Origen Against Modalism

By the time origin wrote modalism had already spread through the world as one of the most rampant and dangerous heresies the church faced. So when Origin wrote his commentary on John, he was careful to note how some misunderstood John 1 in a modalistic fashion, and provide an orthodox interpretation of the passage. He wrote:

“We next notice John’s use of the article in these sentences. He does not write without care in this respect, nor is he unfamiliar with the niceties of the Greek tongue. In some cases he uses the article, and in some he omits it. He adds the article to the Logos, but to the name of God he adds it sometimes only. He uses the article, when the name of God refers to the uncreated cause of all things, and omits it when the Logos is named God. Does the same difference which we observe between God with the article and God without it prevail also between the Logos with it and without it? We must enquire into this. As the God who is over all is God with the article not without it, so the Logos is the source of that reason (Logos) which dwells in every reasonable creature; the reason which is in each creature is not, like the former called par excellence The Logos. Now there are many who are sincerely concerned about religion, and who fall here into great perplexity. They are afraid that they may be proclaiming two Gods, and their fear drives them into doctrines which are false and wicked [modalism]. Either they deny that the Son has a distinct nature of His own besides that of the Father [that is, that He is a distinct individual being besides the Father], and make Him whom they call the Son to be God all but the name [that is, make Him the same individual being as the Father, only being a different name for the same individual being], or they deny the divinity of the Son, giving Him a separate existence of His own, and making His sphere of essence fall outside that of the Father, so that they are separable from each other [such anticipates Arianism]. To such persons we have to say that God on the one hand is Very God (Autotheos, God of Himself); and so the Saviour says in His prayer to the Father, John 17:3 That they may know You the only true God; but that all beyond the Very God is made God by participation in His divinity, and is not to be called simply God (with the article), but rather God (without article). And thus the first-born of all creation, who is the first to be with God, and to attract to Himself divinity, is a being of more exalted rank than the other gods beside Him, of whom God is the God, as it is written, The God of gods, the Lord, has spoken and called the earth. It was by the offices of the first-born that they became gods, for He drew from God in generous measure that they should be made gods, and He communicated it to them according to His own bounty. The true God, then, is The God, and those who are formed after Him are gods, images, as it were, of Him the prototype. But the archetypal image, again, of all these images is the Word of God, who was in the beginning, and who by being with God is at all times God, not possessing that of Himself, but by His being with the Father, and not continuing to be God, if we should think of this, except by remaining always in uninterrupted contemplation of the depths of the Father.” (Book 2, Ch 2)

And so the Father is distinguished from the Son as a distinct person, not only as a distinct consciousness, or mode, or aspect of the Supreme Being, but as another distinct individual being besides the Father. And while the Father is God ‘of Himself’, viz, because of Himself, the Son is God on account of the Father, and so the Father alone being God ‘of Himself’, is alone called ‘true God’ in Origen’s understanding.

“Now since the Savior here is “light” in general, and in the catholic epistle of the same John, God is said to be light, one thinks it is confirmed from that source too that the Father is not distinct from the son in essence [that is, individual being]. But another who has observed more accurately and speaks more soundly will say that the light which shines in the darkness and is not overcome by it, and the light in which there is no darkness at all are not the same [individual being].”

“Essence” here must be read in reference to individual being, not generic nature, for already in the above cited paragraph Origen made it clear that in this latter (generic) respect the Son is in His view “within the same sphere of essence” as the Father.

“Now there are some who fall into confusion on this head of the Father and the Son, and we must devote a few words to them. They quote the text, 1 Corinthians 15:15 Yea, and we are found false witnesses for God, because we testified against God that He raised up Christ, whom He raised not up, and other similar texts which show the raiser-up to be another person than He who was raised up; and the text, Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up, as if it resulted from these that the Son did not differ in number from the Father, but that both were one, not only in point of substance but in point of subject, and that the Father and the Son were said to be different in some of their aspects but not in their hypostases. Against such views we must in the first place adduce the leading texts which prove the Son to be another than the Father, and that the Son must of necessity be the son of a Father, and the Father, the father of a Son. Then we may very properly refer to Christ’s declaration that He cannot do anything but what He sees the Father doing and saying, John 5:19 because whatever the Father does that the Son also does in like manner, and that He had raised the dead, i.e., the body, the Father granting Him this, who must be said to have been the principal agent in raising up Christ from the dead.” (Book 10, Ch 21)

Here Origen again addresses modalism, and notes that the Son and Father are not only distinct in some sort of modal way, but as being numerically distinct, two distinct individual beings.

In the end, Origen is fallible and his opinions do not prove that the Son is a distinct individual being from the Father. But it is worthwhile to show that Origen, like the other orthodox ante-nicene fathers, did not consider the Son and Father to be the same individual being. Those who claim that the church fathers taught something similar to modern trinitarianism will be sorely disappointed if they actually read the fathers, to find only Sabellians agree with them on this very fundamental point of doctrine.


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