The Creed of Ulfilas

Ulfilas, also known as Wulfia, was an important missionary to the Goths in the fourth century. Having been raised among the Goths as the child of captives taken from within the Roman Empire, he came to Constantinople as part of a Gothic ambassador’s delegation, where he stayed for a time, and was educated. Whether he was already a Christian prior to this, or was converted during his time in Constantinople isn’t known. After being educated there, however, he was sent back to his people as a missionary, an endeavor at which he enjoyed great success.

The spread of Christianity not only to the Gothic tribes, but also to the Gepids, Vandals, and others, is often seen as a result of his missionary endeavors, which included a translation of most of the scriptures into the Goth’s native language.

Theologically, historians report that Ulfilias was Homoian in christology, having been present in Constantinople in 360 for the confirmation of the Creed approved by the joint councils of Arminium and Seleucia (which were considered to be the second ecumenical council at the time). He took this understanding of christology with him to the Goths, who along with the other barbarian tribes mentioned, continued to subscribe to this creed even after emperor Theodosius returned the churches of the Roman Empire to a homoousian theology in 381.

Towards the end of his life, in the early 380s, Ulfilas returned to Constantinople again to meet in council to condemn a heretical ‘arian’ view of Holy Spirit. There he is reported to have gotten sick and died. It is reported that he made this confession of faith:

“I, Ulfila, bishop and confessor, have always so believed, and in this, the one true faith, I make the journey to my Lord; I believe that there is only one God, the Father, alone unbegotten and invisible, and in His only-begotten Son, our Lord and God, creator and maker of all things, not having any like unto Him. Therefore there is one God of all, who is also God of our God, And I believe in one Holy Spirit, an enlightening and sanctifying power. As Christ says after the resurrection to his Apostles: “Behold I send the promise of my Father upon you; but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem until ye be clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24:49) And again: “And ye shall receive power coming upon you by the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1:8) Neither the God, nor our Lord, but the faithful minister of Christ; not equal, but subject and obedient in all things to the Son. And I believe the Son to be subject and obedient in all things to God the Father.”

The extra emphasis given to the Holy Spirit is probably specially directed against the heresy he was there to condemn. The doctrine of the Holy Spirit is the only part of the creed in which he cites scripture at length, and he goes into considerable detail in noting that the Holy Spirit is neither “God” (that is, the Father), nor “our Lord” (that is, the Son), but a third distinct person, who is under the authority of the Son.

The Homoian theology of this creed is of great interest. Of special curiosity is the description of the Son as “not having any like unto Him”, which at first hearing sounds like a denial of the Homoian position in favor of a Eunomian christology. But in light of both the recorded confession of Ulfilas of the Homoian Creed of Arminium, and the continued vehemence the barbarian churches continued to affirm the decisions of these councils with, it is unlikely that the “bishop of the Goths” intended this as a denial of the Homoian position that the Son is “like the Father according to the scriptures”.

More likely this should be read in congruence with the Creed of 359, not as a denial that the Son, as the true “brightness of [God’s] glory”, “the exact representation of His person”, and “the image of the invisible God” is like the Father whose image He is, but should rather be seen as a positive assertion of the Son’s uniqueness as “only-begotten”. The Son, as the only being begotten by God, stands in a totally unique position between God and all creation; neither being unbegotten, as the Father is, nor created, as the creation that God made through Him is. So just as the Father’s ontological uniqueness is denoted by the confession of Him as being “alone unbegotten and invisible”, so the Son is also confessed to be ontologically unique, as the only-begotten Son of God.

This emphasis on the unique ontological qualities of the Father and Son serves to exclude modalism in any form, since this emphasis on personal uniqueness excludes the possibility that the Father and Son could be the same individual.

Also noteworthy is how this creed shows Ulfilas understood the concept of Godhood. Like in scripture, “God” is used in a relative way, denoting dominion and headship, rather than ontological essence or substance. This is interesting to see, as it stands in contrast with the dominant post-nicene western tradition’s tendency to understand Godhood as something ontological, rather than relational.

As such, the Godhood (dominion) of God over His Son is emphasized by referring to the “one God of all”, the Father, as He “who is also God of our God”, and stating that “the Son to be subject and obedient in all things to God the Father”. The Son is described as “our God”, again showing the relative nature of Godhood as dominion/headship in Ulfilas’s thought. Similarly, the Spirit is said to be “the faithful minister of Christ; not equal, but subject and obedient in all things to the Son”, paralleling the Son’s relationship to the Father as His God, in which the Son is “subject and obedient in all things to God the Father”.

A hierarchy of headship and dominion is then laid out in this brief creed, with the one God being defined as the Father, Who alone is God over all, even of the Son, Who in turn has authority over the Holy Spirit, and Godhood over man. This confession matches well with scripture’s teaching that the Father is the one God (1 Cor 8:6, Eph 4:6), the Lord God “Pantokrator” (usually translated “Almighty”), meaning, ‘Ruler over all’ (Rev 4:8), Who “is the head of Christ” (1 Cor 11:3), the God of the Son (Rev 3:12), Who in turn has Godhood over all other things from the Father (1 Cor 15:28), even having authority over the Holy Spirit (John 15:26).

Also noteworthy in comparison to most other trinitarian confessions of faith is the notable absence of any confession of ontological essence or substance. As mentioned above, Ulfilas was Homoian, and therefore eschewed attempts to define the metaphysical ousia of the Son in relation to the Father. Thus Wulfia’s creed, like scripture, focuses on the attributes and roles of the persons of the Trinity, rather than attempting to define Their metaphysical essence(s?).

As we have observed above, then, much of the brief creed’s attention is focused on the hierarchy of authority among the persons of the Trinity, as well as the causal distinctions between God, Who is unbegotten, and His Son, Who is unique in being only-begotten. The one ontological attribute of God that is noted stands out then, and deserves mention- that the Father alone is invisible. Also emphasized by Maximinus, the invisibility of the Father in contrast to the visibility of the Son was seemingly a point frequently made by Homoian trinitarians. This is better understood in reference to the Son being visible even prior to the incarnation, as, for example, when He was seen by Isaiah (John 12:41), and as the Angel of the Lord, rather than in reference to His humanity.

Again we must note the scriptural fidelity of Ulfilas’s confession, as the Father is repeatedly stated to be invisible in the scriptures (“No man can see me and live”, Exodus 33), while the Son is compared and contrasted with Him as “the Image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). Noting the Father’s invisibility then serves as another way to distinguish the Father from the Son, contra modalism.

All in all, whatever deficiencies Ulfilas may have had in his overall theology, this creed is noteworthy at once for its fidelity to what scripture teaches as well as its relatively unique emphases for a fourth-century creed.

 

3 thoughts on “The Creed of Ulfilas”

  1. Very interesting / informative post again. However, I wanted to take issue with one claim. You write:

    >>Also noteworthy in this creed is the non-greek concept of divinity displayed in it. Like in scripture, “God” is used in a relative way, denoting dominion and headship, rather than ontological essence or substance. This is interesting to see, since by the time of the trinitarian debates of the fourth century, the Greek-speaking world of the Roman Empire definitely understood Godhood as something ontological, rather than relational. The Hebrew concept of Godhood seen in the scriptures stands in contrast to the Greek idea of divinity as a nature or an ontological aspect of a metaphysical nature; to see this same biblical concept of divinity among the Gothic barbarian churches is indeed interesting.

    Its noteworthy that this corresponds with a characteristic reliance on the holy scriptures to define doctrine among the Homoian churches. Instead of taking the concept of Godhood from Greco-Roman society, it appears to have been taken from scripture- and thus understood as dominion, rather than as an ontological quality.

    As such, the Godhood (dominion) of God over His Son is emphasized by referring to the “one God of all”, the Father, as He “who is also God of our God”, and stating that “the Son to be subject and obedient in all things to God the Father”. The Son is described as “our God”, again showing the relative nature of Godhood as dominion/headship in Ulfilas’s thought. Similarly, the Spirit is said to be “the faithful minister of Christ; not equal, but subject and obedient in all things to the Son”, paralleling the Son’s relationship to the Father as His God, in which the Son is “subject and obedient in all things to God the Father”.>>

    This is not quite right. Only Augustine takes the word “God,” used as a predicate nominative (rather than as a subject term) to predicate the divine nature (i.e., to be “ontological,” as you put it). I cover this in pp. 134-138 of my dissertation on Gregory of Nyssa. In Ad Eustathium, Gregory goes to great lengths to argue that the “is God” does not mean “has the divine nature,” but “exercises a certain characteristic activity (energeia).” He says, “[T]he force of the appellation [i.e., “God”] is the indication of some power, either of oversight or of operation [energeia]…” Again, this is at the end of a very lengthy explanation of why “is God” does not predicate the divine nature — all of which, by the way, is based on scripture, contrary to the way you characterize the homoousian party as not basing their view on scripture.

    St. Ambrose agrees (De Fide Ad Gratianum):

    For ‘God’ and ‘Lord’ is a name of majesty, a name of power, even as God Himself saith: ‘The Lord is My name,’ and as in another place the prophet declareth: ‘The Lord Almighty is His name.’ [Isaiah 42:8] God is He, therefore, and Lord, either because His rule is over all, or because He beholdeth all things, and is feared by all, without difference…

    So again, when you read, ‘The Lord rained from the Lord,’ acknowledge the unity of Godhead, for unity in operation [operatio, = energeia] doth not allow of more than one individual God, even as the Lord Himself has shown, saying: ‘Believe Me, that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me: or believe Me for the very works’ sake.’ [John 10:38] Here, too, we see that unity of Godhead is signified by unity in operation [operatio, = energeia].

    Here, by the way, the homoousians are following a long line of tradition, starting with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, and going all the way up. I give some examples on p. 146 ff.

    In a footnote (p. 115), I say:

    “1. I would be prepared to argue that almost all of the features of Gregory’s account of the Trinity that are actually essential to his solution to the LPT were common throughout the entire pro-Nicene consensus. One glaring exception is the question whether “is God” predicates the divine nature (ousia), or whether instead it predicates engagement in a certain type of activity (energeia). Here there was indeed something of a divide (though not complete or consistent) between East and West. As a rough generalization (that has a number of exceptions), “Western” fathers tended to say only that “God” either signifies the divine nature *or* an energeia (Lat. operatio), whereas “Eastern” fathers tended to come down decisively on the side of “God” signifying an energeia and *not* the divine nature or ousia – as we will see St. Gregory does (4.2.3, p. 134 ff. below). St. Augustine is the only church father of the time period I know of who says decisively of the word “God” that it is predicated according to the category of substance. As we will see, St. Gregory not only doubted it, but vehemently denied it, and for very good reasons. See p. 134 below.”

    I think the difficulty that people have in reading the fathers here is this. Western Christianity (at least, post-Augustine, or even post-Schism) tends to want to ground the oneness of God in the shared ousia, a la Augustine. Eastern Christianity tends to ground the “oneness” of God in the Monarchy of the Father and in the shared energeiai (which originate with the Father, but are shared with the Son and Spirit). But that’s not to say the homoousion isn’t still important for Eastern Christianity. It’s just important for other reasons. Thus, when people read them defending the homoousion, there’s a tendency to read them as though they are defending it because they think that’s what gets us one God. But the view is just more complex than that.

    (To back up, the “other reasons” the homoousion are important include: First, (1) if Fatherhood is a hypostatic property of God’s, i.e., what analytic philosophers would call an “individual essence,” rather than a “kind essence,” then it is essential to the Father that He have a Son, and so the Son cannot be a creature. And since there is only a single uncreated essence, the divine essence, the Son must have the same essence — whatever that is. Which, again, it’s important to note, the homoousians don’t claim we can know what the divine essence is. It’s actually the Eunomians who claim that. Second, (2) natures are individuated by causal powers. So given that the Father and Son (and Spirit) do, or can do, all of the same sorts of things (e.g., take part in creation, salvation, sanctification, etc.), it follows that they have the same nature. To say they have more than one nature would entail that there must be powers that one has that are not shared by the others. This is why even the homoiousian position, although not unorthodox in intent, given some qualifications, like “exactly similar,” is still not quite precise. The only way to have *two* natures, in reality, would be if they differed somehow.)

    In any case, TL;DR: the orthodox did not think that “God” predicated the divine nature. And they based that claim firmly on scripture. Only Augustine does this.

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    1. Thanks (as always) for sharing your thoughts.

      I think you may have actually provided the answer to questions I have been asking over on David Waltz’s blog, http://articulifidei.blogspot.com/2018/07/novatian-of-rome-did-he-teach.html.

      After noting the apparent contradictions within Novatian’s treatise on the Trinity between him affirming that the Son has the same divinity as the Father while denying that the Son is ontologically equal to the Father in a variety of different ways (eg, lacking immutability, immensity, and invisibility), I said this:

      “I wonder if this difficulty to understand him could be indicative of we aren’t understanding what he means by ‘divinity’ rightly. Post-nicea, its often equated with essence- an understanding of Godhood that is IMO scripturally illegitimate. Yet he is able to affirm that the Son has the same divinity while seemingly denying that the Son has the same substance. So what I’m wondering is, is it possible that in Novatian ‘divinity’ is something ontological, yet not equal to substance.

      I would also suggest that we might see something similar in several so-called “arian” creeds of the fourth century, where they clearly state that the Son is “God from God” -to modern ears a clear affirmation of co-essentiality- and yet are taken by people like Athanasius as denying co-essentiality. Its possible that Athanasius was just making an obviously false accusation for polemical purposes, but if there were some way that ‘divinity’ could be understood that was ontological yet wasn’t wholly equal to essence, it could make more sense of that as well.”

      I think what you are saying here may provide the solution to this dilemma. I see what you are saying in terms of the Eastern fathers (and others) noting that “God” signifies an operation. I have generally approached the fathers with the western presupposition that Godhood is essence, which seems to be an obvious error on my part at this point.

      I will plan to modify the article to better reflect this and to avoid mischaracterizing the way the Roman churches understood Godhood. Thank you for pointing this out.

      Finally, a question- if Godhood was understood by the hellenic churches as an operation, rather than as a name for an essence, then why is language that seems to parallel “God” with ‘man’ so common among fathers like Novatian and Tertullian (and others)? This makes sense if “God” signifies an essence or species, but seems very odd if Godhood is being viewed as an operation. Similarly, there is the broad theme ubiquitous among the fathers that the Father, being God, must have begotten another Who was God. This makes sense if “God” is referential to a nature or species, but seems very odd if Godhood is being viewed as an operation. The argument that man begets man so God begets God makes sense when Godhood is understood as essence, but seems out of place if it used for an operation.

      In Christ,

      Andrew Davis

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      1. Hi again, Andrew,

        I’m pressed for time at the moment, but let me say one thing. I would have to research Tertullian and Novation in particular, but I notice that “Latin” fathers (with some exceptions), tend to say that “God” *either* predicates the divine nature *or* an operation (while “Greeks,” also with some exceptions, tend to say it’s *only* an energeia). So, it may be that the parallel “God and Man” language is coming from those who think it can be taken either way.

        Also, I don’t think you’re wrong to think that “divinity” or “godhood” is sometimes used to talk about the ousia. I don’t think that folks like Gregory of Nyssa think we don’t have any nouns that *refer to* or *name* the divine nature (as itself a subject of predication, e.g., “the divine nature is what the Father and Son share,” where “divine nature” *refers to* the divine nature). I think they think we don’t have any nouns that function as *predicate nominatives* that *predicate* the divine nature of some other subject *(e.g., “the Son is God” doesn’t mean “the Son has the divine nature,” but “the Son does the same activities as the Father.”)

        Even Gregory, in “to the Greeks,” say that “God” expresses the divine nature (though that’s partly just because it’s his *opponents’* assumption). But even then, he says it does so only in an indirect way, by predicating an activity that can only be engaged in by a thing that has the divine nature.

        Anyway, your comment about Athanasius indeed raises an interesting question. I’m still thinking through that myself, and will have to think about it some more.

        Take care,

        Beau

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