Son; the implication being that the created universe is not self-existent. We would drop out of existence were it not for God’s continual and perpetual upholding of our existence by His own power through His Son.

The Son, however, is contrasted with creation in this way by scripture. Unlike we who must have our lives continually upheld and sustained by God, the Son is said to have “life in Himself”; self-sustained existence. Yet in the same passage of scripture that we are explicitly told that the Son has “life in Himself” we are also told that He does not have this quality from nothing, or without cause or origin, but from His Father:

“For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself,” (John 5:26 NKJV)

The Son then is taught by scripture to have self-sustained existence, life in Himself, just as the Father does. He has this divine attribute from the Father, however, showing that He does not have “self-existence” in terms of having an uncaused or self-caused existence, but has His existence, and even the quality of self-sustained existence, from the Father. Incidentally, this also proves that the essence of the Father, that is, His divine nature, was given to the Son in eternal generation, as He has this divine attribute, not merely His person, from the Father. Thus a communication of essence in eternal generation is proven in this important passage.

But the main thing to note here is that when scripture speaks of the Son’s self-existence, that revelation is given to us in such a way as to make clear that what is intended is not uncaused or self-caused existence, but self-sustained existence. Thus, as Christ has life and existence in Himself, He is able to give life to us men, according to the will of the Father.

The term “self-existence”, then, without further clarification and qualification, is unhelpful to these discussions. By not properly distinguishing between the distinct ideas of self-caused or uncaused existence, and self-sustained existence, the issue is over-simplified and the ideas are confounded in such a way that error inevitably ensues.

On a related note, self-caused or uncaused existence is not even a divine attribute; the Father’s attribute of having uncaused existence is not a matter of what He is, and thus, an aspect of His divine nature, but a matter of how He is what He is- He is what He is without cause or source. The Son is the same thing, meaning, He has the same divine nature, yet the “how” is different for the Son; He is what He is from the Father, while the Father is what He is from none. The point being, uncaused of self-caused existence is not a property of the divine nature, but a relational property belonging to the Father alone.

This stands in stark contrast to self-sustained existence, which does deal with ‘what’ the persons are, and is a positive attribute. As such it is proper the divine nature, and thus shared by all three persons, the Father having that quality of none, and the Son and Holy Spirit possessing it of the Father by eternal generation and procession, respectively.

Does the Submission of the Son to the Father Contradict the Notion that He has “one will” with the Father?

The authoritative headship of the Father over the Son was an important point of doctrine frequently emphasized by the fathers of the ante-nicene and Nicene eras. It was viewed by them as a clear teaching of scripture, and an important aspect of the doctrine of the Trinity. For example:

“I shall give you another testimony, my friends, from the Scriptures, that God begot before all creatures a Beginning, [who was] a certain rational power [proceeding] from Himself, who is called by the Holy Spirit, now the Glory of the Lord, now the Son, again Wisdom, again an Angel, then God, and then Lord and Logos; and on another occasion He calls Himself Captain, when He appeared in human form to Joshua the son of Nave (Nun). For He can be called by all those names, since He ministers to the Father’s will…” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 61)

“XVII. If any man says that the Lord and the Lord, the Father and the Son, are two Gods because of the aforesaid words: let him be anathema. For we do not make the Son the equal or peer of the Father, but understand the Son to be subject. For He did not come down to Sodom without the Father’s will, nor rain from Himself but from the Lord, to wit, by the Father’s authority; nor does He sit at the Father’s right hand by His own authority, but because He hears the Father saying, Sit on My right hand.

51. The foregoing and the following statements utterly remove any ground for suspecting that this definition asserts a diversity of different deities in the Lord and the Lord. No comparison is made because it was seen to be impious to say that there are two Gods: not that they refrain from making the Son equal and peer of the Father in order to deny that He is God. For, since he is anathema who denies that Christ is God, it is not on that score that it is profane to speak of two equal Gods. God is One on account of the true character of His natural essence and because from the Unborn God the Father, who is the one God, the Only-begotten God the Son is born, and draws His divine Being only from God; and since the essence of Him who is begotten is exactly similar to the essence of Him who begot Him, there must be one name for the exactly similar nature. That the Son is not on a level with the Father and is not equal to Him is chiefly shown in the fact that He was subjected to Him to render obedience, in that the Lord rained from the Lord and that the Father did not, as Photinus and Sabellius say, rain from Himself, as the Lord from the Lord; in that He then sat down at the right hand of God when it was told Him to seat Himself; in that He is sent, in that He receives, in that He submits in all things to the will of Him who sent Him. But the subordination of filial love is not a diminution of essence, nor does pious duty cause a degeneration of nature, since in spite of the fact that both the Unborn Father is God and the Only-begotten Son of God is God, God is nevertheless One, and the subjection and dignity of the Son are both taught in that by being called Son He is made subject to that name which because it implies that God is His Father is yet a name which denotes His nature. Having a name which belongs to Him whose Son He is, He is subject to the Father both in service and name; yet in such a way that the subordination of His name bears witness to the true character of His natural and exactly similar essence.” (De Synodis, Quoting and commenting on the decision of the Council of Sirmium against Photinius)

“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.” (The Macrostich)

That the Son is subordinate to the Father as His Head is important as an aspect of Christian monotheism (see Why There is Only One God: Headship). There is only one God because there is only one supreme uncaused Cause of all, and one Supreme Authority over all -the Father. If the Son were equal to the Father in authority, and not under His headship, there would be two Supreme Authorities over all, and on that grounds, two Gods. The scriptural truth that “God is the head of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:3) is important then to how scripture teaches us that there is only one God.

Yet this teaching has come under fire in recent years. The argument leveled against this patristic and scriptural doctrine is that the Son cannot “submit” to the Father because this implies that They do not have the same will. In order for the Son to submit to the Father, it is argued, He must have a will contrary to His Father. Such a teaching, it is argued, goes against the historic doctrine that the persons of the Trinity share a common will.

For many this line of argument seems convincing, a good enough reason to jettison a view held by the early church. Yet upon close examination, this argument is shown to be seriously flawed.

Firstly, the argument hinges upon an assumption that in order for there to be submission of the Son to the Father, the persons must have conflicting wills. This assumption is unwarranted; the Son submits to the Father willingly, and as being in agreement with His Father, and thus having “one will” with Him. We can even borrow from human analogy; if a man tells his son to do something, and his son loves his father and delights to do whatever his father says, his son will happily and willingly submit to his father. This sort of willing submission is precisely how the church fathers described the submission of the Son to the Father. For example Hilary of Poitiers, as quoted above, refers to it as “the subordination of filial love”.

Secondly it is noteworthy that the fathers of the early church also acknowledged that the persons of the Trinity share one will, and yet in their view, this was in no way contradictory to the Son’s subordination to the Father as His Head.

“Reverting to the Scriptures, I shall endeavour to persuade you, that He who is said to have appeared to Abraham, and to Jacob, and to Moses, and who is called God, is distinct from Him who made all things,—numerically, I mean, not [distinct] in will. For I affirm that He has never at any time done anything which He who made the world—above whom there is no other God—has not wished Him both to do and to engage Himself with.” (Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho)

Here we see the way the Justin understood the Son’s subordination to the Father, and the Father and Son sharing “one will” fitting together; far from being contradictory, in Justin’s view we see the truth that the Son does not have a distinct will from the Father manifested in the Son’s perfect submission to the Father. It is His submission to the Father in which we see the Son’s perfect agreement with Him, as the Son willingly “ministers to the will of the Father” in “the subordination of filial love”.

If we are going to insist that the fathers are wrong on this point, especially in light of so much clear scriptural support for their position, we ought to have some good reason to do so. The fact is, we do not. The Son’s submission to the Father is a willing submission, grounded in the Son’s relationship to the Father as Son, stemming from His eternal generation.

Here a further distinction is worth noting, already mentioned in passing above, which yields further clarity. The persons of the Trinity possess one will in that They are each in perfect agreement with each other; each person, however, distinctly possesses the power of will. Thus the Father wills to send the Son and the Son wills to be sent; the Father wills to create through the Son, and the Son wills to be the Father’s instrument in the creation of the world. The perfect agreement and harmony between the persons renders the will “one”, similarly to how we see many distinct persons in the early church being described as “Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.” (Acts 4:32 NKJV).

This is contrasted with the view of those who conceive of the Trinity as a whole, or the essence shared by the persons, as a single person. Those who hold this view almost always mean something quite different than the fathers such as Justin and Hilary did when they speak of the persons of the Trinity sharing “one will”; what they refer to is that there is only one power of willing belonging properly to the sole person who is Father, Son, and Spirit, and thus the real persons of the Trinity possess the same will and mind because They are all ultimately a single person with a single power of will and mind. This bizarre ‘hive-mind’ view of the Trinity falls apart as soon as it is acknowledged that there is no such thing as a single subsistent individual who is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but that rather the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three distinct individual realities or persons.

Essence, nature, or genus do not possess the power of will, mind, or consciousness. These properties belong to persons. For the persons of the Trinity to be described of as “one will”, then, is appropriate as a way to describe the perfect agreement between Them, but erroneous if this is meant to ascribe the power of will to the common essence the persons share, and so to treat that essence as a person.

Finally, some will object that the Son’s submission to the Father was merely an aspect of the economy of the incarnation, and therefore, speaking of this as a permanent and eternal character of the Son’s relationship to His Father is a mistake. Such an objection ignores the many places in the Old Testament in which we see the Son as the Angel of the Lord, ministering to the Father’s will in bringing messages from the Father to men (“angel” means ‘messenger’). It was the Father Who sent, and the Son Who obeyed; the Son is the Messenger of the Father, never the other way around. Likewise it ignores that the Father created all things through the Son, not the Son through the Father. The fact is, throughout all history and from the beginning we see the Son’s loving subordination to the Father, as to His authoritative Head.

Additionally we may note that it is natural and common to all cultures to associate authority with fatherhood and submission to that authority to sonship. We know that all fatherhood in creation is a reflection of the eternal relationship between God and His Son; we see that authority structure even in the Law of Moses, where sons are commanded to honor, submit to, and obey their fathers. Because of this, it is most natural and reasonable to assume that the Son, simply by virtue of being Son, would be subordinate to His Father as His Head. In light of all this, if someone wishes to ague that the Son is not eternally subordinate to His Father, they ought to have some very good reason for saying so, seeing as this goes against all natural reason, and the pattern of authority and submission that we see between God and His Son throughout the whole of history. And the truth of the matter is, no such reason exists. Nowhere do we find scriptural warrant to limit this relationship to the incarnation, or the economy of redemption. Instead, everywhere we are given reason to understand that this relationship is eternal.

One Essence or Same Essence?

In discussions of trinitarian doctrine, its commonplace for people to want to distinguish between “generic unity” and “numerical unity” when talking about consubstantiality. What is meant by “generic unity” is that the persons of the Trinity share in a common essence, meaning that the persons share the same divine nature or genus. This is frequently contrasted with “numerical unity”, the meaning of which tends to vary some. Sometimes, this boils down to describing the persons of the Trinity as a single individual, a single person. In other instances, this is used to try to distinguish between the idea that the persons are of the “same essence” from the idea that They are “one essence”.

This language is somewhat lamentable, as the term “numerical unity” is quite vague, and according to what it sounds like, could just as well be used to refer to generic unity as well, since we can just as well count natures as we can count individuals. The Trinity, of course, is not a single individual, and in cases that this is what is intended by “numerical unity”, it is tantamount to modalism. What I would like to address in this post, however, is the notion that there is a difference between “one essence” and “same essence”.

The short answer is, there is no difference. It is two ways of saying the exact same thing; thus the Nicene Creed, which employs the word ‘homoousias’ (literally homo=same, ousia=essence, ‘same essence’) sees this word translated both ways, but more commonly as “one essence”.

This is an important point, because often, when a distinction is drawn between these two expressions, “one essence” is ultimately getting used in a way that is modalistic. This meaning of “one essence”, as a redefinition of ‘homoousias’ by later theologians contrary to its intended meaning, has been treated in The Grievous Error of the Fourth Lateran Council.

What, then, is the difference? The Fourth Lateran council, and many others, intend to indicate a single individual reality, or person, by “one essence”; whereas the fathers who introduced the language of ‘homoousias’ intended the language to instead signify what gets labeled “generic unity”, that is, that the persons of the Trinity share the same divine nature (contra Arianism).

This idea can just as well be summed up by “one essence” as it can be by “same essence”. This is because when two things are entirely identical, with no difference that distinguished them, either in nature, or subsistence, or body, or time, or space, or any other way that two things are distinguished as being distinct from one another, they cannot rightly be counted as “two”, but as one. In the case of the divine nature, this is precisely what we are dealing with; the nature shared by all three persons is identical in each person, without variation. As a “nature”, or “genus”, then, there is nothing on account of which we could count the nature to anything beyond one. For the persons, then, to share the same nature, is for Them to have one nature, or one essence.

It is noteworthy that the fathers who introduced the language of ‘homoousias’ defined it in terms of this sort of generic unity, a sameness and identicality of nature among the persons of the Trinity. For example, Athanasius said:

“Even this is sufficient to dissuade you from blaming those who have said that the Son was coessential with the Father, and yet let us examine the very term ‘Coessential,’ in itself, by way of seeing whether we ought to use it at all, and whether it be a proper term, and is suitable to apply to the Son. For you know yourselves, and no one can dispute it, that Like is not predicated of essence, but of habits, and qualities; for in the case of essences we speak, not of likeness, but of identity. Man, for instance, is said to be like man, not in essence, but according to habit and character; for in essence men are of one nature. And again, man is not said to be unlike dog, but to be of different nature. Accordingly while the former [men] are of one nature and coessential, the latter are different in both.”

It is significant here that he employs the analogy of three men to define what he means (and he is giving a definition of the word ‘homoousias’ here). Those who would see a difference between “same essence” and “one essence” would be willing to say that men are of the same essence, but not “one essence” as the persons of the Trinity are. Yet, we can see that no such distinction was drawn by those responsible for introducing the language of co-essentiality into trinitarian dogma in the first place.

Also noteworthy is Hilary of Poitiers’s definition of “essence” given in De Synodis:

“Since, however, we have frequently to mention the words essence and substance, we must determine the meaning of essence, lest in discussing facts we prove ignorant of the signification of our words. Essence is a reality which is, or the reality of those things from which it is, and which subsists inasmuch as it is permanent. Now we can speak of the essence, or nature, or genus, or substance of anything. And the strict reason why the word essence is employed is because it is always. But this is identical with substance, because a thing which is, necessarily subsists in itself, and whatever thus subsists possesses unquestionably a permanent genus, nature or substance. When, therefore, we say that essence signifies nature, or genus, or substance, we mean the essence of that thing which permanently exists in the nature, genus, or substance.

Hilary of known as “the Athanasius of the West” and “the hammer of the Arians”; and we see him define co-essentiality in the same way Athanasius did, as teaching that the persons of the Trinity share the same nature or “genus”. For him, “one essence” and “same essence” are the same thing.

Also noteworthy is his admission that ‘homoousias’ and ‘homoiousias’ mean the same thing when each is understood orthodoxly; something those who hold to a later re-definition of ‘homoousias’/’one essence’ are unable to say:

“Holy brethren, I understand by ὁμοούσιον God of God, not of an essence that is unlike, not divided but born, and that the Son has a birth which is unique, of the substance of the unborn God, that He is begotten yet co-eternal and wholly like the Father. I believed this before I knew the word ὁμοούσιον but it greatly helped my belief. Why do you condemn my faith when I express it by ὁμοούσιον while you cannot disapprove it when expressed by ὁμοιούσιον? For you condemn my faith, or rather your own, when you condemn its verbal equivalent. Do others misunderstand it? Let us join in condemning the misunderstanding, but not deprive our faith of its security. Do you think we must subscribe to the Samosatene Council to prevent any one from using ὁμοούσιον in the sense of Paul of Samosata? Then let us also subscribe to the Council of Nicæa, so that the Arians may not impugn the word. Have we to fear that ὁμοιούσιον does not imply the same belief as ὁμοούσιον? Let us decree that there is no difference between being of one or of a similar substance.

Finally, a quote from Basil the Great, a post-nicene father from the following generation:

“The distinction between οὐσία [essence] and ὑπόστασις [person] is the same as that between the general and the particular ; as, for instance, between the animal and the particular man.” (Letter 236)”

“Suppose then that two or more are set together, as, for instance, Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, and that an enquiry is made into the essence or substance of humanity; no one will give one definition of essence or substance in the case of Paul, a second in that of Silvanus, and a third in that of Timothy; but the same words which have been employed in setting forth the essence or substance of Paul will apply to the others also. Those who are described by the same definition of essence or substance are of the same essence or substance when the enquirer has learned what is common, and turns his attention to the differentiating properties whereby one is distinguished from another, the definition by which each is known will no longer tally in all particulars with the definition of another, even though in some points it be found to agree.” (Letter 38)

Here we see again, that ‘homoousias’ was meant by the fathers who promoted it as indicating that the persons of the Trinity share the same divine nature, comparable to how three men share the same human nature.

Finally, it is noteworthy that not only did the fathers who promoted the ‘homoousian’ language not intend it to signify something other than “generic unity”, but they actually rejected other possible definitions of the term “homoousias” that approach what many since have wanted to distinguish as “numerical unity”, that the three persons are in some way a single individual:

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

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

69. Therefore amid the numerous dangers which threaten the faith, brevity of words must be employed sparingly, lest what is piously meant be thought to be impiously expressed, and a word be judged guilty of occasioning heresy when it has been used in conscientious and unsuspecting innocence. A Catholic about to state that the substance of the Father and the Son is one, must not begin at that point: nor hold this word all important as though true faith did not exist where the word was not used.” (Hilary of Poitiers, De Synodis)



What Really Constitutes a Rejection of Modalism?

Most Christians are willing to recognize that modalism is heresy; yet at the same time, what passes for a rejection of modalism today is so lacking that many closet modalists can seemingly vindicate themselves of being modalists ( in name, at least) while still holding to the same fundamental doctrines as those who openly hold to modalism.

This is because it has become acceptable to respond to modalism by stating that the persons of the Trinity are not identical to each other; the Father is not the Son, nor the Son the Father, and neither of them is the Holy Spirit. And yet, this does not exclude all forms of modalism, nor does it address the fundamental underlying tenet of modalism that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all one person.

As noted in Equivocation Over the Term “Person”, many modern Christians effectively state their belief in trinitarianism as a belief in one person (the Trinity or the essence) who is three persons (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit). This is almost always done by using a synonymous word for “person” in respect to the Trinity as a whole, such as “being”; a word vague enough that it can be used either for an abstract essence or for an individual person, which in most cases like this, is used to mean the latter (a fact often betrayed by the use of singular personal pronouns such as “he” for the “being”). Others will use terms such as “reality”, “thing”, or some other term to describe the person who they conceive of as being three persons; yet using a different word in place of “person” hardly alleviates the problem, since what we ought to primarily be concerned with is not the modes of expression people employ (although these are important), but what is meant by them.

Since, then, the fundamental problem posed by modalism is that it conceives of God as a single individual who somehow is the Father, Son, and Spirit, if we merely require someone to affirm that there is some kind of distinction between “Father”, “Son”, and “Spirit” such as that they are not totally synonymous with each other, we have failed to address the primary issue. Many modalists are willing to affirm such a distinction. While they believe there is only one divine individual, they are also willing to affirm that the names “Father”, “Son”, and “Spirit” refer to three things that are not totally interchangeable with each other.

This distinction may be as shallow as the names themselves; it may extend to seeing them as signifying historically distinct modes by which the one individual manifests himself to the world; or they may view each name as signifying a distinct mode of subsistence within a single individual. Others would view them as effectively signifying different parts of this one individual. All these notions are blasphemous and false; yet by merely accepting the affirmation of some difference between “Father”, “Son”, and “Spirit” as being enough to clear a person of being a modalist, we will have let most modalists pass themselves off as trinitarians with little difficulty.

Even Sabellius himself was willing to say that there were three distinct “personas”, after all. Other early modalists would also try to affirm that while in their minds “Father” and “Son” were the same individual, only the Son died, not the Father. Yet today, it seems we have pushed the threshold of what constitutes trinitarianism so low that those who call the Trinity as a whole a single person, and a single individual, are not regarded as modalists. While they are not given the label they deserve, the underlying beliefs are fundamentally the same. Just as the Sabellians of old taught, if “Father” and “Son” are the same individual, then the Father became man and died on the cross. And yet today this view is tolerated, so long as the person specifies that it was the mode of “Son” that died, not the mode of “Father”.

To really be cleared of modalism, a person must be willing not only to to say that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are somehow distinct, but that They are distinct as three individuals, three real persons. A modalist can say that they are somehow distinct, especially if that modalist is willing to equivocate over the term “person”, using it to mean something less than a really distinct individual. A trinitarian must affirm that there are in reality three distinct individuals of one divine nature, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

If we wish to guard against semi-modalism, we must go farther still. A semi-modalist does affirm that there are really three distinct persons; however, the semi-modalist believes these three persons to be one person as well. This view is nonsensical; yet, it is held by many, more often than not as an unconscious inconsistency in their own thinking. Yet, some would venture to hold such a view consciously, being willing to say that they believe in one person who is three persons, and really mean “three persons” by those words. The only way to guard against such an error is to not only require a confession of three distinct persons, three distinct individual realities, but to also require a denial that those three are one person or individual reality.

Thus the ancient Macrostich says:

“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 unbegotten 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.”

“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 Father who sent, remained in the peculiar state of His unchangeable Godhead, and that Christ who was sent fulfilled the economy of the Incarnation.”

It is not enough that someone be willing to say the words “three persons”; they must be willing to affirm that they mean that in the sense it is intended, that they believe in three distinct individual realities, not merely three modes or manifestations termed “persons”. Likewise, a trinitarian must be willing to affirm that there is only three persons; this guards against the semi-modalism that imagines a fourth distinct individual (or person) who is the three persons of Father, Son, and Spirit.


What is Classical Trinitarianism?

When it comes to Christian doctrine, nearly everyone knows of importance of the doctrine of the Trinity. And yet, not everyone is equally aware that throughout history, and throughout different parts of the church, the doctrine of the Trinity has been understood in various different ways. “Classical Trinitarianism” is the term I use to refer to the doctrine of the Trinity as articulated by the orthodox church fathers who lived both prior to and during the time of the Council of Nicea. This understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity is faithfully set forth in the writings of such church fathers as Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, Cyril of Jerusalem, those assembled at the Council of Nicea in 325, and those assembled at the Council of Antioch in 345.

Classical trinitarianism can be summed up as teaching that there are three (and only three) distinct and inseparable divine persons, each sharing the same eternity and same divine nature: the one God, the Father Almighty, His only-begotten Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and His Holy Spirit, Who eternally proceeds from Him.

This is the most ancient articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity the church has, dating back to an era before the politics of the Roman government played a major role in the doctrinal positions of the churches, to a time when the teaching of the apostles was still ringing freshly in the ears of their students, the first generation of church fathers.

While this view can be historically established as the ancient view of Christianity received by tradition from the apostles, far more importantly this understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity entirely biblical. Every part of it can be proven from the holy and infallible scriptures, and unlike many later articulations that describe the Trinity in unbiblical terms, or add things to the doctrine of the Trinity which cannot be found in scripture, classical trinitarianism simply says what the scriptures say about the persons of God, His only-begotten Son, and His Holy Spirit.

Many rival formulations of the doctrine of the Trinity make the issues involved extremely complex, philosophical, esoteric, and paradoxical. While certainly some aspects of the doctrine of the Trinity are beyond our comprehension, the scriptural doctrine of the Trinity is far less complicated and confusing than many theologians have made it out to be.

Following the great commission given in Matthew 28, and the apostle Paul’s summary of what unites Christians in Ephesians 4:4-6, the biblical doctrine of the Trinity can be summed up as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” and “one Spirit… one Lord… and one God and Father Who is over all and through all and in all.” Similarly we receive a beautiful symbolic picture of the Trinity in Revelation chapters 4-5, which describe “the Lord God Almighty” seated on His throne, “the Lamb” of God standing at His right hand, and the “Spirit of God” pictured before the throne of God as the fire of seven lamps burning.

What we see from each of these passages is that the doctrine of the Trinity is ultimately the doctrine of what we believe about three persons: the one God, the Father Almighty, His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ the Lord, and His Holy Spirit, the Paraclete. Thus the ancient Creeds of the church have delivered the doctrine of the Christian faith as summed up in three points, firstly, pertaining to the “one God”, the Father, the Almighty, secondly, pertaining to His Son, Who is His eternal Word and Wisdom, begotten of Him before time, Who took on a human nature and came to earth for our salvation in the incarnation, and thirdly, pertaining to the Holy Spirit, with Whom believers are sealed.

Thus we see one of the earliest summaries of Christian doctrine from Irenaeus of Lyons sums up the Christian faith:

“This then is the order of the rule of our faith, and the foundation of the building, and the stability of our conversation: God, the Father, not made, not material, invisible; one God, the creator of all things: this is the first point of our faith. The second point is: The Word of God, Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord, who was manifested to the prophets according to the form of their prophesying and according to the method of the dispensation of the Father: through whom all things were made; who also at the end of the times, to complete and gather up all things, was made man among men, visible and tangible, in order to abolish death and show forth life and produce a community of union between God and man. And the third point is: The Holy Spirit, through whom the prophets prophesied, and the fathers learned the things of God, and the righteous were led forth into the way of righteousness; and who in the end of the times was poured out in a new way upon mankind in all the earth, renewing man unto God.” (Irenaeus, Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching)

We can also observe the same structure in the ancient baptismal Creeds of the church, which served as local summaries of Christian doctrine for new converts to recite at their baptism. The baptismal Creed of Jerusalem read:

“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before the ages, true God, by whom all things were made, who was incarnate and made man, crucified and buried, and the third day ascended into the heavens, and sat down at the right hand of the Father, and is coming to judge quick and dead.

And in the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete, who spake by the prophets;

And in one holy catholic Church; and resurrection of the flesh; and in life everlasting.”

Finally the famous Nicene Creed is structured in fundamentally the same way, following the pattern set in scripture in Ephesians 4:4-6 and 1 Corinthians 8:6, saying:

“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the essence of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom all things came into being, things in heaven and things on earth, Who because of us men and because of our salvation came down, and became incarnate and became man, and suffered, and rose again on the third day, and ascended to the heavens, and will come to judge the living and dead,

And in the Holy Spirit.

But as for those who say, There was when He was not, and, Before being born He was not, and that He came into existence out of nothing, or who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or essence, or created, or is subject to alteration or change – these the Catholic and apostolic Church anathematizes.”

All these summaries of faith are clear on several important points of trinitarian doctrine, identifying each person of the Trinity in the way the scriptures describe Them. The Father is the one God, the Almighty; the Son is our one Lord, only-begotten of the Father before all time, thus being a distinct person from the Father Who is co-eternal with Him, and eternally of the same divine nature as He. Likewise the Holy Spirit of God is identified as a third distinct person, God’s Spirit.

Yet these statements of faith, while wholly biblical, can leave us with some questions: Why is the Father identified as the “one God”, when the Son is also taught to be “God of God”, sharing the same divine nature as the Father? And while each person of the Trinity is identified distinctly in these statements, in what sense are these three persons “one”?

The answers to these questions are ultimately not as mysterious and paradoxical as heretics or Latin medieval scholastics would have you believe.

The early church fathers taught that there was only one God because there is only one supreme uncaused Cause of all things, and one supreme authority over all things, the person of the Father. Whereas the Son is described by scripture as eternally “begotten” of the Father, and the Spirit as eternally “proceeding” from Him, the Father simply is, existing as He is without any cause or origin whatsoever. He Himself is the Cause not only of all creation, but also of His own Son and Holy Spirit through Whom He made all things. Likewise, the Father alone is the Supreme Authority over all absolutely, having authority over not only over all creation, but also over His own Son and Holy Spirit. For scriptural proof and patristic quotes on these topics, see Why There is Only One God: One Supreme Cause and Why There is Only One God: Headship.

The three persons of the Trinity are never explicitly described as being “one” anywhere in scripture; the one verse that says that has been nearly universally recognised as a later interpolation of the text, and does not appear in most Bibles. Even so, the sense of that verse is the same as other passages of scripture, which teach that the Father and Son are “one”. A cursory examination of the passages quickly reveals their meaning: most of them speak of the perfect agreement between the persons, in which respect they are “one” in will and mind, just as many individual believers in the book of Acts are described as being of “one mind” (Acts 2:46) and “one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32):

“Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are… that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.” (John 17:11, 21 NKJV)

So we see then that the close relational unity of the persons, and the perfect agreement They share, is spoken of as unity, a unity that believers are said to be able to share in. While this unity between God, His Son, and His Spirit includes this unity of perfect agreement, it extends beyond that; the persons are described by scripture as mutually indwelling each other, and being inseparable from each other. Thus John 1:18 says “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.”(NKJV). The Son, then, is eternally in the bosom of the Father, distinct from Him, and yet inseparable from Him.

Related to this inseparability of the persons, we often see in scripture that God works though His Son and Holy Spirit. In the creation, sustenance, redemption, and the judgement of the world, scripture tells us that God works through His Son and Holy Spirit.

Similarly, we see that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one in respect to Their divine power. We see this spoken of in John 10:

“And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand. 30 I and My Father are one.”” (John 10: 28-30 NKJV)

This is because all three persons share the same divinity: the Father Himself is the Original and source of this divinity, Who simply is what He is in Himself, with no source or cause whatsoever; the Son and Holy Spirit, on the other hand, have this divine nature from the Father, the Son by means of His eternal generation from the Father, and the Holy Spirit as He eternally proceeds from the Father. The Son and Holy Spirit then, in what They are, that is, in their very nature, are identical to the Father, being in Themselves the same love, goodness, power, wisdom, and divinity that He is the very definition of in what He is. For this reason the Father is often spoken of in exclusive terms, such as being said to be alone good, or the only wise, or that He alone is holy in the scriptures. These things are not said to exclude the Son and Holy Spirit from these divine attributes (for how could the Wisdom of God lack wisdom, or the Holy Spirit lack holiness?), but because the Father is the Original of all these things, the very definition of them in His own nature; and from Him, the Son and Holy Spirit have that divine nature which is proper to Him communicated to Them, so that They have the same divinity, the same nature, and all the same divine attributes. For more on this see Why There is Only One God: One Divine Nature and No One Good But the Father?.

We see, then, that the answers to these questions are not beyond the scope of what God has revealed to us in the scriptures. There is one God because the Father is one (Who alone is called by scripture the “one God” and “only God”). The Father alone is the supreme uncaused Cause of all and Supreme Authority over all (the idea carried by the Greek word often translated “Almighty”). His Son and Holy Spirit, however, are united with Him, or one with Him, in that they share the same divine nature as He, are inseparable from Him, and are always in perfect agreement with Him.

To conclude this introduction to classical trinitarianism, let us close with the Creed composed at Antioch in 345, known as the Macrostich (or “long-lined creed”). This ancient Creed includes a great deal of detail, proclaiming the truth of classical trinitarianism and providing detailed explanations of the points of doctrine it confesses, and carefully distinguishing classical trinitarianism from the various heresies, specifically rejecting Arianism, Modalism, and Tritheism:

“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 on 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 endures 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 unbegotten, 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 Unbegotten and Unbegun, 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-unbegotten with the Father; for no one can be properly called Father or Son of one who is co-unbegun and co-unbegotten with Him. But we acknowledge that the Father who alone is unbegun and unbegotten, has generated inconceivably and incomprehensibly to all; and that the Son has been generated before ages, and in no wise to be unbegotten 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 unbegotten 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 unbegotten, 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 mental, but as Living God and Word, existing in Himself, 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 Father who sent, remained in the peculiar state of His 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.”