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”).

Augustine vs. Athanasius on the Identity of the “One God”

Between Augustine and earlier church fathers like Athanasius of Alexandria there exists a great deal of doctrinal agreement. Both theologians, for instance, worked to defend the divinity of the Son against the attacks of Arianism. But there are also some crucial areas of disagreement between these two influencial theologians.

As has been previously noted on this blog, Augustine was a strong early proponent of the idea that the one God of the Christian faith is the Trinity conceived of as a single person itself. We see this idea expressed in his own writings in the following:

“That one God, therefore, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, who will not appear, except for joy which cannot be taken away from the just…” (On the Trinity, Book 1, Ch. 13)

“…neither here does it appear plainly whether it was any person of the Trinity that appeared to Abraham, or God Himself the Trinity, of which one God it is said, You shall fear the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.” (Book 2, Ch. 10)

“O Lord the one God, God the Trinity, whatever I have said in these books that is of Yours, may they acknowledge who are Yours; if anything of my own, may it be pardoned both by You and by those who are Yours. Amen.” (Book 15, Ch. 28)

In contrast, Athanasius was clear in affirming the well-established doctrine that the one God of the Christian faith is the person of the Father in particular:

“But if this is not to be seen, but while the creatures are many, the Word is one, any one will collect from this, that the Son differs from all, and is not on a level with the creatures, but proper to the Father. Hence there are not many Words, but one only Word of the one Father, and one Image of the one God.” (Against the Arians, Discourse II.)

“For there is One God, and not many, and One is His Word, and not many; for the Word is God, and He alone has the Form of the Father.” (Against the Arians, Discourse III.)

“For the Word, being Son of the One God, is referred to Him of whom also He is; so that Father and Son are two, yet the Monad of the Godhead is indivisible and inseparable. And thus too we preserve One Beginning of Godhead and not two Beginnings, whence there is strictly a Monarchy” (Against the Arians, Discourse IV.)

“For the one God makes and creates; but Him He begets from Himself, Word or Wisdom.” (Against the Arians, Discourse IV.)

Not least of all would be the opening line of the Nicene Creed, a creed which Athanasius not only affirmed, but helped to author, and spent his life defending the truthfulness of its content, which begins by saying:

“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible…”

Although Augustine would allege the support of scripture for his position, in light of the language of scripture, it is clear which of these viewpoints actually represents the biblical position:

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 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

Contrasting Irenaeus and Augustine on the Identity of the One God

There is a great deal of doctrinal continuity between second century church father Irenaeus of Lyons and fifth century church father Augustine of Hippo. Both, for instance, articulated the divinity of the Son. But despite areas of doctrinal agreement, there is also some major doctrinal discontinuity between these two notable theologians, especially concerning the identity of the “one God” of the Christian faith.

As has been previously noted on this blog, Augustine was a strong early proponent of the idea that the one God of the Christian faith is the Trinity. We see this idea thus expressed by his own pen:

“That one God, therefore, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, who will not appear, except for joy which cannot be taken away from the just…” (On the Trinity, Book 1, Ch. 13)

“…neither here does it appear plainly whether it was any person of the Trinity that appeared to Abraham, or God Himself the Trinity, of which one God it is said, You shall fear the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.” (Book 2, Ch. 10)

“O Lord the one God, God the Trinity, whatever I have said in these books that is of Yours, may they acknowledge who are Yours; if anything of my own, may it be pardoned both by You and by those who are Yours. Amen.” (Book 15, Ch. 28)

In contrast, Irenaeus of Lyons, on the other hand, can be noted to be equally emphatic in proclaiming that the one God of the Christian faith is the person of the Father in particular:

“And others of them, with great craftiness, adapted such parts of Scripture to their own figments, lead away captive from the truth those who do not retain a stedfast faith in one God, the Father Almighty, and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Against Heresies, Book I. Chapter III. 6.)

“The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God” (Against Heresies, Book I. Chapter X. 1.)

“These have all declared to us that there is one God, Creator of heaven and earth, announced by the law and the prophets; and one Christ the Son of God. If any one do not agree to these truths, he despises the companions of the Lord; nay more, he despises Christ Himself the Lord; yea, he despises the Father also, and stands self-condemned, resisting and opposing his own salvation, as is the case with all heretics.” (Against Heresies, Book III. Chapter I. 2.)

“And therefore it is right first of all to believe that there is One God, the Father, who made and fashioned all things, and made what was not that it should be, and who, containing all things, alone is uncontained.” (The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching)

While both theologians appeal to scripture in support of their position, it is clear which of these viewpoints actually represents the biblical position:

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 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

It is also noteworthy, that although Augustine lived after the Nicene Council and knew of its Creed, it is Irenaeus, who lived prior to the Council, who is doctrinally in agreement with its decision, not Augustine:

“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty…” (First words of the Nicene Creed)

Another point of contrast, already noticeable above, is that Irenaeus is in agreement with and appeals to the church’s tradition as further testifying to the truth of what he says. He speaks not of his own novel opinions, but declares that the whole church believes what he is saying pertaining to the one God of the Christian faith being the person of the Father in particular. Irenaeus not only goes to great lengths to show what he is saying from the scriptures, but also includes the historical testimony of prior church fathers, and the contemporary church of his day.

Augustine, on the other hand, appeals to scripture to as supportive of what he says (although ultimately failing to provide any proof on this particular point of doctrine), but does not rely heavily on historical testimony or the church’s tradition on this point of doctrine. This is of course because most prior theologians did not hold his view, but rather that of Irenaeus.

Augustine makes some general appeals to those who came before him, but does not even seem to be aware that he is disregarding the doctrine of most orthodox theologians prior to him. It may be conjectured that this was due to his receiving his doctrine from his immediate predecessor, Ambrose, and other early semi-modalists in Rome and the west. If this is so, then we cannot fairly view Augustine as an innovator on this point, but as faithfully following a new school of thought that can be traced back to a few years before his conversion, which he received from his teachers. Thus he can appeal to those who came before him, while ultimately disagreeing with most of the ancient church.

Historically western theology since the time of Augustine has generally taken his position as fact without question, largely ignoring the testimony of the Irenaeus, and of scripture. Perhaps as Irenaeus’s position is better understood by western scholars we will see a return to the classical trinitarianism taught not only by him, but by many orthodox church fathers in the nicene and ante-nicene eras. Such a revival of interest in classical trinitarianism and Irenaeus’s articulations of that can be seen in the contemporary Eastern Orthodox church, a fact which may appear a bit ironic when we consider that he was a western church father (Lyons being in modern day France).

For more quotes from Irenaeus on the subject, as well as from other fathers, see here: https://nicenefaith.wordpress.com/2017/03/08/i-believe-in-one-god-the-father-almighty/.

Contrasting Augustine and Cyril of Jerusalem on the Identity of the One God

Between Augustine and earlier church fathers like Cyril of Jerusalem there exists a great deal of theological continuity. Both church fathers, for instance, worked to defend the divinity of the Son against the attacks of Arianism. But there are also some crucial areas of discontinuity between these two notable theologians.

As has been previously noted on this blog, Augustine was a strong early proponent of the idea that the one God of the Christian faith is the Trinity. We see this idea expressed in his own writings in the following:

“That one God, therefore, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, who will not appear, except for joy which cannot be taken away from the just…” (On the Trinity, Book 1, Ch. 13)

“…neither here does it appear plainly whether it was any person of the Trinity that appeared to Abraham, or God Himself the Trinity, of which one God it is said, You shall fear the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.” (Book 2, Ch. 10)

“O Lord the one God, God the Trinity, whatever I have said in these books that is of Yours, may they acknowledge who are Yours; if anything of my own, may it be pardoned both by You and by those who are Yours. Amen.” (Book 15, Ch. 28)

In contrast, Cyril of Jerusalem, on the other hand, can be noted to be equally emphatic in proclaiming that the one God of the Christian faith is the person of the Father in particular:

“For there is One God, the Father of Christ; and One Lord Jesus Christ, the Only-begotten Son of the Only God; and One Holy Ghost…” On the Ten Points of Doctrine (Lecture IV)

“Of God as the sole Principle we have said enough to you yesterday:  by “enough” I mean, not what is worthy of the subject, (for to reach that is utterly impossible to mortal nature), but as much as was granted to our infirmity.  I traversed also the bye-paths of the manifold error of the godless heretics:  but now let us shake off their foul and soul-poisoning doctrine, and remembering what relates to them, not to our own hurt, but to our greater detestation of them, let us come back to ourselves, and receive the saving doctrines of the true Faith, connecting the dignity of Fatherhood with that of the Unity, and believing In One God the Father:  for we must not only believe in one God; but this also let us devoutly receive, that He is the Father of the Only-begotten, our Lord Jesus Christ.” The Father (Lecture VII)

“But worship thou One God the Almighty, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Almighty (Lecture VIII)

Although Augustine would allege the support of scripture for his position, in light of the language of scripture, it is clear which of these viewpoints actually represents the biblical position:

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 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

Augustine’s Trinitarian Heresy

Today Augustine is one of the most well-known theologians in church history. His influence on Christian thought, especially in Western Christianity, is enormous. After the Protestant Reformation, both Protestants and Roman Catholics alike continue to appeal to his teachings as a basis for their own.

Augustine’s influence extends to many areas of theology, including soteriology and trinitarian dogma. It is this latter part of Augustine’s corpus of teaching I want to examine in this article.

Augustine wrote at great length on the Trinity, a total of 15 volumes. These works are of monumental historical significance, not because they rightly elucidate the doctrine of the Trinity, but because they provide the first major systematic treatment of semi-modalism, and unfortunately, helped to popularize it.

That he teaches semi-modalism instead of the classical trinitarianism taught by theologians such as Irenaeus and Athanasius and confessed in the Nicene Creed, can be seen from the following passages, wherin he very obviously treats the Trinity itself as a person:

“That one God, therefore, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, who will not appear, except for joy which cannot be taken away from the just; for which future joy he sighs, who says, One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord: that one God, therefore, Himself, I say, is alone good, for this reason, that no one sees Him for sorrow and wailing, but only for salvation and true joy.” (Book 1, Ch. 13)

Notice he defines the “one God” as three persons, yet afterwards refers to him using the singular personal pronoun “Himself”.

“…neither here does it appear plainly whether it was any person of the Trinity that appeared to Abraham, or God Himself the Trinity, of which one God it is said, You shall fear the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.” (Book 2, Ch. 10)

“For the Trinity is called one God, great, good, eternal, omnipotent; and the same God Himself may be called His own deity, His own magnitude, His own goodness, His own eternity, His own omnipotence: but the Trinity cannot in the same way be called the Father, except perhaps metaphorically, in respect to the creature, on account of the adoption of sons.” (Book 5, Ch. 11)

“O Lord our God, we believe in You, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. For the Truth would not say, Go, baptize all nations in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, unless You were a Trinity. Nor would you, O Lord God, bid us to be baptized in the name of Him who is not the Lord God. Nor would the divine voice have said, Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one God, unless You were so a Trinity as to be one Lord God…

O Lord the one God, God the Trinity, whatever I have said in these books that is of Yours, may they acknowledge who are Yours; if anything of my own, may it be pardoned both by You and by those who are Yours. Amen.” (Book 15, Ch. 28)

In teaching an explicitly semi-modalistic view of the Trinity, Augustine was treading on new ground. Yet, within his works, he does not seem aware of this, but seems to think himself to be following those who came before him. This can probably be accounted for by two things: an ignorance of classical trinitarian teaching by authors of the ante-nicene and nicene eras, who mostly wrote in Greek, and secondly, that Augustine was probably following the teaching of those who came immediately before him, such as Ambrose of Milan.

Ambrose had been present at a Council held in Rome in 382 where the first signs of semi-modalism can be seen, as the Trinity for the first time got referred to with singular personal pronouns. Ambrose being Augustine’s teacher, it is possible to conjecture that Augustine may have simply been being faithful to what Ambrose his mentor had taught him.

This teaching that the Trinity as a whole may be conceived of as a person, and and implicitly regarded and spoken of as one, with the sole exception that the word “person” may not be applied to it, is false and contrary to scripture. Augustine helped influence untold numbers of people to conceive of a Trinity different than that taught in scripture and by the earlier church fathers, who taught that the one God of the Christian faith is the person of the Father, with the Son standing in relation to Him as His only-begotten Son and Word, and the Holy Spirit regarded as His Spirit.

It is also noteworthy that Augustine broke new ground in giving us perhaps the earliest record of anyone praying to the Trinity, directing his prayer to “God the Trinity”. Throughout his volumes he uses this name for the Trinity as a whole conceived of as a single person, the person who is the three real persons of the Trinity.

By directing prayer to “God the Trinity” Augustine very clearly treats the Trinity itself as a person. He uses singular personal pronouns for it.

He also explicitly and repeatedly states that in his thinking, the one God of the Christian faith is the Trinity (again we must note this stands in contrast to the teaching of earlier fathers like Irenaeus who regarded the one God as the person of the Father). His language on this matter clearly shows that for him, saying that the Father and Son are “one God” does not simply mean that they share one and the same divine nature (such as we see the Nicene fathers such as Athanasius speak), but rather that they are ultimately, even while remaining distinct persons, one person (“God the Trinity”).

The conceptual difference between Augustine’s semi-modalistic view of the Trinity and the classical trinitarianism of the earlier church fathers would be difficult to overstate. Instead of viewing the Trinity as a group of three distinct, inseparable, co-essential, co-eternal persons as earlier church fathers had articulated it, Augustine consistently treats the Trinity as a single rational person who exists as the three real persons of the Trinity. The one he regards as the ‘one God’ is a different person than the one the earlier fathers and scripture regard as the ‘one God’.

Due to these enormous conceptual differences, it is fair to speculate that had Augustine lived a couple hundred years earlier, his teachings would have been unequivocally condemned as heresy by those earlier fathers. But by the time Augustine wrote, the west was receptive to his teaching, semi-modalism already having made significant inroads in the Latin church. Sadly, many other teachers have blindly followed Augustine in these errors, a pattern that must change if the church is to return to the classical trinitarianism taught by the Nicene Creed and scripture.