Justin Martyr’s Trinitarianism

“Reason directs those who are truly pious and philosophical to honour and love only what is true, declining to follow traditional opinions, if these be worthless. For not only does sound reason direct us to refuse the guidance of those who did or taught anything wrong, but it is incumbent on the lover of truth, by all means, and if death be threatened, even before his own life, to choose to do and say what is right.” (First Apology, Chapter 2)

Second century church father Justin Martyr was a faithful theologian of the early church, known for his apologetical work. Among his surviving works we have two apologies written to the Roman government, in which Christianity is explained and defended, and his Dialogue With Trypho, an apologetical work directed against rabbinical judaism in which Justin proves the validity of Christian doctrine and practice from the Old Testament scriptures, and interacts with the arguments and objections of Judaism.

Justin Martyr was very influential on later church fathers, including Irenaeus of Lyons. His writings, especially due to their genre and early date, serve an as extremely valuable window into the Christianity of the second century church. Unlike polemical or exegetical works, Justin’s apologetical works are aimed at those who do not know what Christianity is; this leads him to give a detailed and ‘from the ground up’ explanation of what Christians are, do, and believe. To have a detailed explanation of early Christianity like this is extremely useful for understanding that era of church history. Additionally, because of the nature of Dialogue With Trypho as an apologetic against Judaism, we are given a detailed and thorough window into how second century Christians read the Old Testament and its predictions of Christ. Certainly, without Justin’s writings our historical understanding of early Christianity would be greatly diminished.

Given what has been said above, it stands to reason that Justin’s works would also give us a good historical picture of what Christians believed about the Trinity in this period. It is noteworthy here that Justin does not speak of his private opinion of what Christians ought to believe, but sets out in his works to explain what Christians at large believe. In rare instances, he notes where there is disagreement among Christians on a given point of doctrine, and which view he believes is correct. For example:

“I admitted to you formerly, that I and many others are of this opinion, and [believe] that such will take place, as you assuredly are aware; but, on the other hand, I signified to you that many who belong to the pure and pious faith, and are true Christians, think otherwise.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 80)

We ought not then view Justin’s explanations of Christian theology as something peculiar to his own person, but as representative of wider Christian teaching as a whole. Let us then examine his teaching on the Trinity. For our purposes, we will focus on his apologies, and Dialogue With Trypho, as these are the principle works that pertain to the subject.

Firstly, I would like to highlight that Justin frequently speaks of God as “the unbegotten God”. It is clearly an important point in Justin’s understanding of Christian theology that God is uncaused. This title is, of course, only used for the person of the Father. We also see that as Justin understood Christian theology, the “one God” of the Christians was the person of the Father in particular (as scripture also says: “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 Cor. 8:6 NKJV):

“And thus do we also, since our persuasion by the Word, stand aloof from them (i.e., the demons), and follow the only unbegotten God through His Son — we who formerly delighted in fornication, but now embrace chastity alone; we who formerly used magical arts, dedicate ourselves to the good and unbegotten God” (First Apology, Chapter 14)

“have now, through Jesus Christ, learned to despise these, though we be threatened with death for it, and have dedicated ourselves to the unbegotten and impassible God” (First Apology, Chapter 25)

“But the Gentiles, who had never heard anything about Christ, until the apostles set out from Jerusalem and preached concerning Him, and gave them the prophecies, were filled with joy and faith, and cast away their idols, and dedicated themselves to the Unbegotten God through Christ.” (First Apology, Chapter 49)

“For with what reason should we believe of a crucified man that He is the first-born of the unbegotten God, and Himself will pass judgment on the whole human race, unless we had found testimonies concerning Him published before He came and was born as man…” (First Apology, Chapter 53)

“…take your stand on one Unbegotten, and say that this is the Cause of all.” (Dialogue With trypho, Chapter 5)

“But to the Father of all, who is unbegotten there is no name given. For by whatever name He be called, He has as His elder the person who gives Him the name. But these words Father, and God, and Creator, and Lord, and Master, are not names, but appellations derived from His good deeds and functions. And His Son, who alone is properly called Son, the Word who also was with Him and was begotten before the works, when at first He created and arranged all things by Him, is called Christ, in reference to His being anointed and God’s ordering all things through Him…” (Second Apology, Chapter 6)

“and we have the unbegotten and ineffable God as witness both of our thoughts and deeds.” (Second Apology, Chapter 12)

“For next to God, we worship and love the Word who is from the unbegotten and ineffable God, since also He became man for our sakes, that becoming a partaker of our sufferings, He might also bring us healing.” (Second Apology, Chapter 13)

“And again, when He says, ‘I shall behold the heavens, the works of Your fingers,’ unless I understand His method of using words, I shall not understand intelligently, but just as your teachers suppose, fancying that the Father of all, the unbegotten God, has hands and feet, and fingers, and a soul, like a composite being; and they for this reason teach that it was the Father Himself who appeared to Abraham and to Jacob.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 114)

“For if you had understood what has been written by the prophets, you would not have denied that He was God, Son of the only, unbegotten, unutterable God.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 126)

“These and other such sayings are recorded by the lawgiver and by the prophets; and I suppose that I have stated sufficiently, that wherever God says, ‘God went up from Abraham,’ Genesis 18:22 or, ‘The Lord spoke to Moses,’ Exodus 6:29 and ‘The Lord came down to behold the tower which the sons of men had built,’ Genesis 11:5 or when ‘God shut Noah into the ark,’ Genesis 7:16 you must not imagine that the unbegotten God Himself came down or went up from any place. For the ineffable Father and Lord of all neither has come to any place, nor walks, nor sleeps, nor rises up, but remains in His own place, wherever that is, quick to behold and quick to hear, having neither eyes nor ears, but being of indescribable might; and He sees all things, and knows all things, and none of us escapes His observation; and He is not moved or confined to a spot in the whole world, for He existed before the world was made.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 127)

So then we see that Justin regards the Father as the only God, who is unbegotten, and altogether uncaused. We see Justin clearly believes in one unbegotten, Who is the uncaused Cause of all, and that this is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.

When we examine Justin’s statements about the Son, we see that He regards the Son as begotten of the Father before creation, and as such, as being caused by the Father:

“And that you will not succeed is declared by the Word, than whom, after God who begot Him, we know there is no ruler more kingly and just.” (First Apology, Chapter 12)

“…and (secondly) that Jesus Christ is the only proper Son who has been begotten by God, being His Word and first-begotten, and power; and, becoming man according to His will, He taught us these things for the conversion and restoration of the human race…” (First Apology, Chapter 23)

“For they who are called devils attempt nothing else than to seduce men from God who made them, and from Christ His first-begotten;” (First Apology, Chapter 29)

“The Jews, accordingly, being throughout of opinion that it was the Father of the universe who spoke to Moses, though He who spoke to him was indeed the Son of God, who is called both Angel and Apostle, are justly charged, both by the Spirit of prophecy and by Christ Himself, with knowing neither the Father nor the Son. For they who affirm that the Son is the Father, are proved neither to have become acquainted with the Father, nor to know that the Father of the universe has a Son; who also, being the first-begotten Word of God, is even God.” (First Apology, Chapter 63)

“And His Son, who alone is properly called Son, the Word who also was with Him and was begotten before the works, when at first He created and arranged all things by Him, is called Christ, in reference to His being anointed and God’s ordering all things through Him” (Second Apology, Chapter 6)

“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)

“I shall give you another testimony, my friends, from the Scriptures, that God begot before all creatures a Beginning, [who was] a certain rational power [proceeding] from Himself, who is called by the Holy Spirit, now the Glory of the Lord, now the Son, again Wisdom, again an Angel, then God, and then Lord and Logos; and on another occasion He calls Himself Captain, when He appeared in human form to Joshua the son of Nave (Nun). For He can be called by all those names, since He ministers to the Father’s will, and since He was begotten of the Father by an act of will; just as we see happening among ourselves: for when we give out some word, we beget the word; yet not by abscission, so as to lessen the word [which remains] in us, when we give it out: and just as we see also happening in the case of a fire, which is not lessened when it has kindled [another], but remains the same; and that which has been kindled by it likewise appears to exist by itself, not diminishing that from which it was kindled. The Word of Wisdom, who is Himself this God begotten of the Father of all things, and Word, and Wisdom, and Power, and the Glory of the Begetter, will bear evidence to me, when He speaks by Solomon the following:

If I shall declare to you what happens daily, I shall call to mind events from everlasting, and review them. The Lord made me the beginning of His ways for His works. From everlasting He established me in the beginning, before He had made the earth, and before He had made the deeps, before the springs of the waters had issued forth, before the mountains had been established. Before all the hills He begets me. God made the country, and the desert, and the highest inhabited places under the sky. When He made ready the heavens, I was along with Him, and when He set up His throne on the winds: when He made the high clouds strong, and the springs of the deep safe, when He made the foundations of the earth, I was with Him arranging. I was that in which He rejoiced; daily and at all times I delighted in His countenance, because He delighted in the finishing of the habitable world, and delighted in the sons of men. Now, therefore, O son, hear me. Blessed is the man who shall listen to me, and the mortal who shall keep my ways, watching daily at my doors, observing the posts of my ingoings. For my outgoings are the outgoings of life, and [my] will has been prepared by the Lord. But they who sin against me, trespass against their own souls; and they who hate me love death.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 61)

“But this Offspring, which was truly brought forth from the Father, was with the Father before all the creatures, and the Father communed with Him; even as the Scripture by Solomon has made clear, that He whom Solomon calls Wisdom, was begotten as a Beginning before all His creatures and as Offspring by God…” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 62)

“Accordingly He revealed to us all that we have perceived by His grace out of the Scriptures, so that we know Him to be the first-begotten of God, and to be before all creatures; likewise to be the Son of the patriarchs, since He assumed flesh by the Virgin of their family, and submitted to become a man without comeliness, dishonoured, and subject to suffering.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 100)

“For [Christ] called one of His disciples— previously known by the name of Simon — Peter; since he recognised Him to be Christ the Son of God, by the revelation of His Father: and since we find it recorded in the memoirs of His apostles that He is the Son of God, and since we call Him the Son, we have understood that He proceeded before all creatures from the Father by His power and will…” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 100)

For I have already proved that He was the only-begotten of the Father of all things, being begotten in a peculiar manner Word and Power by Him, and having afterwards become man through the Virgin, as we have learned from the memoirs.” (Dialogue With trypho, Chapter 105)

“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)

Stemming from this, Justin teaches that the Son is also God, although not the same person as the one God, the Father, because He is begotten of Him:

“For they who affirm that the Son is the Father, are proved neither to have become acquainted with the Father, nor to know that the Father of the universe has a Son; who also, being the first-begotten Word of God, is even God.” (First Apology, Chapter 63)

“And now have you not perceived, my friends, that one of the three, who is both God and Lord, and ministers to Him who is in the heavens, is Lord of the two angels? For when [the angels] proceeded to Sodom, He remained behind, and communed with Abraham in the words recorded by Moses; and when He departed after the conversation, Abraham went back to his place. And when he came [to Sodom], the two angels no longer conversed with Lot, but Himself, as the Scripture makes evident; and He is the Lord who received commission from the Lord who [remains] in the heavens, i.e., the Maker of all things, to inflict upon Sodom and Gomorrha the [judgments] which the Scripture describes in these terms: ‘The Lord rained down upon Sodom and Gomorrha sulphur and fire from the Lord out of heaven.'” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 56)

“[Speaking of the Son] He is called God, and He is and shall be God.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 58)

“I shall give you another testimony, my friends, from the Scriptures, that God begot before all creatures a Beginning, [who was] a certain rational power [proceeding] from Himself, who is called by the Holy Spirit, now the Glory of the Lord, now the Son, again Wisdom, again an Angel, then God, and then Lord and Logos; and on another occasion He calls Himself Captain, when He appeared in human form to Joshua the son of Nave (Nun). For He can be called by all those names, since He ministers to the Father’s will, and since He was begotten of the Father by an act of will; just as we see happening among ourselves: for when we give out some word, we beget the word; yet not by abscission, so as to lessen the word [which remains] in us, when we give it out: and just as we see also happening in the case of a fire, which is not lessened when it has kindled [another], but remains the same; and that which has been kindled by it likewise appears to exist by itself, not diminishing that from which it was kindled. The Word of Wisdom, who is Himself this God begotten of the Father of all things, and Word, and Wisdom, and Power, and the Glory of the Begetter, will bear evidence to me, when He speaks by Solomon the following…” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 61)

“And that Christ would act so when He became man was foretold by the mystery of Jacob’s wrestling with Him who appeared to him, in that He ministered to the will of the Father, yet nevertheless is God, in that He is the first-begotten of all creatures.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 125)

“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)

“And now I shall again recite the words which I have spoken in proof of this point. 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 129)

We see clearly shown, then, from Justin’s own words, that he, and Christians in general who he represents in these works, held that the Son is truly God, having His divinity (that is biblically, His dominion over the whole universe, excepting the Father) from the Father, as scripture also teaches.

He also teaches that the Son is under the headship and authority of the Father, and minsters to the will of the Father:

“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)

“I shall attempt to persuade you, since you have understood the Scriptures, [of the truth] of what I say, that there is, and that there is said to be, another God and Lord subject to the Maker of all things; who is also called an Angel, because He announces to men whatsoever the Maker of all things— above whom there is no other God — wishes to announce to them.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 56)

“Reverting to the Scriptures, I shall endeavour to persuade you, that He who is said to have appeared to Abraham, and to Jacob, and to Moses, and who is called God, is distinct from Him who made all things — numerically, I mean, not [distinct] in will. For I affirm that He has never at any time done anything which He who made the world— above whom there is no other God — has not wished Him both to do and to engage Himself with.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 56)

“And now have you not perceived, my friends, that one of the three, who is both God and Lord, and ministers to Him who is in the heavens, is Lord of the two angels? For when [the angels] proceeded to Sodom, He remained behind, and communed with Abraham in the words recorded by Moses; and when He departed after the conversation, Abraham went back to his place. And when he came [to Sodom], the two angels no longer conversed with Lot, but Himself, as the Scripture makes evident; and He is the Lord who received commission from the Lord who [remains] in the heavens, i.e., the Maker of all things, to inflict upon Sodom and Gomorrha the [judgments] which the Scripture describes in these terms: ‘The Lord rained down upon Sodom and Gomorrha sulphur and fire from the Lord out of heaven.’” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 56)

“Even if this were so, my friends, that an angel and God were together in the vision seen by Moses, yet, as has already been proved to you by the passages previously quoted, it will not be the Creator of all things that is the God that said to Moses that He was the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, but it will be He who has been proved to you to have appeared to Abraham, ministering to the will of the Maker of all things, and likewise carrying into execution His counsel in the judgment of Sodom…” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 60)

“I shall give you another testimony, my friends, from the Scriptures, that God begot before all creatures a Beginning, [who was] a certain rational power [proceeding] from Himself, who is called by the Holy Spirit, now the Glory of the Lord, now the Son, again Wisdom, again an Angel, then God, and then Lord and Logos; and on another occasion He calls Himself Captain, when He appeared in human form to Joshua the son of Nave (Nun). For He can be called by all those names, since He ministers to the Father’s will, and since He was begotten of the Father by an act of will; just as we see happening among ourselves…” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 61)

“For I have proved that it was Jesus who appeared to and conversed with Moses, and Abraham, and all the other patriarchs without exception, ministering to the will of the Father; who also, I say, came to be born man by the Virgin Mary, and lives forever.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 113)

“And that Christ would act so when He became man was foretold by the mystery of Jacob’s wrestling with Him who appeared to him, in that He ministered to the will of the Father, yet nevertheless is God, in that He is the first-begotten of all creatures.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 125)

“From which I have demonstrated that He who is described as God appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, and the other patriarchs, was appointed under the authority of the Father and Lord, and ministers to His will.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 126)

“Therefore neither Abraham, nor Isaac, nor Jacob, nor any other man, saw the Father and ineffable Lord of all, and also of Christ, but [saw] Him who was according to His will His Son, being God, and the Angel because He ministered to His will...” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 127)

Justin Martyr then is shown from his own words to have taught that Christians believe that there is one God, Who is the supreme uncaused Cause of all, and the Supreme Authority over all, even over His only-begotten Son, Who, as the only-begotten Son of the one God, is a distinct person from the one God, Who is also God (for more explanation of what it means that the Son is God, see here). These early Christian beliefs can be shown to be thoroughly in line with what scripture says, and can be proven true from the same; see: Why There is Only One God: One Supreme Cause and Why There is Only One God: Headship.

Finally, we note a few passages where Justin speaks of the whole Trinity together:

“Our teacher of these things is Jesus Christ, who also was born for this purpose, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judæa, in the times of Tiberius Cæsar; and that we reasonably worship Him, having learned that He is the Son of the true God Himself, and holding Him in the second place, and the prophetic Spirit in the third, we will prove. For they proclaim our madness to consist in this, that we give to a crucified man a place second to the unchangeable and eternal God, the Creator of all; for they do not discern the mystery that is herein, to which, as we make it plain to you, we pray you to give heed.” (First Apology, Chapter 13)

“Which things Plato reading, and not accurately understanding, and not apprehending that it was the figure of the cross, but taking it to be a placing crosswise, he said that the power next to the first God was placed crosswise in the universe. And as to his speaking of a third, he did this because he read, as we said above, that which was spoken by Moses, that the Spirit of God moved over the waters. For he gives the second place to the Logos which is with God, who he said was placed crosswise in the universe; and the third place to the Spirit who was said to be borne upon the water, saying, And the third around the third.” (First Apology, Chapter 60)

“There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands.” (First Apology, Chapter 65)

“…we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost.” (First Apology, Chapter 67)

The order of persons in these passages is noteworthy, and reflects what is commonly seen throughout the New Testament.

All in all, Justin’s trinitarianism is shown to be throughly in line with the teaching if scripture; he clearly distinguishes between the persons as really distinct rational individual beings (not just modes or manifestations of one person), and he clearly affirms the divinity of the Son. Like many older authors, the Holy Spirit is simply not treated in the same detail, but we see Justin describe how the early church honored Him together with the Father and the Son.

He is clear in affirming monotheism, that is, that there is only one God, and is very clear in describing how this is believed to be so: because the Father is the one supreme uncaused Cause of all, and the one Supreme Authority over all, therefore there is one God, the Father. For Justin, like the bulk of the ante-nicene church fathers, monotheism was a divine monarchy, with the Father at its head, as the Supreme God, the one God over all absolutely. Although Justin affirms the divinity of the Son, he and the early Christians clearly do not ground their belief in one God in the fact that there is one common divine nature shared by the persons of the Trinity. Rather, there is one God because, as we have noted above, the Father is the one supreme uncaused Cause of all, even of His Son and Holy Spirit by eternal generation and procession, respectively, and is the one Supreme Authority and Head over all, even over His only-begotten Son and Holy Spirit.

The Priority of the New Testament in Trinitarian Doctrine

Semi-modalists, wishing to make it seem as though the scriptures support their idea that the three persons of the Trinity are a single person, often rely heavily on the Old Testament for their arguments. In doing so, they twist the Old Testament scriptures contrary to their true meaning. This is a deceptive tactic that takes advantage of the fact that God’s revelation in scripture is progressive. The Old Testament did not deliver a full disclosure of all doctrinal truth to God’s people. Thus the New Testament is clear in speaking of the fact that some things were hidden in a mystery until the coming of Christ, when the mysteries were revealed, and a fuller knowledge was given:

“Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, 11 searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. 12 To them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us[b] they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things which angels desire to look into.” (1 Peter 1:10-12 NKJV)

“Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery kept secret since the world began” (Romans 16:25 NKJV)

“However, we speak wisdom among those who are mature, yet not the wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. 7 But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, 8 which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But as it is written: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, Nor have entered into the heart of man The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.” 10 But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 2:6-10a NKKV)

“8 To me, who am less than the least of all the saints, this grace was given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to make all see what is the fellowship[a] of the mystery, which from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God who created all things through Jesus Christ;[b] 10 to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, 11 according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through faith in Him.” (Ephesian 3:8-12 NKJV)

“of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God which was given to me for you, to fulfill the word of God, 26 the mystery which has been hidden from ages and from generations, but now has been revealed to His saints. 27 To them God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which[d] is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Colossians 1:25-27 NKJV)

Even during the Lord’s earthy ministry, He left some things hidden as a mystery to most, only revealing the fullness of His teaching to the apostles privately:

“And He said to them, “To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in parables,” (Mark 4:11 NKJV)

Such was the nature of the law of bondage given through Moses, that through earthly and carnal types and shadows, the people might be lead away from idolatry and drawn up to spiritual and heavenly truths, delivered to them in a mystery. And likewise, because of the hardness of the peoples’ hearts, even the Lord Himself did not make known the fullness of divine revelation to them, but preached to them in parables.

The Old Testament scriptures then, although “written for our sakes”, and profitable for us, do not deliver the fullness of divine revelation in the fullness and clarity that we see in the New Testament, when type and shadow have given way to worship in spirit and truth, and a knowledge of divine mysteries hidden in ages past. For this reason then, Christians have historically interpreted the Old Testament in light of the New, since in the New we have a more clear and full revelation by which to understand the mysteries of the Old. Reason would have us interpret that which is less clear by that which is more clear; and on that basis, we must interpret the types of the Old Testament by the fulfillment and revelation of the New.

When we come to the doctrine of the Trinity then, it should not surprise us that we do not see it revealed in the same detail and clarity in the Old Testament as in the New. And yet, semi-modalists often treat the Old Testament with priority over the New in respect to trinitarian doctrine, because this allows them to twist the less-clear teachings of the Old Testament to their own ends.

For example, typically semi-modalists will establish the scripture’s teaching that there is only one God, not from the New Testament, but from the Old. They will quote passages that speak clearly about the fact that there is only one God, and no other, and yet do not usually clearly speak of how that fits within the doctrine of the Trinity. They then ignore the New Testament passages that are equally clear in teaching that there is one God, and also give detail on how this fits with the doctrine of the Trinity at the same time by explicitly identifying the one God as the person of the Father alone.

Instead of using the clarity offered by the New Testament as a starting point and an aid to interpreting the Old, semi-modalists want to treat them in a disjointed fashion and refuse to read the Old in light of the New on this subject. But if we start with the New Testament, we are able to easily understand not only that there is one God, but that this is the person of the Father. Once we understand this, we can easily understand that the person referred to as the “one God” in the Old Testament is the same person as in the New- the person of the Father.

We also see in the New Testament that usually the term “God” is used for the person of the Father, only being used for other persons in a few instances. Careful reflection on this point teaches us that the normal expectation we should have for what the word “God” refers to in scripture is the person of the Father, although we must examine context to see if it may be speaking of a different person. Yet this convention is ignored and contradicted by the semi-modalists, and when “God” is used in the Old Testament, instead of basing their understanding of what is referred to by it off of the New, and understanding that in most cases it refers to the person of the Father, they make up their own rules instead which have no warrant from scripture whatsoever.

They have invented their own hermeneutic, not drawn from scripture in the slightest, but contrary to it, that whenever the word “God” is used in scripture absolutely and without qualification, this must be understood to refer to the entire Trinity. This is an absurd proposition, but one that is necessary for their false teaching. By mutilating the meaning of the scriptures this way, they insert their false doctrine into the whole Bible.

If human authority can arbitrarily establish rules by which we must interpret scripture contrary to its natural meaning, then surely the semi-modalists cannot be argued against on this point. But if anyone will admit that we must interpret the Bible only by rules of interpretation founded upon sound reason and the way scripture itself teaches us to interpret it, then it will quickly be recognized that the semi-modalist hermeneutic must be rejected as a human contrivance designed to further the dogma of semi-modalism.

If the term “God” used absolutely and without qualification nearly always refers to the person of the Father in the New Testament, which is clear throughout, then what possible sense would it make to read the Old Testament differently? It makes no sense, as one God is the author of both Testaments, speaking through His one Word, authoring the scriptures by the inspiration of one Holy Spirit. The Old and New Testament are consistent with each other, not teaching one God in the Old, and a different God, the Father, in the New, but both Testaments teaching and affirming that there is only one God, the Father Almighty, Who created all things through His only-begotten Son.

Anglican Bishop John Pearson on the Father Alone Being the “One God”

The early church fathers are clear in their testimony that the one God of the Christian faith is the person of the Father in particular, as can be seen here: I believe in one God, the Father Almighty. This is not to the denial of the divinity of the Son and Holy Spirit, but rather an acknowledgement of the Father alone being the supreme uncaused Cause of all, including the Son by eternal generation and Holy Spirit by eternal procession, as well as an acknowledgement of the Father being the Supreme Authority and Head over all, even over His only-begotten Son and Holy Spirit.

After the Nicene era, there is considerably less focus on this important biblical truth. After the Protestant Reformation, however, there seems to have been something of a recovery of this doctrine within Anglicanism. In this post, we see excerpts from Bishop John Pearson’s Exposition of the Creed, wherein he makes several references to the Father in particular being the one God.

Bishop John Pearson (1612-1686):

“That one God is Father of All; and to us there is but One God, the Father of All; and to us there is but one God, the Father.” (Pearson, On the Creed, Page 26)

“And thus to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things; To which the Words following in the Creed may seem to have relation, The Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth.” (Pearson, On the Creed, Page 26)

“From hence He [the Father] is stiled One God, (1 Cor 8,6; Eph 4,6) the True God, (1 Th. 1,9) the Only True God, (Joh. 17,3;) the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, (2 Cor. 1,3; Eph 1,3;)” (Pearson, On the Creed, Page 40)

“After the confession of a Deity, and assertion of the divine unity, the next consideration is concerning God’s paternity; for that one God is Father of all [Eph 4:6], and to us there is one God, the Father [1 Cor 8:6].” (Pearson, On the Creed, Page 45)

“I shall briefly declare the Creation of the World to have been performed by that One God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Pearson, On the Creed, Page 63)

“But as we have already proved that One God, the Father, to be the Maker of the world,” (Pearson, On the Creed, Page 64)

 

Samuel Clarke’s ‘The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity’

Samuel Clarke was an eighteenth century Anglican clergyman and philosopher, and a friend of Sir Isaac Newton. He participated in the trinitarian debates following the Reformation, and authored his book The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity to sum up, prove, and defend his views on the Trinity.

The book is divided into three parts, proceeded by an introduction, in which he lays out the principle of sola scriptura as necessary for a right understanding of Christian doctrine, and qualifies certain aspects of the following work. In the first part of the book, he endeavors to extensively categorize all New Testament texts which refer to the Trinity or some aspect of it. In the second part, he gives a series of theses or propositions, in which he states his views. He grounds these propositions in the texts listed in the first section. In the third section, he compares his views, which he believes to be none other than what scripture teaches regarding the Trinity, with the liturgy and doctrinal standards of the church of England, wherein he shows firstly the many areas of agreement, and then treats those which appear to disagree.

Samuel Clarke’s book on the Trinity is one of the best written in the last millennium, in the opinion of this author. He is careful in his examination of scripture, precise in his articulation and argumentation, and is generally correct on nearly all the points he contends for.

Leaving aside the essence or essences of the persons of the Trinity, Clarke insists on limiting the discussion to the persons and Their attributes, roles, and properties. As this is the way scripture speaks of the Trinity, this is helpful.

Here are some highlights from Clarke’s 55 propositions:

I. There is one Supreme Cause and Original of Things; One simple, uncompounded, undivided, intelligent Being, or Person; who is the Author of all Being, and the Fountain of all Power.

II. With This First and Supreme Cause or Father of all Things, there has existed from the Beginning, a Second divine Person, which is his Word or Son.

III. With the Father and the Son, there has existed from the Beginning, a Third divine Person, which is the Spirit of the Father and of the Son.

IV. What the proper Metaphysical Nature, Essence, or Substance of any of these divine Persons is, the scripture has no where at all declared; but describes and distinguishes then always, by their Personal Characters, Offices, Powers and Attributes.

V. The Father (or First Person) Alone is Self-existent, Underived, Unoriginated, Independent; made of None, begotten of None, Proceeding from None.

VI. The Father (or First Person) is the Sole Origin of all Power and Authority, and is the Author and Principle of whatsoever is done by the Son or by the Spirit.

VII. The Father (or first person) Alone, is in the highest, strict, and proper sense, absolutely Supreme over All.

VIII. The Father (or First Person) is absolutely speaking, the God of the Universe; the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God of Israel; of Moses, of the Prophets and Apostles; and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

IX. The scripture, when it mentions the One God, or the Only God, always means the Supreme Person of the Father.

X. Whenever the Word, God, is mentioned in Scripture, with any High Epithet, Title, or Attribute annex’d to it; it generally (if not always) means the Person of the Father.

XI. The Scripture, when it mentions GOD, absolutely and by way of Eminence, always means the Person of the Father.

XII. The Son (or second Person) is not self-existent, but derives his Being or Essence, and all his Attributes, from the Father, as from the Supreme Cause.

XIII. In what particular Metaphysical Manner, the Son derives his Being or Essence from the Father, the Scripture has no where distinctly declared; and therefore men ought not to presume to be able to define.

XIV. They are therefore equally worthy of Censure, who either on the one hand presume to affirm, that the Son was made out of Nothing; or, on the other hand, that He is the Self-existent Substance.

XV. The Scripture, in declaring the Son’s Derivation from the Father, never makes mention of any Limitation of Time; but always supposes and affirms him to have existed with the Father from the Beginning, and before All Worlds.

XVI. They therefore have also justly been censured, who pretending to be wise above what is written, and intruding into things which they have not seen; have presumed to affirm that there was a time when he Son was not.

XVII. Whether the Son derives his Being from the Father, by Necessity of Nature, or by the Power of his Will, the Scripture hath no where expressly declared.

XVIII. The Word or Son of the Father, sent into the World to assume our Flesh, and die for the Sins of Mankind; was not the internal Reason or Wisdom of God, an Attribute or Power of the Father; but a real Person, the same who from the Beginning had been the Word, or Revealer of the Will, of the Father to World.

XIX. The Holy Spirit (or Third Person,) is not Self-existent, but derives his Being or Essence from the Father, (by the Son,) as from the Supreme Cause.

XX. The Scripture, speaking of the Spirit of God, never mentions any Limitation of Time, when he derived his Being or Essence from the Father; but supposes him to have existed with the Father from the Beginning.

XXI. In what particular metaphysical Manner the Holy Spirit derives his Being from the Father, the Scripture hath no where at all defined, and therefore men ought not to presume to be able to explain.

XXII. The Holy Spirit of God does not in scripture generlly signify a mere Power or Operation of the Father, but a real Person.

XXIII. They who are not careful to maintain these personal characters and distinctions, but while they are solicitous (on the one hand) to avoid the errours of the Arians, affirm (in the contrary extreme) the Son and Holy Spirit to be (individually with the Father) the Self-existent Being: These, seeming in the Words to magnify the Name of the Son and Holy Spirit, in reality take away their very Existence; and so fall unawares into Sabellianism, (which is the same with Socinianism.)

XXIV. The Word, God, in the New Testament, sometimes signifies the Person of the Son.

XXXIII. The Word, God, in Scripture, never signifies a complex Notion of more persons than One; but always means One person only, viz. either the person of the Father singly, or the person of the Son singly.

XXXIV. The Son, whatever his metaphysical Essence or Substance be, and whatever divine Greatness and Dignity is ascribed to him in Scripture; yet in This He is evidently Subordinate to the Father, that He derives his Being and Attributes from the Father, the Father Nothing from Him.

XXXV. Every Action of the Son, both in making the World, and in all other his Operations; is only thr Exercise of the Father’s Power, communicated to him after an ineffable manner.

XXXVI. The Son, whatever his metaphysical Nature or Essence be; yet, in this while Dispensation, in the Creation and Redemption of the Worl, acts in all things according to the Wil, and by the Mission or Authority of the Father.

XXXVII. The Son, how great soever the metaphysical Dignity of his Nature was, yet in the whole Dispensation entirely directed all his Actions to the Glory of the Father.

XXXIX. The reason why the Scripture, though it styles the Father God, and also stiles the Son God, yet at the same time always declares there is but one God; is because in the Monarchy of the Universe, there is but One Authority, original in the Father, derivative in the Son: The Power of the Son being, not Another Power opposite to That of the Father, nor Another Power co-ordinate to That of the Father; but it self The Power and Authority of the Father, communicated to, manifested in, and exercised by the Son.

XLIII. Upon These Grounds, absolutely Supreme Honour is due to the Person of the Father singly, as being Alone the Supreme Author of all Being and Power.

Why Are We Monotheists?

Christianity is a monotheistic religion, meaning we believe in only one God. Scripture is clear on teaching this important point of doctrine. It is also clear in proclaiming Who this one God is, the person of the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ:

“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)

Yet many Christians today want to ground their monotheism on the unity of the divine nature. They argue that although there are three persons of the Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, there is one God because there is only one divine nature shared by the three persons. This, however, is an unbiblical way to answer the question of why there is only one God.

Scripture never once grounds monotheism in a shared nature or essence considered in abstract; rather, the one God, as we have seen above, according to the scriptures is a person, the person of the Father. The Bible’s answer to why there is one God is to point to the person of the Father as that one God; on the other hand, many theologians prefer to skip this and ground their monotheism on the notion of common divine nature.

Ignoring the Bible’s explanation of monotheism cannot end well. Indeed, it has not. The argument that although there are three distinct persons, there is only one God because They all share one divine nature falls woefully short when held up to scrutiny. Three men, for example, all share one human nature; yet they are not one man because of their singular nature, but three men. We can say the same about horses, angels, and all sorts of creatures- a common nature shared by multiple persons does not prevent them from being plural horses or plural angels. So if our explanation of why the three persons of the Trinity do not constitute more than one God is that They have a common divine nature, we run into the obvious logical problem that on that basis it would still be legitimate to call Them three Gods.

The Bible, however, never grounds our belief in one God in a common divine nature or metaphysical essence, but always in the person of the Father. He is the one the Lord Jesus Christ called “the only true God”. He is the one Paul the apostle, under the inspiration of the Spirit, says is our “one God”. If we want to be monotheists in the way scripture teaches us to be, then our monotheism must be grounded in the person of the Father as the one God we believe in.

And in what way is the Father the one God? The Father is the one God, biblically, on account of two things that are peculiar to Him which the Son and Holy Spirit do not share: that He is the uncaused Cause of all, and that He is the Supreme Authority over all. His Son is also a cause of creation, as God created all things through Him, and likewise His Son has headship over creation. But even the Son and Holy Spirit are subject to the Father as Their Authority and Head, and are from Him by eternal generation and procession, as Their Cause. The Father alone is then the uncaused Cause of all, and thus is the one Supreme Authority over all. Therefore, as there is only one uncaused Cause of all, and one Supreme Authority, there is only one God, the Father Almighty.

“The Father Almighty”?

Over the course of this blog, a significant amount of attention has already been given to examining the first clause of the Nicene Creed, which reads “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty…” I have mostly focused on the Creed’s identification of the “one God” with the person of the “Father” in particular- a teaching that is foreign to the formal theology of most Christians today, yet as I have attempted to show, is not only proven from scripture (see Demonstration From Scripture that the One God is the Father in Particular), but was also the ecumenical teaching of the early church for the first few centuries (see I believe in one God, the Father Almighty).

In both the case of scripture and the teaching of the early church, the title “one God” is not applied exclusively to the person of the Father in order to deny the divinity of the Son, Who shares in His Father’s dominion over all things. Rather, scripture, and the early church fathers, styled the Father alone the “one God” because He alone is the supreme uncaused Cause of all, and the supreme Authority and head over all- even over His Son and Spirit.

I have often wondered, however, at the inclusion of the word “Almighty” in the first clause of the Nicene Creed. Why say “Almighty” instead of any other of a host of attributes and perfections we could speak of in relation to God? Why not include His perfection, holiness, justice, goodness, and love? Compared to other systematic treatments of God’s attributes, both prior to and since the Council of Nicea, this would be an extremely abridged treatment of the attributes of God. So why “Almighty” in particular, and why, also, is it included specifically in conjunction with the person of the Father, and not the Son and Holy Spirit?

One answer I recently encountered to these questions comes from Samuel Clarke’s excellent book on the Trinity On the Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity. He suggests that rather than understand the Greek word used for “Almighty” in scripture and the Creed as referring to the essential attribute of God’s unlimited power and ability, it is better understood as referring to ‘supreme authority’.

If this reading is legitimate, it makes sense of the Nicene Creed’s language in particularly associating “Almighty” with the person of the Father. “Almighty” understood in terms of supreme authority would not be an essential attribute proper to a communicable divine nature, but would rather refer to God’s role as supreme head over all things, even over His own beloved and only-begotten Son, and His Holy Spirit. If the word refers not to an attribute of the divine nature, but to the Father’s role as Supreme Authority over all, then it makes perfect sense why it would be included in the first clause of the Nicene Creed as a descriptor of the Father only, and also makes much sense of its usage in scripture.

The New Testament, for example, uses the term “Almighty” nine times, always for the person of the Father in particular. It is never used of the Son or the Holy Spirit. If Clarke’s reading of “Almighty” as a special prerogative of the Father is correct, it makes a lot of sense in light of the way scripture uses the term. The Father alone is the Supreme Authority over all; thus he alone is called “Almighty”.

This explanation seems compelling, and makes more sense than reading “Almighty” in the Nicene Creed as merely being a grossly abridged description of God’s essential attributes. It also fits with the way it is used throughout the scriptures. Further, this understanding is supported by the Greek word for “Almighty” itself- the word literally rendered is ‘ruler over all’. This fact alone seems to confirm Clarke’s assessment, and combined with scripture’s application of this title solely to the Father presents a compelling case that when scripture speaks of the Father “Almighty” it is making reference to His sole and supreme authority over all.

 

“The Father is greater than I”?

The view that the Father is eternally greater than the Son, although scriptural, rubs many the wrong way. This is primarily because of the misuse of that biblical expression to try to dishonor the Son and and make Him out to be a mere creature, or a mere man, by heretics. But many modern Christians might be surprised to find that this interpretation of the passage, viz, that it refers to the Father as the eternal origin of the Son, is actually quite common even among the pro-nicene church fathers.

We find a several instances of this interpretation even in the post-nicene ‘Cappadocian fathers’, as well as in the teachings of Alexander of Alexandria (Athanasius’s predecessor in the episcopate), and even Hilary of Poitiers:

Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria

“We have learnt that the Son is immutable and unchangeable, all-sufficient and perfect, like the Father, lacking only His “unbegotten.” He is the exact and precisely similar image of His Father. For it is clear that the image fully contains everything by which the greater likeness exists, as the Lord taught us when He said, ‘My Father is greater than I.’ And in accordance with this we believe that the Son always existed of the Father ; for he is the brightness of His glory, and the express image of His Father’s Person.’ But let no one be led by the word ‘always’ to imagine that the Son is unbegotten, as is thought by some who have their intellects blinded : for to say that He was, that He has always been, and, that before all ages, is not to say that He is unbegotten…

Therefore His own individual dignity must be reserved to the Father as the Unbegotten One, no one being called the cause of His existence : to the Son likewise must be given the honour which befits Him, there being to Him a generation from the Father which has no beginning ; we must render Him worship, as we have already said, only piously and religiously ascribing to Him the ‘was’ and the ‘ever,’ and the ‘before all ages ;’ not however rejecting His divinity, but ascribing to Him a perfect likeness in all things to His Father, while at the same time we ascribe to the Father alone His own proper glory of ‘the unbegotten,’ even as the Saviour Himself says, ‘My Father is greater than I.'” (Epistle of Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria, to Alexander, Bishop of Constantinople, from Theodoret’s, Ecclesiastical History, I.III – NPNF 3.39, 40.)

Basil the Great

“For since the Son’s beginning/origin (ἡ ảρχή) is from the Father, according to this, the Father is greater, as cause (ἀίτιος) and beginning/origin (ảρχή). Therefore the Lord said, My Father is greater than I, clearly because He is Father. Indeed, what else does the word Father mean unless the cause (τὸ αἰτία) to be/exist [Latin: esse] (εἶναι) and beginning/origin (ἀρχὴ) of that which is begotten of Him?” (Against Eunomius, I.25 – translation by David Waltz.)

Greek text:

Ἐπειδὴ γὰρ ἀπὸ τοῦ Πατρὸς ἡ ἀρχὴ τῷ Υἱῷ, κατὰ τοῦτο μείζων ὁ Πατὴρ, ὡς αἴτιος καὶ ἀρχή. Διὸ καὶ ὁ Κύριος οὕτως εἶπεν· Ὁ Πατήρ μου μείζων μου ἐστὶ, καθὸ Πατὴρ δηλονότι. Τὸ δὲ, Πατὴρ, τί ἄλλο ση μαίνει ἢ οὐχὶ τὸ αἰτία εἶναι καὶ ἀρχὴ τοῦ ἐξ αὐτοῦ γεννηθέντος; (Migne, PG 29.568)

Gregory Nazianzen –

“As your third point you count the Word Greater ; and as your fourth. To My God and your God. And indeed, if He had been called greater, and the word equal had not occurred, this might perhaps have been a point in their favour. But if we find both words clearly used what will these gentlemen have to say? How will it strengthen their argument ? How will they reconcile the irreconcilable? For that the same thing should be at once greater than and equal to the same thing is an impossibility; and the evident solution is that the Greater refers to origination, while the Equal belongs to the Nature ; and this we acknowledge with much good will. But perhaps some one else will back up our attack on your argument, and assert, that That which is from such a Cause is not inferior to that which has no Cause ; for it would share the glory of the Unoriginate, because it is from the Unoriginate. And there is, besides, the Generation, which is to all men a matter so marvellous and of such Majesty. For to say that he is greater than the Son considered as man, is true indeed, but is no great thing. For what marvel is it if God is greater than man ? Surely that is enough to say in answer to their talk about Greater.” (Orations, 30.7 – NPNF 7.312)

Hilary of Poitiers

“But perhaps some may suppose that He was destitute of that glory for which He prayed, and that His looking to be glorified by a Greater is evidence of want of power. Who, indeed, would deny that the Father is the greater; the Unbegotten greater than the Begotten, the Father than the Son, the Sender than the Sent, He that wills than He that obeys ? He Himself shall be His own witness :—The Father is greater than I. It is a fact which we must recognise, but we must take heed lest with unskilled thinkers the majesty of the Father should obscure the glory of the Son. Such obscuration is forbidden by this same.” (On the Trinity, III.12 – NPNF 9.65.)

“If, then, the Father is greater through His authority to give, is the Son less through the confession of receiving? The Giver is greater : but the Receiver is not less, for to Him it is given to be one with the Giver. If it is not given to Jesus to be confessed in the glory of God the Father, He is less than the Father. But if it is given Him to be in that glory, in which the Father is, we see in the prerogative of giving, that the Giver is greater, and in the confession of the gift, that the Two are One. The Father is, therefore, greater than the Son: for manifestly He is greater, Who makes another to be all that He Himself is, Who imparts to the Son by the mystery of the birth the image of His own unbegotten nature, Who begets Him from Himself into His own form, and restores Him again from the form of a servant to the form of God, Whose work it is that Christ, born God according to the Spirit in the glory of the Father, but now Jesus Christ dead in the flesh, should be once more God in the glory of the Father. When, therefore, Christ says that He is going to the Father, He reveals the reason why they should rejoice if they loved Him, because the Father is greater than He.” (On the Trinity, IX.54 – NPNF 9.174.)

Whatever the shortcomings of these fathers on other points of doctrine, it is at least very noteworthy that prominent Homoousians, who argued for the ontological equality of the Son with the Father, still readily interpreted the Son’s statement of the Father’s superiority over Him as referring to the fact that the Father is the eternal Cause of the Son by eternal generation.