The Semi-Modalism of Marius Victorinus

Marius Victorinus is not the best-known church father. Of his works, we have his book on the Trinity preserved, authored sometime between 355-364 AD. This puts the authorship of the book right in the middle of the ongoing Nicene controversy, and is a valuable resource in giving us another individual perspective of what the fourth-century ecclesiastical melee looked like.

Marius Victorinus was a Homoousian, which is valuable for a number of reasons. He is also one of the earliest examples of semi-modalism this author is aware of. Besides advocating such radical departures from previous church tradition as defining the Trinity as the one God, rather than the Father in particular, Victorinus also provides us an excellent example of what the Homoians of the fourth century were trying to avoid when they eschewed the term ‘homoousias’.

Marius Victorinus goes much farther than other more moderate and orthodox Homoousians like Athanasius and Basil, who carefully defined what they meant by ‘homoousias’ as indicating that the persons of the Trinity share a generic unity of metaphysical nature. Marius Victorinus provides yet another example in a long list of fourth century fathers such as Marcellus of Ancyra and Scotinus of Galatia who advocated the term ‘homoousias’ while insisting on a modalistic or semi-modalistic trinitarianism. The Homoian and Homoiousian opposition to the term ‘homoousias’ can be better understood in light of the startlingly modalistic way several contemporary advocates of ‘homoousias’ meant the term to be understood. The idea that the term was modalistic was not merely some distant memory of ante-nicene Sabellian usage of the term, nor an insightful prediction of how the term could eventually be taken wrongly in the future- it was right before the eyes of the fourth century moderates who advocated the use of other terminology.

The following sampling of quotes is taken from: Victorinus, M. (1981). Theological Treatises on the Trinity. (H. Dressler, Ed., M. T. Clark, Trans.) (Vol. 69, p. 334). Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press.

“But Christ irrigates the whole universe, both visible and invisible; with the river of life he waters every substance among the existents. Yet insofar as he is life, he is Christ; insofar as he waters, he is the Holy Spirit; insofar as he is the power of vitality, he is Father and God, but the whole is one God.”

Here we have pretty blatant semi-modalism. In other parts of the book, he distinguishes the persons as distinct individuals, as we shall see, or else we should be inclined to call this simply out-and-out modalism altogether. His theology is also subject to extreme over-philosophization, something the Homoian movement was keen to avoid by sticking to strictly scriptural terminology. For Victorinus, some of this over-phisophizing took the form of seemingly regarding each person individually as being in themselves a Trinity of three as well. This bizarre belief exceeds even semi-modalism, but many of the same ideas are present.

“But although we confess two individuals, nevertheless we affirm one God and that both are one God, because both the Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father.”

“That is why the Father and the Son and the Spirit are not only one reality, but also one God.”

“O God, you are limitless, infinite, invisible, but to some limitless, infinite, and to others invisible, to thyself limited, finite, visible;
Hence, then, you also have form; therefore you are identical with Logos because Logos is form;
And because to you form is knowledge, but knowledge is Holy Spirit, therefore you are God and Logos and Holy Spirit.
O Blessed Trinity.”

In saying, “You are God and Logos and Holy Spirit”, Victorinus anticipates the Augustinian tradition’s later semi-modalistic articulation of the Trinity, since the persons together are spoken of and related to as if They form a single person.

“You also O Holy Spirit are knowledge;
But all knowledge is knowledge of form and substance; therefore you know God and have the form of God;
Hence you are God and Son, O Holy Spirit;
O Blessed Trinity.”

Here we see and example of each person being a sort of Trinity within the Trinity. While calling this “insanity” seems harsh, I am at a loss of what else could well-describe this.

“One substance therefore is God, Logos and Spirit, dwelling in three and existing thrice in all three;
But this is both form and knowledge;
So every simple singularity is tripled;
O Blessed Trinity.”

So we see again each person is a Trinity within a Trinity.

“The three are therefore one,
And three times over,
Thrice are the three one,
O Blessed Trinity”

Some moderns wonder at why anyone would object to a Nicene understanding of the term ‘Homoousias”, and the concept of co-essentiality, especially when it is carefully defined as Athanasius meant it. People saying things like the above quote are a major part of the answer to that question. Not all Homoousians were Athanasius- within the ranks of this vocal minority were some whose theology should make anyone reconsider the wisdom of making the term dogma.

Finally we come to this:

“This is our God;
This is one God;
This is the one and only God;
O Blessed Trinity.

To him we all pray,
The one whom we implore,
The one who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
O Blessed Trinity.”

Unlike even most contemporary Homoousians, Marius Victorinus could not be more emphatic that the one God of Christianity is the Trinity as a whole, (and as a Trinity of Trinities, apparently). While we have limited access to early sources, the fact that it is in the modalistic ravings of a nutcase like this that we first begin to see monotheism’s emphasis shifted from the person of the Father as the one God to the Trinity as the one God should be deeply worrying to those who favor the same language. We also see the Trinity being treated as a single person, being called collectively by single personal pronouns, and having worship directed to it as a single entity.

It would take a while for Victorinus’s emphases to work their way into the mainstream of Homoousian thought. Eventually Augustine would adopt very similar language in his treatment of the Trinity; in the meantime, other prominent Homoousians like Hilary of Poitiers and Basil of Caesarea would remain on the more moderate side of the Homousian party, and continue to generally stick to more traditional-sounding formulations.

The similarity between Marius Victorinus’s articulations of (what I shudder to refer to as) the Trinity and that of Augustine later are no simple co-incidence. According to Augustine, in his Confessions (Book 8, 2, 3-6), Marius had a significant influence on Ambrose, and by extension, his student Augustine. According to Augustine’s account of Victorinus’s conversion from paganism, Victorinus, originally from Africa, went to the Roman church to convert, where he seems to have enjoyed great prestige. It seems then that the tradition of ‘latin trinitarianism’, ‘Augustinian trinitarianism’, or semi-modalism, does not truly begin with Augustine, but with Victorinus, a half-century earlier, at least.

4 thoughts on “The Semi-Modalism of Marius Victorinus”

      1. If you have logos software, its available on that. I’m hoping to dig into it there myself more soon. Its interesting that the “Arians” he writes against appear to include the homoiousians such as Basil of Ancyra that the more moderate/orthodox Homoousians were willing to regard as brothers with they were in essential agreement.

        In Christ,

        Andrew Davis

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