Another Source Showing the Concept of a ‘Triune God’ in Official Eastern Orthodox Dogma

There seems to be something of a divide within Eastern Orthodoxy today on one of the most fundamental issues of the faith- the identity of the one God. Many Eastern Orthodox theologians and laypeople believe that the one God is tri-personal or triune, comprised of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together in a single being. Others, however, following an older tradition, have embraced a triadology that is fundamentally unitarian, believing in the one God as only a single person, the God and Father of the Lord Jesus; in their view, the Son and Holy Spirit share a generic nature with this one God, but are numerically distinct from Him. The Eastern Orthodox call this idea that the one God is only one person, the Father, ‘the Monarchy of the Father’ and don’t like the ‘unitarian’ label- but disputes over wording aside, it’s the same idea.

The history behind this divide is a long one, stemming ultimately from what some Eastern Orthodox have called a “patristic renaissance” in the last few centuries, in which many Eastern Orthodox have sought to return to their roots by going back to the Greek Church fathers for instruction. Prior to this the Eastern Orthodox Churches experienced several centuries of oppression by Muslim rulers which lead many EO clerics to get their training in western seminaries, often giving their theology a bit more of a western tint. The ‘patristic renaissance’ ostensibly serves to correct this some, and to reground Eastern Orthodox thinking back in their own unique heritage. The result has been that some have rediscovered ‘the Monarchy of the Father’ among those ancient writings, and now there is a significant push to bring this doctrine back into the spotlight in Eastern Orthodox triadology.

Trinitarianism (the belief in a triune God) has been deemed by the proponents of the Monarchy of the Father as an invention of the Latin church, the result of serious misunderstanding of orthodox and creedal triadology, while in their view, the Greek churches faithfully upheld Monarchian Triadology at least into the time of Photius I in the ninth century. In other words, they see trinitarianism (the belief that the one God is triune) as a uniquely western error, developing in the late fourth century, that was not accepted by the Eastern churches generally. Others such as myself, and more notably, Dr. Dale Tuggy, have argued that while the doctrine of a triune God is indeed a late doctrinal development coming at the end of the fourth century, it is not a uniquely western error. Dr. Tuggy argues persuasively in his most recent paper that from the end of the fourth century the doctrine of a triune God had proponents in the East, among the most influential bishops of the time, such as Gregory Nazianzen. For political reasons this doctrine was not expressly affirmed at the council of 1 Constantinople in 381, but can be found in several eastern sources well before Photius I, as Dr. Tuggy outlines in his paper.

I recently became aware of an additional source showing this, and wanted to share it here. There was an Eastern bishop active in the late sixth and early seventh century named Sophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, who wrote an encyclical letter detailing, among other things, what he regards as the orthodox understanding of the Trinity. In it, he speaks clearly of the one God as the entire Trinity- that is, a triune or tri-personal God:

“Nor as the one God is a Trinity and is recognized and proclaimed as three hypostases and worshipped as three persons, Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit, is he said to be contracted or compounded or confused, that is, by coalescing himself into one hypostasis and combining [himself] into one person that cannot be numbered.” (Sophronius of Jerusalem and Seventh-Century Heresy, p. 77)

Notice that the one God is directly stated to be a trinity of three persons, that is, a single ‘tri-personal God’. The one God that is described as a trinity here is also a single “he” and “himself”, further solidifying that the one God here is presented as an individual, not merely a generic nature shared by three individuals. Put in more technical terms, the unity of being ascribed to the Trinity here is an individual/numerical consubstantiality, not a generic consubstantiality.

“The Arians’ impiety divides the one God into unequal gods and partitions the one Godhead into dissimilar godheads, and separates the one lordship into three heterogeneous lordships.” (ibid, p. 77)

This criticism of Arianism only makes sense in a context where the one God is regarded as the entire Trinity together, rather than the person of the Father in particular. The Arians are said to divide the one God into unequal parts- that is, they make the three persons of the triad unequal and different. That means that it’s the triad, all three persons together, that are being spoken of as singly being the one God here.

“As, therefore, we have been taught to think of one God, so too we have received the tradition of confessing one Godhead; and just as we have learned to worship three hypostases, so too have we been instructed to glorify three persons, not acknowledging the one God apart from the three persons, nor understanding the three consubstantial persons in the Trinity -that is, Father, Son, Holy Spirit- as being distinct from the one God.” (ibid, p. 79)

At first this almost makes it sound like there’s a difference drawn between the one God and the one Godhead, but it rather seems to be the case that these are being equated- the belief in one God is articulated as belief in a single Godhead that exists as three persons. This is confirmed when we see him speak of hypostases and persons in a similarly confusing way, almost as if he is drawing a distinction between them- but obviously he is not. The one God for him just is the one Godhead that exists in three persons, and the three hypostases just are the three persons. The declaration that all three persons of the Trinity -Father, Son, and Spirit- cannot be understood as distinct from the one God is utterly incompatible with the Monarchy of the Father, in which the Son and Spirit are as distinct from the one God as they are from the Father, because in that view, the Father just is the one God.

The fact that one of the Eastern Orthodox Patriarchs in the early sixth century articulates the doctrine of the Trinity this way is a death-blow for the view that the doctrine of a triune God was a purely western mistake, not embraced by the Eastern churches. A Greek Patriarch in Jerusalem speaks the same way Augustine and the Roman Popes speak in the West. But, there’s more- this letter was also accepted by Pope Agathos I, in an official capacity:

“We have also examined the synodal letter of Sophronius of holy memory, some time Patriarch of the Holy City of Christ our God, Jerusalem, and have found it in accordance with the true faith and with the Apostolic teachings, and with those of the holy approved Fathers. Therefore we have received it as orthodox and as salutary to the holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, and have decreed that it is right that his name be inserted in the diptychs of the Holy Churches.”

That’s important because that letter by Pope Agathos I and his rulings in it -including the official reception and approbation of Sophrinius’ letter- was adopted by the so-called 6th ecumenical council, the 3rd council of Constantinople, later in the seventh century (see the acts of that council, including that letter, here).

This means that Patriarch Sophronius’ statements about one God who is three persons (a ‘triune God’), quoted above, end up not only expressing his own opinion, but are also part of the official canonical teaching of an ecumenical council, the rulings of which are considered binding upon the Eastern Orthodox churches. This lays waste to the notion that the doctrine of a tri-personal God was limited to the Latin church while the Greek churches kept themselves clean from it; it’s on the books for both, by way of the ruling of an ecumenical council.

This has lots of implications for the Eastern Orthodox church. It means that they did (like the Roman church) experience a development of doctrine in which they changed from a belief in the one God as being only a single person, the Father, to believing that the one God is a ‘triune God’ consisting of Father, Son, and Spirit together. Further it demonstrates that their conception of consubstantiality developed from a view of generic consubstantiality (a shared nature among three individuals) to an individual consubstantiality (where Father, Son, and Spirit are just the same individual). That doesn’t look very good for the claim that their views have not changed over time, nor does it comport well with the supposed infallibility of these “ecumenical” councils, since (as many modern EO like to point out) the earliest “ecumenical” council, Nicea, did not affirm this doctrine, but rather affirms the Monarchy of the Father/unitarianism. This reveals a serious conflict within Eastern Orthodox tradition itself, as the teachings of their bishops and councils disagree with each other.

Church History

The Sonship of Jesus in Monarchian Trinitarianism

Monarchian Trinitarianism states that if Jesus is really, truly, or properly God’s Son, this must entail the Son sharing a generic nature, genus, or species with God the Father, since this is the case in all generation that takes place within creation; men beget men, horses beget horses, and thus God must beget God. But while insisting that Jesus’ sonship to the Father must entail a shared nature because of the parallel with begetting in creation, they deny almost all other elements of generation of offspring that we see in creation, including all notions of corporeality, sexuality, and temporality.

Monarchian Trinitarians present their christology as being very simple and natural- just the plain, obvious meaning of what it means for Jesus to be God’s Son. Yet, this isn’t actually the case; really, they want to use only one aspect of human procreation, namely, that a son shares a nature/species with his father, and reject most other significant parallels, like the temporal implications that a father is prior to his offspring, or the corporeal and sexual connotations that accompany taking such language literally. This decision to say that some parallels with generation in creation must also be true in the case of God and His only-begotten Son, while freely disregarding others, seems totally arbitrary.

If the generation of the Son is literally the same as that of humans, then it must be bodily, sexual, and temporal, as well as communicate a species. But if we can say that three of those things cannot apply to God, because of how different God is from men (being incorporeal and eternal), then why not say the same for the fourth category, communication of a nature/species, as well? Monarchian Trinitarian views on the Son’s generation seem to arbitrarily pick one aspect of generation to apply to God and Jesus, while arbitrarily rejecting all others, with no scriptural or rational justification for these decisions.

One significant hidden assumption of Monarchian Trinitarianism that plays into this is the assumption that the one God has a kind, or species, like creatures do, which may be passed on to an offspring. But this assumption appears to have no greater warrant than assuming that God is corporeal, which Monarchian Trinitarians rightly reject. This hidden assumption that God has a nature He passes on to others should not be taken for granted, as it runs directly contrary to the scriptural revelation that God is incomparably greater than all; His greatness is not merely that he is, like Adam to mankind, the first of a given species, but He is rather said to have none like Him, none with whom He can be compared. This must certainly prove false if God has a Son which is essentiality identical to Him, the way Seth was to Adam.

But this notion that God has a species to be passed on by procreation is, at the end of the day, simply assuming that God is like men. Why would the one God, who has neither beginning nor end, and is unlike His creation, Who has no need for procreation, have a species or a nature to pass on to offspring? Certainly, a lot of philosophers and theologians have speculated that this is not the case. For instance, an important element of ‘classical’ Greco-Roman theism is that God is simple, meaning, He is uncompounded of parts and there exists no real distinction within Him between any one part of Him and another (because there are no such parts). If such a theory holds true, then it follows that God could not be divided into ‘person’ and ‘essence’, such that a distinction could exist within Him between that which constitutes His individual identity and that which constitutes His generic and sharable nature or species. Without such an internal distinction in God, eternal generation will be impossible; for without a distinction between God’s personal identity and God’s nature, it would not be possible for God to share the latter with His offspring while retaining the former exclusively to Himself. Either both would be shared, making the Son the same individual identity as the Father and thus no son at all, or else neither could be shared, since they are indistinguishable and inseparable, actually being one and the same thing within a truly simple being.

Of course, the idea that God is simple is more philosophical than biblical, and many have challenged it on rigorous philosophical and exegetical grounds. But even if the doctrine of divine simplicity is not correct, even the fact that it may exist as a possibility serves to illustrate the point that we aren’t justified in simply assuming that God has a nature or species or essence distinguishable from His person. While it certainly true that it is universal among creatures for a father to pass on a species to a son in procreation, there is no reason that the same must be so for God (just as we would say in respect to the corporeal, sexual, or temporal nature of creaturely generation). We must recall that God created various beings, men, and animals, to reproduce each after their kind, just as He made them male and female with the ability for sexual reproduction, and gave them bodies. All of these things are part of the way they are designed, and the reproductive aspects exist for the continuation of these species upon the death of their parents. But an immortal, eternal, uncreated, and incorporeal God has no need for any of these features, including a communicable species.

When we further consider how differences between God and His creatures might impact the possibility of God having and passing on a communicable species to a literal offspring of some sort, we find the idea appears quite improbable. Firstly, we must consider that if it is indeed necessary and proper to the Father to generate the Son, as Monarchian Trinitarians claim, then it would seem that this necessity to generate another would be quite essential to Him. If that is so, then when His essence is communicated to another, it would appear that it must include this necessity of begetting another; which should lead to the offspring likewise eternally generating another offspring, and so on and so on infinitely. This infinite chain of gods will result in far more than a trinity of persons. If the Father’s generation of the Son were merely a voluntary act of will (as such generation is with creatures), then we might well be able to imagine the process stopping, due to God’s willing it to, at only one Father and one Son. But since Monarchian Trinitarians deny that the Father’s generation is an act of will, and instead make it a necessary and eternal function of the Father, this solution will not be available to them.

Secondly, we must consider that there is no obvious sense in which all the “essential” attributes of God are communicable. Many a theologian and philosopher have argued convincingly that it is an impossibility for there to be more than one infinite entity, for example, making the property of infinitude incommunicable; but of course, the Father generating a Son that is equally infinite, makes two infinites. ‘Classical theism’ argues this is impossible according to the very nature of infinitude, but Monarchian Trinitarianism proposes exactly this anyway. Because humans were designed by God to have a communicable kind or species to pass on to their offspring, of course all essential human properties are communicable; but we have no reason to think this is the case with God, Who has properties (like infinitude) that are far different than those found in creatures.

In sum, then, we find that the “plain and simple” christology of Monarchian Trinitarianism is anything but that. There is nothing straightforward about insisting that God must father a son in exactly the same fashion as a man begets a son, and then turning around and denying almost all similarities between the two. There’s nothing ‘so simple a child can understand’ about the one God having a communicable species like men do that He passes on in the generation of the Son, while this generation is totally unlike that of men in so many other respects, that really, if anyone extends the analogy the slightest bit further, such as proposing that God is corporeal or that the generation is temporal, they are cast straight into the realm of heresy. A child would not make such distinctions so as to arbitrarily pick out co-essentiality from sonship while leaving aside all the other connotations sonship carries. We can’t say it’s a simple matter of looking at what a father-son relationship is in creation, and then go and say it isn’t really anything like the father-son relationships we see in creation. Yet this is precisely what many Monarchian Trinitarians appear to do.

We would do well to recall that the inspired writings of the Old Testament, which should provide our background for understanding the New, never present divine sonship as ontological; men like Solomon and David were called ‘the son of God’ as well as the future Messiah (who was always foretold to be a man, a descendant of David). Yet obviously David and Solomon are not eternally begotten by God, even though they’re each able to be plainly spoken of as God’s son. That’s because ‘son of God’ was a kingly title, indicating the position of Israel’s king as God’s ‘right hand’ ruler, himself subject to the God of Israel, but after Him exalted by God over the whole earth. Thus the coming Messiah was foretold to be, like David, God’s Son; not as being eternally begotten by God as some sort of identical clone of God, but as God’s specially appointed human king over the earth. When we look at what the scriptures mean by the title ‘son of God’, it becomes clear that there is in fact no implications of a shared nature or ontological generation from God at all.

General

One Individual Essence?

In the following, Dr. Samuel Clarke confutes the Reverend Dr. Wells, who writes that the true scripture doctrine of the Trinity is that the three persons; the Father, the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, are one individual essence, i.e. one numeric being.

However, in your interpretation of this text, you declare explicitly what your notion of the Trinity is. And still more distinctly, p. 21; “The Scripture-Doctrine of the Trinity,” you say, “is truly this, that in the Godhead there are three persons of the same divine INDIVIDUAL essence.” Now this, I say, is an express contradiction in the very terms. For INDIVIDUAL essence, in all propriety of speech, and if the word has any signifigation at all, is (when spoken of an intelligent being) the very same as PERSONAL essence; that is to say, that by which a person is that individual person which he is is, and no other. Besides, it is a phrase not only not used in Scripture, nor in the three first centuries, nor in the fourth, (unless it be the true rendering of the word μονοουσιος [monoousios] or ταυτοουσιος [tautoousios], which was then universally condemned as heretical;) but seems to be the invention of the schools, in latter ages. Hear the very learned Dr. Cudworth upon this point. “It is evident,” saith he, p. 604, “that these reputed Orthodox Fathers, [viz. St. Cyril, St. Gregory Nyssen, and others,] who were not a few, were far from thinking the three hypostases of the Trinity to have the same SINGULAR existent essence: – that Trinity of persons numerically the same, or having all one and the same SINGULAR existent essence, is a doctrine which seemeth not to have been owned by any public authority in the Christian Church, save that of the Lateran Council only: that no such thing was ever entertained by the Nicene Fathers, &c.” Again: “The truth of this,” saith he, “will appear, first, because these Orthodox Anti-Arian Fathers did all of them zealously condemn Sabellianism; the doctrine whereof is no other than this, that there was but one hypostasis, or singular INDIVIDUAL ESSENCE, of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: In the next place, because the word ὁμουσιος [homoousios], was never used by Greek writers otherwise, than to signify the agreement of things NUMERICALLY DIFFERENT from one another, &c. – Lastly, that the ancient orthodox fathers, who used the word homoousios against Arius, intended not therein to assert the Son to have one and the same singular or INDIVIDUAL essence with the Father, appeareth plainly from their dsclaiming and disowning those two words, ταυτοουσιον and μονοουσιον.” Again: “It is plain,” saith he, “that the ancient orthodox fathers asserted no such thing, as one and the same SINGULAR or numerical essence of the several persons of the Trinity.” And this he proves by numerous most express quotations. Where now is your vain confidence in the concurrent testimonies of the fathers; when not only in the three first centuries your notion, in the manner you express it, was never heard of, but even in the fourth and following centuries it was universally condemned? But still I am willing to allow all this to besides the main question; for Scripture only is our rule.

Source: A Letter to the Reverend Dr. Wells, &c.

Note: Updated archaic spelling, italics, etc.

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