The Homoians: Proto-Protestants of the Post-Nicene Era

‘Homoian’ is a term used for those who subscribed to the articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity formulated by the ecumenical councils of Arminium and Seleucia, which were held in 359 AD in an attempt to resolve the ongoing doctrinal controversies of the fourth century. Their theology and practice is marked by several noteworthy traits shared in common with later Protestantism:

1) The translation of the Bible into the vernacular: Ulfilas, the ‘missionary to the Goths’, a prominent Homoian, translated nearly the entirety of the holy scriptures into the ancient Gothic tongue. Martin Luther was not the first to translate the scriptures into a vernacular German language for use by the people.

2) Sola scriptura: The ancient Homoians repeatedly appealed to scripture as the authoritative source of doctrinal knowledge; not merely as one source of many, or one on equal footings with councils, but as the ultimate and only ordinary source from which legitimate Christian doctrine and practice could be known. Bishop Maximinus makes clear, for example, that the Homoians held the council of Arminium to be authoritative as a subordinate authority to the holy scriptures. “I wanted the decree of the Council of Ariminum to be present, not to excuse myself, but to show the authority of those fathers who handed on to us in accord with the divine scriptures the faith which they learned from the divine scriptures.” (Debate with Augustine)

3) That scripture can offer a corrective to errors made by ecumenical councils and popes: This really falls under sola scriptura as well, but it is such a noteworthy point that it really deserves special emphasis. The Homoian councils of Arminium and Seleucia ruled that while the fathers as the council if Nicea thirty-four years earlier had intended the extra-biblical language of ‘co-essentiality’ to have a biblical meaning, the introduction of such ambiguous, ill-understood, and extra-scriptural language had proved too problematic to retain it as dogma. The mistake of the first ecumenical council would be rectified on a scriptural basis:

“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.” (Council of Arminium)

And so we see that a concern of the Homoians was that the church’s dogma be simple enough to be easily understood by the average Christian, as the ancient rule of faith was, and that it not be allowed to become so complicated and esoteric by the introduction of difficult philosophical terms that the average Christian could have no meaningful comprehension of the church’s doctrine.

It is noteworthy here that the fact that the language of Nicea is foreign to scripture is cited as a major aspect of why it should be removed, and replaced with a confession that was indisputably biblical. According to the Homoians, such vague expressions as those of Nicea, when they are ill-understood, need not be retained, even though the have the authority of an ecumenical council behind them. The endorsement of an ecumenical council was not enough to put the ‘homoousian’ articulation of the Trinity beyond question; when the language became a problem, it could be jettisoned, because a council was not enough to make the matter indisputable. Scripture was the standard, and since the problematic terminology was not given in the scriptures, it need not be retained when it had outlived its usefulness. Such an attitude towards the dogmas of councils clearly prefigures that of later Protestantism.

While the issue of the Pope’s opinion does not seem to have factored as heavily into these fourth-century disputes as it would in the Reformation, its noteworthy that the Homoian councils of Arminium and Seleucia just as much implied that the Papacy had erred, as it did the council of Nicea. The papacy had strongly supported the Nicene articulation of the Trinity, and the Pope at the time adamantly refused to assent to the decisions of these Homoian ecumenical councils. Yet the Homoians did not see a problem with disagreeing with the Bishop of Rome; scripture was the authority, and the Pope’s opinion could safely be disregarded when it contradicted the scriptures and the best interest of the church. In this way too, the ancient Homoians prefigured later Protestantism.

4) The Homoians ended up separated from the ecclesiastical hierarchies of the Roman churches by no fault of their own: Like later Protestantism, the Homoian position was eventually condemned by a later council, that held in Constantinople in 381, which, despite being local rather than ecumenical in representation, is remembered by many as an ecumenical council. Those bishops within the church hierarchies that fell within the bounds of the Roman Empire who disagreed with the new Emperor Theodosius I’s effectively unilateral doctrinal decisions, were unceremoniously ejected from their episcopates, and replaced by others who would comply with the Emperor’s wishes. Those Homoians who found themselves within the expansive bounds of the Roman Empire found themselves forced to continue on apart from the Imperial hierarchy and the papacy, continuing to meet together for centuries to come in houses and private settings, living as a persecuted minority. Outside the bounds of the Empire, the established churches of the Vandals, Goths, Gepids, and other Germanic peoples continued to be Homoian. For centuries these often existed side-by-side with Roman churches, as these tribes conquered and settled the territories formerly belonging to the Western Roman Empire. Like later Protestantism, the institutional split between Homoians and the Roman churches occurred because the Roman churches wrongly excommunicated them, forcing them to continue on without the fellowship of the Roman hierarchy.

All in all its interesting to consider the many similarities that the Homoians had with Protestantism. This is especially so when we consider the reactive influence that these Homoian traits may have had on the development of the Roman Catholic church; the church that Martin Luther and the Protestant reformers faced was not one that had never dealt with these things in the past, which had never considered such a way of looking at the authority of scripture and councils, etc, but one which had already effectively rejected the Protestant positions on some of the most central issues of the Reformation (such as sola scriptura) some thousand years prior to the Protestant Reformation. It is a shame that Protestantism, instead of examining the theology of their Homoian forefathers, and recognizing it as biblical, have generally remained mostly ignorant of this history, and have generally looked at it from the perspective of the Roman Catholic church, rather than with sympathy for their fourth-century counterparts.

Numerical Vs Generic Unity of Substance

Semi-modalism is built upon a twisting of the Nicene concept of co-essentiality. In the Nicene era and its creed, for multiple persons to be co-essential meant that nothing more than that they, as truly distinct rational individual beings (that is, persons) shared a common nature or species. A common analogy used by the Nicene fathers to capture their meaning, for example, is of three men being co-essential, in that they, while remaining three distinct individuals, share a common and identical human nature. Although there are three men, there is only one nature between them, human nature. Such was the original meaning of co-essentiality.

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.”

Hilary of Poitiers likewise clarified:

“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.

And Basil of Caesarea wrote:

“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)”

This understanding of co-essentiality is likewise required by the council of Chalcedon:

“our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood”

Its clear, then, that the original intent of declaring that the Father, Son, and Spirit share one essence was not to make Them out to all be one person, one individual being, but simply to declare that They shared a common nature or species. This meaning changed, however, and was not kept clear as time went on; the Western churches going to far as to eventually formally change the meaning of co-essentiality in the 4th Lateran council in 1215.  Rather than indicating a generic unity of sharing one nature, now co-essentiality was defined as teaching that the unity the persons shared was of being one single numerically individual reality, one rational individual being- that is, in reality, one person. The ‘essence’ was no longer viewed as a nature, but a single subsistent ‘supreme reality’.

“We, however, with the approval of this sacred and universal council, believe and confess with Peter Lombard that there exists a certain supreme reality, incomprehensible and ineffable, which truly is the Father and the Son and the holy Spirit, the three persons together and each one of them separately. Therefore in God there is only a Trinity, not a quaternity, since each of the three persons is that reality — that is to say substance, essence or divine nature-which alone is the principle of all things, besides which no other principle can be found. This reality neither begets nor is begotten nor proceeds; the Father begets, the Son is begotten and the holy Spirit proceeds.” (From Canon 2)

This teaching is a drastic departure from the faith of the early church, and represents the culmination of what many in the Nicene era had feared might result from the introduction of ‘essence’ speculation into the church’s dogma. A council of fathers gathered in Antioch in 345 had specified their belief that the Father, Son, and Spirit were not “one supreme reality”, that is, one person, one individual rational being, but rather, three:

“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.” (Macrostich)

Later in the same creed they went on to condemn the very view the 4th Lateran would later make dogma for the Roman churches:

“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.”

But one need not wait until the fourth century to find fathers who clearly taught that the Father, Son, and Spirit were not one numerically individual thing, one person. Second century father Justin Martyr, one of the earliest and best of the fathers, clearly understood the Father and Son to be numerically distinct persons, two distinct rational individual beings, not merely two names of or modes of one and the same reality:

“When Scripture says, ‘The Lord rained fire from the Lord out of heaven,’ the prophetic word indicates that there were two in number: One upon the earth, who, it says, descended to behold the cry of Sodom; Another in heaven, who also is Lord of the Lord on earth, as He is Father and God; the cause of His power and of His being Lord and God.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 29)

“And that this power which the prophetic word calls God, as has been also amply demonstrated, and Angel, is not numbered [as different] in name only like the light of the sun but is indeed something numerically distinct, I have discussed briefly in what has gone before; when I asserted that this power was begotten from the Father, by His power and will, but not by abscission, as if the essence of the Father were divided; as all other things partitioned and divided are not the same after as before they were divided: and, for the sake of example, I took the case of fires kindled from a fire, which we see to be distinct from it, and yet that from which many can be kindled is by no means made less, but remains the same.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 128)

“You perceive, my hearers, if you bestow attention, that the Scripture has declared that this Offspring was begotten by the Father before all things created; and that which is begotten is numerically distinct from that which begets, any one will admit.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 129)

It is clear also, that Justin did not speak of merely his own opinion in these matters, but as an apologist, spoke on behalf of the Christians of his time; and anyone who wishes to, may read his contemporary fathers, and see their agreement.

Semi-modalism, then, in proclaiming the the persons of the Trinity are numerically one substance, one individual, is clearly at odds with both the original dogmatic conception of co-essentiality held by the Nicene fathers, which proclaimed co-essentiality to mean nothing more than a mere generic unity of nature between really distinct individuals, as well as being at odds with the faith of the ante-nicene fathers, going back as close to the apostles as we can find.

For a look at how this semi-modalistic conception of the Trinity is opposed to scripture itself, and the very fundamental tenets of the Christian faith it teaches, see here.

Another Example of Modern Trinitarianism Being Nothing More Than Modalism, Barely Disguised

“The word ‘person’ has changed its meaning since the third century when it began to be used in connection with the ‘threefoldness of God’. When we talk about God as a person, we naturally think of God as being one person. But theologians such as Tertullian, writing in the third century, used the word ‘person’ with a different meaning. The word ‘person’ originally derives from the Latin word persona, meaning an actor’s face-mask—and, by extension, the role which he takes in a play. By stating that there were three persons but only one God, Tertullian was asserting that all three major roles in the great drama of human redemption are played by the one and the same God. The three great roles in this drama are all played by the same actor: God. Each of these roles may reveal God in a somewhat different way, but it is the same God in every case. So when we talk about God as one person, we mean one person in the modern sense of the word, and when we talk about God as three persons, we mean three persons in the ancient sense of the word. … Confusing these two senses of the word ‘person’ inevitably leads to the idea that God is actually a committee.”

Alister E. McGrath, Understanding the Trinity, pp 130-131

The heresy represented in this quote, unfortunately, is not uncommon. The Trinity as a whole is made out to be one person in the modern sense- that is, one rational individual being, one individual intelligent agent, one “He”; while the Father, Son, and Spirit are deemed to be nothing more than mere “masks” of this one individual. This is the same insidious heresy of Sabellius, only slightly modified. This is semi-modalism, and it is damnable heresy; this needs to be said, not to show malice to those who hold it, but to warn men of the danger it presents.

Semi-modalism equivocates on what “person” means, as this quote shows. A semi-modalist will insist that they are not a modalist because the Father, Son, and Spirit are “three persons”- yet when they use the word ‘person’, they mean something other than what is normally meant by ‘person’. They equivocate by using a non-standard definition of the term, usually without making that clear, like McGrath does above.

The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are really three persons; not three modes, not three masks, of one and the self-same person, but are in fact and in truth three distinct rational individual beings. Scripture repeatedly teaches this: “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Rev. 6:16-17 NASB) “Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.” (John 14:23 NASB). The fact that scripture uses plural personal pronouns in these verses requires us to understand that the Father and Son are two persons.

“If I bear witness of Myself, My witness is not true. 32 There is another who bears witness of Me, and I know that the witness which He witnesses of Me is true… the Father Himself, who sent Me, has testified of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time, nor seen His form.” John 5:31-32, 37 NKJV). The Son says here that He does not bear witness to Himself (v31). Yet He also says that the Father bears witness of Him- this require that He is a distinct person from His Father. The Father is not Him, but “another” Who can witness to Christ, without Christ witnessing to Himself. Were They the same person, the Father testifying to the Son would be the same as the Son testifying to Himself.

Semi-modalism is a dangerous heresy because making the Father, Son, and Spirit to be the masks or modes of one and the same person denies the central tenets of the Christian faith, by denying the real existence of the Son of the God, the one Mediator between God and man, apart from Whom no one can approach the Father.

“Now a mediator is not for one party only; whereas God is only one.” (Gal 3:20 NASB)

“For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,” (1 Tim 2:5 NASB)

It is clear that no person can be a mediator between themselves and another; the very nature of what a mediator between two parties is, requires that the mediator be a third party. If Christ then is the mediator between God and man, then He cannot be the same person, the same individual rational being, as the God to Whom He intercedes. If the Son is the same “person” as the Father according to the normal usage of the word, that is, the same rational individual being as the Father, then He cannot be a mediator between God and man, for this would make the mediator and the party being mediated to one and the same, which is impossible. As the Son would in fact be the same person as the Father Who we need a Mediator to approach, we would in fact have no Mediator- and so according to scripture, it would be impossible to approach God.

And so the God of the semi-modalists is unapproachable; for by making the Son and Spirit out to not really be distinct persons, but one and the same individual being as the Father, they deny their real existence. They have no one to Mediate between them and their God, and no one to sanctify them, since they have made the Mediator, the Son, and the Sanctifier, the Spirit, to be the very same one that they need a Mediator and a Sanctifier to approach.

And likewise, semi-modalism denies that saving confession, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. For the Son of another is necessarily another person, Who relates to that other as a Son. But the semi-modalists deny that the Son is another rational individual being besides the Father, and so, they make Him the same rational individual being as the Father. The same being, then, the same person, according to the normal usage of the term, will then at once be made to be His own Father and His own Son, which is absurd; and while saying that He is both, they will actually make Him neither. So the one they call Son will relate to God, not as a Father, not as one individual being to another, Who is His Father, but will relate to God as His own self. By making the Son a mask and mode of the one God, they deny His real personal existence as a Son, which necessarily must be another rational individual being besides the one Whose Son He is. And so they deny the Lord, the Son of God, making Him a Son in name only and not in truth.

They say that the Father Who testifies to the Son is not another besides Him, but merely another mode of His own person, and so, they make the Son’s testimony false, for “If I bear witness of Myself, My witness is not true.” And so they make God out to be a liar.

Let this then serve as a warning of the deceitful equivocation of the heretics; for they will say that “God is three persons”, but the “God” they speak of is one person, one rational individual being, and the three “persons” they speak of are no persons at all, but mere masks, modes, roles, name, or internal relations of one person. They speak of a “triune God”, a “tripersonal God”, when in reality, the God they speak of, when they are honest, is only one person, and not three; and He has no true Son, the Son being made to be simply a mode of His own person, not another person Who relates to Him as a Father; and there will be no mediator to bring them to their “tripersonal God”, for having made their mediator to be nothing more than a mode of the very person they need a mediator to approach, they will have no true mediator, no third party, to bring them to God.

The Father’s Infinitude

“My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all.” John 10:29a NKJV

“My Father is greater than I.” John 14:28b NKJV

Since God is greater than all others, the greatness of all others has a limit. That can be illustrated by a simple observation:

God’s greatness cannot be exaggerated; the greatness of anything else can be exaggerated, since for if it were said to be as great as God, this would be false, and would be an exaggeration, since we know that God is greater than all else. Nothing else then is equal with Him in greatness, as He is greater than all; and so it would be an exaggeration of anything else’s greatness, to make it out to be equal with God’s greatness. There is then an upper limit to the greatness of all else besides God, that however great something is, it is not as great as the Father. God’s greatness, however, knows no limit.

While God has set the bounds and limitations of all things, He Himself is free, and independent; He does as He pleases. “But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases” (Ps 115:3 NASB). “Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, In heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps.” (Ps 135:6 NASB). These verses signify that God is free and independent, not limited by the permission or will or limitation of another. He is not subject to another, so as to be allowed to do some things, and limited from doing others; were He to experience some external limitation, it could not truly and absolutely be said of Him that He does as He pleases. The fact that God freely does as He wills, shows that He experiences no external limitation or bound whatsoever. He is therefore, infinite, then, inasmuch as He is beyond all external limitation and bound.

And so we see that God alone is infinite; for to be infinite is to be without limit or bound. While the Father Himself is free and subject to none, all things are subject to Him, and so, limited by His will. Just as God is shown to be infinite, on account of the fact that He is absolutely free and independent to do as He pleases, not being limited by the will of another, so it will also be seen from this, that He alone is infinite, because all other beings whatsoever do not know that same freedom and independence as God does, all of them being subject to God Himself. And this holds true, no matter what being we consider; for God is Almighty, that is ‘Pantokrator’, Ruler over all, absolutely. All things, then, being from Him, are subject to Him; not only all creation, which He made through His Son, but also His own Holy Spirit, and His own only-begotten Son. All things being subject to Him, nothing else in the universe is free and independent like He is, knowing no external limitation whatsoever. All other beings are limited by His own will, as to their very existence, and their own attributes, all things having their very existence and being from God, according to His good will. “Which He will bring about at the proper time—He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords,” (1 Tm 6:15 NASB); As God alone is sovereign over all, all are subject to Him, and are then limited in some capacity or another by His rule and will.

The Son of God, here, is no exception; for although He shares in His Father’s dominion over the whole universe, yet He Himself is subject to His own Father, Who is His own God. “Go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.” (John 20:17b NASB). “When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all.” (1 Cor 15:28 NASB). “But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.” (1 Cor 11:3 NASB). And so the Son Himself is subject to the will of His Father. And that this subjection is a loving and willing subjection, makes it no less subjection; so that the Son, although we may suppose, is willingly so limited, is indeed truly limited, by the will of His own Father, on account of which He says “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner.” (John 5:19b NASB); and likewise He says “I can do nothing on My own initiative. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is just, because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” (John 5:30 NASB). The Son Himself, then, teaches that He is limited by the will of His own Father, Who is His own God; and so, the difference is sufficiently shown, that while the Father is independent and free, limited by no other, and subject to no other, and so, is infinite, the Son is subject to the Father, and limited by His will. The Son the is not infinite like His Father, but it is demonstrated that the Father alone is unlimited and subject to none, and so, is alone infinite, knowing no external limit nor bound whatsoever.

Highlights from Maximinus’s Debate With Augustine

The debate between Augustine of Hippo and Maximinus the Homoian is well worth reading for anyone interested in understanding the theology of either Augustine or the Homoians. Maximinus’s lengthly explanations of his views provide one of the best primary sources we have on the details of fifth-century Homoian trinitarianism. It is noteworthy for its close resemblance to the theology of prominent second and third-century church fathers such as Justin Martyr and Novatian of Rome. Below are a few brief selections from Maximinus’s portion of the debate.

These excerpts show, among other things, that Maximinus and the Homoians at large, as represented by the ecumenical council of Arminium, were not Arians, as they are so often slandered as being. The thematic stress on the Father’s supremacy and infinitude, although something Arians agreed with, can be seen in the ante-nicene fathers going back to Novatian, Irenaeus, and Justin Martyr; it is by no means a mark of Arianism.

Maximinus said:

“In the case of God you should use a worthy comparison. I am, of course, displeased and pained at heart over what you go on to say, namely, that a human being generates a human being, a dog a dog. You should not use so foul a comparison for such greatness.†106

15, 7. “Who does not know that God begot God, that the Lord begot the Lord, that the King begot the King, that the Creator begot the Creator, that the Good begot the Good, that the Wise begot the Wise, that the Merciful begot the Merciful, and that the Powerful begot the Powerful? In generating the Son, the Father took nothing away from the Son. He is not envious, but as the source of goodness he begot this great good.†107 All of creation bears witness to his goodness, in accord with your statement, which I highly praise.†108 You drew from the divine scriptures the words, From the creation of the world his invisible reality, having been understood, is seen through those things that have been made, even his everlasting power and divinity (Rom 1:20).”
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“Moreover, it is proper and a mark of order that you employ worthy comparisons. After all, you are speaking of God, of that immensity, to which, even if one draws a comparison as great as possible in terms of human thought or even in accord with the authority of the divine scriptures, one finds that the comparison is inadequate in every respect to him who is incomparable.

15, 10. “In accord with the testimonies that I have produced, I say that the Father alone is the one God, not one along with a second and a third, but that he alone is the one God. If he alone is not the one God, he is a part.†122 I deny, after all, that the one God is composed of parts; rather, his nature is unbegotten, simple power. The Son before all ages is himself begotten as power. The apostle spoke of this power of the Son, When you and my spirit are gathered together with the power of the Lord Jesus (1 Cor 5:4). I state and profess what the holy gospels teach us. I state and profess that the Holy Spirit is also power in his proper character. The Lord bore witness concerning him, when he said to his disciples, Remain in the city of Jerusalem, until you are clothed from on high with power (Lk 24:49).
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15, 12. “The apostle says, The blessed and alone powerful, the King of kings. He calls the Father alone powerful, not because the Son is not powerful. Listen to the Holy Spirit crying out and bearing testimony to the Son, Lift up the gates, you†125 princes; be raised up, eternal gates, and the king of glory will enter. He continues, Who is this king of glory? Listen to the answer, The Lord strong and powerful (Ps 23:7-8). How can he fail to be powerful, when every creature proclaims his power?

15, 13. “How can he fail to be wise, when the Holy Spirit cries out in praise of his wisdom and says, How magnificent are your works, O Lord! You have made all things in wisdom (Ps 103:24). Since all things were made through Christ, the Holy Spirit undoubtedly praises him when he says, You have made all things in wisdom. Since that is so, we must ask how blessed Paul can say, The blessed and alone powerful. In my opinion, he calls him alone powerful, because he is alone incomparable in power. In awe before his incomparability, the prophet said, O God, who is like you? (Ps 82:2). Do you want to know that he alone is powerful? Look at the Son and admire the power of the Son. Recognize in the Son that the Father is alone powerful, because he has begotten one so powerful. In his immense power the Father begot the powerful creator.†126 In his power that he received from the Father, the Son did not create the creator, but established creation. He says, All things have been handed over to me by my Father (Mt 11:27). In awe of this power of God the Father, Paul said, The blessed and alone powerful. Job was a powerful and true man. We read, That man was a true and just worshipper of God, and in further describing his region, it says that he was powerful and great among all those in the East (Jb 1:1.3). How then can the Father alone be powerful? It says alone, because no one is comparable to him, because he alone has such greatness, such might, such power.

“In the same way, the blessed apostle Paul proclaims that the Father alone is wise, when he says, God who alone is wise (Rom 16:27). But we must look for an explanation of why he alone is wise, since Christ is also wise. You have already cited Christ the power of God and wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:24). We too have given testimonies that he created all things in wisdom. But the Father alone is truly wise. We believe the scriptures, and we venerate the divine scriptures. We do not want a single particle of a letter to perish, for we fear the threat that is stated in these divine scriptures, Woe to those who take away or add! (Dt 4:2). Do you want to know how great is the wisdom of the Father? Look at the Son, and you will see the wisdom of the Father. For this reason Christ himself said, One who has seen me has also seen the Father (Jn 14:9). That is, in me he sees his wisdom; he praises his might; he glorifies the Father who, one and alone, has begotten me, one and alone, so great and so good before all ages. He did not look for material out of which to make him, nor did he take someone as an assistant. Rather, in the way he knew, he begot the Son by his power and his wisdom.†127 We do not profess, as you say when you falsely accuse us, that, just as the rest of creation was made from nothing, so the Son was made from nothing like a creature. Listen to the authority of statement of the Synod; for our fathers in Ariminum said this among other things, ‘If anyone says that the Son is from nothing and not from God the Father, let him be anathema.’†128 If you want, I will offer testimonies. For the blessed apostle John speaks as follows, One who loves the Father also loves him who was born from him (1 Jn 5:1).
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“This is painful to hear, for you do not compare that great magnificence to the nobility of the soul, but to the fragility of the body. Flesh is, of course, born from the body, a bodily offspring. But the soul is not born from a soul. If, then, our soul generates without corruption and passion, not experiencing any lessening or any defilement, but lawfully in accordance with God-given rights generates an offspring, in wisdom giving its consent to the body,†130 it itself remains whole. How much more will the omnipotent God do so?†131 I said just before that words fail us in every human comparison with God,†132 though we try to put it as best we can. How much more incorruptibly has the incorruptible God the Father begotten the Son? He has, however, begotten him. Note my carefulness, for I have the testimonies of the holy scriptures, Who will tell of his generation? (Is 53:8). He begot as he willed, as one with power,†133 taking nothing away; he begot one with power without any envy entering in.
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“You say that God is one. Show me whether the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are one God or whether we should call the Father alone God, whose Son, Christ, is our God. Are you urging us to profess one God the way the Jews do? From the subjection of the Son, are we not shown, as the Christian faith holds, that there is one God whose Son is our God, as we have said? Believe Paul that the Father and the Son are not a single one (unus), as he proclaims in nearly every letter. He says, Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2; Gal 1:3 and Eph 1:2). He also says, One is God the Father, from whom are all things, and we are in him,
and one is the Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and we are in him†166 (1 Cor 8:6). This is the one whom we Christians preach as the one God, and the Son proclaims that he is good, when he says, No one is good save the one God (Mk 10:18). It is not that Christ is not good, for he says, I am the good shepherd (Jn 10:11). It is not that the Holy Spirit is not good; hear the prophet as he cries out, Your good Spirit will lead me in the right path (Ps 142:10). Hear too the witness of the Savior who says, A good man brings forth good things from the treasure of his heart (Lk 6:45). Moreover, every creature of God is very good. If a creature is good, if man is good, if the Holy Spirit is good, if Christ is good, we must investigate how there is one who is good. The Savior, of course, said, No one is good save the one God, because he is the source of goodness and has received his goodness from no one. Christ has received his goodness from his Father so that he is good, and every good creature of God has received through Christ its goodness. But whether it is the Son or those who were made through him, each has drawn his goodness from that one source of goodness in accord with the measure of his faith. But the Father has received his goodness from no one. Thus Christ says, No one is good save the one. In that way, then, there is one God, because there is one who is incomparable, because there is one who is immense, as we have already stated.†167
15, 24. “We do not deny that the Son loves the Father, for we read the scripture, So that this world may know that I love the Father, and I do just as he has commanded me (Jn 14:31). It is clear that the Son is loved and loves and that he carries out the commandment of the Father, as he says. Thus they are one, in accord with his words, The Father and I are one (Jn 10:30). Insofar as he says, He who has seen me has also seen the Father (Jn 14:9), we must believe with certain faith that he who sees the Son sees and understands the Father through the Son.

15, 25. “You professed that the Father is greater on account of the form of the servant.†168 That strikes me as quite foolish. We know that you also said that he was made less than the angels in the form of the servant.†169 You have not sufficiently proclaimed†170 the glory of God in professing that the Father is greater than the form of the servant. Even the angels are greater than the form of the servant. Christ did not come to teach us that the Father is greater than the form of the servant. Rather, the Truth came to us to teach and instruct us that the Father is greater than the Son and greater than this Son who is the great God. We glorify the Father and profess that he is greater than the great God; we proclaim that he is higher than the high God. Is this the honor we owe to God that the Father is greater than the servant form?

15, 26. “You say that the divinity showed itself to the Patriarchs, and just before that you said that the divinity was invisible.†171 The Father, who is invisible, surely did not show himself. Otherwise, if we say that the Father was seen, we make a liar of the apostle, who says, No human being has seen him or can see him (1 Tm 6:16). Moreover, we find ourselves not only in opposition to the New Testament, but we are equally in opposition to the Old Testament as well. After all, Moses speaks this way too, No one can see God and live (Ex 33:20).

“This same Moses wrote in the Book of Genesis that from that first man up to the incarnation it was always the Son who was seen. If you demand testimonies, you have, of course, the passage in which the Father speaks to the Son, Let us make man to our image and likeness. There follows, And God made man (Gn 1:26-27). Which God made him if not the Son? You yourself have explained this in your treatises.†172 This Son, then, who is the prophet of his Father, also said, It is not good that man be alone; let us make a helper for him like him (Gn 2:18). This Son appeared to Adam in accord with what we read that Adam said, I heard your voice as you walked in paradise, and I hid myself because I was naked. You certainly have what God said to him, And who told you that you were naked unless you have eaten from that tree about which I commanded you that you not eat? (Gn 3:10-11). This God was seen by Abraham;†173 if you are willing to believe, the only-begotten God himself declared in the gospel that the Son was seen by Abraham. He said, Abraham, your father, rejoiced to see my day, and he saw it and he was glad (Jn 8:56). This Son was also seen by Jacob in the form in which he was to come, that is, in the form of a man; he is found to have wrestled with Jacob as a foreshadowing of what was to come. Jacob said, I have seen the Lord face to face, and my life has been preserved, and the name of this place was called The Vision of God. The God, who wrestled with Jacob, foreshadowing what we see fulfilled in the passion of Christ, attested to this. He said to Jacob, Your name will no longer be called Jacob, but your name will be Israel (Gn 32:28), that is, one who sees God. We prove that he was seen in the New Testament as well. The apostles said of him, And we have seen his glory, the glory as if of the Only-Begotten by the Father (Jn 1:14). But, if you claim, as you try to do, that the Father was seen, all the scriptures are for you filled with lies. Paul proclaims that the Father is invisible, and in the gospel the Lord affirms it.

“You often make the accusation against us that we boldly and presumptuously say things that we should not say. That will be up to the judgment of the reader to test. After all, we do not speak to obtain praise from someone, but out of the desire to strengthen the brotherhood we have. Perhaps you wanted to challenge us to make an answer so that those you have observed to belong to us might agree, as I said, with what you profess. For this reason, I had to answer you on account of the fear of God. It was not only by your words that you tried to take from me the discipleship of these men; you also gave me your treatise to which I had to answer those things which you have professed concerning the invisibility of the omnipotent God. Though with another intention, still in your own words, you stated that the Holy Spirit was seen in the form of a dove as well as in the form of fire and that the Son was seen in the form of man, but that the Father was seen neither in the form of a dove nor in the form of a man. He never turned himself into any forms and is never changed. Scripture says of him, I am who I am, and I have not changed (Ex 3:14 and Mal 3:6). The Son who, of course, had already been established in the form of God has, as you have stated, taken the form of the servant, but the Father has not. Likewise, the Holy Spirit took the form of the dove, but the Father did not. Acknowledge, then, that there is one who is invisible; there is one who is incomprehensible and immense. I pray and desire to be a disciple of the divine scriptures; I believe that Your Holiness recalls that I earlier gave the response that, if you produced the evidence that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit have one power, one substance, one deity, one majesty, one glory, that, if you state this from the divine scriptures, if you produce any passage of scripture, we are eager to be found disciples of the divine scriptures.”

“I, Maximinus, bishop, have signed this.”

The Twin Errors of Arian and Athanasian Christology

The doctrine of eternal generation is central to the doctrine of the Trinity; that the Son is begotten from the Father before the ages is the basis for several important parts of the doctrine of the Trinity, including the distinct personal existence of the Son, His Godhood, and His eternal sonship. That the Father begat the Son before the ages is the very reason why the Father is eternally Father, and the Son eternally Son, and is the basis for the relationship They have with one another. It is without a doubt then, one of the most crucial doctrines in Christian theology.

That the Father begat the Son, is of course, an analogy of language. When we speak of ‘begetting’ in creatures, we refer to something bodily and carnal, in the procreation of progeny by a father. When scripture uses this language to communicate divine truths about God and His Son to us, we are of course to understand this analogy then as being exactly that; an analogy. To take it in too literal a sense, and to draw too literal of a parallel between the idea in relation to creation and the divine generation of the Son, will inevitably result in error in this important doctrine. And in light of how central this doctrine is to a biblical understanding of the Trinity and Christian theology, errors in this doctrine tend to have major ramifications.

One of the central aspects of one of the most famous doctrinal errors in history hinged upon a misunderstanding of this concept. Arius, in articulating the Son’s eternal generation from the Father, wrongly applied the analogy too literally; he took that which is true in the case of creatures, and applied it back onto God illegitimately, in a way that scripture does not intend us to. Arius reasoned, that since in the case of human generation, a son does not exist prior to his generation by his father, that the Son of God, therefore, did not always exist, because He was generated, and therefore, like a human son, must have not existed prior to His generation from the Father.

Arius’s logic in respect to humanity holds up; although perhaps a son may be said to exist in potentiality prior to his generation, a human son does not personally exist until he is begotten by his father, at which point he takes on a distinct personal existence. A human son, in the process of being generated, goes from nonexistence to existence, and so, as Arius correctly reasoned, does not exist prior to being begotten.

But Arius erred in his reasoning, by thinking that the same would be true in respect to God and His Son; He ignored God’s uniqueness, and the way in which God is different than man, in how he thought through this analogy’s application to the Son’s divine generation. God, after all, is eternal, and unchanging. This means that as He is Father, He has always been Father, eternally, and unchangingly. There is no point in time at which God went from not being Father, to being Father; He is so eternally and unchangingly. This is totally different than man, who goes from not being a father to being a father at some point in time, and who is always changing throughout his life.

Additionally, God’s generation of His Son took place before and outside of time (since time, being part of creation which was made through the Son, did not yet exist, so to speak). Since man was created in time, and only knows a temporal existence, this is a difficult concept for us to grasp. Since we are temporal creatures, all human generation takes place in time; but the Father begat the Son outside of time, and so, the situation, in that respect, is not analogous to our human experience. Thus conclusions drawn about the Son’s generation on the basis of a parallel in this respect are doomed to be flawed.

Arius erred greatly, then, when he proclaimed that just as a human son does not exist prior to his generation, so the Son of God did not exist prior to His generation, and there was a time when He was not, and that the Father was without the Son. The ultimate basis for this error was that Arius, in learning from the analogy of generation that God has given us in the scriptures to reveal His relationship with the Son, did not take into account God’s uniqueness, and the ways that God and man differ. Had he better taken into account the differences between God and man, that God does not change, and that His begetting of His Son was atemporal and outside of time rather than within it, he would not have made such errors. There can never have been a time when the Son was not, for the Son was begotten before time was created; and the Son has always been with the Father, and the Father is eternally and unchangingly Father.

Despite the vast difference between Arian and Athanasian theology, the Athanasian view of eternal generation errs in fundamentally the same way; it takes the analogy of human generation and applies it to God and His Son in an illegitimate way, because, as Arius’s doctrine did, it ignores God’s uniqueness, and the differences between God and man. It takes that which is true of man and not of God, and applies it back onto God, thereby using a good analogy that God gave us in the scriptures to reveal His relationship with His Son, to ultimately misrepresent that relationship.

What I mean is this: the Athanasian view of eternal generation reasons from the true fact that human father and son are defined by the same, identical set of ontological attributes, that therefore, God and His Son must also have the same exact set of ontological attributes. Every created son inherits a set of natural ontological properties from his father which he shares with his father; and so, it is reasoned, the Son of God inherits the ontological properties of His Father. Just as man, as a rational, mortal animal, begets from himself another individual who is equally a rational, mortal animal, so it is reasoned that the invisible, infinite God begat from Himself an equally invisible, infinite Son.

Yet this parallel, like that which Arius drew, flounders on the fact of God’s utter uniqueness, and the differences between God and man, which this view fails to take into account. For man to have an ontological equal is expected; we were created in such a way, and with such a nature, that we pass down to our descendants an identical set of ontological properties. This is true broadly in creation, and so everything reproduces after its own kind. Yet God is utterly unique; He tells us plainly that He has no ontological equal: “To whom would you liken Me, And make Me equal and compare Me, That we would be alike?” (Isaiah 46:5 NASB). And the Son likewise testified that “the Father is greater than I.” (John 14:28 NASB). God is ontologically unique, as, for instance, He alone of all things has no cause, source, or origin. All other things are caused by the Father; the Son is eternally begotten from the Father; the Spirit eternally proceeds from Him; and all creation was made by Him through the Son; yet He alone of all things simply is, eternally and unchangingly, without any cause, source or origin. And so God, in being unoriginate, is utterly unique. And having a unique existence, He has certain attributes that are simply impossible for other beings to share.

Among these is His infinitude. God, the Father, alone, of all things, is absolutely infinite, being beyond all bound, all limitation, and all measurement. Having no origin and no superior, He simply eternally and unchangingly is and exists, and there are no external limits upon Him whatsoever; but He, as the cause and source of all, sets the limits and bounds of all other things. And all other things, no matter how transcendent and great they may be, in having an origin of some sort or another, are in that sense as well, bound and limited. And it is impossible, according to the very nature of things, that there could be two infinite persons or beings; for if one were greater than the other, the greater would be a limit to the lesser, and so, only the greater would be infinite; and if two were conceived of as equal, each would pose a limit to the other, and constitute a measure of the other, and so, neither would be infinite. The Father then, being infinite, is alone infinite; and this ontological attribute is not communicable to another.

The mistake of Athanasian theology, then, is to suppose that all of God’s ontological attributes, like those of men, are such that can be communicated to another individual by generation, so as to result in another distinct person who is ontologically equal to the first. God’s attributes are far different than man’s; and while all of man’s natural ontological attributes are such that can be communicated to his offspring by generation, God, being unique, possesses attributes which according to the very nature of things are impossible to communicate to another. The Son is certainly like the Father, and bears the image of His Father (as in the case of a human father and son also); yet the Son does not for this reason possess all the same ontological attributes as His Father. While He transcends all creation, for example, as the one through Whom all creation was made and is upheld in its existence, He is not, like His Father, absolutely infinite. While the Son is light from light, no one will say that a finite light is ontologically identical to an infinite light; although the former is the perfect image of, and the exact representation of the latter, both being truly light. So the Son, begotten of the Father before the ages, is like His Father, and is the Image of His Father; yet not in such a way that we should imagine that He shares in all the unique ontological traits of the Father.

The mistake, then, of Athanasian and Arian christology is the same: both apply what is true in the case of human generation to God, although it is not applicable, because of the differences between God and man. By failing to account for these differences, both make the mistake of attributing things that are true in the case of creatures, but not of God and His Son, to God and His Son. Arian christology neglects that God’s generation of His Son took place outside of time, and that the Father is unchanging, and so, eternally Father. Athanasian christology neglects that God is utterly unique, and that as such, not all of His ontological attributes are communicable. Arianism denies that the Father is eternally Father, and that the Son is eternal in His existence, and Athanasian christology denies the Father’s ontological uniqueness, and creates a logical quandary that leads men to modalism; for in proclaiming that the Son is equally infinite with the Father, it leads men to think that the Son is the same person as the Father, since it is impossible that there be more infinite persons than one, and so, in order to make the Son infinite, He is also made to be the same person as the Father Himself.

Consubstantiality And Subordinationism In Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Novatian

Four prominent ante-nicene authors -Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Novatian- all speak, on the one hand, of the Son as being of the same substance as the Father; yet, on the other, all of them deny the ontological equality of the Son with the Father, teaching that the Father possesses certain ontological attributes that the Son does not. In this article, I want to examine their particular pre-nicene understanding of co-essentiality, looking at both what it was and was not, and how it drastically differs from the later Athanasian doctrine of co-essentiality.

In sum, the ante-nicene view of co-essentiality found in these fathers entails that the Son is, to speak crudely by way of analogy, composed of the same stuff as the Father. Just as one fire kindled from another, or light from light, are the same thing in their substance, so the Son is taught to be the same generic substance as the Father. Yet substance here is not equivalent to the idea of nature; unlike in Athanasian co-essentiality, the Son being the same substance as the Father, in the theology of these authors, does not entail Him having the same nature as the Father.

Since Athanasian co-essentiality treats ‘substance’ and ‘nature’ as equivalent, this may be a confusing idea for many. But this distinction best explains the teaching of these ante-nicene fathers on the subject. To clarify what we mean here, we must contrast what, according to the ante-nicene conception of the these fathers, a ‘substance’ was, compared to ‘nature’.

A substance, in the idea of these fathers, was, effectively, what something was; what it was composed of. A nature, on the other hand, is effectively a fixed set of properties which define what a thing is ontologically. That means that while there is overlap in these ideas, they were not identical. An illustration will help: a chair, and a boat, may be made of the same wood; and so the substance of both is the same, being composed of the same wood. Yet the nature of the chair and of the boat, will reasonably be considered to be the same by no one, since the properties which define the wooden chair differ significantly from the properties which define the boat made of the same wood.

Similarly, we may use the analogy of the sun and a ray from the Son, as some of the fathers do. Both the sun and the ray, according to their reckoning, are composed of the same thing, the same substance. What the sun is, the ray is. Yet the ray, compared to the sun, is by no means ontologically identical to the sun; and the nature of a ray, compared to the sun, will be found to not be the same, the set of properties which define one differing from the set of properties which define the other. The temperature of the sun, the brightness of its light, how closely one may approach to it without being burned, etc, compared to the ray, will all be different. Yet, according to the reckoning of these fathers, the sun and its ray are both composed of a common substance.

So in the reckoning of the these fathers, the Father and Son share one substance;

“And that this power which the prophetic word calls God, as has been also amply demonstrated, and Angel, is not numbered [as different] in name only like the light of the sun but is indeed something numerically distinct, I have discussed briefly in what has gone before; when I asserted that this power was begotten from the Father, by His power and will, but not by abscission, as if the essence of the Father were divided; as all other things partitioned and divided are not the same after as before they were divided: and, for the sake of example, I took the case of fires kindled from a fire, which we see to be distinct from it, and yet that from which many can be kindled is by no means made less, but remains the same.” (Justin, Dialogue With Trypho, Ch 128)

When Justin declares that the Son is begotten from the Father like fire kindled from fire, he clearly intimates that the Son is the same substance as the Father, yet without any change to the Father.

“So then the Father is Lord and the Son is Lord, and the Father is God and the Son is God; for that which is begotten of God is God. And so in the substance and power of His being there is shown forth one God; but there is also according to the economy of our redemption both Son and Father. Because to created things the Father of all is invisible and unapproachable, therefore those who are to draw near to God must have their access to the Father through the Son.” (Irenaeus, Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, 47).

So Irenaeus says the Son shows forth that there is one God, because, although He is a distinct person from the Father, yet in sharing in the substance and authority of the Father, He shows forth that the Father is one God, and there is no other, as He (the Son) is of no other substance, and rules with no other power, than that of His Father.

“…especially in the case of this heresy [Modalism], which supposes itself to possess the pure truth, in thinking that one cannot believe in One Only God in any other way than by saying that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are the very selfsame Person. As if in this way also one were not All, in that All are of One, by unity (that is) of substance; while the mystery of the dispensation is still guarded, which distributes the Unity into a Trinity, placing in their order the three Persons— the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost: three, however, not in condition, but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as He is one God, from whom these degrees and forms and aspects are reckoned” (Tertullian, Against Praxeas, Ch 2)

And so Tertullian says that while the Son differs from the Father in form, He is one substance with Him.

“And thus by the word of the angel the distinction is made, against the desire of the heretics, between the Son of God and man; yet with their association, by pressing them to understand that Christ the Son of man is man, and also to receive the Son of God and man the Son of God; that is, the Word of God as it is written, as God; and thus to acknowledge that Christ Jesus the Lord, connected on both sides, so to speak, is on both sides woven in and grown together, and associated in the same agreement of both substances, by the binding to one another of a mutual alliance — man and God by the truth of the Scripture which declares this very thing…  The true and eternal Father is manifested as the one God, from whom alone this power of divinity is sent forth, and also given and directed upon the Son, and is again returned by the communion of substance to the Father.” (Novatian, On the Trinity, Ch 24, 31)

And so Novatian ascribes to the Son the substance of God, and that there is a “communion of substance” between the Father and Son.

So while they all saw the Son, as being genuinely and uniquely generated from the Father (not, as a creature, brought into existence out of nothing), as sharing one substance with the Father, yet they did not, for that reason, ever suppose the Son to be ontologically equal to the Father in all His attributes. For all these same fathers teach the ontological subordination of the Son to the Father, in no uncertain terms, ascribing the attributes of infinitude and invisibility solely to the Father. And Novatian does not hesitate to proclaim that the Son is not identical to the Father in nature, but only “of like nature with the Father in some measure” (On the Trinity, Ch 31). This will only make sense, as being congruent with what was quoted of him above, if we recognize that he did not understand substance and nature to be the same thing.

These fathers draw an ontological distinction between the Father and the Son, in proving that the Angel of the Lord is the Son, not the Father, as they employ the argument that the Father could not have appeared to the men of old, because of His infinitude and invisibility. Being infinite and invisible, it would be impossible to have been seen by men in a certain space; but the Son could do so. The obvious and unavoidable implication of the argument being that the Son did not possess these attributes equally with the Father, or else the same actions would have been equally impossible for Him to undertake, on account of Him having those same attributes of invisibility and infinitude.

So Justin in taught:

“Moses, then, the blessed and faithful servant of God, declares that He who appeared to Abraham under the oak in Mamre is God, sent with the two angels in His company to judge Sodom by Another who remains ever in the supercelestial places, invisible to all men, holding personal intercourse with none, whom we believe to be Maker and Father of all things…  Even if this were so, my friends, that an angel and God were together in the vision seen by Moses, yet, as has already been proved to you by the passages previously quoted, it will not be the Creator of all things that is the God that said to Moses that He was the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, but it will be He who has been proved to you to have appeared to Abraham, ministering to the will of the Maker of all things, and likewise carrying into execution His counsel in the judgment of Sodom; so that, even though it be as you say, that there were two–an angel and God–he who has but the smallest intelligence will not venture to assert that the Maker and Father of all things, having left all supercelestial matters, was visible on a little portion of the earth.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Ch 56, 60)

And in chapter 127 of his Dialogue With Trypho, Justin says:

“These and other such sayings are recorded by the lawgiver and by the prophets; and I suppose that I have stated sufficiently, that wherever God says, ‘God went up from Abraham,’ or, ‘The Lord spake to Moses,’ and ‘The Lord came down to behold the tower which the sons of men had built,’ or when ‘God shut Noah into the ark,’ you must not imagine that the unbegotten God Himself came down or went up from any place. For the ineffable Father and Lord of all neither has come to any place, nor walks, nor sleeps, nor rises up, but remains in His own place, wherever that is, quick to behold and quick to hear, having neither eyes nor ears, but being of indescribable might; and He sees all things, and knows all things, and none of us escapes His observation; and He is not moved or confined to a spot in the whole world, for He existed before the world was made. How, then, could He talk with any one, or be seen by any one, or appear on the smallest portion of the earth, when the people at Sinai were not able to look even on the glory of Him who was sent from Him; and Moses himself could not enter into the tabernacle which he had erected, when it was filled with the glory of God; and the priest could not endure to stand before the temple when Solomon conveyed the ark into the house in Jerusalem which he had built for it? Therefore neither Abraham, nor Isaac, nor Jacob, nor any other man, saw the Father and ineffable Lord of all, and also of Christ, but [saw] Him who was according to His will His Son, being God, and the Angel because He ministered to His will; whom also it pleased Him to be born man by the Virgin; who also was fire when He conversed with Moses from the bush.”

So Justin treats it as impossible that the Father could have done the things the Angel of the Lord did; so, he reasons, the Angel must have been the Son. He says we must not imagine that God moved from place to place, because He is immense and omnipresent; yet He ascribes to the Son being a certain place; the very thing that he argues would be impossible for the Father due to His very nature, He says was done by the Son, clearly indicating that He did not believe the Son shared the attributes under discussion with His Father. For had the Son shared these attributes equally, on account of which it was impossible for the Father to do such things, it would have been equally impossible for the Son to perform them.

And Irenaeus, in his Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, employed the same argument, to show that the Angel of the Lord was the Son, and could not have been the Father:

“For it was not the Father of all, who is not seen by the world, the Maker of all who said: Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool: what house will ye build me, or what is the place of my rest? and who comprehendeth the earth with his hand, and with his span the heaven —-it was not He that came and stood in a very small space and spake with Abraham; but the Word of God, who was ever with mankind, and made known beforehand what should come to pass in the future, and taught men the things of God.”

Irenaeus here is not so explicit as Justin, but it is clear that the argument is one and the same, and so, the logic of it is also the same. If he does not intend to show a difference between the Father and Son, as Justin did, then we must wonder what purpose quoting passages about God’s immensity and infinitude would be, other than that to say that on account of these it is impossible that He is the one Who appeared in a “very small space”. Whereas for the Son it was possible, which can only be so if He is not thought to be equally infinite with the Father.

Irenaeus also says, “to created things the Father of all is invisible and unapproachable, therefore those who are to draw near to God must have their access to the Father through the Son.” (Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, 47); thus declaring that the Father in invisible and unapproachable to created things, while the Son is not, and so declares a difference between them; men drawing near to the Father through the Son, not only after the Son’s incarnation, but also prior to the incarnation.

And Tertullian, in Chapter 16 of Against Praxeas, wrote along the same lines:

Moreover, how comes it to pass, that the Almighty Invisible God, whom no man has seen nor can see; He who dwells in light unapproachable; 1 Timothy 6:16 He who dwells not in temples made with hands; Acts 17:24 from before whose sight the earth trembles, and the mountains melt like wax; who holds the whole world in His hand like a nest; Isaiah 10:14 whose throne is heaven, and earth His footstool; Isaiah 66:1 in whom is every place, but Himself is in no place; who is the utmost bound of the universe — how happens it, I say, that He (who, though) the Most High, should yet have walked in paradise towards the cool of the evening, in quest of Adam; and should have shut up the ark after Noah had entered it; and at Abraham’s tent should have refreshed Himself under an oak; and have called to Moses out of the burning bush; and have appeared as the fourth in the furnace of the Babylonian monarch (although He is there called the Son of man) — unless all these events had happened as an image, as a mirror, as an enigma (of the future incarnation)? Surely even these things could not have been believed even of the Son of God, unless they had been given us in the Scriptures; possibly also they could not have been believed of the Father, even if they had been given in the Scriptures, since these men bring Him down into Mary’s womb, and set Him before Pilate’s judgment-seat, and bury Him in the sepulchre of Joseph. Hence, therefore, their error becomes manifest; for, being ignorant that the entire order of the divine administration has from the very first had its course through the agency of the Son, they believe that the Father Himself was actually seen, and held converse with men, and worked, and was thirsty, and suffered hunger (in spite of the prophet who says: The everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, shall never thirst at all, nor be hungry; Isaiah 40:28 much more, shall neither die at any time, nor be buried!), and therefore that it was uniformly one God, even the Father, who at all times did Himself the things which were really done by Him through the agency of the Son.”

See his argument, that it is absurd and impossible to suppose that God the Father could have been seen, and been present in a particular location, and have, as the Angel of the Lord, in his view, even suffered hunger and thirst, and yet all these things he readily ascribes to the Son. He does not say anything along the lines of that the Son is equally invisible, and infinite, and impassible, but instead treats it as to be expected that the Son was not defined by these qualities, while the Father is.

And Novatian, in chapters 17-18 of his treatise on the Trinity, is even more explicit than the rest:

“What if the same Moses everywhere introduces God the Father infinite and without end, not as being enclosed in any place, but as one who includes every place; nor as one who is in a place, but rather one in whom every place is, containing all things and embracing all things, so that with reason He can neither descend nor ascend, because He Himself both contains and fills all things, and yet nevertheless introduces God descending to consider the tower which the sons of men were building, asking and saying, Come; and then, Let us go down and there confound their tongues, that each one may not understand the words of his neighbour. Whom do they pretend here to have been the God who descended to that tower, and asking to visit those men at that time? God the Father? Then thus He is enclosed in a place; and how does He embrace all things? Or does He say that it is an angel descending with angels, and saying, Come; and subsequently, Let us go down and there confound their tongues? And yet in Deuteronomy we observe that God told these things, and that God said, where it is written, When He scattered abroad the children of Adam, He determined the bounds of the nations according to the number of the angels of God. Neither, therefore, did the Father descend, as the subject itself indicates; nor did an angel command these things, as the fact shows. Then it remains that He must have descended, of whom the Apostle Paul says, He who descended is the same who ascended above all the heavens, that He might fill all things, that is, the Son of God, the Word of God. But the Word of God was made flesh, and dwelt among us. This must be Christ. Therefore Christ must be declared to be God.

Behold, the same Moses tells us in another place that God was seen of Abraham. And yet the same Moses hears from God, that no man can see God and live. If God cannot be seen, how was God seen? Or if He was seen, how is it that He cannot be seen? For John also says, No man has seen God at any time; and the Apostle Paul, Whom no man has seen, nor can see. But certainly the Scripture does not lie; therefore, truly, God was seen. Whence it may be understood that it was not the Father who was seen, seeing that He never was seen; but the Son, who has both been accustomed to descend, and to be seen because He has descended. For He is the image of the invisible God, as the imperfection and frailty of the human condition was accustomed sometimes even then to see God the Father in the image of God, that is, in the Son of God. For gradually and by progression human frailty was to be strengthened by the image to that glory of being able one day to see God the Father. For the things that are great are dangerous if they are sudden. For even the sudden light of the sun after darkness, with its too great splendour, will not make manifest the light of day to unaccustomed eyes, but will rather strike them with blindness.

And lest this should occur to the injury of human eyes, the darkness is broken up and scattered by degrees; and the rising of that luminary, mounting by small and unperceived increments, gently accustoms men’s eyes to bear its full orb by the gentle increase of its rays. Thus, therefore, Christ also — that is, the image of God, and the Son of God— is looked upon by men, inasmuch as He could be seen. And thus the weakness and imperfection of the human destiny is nourished, led up, and educated by Him; so that, being accustomed to look upon the Son, it may one day be able to see God the Father Himself also as He is, that it may not be stricken by His sudden and intolerable brightness, and be hindered from being able to see God the Father, whom it has always desired. Wherefore it is the Son who is seen; but the Son of God is the Word of God: and the Word of God was made flesh, and dwelt among us; and this is Christ.”

The Father, then, according to Novatian, is invisible to mortal men, and infinite, and immense; and for these reasons it is absurd and impossible to suppose that He appeared to the patriarchs, but it must rather have been the Son; Who he then pre-supposes is different than the Father in those respects, or else his argument makes no sense. But a little while later, Novatian specifies that the Son is ontologically subordinate to the Father even more clearly, in chapter 31 of the same treatise:

“And He [the Son] is always in the Father, unless the Father be not always Father, only that the Father also precedes Him — in a certain sense — since it is necessary — in some degree — that He should be before He is Father. Because it is essential that He who knows no beginning must go before Him who has a beginning; even as He is the less as knowing that He is in Him, having an origin because He is born, and of like nature with the Father in some measure by His nativity… Assuredly God proceeding from God, causing a person second to the Father as being the Son, but not taking from the Father that characteristic that He is one God. For if He had not been born — compared with Him who was unborn, an equality being manifested in both — He would make two unborn beings, and thus would make two Gods. If He had not been begotten — compared with Him who was not begotten, and as being found equal — they not being begotten, would have reasonably given two Gods, and thus Christ would have been the cause of two Gods. Had He been formed without beginning as the Father, and He Himself the beginning of all things as is the Father, this would have made two beginnings, and consequently would have shown to us two Gods also. Or if He also were not the Son, but the Father begetting from Himself another Son, reasonably, as compared with the Father, and designated as great as He, He would have caused two Fathers, and thus also He would have proved the existence of two Gods. Had He been invisible, as compared with the Invisible, and declared equal, He would have shown forth two Invisibles, and thus also He would have proved them to be two Gods. If incomprehensible, if also whatever other attributes belong to the Father, reasonably we say, He would have given rise to the allegation of two Gods, as these people feign.”

It is clear, then, that of these fathers, some of the most eminent Christian writers of the second and third centuries, all believed that the Son is not ontologically equal with the Father, the Father alone being infinite and invisible, according to them.

And their teaching on this point will be observed to be both scripturally sound and reasonable; for the scriptures again and again teach that no man can see the Father and live (Exodus 33:20), and that no man has seen God at any time (John 1:18), and that no man has seen or can see the Father, Who dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim 6:16); yet the Son was seen face to face by many men of old prior to the incarnation, as these fathers have said; and John tells us that Isaiah saw his glory (John 12:41).

The Father, also, is infinite, not being limited by anything, knowing no external bounds, being beyond all measure and limitation. For “Great is the Lord, and highly to be praised, And His greatness is unsearchable.” (Psalm 145:3 NASB). And “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!” (Romans 11:33 NASB). “Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, In heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps.” (Psalm 135:6 NASB). God then is infinite, beyond all measure and all limitation. And this includes having a beginning; for to have an origin is itself to experience some limitation; and the Father has no beginning, no origin, or cause, or source. But the Son, on the other hand, has the Father Himself as the Author of His being, and the Beginning of His life, and the Cause of His person. The Father alone then, is infinite, as Novatian also testifies:

“And thus He is declared to be one, having no equal. For whatever can be God, must as God be of necessity the Highest. But whatever is the Highest, must certainly be the Highest in such sense as to be without any equal. And thus that must needs be alone and one on which nothing can be conferred, having no peer; because there cannot be two infinites, as the very nature of things dictates. And that is infinite which neither has any sort of beginning nor end. For whatever has occupied the whole excludes the beginning of another. Because if He does not contain all which is, whatever it is — seeing that what is found in that whereby it is contained is found to be less than that whereby it is contained — He will cease to be God; being reduced into the power of another, in whose greatness He, being smaller, shall have been included. And therefore what contained Him would then rather claim to be God. Whence it results that God’s own name also cannot be declared, because He cannot be conceived. For that is contained in a name which is, in any way, comprehended from the condition of His nature. For the name is the signification of that thing which could be comprehended from a name. But when that which is treated of is such that it cannot be worthily gathered into one form by the very understanding itself, how shall it be set forth fittingly in the one word of an appellation, seeing that as it is beyond the intellect, it must also of necessity be above the significancy of the appellation?” (On the Trinity, Ch 4)

And as Novatian says, there cannot, according to the nature of things, be two infinite beings or persons; for if one were greater than the other, the greater would be a limit to the other, and only one would in fact be infinite. Of if we were to conceive of two equally infinite, this would be an impossibility, as each would constitute a certain limit to, and measure of, the other. There can then only be one infinite person; and this we know is the Father. The Son is manifestly limited by the Father, when He says “Therefore Jesus answered and was saying to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner.” (John 5:19 NASB); and again “I can do nothing on My own initiative. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is just, because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” (John 5:30 NASB). And if anyone will simply believe the words of Christ, rather than seek to explain them away so that they may vindicate the opinions of Athanasius, the truth of the matter will appear plain to them, that the Son, being ever willingly and lovingly subject to the will of the Father, is limited in some sense, by the Father; while the Father, being Himself under the authority of none, is absolutely unlimited. For it is always the Father Who works through the Son, and not the other way around, showing that the Son always does the Father’s will, being subject to Him as an obedient and perfect Son, while the Father is subject to none, being Himself supreme over all.

And from this it will appear, that since there cannot be two infinite persons (a person being a rational individual being), that either the Father alone is absolutely infinite, and the Son is not, or else the Son is infinite, by being the same person as the Father. For it is clear that in this matter, the Father can have no equal. So either the Son will be equal with the Father by being the Father Himself, which is the demonic heresy of Sabellianism, or else the Son is Himself, as a truly distinct person from the Father (that is, as a true Son), not infinite as the Father is. The idea then, that the Son may be, as a distinct person from the Father, ontologically equal to Him, is shown to be nothing more than an inconsistent fiction; hear the Father say “To whom would you liken Me, And make Me equal and compare Me, That we would be alike?” (Isaiah 46:5 NASB). God has no ontological equal; and while His Son transcends all creation, as the one through Whom all things were made, and through Whom their existence is upheld, yet we must then believe His own words when He says “the Father is greater than I.” (John 14:28 NASB).

Those then, who seek to make the Son ontologically identical to His Father in all His attributes, on account of His being generated from the Father before the ages, neglect God’s utter uniqueness, and that not all of His ontological attributes are communicable to another person, by the very nature of things.

The reasoning of Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Novatian, then, is vindicated by the scriptures, that the Father alone is invisible and infinite; and so, not only in respect to causality and authority, but also ontologically, is greater than the Son. Yet as we have shown above, they did not, for this reason, think that the Son was of any other substance than that of the Father. And so it sufficiently shown that these fathers distinguished between substance, and nature and attributes; ascribing to the Son that He is of one substance with the Father, while He is also ontologically subordinate to the Father in some of His attributes.

And so the Son is the true Son of the Father, begotten of Him before creation, as fire from fire, as light from light; and that one is light is infinite, the other only transcendent of creation, will not take away from the fact that both the infinite light and the transcendent light begotten from it are both light; and yet, no one will on account of that fact, rightly make that which merely transcends creation, equal with that which is absolutely infinite. And though the ray and the sun are both rightly regarded as sun, and reckoned to be of one and the same substance, no one will consider the ray identical to the sun in all its attributes. But these things, being lesser, bear the image of that which is greater by their common substance. And so the unbegotten God, the Father, will rightly be regarded as ontologically greater than the only-begotten God, His Son.

This ante-nicene reckoning of consubstantiality, then, is shown to be consistent with the holy scriptures and the best logic; resolving the difficulties that arose from the later, Athanasian view of co-essentiality, which, in declaring the Son of the same substance as the Father, make Him out to be entirely identical to Him ontologically; and so deny that the Son was seen by men prior to the incarnation, as the scriptures teach, and introduce the absurdity of two infinite beings. For in proclaiming that the Son is invisible and infinite, equally with the Father, the Athanasian view sets itself irreconcilably opposed to scripture, and dooms itself to resort to modalism, inasmuch as the Son can never be maintained to be equally infinite with the father, unless He is made to be the very person of the Father Himself. And for this reason, an Athanasian view of co-essentiality has never been held for very long, except that it results in semi-modalism.