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).

 

Subordination and Equality in the Trinity

With many things, error accompanies oversimplification; distinction is necessary to accurately articulate the truth, and without careful distinction error is practically ensured.

One such issue is subordination in respect to the Trinity, particularly in respect to the relationship between the Father and the Son. In some circles, “equality” without further specification is held at a premium, and any talk of the subordination of the Son is deemed heretical, or even Arian. On the other hand, it must be noted that among the spectrum of all mainstream schools of trinitarian thought some subordination of the Son to the Father is acknowledged in the incarnation, when the Son humbled Himself and took on a human nature.

When we look at equality and subordination in respect to the Son’s relation to the Father, I would argue that we must distinguish carefully between the three different categories of nature, headship, and causality in order to avoid falling into one sort of error or another.

Firstly, I will state my view on subordination and equality in each of these three categories, and then seek to demonstrate the truthfulness of these positions from scripture, and support the validity of these interpretations with the historical testimony of the orthodox church fathers.

In the category of nature we are dealing with essence, or substance, or genus; the broad elements that are common among many individuals. Basil of Caesarea puts it well: “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) In respect to nature, the Father and Son are entirely equal; this is what the Nicene Creed confesses when it say that the Son is co-essential with the Father; He has an exactly identical nature with the Father, admitting of no difference whatsoever.

We see this exegetically from scripture in two main ways. Firstly, the Son is called “God” when it says in John 1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with the God, and the Word was God.” This is not saying that the Word is the same person as “the God” Whom He is “with”, and thus distinguished from, but rather indicates His nature. There is, however, only one divine nature, since if there were multiple there could no longer truly be said to be only one God, as scripture clearly teaches. So when scripture makes known that Christ is of a divine nature, we know that it can be no other than that of the Father, exactly identical with no difference whatsoever, or else it would constitute a second divine nature.

Secondly the Son’s co-essentiality is irrefutably proven from scripture’s teaching eternal generation. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:6 NKJV) Everything which begets, begets after its own kind. What is created by God from nothing, as all creation, is of a different nature than He; but that which is begotten from God’s own nature is of no other nature than He Who begat Him. As the Nicene Creed says “begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the essence of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of the same essence as the Father”. That the Son is begotten of the Father is expressly indicated several times by scripture calling the Son the “only-begotten” of the Father (Jn 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18).

The Son then, as having been begotten of the Father as His true and eternal Son before the creation of the world (“Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.” (John 17:5 NAS)) is therefore necessarily of the same divine nature as the Father. His nature is exactly identical without any inequality whatsoever. In fact, to say that the Son were subordinate to the Father in respect to His nature would be to deny His true divinity, and would be a variant of the Arian heresy.

Having looked at the first category of ‘nature’, and seeing there that the Son is equal to the Father in nature, we come to the category of headship. By headship, I mean authority. The Son eternally is subordinate to the Father as His head; this subordination is not grounded in a difference in nature, but in the personal properties of the Father and Son. The Son, as we have said, is equal to the Father in nature, having the same divine nature as He; yet inasmuch as the Son is Son and the Father is Father, the Son is subordinate to the Father as His head.

Scripture is explicit in teaching that the Father is the head of the Son: “But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.” (1 Cor 11:3 NKJV) We see the Father’s headship over the Son again referred to in 1 Corinthians 15:24-28 “Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. 25 For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. 26 The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. 27 For “He has put all things under His feet.” But when He says “all things are put under Him,” it is evident that He who put all things under Him is excepted. 28 Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all.” (NKJV)

The Son’s subordination to the Father’s headship can also be seen apart from the incarnation entirely; God sends the Son, and the Son is sent; God creates through His Son, not His Son through Him; and throughout the Old Testament we read of Christ as the “Angel (that is, Messenger) of the LORD”, bringing messages from the Father to men, ministering to the Father’s will.

On this point, there is abundant testimony from the church fathers:

““I shall give you another testimony, my friends,” said I, “from the Scriptures, that God begat before all creatures a Beginning,403 [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…” (Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 61)

“XVI. “If any man does not understand The Lord rained from the Lord to be spoken of the Father and the Son, but says that the Father rained from Himself: let him be anathema. For the Lord the Son rained from the Lord the Father.”…

XVII. If any man says that the Lord and the Lord, the Father and the Son, are two Gods because of the aforesaid words: let him be anathema. For we do not make the Son the equal or peer of the Father, but understand the Son to be subject. For He did not come down to Sodom without the Father’s will, nor rain from Himself but from the Lord, to wit, by the Father’s authority; nor does He sit at the Father’s right hand by His own authority, but because He hears the Father saying, Sit on My right hand.

51. The foregoing and the following statements utterly remove any ground for suspecting that this definition asserts a diversity of different deities in the Lord and the Lord. No comparison is made because it was seen to be impious to say that there are two Gods: not that they refrain from making the Son equal and peer of the Father in order to deny that He is God. For, since he is anathema who denies that Christ is God, it is not on that score that it is profane to speak of two equal Gods. God is One on account of the true character of His natural essence and because from the Unborn God the Father, who is the one God, the Only-begotten God the Son is born, and draws His divine Being only from God; and since the essence of Him who is begotten is exactly similar to the essence of Him who begot Him, there must be one name for the exactly similar nature. That the Son is not on a level with the Father and is not equal to Him is chiefly shown in the fact that He was subjected to Him to render obedience, in that the Lord rained from the Lord and that the Father did not, as Photinus and Sabellius say, rain from Himself, as the Lord from the Lord; in that He then sat down at the right hand of God when it was told Him to seat Himself; in that He is sent, in that He receives, in that He submits in all things to the will of Him who sent Him. But the subordination of filial love is not a diminution of essence, nor does pious duty cause a degeneration of nature, since in spite of the fact that both the Unborn Father is God and the Only-begotten Son of God is God, God is nevertheless One, and the subjection and dignity of the Son are both taught in that by being called Son He is made subject to that name which because it implies that God is His Father is yet a name which denotes His nature. Having a name which belongs to Him whose Son He is, He is subject to the Father both in service and name; yet in such a way that the subordination of His name bears witness to the true character of His natural and exactly similar essence.” (Hilary of Poitiers, De Synodis; Therein quoting the Council of Sirmium Against Photinius)

We see then that in reference to headship, the Son, as Son, is subordinate to the Father in “the obedience of filial love”, and yet as we have said above, is equal to the Father in respect to His divinity.

Having then addressed the categories of nature and headship, we come to the third category of ‘causality’.

The Son is subordinate to the Father as His Cause. In having begotten the Son before the ages, the Father Himself is the Cause of the Son, as the Son has both His person and essence from the Father in eternal generation. This is closely related to the other two categories; because the Father is the Origin of the Son by eternal generation, the Son is both equal to the Father in respect to nature, as having the Father’s nature communicated to Him in eternal generation, and yet subordinate to the Father as His Head because the Father is truly ontologically His Father, and therefore the Cause of His being.

That the Father is the origin and cause of the Son is obvious from the doctrine of eternal generation, which as we have noted above, teaches that the Son was begotten of the Father before the ages (that is, before and outside of time, which as part of creation (Heb 1:2), was created through the Son). Begetting by definition indicates causality; as do the very names “Father” and “Son”. The Father is unbegotten, uncaused, and unoriginate, while the Son is begotten of the Father, and thus has the Father as His cause and origin.

We have express testimony in scripture that the Son is begotten of the Father, in that the Son is called “only-begotten”, as is mentioned above. John 5:26 also says “For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself” (NASB). Here we clearly see the communication of the Father’s nature to the Son taught.

As in the two previous categories, there is much patristic support for this reading of scripture.

“II. “And if any one hearing the Son say, As the Father has life in Himself, so also has He given to the Son to have life in Himself John 5:26, shall say that He who has received life from the Father, and who also declares, I live by the Father , is the same as He who gave life: let him be anathema.

14. The person of the recipient and of the giver are distinguished so that the same should not be made one and sole. For since he is under anathema who has believed that, when recipient and giver are mentioned one solitary and unique person is implied, we may not suppose that the selfsame person who gave received from Himself. For He who lives and He through whom He lives are not identical, for one lives to Himself, the other declares that He lives through the Author of His life, and no one will declare that He who enjoys life and He through whom His life is caused are personally identical.” (Hilary of Poitier, De Synodis)

““Is not the meaning here of the word ὁμοούσιον that the Son is produced of the Father’s nature, the essence of the Son having no other origin, and that both, therefore, have one unvarying essence? As the Son’s essence has no other origin, we may rightly believe that both are of one essence, since the Son could be born with no substance but that derived from the Father’s nature which was its source.”” (Hilary of Poitiers, De Synodis)

 

“But now, whatever He is, He is not of Himself, because He is not unborn; but He is of the Father, because He is begotten, whether as being the Word, whether as being the Power, or as being the Wisdom, or as being the Light, or as being the Son; and whatever of these He is, in that He is not from any other source, as we have already said before, than from the Father, owing His origin to His Father, He could not make a disagreement in the divinity by the number of two Gods, since He gathered His beginning by being born of Him who is one God.” (Novatian, A Treatise Concerning the Trinity, Chapter XXXI.)

““11. And thus there appeared another beside Himself. But when I say another, I do not mean that there are two Gods, but that it is only as light of light, or as water from a fountain, or as a ray from the sun. For there is but one power, which is from the All; and the Father is the All, from whom comes this Power, the Word. And this is the mind which came forth into the world, and was manifested as the Son of God. All things, then, are by Him, and He alone is of the Father. Who then adduces a multitude of gods brought in, time after time? For all are shut up, however unwillingly, to admit this fact, that the All runs up into one. If, then, all things run up into one, even according to Valentinus, and Marcion, and Cerinthus, and all their fooleries, they are also reduced, however unwillingly, to this position, that they must acknowledge that the One is the cause of all things. Thus, then, these too, though they wish it not, fall in with the truth, and admit that one God made all things according to His good pleasure. And He gave the law and the prophets; and in giving them, He made them speak by the Holy Ghost, in order that, being gifted with the inspiration of the Father’s power, they might declare the Father’s counsel and will.”” (Hippolytus of Rome, Against the Heresy of One Noetus)

“And now I shall again recite the words which I have spoken in proof of this point. 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.” (Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 129)

“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. And of this very Beginning the Word is by nature Son, not as if another beginning, subsisting by Himself, nor having come into being externally to that Beginning, lest from that diversity a Dyarchy and Polyarchy should ensue; but of the one Beginning He is own Son, own Wisdom, own Word, existing from It.” (Athanasius, Against the Arians, Discourse 4)

“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… Suffer none to speak of a beginning of the Son in time, but as a timeless Beginning acknowledge the Father. For the Father is the Beginning of the Son, timeless, incomprehensible, without beginning. The fountain of the river of righteousness, even of the Only-begotten, is the Father, who begot Him as Himself only knows.” (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 11)

So we see the testimony of the orthodox fathers of the ante-nicene and nicene eras is that the Son has the Father as His origin and cause, in agreement with the teaching of scripture.

We see then, that the scriptures teach the Son to be equal with the Father in respect to His nature, as having the same divine nature, yet they also teach that the Son is subordinate to the Father as His Head and Cause. It is neither sufficient nor helpful to speak of the relationship of the Son to the Father simply as one either of ‘equality’ or ‘subordination’ without further distinction.

For if we say only that the Son is subordinate we may be taken to deny the Son’s equality with the Father in respect to His divinity, which is to blaspheme the Son greatly; yet if we deny the Son’s subordination to the Father as to His Head and His Origin by only calling Him “equal” without qualification, we will have blasphemously declared the Son to be a second God, by making there out to be two equal heads over all, and two first causes and unoriginate origins. But there are not two gods, but “yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live.” (1 Cor 8:6 NKJV) There is one alone Who is Head of all, yet Himself without a head; one Who is alone unbegotten and without origin, the one First Cause; the Father of one only-begotten Son, Who together with the Father is head over all creation, the Word of Whom scripture says “All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. ” (John 1:3 NKJV).

Let us then seek to be careful in distinguishing between these various categories, lest we fall into error one way or another by making broad and unqualified statements.

 

The Legitimate Uses of the Phrase “One God”, and How Confounding Them Leads to Semi-modalism

Words and phrases usually have a pools of meaning, encompassing several related ideas, and having multiple definitions. Like other terms, the phrase “one God” gets used a few different ways, and its helpful to distinguish between those different uses. In this article I’d like to take a moment to distinguish between three different uses of the phrase “one God”, the first two being legitimate, and the last illegitimate:

  1. The first and primary signification of the phrase “one God” is for a person, the person Who is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Nicene Creed uses the phrase this way, saying “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things…” This is the same way scripture uses the phrase, as can be seen explicitly from such passages as Eph 4:4-5 and 1 Cor 8:6, which says “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.” (NAS). There is much to say on this topic, but in giving a mere definition here we have said enough.
  2. The secondary signification of the phrase “one God” is for the divine nature considered in abstract. This usage is not found in the scriptures, but is compatible with it. The word “God” is sometimes used as a name for the divine nature; therefore, another way of speaking of the singular divine nature is “one God”. This language was popularized by the orthodox fathers such as Athanasius during the Nicene era when much emphasis was placed on the Son and Spirit possessing a nature exactly identical with that of the Father. This language is not illegitimate but can sometimes be unhelpful, in part because of the confusion caused by the third usage of the term.
  3.  The third and illegitimate signification of the phrase “one God” is for the Trinity as a whole/the divine nature considered as a person. This usage can be seen in Augustine’s exposition of semi-modalism and has been popular with semi-modalists since. This usage combines the first two definitions and by confusing the categories of person and essence, and uses the phrase to signify an essence that is conceived of as a person who is three persons.

We must recognize that it is natural for man to consider God, the one God, as a person. We know that he is a rational individual, not merely an abstract idea of divinity. The one God, man naturally understands, is a person, with real existence, Who can be interacted with, receiving prayer and worship, and giving response. The one God judges, acts, creates, etc.

An abstract idea of the divine nature, on the other hand, does not act, think, or have any real existence; it is merely an idea of something that only finds real existence in persons. We can relate to and interact with the one God; and this is always the way scripture treats the matter as well. Therefore we naturally understand that this phrase is first and foremost proper to God’s person, and only secondarily to His nature considered in abstract (thus the primary and secondary definitions).

But scripture also makes it clear that not only do we relate to and interact with this one God in some vague way, but that we relate to Him in particular as our Father; and as one Who is eternally the Father of one only-begotten Son, Who send forth His Spirit speaking by the mouths of prophets. The problem that is the third definition arises when men stop using the phrase according to its primary and biblical meaning. When it is instead applied primarily to the essence, the divine nature which exists in the persons considered in abstract, it is understandable that this is then wrongly conceived of as a person; for as we have said, all men know the one God is a person. If then, that title is taken from the Father by some, and given only to the divine nature, it is only then natural that men will begin to regard that nature as a person.

And there perhaps we have the conceptual origins of semi-modalism; as men began to think of the one God as an essence that existed in three persons, they began applying the properties of personhood to that essence, since they knew that the one God is a person, and to be treated as such.

Hilary of Poitiers on Correct and Incorrect Understandings of Co-essentiality

In the midst of the Arian controversy of the fourth century, orthodox Christians struggled over how to best articulate the doctrine of the Trinity in a way that would exclude both Arianism, which regarded Christ as a creature, and Modalism, which regarded the three persons of the Trinity as being a single person. The Nicene Creed ended up serving as a solution; it clearly distinguished between the distinct persons of the Trinity “one God, the Father Almighty”, “one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God”, and “the Holy Spirit”, thus excluding Modalism, while also defining that Christ was “begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the essence of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of the same essence as the Father”, to the exclusion of Arianism.

The language of the Son being begotten “from the essence of the Father” and being “of the same essence” were included specifically to confess the divinity of Christ, contra Arianism. The point of this confession that the Son was co-essential with the Father was that He was eternally of the same divine nature as the Father; thus truly God in nature from all eternity.

While this language was orthodox when used with this meaning, a great many orthodox bishops were weary of the language, especially the language that the Son is “of the same essence” as the Father, since this language had been used by modalists in articulating their heresy. This terminology became the subject of much controversy in the approximately fifty years between the Council of Nicea and Council of Constantinople, where the Nicene Creed was again finally confirmed by the church, not only because the Arians opposed it, but also because many orthodox bishops wanted to avoid the language that had been previously condemned because of its use by modalists. These orthodox bishops worried that such language may be intended to confess modalism by making the Father, Son, and Spirit out to be a single person. For this reason, many did not accept the decision of Nicea for many years, although consensus was eventually reached by the time of the Council of Constantinople in 381, in large part thanks to the efforts of Athanasius in favor of the terminology.

Because the language of essence (ousia in Greek) and co-essentiality (‘homoousias’ in Greek) was the subject of so much controversy, and is not used in scripture, it became the subject of quite a bit of writing by orthodox church fathers such as Athanasius and Hilary of Poitiers. Hilary of Poitiers, writing on the regional synods held by Eastern churches in the intervening period between the Council of Nicea in 325 and the Council of Constantinople in 381, gave an extremely helpful explanation of what the language meant in his work On the Synods of the Easterners.

In this work he goes into detail in explaining what the orthodox framers of the Nicene Creed intended by the language of ‘essence’ and ‘co-essentiality’, as well as the various ways that the language could be misunderstood heretically, which he acknowledged gave some legitimacy to those who opposed such language for fear of it carrying a heretical meaning. Hilary urges that it must be carefully defined, and understood according to the orthodox intention of the Nicene Council, and that so long as it is understood rightly, it must be accepted as orthodox.

Sadly, in later church history, the language and concept of co-essentiality was indeed twisted contrary to its original meaning (see: https://contramodalism.com/tag/fourth-lateran-council/). Semi-modalism thrives off of a twisting of the doctrine of co-essentiality that teaches that ultimately the persons of the Father, Son, and Spirit are together a singular person who exists as all three; the person of “God the Trinity”. The concern of orthodox church fathers like Hilary that such language would be misunderstood if not carefully defined has truly been realized, and needs to be corrected.

In this post, I hope to examine and highlight Hilary’s insightful teaching on this subject. I urge the reader to pay special attention to Hilary’s teaching that co-essentiality understood rightly teaches not that the Father and Son are one concrete “thing”, nor a single person, but that they are of exactly the same and identical divine nature, as two truly distinct persons. Note also the ways in which he says the concept can be misunderstood heretically, and how much this sounds precisely like semi-modalism. To the interested reader, I highly recommend the entire work, available online here: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3301.htm.

Hilary of Poitiers writes:

“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 [here he predicts semi-modalism]. 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 [note that the substance is one not because it is one existing “thing” which is the Father and Son, but because the Father and Son have an exactly identical nature].

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 [semi-modalism]. 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. He will be safe in asserting the one substance if he has first said that the Father is unbegotten, that the Son is born, that He draws His personal subsistence from the Father, that He is like the Father in might, honour and nature, that He is subject to the Father as to the Author of His being, that He did not commit robbery by making Himself equal with God, in whose form He remained, that He was obedient unto death. He did not spring from nothing, but was born. He is not incapable of birth but equally eternal. He is not the Father, but the Son begotten of Him. He is not any portion of God, but is whole God. He is not Himself the source but the image; the image of God born of God to be God. He is not a creature but is God. Not another God in the kind of His substance, but the one God in virtue of the essence of His exactly similar substance. God is not one in Person but in nature, for the Born and the Begetter have nothing different or unlike. After saying all this, he does not err in declaring one substance of the Father and the Son. Nay, if he now denies the one substance he sins.

70. Therefore let no one think that our words were meant to deny the one substance. We are giving the very reason why it should not be denied. Let no one think that the word ought to be used by itself and unexplained. Otherwise the word ὁμοούσιος [co-essential] is not used in a religious spirit. I will not endure to hear that Christ was born of Mary unless I also hear, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was GodJohn 1:1 I will not hear Christ was hungry, unless I hear that after His fast of forty days He said, Man does not live by bread aloneMatthew 4:4 I will not hear He thirsted unless I also hear Whosoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirstJohn 4:13 I will not hear Christ suffered unless I hear, The hour has come that the Son of man should be glorified. I will not hear He died unless I hear He rose again. Let us bring forward no isolated point of the divine mysteries to rouse the suspicions of our hearers and give an occasion to the blasphemers. We must first preach the birth and subordination of the Son and the likeness of His nature, and then we may preach in godly fashion that the Father and the Son are of one substance. I do not personally understand why we ought to preach before everything else, as the most valuable and important of doctrines and in itself sufficient, a truth which cannot be piously preached before other truths, although it is impious to deny it after them.

71. Beloved brethren, we must not deny that there is one substance of the Father and the Son, but we must not declare it without giving our reasons. The one substance must be derived from the true character of the begotten nature, not from any division, any confusion of Persons, any sharing of an anterior substance. It may be right to assert the one substance, it may be right to keep silence about it. You believe in the birth and you believe in the likeness. Why should the word cause mutual suspicions, when we view the fact in the same way? Let us believe and say that there is one substance, but in virtue of the true character of the nature and not to imply a blasphemous unity of Persons. Let the oneness be due to the fact that there are similar Persons and not a solitary Person [here classical trinitarianism is vindicated in teaching that God and His Son are co-essential in that they are identical in nature, having the same divine nature, and semi-modalism is refuted for teaching that the Trinity of three persons is itself a solitary person].

72. But perhaps the word similarity may not seem fully appropriate. If so, I ask how I can express the equality of one Person with the other except by such a word? Or is to be like not the same thing as to be equal? If I say the divine nature is one I am suspected of meaning that it is undifferentiated: if I say the Persons are similar, I mean that I compare what is exactly like. I ask what position equal holds between like and one? I enquire whether it means similarity rather than singularity. Equality does not exist between things unlike, nor does similarity exist in one. What is the difference between those that are similar and those that are equal? Can one equal be distinguished from the other? So those who are equal are not unlike. If then those who are unlike are not equals, what can those who are like be but equals?

73. Therefore, beloved brethren, in declaring that the Son is like in all things to the Father, we declare nothing else than that He is equal. Likeness means perfect equality, and this fact we may gather from the Holy Scriptures, And Adam lived two hundred and thirty years, and begot a son according to his own image and according to his own likeness; and called his name SethGenesis 5:3 I ask what was the nature of his likeness and image which Adam begot in Seth? Remove bodily infirmities, remove the first stage of conception, remove birth-pangs, and every kind of human need. I ask whether this likeness which exists in Seth differs in nature from the author of his being, or whether there was in each an essence of a different kind, so that Seth had not at his birth the natural essence of Adam? Nay, he had a likeness to Adam, even though we deny it, for his nature was not different. This likeness of nature in Seth was not due to a nature of a different kind, since Seth was begotten from only one father, so we see that a likeness of nature renders things equal because this likeness betokens an exactly similar essence. Therefore every son by virtue of his natural birth is the equal of his father, in that he has a natural likeness to him. And with regard to the nature of the Father and the Son the blessed John teaches the very likeness which Moses says existed between Seth and Adam, a likeness which is this equality of nature. He says, Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill Him, because He not only had broken the Sabbath, but said also that God was His father, making Himself equal with GodJohn 5:18 Why do we allow minds that are dulled with the weight of sin to interfere with the doctrines and sayings of such holy men, and impiously match our rash though sluggish senses against their impregnable assertions? According to Moses, Seth is the likeness of Adam, according to John, the Son is equal to the Father, yet we seek to find a third impossible something between the Father and the Son. He is like the Father, He is the Son of the Father, He is born of Him: this fact alone justifies the assertion that they are one [this paragraph refutes those who try to make the oneness of the Father and Son, and their co-essentiality, to consist of being one subsisting “thing”; rather, their essential oneness lies in the two persons each distinctly possessing the exact same divine nature, and so there only being one divine nature between the two of Them].

74. I am aware, dear brethren, that there are some who confess the likeness, but deny the equality. Let them speak as they will, and insert the poison of their blasphemy into ignorant ears. If they say that there is a difference between likeness and equality, I ask whence equality can be obtained? If the Son is like the Father in essence, might, glory and eternity, I ask why they decline to say He is equal? In the above creed an anathema was pronounced on any man who should say that the Father was Father of an essence unlike Himself. Therefore if He gave to Him whom He begot without effect upon Himself a nature which was neither another nor a different nature, He cannot have given Him any other than His own. Likeness then is the sharing of what is one’s own, the sharing of one’s own is equality, and equality admits of no difference. Those things which do not differ at all are one. So the Father and the Son are one, not by unity of Person but by equality of nature [contrast this with later articulations of co-essentiality, like that of the Fourth Lateran Council, which redefined it to mean a unity of persons into a single person, only avoiding the term “person”; Van Til would later come out and express the belief frankly, calling the Trinity itself a single “person”. We see from Hilary’s own words here how antithetical this view is to the intention of the orthodox church fathers of the Nicene era].

75. Although general conviction and divine authority sanction no difference between likeness and equality, since both Moses and John would lead us to believe the Son is like the Father and also His equal, yet let us consider whether the Lord, when the Jews were angry with Him for calling God His Father and thus making Himself equal with God, did Himself teach that He was equal with God. He says, The Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father doJohn 5:19 He showed that the Father originates by saying Can do nothing of Himself, He calls attention to His own obedience by adding, but what He sees the Father do. There is no difference of might, He says He can do nothing that He does not see because it is His nature and not His sight that gives Him power. But His obedience consists in His being able only when He sees. And so by the fact that He has power when He sees, He shows that He does not gain power by seeing but claims power on the authority of seeing. The natural might does not differ in Father and Son, the Son’s equality of power with the Father not being due to any increase or advance of the Son’s nature but to the Father’s example. In short that honour which the Son’s subjection retained for the Father belongs equally to the Son on the strength of His nature. He has Himself added, Whatever things He does, these also does the Son likewiseJohn 5:19 Surely then the likeness implies equality. Certainly it does, even though we deny it: for these also does the Son likewise. Are not things done likewise the same? Or do not the same things admit equality? Is there any other difference between likeness and equality, when things that are done likewise are understood to be made the same? Unless perchance any one will deny that the same things are equal, or deny that similar things are equal, for things that are done in like manner are not only declared to be equal but to be the same things.

76. Therefore, brethren, likeness of nature can be attacked by no cavil, and the Son cannot be said to lack the true qualities of the Father’s nature because He is like Him. No real likeness exists where there is no equality of nature, and equality of nature cannot exist unless it imply unity, not unity of person but of kind. It is right to believe, religious to feel, and wholesome to confess, that we do not deny that the substance of the Father and the Son is one because it is similar, and that it is similar because they are one.

77. Beloved, after explaining in a faithful and godly manner the meaning of the phrases one substance, in Greek ὁμοούσιον, and similar substance or ὁμοιούσιον, and showing very completely the faults which may arise from a deceitful brevity or dangerous simplicity of language, it only remains for me to address myself to the holy bishops of the East. We have no longer any mutual suspicions about our faith, and those which before now have been due to mere misunderstanding are being cleared away…”

This treatment of co-essentiality is instructive for modern Christians. To those familiar with later articulations of co-essentiality by semi-modalists, it should be clear that they have fallen into exactly the sorts of errors Hilary of Poitiers warned against by conceiving of the essence shared by the persons of the Trinity as a singular personal subsistence; in other words, a person. Hilary’s words make it clear that semi-modalistic misunderstandings of co-essentiality are not faithful to the original meaning of the doctrine and terminology employed by the Nicene Creed and orthodox church fathers. We must reject the later innovations of semi-modalism and return to the classical understanding of co-essentiality articulated by the Nicene church fathers if things are to improve.