Self-Sustained Existence vs Self-Caused Existence

Discussions of “self-existence” have historically been important to the debates surrounding trinitarian doctrine. That “self-existence” is an attribute of God, all parties agree. However, sharp disagreements have occurred over how this attribute of “self-existence” related to things like eternal generation.

Some have argued that since it is proper to the divine nature that the subject be self-existent, therefore, eternal generation cannot be true, since this teaches that the Son has His origin from the Father (such as many modern Protestants). Other have tried to modify the doctrine of eternal generation to attempt to say that the Son has His person from the Father in eternal generation, while rejecting the historical orthodox view that the Son also has His essence communicated to Him from the Father in eternal generation (such as Calvin, and others in the Reformed tradition who followed him). Others have ventured to deny the Son the attribute of self-existence since He is derived from the Father, having both His person and nature from the Father, in eternal generation (such as Samuel Clarke).

All of these explanations fall short because they all make the same error of not distinguishing between two distinct ideas in respect to self-existence: self-caused existence, and self-sustained existence. This distinction is both necessary logically, and proved by scripture. The distinction between these ideas should be a fairly straightforward one; there is a difference between being uncaused and being self-sustained in one’s existence.

We are told in scripture that not only did God create all things through His Son, but that He also upholds and sustains the existence of all things through His Son. For example, Colossians 1:17, speaking of Christ says “He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” (NAS). Similarly Hebrews 1:3 says “who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,” (NKJV). We see then that the existence of all creation is upheld by God through His Son; the implication being that the created universe is not self-existent. We would drop out of existence were it not for God’s continual and perpetual upholding of our existence by His own power through His Son.

The Son, however, is contrasted with creation in this way by scripture. Unlike we who must have our lives continually upheld and sustained by God, the Son is said to have “life in Himself”; self-sustained existence. Yet in the same passage of scripture that we are explicitly told that the Son has “life in Himself” we are also told that He does not have this quality from nothing, or without cause or origin, but from His Father:

“For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself,” (John 5:26 NKJV)

The Son then is taught by scripture to have self-sustained existence, life in Himself, just as the Father does. He has this divine attribute from the Father, however, showing that He does not have “self-existence” in terms of having an uncaused or self-caused existence, but has His existence, and even the quality of self-sustained existence, from the Father. Incidentally, this also proves that the essence of the Father, that is, His divine nature, was given to the Son in eternal generation, as He has this divine attribute, not merely His person, from the Father. Thus a communication of essence in eternal generation is proven in this important passage.

But the main thing to note here is that when scripture speaks of the Son’s self-existence, that revelation is given to us in such a way as to make clear that what is intended is not uncaused or self-caused existence, but self-sustained existence. Thus, as Christ has life and existence in Himself, He is able to give life to us men, according to the will of the Father.

The term “self-existence”, then, without further clarification and qualification, is unhelpful to these discussions. By not properly distinguishing between the distinct ideas of self-caused or uncaused existence, and self-sustained existence, the issue is over-simplified and the ideas are confounded in such a way that error inevitably ensues.

On a related note, self-caused or uncaused existence is not even a divine attribute; the Father’s attribute of having uncaused existence is not a matter of what He is, and thus, an aspect of His divine nature, but a matter of how He is what He is- He is what He is without cause or source. The Son is the same thing, meaning, He has the same divine nature, yet the “how” is different for the Son; He is what He is from the Father, while the Father is what He is from none. The point being, uncaused of self-caused existence is not a property of the divine nature, but a relational property belonging to the Father alone.

This stands in stark contrast to self-sustained existence, which does deal with ‘what’ the persons are, and is a positive attribute. As such it is proper the divine nature, and thus shared by all three persons, the Father having that quality of none, and the Son and Holy Spirit possessing it of the Father by eternal generation and procession, respectively.

What Really Constitutes a Rejection of Modalism?

Most Christians are willing to recognize that modalism is heresy; yet at the same time, what passes for a rejection of modalism today is so lacking that many closet modalists can seemingly vindicate themselves of being modalists ( in name, at least) while still holding to the same fundamental doctrines as those who openly hold to modalism.

This is because it has become acceptable to respond to modalism by stating that the persons of the Trinity are not identical to each other; the Father is not the Son, nor the Son the Father, and neither of them is the Holy Spirit. And yet, this does not exclude all forms of modalism, nor does it address the fundamental underlying tenet of modalism that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all one person.

As noted in Equivocation Over the Term “Person”, many modern Christians effectively state their belief in trinitarianism as a belief in one person (the Trinity or the essence) who is three persons (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit). This is almost always done by using a synonymous word for “person” in respect to the Trinity as a whole, such as “being”; a word vague enough that it can be used either for an abstract essence or for an individual person, which in most cases like this, is used to mean the latter (a fact often betrayed by the use of singular personal pronouns such as “he” for the “being”). Others will use terms such as “reality”, “thing”, or some other term to describe the person who they conceive of as being three persons; yet using a different word in place of “person” hardly alleviates the problem, since what we ought to primarily be concerned with is not the modes of expression people employ (although these are important), but what is meant by them.

Since, then, the fundamental problem posed by modalism is that it conceives of God as a single individual who somehow is the Father, Son, and Spirit, if we merely require someone to affirm that there is some kind of distinction between “Father”, “Son”, and “Spirit” such as that they are not totally synonymous with each other, we have failed to address the primary issue. Many modalists are willing to affirm such a distinction. While they believe there is only one divine individual, they are also willing to affirm that the names “Father”, “Son”, and “Spirit” refer to three things that are not totally interchangeable with each other.

This distinction may be as shallow as the names themselves; it may extend to seeing them as signifying historically distinct modes by which the one individual manifests himself to the world; or they may view each name as signifying a distinct mode of subsistence within a single individual. Others would view them as effectively signifying different parts of this one individual. All these notions are blasphemous and false; yet by merely accepting the affirmation of some difference between “Father”, “Son”, and “Spirit” as being enough to clear a person of being a modalist, we will have let most modalists pass themselves off as trinitarians with little difficulty.

Even Sabellius himself was willing to say that there were three distinct “personas”, after all. Other early modalists would also try to affirm that while in their minds “Father” and “Son” were the same individual, only the Son died, not the Father. Yet today, it seems we have pushed the threshold of what constitutes trinitarianism so low that those who call the Trinity as a whole a single person, and a single individual, are not regarded as modalists. While they are not given the label they deserve, the underlying beliefs are fundamentally the same. Just as the Sabellians of old taught, if “Father” and “Son” are the same individual, then the Father became man and died on the cross. And yet today this view is tolerated, so long as the person specifies that it was the mode of “Son” that died, not the mode of “Father”.

To really be cleared of modalism, a person must be willing not only to to say that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are somehow distinct, but that They are distinct as three individuals, three real persons. A modalist can say that they are somehow distinct, especially if that modalist is willing to equivocate over the term “person”, using it to mean something less than a really distinct individual. A trinitarian must affirm that there are in reality three distinct individuals of one divine nature, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

If we wish to guard against semi-modalism, we must go farther still. A semi-modalist does affirm that there are really three distinct persons; however, the semi-modalist believes these three persons to be one person as well. This view is nonsensical; yet, it is held by many, more often than not as an unconscious inconsistency in their own thinking. Yet, some would venture to hold such a view consciously, being willing to say that they believe in one person who is three persons, and really mean “three persons” by those words. The only way to guard against such an error is to not only require a confession of three distinct persons, three distinct individual realities, but to also require a denial that those three are one person or individual reality.

Thus the ancient Macrostich says:

“3. 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.”

“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.”

It is not enough that someone be willing to say the words “three persons”; they must be willing to affirm that they mean that in the sense it is intended, that they believe in three distinct individual realities, not merely three modes or manifestations termed “persons”. Likewise, a trinitarian must be willing to affirm that there is only three persons; this guards against the semi-modalism that imagines a fourth distinct individual (or person) who is the three persons of Father, Son, and Spirit.


Modalism, Tritheism, and Subordinationism; Your Only Three Real Options Regarding the Trinity

In the broad scheme of trinitarian doctrine, there are only three overarching positions to choose from, each of those three being able to be further divided into different variations. These three options are modalism, tritheism, and subordinationism; there are no other alternatives, and every view on the Trinity fits somewhere within these categories.

All three systems broadly agree on the three basic facts that there is one God, and three divine persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But these facts alone, stated this way, are too vague; and the way each system explains how these facts fit together is different. They do not agree on what it means that there is one God, or what it means that there are three divine persons.

Modalism explains monotheism by arguing that there is only one divine person, and thus only one God. It either makes the three persons out to be one person, or else denies either the divinity or the distinct existence of two persons. Sometimes this is done by denying distinct existence of the Son and Holy Spirit, other times by saying that “Father”, “Son”, and “Spirit” are just three different names, or three different modes of manifestation, of one person, other times by declaring that the three persons are ultimately a single person at the deepest level, although on the surface and in a relative way relate to each other as though three persons. Thus by defining the oneness of God as there being only a single divine person, they ultimately deny that there are three divine persons in anything but name only.

Tritheism goes to the opposite extreme by denying that there is truly one God by making the three persons not only really distinct, but also separate, and entirely equal. By proclaiming three independent identical divine persons, they make there out to be three gods. A weak attempt to say otherwise often comes in the form of arguing that there being one God simply means that there is only one divine nature of Godhood, which is shared by the three identical persons. But this falls apart easily, for just as three human persons with one common human nature are three men, so the tritheistic reckoning of three divine persons with one common divine nature makes there out to be three gods.

Subordinationism avoids the pitfalls of modalism and tritheism. There is not one God because there is only one divine person, as there are three divine persons, truly distinct from each other. It likewise avoids the pitfall of tritheism by not making the Son and Spirit identical and equal to the Father, but rather regards them as subordinate. There are various forms of subordinationism, but in the most rational form of it, and that taught by scripture, the Son and Spirit have the same divine nature as the Father, and are thus equal to Him in respect to Godhood; but They are subordinated to Him as Their Cause and Authoritative Head. Thus, in this classical trinitarianism, there is one God because there is only one Supreme uncaused Cause of all, and one Supreme Authority over all, the person of the Father. Not only is all creation caused by the Father through His Son and Spirit, but His Son was atemporally begotten of Him before the ages, and His Spirit eternally proceeds from Him; thus all things run up into one supreme cause, the Father, Who alone simply is what and who He is without cause, source, or origin. Likewise although the Son has been given all authority in heaven and earth, even He Himself is subject to the Authority of the one Who subjected all things to Him, His God and Father. Thus all authority runs up into one Supreme Authority over all Who has no higher authority above Him. Thus there is one God, the Father, and yet there are three truly distinct divine persons.

Was Arianism Ever Really A Serious Threat to the Church?

As we examined in Athanasius Contra Mundum? and Homoian Creeds, much of the common popular modern narrative of the church in the fourth century being overrun by Arian bishops and emperors, with only Athanasius standing in the gap against the onslaught of heresy, is not historically accurate. Certainly, Athanasius played an important role in the trinitarian controversies of the fourth century, and there is much good he contributed. He was certainly one of the strongest and most relentless opponents of Arianism, and enjoyed good success against it. But at no point was the church truly overrun by Arianism, nor were there any emperors who accepted Arius’s teaching or would be willing to call themselves Arian. Rather, we observed, a great many church councils in the decades following Nicea which met to deal with trinitarian issues, often overseen by an emperor, fully and unequivocally rejected and condemned Arianism.

This strong rejection, however, did not keep them from getting labeled ‘Arian’ and semi-arian by their more radical counterparts, the minority of bishops committed to the Nicene articulation of the Trinity and especially the word “homoousias’. When we seek to understand the so-called semi-arians, we see that they did not accept Arianism at all, but rather received this derogatory label for their opposition to the word ‘homoousias’- a word which they rejected not because they supported Arianism, which they strongly condemned, but because the word was feared to carry a modalistic meaning. Thus the reaction against the Nicene articulation is best seen not as pro-Arian but anti-homoousian. As we saw in the previous posts mentioned, this led the church at large to find other ways to articulate the same doctrine of the Trinity which Nicea sought to communicate, but in different language which would not be so easily misunderstood.

Understanding this provides us with a much different view of the immediate post-nicene church than is often presented; rather than Arianism running rampant and enjoying both political and theological ascendency, it was roundly condemned by all but a small minority of actual Arians.

The so-called Arian councils, then, were mostly not really Arian. The homoiousian and homoian councils held after Nicea rejected Arianism strongly. We cannot then, on the basis of any historical evidence, conclude that Arianism at its most successful in the Roman empire was but a minority of quickly condemned individuals in the fourth century church. Whats more, it did not even truly flourish prior to Nicea, as some have presented the matter.

Prior to Nicea, Arius began the controversy by accusing his bishop, Alexander of Alexandria, of teaching modalism. Arius began espousing his heresy in response, and was quickly condemned, not just by the church in Alexandria, but by a regional synod which represented the broader African churches. When Arius did not experience success there, he and his small group of associates traveled elsewhere, and were condemned elsewhere. In 325, the year the council of Nicea met, another council met prior to Nicea in Syria which had broad representation of bishops from Syria and the surrounding regions. This council of Antioch condemned Arianism strongly, and called those bishops who supported Arius to repentance. Arius and his followers, then, had already been formally condemned and excommunicated by large portions of the church before the council of Nicea ever even met. When it did meet, the entire church condemned Arius and his heretical teachings. From this we see that Arianism never truly flourished in the established churches of the Roman empire, for as we have discussed above already, the church’s rejection of his false teaching continued through the post nicene era.

One must wonder why then is Arianism so frequently presented as having flourished, and gained ascendency? A brief search of the internet will have you believe that prior to Nicea, Arianism spread throughout the church like wildfire, and that after Nicea nearly the entire Roman empire and the churches within it were unashamedly Arian; and yet the historical evidence, not the least of which are the creeds composed by the church during this era, show that this was not at all the case. Why do so many throughout history since find it important to label so much of the trinitarian teaching of the fourth century church “Arian” when it could not be more explicitly opposed to Arianism?

It would be easy to wonder if this is not in large part because while the councils of the mid-fourth century were not Arian, they were not semi-modalists either. They confess classical trinitarianism in their Creeds, the same trinitarianism we can find in the writings of the Ante-Nicene fathers, and in the holy scriptures themselves. They never make the persons of the Trinity out to be a single person, and didn’t use the term ‘homoousias’, that would later be redefined by the semi-modalists to support their heresy (see The Grievous Error of the Fourth Lateran Council). The Nicene creed the semi-modalists could twist; but the Macrostich leaves them no room to bring in their false teaching. One must wonder how much this motivates them to label the one orthodox and the other Arian, even though they both teach the same exact doctrine.

Whatever the motivation for the popular narrative is, it has indeed been effective at hiding a large portion of the fourth century church’s official teaching on the Trinity from the majority of Christians for a long time. A person cannot learn Arianism from the Macrostich, the Creed of Sirmium of 351, or the Homoian Creed; but they will learn classical trinitarianism, as the scriptures teach, from such statements of faith. One must wonder then how much the attack on such Creeds and their authors really comes from opposition to Arianism, versus how much is motivated by an opposition to classical trinitarianism itself.

While the real threat Arianism itself posed to the church, then, can be seen to actually have been relatively small, it has done far more damage than perhaps most realize. Arianism never threatened to become the dominant theology of the church; but in a much more indirect way, it has done unspeakably great damage nonetheless. This is because Arianism can really be seen as a catalyst that aided in the widespread acceptance semi-modalism in place of classical trinitarianism in the post-nicene era. Arianism was and is constantly painted as a sort of theological boogeyman, lurking in the dark shadows of church history, which anyone we disagree with on christology must surely be in very near danger of falling into, even if they are not.

By painting Arianism as the opposite end of the spectrum from semi-modalism, any move away from semi-modalism, however legitimate it may be, is easily painted as a move in the direction of Arianism, even when no tenet of Arianism is accepted. Classical trinitarianism in the fourth century can be labeled “semi-arian”, and therefore be so completely discredited that no one will seriously consider that it just might be what scripture teaches. In truth, without the largely imaginary threat of Arianism, semi-modalism may have never have experienced the success it has, for the fear of Arianism was a great factor in its success.

The continued existence of Arianism outside the bounds of the Roman empire among the barbarian tribes of Europe only further strengthened these fears in the post-nicene era, allowing Arianism to continually be painted as a serious threat for centuries to come, especially in the western churches. Such fear is can be a powerful tool in pushing people all the way to the opposite end of the theological spectrum, running them away from Arianism right past orthodoxy and into error in the opposite direction, semi-modalism.

Arianism’s acceptance and emphasis of certain doctrinal elements of classical trinitarianism (such as the Father being the “one God”, see I believe in one God, the Father Almighty and Why Are We Monotheists?) served to successfully stigmatize these points of doctrine in such a way that while the church never officially rejected them, they have been greatly de-emphasized from Christian doctrine. This has left holes in the church’s trinitarianism, where important parts of classical and biblical trinitarianism have been left out, and not without dire consequences. Moving forward this left the church with a mutilated trinitarianism, or really, semi-modalism (see Semi-modalism as the Greatest Problem Facing the Church Today).

Because of the role Arianism has played in semi-modalism’s success, it is important for the church to treat the history of Arianism more realistically. Arianism is undoubtedly a great evil and a damnable heresy, but the way its history gets distorted by semi-modalists to promote their own false teaching must be recognized. The church will also greatly be helped by learning from the orthodox fathers of the fourth century who did not accept ‘homoousias’ and yet believed and taught classical trinitarianism using other modes of expression. Finally and most importantly we must not allow Arianism’s acceptance of certain points of biblical doctrine cause us to reject them on the grounds of that association. All heresy blends truth with error, and Arianism is no different. If we allow that blending to cause us to reject part of the truth, we have given the Devil a victory despite our rejection of Arianism.

Athanasius Contra Mundum?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homoian Creeds

In the midst of the raging Arian controversy, much was made of the Greek word ‘ousia’; the pro-Nicene Homoousian bishops, such as Athanasius arguing that the Son must be confessed as ‘homoousias’ (of the same essence) with the Father, and the conservative majority of bishops favoring instead the term ‘homoiousias’ (like in essence) to describe the relationship of the Son to the Father.

Both terms can be understood identically to mean that the Son’s essence is identical to and equal with that of the Father; the point of such emphasis was to declare the true divinity of the Son over and against Arians, who argued that the Son was merely a creature. Both the Homoousian and Homoiousian bishops held the opposite term in suspicion; those who favored ‘homoiousias’ rejecting ‘homoousias’ as a modalistic term which implied that the Son was the same person as the Father, as Sabellius had used it, while the Homoousians rejected ‘homoiousias’ as too vague of a term that would ultimately allow moderate Arians to agree with the church’s confession. Thus the church of the fourth century was strongly divided over these modes of expression.

Into the mix came a more moderate proposition which quickly gained widespread acceptance; that the highly controversial philosophical terminology of ‘ousia’ ought to be abandoned altogether, in favor of using scriptural expressions to describe the relationship of the Son to the Father. Instead of using philosophical terms that were not understood the same way by all parties, and were difficult for the average Christian to understand, these bishops urged that instead the Son ought to simply be described as being “like” the Father, as scripture says. These bishops readily confessed that the Son was of the same divine nature as the Father, thus granting what the Homoousians ostensibly wanted to signify by the term, as well as what the orthodox Homoiousians intended to signify by the term.

These bishops were labeled “Homoians” by their opponents; from the Greek word “homoi”, meaning “like”. They argued that the best course was to describe the Trinity in the same terminology as scripture did, and that it was prudent to eschew the language of “ousia” altogether, instead describing the Son’s co-divinity with the Father in other language, as the scriptures and the pre-Nicene church fathers had successfully done.

The Homoian description of the Son as “like” the Father is shown completely accurate upon examination; the person of the Son is not entirely identical to the person of the Father, as the Son is distinguished by His personal properties from the Father; namely, the Son is begotten of the Father, whereas the Father is entirely unbegotten and uncaused. The Son, however, is the “image of the invisible God” and “like” the Father because as the only-begotten Son of God He eternally has the same divine nature as the Father. By confessing that the Son is “like the Father is all things” with the exception of the Father’s personal properties, they confessed that the Son had the same divine nature as the Father, since likeness in “all things” must necessarily include divinity.

After the eventual political success of the Homoousian party, the Homoians and the councils in which they expressed their beliefs were slandered as being Arian, down to our own time. This label is completely inaccurate; the Creeds composed by the “Homoians” expressly reject Arianism, as is proven from their own statements below. They simply express classical orthodox trinitarianism without using the word ‘homoousias’, as scripture also does.

The first Creed to examine is the Macrostich (or long-lined) Creed composed by the Council of Antioch in 345. The authors of the Creed took great pains to ensure that they excluded Arianism entirely, as can be seen from their own words, in which, just as the Nicene Creed did, they reject the tenets of Arianism that the Son was a creature and that He was not eternal with the Father. Likewise, they express their belief in the co-divinity of the Son with the Father:

“We believe in one God the Father Almighty, the Creator and Maker of all things, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named.

And in His Only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ, who before all ages was begotten from the Father, God from God, Light from Light, by whom all things were made, in heaven and one the earth, visible and invisible, being Word and Wisdom and Power and Life and True Light, who in the last days was made man for us, and was born of the Holy Virgin, crucified and died and was buried, and rose again from the dead on the third day, and was taken up into heaven, and sat down on the right hand of the Father, and is coming at the consummation of the age to judge the living and the dead, and to render to everyone according to his works; whose kingdom endured unceasingly unto all the ages; for He sits on the right hand of the Father, not only in this age, but also in that which is to come.

And we believe in the Holy Ghost, that is, the Paraclete, which, having promised to the apostles, He sent forth after the ascension into heaven, to teach them and to remind of all things; through whom also shall be sanctified the souls of those who sincerely believe in Him.

But those who say that the Son was from nothing, or from other subsistence and not from God; and that there was a time or age when He was not, the catholic and holy church regards as aliens. Likewise those who say that there are three Gods, or that Christ is not God, or that before the ages He was neither Christ nor Son of God, or that Father and Son or Holy Ghost are the same, or that the Son is ingenerate, or that the Father begat the Son not by choice or will: the holy and catholic church anathematizes.

1. For neither is it safe to say that the Son is from nothing, (since this is no where spoken of Him in divinely inspired Scripture,) nor again of any other subsistence before existing beside the Father, but from God alone do we define Him genuinely to be generated. For the divine Word teaches that the Ingenerate and Unbegone, the Father of Christ, is One.

2. Nor may we, adopting the hazardous position, ‘There was once when He was not,’ from unscriptural sources, imagine any interval of time before Him, but only the God who has generated Him apart from time; for through Him both times and ages came to be. Yet we must not consider the Son to be co-unbegun and co-ingenerate with the Father; for no one can be properly called Father or Son of one who is co-unbegun and co-ingenerate with Him. But we acknowledge that the Father who alone is unbegun and ingenerate, has generated inconceivably and incomprehensibly to all; and that the Son has been generated before ages, and in no wise to be ingenerate Himself like the Father, but to have the Father who generated Him as His beginning; for ‘the head of Christ is God’ (1 Corinthians 11:3).

3. 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 ingenerate 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.

4. Nor again, in saying that the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is one only God, the only ingenerate, do we therefore deny that Christ also is God before ages; as the disciples of Paul of Samosata, who say that after the incarnation He was by advance made God, from being made by nature a mere man. For we acknowledge, that though He be subordinate to His Father and God, yet, being before ages begotten of God, He is God perfect according to nature and true, and not first man and then God, but first God and then becoming man for us, and never having been deprived of being.

5. We abhor besides, and anathematize those who make a pretence of saying that He is but the mere word of God and unexisting, having His being in another – now as if pronounced, as some speak, now as mental – holding that He was not Christ or Son of God or mediator or image of God before ages; but that He first became Christ and Son of God, when He took our flesh from the virgin, not quite four hundred years ago. For they will have it that then Christ began His kingdom, and that it will have an end after the consummation of all and the judgment. Such are the disciples of Marcellus and Scotinus of Galatian Ancyra, who, equally with Jews, rejected Christ’s existence before ages, and His Godhead, and unending kingdom, upon pretence of supporting the divine monarchy. We, on the contrary, regard Him not as simply God’s pronounced word or self, and Son of God and Christ, being and abiding with His Father before ages, and that not in foreknowledge only, and ministering to Him for the whole framing whether of things visible or invisible. For it is He to whom the Father said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’ (Genesis 1:26), who also was seen in His own person by the patriarchs, gave the law, was spoken by the prophets, and at last became man and manifested His own Father to all men, and reigns to never-ending ages. For Christ has taken no recent dignity, but we have believed Him to be perfect from the first and like in all things to the Father.

6. 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 unchangeable Godhead and that Christ who was sent fulfilled the economy of the Incarnation.

7. And at the same time those who irreverently say that the Son has been generated not by choice or will, thus encompassing God with a necessity which excludes choice and purpose, so that He begat the Son unwillingly, we account as most irreligious and alien to the Church; in that they have dared to define such things concerning God, beside the common notions concerning Him, so, beside the intention of divinely inspired Scripture. For we, knowing that God is absolute and sovereign over Himself, have a religious judgment that He generated the Son voluntarily and freely. Yet, as we have a reverent belief in the Son’s words concerning Himself (Proverbs 8:22), ‘The Lord created me a beginning of His ways for His works,’ we do not understand Him to have been originated like the creatures or works which through Him came to be. For it is irreligious and alien to the ecclesiastical faith, to compare the Creator with handiworks created by Him, and to think that He has the same manner of origination with the rest. For divine Scripture teaches us assuredly and truly that the Only-begotten Son was generated sole and solely. Yet, in saying that the Son is in Himself, and both lives and exists like the Father, we do not on that account separate Him from the Father, imagining place and interval between their union in the way of bodies. For we believe that they are united with each other without mediation or distance, and that they exist inseparably. All the Father encompassing the Son, and all the Son hanging and adhering to the Father, and alone resting on the Father’s breast continually. Believing then in the all-perfect triad, the most holy, that is, in the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and calling the Father God, and the Son God, yet we confess in them, not two Gods, but one dignity of Godhead, and one exact harmony of dominion, the Father alone being head over the whole universe wholly, and over the Son Himself, and the Son subordinated to the Father; but, excepting Him, ruling over all things after Him which through Himself have come to be, and granting the grace of the Holy Ghost unsparingly to the saints at the Father’s will. For that such is the account of the Divine Monarchy towards Christ, the sacred oracles have delivered to us.

Thus much, in addition to the faith before published in epitome, we have been compelled to draw forth at length, not in any officious display, but to clear away all unjust suspicion concerning our opinions among those who are ignorant of our affairs; and that all in the West may know, both the audacity of the slanders of the heterodox, and as to the Orientals, their ecclesiastical mind in the Lord, to which the divinely inspired Scriptures bear witness without violence, where men are not perverse.”

Notice that Christ is described as “God of God” and as sharing “one dignity of Godhead” with the Father. That there is any difference between the Father and Son in time is explicitly denied, as is the notion that the Son is a creature. Arianism, Modalism, and tritheism are all rejected explicitly by this so-called “Arian” council. It should be obvious therefore to anyone with a knowledge of actual Arianism that this council cannot possibly be considered Arian. Rather, in the Macrostich we find one of the best statements of classical trinitarianism produced in the fourth century.

The Macrostich, however, was by no means the only Council of the fourth century to express its belief in classical trinitarianism in a “Homoian” manner; the Council of Thrace in 359 authored the following statement:

“We believe in one only true God, Father Almighty, of whom are all things. And in the only-begotten Son of God, who before all ages and before every beginning was begotten of God, through whom all things were made, both visible and invisible; alone begotten, only-begotten of the Father alone, God of God; like the Father that begat Him, according to the Scriptures, whose generation no one knows except only the Father that begat Him. This only-begotten Son of God, sent by His Father, we know to have come down from heaven, as it is written, for the destruction of sin and death; begotten of the Holy Ghost and the virgin Mary, as it is written, according to the flesh. Who companied with His disciples, and when the dispensation was fulfilled, according to the Father’s will, was crucified, died and was buried, and descended to the world below, at whom Hell himself trembled. On the third day He rose from the dead and companied with His disciples forty days. He was taken up into Heaven, and sits on the right hand of His Father, and is coming at the last day of the Resurrection, in His Father’s glory, to render to everyone according to his works. And we believe in the Holy Ghost, which the only-begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ, both God and Lord, promised to send to man, the Comforter, as it is written, the Spirit of Truth. This Spirit He Himself sent after He had ascended into Heaven and sat at the right hand of the Father, from there to come to judge both the living and the dead.

But the word ‘substance,’ which was too simply inserted by the Fathers, and, not being understood by the people, was a cause of scandal through its not being found in the Scriptures, it has seemed good to us to remove, and that for the future no mention whatever be permitted of the ‘substance’ of the Father and the Son. Nor must one ‘essence’ be named in relation to the person of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. And we call the Son like the Father, as the Holy Scriptures call Him and teach; but all the heresies, both those already condemned, and any, if such there be, which have risen against the document thus put forth, let them be anathema.”

We see here the anathemas of earlier councils upheld, and thus, Arianism is excluded.

The Council of Selucia in the same year wrote:

“We decline not to bring forward the authentic faith published at the Dedication at Antioch; though certainly our fathers at the time met together for a particular subject under investigation. But since ‘coessential’ and ‘like-in-essence,’ have troubled many persons in times past and up to this day, and since moreover some are said recently to have devised the Son’s ‘unlikeness’ to the Father, on their account we reject ‘coessential’ and ‘like-in-essence,’ as alien to the Scriptures, but ‘unlike’ we anathematize, and account all who profess it as aliens from the Church. And we distinctly confess the ‘likeness’ of the Son to the Father, according to the Apostle, who says of the Son, ‘Who is the image of the invisible God’ (Colossians 1:15)

And we confess and believe in one God, the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible.

And we believe also in our Lord Jesus Christ, His Son, generated from Him impassibly before all the ages, God the Word, God from God, Only-begotten, Light, Life, Truth, Wisdom, Power, through whom all things were made, in the heavens and on the earth, whether visible or invisible. He, as we believe, at the end of the world, for the abolishment of sin, took flesh of the holy virgin, and was made man, and suffered for our sins, and rose again, and was taken up into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and is coming again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

We believe also in the Holy Ghost, which our Savior and Lord named Paraclete, having promised to send Him to the disciples after His own departure, as He did send; through whom He sanctifies those in the Church who believe, and are baptized in the name of Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

But those who preach anything beside this faith the catholic Church regards as aliens. And that to this faith that is equivalent which was published lately at Sirmium, under sanction of his religiousness the Emperor, is plain to all who read it.”

That Creed of the Council of Sirmium in 359 reads as follows:

“The catholic faith was published in the presence of our master, the most religious and gloriously victorious Emperor, Constantius, Augustus, the eternal and august, in the consulate of the most illustrious Flavii, Eusebius and Hypatius, in Sirmium on the eleventh of the Calends of June

We believe in One only and true God, the Father Almighty, creator and framer of all things.

And in one only-begotten Son of God, who, before all ages, and before all origin, and before all conceivable time, and before all comprehensible essence, was begotten impassibly from God; through whom the ages were disposed and all things were made; and Him begotten as the only-begotten, only from the only Father, God from God. Like to the Father who begat Him, according to the Scriptures; whose origin no one knows save the Father alone who begat Him. We know that He, the only-begotten Son of God, at the Father’s bidding came from the heavens for the abolishment of sin, and was born of the virgin Mary, and conversed with the disciples, and fulfilled the Economy according to the Father’s will, and was crucified, and died and descended into the parts beneath the earth, and regulated the things there, whom the gate-keepers of hell saw (Job 38:17) and shuddered; and He rose from the dead the third day, and conversed with the disciples, and fulfilled all the Economy, and when the forty days were full, ascended into the heavens, and sits on the right hand of the Father, and is coming in the last day of the resurrection in the glory of the Father, to render to everyone according to his works.

And in the Holy Ghost, whom the only-begotten of God Himself, Jesus Christ, had promised to send to the race of men, the Paraclete, as it is written, ‘I go to my Father, and I will ask the Father, and He shall send unto you another Paraclete, even the Spirit of truth He shall take of mine and shall teach and bring to your remembrance all things’ (John 14:16, 17, 26, 16:14)

But whereas the term ‘essence,’ has been adopted by the Fathers in simplicity, and gives offence as being misconceived by the people, and is not contained in the Scriptures, it has seemed good to remove it, that it be never in any case used of God again, because the divine Scriptures nowhere use it of Father and Son. But we say that the Son is like the Father in all things, as also the Holy Scriptures say and teach.”

The authors of this Creed too are slandered as Arians by their opponents; yet they explicitly reject Arianism, and no Arian could agree with the words quoted above. The eternality of the Son, and His divinity, are clearly stated; and if it is Arianism only to not use the word “homoousias” then the Apostles must also have been Arians, seeing as they expressed their belief in the Trinity without the word. But in truth, as can be seen from these statements of faith, the word ‘homoousias’ is not necessary for an accurate expression of what scripture teaches, and classical trinitarianism does not suffer without it. Semi-modalists, however, cannot do without it, for without the word to twist their entire false scheme of doctrine is taken away, and they are left only with three persons of the Trinity, the ousia no longer being given them to make into a fourth person.

In the year 360 we have a Creed from the Council of Constantinople:

“We believe in one God, Father Almighty, from whom are all things.

And in the only-begotten Son of God, begotten from God before all ages and before every beginning, by whom all things were made, visible and invisible, and begotten as only-begotten, only from the Father only, God from God, like to the Father that begat Him according to the Scriptures; whose origin no one knows, except the Father alone who begat Him. He as we acknowledge the only-begotten Son of God, the Father having sent Him, came here from the heavens, as it is written, for the undoing of sin and death, and was born of the Holy Ghost, of Mary the virgin according to the flesh, as it is written, and conversed with the disciples, and having fulfilled the whole Economy according to the Father’s will, was crucified and died and was buried and ascended to the parts below the earth, at whom hades itself shuddered; who also rose from the dead on the third day, and abode with the disciples, and forty days being fulfilled, was taken up into the heavens, and sits on the right hand of the Father to come in the last day of the resurrection in the Father’s glory, that He may render to every man according to his works.

And in the Holy Ghost, whom the only-begotten Son of God Himself, Christ, our Lord and God, promised to send to the race of man, as Paraclete, as it is written, ‘the Spirit of truth’ (John 16:13), which He sent to the them when He had ascended into the heavens.

But the name of ‘essence,’ which was set down by the Fathers in simplicity, and, being unknown by the people, caused offense, because the Scriptures do not contain it, it has seemed good to abolish, and for the future to make no mention of it at all; since the divine scriptures have made no mention of the essence of Father and Son. For neither ought ‘subsistence’ to be named concerning Father, Son and Holy Ghost. But we say that the Son is like the Father, as the divine Scriptures say and teach; and all the heresies, both those which have been already condemned, and whatever are of modern date, being contrary to this published statement, be they anathema.”

If then, all the previously condemned heresies are equally condemned by this council, what will those say who wish to portray every council other than those of Nicea and Constantinople in 381 as Arian? How can Arianism, which is condemned in so many of these councils, be excluded from such a statement which says that all previously condemned heresies are likewise condemned by this council? The subterfuge then that this statement is Arian will not hold; rather we must ask, what motivates one to try to label it so? What do they fear in such councils which condemn Arianism, that they must be pretended to be Arian, so as to stigmatize them and hide their teaching from the eyes of the church?

It is a clever tactic of the semi-modalists to turn away the eyes of the church from such statements of classical trinitarianism, lest the church recognize that the absurd philosophizing of the scholastics is neither biblical nor necessary, and that the doctrine of the Trinity can be stated biblically without them. Such statements are neither paradoxical, nor excessively complicated and impossible for the average Christian to understand, but describe the faith we know from scripture in the language of scripture.

But while these statements, the products of several assembles of very many bishops from all over the world, are hidden away from the church under the label of “Arian” (although they all condemn the Arian heresy), these semi-modalists insist rather that we should accept the so-called “Athanasian Creed”, a statement as ambiguous in its meaning as it is in its authorship, both of which are unknown. Yet this private composition, written in the middle ages and paraded around under the name of a man who never read it, is insisted on as a doctrinal standard of trinitarianism, while these many statements which have the actual authority of many bishops and churches behind them, whose authors are known, are rejected without cause.

The church will be benefitted greatly by learning from these simple confessions, and from recognizing that the true faith can just as easily exist without needing to talk of the “essence” and “substance” of the persons of the Trinity. So long as the orthodox meaning of such expressions as “homoousias” is accepted, and it is understood and believed that God’s Son and Holy Spirit share the same divine nature as He, what difference does it make what combination of words is used to express these truths? For it is not the words themselves which matter, but the thing indicated by them.

Source for Creeds:


Were the Homoiousians Right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For example, Athanasius wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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