“Jesus spoke these things; and lifting up His eyes to heaven, He said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You, even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life. This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” John 17:1-3 NASB
From this rich passage, let us briefly observe this: that eternal life is to believe in the only true God, and Jesus Christ Whom He has sent. This knowing is far more than a mere intellectual knowledge, but a relational knowledge; it is not to merely know about the only true God, and Jesus Christ Whom He has sent, but to know Them- both of Them. For we have been told another place, that no one comes to the Father, except through Christ; and so, no one can know the only true God without knowing His Son, and anyone Who knows the Son, shall know the Father, the only true God, through Him.
But it is important for us to observe here one small word, the word “and” in verse three. For the heretics, wanting to deny the existence of the Son by making ‘Son’ merely a another name of mode of the only true God, Whose Son He is, do not believe in the only true God *and* Jesus Christ Whom He has sent, but in a God of their imaginations, Who is Jesus Christ, sent by Himself. But their false teaching is refuted by this one small word; and so all forms of modalism dealt a deathly blow by the clear teaching of scripture here, that the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is not the only true God Whose Son He is. For if the Son were the only true God, one could not believe in the only true God and in His Son, for believing in one would be to necessarily believe in the other also, if They are the same person, or the same individual being.
But here we read that there is one “only true God”, and this is clearly the very same one that the Lord Jesus Christ calls His Father, in verse one. This is the Supreme Being, the one God, the Almighty, the uncaused Cause of all; and Jesus Christ is not Him, not this one God, but another, a distinct person and a distinct individual being, Who the only true God sent. Not only here is the Lord Jesus Christ distinguished from the only true God by the word “and”; nor only also by the identification of the only true God with His Father, Who He is manifestly distinct from; but also by the fact that He is sent by the only true God, and so is distinguished from Him by that as well, since it is evident that one is sent by another, not by themselves.
Since, then, it is eternal life to know the Father, Who is the only true God, and Jesus Christ His Son Whom He has sent, this cannot be regarded as any minor point of faith, but a very central and important teaching of scripture. For what is more central and foundational than the identity of the only true God? And alongside that, the identity of the Lord Jesus Christ, His Son? And if knowing God and His Son is eternal life, what can be said of those Who do not know, and do not believe, that the only true God is particularly the Father, and the Father the only true God? What life can those Who think that Christ is not sent by the only true God, and is not the Son of the only true God, have? For eternal life is to know the only true God, an Jesus Christ Whom He has sent; and one must doubt that a person knows Them, if he does not even understand their identity, and cannot correctly identify and distinguish one from the other.
Let us then believe the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, which is clear: that He is not Himself the only true God, but is another besides Him, sent by Him, His Son. Through this Son, we know the only true God, His Father; and if we deny these teachings, we deny the teaching of the Lord Himself, and deny ourselves of eternal life.
A common view among professing Christians today is that the doctrine of the Trinity is a divine mystery to be accepted blindly on faith, rather than understood. Thus attempts to define the doctrine carefully, and discuss the merits of differing articulations of the doctrine, are vain, dangerous, and perhaps even sinful, in this view. In this article I want to briefly answer this argument that is often leveled against explanations of the biblical doctrine of the Trinity.
Argument: The doctrine of the Trinity, of one God in three persons, is a divine mystery, to be accepted on faith without full understanding. As a divine mystery beyond human reason, it is dangerous to try to fully understand the doctrine of the Trinity. We must humbly accept the doctrine without question.
Answer: That there is such a thing as divine mysteries, worthy of blind faith, is a true point. “The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.” (Deut 29:29 KJV). These mysteries are such things as scripture does not leave wholly explained. Sometimes this may take the form of scripture telling us two things that appear contradictory, or which we cannot fathom how they fit together. Surely in such an instance, we must accept what scripture says, even when we fail to understand how the two seemingly contradictory things fit together. We must take on faith that both are true, despite our lack of understanding and rational comprehension, because we know God is trustworthy, and His word to us in the scriptures is true and infallible.
We must then give unwavering trust to actual divine mysteries; however, we must at the same time be careful to distinguish between those things which are truly divine mysteries, and those doctrines which are such in name only. “Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar.” (Proverbs 30:6 KJV). True divine mysteries will be known to be such from divine revelation; they are divine mysteries, because they are revealed to us by God. Human doctrines and conjecture stand in contradistinction to this; and to pass off mere human theories, and doctrines not found in the scriptures, as a divine mystery, is to add to the word of God, a lie against the truth.
The notion that there is one God in three persons, were it found in the scriptures, would be worthy of absolute credence, although it appears wholly nonsensical; however, it is not found anywhere in any book of the Bible. Nowhere does scripture give us such statements as ‘one God in three persons’ or ‘one God who is Father, Son, and Spirit, or a ‘tri-personal’ or ‘triune’ God. All doctrines and theories pertaining to these matters, then, having no basis in divine revelation, cannot be divine mysteries, as they have not been so revealed by God, and in truth, rather stand in opposition to what He has revealed in the scriptures. Since all such doctrines of triunity of the Supreme Being come not directly from scripture, but have come about by way of inference and interpretation of the scriptures, these doctrines cannot be given the same credence and faith as something taught directly by the scriptures themselves; rather, these systems of interpretations and inferences must be tested, and subject to scrutiny. “Test all things; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thess 5:21 NKJV). Scripture is infallible; the interpretations and inferences of men are not, and therefore to give the same innate faith and credence to such interpretations and inferences as we give to the word of God, is most irrational and dangerous.
We cannot safely then regard the doctrine of ‘one God in three persons’ as a divine mystery, to be taken on faith; for this is to give the same faith we give to God and the holy scriptures, to something we have received from neither. Rather, we must reason carefully from the scriptures, making use of the best helps available to us, to understand them accurately and truly, and to test all human doctrines and interpretations by them, including the various doctrines of the Trinity that are presented to us. Such doctrines, even more so than others, are of the highest importance to test, and only accept that which we see demonstrated to be true from the scriptures, as they pertain to the highest and most foundational subjects, namely, the very identity and character of God, and of the Lord Jesus Christ His Son.
“For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.” – 1 John 5:7
When the text says, and these three are one, it is not [εἰς unus] one and the same person; but [ἓν unum] one and the same thing in effect [or, purpose], i.e. one and the same testimony. Even if the Comma Johanneum is genuine, which I do not grant, the phrase ἓν εἰσι (are one) could not be proved in this text, to mean anything more than agreeing in one and the same testimony. Beza himself understood the oneness here spoken of, to be only oneness in testimony. Consider the words of Christ’s prayer for his disciples, “that they may be one, ὦσιν ἓν, as we are.” Are we to then conclude, that the disciples are one individual being? I do not cite this text to say that if it does not mean unity of being there, then it can not mean unity of being here. That would be a word fallacy (illegitimate totality transfer). However, what I am saying is that it is apparent that a unity of concord (agreement) is an entirely different thing from a unity of being. And since the Greek expression nowhere appears to indicate a unity of essence, this unity must be proved by the context or by some other argument. The only type of union that can be inferred from the text, is one of testimony: “there are three that bear testimony, μαρτυροῦντες,” v. 7. There is no hint of any unity of metaphysical nature or essence in the surrounding context, but the text deals wholly with testimony, viz. “that Jesus is the Son of God,” v. 5. It is therefore completely unwarranted to use the Comma Johanneum, regardless of its authenticity, as justification for the notion that the three persons are one individual being.
The above is the combination of the insightful thoughts of Clarke, Pierce, and Alexander Asciutto on the spurious text of the Johannine comma. See Alexander Asciutto’s website here.
Semi-modalistic trinitarianism is built upon a twisting of the Nicene concept of co-essentiality. The pro-nicene church fathers of the mid-fourth century defined co-essentiality as meaning nothing more than that the persons of the trinity, as truly distinct rational individual beings (that is, persons) shared a common nature or species. A common analogy used by the Nicene fathers to capture their meaning, for example, is of three men being co-essential, in that they, while remaining three distinct individuals, share a common and identical human nature. Although there are three men, there is only one nature between them, human nature. Such was the original meaning of co-essentiality.
For example, Athanasius said:
“Even this is sufficient to dissuade you from blaming those who have said that the Son was coessential with the Father, and yet let us examine the very term ‘Coessential,’ in itself, by way of seeing whether we ought to use it at all, and whether it be a proper term, and is suitable to apply to the Son. For you know yourselves, and no one can dispute it, that Like is not predicated of essence, but of habits, and qualities; for in the case of essences we speak, not of likeness, but of identity. Man, for instance, is said to be like man, not in essence, but according to habit and character; for in essence men are of one nature. And again, man is not said to be unlike dog, but to be of different nature. Accordingly while the former [men] are of one nature and coessential, the latter are different in both.”
Hilary of Poitiers likewise clarified:
“Since, however, we have frequently to mention the words essence and substance, we must determine the meaning of essence, lest in discussing facts we prove ignorant of the signification of our words. Essence is a reality which is, or the reality of those things from which it is, and which subsists inasmuch as it is permanent. Now we can speak of the essence, or nature, or genus, or substance of anything. And the strict reason why the word essence is employed is because it is always. But this is identical with substance, because a thing which is, necessarily subsists in itself, and whatever thus subsists possesses unquestionably a permanent genus, nature or substance. When, therefore, we say that essence signifies nature, or genus, or substance, we mean the essence of that thing which permanently exists in the nature, genus, or substance.”
And Basil of Caesarea wrote:
“The distinction between οὐσία [essence] and ὑπόστασις [person] is the same as that between the general and the particular ; as, for instance, between the animal and the particular man.” (Letter 236)”
This understanding of co-essentiality is likewise required by the council of Chalcedon:
“our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood”
Its clear, then, that the original intent of declaring that the Father, Son, and Spirit share one essence was not to make Them out to all be one person, one individual being, but simply to declare that They shared a common nature or species. This meaning changed, however, and was not kept clear as time went on; the Western churches going to far as to eventually formally change the meaning of co-essentiality in the 4th Lateran council in 1215. Rather than indicating a generic unity of sharing one nature, now co-essentiality was defined as teaching that the unity the persons shared was of being one single numerically individual reality, one rational individual being- that is, in reality, one person. The ‘essence’ was no longer viewed as a nature, but a single subsistent ‘supreme reality’.
“We, however, with the approval of this sacred and universal council, believe and confess with Peter Lombard that there exists a certain supreme reality, incomprehensible and ineffable, which truly is the Father and the Son and the holy Spirit, the three persons together and each one of them separately. Therefore in God there is only a Trinity, not a quaternity, since each of the three persons is that reality — that is to say substance, essence or divine nature-which alone is the principle of all things, besides which no other principle can be found. This reality neither begets nor is begotten nor proceeds; the Father begets, the Son is begotten and the holy Spirit proceeds.” (From Canon 2)
This teaching is a drastic departure from the faith of the early pro-nicene bishops, and represents the culmination of what many in the Nicene era had feared might result from the introduction of ‘essence’ speculation into the church’s dogma. A council of fathers gathered in Antioch in 345 had specified their belief that the Father, Son, and Spirit were not “one supreme reality”, that is, one person, one individual rational being, but rather, three:
“Nor again, in confessing three realities and three persons, of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost according to the Scriptures, do we therefore make Gods three; since we acknowledge the self-complete and unbegotten and unbegun and invisible God to be one only, the God and Father (John 20:17) of the Only-begotten, who alone has being from Himself, and alone vouchsafes this to all others bountifully.” (Macrostich)
Later in the same creed they went on to condemn the very view the 4th Lateran would later make dogma for the Roman churches:
“And those who say that the Father and Son and Holy Ghost are the same, and irreligiously take the three names of one and the same reality and person, we justly proscribe from the Church, because they suppose the illimitable and impassible Father to be also limitable and passable through His becoming man. For such are they whom Romans call Patripassians, and we Sabellians. For we acknowledge that the Father who sent, remained in the peculiar state of His unchangeable Godhead, and that Christ who was sent fulfilled the economy of the Incarnation.”
But one need not wait until the fourth century to find fathers who clearly taught that the Father, Son, and Spirit were not one numerically individual thing, one person. Second century father Justin Martyr, one of the earliest and best of the fathers, clearly understood the Father and Son to be numerically distinct persons, two distinct rational individual beings, not merely two names of or modes of one and the same reality:
“When Scripture says, ‘The Lord rained fire from the Lord out of heaven,’ the prophetic word indicates that there were two in number: One upon the earth, who, it says, descended to behold the cry of Sodom; Another in heaven, who also is Lord of the Lord on earth, as He is Father and God; the cause of His power and of His being Lord and God.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 29)
“And that this power which the prophetic word calls God, as has been also amply demonstrated, and Angel, is not numbered [as different] in name only like the light of the sun but is indeed something numerically distinct, I have discussed briefly in what has gone before; when I asserted that this power was begotten from the Father, by His power and will, but not by abscission, as if the essence of the Father were divided; as all other things partitioned and divided are not the same after as before they were divided: and, for the sake of example, I took the case of fires kindled from a fire, which we see to be distinct from it, and yet that from which many can be kindled is by no means made less, but remains the same.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 128)
“You perceive, my hearers, if you bestow attention, that the Scripture has declared that this Offspring was begotten by the Father before all things created; and that which is begotten is numerically distinct from that which begets, any one will admit.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 129)
Semi-modalistic trinitarianism, then, in proclaiming the the persons of the Trinity are numerically one substance, one individual, is clearly at odds with both the original dogmatic conception of co-essentiality held by the Nicene fathers, which proclaimed co-essentiality to mean nothing more than a mere generic unity of nature between really distinct individuals, as well as being at odds with the faith of the ante-nicene fathers, going back as close to the apostles as we can find.
For a look at how this semi-modalistic conception of the Trinity is opposed to scripture itself, and the very fundamental tenets of the Christian faith it teaches, see here.