One Essence or Same Essence?

In discussions of trinitarian doctrine, its commonplace for people to want to distinguish between “generic unity” and “numerical unity” when talking about consubstantiality. What is meant by “generic unity” is that the persons of the Trinity share in a common essence, meaning that the persons share the same divine nature or genus. This is frequently contrasted with “numerical unity”, the meaning of which tends to vary some. Sometimes, this boils down to describing the persons of the Trinity as a single individual, a single person. In other instances, this is used to try to distinguish between the idea that the persons are of the “same essence” from the idea that They are “one essence”.

This language is somewhat lamentable, as the term “numerical unity” is quite vague, and according to what it sounds like, could just as well be used to refer to generic unity as well, since we can just as well count natures as we can count individuals. The Trinity, of course, is not a single individual, and in cases that this is what is intended by “numerical unity”, it is tantamount to modalism. What I would like to address in this post, however, is the notion that there is a difference between “one essence” and “same essence”.

The short answer is, there is no difference. It is two ways of saying the exact same thing; thus the Nicene Creed, which employs the word ‘homoousias’ (literally homo=same, ousia=essence, ‘same essence’) sees this word translated both ways, but more commonly as “one essence”.

This is an important point, because often, when a distinction is drawn between these two expressions, “one essence” is ultimately getting used in a way that is modalistic. This meaning of “one essence”, as a redefinition of ‘homoousias’ by later theologians contrary to its intended meaning, has been treated in The Grievous Error of the Fourth Lateran Council.

What, then, is the difference? The Fourth Lateran council, and many others, intend to indicate a single individual reality, or person, by “one essence”; whereas the fathers who introduced the language of ‘homoousias’ intended the language to instead signify what gets labeled “generic unity”, that is, that the persons of the Trinity share the same divine nature (contra Arianism).

This idea can just as well be summed up by “one essence” as it can be by “same essence”. This is because when two things are entirely identical, with no difference that distinguished them, either in nature, or subsistence, or body, or time, or space, or any other way that two things are distinguished as being distinct from one another, they cannot rightly be counted as “two”, but as one. In the case of the divine nature, this is precisely what we are dealing with; the nature shared by all three persons is identical in each person, without variation. As a “nature”, or “genus”, then, there is nothing on account of which we could count the nature to anything beyond one. For the persons, then, to share the same nature, is for Them to have one nature, or one essence.

It is noteworthy that the fathers who introduced the language of ‘homoousias’ defined it in terms of this sort of generic unity, a sameness and identicality of nature among the persons of the Trinity. For example, Athanasius said:

“Even this is sufficient to dissuade you from blaming those who have said that the Son was coessential with the Father, and yet let us examine the very term ‘Coessential,’ in itself, by way of seeing whether we ought to use it at all, and whether it be a proper term, and is suitable to apply to the Son. For you know yourselves, and no one can dispute it, that Like is not predicated of essence, but of habits, and qualities; for in the case of essences we speak, not of likeness, but of identity. Man, for instance, is said to be like man, not in essence, but according to habit and character; for in essence men are of one nature. And again, man is not said to be unlike dog, but to be of different nature. Accordingly while the former [men] are of one nature and coessential, the latter are different in both.”

It is significant here that he employs the analogy of three men to define what he means (and he is giving a definition of the word ‘homoousias’ here). Those who would see a difference between “same essence” and “one essence” would be willing to say that men are of the same essence, but not “one essence” as the persons of the Trinity are. Yet, we can see that no such distinction was drawn by those responsible for introducing the language of co-essentiality into trinitarian dogma in the first place.

Also noteworthy is Hilary of Poitiers’s definition of “essence” given in De Synodis:

“Since, however, we have frequently to mention the words essence and substance, we must determine the meaning of essence, lest in discussing facts we prove ignorant of the signification of our words. Essence is a reality which is, or the reality of those things from which it is, and which subsists inasmuch as it is permanent. Now we can speak of the essence, or nature, or genus, or substance of anything. And the strict reason why the word essence is employed is because it is always. But this is identical with substance, because a thing which is, necessarily subsists in itself, and whatever thus subsists possesses unquestionably a permanent genus, nature or substance. When, therefore, we say that essence signifies nature, or genus, or substance, we mean the essence of that thing which permanently exists in the nature, genus, or substance.

Hilary of known as “the Athanasius of the West” and “the hammer of the Arians”; and we see him define co-essentiality in the same way Athanasius did, as teaching that the persons of the Trinity share the same nature or “genus”. For him, “one essence” and “same essence” are the same thing.

Also noteworthy is his admission that ‘homoousias’ and ‘homoiousias’ mean the same thing when each is understood orthodoxly; something those who hold to a later re-definition of ‘homoousias’/’one essence’ are unable to say:

“Holy brethren, I understand by ὁμοούσιον God of God, not of an essence that is unlike, not divided but born, and that the Son has a birth which is unique, of the substance of the unborn God, that He is begotten yet co-eternal and wholly like the Father. I believed this before I knew the word ὁμοούσιον but it greatly helped my belief. Why do you condemn my faith when I express it by ὁμοούσιον while you cannot disapprove it when expressed by ὁμοιούσιον? For you condemn my faith, or rather your own, when you condemn its verbal equivalent. Do others misunderstand it? Let us join in condemning the misunderstanding, but not deprive our faith of its security. Do you think we must subscribe to the Samosatene Council to prevent any one from using ὁμοούσιον in the sense of Paul of Samosata? Then let us also subscribe to the Council of Nicæa, so that the Arians may not impugn the word. Have we to fear that ὁμοιούσιον does not imply the same belief as ὁμοούσιον? Let us decree that there is no difference between being of one or of a similar substance.

Finally, a quote from Basil the Great, a post-nicene father from the following generation:

“The distinction between οὐσία [essence] and ὑπόστασις [person] is the same as that between the general and the particular ; as, for instance, between the animal and the particular man.” (Letter 236)”

“Suppose then that two or more are set together, as, for instance, Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, and that an enquiry is made into the essence or substance of humanity; no one will give one definition of essence or substance in the case of Paul, a second in that of Silvanus, and a third in that of Timothy; but the same words which have been employed in setting forth the essence or substance of Paul will apply to the others also. Those who are described by the same definition of essence or substance are of the same essence or substance when the enquirer has learned what is common, and turns his attention to the differentiating properties whereby one is distinguished from another, the definition by which each is known will no longer tally in all particulars with the definition of another, even though in some points it be found to agree.” (Letter 38)

Here we see again, that ‘homoousias’ was meant by the fathers who promoted it as indicating that the persons of the Trinity share the same divine nature, comparable to how three men share the same human nature.

Finally, it is noteworthy that not only did the fathers who promoted the ‘homoousian’ language not intend it to signify something other than “generic unity”, but they actually rejected other possible definitions of the term “homoousias” that approach what many since have wanted to distinguish as “numerical unity”, that the three persons are in some way a single individual:

“Many of us, beloved brethren, declare the substance of the Father and the Son to be one in such a spirit that I consider the statement to be quite as much wrong as right. The expression contains both a conscientious conviction and the opportunity for delusion. If we assert the one substance, understanding it to mean the likeness of natural qualities and such a likeness as includes not only the species but the genus, we assert it in a truly religious spirit, provided we believe that the one substance signifies such a similitude of qualities that the unity is not the unity of a monad but of equals. By equality I mean exact similarity so that the likeness may be called an equality, provided that the equality imply unity because it implies an equal pair, and that the unity which implies an equal pair be not wrested to mean a single Person. Therefore the one substance will be asserted piously if it does not abolish the subsistent personality or divide the one substance into two, for their substance by the true character of the Son’s birth and by their natural likeness is so free from difference that it is called one.

68. But if we attribute one substance to the Father and the Son to teach that there is a solitary personal existence although denoted by two titles: then though we confess the Son with our lips we do not keep Him in our hearts, since in confessing one substance we then really say that the Father and the Son constitute one undifferentiated Person. Nay, there immediately arises an opportunity for the erroneous belief that the Father is divided, and that He cut off a portion of Himself to be His Son. That is what the heretics mean when they say the substance is one: and the terminology of our good confession so gratifies them that it aids heresy when the word ὁμοούσιος is left by itself, undefined and ambiguous. There is also a third error. When the Father and the Son are said to be of one substance this is thought to imply a prior substance, which the two equal Persons both possess. Consequently the word implies three things, one original substance and two Persons, who are as it were fellow-heirs of this one substance. For as two fellow-heirs are two, and the heritage of which they are fellow-heirs is anterior to them, so the two equal Persons might appear to be sharers in one anterior substance. The assertion of the one substance of the Father and the Son signifies either that there is one Person who has two titles, or one divided substance that has made two imperfect substances, or that there is a third prior substance which has been usurped and assumed by two and which is called one because it was one before it was severed into two. Where then is there room for the Son’s birth? Where is the Father or the Son, if these names are explained not by the birth of the divine nature but a severing or sharing of one anterior substance?

69. Therefore amid the numerous dangers which threaten the faith, brevity of words must be employed sparingly, lest what is piously meant be thought to be impiously expressed, and a word be judged guilty of occasioning heresy when it has been used in conscientious and unsuspecting innocence. A Catholic about to state that the substance of the Father and the Son is one, must not begin at that point: nor hold this word all important as though true faith did not exist where the word was not used.” (Hilary of Poitiers, De Synodis)

 

 

Athanasius Contra Mundum?

Jerome’s famous quip “Athanasius versus the world” has been echoed throughout church history as a dramatic characterization of the Arian controversy, in which Athanasius became the sole defender of orthodoxy amid a church that had been given over to Arianism, and was ruled over by Arian emperors. Indeed, Jerome’s imagination cannot be blamed too much for this summary, as Athanasius himself presents his situation as something close to that throughout his writings. According to Athanasius, Arianism was a widespread heresy that deceived at times the bulk of the church. Athanasius is looked back upon as one who alone had the wisdom to see through Arian attempts to subvert the church through ambiguous creedal wording, who insisted despite the odds that the word “homoousias” must be accepted to describe the relation of the Son to the Father as the only possible safeguard against the rampant heresy.

And yet while Athanasius was certainly orthodox in his theology and effective in his efforts to rid the church of Arianism, we must question the validity of some points of this popular narrative. Among the most glaringly odd things in this narrative, as told by Athanasius in his own writings, were the myriad synods held by the Arians after the council of Nicea in which they rejected the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity and proclaimed their faith. While Athanasius treats the councils that met and Creeds they composed after Nicea as Arian, other orthodox authors such as Hilary of Poitiers, who likewise favored the “homoousian” articulation of the Trinity and rejected Arianism, did not view these most of these synods as such. Rather, Hilary saw the majority of these synods as orthodox, even though they often eschewed the controversial term “homoousias” (see Hilary of Poitiers on Correct and Incorrect Understandings of Co-essentiality).

The historical facts appear different when we look at more than merely Athanasius’s recounting of events. When we actually observe the many councils held in the decades following Nicea, we see that the many church fathers assembled at these councils did not accept Arianism at all, but rather condemned it just as strongly as the council of Nicea had. They did, however, often reject the word “homoousias”, as the word was associated with modalism, and so favored other expressions to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity.

The substance of their doctrine, however, was no different than that held by the orthodox homoousian fathers; the Son was acknowledged to be of exactly the same divine nature as the Father, and co-eternal with Him. They simply wished to express their belief in classical trinitarianism without using the controversial word “homoousias” -a word which was ultimately not necessary to articulate the doctrine of the Trinity orthodoxly (this fact is most clearly demonstrated by the fact that scripture teaches the doctrine of the Trinity without the word, and most of the pre-Nicene fathers were also able to accurately articulate their beliefs on the Trinity without employing the word). Correctly understood as fathers like Athanasius and the Council of Nicea intended it, the word ‘homoousias’ could be helpful in articulating classical trinitarianism; but the word proved to be too confusing, and was ill understood by the majority of Christians. Its meaning was ambiguous, and allowed for other meanings than that intended by men like Athanasius and Hilary.

Because of this most synods held after the council of Nicea during the Arian controversy avoided the term; in Athanasius’s eyes, this made them Arian. But this opinion is not supported by truth, as these councils took great pains to show that they rejected Arianism, explicitly condemning it, and teaching the doctrine of the Trinity as the church in previous centuries had; without the word ‘homoousias’. Among these councils were that of Antioch in 345, and the Council of Sirmium in 351.

Athanasius’s willingness to at times label everyone who would not articulate the doctrine of the Trinity in exactly the same words as he as “Arian” reveals him to have really been a bit of a radical; the vast majority of the church supported using more traditional language, while still believing the same orthodox doctrine. He slanderously labeled large assemblies of bishops who rejected Arianism and embraced orthodoxly just as strongly as he did as “Arian”, as well as emperors who rejected Arianism. Understandably, neither the church nor these emperors appreciated this; thus we may find that “Athanasius versus the world” was indeed true, but was more self-inflicted than it is usually made out to be. Athanasius did not face widespread opposition because of widespread support for the Arian heresy, but because he was himself a radical who insisted that everyone who rejected the wording he favored was an Arian.

Were the Homoiousians Right?

“Homoi-ousias”, which means “like essence” was the Greek word favored by the conservative majority of bishops during the Arian controversy of the fourth century to describe the essential relationship between the Son and the Father. It was put forward as a suggested alternative to the word employed by the Council of Nicea “Homo-ousias”, which means “same essence”, and to the Arian term “Heteroousias”, meaning “different essence”. As Hilary of Poitiers explains in De Synodis (see Hilary of Poitiers on Correct and Incorrect Understandings of Co-essentiality), both ‘Homoiousias’ and ‘Homoousias’, when understood in an orthodox fashion, mean the same thing. If the Son and Father have the same divine nature, or essence, as scripture teaches, then certainly “homoousias” is a fitting word; yet likewise, saying that the Son is like the Father in His essence, meaning, that He is exactly like the Father in His essence, or identical to Him, as can be indicated by “homoiousias”, means the same thing.

But both of these words (as nearly all words do) have a variety of possible meanings; they can each be taken in multiple different ways. For this reason, they were not always meant or understood in an orthodox fashion in the Nicene controversy; both words had ways they could be understood that are heretical. ‘Homoiousias’ allowed for moderate Arians to accept the term because ultimately saying that the Son is of ‘like essence’ with the Father can be taken either as ‘exactly alike’ (which is orthodox), or merely ‘similar, with minor differences’ (which is Arian). For this reason the pro-Nicene, and thus pro-‘homoousian’ minority frequently leveled the charge against the homoiousians that they were semi-arian (even while many of them, ultimately, were not).

Likewise “homoousias” could also be taken in a heretical way, in a modalistic fashion, in which “same essence” was not intended to mean that the Father and Son were distinct persons who shared a common divine nature, but rather that the Father and Son were somehow one subsistent or personal thing.

“Essence” or Greek ‘ousia’ in general was not spoken of nearly as much in the pre-nicene era; it was once the Nicene Council introduced ‘homoousias’ into the Creed that the alternative ‘homoiousias’ became popular. Why? Because not only was it possible to misunderstand ‘homoousias’ in such a way that it would mean that the Father and Son were ultimately a single person, but the word actually already had a history of being used that way by the time of the Arian controversy. Thus, many orthodox bishops desired another term to use.

“Homoousias” was associated with Sabellius, an early modalist, and was also used by later ante-nicene modalist Paul of Samosata. The local council which condemned his teaching as heretical actually condemned the word “homoousias” as heretical, as well, on the basis of its modalistic usage. For this reason when this word which had a strong association with modalism, and tendency to be understood in a modalistic way, was employed by the Nicene Council, many of the church fathers at the time objected, although the orthodox ‘Homoousian’ fathers made efforts to explain to orthodox meaning of the word which they intended to communicate by it.

Eventually, with much explaining, “homoousias”, despite the grave concern by many that the word was modalistic, won the day, eventually being accepted at the Council to Constantinople in 381. “Homoiousias” came to be associated with the “semi-arians”, and eventually with Arianism at large, as time went on, in large part thanks to the polemics of semi-modalists in centuries following. From the time of the Nicene controversy onward, it has been a popular polemic against anyone not favorable term ‘homoousias’ to label them as being in some way Arian, even when the difference is merely one of terminology and not meaning.

However, this language of the Son being “homoousias” with the Father did not take long to again take on an ultimately modalistic meaning, as semi-modalism redefined the entire concept of consubstantiality which the word stood for to mean that the Father and Son were ultimately a single person, “God the Trinity”. Such redefining can be seen in the Fourth Lateran Council, as well as in the influential writings of Augustine (see Augustine’s Trinitarian Heresy). The concept of co-essentiality was twisted to no longer mean that the persons of the Son and Holy Spirit have the same divine nature as the Father, but rather to say that the Father, Son, and Spirit are all one subsistent thing, or person. Thus a term that had indicated generic unity, or identicality of nature, was now altered to indicate that the three persons of the Trinity were numerically one, or one person.

Those homoiousian Christians of the fourth century then, as well as those who favored the term “homoian” (which sought to leave the unscriptural term “essence” or “ousia” out of the discussion altogether, and merely confess that the Son is “like” the Father) were ultimately vindicated in their misgivings about the term “homoousias”. They protested it for fear it was Sabellian- that was its history, and it was worried that it would again be taken in such a way in the future. The Homoiousians and Homoians (who were slandered as being Arian by the Homoousian minority) were right; this is exactly what happened.

Although they are often slandered for their misgivings about the word, the Homoian and Homoiousian bishops of the fourth century have ultimately been vindicated in respect to their distrust of the word ‘homoousias’. The very thing they warned could happen did, in the post-nicene era.

While homoousian consubstantiality, as intended by its original authors such as Athanasius, is entirely orthodox, it introduced a shift in emphasis from the persons of the Trinity to the divine nature They share, and an emphasis on this one divine nature being the “one God” of Christianity. Perhaps in overreaction to Arianism, Homoousian Christians eventually gave up the confession that the one God is the Father, and instead emphasized the divine nature as Christianity’s one God.

This shift in language was doomed to result in semi-modalism. In scripture, the “one God” is always a person, and such is the natural way to think of God: as personal. Scripture, however, as the early church did, specifies that this one God is the person of the Father in particular; the Son is His Son, the Holy Spirit, His Spirit (see I believe in one God, the Father Almighty). By shifting the focus onto the essence as the one God of Christianity, Homoousian Christians in the post-nicene era doomed the church to fall into thinking of the essence as a person, therefore, since the one God is a person. Using what was ultimately the title of a single person for the divine nature shared by all three persons led to natural confusion, and what we see down to the present day, a personifying of the divine nature as a fourth person in the Trinity (see Semi-modalism and the Introduction of a Four-Person Trinity).

The homoousians didn’t merely pioneer this change in language, but emphasized conceptually that monotheism depended on the fact that there is one divine nature shared by the persons of the Trinity. While this fact is true, the unity of God does not depend on the fact that there is one divine nature, but on the fact that there is one Father, one supreme uncaused Cause of all, and Supreme Authority over all. For in the case of three men there is also a unity of nature, one human nature being common to all human persons; yet all human persons are not one man, but many men. And besides, even the fact that the persons all share one divine nature is dependent on the person of the Father, since He is in Himself the very definition of that divine nature, without cause or source; and yet is Himself the Source of that divine nature to His Son and Spirit, as They have the divine nature from the Father in eternal generation and procession, respectively.

This emphasis, then, on the divine nature as the unity of God, instead of the Father, has proven detrimental throughout the many centuries since. Semi-modalism easily grows out of such an emphasis, because, as mentioned above, three persons merely being of one nature does not make them “one God”, any more than three men being of one human nature makes them one man. If then, this unity of nature is insisted on as the explanation of Christian monotheism, is necessarily must be altered to mean something beyond a mere unity of nature: a unity of person. To deny the charge of tritheism on the basis of a Nicene understanding of co-essentiality alone is impossible; therefore, since the classical grounding of monotheism was abandoned, the new one developed was to redefine co-essentiality to mean not merely that the three persons share one essence, but are one “being”; a vague term, which, in fact, ends up being conceptually equated with person (see also Equivocation Over the Term “Person”).

Because this is recognized as modalistic to treat the three persons as one person, the language of the three being one “person” was never embraced by the church broadly; yet conceptually, that is what co-essentiality has been redesigned to signify in the post-nicene understanding. Accordingly, the response of those committed to a post-nicene scholastic redefinition of co-essentiality, as can be seen in the Fourth Lateran Council (see The Grievous Error of the Fourth Lateran Council), is to accuse those articulating a classical understanding of co-essentiality of being tritheists, failing to recognize that the grounding of Christian monotheism is not that the Son and Spirit of God share His divine nature (although this is true), but that there is one supreme uncaused Cause of all, Who is one Supreme Authority over all, the Father (see Why There is Only One God: One Supreme Cause and Why There is Only One God: Headship).

It was not, therefore, the emphasis on the persons of the Trinity sharing one essence, or one divine nature, that was the fatal flaw of homoousian theology, so to speak, but the Homoousians’ emphasis of this unity of nature as the grounding of Christian monotheism, combined with the abandonment of the classical grounding of Christian monotheism. This unbiblical shift led directly into the widespread acceptance of semi-modalism, to the destruction of the classical trinitarianism the original Homoousians contended for.

Arianism, with its emphasis on the Father’s role as the one God, the supreme uncaused Cause of All, and the Supreme Authority over all, served as a catalyst for this change, as these ideas naturally became associated with a heretical Christology. The result of this was important aspects of classical trinitarianism being divided up between Arianism and the Homoousians; the Arians emphasizing the Father as the one God, and ground of monotheism, and the Homoousians emphasizing the co-divinity of the persons of the Son and Holy Spirit with the Father. While Arians always rejected the Homoousian emphasis, initially Homoousian Christians accepted the Arian emphasis as an aspect of orthodox trinitarianism. But as time went on, Arian association with these ideas led to a de-emphasizing of these concepts in Homoousian theology, although they were never actually repudiated. Arianism can thus be argued to have done more damage to the cause of classical trinitarianism by stigmatizing elements of classical trinitarianism by association with its heresy than it did by actually promulgating a heretical Christology, which over the scheme of history has ultimately not been successful in maintaining a large following. But by attacking the classical trinitarian doctrine of the Son and Spirit’s co-divinity with the Father, Arianism enticed the church to over-react in the opposite direction by overemphasizing the doctrine of co-essentiality to the eclipsing of other elements of classical trinitarianism.

The first cracks in Homoousian theology can be seen within its first generation, which accepted the classical trinitarian doctrines that the Father is the one God, the supreme uncaused Cause of all, and the Supreme Authority over all, as they shifted emphasis from these doctrines to the fact that the Son and Spirit share the Father’s divine nature. In order to emphasize the truth of the Son and Spirit’s co-essentiality with the Father, otherwise orthodox Homoousian theologians began twisting scripture to read it as speaking of the divine nature, rather than the person of the Father, in certain passages; the first intimations of the semi-modalism that would sweep the church in the following generations.

For example, Athanasius wrote:

“For what is nearer [God] than the Cherubim or the Seraphim? And yet they, not even seeing Him, nor standing on their feet, nor even with bare, but as it were with veiled faces, offer their praises, with untiring lips doing nought else but glorify the divine and ineffable nature with the Trisagion. And nowhere has any one of the divinely speaking prophets, men specially selected for such vision, reported to us that in the first utterance of the word Holy the voice is raised aloud, while in the second it is lower, but in the third, quite low,—and that consequently the first utterance denotes lordship, the second subordination, and the third marks a yet lower degree. But away with the folly of these haters of God and senseless men. For the Triad, praised, reverenced, and adored, is one and indivisible and without degrees (ἀσχηματιστός). It is united without confusion, just as the Monad also is distinguished without separation. For the fact of those venerable living creatures (Isa. vi.; Rev. iv. 8) offering their praises three times, saying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy,’ proves that the Three Subsistences443 are perfect, just as in saying ‘Lord,’ they declare the One Essence.” (Athanasius, On Luke 10:22)

Ambrose of Milan, of the first generation of post-nicene Homoousians, similarly wrote:

“Dominations and powers fall down before Him — you speak evil of His Name! All His Saints adore Him, but the Son of God adores not, nor the Holy Spirit. The seraphim say: Holy, Holy, Holy! Isaiah 6:3

107. What means this threefold utterance of the same name Holy? If thrice repeated, why is it but one act of praise? If one act of praise, why a threefold repetition? Why the threefold repetition, unless that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are one in holiness? The seraph spoke the name, not once, lest he should exclude the Son; not twice, lest he should pass by the Holy Spirit; not four times, lest he should conjoin created beings [in the praise of the Creator]. Furthermore, to show that the Godhead of the Trinity is One, he, after the threefold Holy, added in the singular number the Lord God of Sabaoth. Holy, therefore, is the Father, holy the Son, holy likewise the Spirit of God, and therefore is the Trinity adored, but adores not, and is praised, but praises not.” (Ambrose of Milan, De Fide, Book 2, Chapter 12)

Both Athanasius and Ambrose explain the vision of Isaiah 6 as pertaining to the whole Trinity, instead of the Father, as can be understood from the parallel passage in Revelation 4 (see Examining Scripture: The “Lord God Almighty” of Revelation Chapter 4). They both read a Homoousian understanding of the Trinity -with its supreme emphasis on the unity of the divine nature- into the passage, explaining the three repetitions of “Holy” as indicating the three persons, and the singular “Lord God” as indicating the singular essence, or divine nature. This interpretation is seriously flawed, choosing to forcibly insert Homoousian theology into scripture where it is not spoken of, contrary to the interpretation offered in the New Testament in Revelation 4 which clarifies this as referring to the person of the Father, “the Lord God Almighty,” alone.

What may also be noted here is that although both Ambrose and Athanasius usually avoid treating the Trinity as a person (unlike later generations of Homoousian theologians), by making this strained interpretation of the passage in order to seemingly provide more biblical support for Nicene trinitarianism, they fall into regarding the Trinity as a single person; for the vision in Isaiah 6 clearly treats the “Lord God” on the throne not as an impersonal essence, as the divine nature considered in abstract is, but as a person, who speaks to Isaiah and sends him as a prophet.

By taking passages of scripture that refer to a single person of the Trinity and saying they speak of the essence, the groundwork for future semi-modalism was laid, which would blatantly treat the essence or Trinity as a whole as a person. Although this misinterpretation can be regarded as a relatively minor mistake on its own, it would be amplified into a completely different theology by later theologians, such as Augustine of Hippo (see Augustine vs. Athanasius on the Identity of the “One God”).

Examining Scripture: Deuteronomy 6:4 “the Shema”- the Father, or the Trinity?

Deuteronomy 6:4 is a famous verse: “Hear, O Israel, The Lord our God is one Lord.” (LXX Bible). It is used not only by Christians, but also Jews and various other sects to prove that the scriptures teach monotheism, the belief that there is only one God.

This is of course true; but it is also noteworthy that this passage of scripture tells us that God is one and does not include an explanation of what is meant by this in relation to the Trinity. Revelation was progressive, and at this point in history, not as much detail had been revealed about the Trinity in the scriptures. That said, this verse is not primarily intended to teach us about the doctrine of the Trinity; it is a blanket statement of monotheism.

As previously discussed in The Priority of the New Testament in Trinitarian Doctrine, we must read less clear passages of scripture with the aid of those which are more clear. When a given passage of scripture reveals that there is only one God, and does not speak in further detail to how this fits with the doctrine of the Trinity, our first response should be to seek clarification on this topic from other passages of scripture that speak to this point. It is unwise to simply jump to trying to invent our own custom interpretation of the passage without examining it in light of other related passages of scripture.

When we look at New Testament passages related to Deut. 6:4, we find several. Firstly let us note that it is quoted in Mark 12:28-34:

“Then one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, perceiving that He had answered them well, asked Him, “Which is the first commandment of all?”

29 Jesus answered him, “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. 31 And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

32 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.”

34 Now when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, He said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

But after that no one dared question Him.” (NKJV)

This whole exchange is admittedly vague enough to say that it does not speak with certainty as to who the person Deuteronomy 6:4 refers to is, but it is noteworthy at the very least that the Lord gives no indication whatsoever that he views that verse as referring to Himself. This is significant, because if the Trinity in totality were being referenced there, as semi-modalists suggest, then it would refer to Christ, along with the Father and the Spirit. The lack of any indication this is the case leaves no support for interpreting Deuteronomy 6:4 as referring to the whole Trinity in this passage.

Let us then examine other passages which could be considered parallel in the New Testament, inasmuch as they also speak of the fact that there is only one God:

“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)

Unlike Deuteronomy 6:4, these passages not only state clearly that there is only one God, but also explicit identify Who is referred to by that title: the person of the Father in particular. Theses passages, unlike Deuteronomy 6:4 go beyond merely affirming monotheism to include detail on how these statements fit with the doctrine of the Trinity, by identifying the one God as the first person of the Trinity.

If then we are willing to read the less-clear passage, Deuteronomy 6:4, with the assistance of these more-clear passages, we will be forced to admit that the most reasonable interpretation of Who Deuteronomy 6:4 is referring to is the person of the Father alone. This is to read the less-clear passage in light of the more-clear, and to read both Testaments in tandem with each other, assuming that when scripture speaks of there being one God in the Old Testament it means the same thing, and refers to the same person, as the the New does when it speaks of the “one God”.

Some, of course, jump on this as a chance to exclude the Son and Holy Spirit either from existence altogether as the Jews and modalists, or from the divine nature, as the Arians do. Such radical departures from what scripture in totality teaches us are certainly not warranted by this interpretation. For scripture to speak of the Father as the one God, without making explicit mention of the other persons at the same time, does not give us license to ignore what the rest of scripture teaches about God’s only-begotten Son and Holy Spirit. Scripture is clear in teaching that the Son and Spirit are distinct persons from the one God, the Father. Both these persons share the same divine nature as the Father: see: Does teaching the Father is the one God undermine the divinity of Christ? and Why There is Only One God: One Divine Nature.

That Deuteronomy 6:4 is most reasonably taken, then, as speaking of the person of the Father, I have now shown. And on the basis of sound reasoning from the scriptures, this conclusion ought to be accepted. Yet I am aware that many throughout church history have insisted that this verse refers to the entire Trinity, or even to the person of the Son in some stranger interpretations. Because of this, I think it useful to include a few quotes here from the church fathers, showing that several of them also regarded this as an acceptable interpretation:

 

Ignatius of Antioch:

“For Moses, the faithful servant of God, when he said, “The Lord thy God is one Lord,” and thus proclaimed that there was only one God, did yet forthwith confess also our Lord when he said, “The Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah fire and brimstone from the Lord.”” (Epistle to the Antiochenes, Chapter 2)

“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…” (Letter to the Philippians, Chapter 2)

Irenaeus of Lyons:

“…or shall it be (what is really the case) the Maker of heaven and earth, whom also the prophets proclaimed,—whom Christ, too, confesses as His Father,— whom also the law announces, saying: “Hear, O Israel; The Lord thy God is one God?”” (Against Heresies, Book 4, Chapter 2)

Apostolic Constitutions:

“For He did not take away the law of nature, but confirmed it. For He that said
in the law, “The Lord thy God is one Lord;”1168 the same says in the Gospel, “That they might know Thee, the only true God.”” (Apostolic Constitutions, Book 6, Section 4, Chapter 23)

Athanasius:

“Has then the divine teaching, which abolished the godlessness of the heathen or the
idols, passed over in silence, and left the race of mankind to go entirely unprovided with
the knowledge of God? Not so: rather it anticipates their understanding when it says:
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God is one God;” and again, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy
God with all thy heart and with all thy strength;” and again, “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and Him only shalt thou serve, and shalt cleave to Him.” 2. But that the providence and ordering power of the Word also, over all and toward all, is attested by all inspired Scripture, this passage suffices to confirm our argument, where men who speak of God say: “Thou hast laid the foundation of the earth and it abideth. The day continueth according to Thine ordinance.” And again: “Sing to our God upon the harp, that covereth the heaven with clouds, that prepareth rain for the earth, that bringeth forth grass upon the mountains, and green herb for the service of man, and giveth food to the cattle.” 3. But by whom does He give it, save by Him through Whom all things were made? For the providence over all things belongs naturally to Him by Whom they were made; and who is this save the Word of God, concerning Whom in another psalm182 he says: “By the Word of the Lord were the heavens made, and all the host of them by the Breath of His mouth.”” (Contra the Heathen, Part 3)

And of the Father it is written, ‘The Lord thy God is One Lord,’ and, ‘The God of gods, the Lord, hath spoken, and hath called the earth;’ and of the Son, ‘The Lord God hath shined upon us,’ and, ‘The God of gods shall be seen in Sion.’ And again of God, Isaiah says, ‘Who is a God like unto Thee, taking away iniquities and passing over unrighteousness?’” (De Synodis, Part 3)

Why There is Only One God: Relational Unity

In this concluding segment of the series on why there is only one God, we will examine how the relational unity between the persons of the Trinity does not allow Them to be conceived of as three Gods.

As we have observed in the earlier installments of this series, scripture clearly reserves the titles of “one God” and “only true God” for the person of the Father in particular. We have also observed that this is in no way due to a difference in divinity between the three persons; scripture is clear in revealing that God’s Son and Holy Spirit possess no other nature than His own, having the same divinity, or divine nature, as the one God, the Father. But how, if the persons of Son and Spirit are equal with the Father in respect to Their divine nature, do They not constitute second and third Gods?

The answer to that question is multifaceted; the Father alone is the one God because He alone is the Supreme Cause without a cause and the Supreme Authority with no higher authority. Additionally, the Son and Holy Spirit cannot constitute second and third Gods because They have the same divine nature as the Father, and because of Their relational unity with the Father. It is this last aspect of relational unity we shall examine in this post.

The three persons are truly distinct, but They are also inseparable.We see this unity between the persons spoken of throughout the gospel of John:

“No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” (John 1:18 NKJV)

“but if I do, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, that you may know and believe that the Father is in Me, and I in Him.” (John 10:38 NKJV)

“Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works. Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father in Me, or else believe Me for the sake of the works themselves.” (John 14:10-11 NKJV)

“At that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you.” (John 14:20 NKJV)

“Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are… that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.” (John 17:11, 21 NKJV)

Because of this close unity between the persons, They are inseparable from one another. We also see, related to this, that God works through His Son and Spirit, in creation redemption, and judgement:

“By the Word of the Lord the heavens were made, And all the host of them by the Spirit of His mouth.” (Psalm 33:6)

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.” (John 1:1-3 NKJV)

““The Lord possessed me at the beginning of His way, Before His works of old. 23 I have been established from everlasting, From the beginning, before there was ever an earth. 24 When there were no depths I was brought forth, When there were no fountains abounding with water. 25 Before the mountains were settled, Before the hills, I was brought forth; 26 While as yet He had not made the earth or the fields, Or the primal dust of the world. 27 When He prepared the heavens, I was there, When He drew a circle on the face of the deep, 28 When He established the clouds above, When He strengthened the fountains of the deep, 29 When He assigned to the sea its limit, So that the waters would not transgress His command, When He marked out the foundations of the earth, 30 Then I was beside Him as a master craftsman; And I was daily His delight, Rejoicing always before Him,” (Proverbs 8:22-30 KNJV)

“God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, 2 has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the ages;” (Hebrews 1:1-2 NKJV, “worlds” changed to “ages” to reflect Greek)

“For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus,” (1 Timothy 2:5 NKJV)

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. 17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” (John 3:16-17 NKJV)

“But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.” (Romans 8:11 NKJV)

“For the Father judges no one, but has committed all judgment to the Son,… I can of Myself do nothing. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is righteous, because I do not seek My own will but the will of the Father who sent Me.” (John 5:22, 30 NKJV)

So we see that in God’s actions, He works through His Son and Spirit, so that the actions are singular, although all three persons are involved in performing them. There are not three different acts of creation, three different schemes of redemption, or three different judgments of the world. Rather, there is a single creation, a single redemption of God’s people, and a single judgement of the world, executed by the one God through His only-begotten Son and His Holy Spirit, each person acting in Their specific roles in each of these actions.

On this Athanasius said “The Father does all things, by the Word, and in the Holy Spirit: And so the Unity of the Holy Trinity is preserved: And so one God is preached in the Church; even He who is over all, and through all, and in all: Over all, as he is the Father and Original and Fountain of all; Through all by His Word; and in all, by His Holy Spirit.” (Epistle Ad Serapion 1).

Additionally, we also see that God’s Son and Spirit are united with Him in that They are in perfect agreement of will and mind with Him. That does not mean, as those who Sabellianize intend it, that there is some sort of hive-mind controlling the persons of the Trinity, or that They are a single person; perish such a blasphemous thought. But rather we see that scripture teaches that the persons of the Trinity share one mind and one will meaning that They have a perfect agreement in Their wills and minds. In a similar way we see scripture regard the hearts and minds of many individual believers as being one heart and one mind:

“Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are.”(John 17:11 NKJV)

“Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.” Acts 4:32

So the persons of the Trinity, we see, are in perfect agreement of will and mind. We may reasonably suppose that this stems from Their all having the same divine nature; because of this, what They will and what They know is the same, and there is perfect agreement between Them.

So we see that God’s Son and Spirit are united with Him in close relational unity, in such a way that They are inseparable from Him, and He works through Them, and is always in perfect agreement with Them. They cannot then, in any legitimate sense, be thought to constitute second and third Gods as a result of some separation from Him, or disagreement with Him; but as a result of Their identities as the only-begotten Son and Holy Spirit of the only true God, They remain eternally in perfect union with Him, inseparable from Him, and in perfect agreement with Him.

 

“No other God besides Me”- the Trinity, or the Father?

Isaiah 43:11 and Isaiah 45:5-6 are very similar passages:

“I, even I, am the Lord, And besides Me there is no savior.” Isa 43:11 NKJV

“I am the Lord, and there is no other; There is no God besides Me. I will gird you, though you have not known Me, That they may know from the rising of the sun to its setting That there is none besides Me. I am the Lord, and there is no other;” Isa 45:5-6 NKJV

In these passages, obviously, God speaks in an exclusive way, proclaiming Himself the only true God. In light of the New Testament’s teaching that there is a Trinity of divine persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, some might wonder who the person speaking in these verses is. The most natural reading is that it is the Father, if for no other reason than that it is the ordinary pattern of scripture that when “God” is spoken of absolutely without qualification, it is referring to the one who scripture calls the “one God”, the person of the Father. We could give many examples of this throughout the New Testament, such as John 3:16, 18, and 2 Corinthians 13:14:

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. 17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. 18 “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” John 3:16-18 NKJV

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.” 2 Cor 13:14 NKJV

But sometimes the Son is also called “God”, so if a person is still unsure who is being spoken of, they may still wonder which person of the Trinity is in view. It is only natural, from the scriptures and reason, to think that one person is spoken of here, and utterly unnatural and foreign to scripture to think that a plurality of persons would speak as though they were one. So which person is it?

Greater clarity can be provided by employing one of the most natural, fundamental, and basic rules of scriptural interpretation: that we interpret scripture by scripture, understanding the unclear with the help of the clear. It is clear, in the fullness of revelation in the new Testament, that the “one God” 1 Cor 8:6 and “only true God” John 17:3 is the person of the Father in particular. Since this is explicitly taught, we can interpret scripture by scripture; if the scriptures throughout the New Testament reserve those titles for the person of the Father alone, we may safely understand that in the old testament, the same titles refer to the same person. This is the natural way to read these passages.

Yet, some insist that it must refer to the entire Trinity, a reading of the text that is entirely unnatural. The grammar of the text gives no indication of a plurality of persons, but rather, a single person is clearly indicated by the use of singular personal pronouns. But for dogmatic reasons, some wish to insert the entire Trinity, as if a single person, into the text of scripture here. This is all that those who want to teach that the Trinity is a single person can do; since no where in scripture is their absurd error ever taught, they must mutilate the scriptures to their own ends, and pretend they speak of a person unspoken of in scripture, their “God the Trinity”, that person who they suppose is all three persons of the Trinity.

And yet, as we have shown, the scriptural reading of these verses is to refer them to the person of the Father. This view, being the natural reading, is also, as should be expected, the way that we see the early church fathers of the ante-nicene and nicene eras apply these texts of scripture, as can be seen from the extensive quotations below:

Hilary of Poitiers

“XXIII. If any man, after the example of the Jews, understand as said for the destruction of the Eternal Only-begotten God, the words, I am the first God, and I am the last God, and beside Me there is no God Isaiah 44:6, which were spoken for the destruction of idols and them that are no gods: let him be anathema.

57. Though we condemn a plurality of gods and declare that God is only one, we cannot deny that the Son of God is God. Nay, the true character of His nature causes the name that is denied to a plurality to be the privilege of His essence. The words, Beside Me there is no God, cannot rob the Son of His divinity: because beside Him who is of God there is no other God. And these words of God the Father cannot annul the divinity of Him who was born of Himself with an essence in no way different from His own nature. The Jews interpret this passage as proving the bare unity of God, because they are ignorant of the Only-begotten God. But we, while we deny that there are two Gods, abhor the idea of a diversity of natural essence in the Father and the Son. The words, Beside Me there is no God, take away an impious belief in false gods. In confessing that God is One, and also saying that the Son is God, our use of the same name affirms that there is no difference of substance between the two Persons.” (Hilary of Poitiers, De Synodis)

Novatian of Rome

“And now, indeed, concerning the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, let it be sufficient to have briefly said thus much, and to have laid down these points concisely, without carrying them out in a lengthened argument. For they could be presented more diffusely and continued in a more expanded disputation, since the whole of the Old and New Testaments might be adduced in testimony that thus the true faith stands. But because heretics, ever struggling against the truth, are accustomed to prolong the controversy of pure tradition and Catholic faith, being offended against Christ; because He is, moreover, asserted to be God by the Scriptures also, and this is believed to be so by us; we must rightly — that every heretical calumny may be removed from our faith— contend, concerning the fact that Christ is God also, in such a way as that it may not militate against the truth of Scripture; nor yet against our faith, how there is declared to be one God by the Scriptures, and how it is held and believed by us. For as well they who say that Jesus Christ Himself is God the Father, as moreover they who would have Him to be only man, have gathered thence the sources and reasons of their error and perversity; because when they perceived that it was written that God is one, they thought that they could not otherwise hold such an opinion than by supposing that it must be believed either that Christ was man only, or really God the Father. And they were accustomed in such a way to connect their sophistries as to endeavour to justify their own error. And thus they who say that Jesus Christ is the Father argue as follows:— If God is one, and Christ is God, Christ is the Father, since God is one. If Christ be not the Father, because Christ is God the Son, there appear to be two Gods introduced, contrary to the Scriptures. And they who contend that Christ is man only, conclude on the other hand thus:— If the Father is one, and the Son another, but the Father is God and Christ is God, then there is not one God, but two Gods are at once introduced, the Father and the Son; and if God is one, by consequence Christ must be a man, so that rightly the Father may be one God. Thus indeed the Lord is, as it were, crucified between two thieves, even as He was formerly placed; and thus from either side He receives the sacrilegious reproaches of such heretics as these. But neither the Holy Scriptures nor we suggest to them the reasons of their perdition and blindness, if they either will not, or cannot, see what is evidently written in the midst of the divine documents. For we both know, and read, and believe, and maintain that God is one, who made the heaven as well as the earth, since we neither know any other, nor shall we at any time know such, seeing that there is none. I, says He, am God, and there is none beside me, righteous and a Saviour. And in another place: I am the first and the last, and beside me there is no God who is as I. And, Who has meted out heaven with a Span, and the earth with a handful? Who has suspended the mountains in a balance, and the woods on scales? And Hezekiah: That all may know that You are God alone. Moreover, the Lord Himself: Why do you ask me concerning that which is good? God alone is good. Moreover, the Apostle Paul says: Who only has immortality, and dwells in the light that no man can approach unto, whom no man has seen, nor can see. And in another place: But a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one. But even as we hold, and read, and believe this, thus we ought to pass over no portion of the heavenly Scriptures, since indeed also we ought by no means to reject those marks of Christ’s divinity which are laid down in the Scriptures, that we may not, by corrupting the authority of the Scriptures, be held to have corrupted the integrity of our holy faith. And let us therefore believe this, since it is most faithful that Jesus Christ the Son of God is our Lord and God; because in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and God was the Word. The same was in the beginning with God. And, The Word was made flesh, and dwelt in us. And, My Lord and my God. And, Whose are the fathers, and of whom according to the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for evermore.” (Novatian of Rome, On the Trinity, Chapter 30)

We see here Novatian refers the verse in question to the person of the Father, continuing afterwards to speak of the Son distinctly.

“Him, then, we acknowledge and know to be God, the Creator of all things — Lord on account of His power, Parent on account of His discipline — Him, I say, who spoke, and all things were made; He commanded, and all things went forth: of whom it is written, You have made all things in wisdom;  of whom Moses said, God in heaven above, and in the earth beneath; Deuteronomy 4:39 who, according to Isaiah, has meted out the heaven with a span, the earth with the hollow of His hand;  who looks on the earth, and makes it tremble; who bounds the circle of the earth, and those that dwell in it like locusts; who has weighed the mountains in a balance, and the groves in scales, that is, by the sure test of divine arrangement; easily fall into ruins if it were not balanced with equal weights, He has poised this burden of the earthly mass with equity. Who says by the prophet, I am God, and there is none beside me Isaiah 45:22 Who says by the same prophet Because I will not give my majesty to another, Isaiah 13:8 that He may exclude all heathens and heretics with their figments; proving that that is not God who is made by the hand of the workman, nor that which is feigned by the intellect of a heretic. For he is not God for whose existence the workman must be asked. And He has added hereto by the prophet, The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool: what house will you build me, and where is the place of my rest?  that He may show that He whom the world does not contain is much less contained in a temple; and He says these things not for boastfulness of Himself, but for our knowledge. For He does not desire from us the glory of His magnitude; but He wishes to confer upon us, even as a father, a religious wisdom. And He, wishing moreover to attract to gentleness our minds, brutish, and swelling, and stubborn with cloddish ferocity, says, And upon whom shall my Spirit rest, save upon him that is lowly, and quiet, and that trembles at my words?  Isaiah 66:2 — so that in some degree one may recognise how great God is, in learning to fear Him by the Spirit given to him: Who, similarly wishing still more to come into our knowledge, and, by way of stirring up our minds to His worship, said, I am the Lord, who made the light and created the darkness;  that we might deem not that some Nature, — what I know not — was the artificer of those vicissitudes whereby nights and days are controlled, but might rather, as is more true, recognise God as their Creator. And since by the gaze of our eyes we cannot see Him, we rightly learn of Him from the greatness, and the power, and the majesty of His works. For the invisible things of Him, says the Apostle Paul, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by those things which are made, even His eternal power and godhead; so that the human mind, learning hidden things from those that are manifest, from the greatness of the works which it should behold, might with the eyes of the mind consider the greatness of the Architect. Of whom the same apostle, Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory. 1 Timothy 1:17 For He has gone beyond the contemplation of the eyes who has surpassed the greatness of thought. For, it is said, of Him, and through Him, and in Him are all things. Romans 11:33 For all things are by His command, because they are of Him; and are ordered by His word as being through Him; and all things return to His judgment; as in Him expecting liberty when corruption shall be done away, they appear to be recalled to Him.

Chapter 4

Moreover, He is Good, Always the Same, Immutable, One and Only, Infinite; And His Own Name Can Never Be Declared, and He is Incorruptible and Immortal.

Him alone the Lord rightly declares good, of whose goodness the whole world is witness; which world He would not have ordained if He had not been good. For if everything was very good, Genesis 1:31consequently, and reasonably, both those things which were ordained have proved that He that ordained them is good, and those things which are the work of a good Ordainer cannot be other than good; wherefore every evil is a departure from God. ” (Novatian of Rome, On the Trinity, Chapters 3-4)

Here we see again Novatian applies the verse to the Father, the only true God, speaking of the same person who that verse speaks of as the one Whom the Lord said was alone good- the Father.

Ignatius of Antioch

“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.” And again, “We have drunk of one Spirit,”” (Letter to the Philippians)

Here we see Ignatius apply the verse in question to the Father, going on afterwards to speak of the Son and Spirit.

Justin Martyr

“For God cannot be called by any proper name, for names are given to mark out and distinguish their subject-matters, because these are many and diverse; but neither did any one exist before God who could give Him a name, nor did He Himself think it right to name Himself, seeing that He is one and unique, as He Himself also by His own prophets testifies, when He says, “I God am the first,” and after this, “And beside me there is no other God.”” (On the Monarchy of God, Chapter 21)

It is manifest that he speaks of the Father in particular here, who he frequently styles “the unbegotten God”, as he describes the one to whom he refers the passage as having none before who might give Him a name- yet this is not true of all three persons, but of the Father in particular, as He is unbegotten and of none; yet the Son, being from the Father by eternal generation, was given by His Father “that name which is above all names”.

Irenaeus of Lyons

“1. God, therefore, is one and the same, who rolls up the heaven as a book, and renews
the face of the earth; who made the things of time for man, so that coming to maturity in
them, he may produce the fruit of immortality; and who, through His kindness, also bestows [upon him] eternal things, “that in the ages to come He may show the exceeding riches of His grace;”1195 who was announced by the law and the prophets, whom Christ confessed as His Father. Now He is the Creator, and He it is who is God over all, as Esaias says, “I am witness, saith the Lord God, and my servant whom I have chosen, that ye may know, and believe, and understand that I am. Before me there was no other God, neither shall be after me. I am God, and besides me there is no Saviour. I have proclaimed, and I have saved.”1196 And again: “I myself am the first God, and I am above things to come.”1197 For neither in an ambiguous, nor arrogant, nor boastful manner, does He say these things; but since it was impossible, without God, to come to a knowledge of God, He teaches men, through His Word, to know God. To those, therefore, who are ignorant of these matters, and on this account imagine that they have discovered another Father, justly does one say, “Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures, nor the power of God.”” (Irenaeus Chapter 5)

Here again we see Irenaeus take the natural meaning of the text, applying it to the Father, who teaches men about Himself through His Word, the Son.

Athanasius

“And he who worships and honours the Son, in the Son worships and honours the Father; for one is the Godhead; and therefore one the honour and one the worship which is paid to the Father in and through the Son. And he who thus worships, worships one God; for there is one God and none other than He. Accordingly when the Father is called the only God, and we read that there is one God, and ‘I am,’ and ‘beside Me there is no God,’ and ‘I the first and I the last,’ this has a fit meaning. For God is One and Only and First; but this is not said to the denial of the Son, perish the thought; for He is in that One, and First and Only, as being of that One and Only and First the Only Word and Wisdom and Radiance. And He too is the First, as the Fulness of the Godhead of the First and Only, being whole and full God. This then is not said on His account, but to deny that there is other such as the Father and His Word.”

“And this account of the meaning of such passages is satisfactory; for since those who are devoted to gods falsely so called, revolt from the True God, therefore God, being good and careful for mankind, recalling the wanderers, says, ‘I am Only God,’ and ‘I Am,’ and ‘Besides Me there is no God,’ and the like; that He may condemn things which are not, and may convert all men to Himself. And as, supposing in the daytime when the sun was shining, a man were rudely to paint a piece of wood, which had not even the appearance of light, and call that image the cause of light, and if the sun with regard to it were to say, ‘I alone am the light of the day, and there is no other light of the day but I,’ he would say this, with regard, not to his own radiance, but to the error arising from the wooden image and the dissimilitude of that vain representation; so it is with ‘I am,’ and ‘I am Only God,’ and ‘There is none other besides Me,’ viz. that He may make men renounce falsely called gods, and that they may recognise Him the true God instead. Indeed when God said this, He said it through His own Word, unless forsooth the modern2853 Jews add this too, that He has not said this through His Word; but so hath He spoken, though they rave, these followers of the devil. For the Word of the Lord came to the Prophet, and this was what was heard; nor is there a thing which God says or does, but He says and does it in the Word. Not then with reference to Him is this said, O Christ’s enemies, but to things foreign to Him and not from2855 Him. For according to the aforesaid illustration, if the sun had spoken those words, he would have been setting right the error and have so spoken, not as having his radiance without him, but in the radiance shewing his own light. Therefore not for the denial of the Son, nor with reference to Him, are such passages, but to the overthrow of falsehood.”

In both these passages it is clear Athanasius refers these words to the Father, saying in the latter that He spoke them through His Son.

Eusebius Pamphili

“And if he should say, “See, see that I am, and there is no God beside me,” again it was the Father claiming this through the Son as through an image and mediator. For if, then, Isaiah the prophet says, “Sons I have reared and brought up,” and again, “Israel does not know me, and my people do not understand me,” and again, “I have commanded the stars, and by my hand I made firm the heavens,” and everything else of this sort, we will not say that Isaiah said these things, but that God was speaking through him and in him [the prophet]? Will it, then, not be fitting also with regard to the only-begotten Son of God [to say] that the Father needed to confirm these things through him for those who stood in need of these sorts of commandments? These men were idolaters, as the same scripture teaches, saying, “And the Lord said, ‘Where are [their] gods, in whom they trusted, of whose sacrifices you eat the fat and of whose libations you drink the wine? Let them arise and help you, and let them become your protectors.” For to these remarks was added the statement “See, see that I am, and there is no God beside me.”

Chapter 22

Well now, if pronouncing countless times through the prophet he proclaimed, “Beside me there is no God,” and, “A righteous God and a savior, there is none beside me,” and, “You shall know no other god besides me, and besides me there is no savior,” and all the other remarks akin to these that are referenced in the other prophets, God was also on that basis “in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” and it was the Father himself who was saying these things to human beings through the only-begotten Son as through an interpreter.

And indeed, the Son himself handed down in the gospels, teaching [the people] to acknowledge only one God, when he said, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” Therefore, he himself was the true God, who alone is one and besides whom there is no other, who enjoined these things upon the Jewish nation when they had fallen into idolatry, not only through the prophets, but [also] through His own Son.”” (On Ecclesiastical Theology, Book 2, Chapters 21-22)

We may notice that there is no indication given whatsoever in any of these quotes that the fathers understood these passages to refer to a person other than the Father, and the Father alone; not to the exclusion of the Son and Spirit from the divine nature, as they explain, but rather to the exclusion of idols and false gods. Rather, they regarded these as words of the Father spoken in reference to His own person, through His Son, Who is His Word.

They do not refer these words to the Trinity conceived of as a person; but rather, these passages refute the blasphemy of “God the Trinity” altogether, since they rule out the possibility that there is any other person higher than or equal to God the Father; which certainly “God the Trinity” must be, since God the Father is but the third part of Him, according to the ravings of the semi-modalists.

 

 

Quote from Eusebius taken from: Eusebius Pamphilius, On Ecclesiastical Theology, trans. Kelly McCarthy Sproerl and Markus Vinzent (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2017).

Why There is Only One God: One Divine Nature

Scripture is clear in teaching that the one God is the person of the Father in particular, as can be observed as explicitly taught in 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)

“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 scripture is also clear in teaching that the one God has a Son, and His Holy Spirit, who are each distinct persons from the Father, and each of the same divine nature as He. This easily raises the question, ‘how can the Son and Holy Spirit both be God, having the same divinity as the Father, Who is the one God, without constituting second and third Gods?’

The answer to this question is multifaceted: the Father is the one God because He alone is the Supreme Cause, or uncaused Cause, and He alone is the Supreme Authority, or Head without a head, as we have observed in the last two installments of this series. Additionally, we may point to the unity of the Son and Spirit with the Father in respect to both their divine nature and their relationship to Him as reasons why They cannot be said to constitute second and third Gods. In this installment, we will examine how the unity of the divine nature does not allow the Son and Spirit to constitute second and third Gods.

Firstly, let us observe that the unity of the divine nature is not the cause of there being only one God- rather, it is a result of it; as such, if there were a plurality of divine natures, it would create a plurality of Gods due to their know being multiple species of divinity. So when we bring up the unity of the divine nature in defending the unity of God, we aren’t saying that there is only one God because there is only one divine nature, but rather that the Son and Spirit’s divinity cannot infringe upon the unity of God because They are not of different divine natures than the Father, but have the Father’s own divine nature.

If we were to argue, as some have tried to, that the sole or primary reason that there is only one God because there is only one divine nature, one might easily reply that in the case of men there is but one human nature common to many men, yet there are many men, not one man, because there are many human persons; so also, such a person could argue, simply having three divine persons all share a common divine nature does not make Them constitute one God, but three Gods. This line of argumentation is valid, if all we can point to in order to assert that there is one God is that the Father, Son, and Spirit share a common divinity as any three individuals in creation may share a common species.

But as we have observed in the last two installments of this series, the scriptures do not teach that there is only one God because there is only one divine nature, but because the Father, Who alone is the Supreme Cause of all and Supreme Authority over all, is one. Thus there is only one God, although there are three divine persons, because there is one Supreme Cause and Authority, the person of the Father. This, we observed, is why scripture styles God the Father in particular the “one God”, even while teaching the divinity of the persons of the Son and Holy Spirit.

And yet, it is important to note that the divinity of the Son and Spirit is identical to that of the Father; there are not three different divine natures, but one divine nature. Thus no one can charge Christians with tritheism on account of the Son or Spirit introducing a second or third divinity; rather, as the Son and Spirit are from the Father as Their Origin and Source by eternal generation and procession, They have communicated to Them in an ineffable way the divine nature of the only true God, the Father.

Thus scripture ascribes to the Son all the same divine attributes it ascribes to the Father, excepting fatherhood, and Supreme Headship, and being unoriginate, since those attributes of the Father are incommunicable. Similarly, we see the scriptures ascribe divine attributes to the Holy Spirit. Scripture also outright calls the Son “God” in John 1:1, which may rightly be viewed as referring to the Son’s divinity. Colossians 2:9 also tells us that Christ has the “fullness of deity”. The many references to and implications of the Son and Spirit’s divinity in scripture are themselves enough to prove that Their divinity is the same as that of the Father simply by way of necessary logical deduction from the fact that while the Son and Spirit are divine, They do not constitute second and third Gods, for there is only one God, the Father. In order for the Son and Spirit to not constitute second and third Gods They must have exactly the same divine nature as the Father, or else, as we mentioned above, a plurality of Gods would be introduced by way of a plurality of divine natures.

But we can also see the Son and Spirit’s exactly identical divinity from scripture’s teaching that the Son is begotten of the Father, and that the Spirit proceeds from Him as His Spirit. It is impious to think that the very Spirit of God would be anything other than divine, of the same divine nature as the one true God whose Holy Spirit He is. Likewise, it is absurd to suggest that God did not beget a Son who is of the same divine nature as He. God’s eternal fatherhood of His only-begotten Son is the very pattern off of which all human and created fatherhood is modeled. And in human fatherhood, a man’s son is always of the same nature as the father who begat him. So it is with all animals, that each begets after its own kind, there being an exact identicality of nature between the one begotten and the begetter. Thus every human son has the humanity of His Father. So also, the Lord Jesus Christ, the being the only begotten Son of the only true God, has the divinity of His Father, being of one and the same divine nature with the one true God Who begat Him before the ages. For a more detailed demonstration of eternal generation from the holy scriptures, see Eternal Generation Proved from the Scriptures.

Thus we see that the Son and Spirit, being of the same divine nature as the Father Whose Son and Spirit They are, do not create a plurality of Gods on account of a plurality of divine natures; but of one God, the Father, are one only-begotten Son and one Holy Spirit, who have the very same divine nature as the one God Whose Son and Spirit They are.

In addition to the proofs cited from scripture, we may bring to bear the testimony of many church fathers; not that the testimony of any man or council is sufficient to prove any point of doctrine true, but these are witnesses to which the truths which are known with certainty from the scriptures alone:

Novatian of Rome

“For all things being subjected to Him as the Son by the Father, while He Himself, with those things which are subjected to Him, is subjected to His Father, He is indeed proved to be Son of His Father; but He is found to be both Lord and God of all else. Whence, while all things put under Him are delivered to Him who is God, and all things are subjected to Him, the Son refers all that He has received to the Father, remits again to the Father the whole authority of His divinity. The true and eternal Father is manifested as the one God, from whom alone this power of divinity is sent forth, and also given and directed upon the Son, and is again returned by the communion of substance to the Father. God indeed is shown as the Son, to whom the divinity is beheld to be given and extended. And still, nevertheless, the Father is proved to be one God; while by degrees in reciprocal transfer that majesty and divinity are again returned and reflected as sent by the Son Himself to the Father, who had given them; so that reasonably God the Father is God of all, and the source also of His Son Himself whom He begot as Lord. Moreover, the Son is God of all else, because God the Father put before all Him whom He begot. Thus the Mediator of God and men, Christ Jesus, having the power of every creature subjected to Him by His own Father, inasmuch as He is God; with every creature subdued to Him, found at one with His Father God, has, by abiding in that condition that He moreover was heard, briefly proved God His Father to be one and only and true God.” (On the Trinity, Chapter 31)

Eusebius

“The children of the Jews first received the confession of the one God in opposition to the polytheistic error of the Greeks. But the saving grace of recognizing that the same [God] is also Father of an only-begotten Son has been given to the Church as a special privilege. For as Son it knows Jesus Christ alone and no other, not according to generation of the flesh that he assumed (for it has been taught to call this flesh the “form of a slave” and “Son of Man”), but according to his [generation] before all ages from God himself and the Father, [which is] unknowable to all. According to this [generation from God] the fullness of the paternal divinity also made him, the Son, God, and so as a result he possesses a divinity that is not his own, [not] one separated from that of the Father, nor one that is without source and that is unbegotten, nor one that is foreign, from somewhere else, and different from the Father’s. Rather, he is filled with divinity by participating in the paternal [divinity] itself, which pours into him as from a fountain. For the great Apostle taught that “in him alone dwells the fulness” of the paternal “divinity.” For this reason then, one God is proclaimed by the Church of God, “and there is no other beside him,” but also one only-begotten Son of God, the image of the paternal divinity, who, because of this, is God.” (On Ecclesiastical Theology, Book I, Ch 2)

Athanasius

“Accordingly when the Father is called the only God, and we read that there is one God, and ‘I am,’ and ‘beside Me there is no God,’ and ‘I the first and I the last,’ this has a fit meaning. For God is One and Only and First; but this is not said to the denial of the Son, perish the thought; for He is in that One, and First and Only, as being of that One and Only and First the Only Word and Wisdom and Radiance. And He too is the First, as the Fulness of the Godhead of the First and Only, being whole and full God.” (Against the Arians, Discourse III.)

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

“For there is but one form of Godhead, which is also in the Word; and one God, the Father, existing by Himself according as He is above all, and appearing in the Son according as He pervades all things, and in the Spirit according as in Him He acts in all things through the Word.” (Against the Arians, Discourse III.)

“The Triad, then, although the Word took a body from Mary, is a Triad, being inaccessible to addition or diminution; but it is always perfect, and in the Triad one Godhead is recognised, and so in the Church one God is preached, the Father of the Word.” (To Epictetus)

Hilary of Poitiers

“And if any one hearing that the Only-begotten Son is like the invisible God, denies that the Son who is the image of the invisible God (whose image is understood to include essence) is Son in essence, as though denying His true Sonship: let him be anathema.

15. It is here insisted that the nature is indistinguishable and entirely similar. For since He is the Only-begotten Son of God and the image of the invisible God, it is necessary that He should be of an essence similar in species and nature. Or what distinction can be made between Father and Son affecting their nature with its similar genus, when the Son subsisting through the nature begotten in Him is invested with the properties of the Father, viz., glory, worth, power, invisibility, essence? And while these prerogatives of divinity are equal we neither understand the one to be less because He is Son, nor the other to be greater because He is Father; since the Son is the image of the Father in species, and not dissimilar in genus; since the similarity of a Son begotten of the substance of His Father does not admit of any diversity of substance, and the Son and image of the invisible God embraces in Himself the whole form of His Father’s divinity both in kind and in amount: and this is to be truly Son, to reflect the truth of the Father’s form by the perfect likeness of the nature imaged in Himself.” (De Synodis)

“VIII. And if any one understanding that the Son is like in essence to Him whose Son He is admitted to be, says that the Son is the same as the Father, or part of the Father, or that it is through an emanation or any such passion as is necessary for the procreation of corporeal children that the incorporeal Son draws His life from the incorporeal Father: let him be anathema.

21. We have always to beware of the vices of particular perversions, and countenance no opportunity for delusion. For many heretics say that the Son is like the Father in divinity in order to support the theory that in virtue of this similarity the Son is the same Person as the Father: for this undivided similarity appears to countenance a belief in a single monad. For what does not differ in kind seems to retain identity of nature.

22. But birth does not countenance this vain imagination; for such identity without differentiation excludes birth. For what is born has a father who caused its birth. Nor because the divinity of Him who is being born is inseparable from that of Him who begets, are the Begetter and the Begotten the same Person; while on the other hand He who is born and He who begets cannot be unlike.” (De Synodis)

Cyril of Jerusalem

“We believe then In the Only-Begotten Son of God, Who Was Begotten of the Father Very God. For the True God begets not a false god, as we have said, nor did He deliberate and afterwards beget ; but He begot eternally, and much more swiftly than our words or thoughts: for we speaking in time, consume time; but in the case of the Divine Power, the generation is timeless. And as I have often said, He did not bring forth the Son from non-existence into being, nor take the non-existent into sonship : but the Father, being Eternal, eternally and ineffably begot One Only Son, who has no brother. Nor are there two first principles; but the Father is the head of the Son 1 Corinthians 11:3; the beginning is One. For the Father begot the Son Very God, called Emmanuel; and Emmanuel being interpreted is, God with us Matthew 1:23 .” (Catechetical Lecture 11)

“For the Father being Very God begot the Son like Himself, Very God…” (Catechetical Lecture 11)

Justin Martyr

“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 [It must be noted that in the examples he gives, Justin assumes the identicality of the nature of the Word to the Father in respect to His divinity, as a word expressed is in essence identical to the internal idea expressed, and one fire kindled of another is of no other nature than the fire from which it is kindled. So also, the Son begotten of the Father is of no other nature than that of the Father Himself, having the same divine nature as He.]. 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 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)

 

Quotes from Eusebius taken from: Eusebius Pamphilius, On Ecclesiastical Theology, trans. Kelly McCarthy Sproerl and Markus Vinzent (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2017).