Numerical Vs Generic Unity of Substance

Semi-modalism is built upon a twisting of the Nicene concept of co-essentiality. In the Nicene era and its creed, for multiple persons to be co-essential meant that nothing more than that they, as truly distinct rational individual beings (that is, persons) shared a common nature or species. A common analogy used by the Nicene fathers to capture their meaning, for example, is of three men being co-essential, in that they, while remaining three distinct individuals, share a common and identical human nature. Although there are three men, there is only one nature between them, human nature. Such was the original meaning of co-essentiality.

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.”

Hilary of Poitiers likewise clarified:

“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.

And Basil of Caesarea wrote:

“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)”

This understanding of co-essentiality is likewise required by the council of Chalcedon:

“our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood”

Its clear, then, that the original intent of declaring that the Father, Son, and Spirit share one essence was not to make Them out to all be one person, one individual being, but simply to declare that They shared a common nature or species. This meaning changed, however, and was not kept clear as time went on; the Western churches going to far as to eventually formally change the meaning of co-essentiality in the 4th Lateran council in 1215.  Rather than indicating a generic unity of sharing one nature, now co-essentiality was defined as teaching that the unity the persons shared was of being one single numerically individual reality, one rational individual being- that is, in reality, one person. The ‘essence’ was no longer viewed as a nature, but a single subsistent ‘supreme reality’.

“We, however, with the approval of this sacred and universal council, believe and confess with Peter Lombard that there exists a certain supreme reality, incomprehensible and ineffable, which truly is the Father and the Son and the holy Spirit, the three persons together and each one of them separately. Therefore in God there is only a Trinity, not a quaternity, since each of the three persons is that reality — that is to say substance, essence or divine nature-which alone is the principle of all things, besides which no other principle can be found. This reality neither begets nor is begotten nor proceeds; the Father begets, the Son is begotten and the holy Spirit proceeds.” (From Canon 2)

This teaching is a drastic departure from the faith of the early church, and represents the culmination of what many in the Nicene era had feared might result from the introduction of ‘essence’ speculation into the church’s dogma. A council of fathers gathered in Antioch in 345 had specified their belief that the Father, Son, and Spirit were not “one supreme reality”, that is, one person, one individual rational being, but rather, three:

“Nor again, in confessing three realities and three persons, of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost according to the Scriptures, do we therefore make Gods three; since we acknowledge the self-complete and unbegotten and unbegun and invisible God to be one only, the God and Father (John 20:17) of the Only-begotten, who alone has being from Himself, and alone vouchsafes this to all others bountifully.” (Macrostich)

Later in the same creed they went on to condemn the very view the 4th Lateran would later make dogma for the Roman churches:

“And those who say that the Father and Son and Holy Ghost are the same, and irreligiously take the three names of one and the same reality and person, we justly proscribe from the Church, because they suppose the illimitable and impassible Father to be also limitable and passable through His becoming man. For such are they whom Romans call Patripassians, and we Sabellians. For we acknowledge that the Father who sent, remained in the peculiar state of His unchangeable Godhead, and that Christ who was sent fulfilled the economy of the Incarnation.”

But one need not wait until the fourth century to find fathers who clearly taught that the Father, Son, and Spirit were not one numerically individual thing, one person. Second century father Justin Martyr, one of the earliest and best of the fathers, clearly understood the Father and Son to be numerically distinct persons, two distinct rational individual beings, not merely two names of or modes of one and the same reality:

“When Scripture says, ‘The Lord rained fire from the Lord out of heaven,’ the prophetic word indicates that there were two in number: One upon the earth, who, it says, descended to behold the cry of Sodom; Another in heaven, who also is Lord of the Lord on earth, as He is Father and God; the cause of His power and of His being Lord and God.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 29)

“And that this power which the prophetic word calls God, as has been also amply demonstrated, and Angel, is not numbered [as different] in name only like the light of the sun but is indeed something numerically distinct, I have discussed briefly in what has gone before; when I asserted that this power was begotten from the Father, by His power and will, but not by abscission, as if the essence of the Father were divided; as all other things partitioned and divided are not the same after as before they were divided: and, for the sake of example, I took the case of fires kindled from a fire, which we see to be distinct from it, and yet that from which many can be kindled is by no means made less, but remains the same.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 128)

“You perceive, my hearers, if you bestow attention, that the Scripture has declared that this Offspring was begotten by the Father before all things created; and that which is begotten is numerically distinct from that which begets, any one will admit.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 129)

It is clear also, that Justin did not speak of merely his own opinion in these matters, but as an apologist, spoke on behalf of the Christians of his time; and anyone who wishes to, may read his contemporary fathers, and see their agreement.

Semi-modalism, then, in proclaiming the the persons of the Trinity are numerically one substance, one individual, is clearly at odds with both the original dogmatic conception of co-essentiality held by the Nicene fathers, which proclaimed co-essentiality to mean nothing more than a mere generic unity of nature between really distinct individuals, as well as being at odds with the faith of the ante-nicene fathers, going back as close to the apostles as we can find.

For a look at how this semi-modalistic conception of the Trinity is opposed to scripture itself, and the very fundamental tenets of the Christian faith it teaches, see here.

The Grievous Error of the Fourth Lateran Council

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

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

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

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

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

Hilary of Poitiers, for example, wrote thus:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We, however, with the approval of this sacred and universal council, believe and confess with Peter Lombard that there exists a certain supreme reality, incomprehensible and ineffable, which truly is the Father and the Son and the holy Spirit, the three persons together and each one of them separately. Therefore in God there is only a Trinity, not a quaternity, since each of the three persons is that reality — that is to say substance, essence or divine nature-which alone is the principle of all things, besides which no other principle can be found. This reality neither begets nor is begotten nor proceeds; the Father begets, the Son is begotten and the holy Spirit proceeds.” (From Canon 2)

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

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