Why Can’t Protestants Affirm the Athanasian Creed?

The pseudo-athanasian creed, usually simply referred to by its supporters by the misleading name of ‘the Athanasian Creed’, was neither authored by Athanasius, nor does it represent his understanding of the Trinity. Athanasius strongly affirmed, for example, that the one God is the first person of the Trinity in particular, the Father:

“But if this is not to be seen, but while the creatures are many, the Word is one, any one will collect from this, that the Son differs from all, and is not on a level with the creatures, but proper to the Father. Hence there are not many Words, but one only Word of the one Father, and one Image of the one God.” (Against the Arians, Discourse II.)

“For, as the illustration shows, we do not introduce three Origins or three Fathers, as the followers of Marcion and Manichæus; since we have not suggested the image of three suns, but sun and radiance. And one is the light from the sun in the radiance; and so we know of but one origin; and the All-framing Word we profess to have no other manner of godhead, than that of the Only God, because He is born from Him.” (Against the Arians, Discourse III.)

We see that unlike the creed, Athanasius’s theology was marked by a confession that the one God is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ; and Christ stands in relation to the one God, as His Word and Son. Rather than being truly Athanasian, then, in reality the pseudo-Athanasian Creed is representative of early medieval scholastic articulations of the Trinity, especially following the theology of Augustine.

Despite the creed’s anonymous authorship and its theological clash with the real teaching of Athanasius, it has gained very wide acceptance in the west, in traditions which in some way stem from that latin medieval scholastic tradition, out of which it was formed. Not only do the Roman Catholics affirm it, but also Lutherans, many Anglicans, Presbyterians, and other Protestant groups. It is regarded by many Protestants (falsely so) to be an ecumenical creed; yet this is of course impossible, when we consider the contents of it in relation to the Eastern churches. Many Eastern Orthodox, for example, not only affirm the monarchical trinitarianism Athanasius taught in opposition to Augustinian semi-modalism, but they also universally reject the filoque- the doctrine that the Holy Spirit not only eternally proceeds from the Father, but also from the Son (‘filoque’ means, ‘and the Son’).

Yet, despite the creed being paraded around under so many false pretenses (false authorship, false claim to conceptually Athanasian theology, false claim to being ecumenical) it stills finds acceptance among many tradition-loving Protestants. I want to briefly observe here that this is in fact, grossly inconsistent with the founding principles and ideas of Protestantism; and this is not a difficult point to demonstrate. To do so, we need not dive into the theology presented in the creed itself, but only note that which frames the confession. It begins by saying:

“Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith; Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.”

After 25 lengthly lines of words about the Trinity, we read:

“He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.”

After going on talking about the incarnation for many more lines, the creed closes by reiterating:

“This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved.”

Perhaps the only thing in the entire creed that can truly be said to be clear or intelligible to the average person, are these threats against the eternal salvation of anyone who dares not lend their assent to all the things this creed says. Yet, as we noted above, this creed goes into detail explaining not only what is more widely accepted regarding the Trinity by those following Nicea, but a specifically western, latin, and augustinian version of these doctrines. It includes this line, for example, that no professing Christian from, or in agreement with the Eastern Orthodox churches, would ever assent to:

“The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.”

Here we can spot the filoque -the Holy Spirit is said not only to proceed from the Father, but also the Son. This doctrine is repugnant to all Eastern Orthodox, and anyone in the West who happens to side with them on this point. Yet, here it is included in this creed, among things which, according to the repeated expression of the same creed, must be believed in order to be saved, and without which, no one can be saved. In other words, everything in the creed is effectively part of the gospel; for that which must be believed to be saved, and receive Christian baptism, and to be received into Christian fellowship, is the gospel. All then which is included in this creed is gospel, apart from which there is no salvation; for “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith; Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.”

Yet, such a confession is completely opposed to the founding principles of Protestantism; among which, is that no one may add to or alter the gospel preached by the apostles. For it was on account of this very sin that the various Protestant groups have felt free to depart from the Roman Catholic church, and often to declare it no church at all. They rightly appeal to these verses:

“I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; 7 which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel more than what we have preached to you, he is to be anathema! 9 As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel more than what you received, he is to be anathema!” (Galatians 1:6-9 NASB)

‘Anathema’ simply means accursed, and has since the time of the above epistle’s authorship frequently been declared by churches upon those they consider heretics. In this case, there can be no question the legitimacy of the anathemas; these are not the decisions of any human council, but of an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. But they no not anathematize a trinitarian error: they anathematize anyone who preaches a gospel more than what the apostles preached. This is extremely serious; anyone adding to the gospel, by doing so, jeopardizes their own standing, according to scripture.

For this reason, Protestants rightly protested various ways in which the Roman church had added to and/or altered the apostolic gospel. Yet, here we see a great hypocrisy among many Protestants: while condemning others for altering the gospel, they do so themselves, by adding so many lines of incoherent ramblings about the Trinity to the gospel. And, if one of them should argue that every line of those Augustinian speculations is not only biblical, but part of the gospel, he shall have an enormously difficult time trying to prove that even a small portion of it was preached by the apostles as part of the gospel. For all through the book of Acts, we see men were saved by believing a gospel that included almost none of what the pseudo-athanasian creed says. If this is so, then the doctrines of the creed are not part of the apostolic gospel- and to add them to that gospel, is to be accursed by Paul himself, who spoke in the authority of the Lord Jesus, under the inspiration of the Spirit.

But one will argue that all of Augustine’s dogmas are found in scripture, and perhaps that they are even part of the gospel; so be it, we need not address this question, to prove that the creed adds to the gospel. The Protestants who accept the creed need only answer this question: is it possible for one to be saved without believing the filoque? Or put another way, is the filoque itself part of the gospel, and so, something which a person must believe to be a Christian?

If they answer ‘no’, they do well, in not adding to the gospel, and avoiding the anathemas of Galatians chapter one. But if this is so, then why do they affirm a creed which adds to the gospel? By teaching people to believe that creed, they will by their own admission be encouraging people to learn from it a gospel more than that preached by the apostles. If, on the other hand, they should answer in the affirmative, and say that the filoque is part of the gospel, and required for salvation, they will be far more consistent in affirming the creed; only they will have this problem, that they are anathema. For by adding to the gospel, as they say Rome does, they are just as accursed as they say Rome is, for the same sin.

It is plain then that no Protestant can consistently affirm the pseudo-Athanasian creed, unless they are prepared to deny the possibility of salvation of everyone who sides against the filoque; namely, all Eastern Christians, and all western Christians who agree with them. If they do, they certainly add to the gospel, by teaching that which the apostles did not teach is required for salvation. If they do not however wish to proclaim all Christians who do not believe the filoque to be damned, then let them forsake the pseudo-athanasian creed as something wicked, as something which adds to the apostolic gospel and is anathema for it. For if one can be saved while rejecting the filoque, what good will come from reciting a creed which damns to hell those who you admit may well be your brothers in Christ, over such a minor disagreement? For the creed is as unbending as it is incoherent: there is no leeway given to accept the greater part of it, yet reject some, but it declares “This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved.”

It is the duty of all true Christians to reject additions to the gospel, and to preserve whole and intact the gospel, as preached and delivered by the apostles. We have no right to add any doctrine or work to it, which they themselves did not enjoin as part of it. Yet that is precisely what this creed does. Given the pattern of the Roman church, it is unsurprising that they rush into this great sin; but those who keep themselves separate from the Roman church on that very account, would do well to pay heed that they do not, like the Roman church, add to the gospel by way of this wretched creed. Those that do, are inconsistent Protestants; they ought either to reject the creed for its additions to the gospel, or else side with Rome, and accept all of their additions to the gospel beyond that found in this creed, if additions to the gospel are acceptable.

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Questions For Protestants About the Trinity And the Papacy

1. Did not the Protestant Reformers, and the churches that followed them, believe and even formally confess as their doctrine, that the Pope of Rome is the antichrist?

2. If the Pope is the antichrist, or an antichrist, is it reasonable to suppose that he preserved pure and intact, the most important and foundational doctrines of the Christian faith?

3. Does not Protestantism teach that the Papacy corrupted some of the most important and fundamental doctrines of the faith, including the gospel itself?

4. Did not the Papacy, during the middle ages, not only purport to preserve the teaching on the Trinity they had received from earlier generations, but even claim to improve it and expand upon it?

5. If the Pope, being antichrist according to the Reformers, is the corrupter of the church’s polity, worship, soteriology, and morals, is it reasonable to suppose that he not only faithfully preserved the doctrine of the Trinity pure and intact, but even improved it?

6. Is it not the belief of the Reformers and early Protestants that the Papacy sought to undermine the gospel and prevent men from giving worship to the true God and His Christ?

7. If one sought to undermine the gospel and prevent men from giving worship to the true God and His Christ, would not corrupting the doctrine of the Trinity, as being intimately connected to the very identity of God and Christ, and to the gospel itself, be one of the best places to start?

8. Is it reasonable to suppose that the doctrines respecting the identity of God, and His Son, and the Holy Spirit, viz, the doctrines pertaining to the Trinity, would be the same and identical when based on of scripture alone as they are when they are based of tradition, human philosophy, and scripture together?

9. Is it not strange that the Roman Catholic notion of the Trinity, and the mainline Protestant notion of the Trinity, are precisely the same, when they are supposed to each be founded on two entirely different foundations, the one upon scripture alone, and the other upon a human magisterium, with its human traditions and philosophical notions?

10. How did the Protestant and Roman notions of the Trinity turn out to be the same, when each builds upon a starkly different foundation?

11. If the Protestant and Roman notions of the Trinity are identical, does it not make it appear as though they are both drawn from the very same source and foundation? Does it not stand to reason that their identicality must come from either both being founded on scripture, or both being founded on human tradition?

12. Is it reasonable for anyone to believe that the Roman notion of the Trinity is drawn from scripture alone, a claim which the Roman church itself would deny?

13. Is not the best explanation of the identicality of the Roman and Protestant views of the Trinity, that mainline Protestantism has drawn its notion of the Trinity from the same source the Roman Church has, namely, human tradition and philosophy foreign to the scriptures?

14. Is drawing such a notion of the Trinity from the same sources the Roman church draws hers, in any way consistent with the principles of Protestantism, namely, sola scriptura?

15. In short, can taking one’s knowledge of God from antichrist be anything but the utmost foolishness? And is it not more consistent to, if the Pope of Rome is the antichrist, throughly reject any part of his doctrines respecting God and the trinity not found in scripture, as not only being uncertain, but as very likely being gross corruptions of the Christian faith?

16. Has not mainline Protestantism largely showed itself to be committed to sola scriptura in name and not in practice, by upholding the Roman version of the Trinity, without either testing it or revising it along scriptural lines?

17. Is it consistent for Protestants to unquestioningly accept the papal version of the Trinity as a holy mystery, taken on faith, while they have freely tested by scripture and logic other supposed mysteries of the Roman church, such as transubstantiation, and rejected them as unscriptural?

18. Is it not far more consistent, to either accept all the mysteries of the Roman church on blind faith, or none of them? And if some of them should be tested by scripture, and only accepted inasmuch as they agree with it, why not the rest?

19. Is it not clear from the writings of the Nicene fathers, such as Athanasius and the Cappadocians, that all that was intended to be signified by the term ‘homoousias’ is that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as three distinct individual beings or persons (hypostases), share a common nature or species among themselves, as three men share a common human nature? And did they not use precisely that illustration, of three men sharing a common nature, to explain what they meant?

20. Did not Athanasius, Basil, and other Nicene fathers from that time expressly denounce the interpretation of homoousias which says that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are numerically and individually one substance, as Sabellian heresy? For an individual substance or being, if it is rational, is nothing but a person, and so, to say that all three persons are one individual substance, is to agree with Sabellius that They are in fact one person.

21. Is it not this latter notion of the Trinity, that the three persons are individually and numerically co-essential, which prevailed in the Roman church, to the exclusion of that taught by Athanasius, Basil and those with them? For were not the opinions of Athanasius and the other Nicene fathers represented by Abbot Joachim, whose views were condemned as heresy by the fourth lateran council?

22. Did not then the Pope (for he lead the fourth lateran council and authored its decisions) condemn and reject the orthodoxy of the Nicene church, and embrace in its place what they considered the rank heresy of Sabellius, by proclaiming in council that the Father, Son, and Spirit are numerically and individually co-essential in one supreme hypostasis, rather than generically co-essential as three distinct hypostases?

23. Has not mainline Protestantism, then, in agreeing with the Pope rather than the Nicene fathers, embraced the same serious errors on the Trinity the Roman church has, according to the teaching of Athanasius, Basil, and those with them?

24. Is it in any way consistent or sensible for the Reformed churches to have embraced the theology of the fourth lateran council respecting the Trinity, and yet, reject its decisions on papal authority and transubstantiation? If the latter are deemed gross corruptions of the faith, why should the former not likewise have been examined as a possible corruption?

25. Was it not, all along, only the Homoians in the fourth through eight centuries, who according to their own testimony tried diligently to believe about the Trinity only what could be known from the scriptures, without respect for extra-biblical speculation? And did not their Nicene contemporaries freely appeal to extra-biblical traditions to justify their doctrines?

26. Which then of the ancient views on the Trinity, is most consistent with the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, that of the Homoians, or the Nicenes?

27. Why then, if the Protestant Reformers were truly serious about sola scriptura, was no serious consideration given to the Homoian doctrine of the Trinity? And is it reasonable or consistent to prejudice the papal view of the Trinity, which makes no profession to be truly grounded in scripture, over that of the Homoians, who professed scripture to be the only source of their doctrine?

 

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Can Jesus Be Called ‘God Most High’?

Some have argued that the title ‘God Most High’ belongs to the Son as well as the Father; a simple examination of the subject will show us that is not the case:

The title ‘Most High’ denotes supremacy; being above all others. When applied to the title ‘God’, it denotes the Supreme God, the God Who is above all else. We must consider that such a title is not a sharable or communicable title, but is exclusive; it cannot be possessed by more than one person, as it is only possible for one person to be above all others, absolutely. If two persons were to be considered equal, neither would individually be ‘Most High’, as neither would be above the other; so only one person can be ‘Most High’. Only the person Who is supreme above all else absolutely can be fittingly called ‘God Most High’.

It should be obvious that this person, this God, is the Father, and no other. He alone is the Supreme Being (see Five Simple Proofs That the Father Alone Is the Supreme Being). The Son is not equal to Him, but declared that “the Father is greater than I” (Jn 14:28). The Son everywhere declares that He is another besides His Father, that He lives because of His Father, and that He is always subject to His Father and does nothing on His own initiative. And so it is clear that the Father, not the Son, is the Most High God, as He alone is supreme over all absolutely.

We may also note that the scriptures, as we should expect, reserve this title for the Father alone, and use it as a title for Him in contradistinction to the Son:

“He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David” (Luke 1:32 NASB)

“Seeing Jesus, he cried out and fell before Him, and said in a loud voice, “What business do we have with each other, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg You, do not torment me.” (Luke 8:28 NASB)

Finally its worth noting that if the title were applied to the Son, due to its exclusive nature, one would not be declaring the Son equal to the Father, but greater than the Father. For, to again reiterate, the title ‘Most High’ is an exclusive and incommunicable title, which denotes the one Who is above all others absolutely. When we apply the title ‘Most High’ to someone, we declare that they are above everyone else. If, therefore, one were to say that the Son were ‘God Most High’, this would be to say that the Son is greater than even the Father, and that He is supreme over Him. Thus Origen rightly said:

“Grant that there may be some individuals among the multitudes of believers who are not in entire agreement with us, and who incautiously assert that the Saviour is the Most High God; however, we do not hold with them, but rather believe Him when He says, “The Father who sent Me is greater than I.”  We would not therefore make Him whom we call Father inferior — as Celsus accuses us of doing — to the Son of God.” (Contra Celsum, 8.14)

We can see there that Origen employs the same logic as above; that since the title ‘Most High’ denotes absolute supremacy above all, calling the Son ‘God Most High’ would be to falsely assert that He is supreme over and greater than the Father; when in truth, the Father is Supreme over all, and greater than the Son. Thus the scriptures and all reason compel us to ascribe the title of ‘God Most High’ to one only, the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, “the only true God” (Jn 17:3).

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One Individual Essence?

In the following, Dr. Samuel Clarke confutes the Reverend Dr. Wells, who writes that the true scripture doctrine of the Trinity is that the three persons; the Father, the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, are one individual essence, i.e. one numeric being.

However, in your interpretation of this text, you declare explicitly what your notion of the Trinity is. And still more distinctly, p. 21; “The Scripture-Doctrine of the Trinity,” you say, “is truly this, that in the Godhead there are three persons of the same divine INDIVIDUAL essence.” Now this, I say, is an express contradiction in the very terms. For INDIVIDUAL essence, in all propriety of speech, and if the word has any signifigation at all, is (when spoken of an intelligent being) the very same as PERSONAL essence; that is to say, that by which a person is that individual person which he is is, and no other. Besides, it is a phrase not only not used in Scripture, nor in the three first centuries, nor in the fourth, (unless it be the true rendering of the word μονοουσιος [monoousios] or ταυτοουσιος [tautoousios], which was then universally condemned as heretical;) but seems to be the invention of the schools, in latter ages. Hear the very learned Dr. Cudworth upon this point. “It is evident,” saith he, p. 604, “that these reputed Orthodox Fathers, [viz. St. Cyril, St. Gregory Nyssen, and others,] who were not a few, were far from thinking the three hypostases of the Trinity to have the same SINGULAR existent essence: – that Trinity of persons numerically the same, or having all one and the same SINGULAR existent essence, is a doctrine which seemeth not to have been owned by any public authority in the Christian Church, save that of the Lateran Council only: that no such thing was ever entertained by the Nicene Fathers, &c.” Again: “The truth of this,” saith he, “will appear, first, because these Orthodox Anti-Arian Fathers did all of them zealously condemn Sabellianism; the doctrine whereof is no other than this, that there was but one hypostasis, or singular INDIVIDUAL ESSENCE, of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: In the next place, because the word ὁμουσιος [homoousios], was never used by Greek writers otherwise, than to signify the agreement of things NUMERICALLY DIFFERENT from one another, &c. – Lastly, that the ancient orthodox fathers, who used the word homoousios against Arius, intended not therein to assert the Son to have one and the same singular or INDIVIDUAL essence with the Father, appeareth plainly from their dsclaiming and disowning those two words, ταυτοουσιον and μονοουσιον.” Again: “It is plain,” saith he, “that the ancient orthodox fathers asserted no such thing, as one and the same SINGULAR or numerical essence of the several persons of the Trinity.” And this he proves by numerous most express quotations. Where now is your vain confidence in the concurrent testimonies of the fathers; when not only in the three first centuries your notion, in the manner you express it, was never heard of, but even in the fourth and following centuries it was universally condemned? But still I am willing to allow all this to besides the main question; for Scripture only is our rule.

Source: A Letter to the Reverend Dr. Wells, &c.

Note: Updated archaic spelling, italics, etc.

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Distinct Actions of the Persons of the Trinity

“If you address as Father the One who impartially judges according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your stay on earth;” 1 Peter 1:17 NASB

“For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son,” John 5:22 NASB

Here we read from Peter, firstly, that the Father judges men impartially; then we read from John, that the Father judges no one, but has given all judgement to the Son. Is there disagreement between Peter and John? Does scripture contradict itself? Not at all; but rather, the difficulty is resolved when we read “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, 31 because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.” Acts 17:30-31 NASB; and, “And He [the Son] commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that it is He who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead.” Acts 10:42 NASB

What we have then, is this: scripture says that God, the Father, judges all men; and yet, in another place, it says He judges no one at all. Unless we will say that these statements contradict one another, we must acknowledge each to be speaking in a different sense; one speaks of God judging all men indirectly through Christ, through Whom are all things 1 Cor 8:6. The Father is the ultimate Cause of all judgement, and all judgment is according to His will and command, although it is executed through the Son. And so the Son said “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 Father then may truly and rightly be said to “impartially judge according to each one’s work”, because He so judges mediately, through the Son, Who judges not on His own initiative, but according to the will and command of the Father.

On the other hand, the Son has all judgement given to Him by the Father, and the Father judges no one, in this second sense, in reference to immediate action, since the Father immediately judges no one, but all immediate judgment is given to the Son. For the Son clearly says that He does not judge according to His own initiative but according to the will of the Father; and so the Father judges through the Son, and so, Himself truly judges all- not immediately and directly, but mediately, through the Son, the one Mediator between God and man. Meanwhile the Son alone judges immediately and directly. Since all things from God through Son, so God judges through Son, the Son judging according to the will and command of the Father. The Son alone, however, judges immediately, and in that immediate sense, God judges no one.

We can apply this same sort of logic reasonably to all things that God does through His Son. So there is shown a significant difference between the actions of God and of His Son towards creation; the Father acts towards creation mediately, the Son both immediately, and through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit only acts immediately towards the universe, never through another person of the Trinity. So the actions of the persons are not entirely identical, but each acts towards creation differently and distinctly. This shows that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct individual beings, or persons.

In all this we still see that the persons are united in their actions; the one God, the Father, works through His only-begotten Son, and the Son through the Holy Spirit. This is the pattern of all God’s great works toward the universe: all things are from Him, through His Son. “Yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live.” 1 Corinthians 8:6 NKJV. God created the universe through His Son; God upholds the existence of the universe through His Son; God rules over all things through His Son; God reconciles all things to Himself through His Son; and as we read above, God judges the world through His Son. In the immediate and most high sense, as being the Supreme Cause and Instigator of all these things, the Father is the one Creator, the one Sustainer, the Only Ruler, the Only Savior, and the one Judge of the universe; performing all these actions through the mediation of His Son.

And in the same manner as that judgement was spoken of, we might reasonably speak of any of these acts of God; God, the Father, alone in truth performing all these actions, not immediately and directly, but through the mediation of His only-begotten Son, Who acts upon the universe directly and immediately, according to the will and command of the Father. And so the Son, and not the Father, is the immediate Creator, Sustainer, Savior, and Judge of the universe; in this immediate sense the Father creates no one, sustains no one, saves no one, and judges no one, in the whole of the universe that is through His Son. And so, we see the distinct roles of each person; and we see that although God acts through His Son, and His Son acts on His behalf, and according to His will and command, the roles, and so, the actions, of each person, within these greater works are distinguished from one another.

We cannot speak of the Father as the immediate worker of any of those works; nor can we speak of the Son as the ultimate cause of any of those works. The Father alone is the one from Whom are all things; and the Son alone the one through Whom are all things. Therefore the actions of the persons are shown to be distinct and different; the one working mediately and indirectly, the other working immediately and directly on the universe. As mentioned earlier, this distinction in action proves that God and His Son are distinct persons; the Father, the one God, and His only begotten Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, are two distinct rational individual beings, not one and the same. Otherwise, if They were the same, one could not be said to do something through the other; and one could not be said to be the one from which an action was, the other the one through Whom an action was performed, unless They are two really distinct persons.

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“I will not share my glory with another” Isa 42:8

“I am the LORD, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, Nor My praise to graven images.” Isaiah 42:8 NASB

This verse is sometimes cited by those who wish to deny the real distinct existence of the Son. If He is another individual being, or person, besides the Father, they say, then how can He be called “God”, be credited with the work of creation, and in short, be glorified and worshipped with such honor as would otherwise properly belong to God alone. How is He called by the name LORD, when God does not share this glory with another? Haven’t you read that God does not share His glory with anyone else, they ask? Therefore, they conclude, since the Son is so glorified, He cannot be another, but must be the same individual being as the Father; and so they falsely declare that the Son is Himself the only true God, the Supreme Being, Whose Son He actually is.

The context of the passage actually shows, however, that the person quoting it to such an end is either being deceitful, or is simply ignorant of its context. For if we read it with what comes before, the true meaning of the text becomes clear:

“Thus says God the LORD, Who created the heavens and stretched them out, Who spread out the earth and its offspring, Who gives breath to the people on it And spirit to those who walk in it, 6 “I am the LORD, I have called You in righteousness, I will also hold You by the hand and watch over You, And I will appoint You as a covenant to the people, As a light to the nations, 7 To open blind eyes, To bring out prisoners from the dungeon And those who dwell in darkness from the prison. 8 “I am the LORD, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, Nor My praise to graven images.” (Isa 42:5-8 NASB)

In context, then, it should be clear to anyone familiar with the New Testament that the Son is in fact in view here: it is the Son Who God has given as a covenant to the people and a light to the nations; the Son Who opens the blind eyes of men’s hearts, and frees men from bondage to sin and death. It is this one, the Christ of God, Who God glorifies mightily, even with that name that is above all names (Phil 2); and besides this one, He will not give His glory to another. That is, He will not share His glory with any other but His Son, through Whom He redeems men from every tribe and tongue and nation.

Justin Martyr, in his Dialogue With Trypho, a Jew, dealt with this text as well:

“And Trypho said, “Being shaken by so many Scriptures, I know not what to say about the Scripture which Isaiah writes, in which God says that He gives not His glory to another, speaking thus ‘I am the Lord God; this is my name; my glory will I not give to another, nor my virtues.'”

And I answered, “If you spoke these words, Trypho, and then kept silence in simplicity and with no ill intent, neither repeating what goes before nor adding what comes after, you must be forgiven; but if[you have done so] because you imagined that you could throw doubt on the passage, in order that I might say the Scriptures contradicted each other, you have erred. But I shall not venture to suppose or to say such a thing; and if a Scripture which appears to be of such a kind be brought forward, and if there be a pretext[for saying] that it is contrary[to some other], since I am entirely convinced that no Scripture contradicts another, I shall admit rather that I do not understand what is recorded, and shall strive to persuade those who imagine that the Scriptures are contradictory, to be rather of the same opinion as myself. With what intent, then, you have brought forward the difficulty, God knows. But I shall remind you of what the passage says, in order that you may recognise even from this very[place] that God gives glory to His Christ alone. And I shall take up some short passages, sirs, those which are in connection with what has been said by Trypho, and those which are also joined on in consecutive order. For I will not repeat those of another section, but those which are joined together in one. Do you also give me your attention.[The words] are these:’Thus saith the Lord, the God that created the heavens, and made them fast, that established the earth, and that which is in it; and gave breath to the people upon it, and spirit to them who walk therein: I the Lord God have called Thee in righteousness, and will hold Thine hand, and will strengthen Thee; and I have given Thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out them that are bound from the chains, and those who sit in darkness from the prison-house. I am the Lord God; this is my name: my glory will I not give to another, nor my virtues to graven images. Behold, the former things are come to pass; new things which I announce, and before they are announced they are made manifest to you. Sing unto the Lord a new song: His sovereignty from the end of the earth.[Sing], ye who descend into the sea, and continually sail[on it]; ye islands, and inhabitants thereof. Rejoice, O wilderness, and the villages thereof, and the houses; and the inhabitants of Cedar shall rejoice, and the inhabitants of the rock shall cry aloud from the top of the mountains: they shall give glory to God; they shall publish His virtues among the islands. The Lord God of hosts shall go forth, He shall destroy war utterly, He shall stir up zeal, and He shall cry aloud to the enemies with strength.’ ” And when I repeated this, I said to them, “Have you perceived, my friends, that God says He will give Him whom He has established as a light of the Gentiles, glory, and to no other; and not, as Trypho said, that God was retaining the glory to Himself?”

Then Trypho answered, “We have perceived this also; pass on therefore to the remainder of the discourse.”” (Ch 65)

So far then is this passage from in any way denying the Son, then, that it rather proclaims Him as the one Whom God glorifies with a glory far above all else, as His beloved Son, the Christ He has anointed to rule the nations. And were the Son not another besides the Father, and distinct from Him, God could give Him no glory; for were the Son the Supreme Being, the only true God Himself, He would have all glory already, and could not receive more than He has. But God glorifies His only-begotten Son, His Christ, with the name above all names, the most holy name of God.

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Against Generic Co-essentiality

Having dealt a lot with the heretical doctrine of numerical or individual coessentiality in past articles, I want to address in this post the doctrine of generic or natural co-essentiality. This doctrine differs enormously from the former; while the former teaches that the Father and Son are the same individual substance, that is, the same individual being or person, the latter which we shall address here pertains to the notion that the Father and Son, as two genuinely distinct individual beings, or persons, share one and the same generic nature.

This idea was the view which prevailed, thanks to Emperor Theodosius, within the Roman Empire at the close of the fourth century, becoming the official dogma of the Eastern churches under Byzantine rule (the Western churches only very briefly, if at all, held to this view, instead embracing the Sabellian doctrine of numerical coessentiality). Such notable Homoousians as Athanasius and Basil the Great held and promoted this doctrine of generic coessentiality, which to this day, despite modalistic influence, has a continued following in Eastern Christianity and among some Protestants.

The idea of generic co-essentiality is that of a shared nature, genus, or species; Basil summed it up as “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); 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.”

The idea, then, is of a nature shared among multiple distinct persons or individual beings (hypostases); just as three men share a common human nature, a set of communicable ontological properties possessed by all men, which define a given being as “human”, so the persons of the Trinity, these fathers taught, share a common nature which makes them ontologically identical. The Son in comparison to the Father is often summed up, in this view, to be ‘everything that the Father is, except that He is begotten, not unbegotten’. He is then equal to and identical to the Father in all attributes, except the causal relation of having been begotten by the Father, rather than being unbegotten, as the Father is.

This doctrine simply does not work; it contradicts the holy scriptures, our divine, inspired source of knowledge in such matters.

The holy scriptures teach us that God (the one God, the Father) is omniscient; He knows all things perfectly and unchangingly. “God is greater than our heart and knows all things.” 1 John 3:20 NASB. “Great is our Lord and abundant in strength; His understanding is infinite.” Psalm 147:5 NASB. The Son, on the other hand, evidently did not know all things when He said “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” Matthew 24:36 NASB. Someone might object that the Son only said this in reference to His human nature, and that while His human nature did not know, His divine nature did; to this I respond that natures do not know anything, nor do they possess any consciousness or mind of their own, but rather, persons do. So long then, as it is acknowledged that the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, is one person, not two, it must be admitted that He, that is, the person Himself, did not know all things, while the Father in His own person always does know all things.

The holy scriptures also teach us to believe that God is immutable; He does not change. “For I, the Lord, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.” Malachi 3:6 NASB. “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.” James 1:17 NASB. The Son, however, has often changed since the foundation of the world, although He has now come to change no more, as having been perfected. For the Son changed to take on various forms to appear to men in the Old Testament, as the Angel (that is, Messenger) of the Lord. He appeared as a man to Abraham; He appeared in fire to Moses at the burning bush; in the form of man He again wrestled with Jacob; and in the form of God He was seen by Moses, Aaron, and the elders of Israel on Sinai, and again, in that same glory, by Isaiah. But more on these appearances later. And at last, He took on human flesh from the virgin Mary, and in that flesh grew, and matured, and died, and rose from the dead.

Surely no thinking man can regard such actions as not involving change in the Son’s own person; who will be so insane as to say that He is the same, and unchanged, after He has taken a human body into the unity of His person, as He was before, when he had no flesh? One might respond that the Logos Himself, considered in His capacity as Logos specifically, did not suffer change in taking on flesh. To which I say, such may well be the case; yet when we consider not merely the part of Him that was the Logos, but His person on the whole, it cannot be avoided that, as a person, to go from having no body, to having a body, is a change. The Son then, was capable of changing, and did so, only upon His perfection coming finally to the state of immutability of which it is said that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Hebrew 13:8 NASB.

The Father then, is entirely unchanging and immutable, always and eternally being the same without any change or alteration; while the Son indeed, having first been begotten by the Father before the world was, changed into various forms to appear to men, and then for our salvation even took human flesh into the unity of His person, finally coming to change no more once He had risen from the dead. The Father, as being unchanging, would never have appeared to men under various forms, nor would He have taken on flesh; and so there is manifestly a great difference in the attributes of God and His Son shown here by the holy scriptures.

We may also note that the scriptures reveal that the Father is invisible; “Who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see.” 1 Tim 6:16 NASB. “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” 1 John 1:18 NASB. “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” 1 Timothy 1:17 NASB. The Son, the only-begotten God, on the other hand, as we have already mentioned above, was often seen by men; He is the visible Image of the invisible God (Col 1:15). As the Angel of the Lord He was the one by Whom God spoke with Abraham (Gen 18), Who rained fire from His Father on Sodom and the surrounding cities (Gen 19:24), Who wrestled with Jacob (Gen 32:22-40), Who spoke to Moses from the burning bush (Ex 3:2), and from the pillar of cloud and of fire (Num 14:14), Who appeared to Joshua as the Captain of the Lord’s hosts (Josh 5:13-15), Who spoke to Hagar (Gen 16:7-14), Gideon (Jud 6:22), Manoah (Jud 13:9-23), and other saints of old (Jud 2:1-6), the Word of the Lord Who came to the prophets and spoke with them (1 Kings 9:9, Isa 38:4, Jer 1:1-2, Ezek 1:3), Whose glory was seen by Isaiah (Isa 6, John 12:41). He was seen then, not only in His incarnation, and after His resurrection, but also beforehand. There is a clear difference then between the Father and the Son, that the one, no one can see or has seen, and the other was seen at many times under different forms, and finally, when He took on flesh for our salvation.

The Father, we read in the scriptures, is absolutely Almighty; the term ‘Almighty’ only ever being used for Him in the whole New Testament, and meaning, literally ‘Ruler over all’ (Gr. ‘Pantokrator’). He is “the Lord God Almighty, Who was, and is, and is to come” (Rev 4:8). He, the living God, the Father of His people, is alone Almighty; “For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, “I will dwell in them and walk among them; And I will be their God, and they shall be My people. 17 “Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate,” says the Lord. “And do not touch what is unclean; And I will welcome you. 18 “And I will be a father to you, And you shall be sons and daughters to Me,” Says the Lord Almighty.” 2 Corinthians 6:16-18 NASB. And it is clear from the very nature of things, that only one person, one individual being, can be Ruler over all, Almighty, absolutely. For if that one had an equal, neither one having higher authority than the other, and so, neither one ruling over the other, neither would be found Almighty, since neither would truly rule over all, and there would be no supreme Ruler over all at all. If then it is acknowledged that the Father alone is Almighty absolutely, as having dominion not only over the whole universe, but even over the Son (1 Cor 11:3, 1 Cor 15:28), then the Son is not equal to Him in this respect, but subject to Him as to His own God and Father (Rom 15:6). And while the Son, as sharing in the Father’s dominion over the universe, may even be said to be ‘almighty’ in that lesser respect, as He, subordinate to the Father, rules over the universe according to the Father’s will and on His behalf, yet only one of Them is Almighty absolutely, as ruling over all things without exception, namely, the Father, and so, this is shown to be a difference between the Father and the Son also.

We may also note that the scriptures declare that the Father is the one from Whom are all things, as He is the supreme uncaused Cause of all things. “Yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.” 1 Corinthians 8:6 NASB. “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.” Romans 11:36 NASB. Yet all things are not from the Son in this same way, but are through Him. For the Father is the supreme Cause of all things, having made all things through the Son. Their functions, then, are clearly distinct; the Father acts towards the universe through the mediation of the Son, and not the other way around.

Scripture further reveals to us that God (the Father) is infinite. To be infinite is to be without external bound or limitation; and as God is, as we have said above, the Supreme Ruler over all, and further, the Supreme Cause of all. If then, He is entirely uncaused, and simply eternally and unchangingly is, and is absolutely sovereign over all, it follows that God is subject to no external bound or limitation whatsoever, in either His ontological being, nor in His actions. That He is not bound by anything external to Him in His being and attributes necessarily follows from the fact that as the Cause of all else that exists, He Himself is uncaused; thus no one ever determined what God’s attributed and being would be. He was not made, caused, or begotten according to the will or design of another, but rather He simply is, and is as He is, eternally and unchangingly, without any cause, source, or origin. This is a respect in which God is totally unique compared to everything else in existence, for everything else, including His own Son, does owe its cause and origin, and thus, its being and attributes, to Him. All that God caused has its being and attributes according to His will. Likewise, since God is sovereign over all, there is nothing external to Him binding His actions; He is not subject to another, so as to have anything required of Him by another, but is totally free. “Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, In heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps.” Psalm 135:6 NASB. There is none to place Him under obligation or law; His future is not predestined by another.

God’s absolute freedom and infinitude in these respects is unique to Him, as we have said, and so, is not shared by His Son. While of the Father is is written “But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases.” Psalm 115:3 NASB, the Son declares “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. 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 clearly teaches us to believe that He is limited by the Father’s will. In this the Son clearly stands in contrast to the Father then, that while the Father is absolutely free and infinite, not bound or subject to the will of another, the Son is indeed limited by the Father, as respects both His being and attributes, which He has from the Father, and as respects His actions.

What more shall we say? Scripture teaches that the Father is alone good (Mark 10:18), alone holy (Rev 15:4), “the only wise God” (Rom 16:27), “the blessed and only Sovereign” (1 Tim 6:15), “the only true God” (Jn 17:3). It says these things on account the the surpassing and incomparable greatness of God, for in contrast to all else which is good, and holy, and wise, and which possesses sovereignty, and divinity, it is as though He alone is such things, and that all else is as nothing in these things, in comparison to Him Who is incomparably greater than all. Not only does the Son declare that His Father is “greater than all” (Jn 10:29), and “greater than I” (Jn 14:28), but even declares Him to be incomparably greater than all; for He says to the Father in the Psalm “There is none to compare with You” Psalm 40:5 NASB. God then has no equal, and the Son is not equal to Him in these attributes, as He is greater than the Son in goodness, and holiness, and wisdom, and sovereignty, and divinity -not that the Son is not very great in all these things- but His Father is still greater, as being incomparably greater than all, even greater than His Son. For as the Son says “There is none to compare with You.” Psalm 40:5 NASB. And God testifies Himself, saying “To whom then will you liken Me, That I would be his equal?” says the Holy One.” Isaiah 40:25 NASB, and “To whom would you liken Me And make Me equal and compare Me, That we would be alike?” Isaiah 46:5 NASB.

Who then will make the Son equal with the Father, in contradiction to the words of both the Father and the Son, Who both testify to the truth that God has no equal, but is incomparably greater than all? Where is this teaching that there is another Who is identical to God and equal with Him in all respects and in all attributes, except that He is begotten while God the Father is unbegotten? Who can read these things and not recognize that rightly did Ulfilas characterize this a “devilish invention and doctrine of demons”, on account of how blasphemous these things are to God? For in supposing that they exalt the Son with this doctrine, really, they give the Son a false and empty honor (as no honor not founded in truth has any weight to it) and rather blaspheme the one the Lord Jesus Christ teaches us to call “the only true God”, by making Him Who is incomparably greater than all out to merely be one of two or three of a kind.

The doctrine of generic co-essentiality, then, that ‘the Son is identical to the Father in all His attributes, except that He is begotten rather than unbegotten’, is shown to be quite unbiblical, and ultimately, quite blasphemous. I do not say that it is heresy, for it does not violate that ancient rule of faith; but it is a false and harmful doctrine, nonetheless, and one quite clearly opposed to the teaching of the scriptures themselves.

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