The Scholastic Scheme of the Trinity Refuted

The scholastic scheme of the Trinity is ultimately modalistic. I hope to briefly shed light on this here.

The scholastic scheme of the Trinity, following Augustine, the Fourth Lateran Council, and medieval scholastic thought, can be summed up as follows: There is one simple Supreme Being, the one God, Who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are ‘persons’ within this Supreme Being, a ‘person’ not being what is normally meant by the word ‘person’, but rather ‘a mode of subsistence’. These three modes of subsistence within the Supreme Reality are individually co-essential (sharing the same individual numerical being) but are distinguished by their causal relations, namely that the Father is unbegotten, the Son begotten from the Father, and the Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son. The ‘persons’ share one will, mind, consciousness, etc, as these are all proper to the Supreme Being Himself, rather than the ‘persons’ within (ad intra) the Supreme Being.

The problems with this view are many. Firstly, making the Supreme Being both caused and uncaused (even if that causality is ad intra, not ad extra) is to deny the first principle of natural theology, that there is one Supreme Being Who is the uncaused Cause of all else that exists. While the scholastic view maintains that the Supreme Being the is Cause of all else that exists, they are unable to confess the Supreme Being to be wholly uncaused, as the subsistences of the Son and Spirit are caused, and are only distinguished within the Supreme Being by those causal relations.

Secondly, this is ultimately pure modalism, dressed up a bit to sound trinitarian. Because the Thomistic doctrine of divine simplicity says that everything within God is identical to itself, there is no ability for true distinction with the Supreme Being. God’s love and God’s wrath, for example, due to divine simplicity, are said to be the same thing, each being coterminous with the other. While this may sound relatively innocuous when applied to attributes, logically, since it applies to all that is within the Supreme Being, it must also extend to the ‘persons’ within the Supreme Being as well. Thus, just as much as God’s attributes are not truly distinct but all one and the same thing, merely talked about under different names for our convenience, so to the ‘persons’ of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit must be individually identical to one another, and so, not truly distinct at all, only spoken of under different names. The causal relations that are supposed to distinguish the persons are incapable of doing so, because these causal relations are all ‘ad intra’, that is, internal to the Supreme Being, where all things are identical to one another according to Thomistic simplicity. Thus the causal relations must logically be identical to one another, and therefore wholly fail to distinguish the persons.

This modalism can also be seen another way: each ‘person’ is said to be coterminous with not a part of, but the entirety of, the Supreme Being. Thus, each person is individually equal to the same Supreme Being; and thus, each person must be individually equated with one another. For if the Father is the whole Being, and the Son is the same whole Being, They are equated with one another, on the logic of ‘If A=C, and B=C, then A=B’. Scholastic ‘trinitarianism’, then, is in fact not trinitarian at all, but modalism, only slightly modified from that of Sabellius and Noetus, at the end of the day.

Thirdly, the ‘essence’ shared by the ‘persons’ is actually a person, while the ‘persons’ are not. That is, the Supreme Being, in which Father, Son, and Spirit are supposed to subsist, meets the actual definition of a ‘person’, which is a rational individual being. But the Father, Son, and Spirit, being only modes of subsistences within that Supreme Being, are not individuated, and so, are not persons, according to the standard definition of the term. To put scholastic conceptions of the Trinity into 21st century language, then, would be to state a belief in ‘one person with three internal modes of being’. This is modalism.

Having shown, then, that the scholastic scheme of the doctrine of the Trinity is modalism, then, it is sufficiently refuted by that fact. It fails to live up to the name ‘trinitarianism’, and falls into all of the same damning errors as modalism. Ultimately it is all the same individual Supreme Being, the same person, according to the normal usage of ‘person’, Who created the world and died on the cross and rose from the dead. There is no Father and Son; the Supreme Being has no eternal Son, and so the existence of the Son is denied outright, and the Supreme Being, Who we would otherwise call Father, is the one who died on the cross. The thing called ‘Son’ is merely a mode within this Supreme Being, this sole person, and not in fact the Son of God, but merely a mode within God, incapable of being called ‘the Son of God’ with any truthfulness.

The solution to this long-standing problem is to reject scholastic ‘trinitarianism’ as the modalistic heresy it is, and believe in the Supreme Being, the one God, as scripture and natural theology would have us, as the one supreme uncaused Cause of all else that exists, as the Father alone (for He alone is uncaused); not believing that is one Supreme Being, the Father, is alone and solitary, but that He eternally has His only-begotten Son with Him, Who He begat from Himself before creation, as a distinct (really existing) individual being besides Himself, through Whom the Supreme Being created all things, rules over all things, and reconciles all things to Himself; and in one Holy Spirit, a third distinct individual being or person. We must return to and embrace a biblical (and, incidentally, patristic) doctrine of the Trinity; believing not that the Supreme Being is somehow Father, Son, and Spirit Himself, but believing, as the scriptures teach, that the Supreme Being is in truth Father to a Son, another distinct individual being besides Himself.

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.


Trinitarian Heresy In the London Baptist Confession of 1689

The London Baptist Confession of 1689 says in its second chapter:

“The Lord our God is but one only living and true God; whose subsistence is in and of himself, infinite in being and perfection…

In this divine and infinite Being there are three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit, of one substance, power, and eternity, each having the whole divine essence, yet the essence undivided: the Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son; all infinite, without beginning, therefore but one God, who is not to be divided in nature and being, but distinguished by several peculiar relative properties and personal relations; which doctrine of the Trinity is the foundation of all our communion with God, and comfortable dependence on him.”

Here we see them begin their treatment of the Trinity by saying that the one God is a person “whose subsistence is in and of himself”. Subsistence is a philosophical term for person, when it refers to something of a rational nature, such as God, or an angel, or a man. What is more clear in identifying him as a single person is their explicit use of singular personal pronouns.

Had they stopped there and called this person who is the one God the Father of our Lord, there would have been no disagreement either with scripture or with the faith of the ancients. But we see further in the chapter that they expressly identify this person of the one God as being “three subsistences, the Father, the Word or Son, and Holy Spirit”. So they have explicitly declared the one God to be a single subsistence who is three subsistences, or put into common language, one person who is three persons.

If anyone doubts that this was the intention of those who framed the confession let them notice that later in the same paragraph quoted above they again use a singular personal pronoun in regard to all three together taken as one God, making again explicit their erroneous belief in that the one God is one person who is three, instead of being identical with the Father of our Lord as the scriptures teach (see: We Believe in One God, the Father Almighty).

And so this baptist plagiarism of the Westminster Confession of Faith is shown to be expressly semi-modalistic. The Westminster Confession maintains a better statement on these matters, being ambiguous enough to be taken either orthodoxly or otherwise, unlike the baptist modification that specifies an anti-trinitarian belief explicitly. 

Until this articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity is recognized as being  problematic, there is little hope of seeing reform in this area among those who subscribe to this confession.