The Medieval Reform Attempt That Tried to Rescue the Church From Semi-modalism

Anyone following this blog will be aware of my contention that the church fathers of the Nicene and Ante-Nicene era articulated the classical doctrine of the Trinity as scripture reveals it and the apostles handed it down orally, but that later, in the post-nicene era, the false teaching of semi-modalism became prevalent in the western church starting in the fifth century, and eventually left no quarter of the church unaffected by its crafty lies.

There are, however, reasonable questions that can be asked as to how exactly this change took place. How could the church trade in its orthodox trinitarianism, such as that articulated by the Nicene Creed, for semi-modalism, a false teaching antithetical to the classical doctrine of the Trinity? Where was the opposition to these changes?

The full answer to these questions is beyond the scope of this post. We must remember that since the late second century the Roman church had seriously struggled with classical modalism, and seems to have never fully escaped the sway of modalism afterwards, in one form or another. We must also remember that both the heresy of Arianism itself, as well as the special philosophical language introduced by orthodox Christians to combat it, caused an immense amount of doctrinal confusion in the century following Nicea. A growing linguistic and cultural divide between the Latin-speaking western churches and the Greek-speaking eastern churches also made it easier for things to get out of hand.

But even a several centuries after Augustine had lead most of the Latin church into a whole-hearted embrace of semi-modalism, opposition to this false doctrine can still be seen. One effort at reform in particular stands out because it received the attention of an “ecumenical” council (meaning, it was inclusive of European churches only, by this time, since the great schism had already excluded most professing Christians from the catholic church in the minds of the Latin churchmen).

The effort I speak of was of one Abbot Joachim. Abbott Joachim in the thirteenth century condemning the writings of Peter Lombard, who had authored his famous Sentences in the previous century, a work which became a staple textbook of semi-modalistic medieval scholasticism. Abbot Joachim condemned Lombard for teaching that the essence, that is, the divine nature shared by the persons of the Trinity, was itself a person, and thus introducing a fourth person into the Trinity. He bravely and boldly took a stand against semi-modalism, authoring a controversial book on the subject in hopes of providing a doctrinal corrective to the semi-modalism he saw Lombard as teaching.

This book apparently created quite a lot of controversy in his time, as he gained the attention of a Papal council for his efforts. But semi-modalism, by this time, had already gained wide acceptance by the Latin church, led by the historically modalistic church of Rome.

The Fourth Lateran Council, instead of taking action to combat semi-modalism as Joachim’s work recommended, defended the false teaching of semi-modalism, and condemned Abbot Joachim. This represents a tragic moment in church history, in this author’s opinion.

Part of the decision given by the council read as follows:

“We therefore condemn and reprove that small book or treatise which abbot Joachim published against master Peter Lombard concerning the unity or essence of the Trinity, in which he calls Peter Lombard a heretic and a madman because he said in his Sentences, “For there is a certain supreme reality which is the Father and the Son and the holy Spirit, and it neither begets nor is begotten nor does it proceed”. He asserts from this that Peter Lombard ascribes to God not so much a Trinity as a quaternity, that is to say three persons and a common essence as if this were a fourth person. Abbot Joachim clearly protests that there does not exist any reality which is the Father and the Son and the holy Spirit-neither an essence nor a substance nor a nature — although he concedes that the Father and the Son and the holy Spirit are one essence, one substance and one nature…

We however, with the approval of this sacred and universal council [universal as in Roman Catholic only, lest the Eastern Orthodox or Coptics seem to be slandered by this shameful decision], 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. Thus there is a distinction of persons but a unity of nature. Although therefore the Father is one person, the Son another person, and the Holy Spirit another person, they are not different realities, but rather that which is the Father is the Son and the Holy Spirit, altogether the same; thus according to the orthodox and catholic faith they are believed to be consubstantial [notice they redefine the consubstantiality at Nicea]. For the Father, in begetting the Son from eternity gave him His substance as he himself testifies: What the Father gave me is greater than all. It cannot be said that the Father gave him part of his substance and kept part for himself since the Fathers substance is indivisible, in as much as it is altogether simple. Nor can it be said that the Father transferred his substance to the Son in the act of begetting, as if he gave it to the Son in such as way that he did not retain it for himself; for otherwise he would have ceased to be substance. It is therefore clear that in being begotten the Son received the Father’s substance without it being diminished in any way, and thus the Father and the Son have the same substance. Thus the Father and the Son and also the Holy Spirit proceeding from both are the same reality.”

This sad statement, masquerading as the decision of an ecumenical council, skillfully avoids calling the Trinity as a whole or the divine nature/essence a person, and in fact denies it. Instead it leaves us with the extremely ambiguous and unhelpful confession that the Trinity as a whole is one “reality”.

While it avoids out-and-out expressing semi-modalism, the council’s summary of the faith is still ultimately semi-modalistic. The council claims that there is “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” and calls this “supreme reality” the “one principle of all things, creator of all things invisible and visible, spiritual and corporeal; who by his almighty power at the beginning of time created from nothing both spiritual and corporeal creatures, that is to say angelic and earthly, and then created human beings composed as it were of both spirit and body in common.” Notice, this one “reality” which is the Father, Son, and Spirit is a “he”. Thus they clearly treat this ‘thing’ as a person, although they do not come out and say such expressly.

It is worth noting that the decision of the council records that Abbot Joachim provided a great deal of scriptural testimony to prove his contentions. This seems to have ultimately have been ignored in favor of the above confession, which does not even seem to make any attempt to prove what it is saying from scripture.

For those who will take the decision of this Papal council as proof that semi-modalism is true, little can be done to help; but anyone who will acknowledge that we must see every point of doctrine proven from scripture before we will believe it will find that the council’s decision provides little more than the opinions of men, who, in this case, were wrong.

Basil the Great on the Distinction Between Essence and Person

Basil the Great is one of the better-known theologians of the early church. He wrote at the beginning of the post-nicene era, and did much to combat Arianism. Basil wrote a letter to his brother Gregory in which he elucidates the distinction between ‘person’ or ‘hypostasis’ and ‘nature’ or ‘essence’. While the terminology he was using was perhaps somewhat new, the conceptual difference between the person, or the individual, and nature, or essence, which is common to many individuals, is a very old one, logically necessary to articulate a Nicene version of the doctrine of the Trinity. The idea of this distinction is important for sake of understanding the development of trinitarian doctrine over time. The entire letter can be read here:

“1. Many persons, in their study of the sacred dogmas, failing to distinguish between what is common in the essence or substance, and the meaning of the hypostases, arrive at the same notions, and think that it makes no difference whether οὐσία or hypostasis be spoken of. The result is that some of those who accept statements on these subjects without any enquiry, are pleased to speak of “one hypostasis,” just as they do of one “essence” or “substance;” while on the other hand those who accept three hypostases are under the idea that they are bound in accordance with this confession, to assert also, by numerical analogy, three essences or substances. Under these circumstances, lest you fall into similar error, I have composed a short treatise for you by way of memorandum. The meaning of the words, to put it shortly, is as follows:

2. Of all nouns the sense of some, which are predicated of subjects plural and numerically various, is more general; as for instance man. When we so say, we employ the noun to indicate the common nature, and do not confine our meaning to any one man in particular who is known by that name. Peter, for instance is no more man, than Andrew, John, or James. The predicate therefore being common, and extending to all the individuals ranked under the same name, requires some note of distinction whereby we may understand not man in general, but Peter or John in particular.

Of some nouns on the other hand the denotation is more limited; and by the aid of the limitation we have before our minds not the common nature, but a limitation of anything, having, so far as the peculiarity extends, nothing in common with what is of the same kind; as for instance, Paul or Timothy. For, in a word, of this kind there is no extension to what is common in the nature; there is a separation of certain circumscribed conceptions from the general idea, and expression of them by means of their names. Suppose then that two or more are set together, as, for instance, Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, and that an enquiry is made into the essence or substance of humanity; no one will give one definition of essence or substance in the case of Paul, a second in that of Silvanus, and a third in that of Timothy; but the same words which have been employed in setting forth the essence or substance of Paul will apply to the others also. Those who are described by the same definition of essence or substance are of the same essence or substance when the enquirer has learned what is common, and turns his attention to the differentiating properties whereby one is distinguished from another, the definition by which each is known will no longer tally in all particulars with the definition of another, even though in some points it be found to agree.

3. My statement, then, is this. That which is spoken of in a special and peculiar manner is indicated by the name of the hypostasis. Suppose we say “a man.” The indefinite meaning of the word strikes a certain vague sense upon the ears. The nature is indicated, but what subsists and is specially and peculiarly indicated by the name is not made plain. Suppose we say “Paul.” We set forth, by what is indicated by the name, the nature subsisting.”

Its noteworthy then that Basil understood ‘essence’ as a generic nature shared by multiple distinct persons. When the Son was confessed to be ‘co-essential’, that is, of the same essence as the Father, then, what was being communicated was the idea that Christ shared a common nature or genus with His Father. Over the following centuries, that view would be replaced by the alternative view that the one essence that the Father and Son share is a person, who is them both; the heresy of semi-modalism.

The Trinity: Three Persons or Four?

If you ask anyone how many persons there are in the Trinity, they will likely tell you there are three. This is obvious- the very word “Trinity” comes from ‘Tri’=three, combined with ‘unity’, meaning three in unity. Three persons, of one essence, as the classical formulation goes.

Sadly though, if we actually take the time to examine how many persons many so-called trinitarians believe in, we will quickly see that there is an extra person afoot. This is because many theologians who have succumbed to the lies of semi-modalism have accepted the Trinity itself as a fourth person. These people take the one essence, or divine nature that is supposed to be shared by the three real persons of the Trinity and imagine it to be a person itself. Another variation of this is to simply imagine that the group of three persons is a single person. By personifying either the group of persons or the divine nature, these false teachers have craftily introduced a fourth person into the Trinity.

Most of the patrons of this error hold their belief in semi-secret. They clearly think of the Trinity as a person in itself. They call it the ‘one God’ (who is actually the person of the Father, see:, the “triune god”, and “god the Trinity”. They worship this person, pray to this person, and constantly expose their belief that this person is a person by using explicitly personal pronouns. When they speak of the “triune god” or “god the Trinity” they always call him “he” and “you”, not “it”, or they”, as we would use to speak of the divine nature or the group of persons together, respectively.

A few of these false teachers, like Cornelius Van Til, have even come out and admitted their belief in a fourth person openly, such as when he wrote:

“… It is sometimes asserted that we can prove to men that we are not asserting anything that they ought to consider irrational, inasmuch as we say that God is one in essence and three in person. We therefore claim that we have not asserted unity and trinity of exactly the same thing.

Yet this is not the whole truth of the matter. We do assert that God, that is, the whole Godhead, is one person…. In other words, we are bound to maintain the identity of the attributes of God with the being of God in order to avoid the specter of brute fact.”

While we must loath Van Til’s heresy, his honesty is praiseworthy. Most such semi-modalists will vehemently deny that they believe the Trinity is a person if asked. Of course, the only difference between their view and Van Til’s conceptually is that they deny the term “person” to the Trinity while clearly treating it as such, while Van Til was honest enough to come out and say what he really thought.

We must recognise this problem. Many people have fallen into thinking in these ways by mistake, not realising that they had traded in their belief in the true Trinity of scripture for a false Trinity of man’s imagination, with four persons instead of three. There is a world of difference between having accidentally having fallen into thinking about these things in a way that is mistaken and having consciously rejected the true doctrine of the Trinity in favor of a false one. Many genuine Christians have temporarily fallen into mistakenly thinking of the Trinity wrongly. Each person must take heed, lest he be deceived, and whoever has been deceived must repent and embrace the truth. It is not the part of true Christians to never err, for all do; rather it is the part of true Christians to repent when they do. Therefore let those who have erred in this respect repent, and embrace the truth.

A Plea to Church Leadership to Take a Stand Against Semi-modalism

Semi-modalism has gained ascendancy in Western Christianity, and has held it for a long time. Rome struggled with Modalism since the late second and early third centuries, when church father Hippolytus opposed the bishop of Rome, Pope Callixtus, for holding to modalism. While classical modalism was officially rejected, the Roman church continued to struggle with lingering modalistic tendencies, eventually working themselves out in semi-modalism, which maintains the central tent of modalism, that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one person, while adapting classical modalism so as to no longer deny the distinct personhood of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thus it confesses a false Trinity of one person who is the three persons of Father, Son, and Spirit, ultimately denying the classical doctrine of the Trinity as taught by scripture and articulated by theologians of the ante-nicene and nicene eras.

After coming up in the decision of the council of Rome in 382, the semi-modalist false doctrine was popularized by Augustine in the fifth century, following which much of western Christianity has blindly followed his teaching with little opposition. In the centuries following Augustine there was some opposition, but this was eventually condemned by a Papal Council, the Fourth Lateran Council, in the thirteenth century. This false view of the Trinity was largely accepted without question by Protestants during the Reformation, and found its way into several Protestant Confessions. Since then it has continued to do harm to the church and worked to obscure the glory of God down to our own time, being openly espoused by modern theologians such as Cornelius Van Til.

For many Christians, this error has crept into their thinking without their knowledge. As semi-modalism has received little attention from the church in recent times, it has become easy to simply adopt the language and concepts used by semi-modalists without opposition, often simply believing that this is the true doctrine of the Trinity. But such is not the case. This false teaching is antithetical to the truth taught by scripture, the same truth we see taught by great theologians of the early church such as Irenaeus and Athanasius, and articulated in the Nicene Creed. The church must recognise that the heresy taught by men such as Cornelius Van Til and Augustine is antithetical to what the Bible teaches and what the early church of the ante-nicene and nicene eras believed.

Action ought to be taken by those in leadership to oppose this false doctrine. Only in modern times have some semi-modalists been bold enough to come out and openly express their true belief that the Trinity as a whole is a person, while most have been content to conceive of the Trinity as a person, and treat it as such, without ever coming out and plainly saying what they think. This shows that the situation is only worsening as this problem goes unaddressed. The anti-trinitarian teaching of semi-modalists like Van Til and Augustine must be unequivocally condemned by the church, or this problem will only continue.

This must be done for the glory of God, which the church and all creation exists to proclaim. In glorifying God we add nothing to God’s glory, but only make known the truth of Who God is. Yet this truth is being horribly obscured by semi-modalism. “But to us there is but one God, the Father… and one Lord Jesus Christ…” scripture says (1 Cor 8:6 KJV). Christ prayed to His Father “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.” (John 17:3 KJV). And the Nicene Creed, in agreement with the consensus of early church fathers who lived before that time begins its confession of the Christian faith by saying “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty…”.

Cyril of Jerusalem taught “…let us come back to ourselves, and receive the saving doctrines of the true Faith, connecting the dignity of Fatherhood with that of the Unity, and believing In One God, the Father: for we must not only believe in one God; but this also let us devoutly receive, that He is the Father of the Only-begotten, our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Catechetical lecture VII). And Irenaeus declared the doctrine that there is one God Who is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ the first article of the Christian faith saying “This then is the order of the rule of our faith, and the foundation of the building, and the stability of our conversation: God, the Father, not made, not material, invisible; one God, the creator of all things: this is the first point of our faith. The second point is: The Word of God, Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord, who was manifested to the prophets…” (Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching).

You see above that both scripture and the orthodox church fathers of the ante-nicene and nicene eras teach that the one God of the Christian faith is the person of the Father. Yet semi-modalism denies this- instead it makes the one God another person, “the triune God”, “God the Trinity”, instead of the person of the Father. Semi-modalism gives the highest honors, titles, praises, devotion, and worship to a person not spoken of in scripture or in classical ancient formulations of the Trinity. This absurd belief that the one God is a person who is three persons instead of the one Whom Jesus Christ called “the only true God”, namely, His Father, must be opposed, for the sake both of God’s glory, and for the good of His church.

Those of you then who are leaders in Christ’s church must take action. To you authority and responsibility have been given to shepherd the people of God, and to feed them with the truth. A necessary part of that is that you condemn and warn against false teaching. I implore you then, to not give in to the blasphemous false doctrine of semi-modalism in the slightest. Oppose it, and defend the truth. Warn people against it. Help others see that it is false, help them to see past the equivocation and the lies. Guard yourself against it, against falling into thinking falsey about God and the Trinity, and against allowing yourself to use language that gives credence to this unscriptural teaching.

We must struggle to reclaim a deep and broad understanding of classical trinitarianism. The tools we need are at hand, if only we will make use of them. Scripture, firstly, is clear. But we are not left with that alone, but we have been given so much teaching from the early church to help guide us to the truth, to point out to us the things that scripture teaches. Read Irenaeus, Cyril of Jerusalem, and Athanasius. See for yourself what they taught, and be helped by their thoughtful observations on what scripture teaches. Lean not on your own understanding; but seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened, ask and it shall be given. Let us pray earnestly that God would bring about a revival of classical trinitarianism and a return to the truth of what scripture teaches on these matters.

Fr. John Behr on Basil the Great’s Understanding of the One God

Although Basil and the other Cappadocian fathers lived in the early post-nicene era, and declension from classical trinitarianism can be seen in their works, they in many respects remain faithful to the tradition of classical trinitarianism that others like Augustine in the same era nearly entirely disregarded. The following quote from Fr. John Behr was something I found of interest, commenting on Basil the Great’s understanding of Who the “one God” of the Christian faith is:

“For the Christian faith there is, unequivocally, but one God, and that is the Father: “There is one God the Father.” For Basil, the one God is not the one divine substance, or a notion of “divinity” which is ascribed to each person of the Trinity, nor is it some kind of unity or communion in which they all exist; the one God is the Father. But this “monarchy” of the Father does not undermine the confession of the true divinity of the Son and the Spirit. Jesus Christ is certainly “true God from true God,” as the Nicene Creed puts it, but he is such as the Son of God, the God who is thus the Father. If the term “God” (Θεός) is used of Jesus Christ, not only as a predicate, but also as a proper noun with an article (ὁ Θεός), this is only done on the prior confession of him as “Son of God, and so as other than “the one God” of whom he is the Son; it is necessary to bear in mind this order of Christian theology, lest it collapse in confusion.” (John Behr, The Formation of Christian Theology – Volume 2: The Nicene Faith – Part 2, pp. 307, 308.)

Thanks to David at for providing the source for this quotation.

Fr. John Behr on the One God being the Person of the Father in Particular

In my last post, I shared quotes from several prominent Eastern Orthodox theologians speaking on the patristic view of the Trinity and the matter of the one God of the Christian faith being the person of the Father in particular (see

I wanted to now share an article written by another Eastern Orthodox theologian, Fr. John Behr: here.

In this article Fr. Behr briefly and clearly sheds some light on the way the Greek church fathers articulated the doctrine of the Trinity, and notes:

“The Father alone is the one true God. This keeps to the structure of the New Testament language about God, where with only a few exceptions, the world “God” (theos) with an article (and so being used, in Greek, as a proper noun) is only applied to the one whom Jesus calls Father, the God spoken of in the scriptures. This same fact is preserved in all ancient creeds, which begin: I believe in one God, the Father…

“For us there is one God, the Father… and one Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 8:6).”

I have found Fr. Behr’s careful and thought-provoking analysis of these issues helpful, and hope you will as well.


Modern Eastern Orthodox Theologians on the One God being the Person of the Father

In recent years there has been something of a revival of aspects of classical trinitarianism in Eastern Orthodoxy. Several prominent EO theologians have argued for a return to a Nicene understanding of the Trinity and the belief that the one God is the Father.

As in the last few centuries the Eastern church has undergone what some have referred to as a “patristic renaissance” it is no surprise to see their theology has moving away from a semi-modalistic direction and returning to what the Ante-Nicene and Nicene Fathers articulated regarding the one God being the person of the Father in particular.

I wanted to share a few quotes from some of these theologians below:

John Meyendorff:

The same personalistic emphasis appears in the Greek Fathers’ insistence on the “monarchy” of the Father. Contrary to the concept which prevailed in the post-Augustinian West and in Latin Scholasticism, Greek theology attributes the origin of hypostatic “subsistence” to the hypostasis of the Father—not to the common essence. The Father is the “cause” (aitia) and the “principle” (archē) of the divine nature, which is in the Son and in the Spirit. What is even more striking is the fact that this “monarchy” of the Father is constantly used by the Cappadocian Fathers against those who accuse them of “tritheism”: “God is one,” writes Basil, “because the Father is one.” (Byzantine Theology, 2nd ed, 1983, page 183)

John Zizioulas:

Among the Greek Fathers the unity of God, the one God, and the ontological “principal” or “cause” of the being and life of God does not consist in the one substance of God but in the hypostasis, that is, the person of the Father. The one God is not the one substance but the Father, who is the “cause” both of the generation of the Son and the procession of the Spirit. (Being As Communion, 1985, pages 40-41)

Thomas Hopko:

“… in the Bible, in the creeds, and in the Liturgy, it’s very important, really critically important, to note and to affirm and to remember that the one God in whom we believe, strictly speaking, is not the Holy Trinity. The one God is God the Father. In the Bible, the one God is the Father of Jesus Christ. He is God who sends his only-begotten Son into the world, and Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Then, of course, in a parallel manner, the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, is the Spirit of God, that the Holy Spirit, being the Spirit of God, is therefore also the Spirit of Christ, the Messiah, because the Christ is the Son of God, upon whom God the Father sends and affirms his Holy Spirit.” (From the online transcript of the podcast, The Holy Trinity)