Equivocation Over the Term “Person”

Semi-modalism is the false doctrine that teaches that the three real persons of the Trinity are together a single person. Most semi-modalists, however, refuse to use the term “person” for the Trinity, although conceptually they treat the Trinity as a whole as a person in every way except using that term for it.

For example, instead of saying that they believe that ‘God is a person who is three persons’, they will say that ‘God is a being who is three persons’. This sounds closer to orthodoxy; yet there is no substantial difference in meaning.

Such is the skillful deceptiveness of this soul-poisoning error. By minutely altering that ancient saying “one essence in three persons” to “one being in three persons”, no apparent error is introduced, since “being” is a term vague enough to denote either person or essence. Yet this vagueness is used to alter the meaning entirely from the original.

For when the semi-modalist speak of one “being” who is the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, is it not obvious from their employment of the personal pronoun “who” that they regard this being as a person, just as when we speak of a “human being”, we usually do not refer to the human nature considered in abstract, but to an individual human person? So these deceivers equivocate with the terminology of “being” to teach their counterfeit doctrine of the Trinity, which in truth is no doctrine of the Trinity at all, since by making the Trinity itself as a whole out to be a person they introduce a fourth person, and destroy the doctrine of the Trinity and instead teach a quadrinity.

Yet these false teachers act as though if only they can avoid pronouncing the word “person” they will not be convicted of error by the Lord, as though the word used in expressing oneself is the thing of primary importance, and not the meaning and idea behind it.

Others will say that the Trinity as a whole, that is, the Father, Son, and Spirit together are not one person, (for they deny this word), but rather say that it is a single subsistent “thing” or “reality”. Again we see what vague language they must introduce in order to keep up the subterfuge that they are trinitarians. What then, is this “thing” which is the Father, the Son, and the Spirit together, when we closely enquire as to their meaning?

We find that this “thing” meets the very definition they will admit for “person”; though they pretend they are not the same. For a person, they will say, is an individual subsistence of a rational nature. Thus angels, for example, as being both individual existences and possessing a rational nature, are persons. So too they will admit individual men are persons under this definition, and also the real persons of the Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But what then is this thing? For they identify this “thing”, this “reality” which is the Trinity as truly existing, or subsisting, and define it as being individual and singular, and also regard it as being of a rational nature, namely, the divine nature. In what area then, does it fall short of the definition of “person”? In truth, it does not.

And the same false teachers treat this “thing” which meets the definition of a ‘person’, yet is robbed of the title by them, as being a person in every way. They pray to “God the Trinity”, the “triune God”; they speak of this “thing” using singular personal pronouns; they attribute to it consciousness, will, and action, and speech, and in short, everything pertaining to a person, excepting that they deny it the word “person”. Their deception then is obvious, although perhaps it is as much a self-deception as it is a deception of those who hear them.

Let those then who equivocate over the terminology of “person” give up their subterfuge, and like Van Til, come out and openly admit what they think in language that does not hide it. For by hiding their true belief behind ambiguous language, and equivocating as they do, do they not acknowledge the shamefulness of their own belief? For if it is true, it is noble, for truth is excellent; let them then come out and openly make it known. Or else why do they so dishonor the god of their imaginations by denying him personhood? What insult to the “triune God”, that he may receive men’s worship and prayers, and be called by personal pronouns, and have names and titles belonging to the real persons of the Trinity applied to him, and yet he is denied the honor of being called a person!

Or if those who are merely confused and ill taught speak in these ways, and treat the Trinity as a person in the way they speak, and yet acknowledge that it is in truth an error to regard the Trinity as a whole as a person, and for this reason deny it the term “person”, they do well; but let them then abandon their misunderstanding wholeheartedly, and not waver between truth and error any longer. But let them acknowledge the one true God as a person; the person of the Father. And let them acknowledge a second divine person also, one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of the one true God, and together with Him and His Father, Who is the one true God, let them acknowledge a third divine person, the Holy Spirit. And these three persons together are the Trinity; not a singular person, but a group of three and only three persons. And so we may return to that ancient faith in one God, and His only-begotten Son, and His Holy Spirit, and not giving in to any system of false doctrine that would confound this to teach a person who is three persons.

 

Aphrahat of Assyria On the One God Being the Person of the Father in Particular

Aphrahat of Assyria is not a household name in Western Christianity, but his Demonstrations serve as a valuable window into the theology and practice of the churches of the middle east around the time of the Nicene Council. By the time of the council, the Christian church stretched from Britain in the West to India and China in the East, and had not yet been divided by the later schisms that have left so many churches cut off from one another. In English, at least, it is difficult to find the writings of ante-nicene and Nicene era Christian authors who lived farther East than Persia. Most of those commonly known in the West today come from Europe, North Africa, and the Western edge of the Asian continent. Who knows what excellent theologians may have lived in the ancient churches of India and China, today unknown to later generations.

Aphrahat’s writings prove themselves a rare treat to Western Christians as a chance to peer into the often overlooked but enormous ancient churches of the East, where Syriac, instead of Greek or Latin, was used by the churches.

Aphrahat of Assyria, however far he was geographically from other orthodox fathers we may be familiar with such as Irenaeus of Lyons (modern-day France), was not far from them at all in his theology. Like Irenaeus and the fathers at the Nicene Council, Aphrahat taught that the one God is very same person who is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ:

“For if they worship, and honour with the name of worship, the heathen— those who in their heathen wickedness deny even the name of God — and yet do not worship them as their maker, as though they worshipped them alone, and so do not sin; how much more does it become us to worship and honour Jesus, Who converted our stubborn minds from all worship of vain error, and taught us to worship and serve and minister to the one God, our Father and our Maker. ” (Demonstrations, on Jesus Christ the Son of God)

We see Aphrahat express the classical trinitarian belief that men are brought by the Lord Jesus Christ to the one God, Who is our Father and Creator. The one God is not to Aphrahat the Trinity conceived of as though it were a single person, but rather the one God is explicitly the person we know as Father, to Whom the Lord Jesus Christ stands in relation as His only-begotten Son, and the Holy Spirit as His Spirit.

Aphrahat’s belief on this important point of doctrine stands in agreement with both scripture and the teaching of other orthodox fathers of the ante-nicene and nicene eras, as can be see here: I believe in one God, the Father Almighty

Athenagoras of Athens on the One God Being the Person of the Father in Particular

Second century church father Athenagoras of Athens is known best for his work Plea for the Christians, an apologetical work in which he urges the Roman authorities to stop unjustly persecuting Christians. Not much is known of his life, but he seems to have been an Athenian philosopher who converted to Christianity, and afterwards wrote in its defense.

Athenagoras stands as another witness to the view of the orthodox church fathers of the second century, the view that the one God of the Christian faith is the person of the Father in particular; not the entire Trinity as a whole. The one God, after all, according to scripture, is a person, not some abstract divinity without real existence. The Trinity, however, is not a person, and certainly not the person of the one God. Rather, scripture teaches that the person of the one God is the same person Who is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, His eternal Logos and Wisdom, and only-begotten Son.

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.” Ephesians 4:4-5 NAS

“This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” John 17:3 NAS

“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 NAS

We see Athenagoras express his beliefs on the matter thus:

“But, since our doctrine acknowledges one God, the Maker of this universe, who is Himself uncreated (for that which is does not come to be, but that which is not) but has made all things by the Logos which is from Him, we are treated unreasonably in both respects, in that we are both defamed and persecuted.” A Plea For the Christians, Chapter IV.

“That we are not atheists, therefore, seeing that we acknowledge one God, uncreated, eternal, invisible, impassible, incomprehensible, illimitable, who is apprehended by the understanding only and the reason, who is encompassed by light, and beauty, and spirit, and power ineffable, by whom the universe has been created through His Logos, and set in order, and is kept in being—I have sufficiently demonstrated. [I say “His Logos”], for we acknowledge also a Son of God.” A Plea For the Christians, Chapter X.

From both these quotations we see Athenagoras identify that Christians believe in one God; and that this one God created all thing through His Logos, Who is His Son. Thus we see Him clearly equate the “one God” with the person of the Father, while the Logos stands in relation to the one God as His divine Son.

This same language is used by the Nicene Creed, when it says “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things…”, afterwards going on to confess “one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God”, and one “Holy Spirit”.

For an extensive list of testimonies from the ante-nicene and nicene church fathers on this subject, see here: https://contramodalism.com/2017/03/08/i-believe-in-one-god-the-father-almighty/.

Demonstration From Scripture that the One God is the Father in Particular

It is important to see every point of doctrine proven from scripture in order to know with certainty that it is true; conversely we endanger ourselves if we rashly accept what merely seems plausible without a true demonstration from the scriptures. For scripture commands that we “Test all things; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thess 5:21)

For those who think this idea is merely a peculiarity of the protestant tradition, we may learn that this idea is in fact a patristic doctrine held by the early church fathers:

“Have thou ever in thy mind this seal, which for the present has been lightly touched in my discourse, by way of summary, but shall be stated, should the Lord permit, to the best of my power with the proof from the Scriptures. For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell thee these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures.” (Cyril, Archbishop of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 4)

We see the same idea expressed by Clement of Alexandria:

“But those who are ready to toil in the most excellent pursuits, will not desist from the search after truth, till they get the demonstration from the Scriptures themselves… He, then, who of himself believes the Scripture and voice of the Lord, which by the Lord acts to the benefiting of men, is rightly [regarded] faithful. Certainly we use it as a criterion in the discovery of things. What is subjected to criticism is not believed till it is so subjected; so that what needs criticism cannot be a first principle. Therefore, as is reasonable, grasping by faith the indemonstrable first principle, and receiving in abundance, from the first principle itself, demonstrations in reference to the first principle, we are by the voice of the Lord trained up to the knowledge of the truth.
For we may not give our adhesion to men on a bare statement by them, who might equally state the opposite. But if it is not enough merely to state the opinion, but if what is stated must be confirmed, we do not wait for the testimony of men, but we establish the matter that is in question by the voice of the Lord, which is the surest of all demonstrations, or rather is the only demonstration; in which knowledge those who have merely tasted the Scriptures are believers; while those who, having advanced further, and become correct expounders of the truth, are Gnostics. Since also, in what pertains to life, craftsmen are superior to ordinary people, and model what is beyond common notions; so, consequently, we also, giving a complete exhibition of the Scriptures from the Scriptures themselves, from faith persuade by demonstration.” (Stromata, Book 7, Chapter 16)

And Irenaeus of Lyons considered it so important to see even the most basic tenets of the Christian faith demonstrated from the scriptures, and not believed on the authority of mere human opinion, that he authored his Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, in which he admirably shows the agreement of the holy tradition of the church with the holy and infallible scriptures, and proves each point of the traditional faith from the same.

And the teaching of these ancient Christians is itself well supported from the scriptures, which commend the Jews of Berea as “noble-minded”(Act 17:11) because they did not accept or reject what the Apostle Paul himself taught except upon seeing it proven from the scriptures, the Holy Spirit through the apostle in another place commanding every Christian to “Test all things; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thess 5:21).

Having then, demonstrated the need for demonstration from the scriptures itself from the scriptures, and having provided a few testimonies to the same effect from the holy fathers of the church, let us move on to our main subject, concerned with the identity of the one God.

The opinion of many, led astray by false teachers, is that the one God is a person who is the three persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The greater part who have been deceived have no idea of their own peril, but having uncritically accept what some teachers have told them, have been carried away by lies contrary to the teaching of scripture.

But the teaching of scripture stands, and the truth in unchanged by the false opinions of the multitude. And as Justin Martyr says “Neither shall light ever be darkness as long as light exists, nor shall the truth of the things pertaining to us be controverted. For truth is that than which nothing is more powerful. Every one who might speak the truth, and speaks it not, shall be judged by God.” I must then, although I would rather avoid the controversy entailed, do my best to speak the truth, although I am the least of all Christians.

The points of doctrine then, which I undertake to prove from the scriptures, that you may have a true knowledge of them, not founded on human opinion or plausible arguments, but upon proof from very voice of God speaking in the holy scriptures, are these:

  1. That the “one God” of scripture is a person.
  2. That the person of the one God is the Father in particular.

Firstly, let us fix in our minds what a “person” is: a person is commonly acknowledged to be an individual of a rational nature. For instance, we may speak of human persons, since individual men are individual and possess a rational nature. We may also regard angelic creatures as persons, since they also exist as individuals and possess a rational nature. God, His Son, and His Spirit are also persons, since each of them is an individual of a rational nature. Persons, since they are by definition rational and individual, possess their own distinct consciousness, will, and mind. As rational individuals, they act, think, and speak.

That the “one God” scripture reveals is a person is demonstrated from;

  • That it is self-evident that the “one God” is individual.
  • His actions demonstrate that He is rational.
  • That He is God proves He is rational, since rationality is necessary to exercise dominion and rule as God does.
  • Scripture’s use of singular personal pronouns for Him demonstrates that He is an individual.

Thus, once we see all these points proven, we will have it proven that the one God is both rational and individual; thus, by definition, a person.

We see that the one God acts in these passages of scripture:

“Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why do we deal treacherously with one another By profaning the covenant of the fathers?” (Malachi 2:10)

“since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.” (Romans 3:30)

We see that God is rational from these passages of scripture:

““Come now, and let us reason together,” Says the Lord, “Though your sins are like scarlet, They shall be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They shall be as wool.” (Isaiah 1:18)

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The everlasting God, the Lord, The Creator of the ends of the earth, Neither faints nor is weary. His understanding is unsearchable.” (Isaiah 40:28)

“For the Lord gives wisdom; From His mouth come knowledge and understanding;” (Proverbs 2:6)

Having it proven then from the holy scriptures that the one God is rational, and from the very term “one God” itself having it self-evident that He is individual, we have proven that He is a person. But scripture gives us further proof of this by using singular personal pronouns for Him; since by definition a singular personal pronoun indicates a single person.

We have already quoted above:

“since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.” (Romans 3:30)

The “one God” then is not an “it” and so impersonal, but is rather called by scripture “who”, thus teaching us that the one God is a person.

“So the scribe said to Him, “Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth, for there is one God, and there is no other but He. 33 And to love Him with all the heart, with all the understanding, with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Now when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, He said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”” (Mark 12:32-34)

Here the scribe says that there is one God, and calls Him “He”. If then, the one God were not a person, then the scribe did not indeed answer wisely, since he speaks of Him as one. But Christ, the Wisdom of God, acknowledges that “he answered wisely”.

Again the Spirit through Paul teaches

“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)

We see then the one God spoken of with the singular personal pronouns “whom” and “Him”.

Lastly we will cite Ephesians 4:6:

“one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”

Here again we see the one God is proven to be a person by the use of the personal pronoun “who”.

So we see it proven again that the one God is a person, having proved it first from the fact that scripture shows the one God to be an individual of a rational nature, and thus a person by definition, so also we have now shown that scripture declares that the one God is a person by using personal pronouns for Him. We have then, demonstrated from infallible scripture this first point of doctrine, that the one God is a person.

On then, to the second point of doctrine of our demonstration, that is, having established that the one God is a person, proving now from the scriptures that He is the person of the Father in particular.

This is made clear from the following passages:

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.” Ephesians 4:4-5 NAS

Here the one God is explicitly shown to be the same person as the Father.

“This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” John 17:3 NAS

Here the Lord teaches us to call the Father the “only true God” by His own example when He prayed to the Father on the night He was betrayed.

“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 NAS

Here the Holy Spirit expressly declares through the apostle that the one God is the Father.

From these explicit testimonies is clearly demonstrated the fact that the one God is the Father. And He cannot be, as some have though, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit if He is a person; for a person, as we have said, is an individual, and thus singular. And we also noted the use of singular, not plural, personal pronouns used for the one God, thus proving that the one God is not a company of persons but a single person, and that this person is none other than the Father, the one Whom the Lord Jesus Christ called “the only true God”.

Here then both points of doctrine have been clearly and thoroughly proven from the scriptures; let he who has ears hear. What you may once have safely regarded as mere opinion is now declared to you by the voice of God to be sure and certain truth, which cannot be safely disregarded.

But someone will perhaps not regard the testimony of scripture alone as sufficient, but will require an official ruling from the church. Such foolishness deserves no answer; but that they may through the truth be drawn to repentance, let them read only the first line of the Creed composed by the Council of Nicea, the first ecumenical council, when it says “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things..” and they will know that what I have already demonstrated from the scriptures is indeed true.

 

Above scripture quotations taken from the NKJV unless otherwise noted.

Ignatius of Antioch on the One God Being the Person of the Father in Particular

Ignatius of Antioch is among the earliest church fathers, those who served the church in the generation following the passing of the apostles. His writings, at least inasmuch as they have come down to us faithfully preserved, give us insight into the belief and practice of the early church.

We have many letters ascribed to Ignatius of Antioch. Some are nearly universally considered to be fraudulent; written at much later dates to dishonestly enlist the honorable church father and martyr as a supporter of this or that theological position in controversies that arose later in church history. Others are probably authentic, although several different versions of those letter have come down to us. For these letters, there are shorter and longer versions coming form different manuscript traditions. The longer versions likely include extra material added in following centuries.

Reaction to these textual issues varies, with some wanting to ignore the letters altogether as unreliable, while others strongly believe the reliability of the letters and see them as valuable sources of historical theology and practice.

It is not my intention to weigh in on the textual issues surrounding these letters, or their reliability or lack thereof. Perhaps they really represent Ignatius’s beliefs accurately; perhaps they would better be said to represent the teachings of a dishonest third or fourth century tamperer. Regardless, these letters are rich with attestations to the truth that the one God of the Christian faith is the person of the Father, as well as other important elements of trinitarian doctrine. For our purposes, and with the above disclaimers, I will treat these as representative of the true beliefs of Ignatius. Whoever the author may be, these letters serve as a helpful witness to the classical trinitarianism of the apostolic era:

“On this account also they were persecuted, being inspired by His grace to fully convince the unbelieving that there is one God, who has manifested Himself by Jesus Christ His Son, who is His eternal Word, not proceeding forth from silence, and who in all things pleased Him that sent Him.” Epistle to the Magnesians (shorter version), Chapter VIII.

“If any one confesses Christ Jesus the Lord, but denies the God of the law and of the prophets, saying that the Father of Christ is not the Maker of heaven and earth, he has not continued in the truth any more than his father the devil, and is a disciple of Simon Magus, not of the Holy Spirit. If any one says there is one God, and also confesses Christ Jesus, but thinks the Lord to be a mere man, and not the only-begotten God, and Wisdom, and the Word of God, and deems Him to consist merely of a soul and body, such an one is a serpent, that preaches deceit and error for the destruction of men.” Epistle to the Philadelphians (longer version), Chapter VI.

“The prophets also, when they speak as in the person of God, [saying,] “I am God, the first [of beings], and I am also the last, and besides Me there is no God,” concerning the Father of the universe, do also speak of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Epistle to the Antiochians, Chapter III.

“The Evangelists, too, when they declared that the one Father was “the only true God,” did not omit what concerned our Lord, but wrote: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Epistle to the Antiochians, Chapter IV.

“For if there is one God of the universe, the Father of Christ, “of whom are all things;” and one Lord Jesus Christ, our [Lord], “by whom are all things;” and also one Holy Spirit, who wrought in Moses, and in the prophets and apostles; and also one baptism, which is administered that we should have fellowship with the death of the Lord; and also one elect Church; there ought likewise to be but one faith in respect to Christ. For “there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is through all, and in all.”” Epistle to the Philippians, Chapter I.

“There is then one God and Father, and not two or three; One who is; and there is no other besides Him, the only true [God]. For “the Lord thy God,” saith [the Scripture], “is one Lord.” And again, “Hath not one God created us? Have we not all one Father? And there is also one Son, God the Word. For “the only-begotten Son,” saith [the Scripture], “who is in the bosom of the Father.” And again, “One Lord Jesus Christ.” And in another place, “What is His name, or what His Son’s name, that we may know?” And there is also one Paraclete. For “there is also,” saith [the Scripture], “one Spirit,” since “we have been called in one hope of our calling.”” Epistle to the Philippians, Chapter II.

“Ignatius answered, “Thou art in error when thou callest the dæmons of the nations gods. For there is but one God, who made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all that are in them; and one Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, whose kingdom may I enjoy.”” Ignatius before Trajan, at his martyrdom. From the Martyrdom of Ignatius, Chapter II.

The agreement of these statements with later church fathers like Irenaeus can be easily recognised (see: https://contramodalism.com/2017/03/08/i-believe-in-one-god-the-father-almighty/ ). The identicality of what he teaches on this point with what scripture teaches is clear enough from the quotes themselves.

 

Origen on the One God Being the Father

 

Origen has long been a controversial figure in church history. The third century church father was student of Clement of Alexandria, and taught at the Catechetical School at Alexandria. For better or worse, Origen was highly influential on several generations following him, until he was eventual posthumously condemned as a heretic many centuries after he lived by an ecclesiastical council. Prior to this there had been protracted controversy about his orthodoxy for centuries, with many church fathers writing in opposition and in defense of him.

Without commenting further on Origen’s contributions to theology at large, it will serve our purposes simply to note that Origen stands amid a long line of early Christian theologians who taught that the one God of the Christians faith is not the Trinity, but the person of God the Father in particular. We see this belief expressed by Origen in the following quotes:

“The particular points clearly delivered in the teaching of the apostles are as follow:– First, That there is one God, who created and arranged all things, and who, when nothing existed, called all things into being–God from the first creation and foundation of the world–the God of all just men, of Adam, Abel, Seth, Enos, Enoch, Noe, Sere, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the twelve patriarchs, Moses, and the prophets; and that this God in the last days, as He had announced beforehand by His prophets, sent our Lord Jesus Christ to call in the first place Israel to Himself, and in the second place the Gentiles, after the unfaithfulness of the people of Israel. This just and good God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Himself gave the law and the prophets, and the Gospels, being also the God of the apostles and of the Old and New Testaments.” De Principiis, Preface 4.

“But whether Orpheus, Parmenides, Empedocles, or even Homer himself, and Hesiod, are the persons whom he means by “inspired poets,” let any one show how those who follow their guidance walk in a better way, or lead a more excellent life, than those who, being taught in the school of Jesus Christ, have rejected all images and statues, and even all Jewish superstition, that they may look upward through the Word of God to the one God, who is the Father of the Word.” Origen Against Celsus, Book VII. Chapter XLI.

“Accordingly, we worship with all our power the one God, and His only Son, the Word and the Image of God, by prayers and supplications; and we offer our petitions to the God of the universe through His only-begotten Son.” Origen Against Celsus, Book VIII. Chapter XIII.

This matches with the apostle Paul’s inspired confession in 1 Corinthians 8:6 “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.” (NAS), as well as the later teaching of the Nicene Creed which begins by stating that “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty…”. For an extensive list of quotes from other church fathers on the same subject, see here: https://contramodalism.com/2017/03/08/i-believe-in-one-god-the-father-almighty/ .

The Grievous Error of the Fourth Lateran Council

When doctrinal error is mentioned in respect to the Fourth Lateran Council, a number of issues could be brought up depending on what tradition is examining the council. Protestants reject its teaching on transubstantiation as error; Eastern Orthodox reject its teaching on the Filoque; the Oriental Orthodox would reject its Chalcedonian articulation of the hypostatic union. Everyone but the papists themselves takes issue with the council’s strong assertion of papal supremacy and authority (written, conveniently, by the Pope himself, as all the canons). But in this article, I want to draw attention to a lesser-known doctrinal error the council did much to promote: the anti-trinitarian doctrine of semi-modalism.

The Fourth Lateran Council is not primarily known today for its decisions regarding the doctrine of the Trinity. The thirteenth-century Papal Council, held in a Roman palace, dealt with a host of issues, including crusades, defining and officially confessing the doctrine of transubstantiation, the filioque, and papal authority. Yet its impact on trinitarian doctrine for Roman Catholicism is actually very great (the council is generally rejected by protestant and Eastern churches, as it took place after the Great Schism, and prior to the Reformation, with significant parts of its rulings being rejected by the Reformers).

The council’s importance to Rome’s views on the Trinity is primarily because of the council’s dealings with Abbot Joachim of Fiore’s treatise on the Trinity, in which Joachim accused Peter Lombard of teaching heresy in his famous Sentences. The heresy Joachim had in view was none other than semi-modalism. Abbot Joachim recognised that teaching that the Trinity was a single conscious thing who is the three real persons of Father, Son, and Spirit, is far different than scripture’s teaching of that the one God is only one person, the Father, and made efforts to draw attention to this departure from scripture’s teaching. He correctly pointed out that Peter Lombard’s semi-modalism effectively made the Trinity itself into a fourth divine person, ultimately to the destruction of the doctrine of the Trinity.

The bishop of Rome and the council he had called did not agree with Abbot Joachim’s assessment. His teachings on the subject were condemned, and the council affirmed the already well-entrenched heresy of semi-modalism as the official Roman Catholic belief, as they officially redefined the doctrine of consubstantiality to no longer teach that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share one and the same divine nature to instead mean than the Father, Son, and Spirit were the same conscious “reality”- in concept, a person. They avoided the language of “person” for this reality, denying Abbot Joachim’s criticism that conceiving of the Trinity this way was to believe in a fourth person of the Trinity, since to admit such would be obviously heretical.

This equivocation on the terminology of “person” and on the subject of consubstantiality have continued down to our own day, as semi-modalists continue to follow the pattern of substituting out another word besides “person” for the singular, personal, conscious, rational reality that they teach is the three persons of the Father, Son, and Spirit. They call this “thing” the “essence” or “substance” which exists in the three persons of the Trinity, while originally the Nicene church fathers introduced this language not to indicate that a person was three persons, but to speak of the single divine nature shared by the three persons of the Trinity. This fact can be seen clearly from their own writings.

Hilary of Poitiers, for example, wrote thus:

“IV. If any one dares to say that the Unborn God, or a part of Him, was born of Mary: let him be anathema.

42. The fact of the essence declared to be one in the Father and the Son having one name on account of their similarity of nature seemed to offer an opportunity to heretics to declare that the Unborn God, or a part of Him, was born of Mary. The danger was met by the wholesome resolution that he who declared this should be anathema. For the unity of the name which religion employs and which is based on the exact similarity of their natural essence, has not repudiated the Person of the begotten essence so as to represent, under cover of the unity of name, that the substance of God is singular and undifferentiated because we predicate one name for the essence of each, that is, predicate one God, on account of the exactly similar substance of the undivided nature in each Person.” (De Synodis)

Even in the post-nicene period, this classical understanding of co-essentiality can be clearly seen in the Chalcedonian Definition when it says:

“We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in divine nature and also perfect in human nature; truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body; co-essential with the Father according to the divine nature, and co-essential with us according to the human nature; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the divine nature, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the human nature…”

Notice Christ is said to be co-essential with man according to his human nature. This is consistent with an understanding of essence as a general nature considered in abstract, such as human nature, or the divine nature. Christ being co-essential with man literally means he is of the same human nature as all other men. By way of parallel, which is obviously drawn by the Definition, Christ is also eternally co-essential with the Father as His Son, in that He has from all eternity the same divine nature as the Father. This same understanding can also be seen articulated by Basil the Great (see: https://contramodalism.com/2018/01/12/basil-the-great-on-the-distinction-between-essence-and-person/ ).

In contrast, the idea that co-essentiality would somehow mean that the subjects were one “thing”, with its own real concrete existence, does not fit at all with the Chalcedonian Definition. Christ is co-essential with man- yet there is no real existence to the human nature considered in abstract. Human nature finds real existence in human persons; but considered in abstract, it is only an idea, lacking concrete existence. Yet if we apply the Fourth Lateran Council’s semi-modalistic re-definition of co-essentiality to the Chalcedonian Definition, this is exactly the way we must understand it. Yet clearly, this idea is nonsensical.

So we are able to see a medieval papal redefinition of co-essentiality:

“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 redefinition of co-essentiality is erroneous, as it ultimately makes the Father, Son, and Spirit into a single person who is all three together. This doctrine is mutually exclusive to the classical doctrine of the Trinity taught by scripture and the orthodox church fathers of the Nicene and Ante-Nicene eras which is summed up in the Nicene Creed.

The Roman Catholic Church needs to abandon this grievous error and return to the classical trinitarianism contended for by such Western church fathers as Irenaeus of Lyons and Novatian. Those of other traditions should take heed of this error hidden among the historically more conspicuous problems with the rulings of the Fourth Lateran Council. We may be thankful that both Protestant and Eastern churches are free from commitment to the canons of this council, and thus are not, like the Roman Catholic church, bound to the heresy of semi-modalism in an official capacity by the ruling of the Papal council.