Hippolytus of Rome relates the events of his own time in the late second and early third century in his work Refutation of All Heresies. Among the other heresies of his day, he devotes a great deal of attention to the then new heresy of Modalism, also known as Sabellianism or Patripassionism. This heresy, by teaching that the Father and Son are together the same individual being, both mere modes and names of one and the same Supreme Being, sets out to, in effect, crucify the Father, and deny the real existence of the Son. There is much that is very noteworthy in Hippolytus’s coverage of the origins of modalism, the account of which I will quote at full length below.
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.
One of Irenaeus’s main points throughout his writings, that he makes again and again, is that the one God, the Maker of all things, the Almighty, is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. The one God and the Father are the exact same person; just as much as the Son is the Son of the Father, so He is the Son of the one God; just as the Son is not the Father, He is not the one God. In the face of the old gnosticism, this was an important point to stress; the prominent heresies of his day denied the identity of the Father and the one God, just as the prominent heresy of our day does as well.
Samuel Clarke’s Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity did not go unnoticed; it sparked lasting debate in the church of England and led to the acceptance of Clarke’s scriptural trinitarianism- effectively identical to that of the Homoians of the fourth century, and in keeping with the theology of the ante-nicene church fathers- among many in the Church of England, as well as within various non-conformist churches. English Presbyterianism bears a strong classical trinitarian legacy during the 18th century, and Clarke’s scriptural ideas also found a home in English Baptist churches. The following statement of faith is taken from one of many unitarian works written during this era.
Marius Victorinus is not the best-known church father. Of his works, we have his book on the Trinity preserved, authored sometime between 355-364 AD. This puts the authorship of the book right in the middle of the ongoing Nicene controversy, and is a valuable resource in giving us another individual perspective of what the fourth-century ecclesiastical melee looked like.
Those familiar with this blog will be familiar with the great weight I place on sola scriptura. It is a necessary paradigm for determining true doctrine from false doctrine amid a sea of false teaching. Summed up, it is the principle that we must obey the command to “Test all things, and hold fast that which is good” (1 Thess 5:21); what is “good” being, in respect to doctrine, what is true, and in respect to practice, those practices which are legitimately apostolical and in accord with the will of God; and that what is indeed true in respect to doctrine and legitimate in respect to practice can ordinarily only be known by way of demonstration from the holy scriptures. Ordinarily to know that any doctrine is true or practice legitimate, we must see it demonstrated from the holy scriptures, either by an explicit testimony, or by demonstration that it is a necessary consequence of what is said.
The early church fathers express a wide range of views on many topics. Issues of authority and how doctrine was to be determined valid, and the role of scripture, like other topics, saw a variety of views. While not necessarily ubiquitous throughout the early church fathers, several fathers ranging from the ante-nicene through post-nicene eras spoke in favor of what is basically ‘sola scriptura’.
They did not, of course, speak of it by that name. In short, for them, it was the principle that in order for doctrines to be established as true, they must be demonstrated from the scriptures. This idea of demonstration is simply that a given doctrinal proposition must be proven from the scriptures, either by way of an explicit testimony, or else as a necessary deduction from them, in order to be accepted by Christians as true. That it come from an esteemed person or an ecclesiastical authority is not enough- it must be demonstrated from the scriptures, these fathers argued.