Semi-Modalism & the Rule of Faith

The ancient “rule of faith” was a doctrinal standard employed by the early churches. It was used as a baptismal creed, a creed memorized by new converts and recited prior to baptism (off of which later creeds like that of Nicea and Arminium were based). Following the baptismal formula instituted by Christ, to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the ancient baptismal creed followed this same outline, giving a brief confession of the identities of the Father, Son, and Spirit, coupled with a brief summary of the gospel under the head of the Son’s identity. In this way the ‘rule of faith’ can be seen as a summary of the Christian faith as presented in the scriptures, summarizing the identity of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, and the message of the gospel, as Paul said he delivered “as of first importance” in 1 Corinthians 15.

This ancient summary of the faith was held to by the churches as the teaching they had received from the apostles, which they had received from oral tradition, and was confirmed by demonstration from the holy scriptures. Irenaeus of Lyons, for example sets forth this rule as the standard of true Christian doctrine in both his Against Heresies, and his Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching. In Against Heresies he uses the rule of faith as the standard of Christian orthodoxy, against which the heretical claims of the various pseudo-gnostic sects were set in contradiction. Their contradiction of the rule of faith showed them to be heretics; on the other hand, faithful adherence to the rule would prevent one from falling into heresy. In Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, Irenaeus sets about demonstrating each point of the rule of faith from the holy scriptures, showing thereby that each point is beyond a doubt known to be true.

In Against Heresies, Irenaeus sums up the rule as follows:

“1. The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” and  the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.” (Book 1, Chap 10.)

He goes on to explain:

“2. As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shineth everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.” (Ibid)

In Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, he sums it up in these words:

“This then is the order of the rule of our faith, and the foundation of the building, and the stability of our conversation: God, the Father, not made, not material, invisible; one God, the creator of all things: this is the first point of our faith. The second point is: The Word of God, Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord, who was manifested to the prophets according to the form of their prophesying and according to the method of the dispensation of the Father: through whom all things were made; who also at the end of the times, to complete and gather up all things, was made man among men, visible and tangible, in order to abolish death and show forth life and produce a community of union between God and man. And the third point is: The Holy Spirit, through whom the prophets prophesied, and the fathers learned the things of God, and the righteous were led forth into the way of righteousness; and who in the end of the times was poured out in a new way upon mankind in all the earth, renewing man unto God.”

He goes on to explain that the rule is grounded in the baptismal formula of Matthew 28:

“And for this reason the baptism of our regeneration proceeds through these three points: God the Father bestowing on us regeneration through His Son by the Holy Spirit. For as many as carry (in them) the Spirit of God are led to the Word, that is to the Son; and the Son brings them to the Father; and the Father causes them to possess incorruption. Without the Spirit it is not possible to behold the Word of God, nor without the Son can any draw near to the Father: for the knowledge of the Father is the Son, and the knowledge of the Son of God is through the Holy Spirit; and, according to the good pleasure of the Father, the Son ministers and dispenses the Spirit to whomsoever the Father wills and as He wills.”

Tertullian similarly employed the rule of faith against heretics. He describes the rule of faith as the dogmatic standard of Christianity, a summary of the faith, which was beyond question to true Christians. No contradiction of the rule was to be allowed; such was heresy, and made the one denying the rule no true Christian at all. On the other hand, areas of theology which were not addressed in the rule were regarded as something that Christians were free to search out a knowledge of from the scriptures, to speculate on, and to disagree with one another on. The rule of faith was the standard of Christian doctrine which could not be denied; doctrines not addressed in it were free to be explored. In his book Against Praxeas, Tertullian sums up the rule as follows:

“We, however, as we indeed always have done (and more especially since we have been better instructed by the Paraclete, who leads men indeed into all truth), believe that there is one only God, but under the following dispensation, or οἰκονομία, as it is called, that this one only God has also a Son, His Word, who proceeded from Himself, by whom all things were made, and without whom nothing was made. Him we believe to have been sent by the Father into the Virgin, and to have been born of her — being both Man and God, the Son of Man and the Son of God, and to have been called by the name of Jesus Christ; we believe Him to have suffered, died, and been buried, according to the Scriptures, and, after He had been raised again by the Father and taken back to heaven, to be sitting at the right hand of the Father, and that He will come to judge the quick and the dead; who sent also from heaven from the Father, according to His own promise, the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete, the sanctifier of the faith of those who believe in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Ghost. That this rule of faith has come down to us from the beginning of the gospel, even before any of the older heretics, much more before Praxeas, a pretender of yesterday, will be apparent both from the lateness of date which marks all heresies, and also from the absolutely novel character of our new-fangled Praxeas.” (Chapter 2)

In Against Heresies, Tertullian gives the following summary of the rule, and explanation regarding a Christian’s freedom to speculate on other doctrines:

“Now, with regard to this rule of faith— that we may from this point acknowledge what it is which we defend — it is, you must know, that which prescribes the belief that there is one only God, and that He is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through His own Word, first of all sent forth; that this Word is called His Son, and, under the name of God, was seen in diverse manners by the patriarchs, heard at all times in the prophets, at last brought down by the Spirit and Power of the Father into the Virgin Mary, was made flesh in her womb, and, being born of her, went forth as Jesus Christ; thenceforth He preached the new law and the new promise of the kingdom of heaven, worked miracles; having been crucified, He rose again the third day; (then) having ascended into the heavens, He sat at the right hand of the Father; sent instead of Himself the Power of the Holy Ghost to lead such as believe; will come with glory to take the saints to the enjoyment of everlasting life and of the heavenly promises, and to condemn the wicked to everlasting fire, after the resurrection of both these classes shall have happened, together with the restoration of their flesh. This rule, as it will be proved, was taught by Christ, and raises among ourselves no other questions than those which heresies introduce, and which make men heretics. So long, however, as its form exists in its proper order, you may seek and discuss as much as you please, and give full rein to your curiosity, in whatever seems to you to hang in doubt, or to be shrouded in obscurity. You have at hand, no doubt, some learned brother gifted with the grace of knowledge, some one of the experienced class, some one of your close acquaintance who is curious like yourself; although with yourself, a seeker he will, after all, be quite aware that it is better for you to remain in ignorance, lest you should come to know what you ought not, because you have acquired the knowledge of what you ought to know. Your faith, He says, has saved you Luke 18:42 not observe your skill in the Scriptures. Now, faith has been deposited in the rule; it has a law, and (in the observance thereof) salvation.” (Chapter 13-14)

Similarly, the rule of faith was, as mentioned above, used as the baptismal creed of the various churches. The ancient creed of Jerusalem, for example, read thus:

“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before the ages, true God, by whom all things were made, who was incarnate and made man, crucified and buried, and the third day ascended into the heavens, and sat down at the right hand of the Father, and is coming to judge quick and dead.

And in the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete, who spake by the prophets;

And in one holy catholic Church; and resurrection of the flesh; and in life everlasting.”

All of these summaries of the Christian faith contain, as Irenaeus said, a skeleton of three articles: 1) the identity of the Father, 2) the identity of the Son, and 3) the identity of the Holy Spirit. The ancient heresies the church faced were considered heresies precisely because they contradicted this rule in one way or another. The Ebionites, for example, ancient unitarians, who denied the pre-existence of the Son, and regarded Him as a mere man, taught a different Christ, and so denied the second article of the faith. The gnostic heresies denied the identity of the Maker of all things and the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, thus denying the first article of the faith. The Modalists, by teaching that all three persons of the Trinity were one God, one person, denied the second and third articles of the faith by seeking to take away the distinct existence of the Son and Spirit as distinct persons from the Father, and so denied the first as well by denying the true fatherhood of God. When Arianism later came along, it was likewise condemned for contradicting the second article of the faith, by teaching that the Son, through Whom all things were made, was actually a creature Himself, and so taught a false Christ. All these heresies had in common that they struck at the true identities of the persons of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit; by doing so, they set themselves in opposition to true Christianity.

A critical examination of semi-modalism (as summed up, for instance, in the Pseudo-Athanasian Creed) in relation to the rule of faith shows that like the aforementioned heresies, semi-modalism denies the rule of faith as well. A complex and self-contradictory idea in itself, semi-modalism contradicts the rule of faith on multiple points. Semi-modalism is the belief that the Trinity is one person who is three person, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the three persons are confessed to be equal in authority, and to together be “one God”. This one God, the Trinity, is deemed to be the Almighty, and the Maker of all things.

In sum, semi-modalism denies the rule of faith in the following ways:

1) Semi-modalism denies the first article of the faith by teaching the non-identity of the Father and the one God.

2) Semi-modalism denies the first article of the faith by denying that the Father is the Almighty.

3) Semi-modalism, by making all three persons of the Trinity into a single person, denies the second and third articles of the faith by taking away the distinct existence of the Son and Spirit as two distinct persons besides the one God.

4) Semi-modalism denies the second article of the faith by denying that Christ is the Son of the one God.

Let’s examine each point:

Firstly, semi-modalism denies the first article of the faith by teaching the non-identity of the Father and the one God. This is the most immediately obvious way that semi-modalism contradicts the rule of faith; while the ancient rule of faith begins by confessing with the scriptures that the one God is the Father particularly (1 Cor 8:6, Eph 4:6), semi-modalism defines the one God as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together. This difference is highly significant when we recall that the purpose of these statements is to correctly identify the persons of the Trinity; who is the Father? The rule of faith answers, ‘the one God, the Almighty, the Maker of all things’. Or asked conversely, Who is the one God? The rule of faith answers clearly: the Father, the Almighty, the Maker of all. Semi-modalism changes these answers, and takes these prerogatives away from the Father, applying them instead to the Trinity conceived of as a single person.

Since this first point focuses on the Father’s identity as the one God, let’s begin there. Godhood, biblically, is dominion; to be God is to possess dominion. As Sir Isaac Newton observed:

“This Being [God] governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all: And on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God Pantokrator [Greek word usually translated “Almighty”], or Universal Ruler. For God is a relative word, and has a respect to servants; and Deity is the dominion of God, not over his own body, as those imagine who fancy God to be the soul of the world, but over servants. The supreme God is a Being eternal, infinite, absolutely perfect; but a being, however perfect, without dominion, cannot be said to be Lord God; for we say, my God, your God, the God of Israel, the God of Gods, and Lord of Lords; but we do not say, my Eternal, your Eternal, the Eternal of Israel, the Eternal of Gods; we do not say, my Infinite, or my Perfect: These are titles which have no respect to servants. The word God usually signifies a Lord; but every lord is not a God. It is the dominion of a spiritual being which constitutes a God; a true, supreme, or imaginary dominion makes a true, supreme, or imaginary God.” (Newton, General Scholium)

For the Father to be God, then, denotes His dominion; that He is called simply “God” without qualification, and “the one God” (1 Cor 8:6), and “the only true God” (John 17:3), then, is on account of His supreme dominion over all, as Eph 4:6 says, “one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.” (NASB) That He is called the “one God” and “only true God” are not said to deny that the word “God” may be used of other persons, but by way of eminence, as denoting that He is supreme over all. As Paul wrote in 1 Cor 8:5-6, “For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth, (as there be gods many, and lords many,) 6 But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him.” (KJV). It is clear, then, that the rule of faith is wholly correct in declaring that the one God is the Father in particular.

Semi-modalism, on the other hand, denies this title to the Father, and gives it to a person who does not in reality exist, the Trinity conceived of as a person. That the Trinity is believed to be a person is clear from, among other things, the very fact that the title “one God” is applied to it. For let us consider what the significance of the phrase is: as we have said, Godhood, or deity, is dominion; corresponding to this, a God, then, is by definition a person who possesses Godhood; just as a Lord is a person who possesses lordship, and a King is a person who possesses regal authority. To call something a “God”, then, denotes that it is a person who possesses Godhood, that is, dominion (for which reason judges and saints in the Old Testament, could be called “gods”, and Satan, as the wicked ruler of this world, and as possessing a degree of dominion over the world, is called “the god of this world”). To call the Trinity a God, “one God”, then, is to declare the Trinity, according to the very meaning of the term “God”, to be a person who possesses Godhood (or dominion). To declare the Trinity to be one God is to take a personal title, which can only be used of a single person, and apply it to the Trinity: thus in declaring the Trinity to be “one God” semi-modalism necessarily confesses the Trinity to be a single person.

This person is treated as such; he is also called “one Lord” according to the pseudo-Athanasian Creed, another title that properly denotes a single person who possess lordship, thus again affirming the personhood of the Trinity as a whole. Likewise, in semi-modalism the Trinity is treated as a person by the ubiquitous usage of singular personal pronouns for the Trinity as a whole, and the Trinity, spoken of under such language, even receives prayer and hymns directed to it as its own person; for example:

“This is our God;
This is one God;
This is the one and only God;
O Blessed Trinity.

To him we all pray,
The one whom we implore,
The one who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
O Blessed Trinity.” (3rd Hymn of Marius Victorinus)

The identity of the person who has supreme dominion over all, as is denoted by the phrase, “one God”, then, is according to semi-modalism a person never mentioned in the scriptures, a person who is the Trinity itself as a whole. This is contrary to the scriptural claim of the rule of faith, which expressly identifies the “one God”, that person who possesses dominion over all, as the Father in particular. Semi-modalism seeks to take this unique prerogative away from the Father, and give it to another person; it is clear then, that semi-modalism here contradicts the ancient rule of faith.

The second point upon which semi-modalism contradicts the rule of faith is very similar to the first: Semi-modalism denies the first article of the faith by denying that the Father is the Almighty.

The ancient rule of faith almost always includes this detail, that not only is there one God, the Father, but that He is Almighty. To modern ears this may seem strange; our conception of what is signified by “Almighty” usually pertains to strength in the sense of ability; it is one of many divine attributes, and its constant inclusion in the first article of the rule of faith can seem out of place. Why only list one of many attributes, and always that one?

The reason for this is because “Almighty” in its original meaning was not talking about ability or strength, but authority; the Greek word rendered “Almighty” is ‘Pantokrator’, which literally means, ‘Ruler over all’, or ‘Supreme Ruler’. Not talking about innate or natural ability at all, but about authority, this term is limited by scripture to the person of the Father alone, and the early church, likewise kept this association. Its inclusion in the rule of faith can be seen as an explanation of what is meant by “One God”: there is one God, because there is one Almighty, one Pantokrator, only one person Who has supreme dominion and authority over all absolutely- the Father.

As we said above, this is the essence of Christian monotheism; while there are many to whom the word “god” can be applied to in a limited sense, there is only one, according to the scriptures, who has dominion over all absolutely, and so, one God, the Father. As all things are from the Father, and He has dominion over all that is from Him, so He rightly has dominion over all things. As Irenaeus said “God is not ruler and Lord over the things of another, but over His own; and all things are God’s; and therefore God is Almighty, and all things are of God.” (Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching)

The theological significance of the term “Almighty” then, has to do primarily with authority, not natural ability. Since this term then signifies a ‘Supreme Ruler’, it is firstly evident that the title must belong to a person, since all rulers are necessarily persons; and secondly, it is evident that this title can belong to only one person, and no more, by the very nature of its meaning. To be Ruler over all, or Supreme Ruler, Almighty, is to have dominion over all absolutely; this then admits of no equal, since if there were another with equal authority, then the original subject, not being Ruler over His equal, would not be Ruler over all. If there is an Almighty, a Pantokrator, then, He alone can be such, by the very definition of the term; and the rule of faith, like scripture, clearly tells us this is the Father, Who is the One God.

Semi-modalism, however, insists on making all three persons of the Trinity equal in authority:

“13. So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty…. 25. And in this Trinity none is afore or after another; none is greater or less than another. 26. But the whole three persons are coeternal, and coequal.” (Pseudo-Athanasian Creed)

This declaration that the Son and Spirit have equal authority with the Father, then, is a denial that the Father is Almighty. It is not possible to have three with equal authority, and yet have a supreme authority; none having greater authority over the other, none is supreme over the others, and so there is no absolutely supreme authority. If the three persons are equal, none of them rules over all, none is Pantokrator, none is Almighty. Semi-modalism is then, on this point squarely opposed to the rule of faith.

But semi-modalism, nonetheless, being self-contradictory, claims nonetheless that there is one Almighty- the Trinity as a person.

“14. And yet they are not three almighties, but one Almighty.” (Pseudo-Athanasian Creed)

Again, the Trinity is clearly treated as a single person in this case, since it is being declared to be the Supreme Ruler over all. If the Trinity is then a ruler of any kind, then it is, according to the meaning of the words, a person who rules; no ruler is not a person. Semi-modalism then once again attempts to rob the Father of one of his prerogatives and apply it instead to the Trinity conceived of as a person.

In sum, semi-modalism, when it declares the Trinity to be one person who is Almighty, declares the Almighty to be a different person than the rule of faith does; on the other hand, if a semi-modalist objects that they do not think the Trinity is a person, yet make the persons out to be equal in authority, they will still deny the rule of faith, by denying not only that the Father is Almighty, but that there is any Almighty, any Supreme Ruler over all, at all. All-in-all, semi-modalism shows itself to be irreconcilably at odds with the rule of faith on both the identity of the one God, and the identity of the Supreme Ruler over all, both of Whom the rule declares to be one and the same person, the Father.

In our third point, we consider that semi-modalism denies the second and third articles of the faith by taking away the distinct existence of the Son and Spirit as two distinct persons besides the one God, by making all three persons of the Trinity into a single person. By making the Trinity out to be a single person, as classical modalism did, semi-modalism denies the real identities of the Son and Holy Spirit. To put the matter simply: in the rule of faith, the Son and Spirit are two distinct persons besides the one God; in semi-modalism, the Son and Spirit are effectively part of the one God as “persons of” or “within” the one God.

We see this come to bear especially clearly in scholastic articulations of semi-modalism. In short, the Father, Son, and Spirit are defined as not being three individual realities (that is three persons), but as only one individual reality, as per the Fourth Lateran Council.

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

In this defining of Father, Son, and Spirit as one individual reality, semi-modalism is no different than classical Sabellianism. The Trinity itself is defined as a single supreme reality or being which is the principle of all things. If the Father, Son, and Spirit are all one rational individual Being (the very definition of a person), then the true distinct existence of the Son and Spirit as two other distinct rational Beings (that is, two distinct persons) in addition to the first is denied. The Son and Spirit are made to no longer be the Son of the one God and the Spirit of the one God, but mere “modes of subsistence” within him. The reality of both the Son and Spirit’s distinct existence from the Father in consumed into a single “supreme reality” which is all three. Rather than being worshipped as the Son of the Almighty, Christ is worshipped as the Almighty, as being, ultimately, the self-same person with the Father. Rather than being worshipped as the Son of the one God, the Son and Spirit are worshipped as themselves being the one God, as being one person with the Father.

As Samuel Clarke wrote:

“They who are not careful to maintain these personal characters and distinctions, but while they are solicitous (on the one hand) to avoid the errors of the Arians, affirm (in the contrary extreme) the Son and Holy Spirit to be (individually with the Father) the Self-existent Being: These, seeming in the Words to magnify the Name of the Son and Holy Spirit, in reality take away their very Existence; and so fall unawares into Sabellianism, (which is the same with Socinianism.)” (Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity, Thesis 23)

This is quite at odds with the ancient rule of faith, which everywhere treats the Son and Spirit as truly distinct persons besides the Father. The Son in being Son, must necessarily be a distinct person; likewise, in being our “one Lord” He most clearly is a person, for a Lord is a person who possess lordship. The rule of faith, likewise, in teaching that the Spirit spoke through the prophets and was sent by the Son unto believers, teaches His existence as a third distinct person. Semi-modalism’s denial, then, of the distinct personal existence of the Son and Spirit, constitutes a clear denial of the second and third articles of the rule of faith.

Finally, let us examine our fourth point, related to the last, that semi-modalism denies the second article of the faith by denying that Christ is the Son of the one God. This is quite simple; if Christ is merely a person of the one God, a mere mode of subsistence of the one God, the Trinity conceived of as a person, as semi-modalism makes Him out to be, then He is not Himself the Son of the one God. For a Son, anyone will admit, is a distinct person from the person whose Son they are. They must be another besides the one whose Son they are, who relates to that person as a Father. If Christ is a mere subsistence of the one God, as semi-modalism says, then He relates to the one God as a mode of His subsistence, not as His Son; He is not begotten of Him, but rather is Him. On the other hand, if He were the Son of the one God, as the rule of faith says, then He must be another distinct individual being besides the one God, begotten from Him. He will no longer then be considered a mode of subsistence of the one God, but His Son. In short, Christ can either be the Son of the one God, or a mode of subsistence of one God, a person of God. The rule of faith teaches the former, semi-modalism the latter; their teachings are mutually exclusive.

In the end, then, we are forced to the conclusion that semi-modalism constitutes a rejection of the rule of faith; in total, it denies all three articles, and strikes at the very heart of what the rule of faith sets out to clearly confess: the identities of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. While the rule of faith, with scripture, says that the Father is the one God, the Almighty, Ruler over all, semi-modalism denies this, assigning these prerogatives to another person neither mentioned in the rule of faith nor scripture, “God the Trinity”, “the triune God”, the Trinity conceived of as a person, a god every bit as fictitious as those of Marcion and the gnostics of old, against which the same rule of faith was asserted to convict them of heresy. Likewise, while scripture and the rule of faith teach us to believe in the Son and Holy Spirit as two distinct persons in addition to the one God, semi-modalism ultimately denies the very existence of the Son and Spirit along with Sabellius and Praxeas of old, by making them out to be one and the same individual reality or being with the Father. Finally, while the rule of faith, like scripture, declares Jesus Christ to be the Son of the one God, semi-modalism denies this by making Him out to be nothing more than a subsistence or ‘person’ of the one God, denying that the Son relates to the one God as a Son.

To anyone willing to look at these matters objectively, it should be clear that semi-modalism blatantly contradicts the rule of faith at several points. That those who expound semi-modalism do not admit the contradiction between their heresy and the rule of faith should be of no surprise, and does nothing to lessen the real contradiction between these two opposing systems of doctrine. Arians too, we may recall, would not admit to violating the rule of faith with their heresy either; but sought to cunningly evade detection by means of equivocation. So semi-modalists do the same, yet, as in the case of the Arians, in truth it is inescapable that their doctrine contradicts the rule of faith, when their beliefs are brought out into the open.

In the end, one must choose between that ancient faith handed down once for all, as taught by the scriptures and preserved by the early church in the rule of faith, and semi-modalism. By the standards of that ancient rule, semi-modalism is every bit as much heresy as Sabellianism and Gnosticism; in its elaborate speculative denials of the first article of the faith, it bears a strong resemblance to gnosticism indeed; one might say semi-modalism is the new gnosticism. And like gnosticism of old, Christians will do well to shun it as the heresy it is, and in instead hold fast to that apostolic rule of faith, that ancient and scriptural safeguard against heresy.

 

Thoughts on Samuel Clarke’s 55 Theses, Part 2: Theses 16-30

I am in general agreement with the views Clarke expresses in his theses. There are, however, a few points of disagreement over details, and things that I believe could benefit from further clarification or commentary, that I set out to supply in these posts.

Respecting thesis 17, Clarke seems to rely very heavily on the opinion of the ancient writers. They, of course, serve well as witnesses to what is true; but what is known to be true, is ordinarily known only on the basis of demonstration from the holy scriptures, as the only special revelation ordinarily available to us, and thus, the only ordinary basis for knowledge of doctrinal truth. What Clarke says may be supplemented by a brief demonstration from the scriptures, that the Father begat the Son as an act of will.

This can be seen from that fact that scripture lays out, as a rule, that God does as He pleases (Ps 115:3, Ps 135:6). What God does, then, is what He has pleased to do, what he has willed to do; and it is unfitting to a pious notion of God to suppose that He is encumbered by any external necessity, He Who alone is from none, having no cause, source, nor origin, and owing nothing of what He is to anyone. He Himself is supreme in authority and headship over all absolutely (thus He is called, in scripture, the Lord God Pantokrator, or Supreme Governor over all), and so is under the authority of none. He is from none, and under the authority of none; He simply is without cause, source, or origin; and all things are from Him, and under His Godhood, dominion, and authority, even His own Son and Spirit, and all creation He has made through His Son.

Since, then, as a rule, the Father does what he wills, we may then safely say that what He does, is what He has willed to do. The question then of whether God begat the Son by an act of will is then simply reduced to the question, did God beget the Son? If He did, He did so willingly; and He most certainly did, according to the clear testimony of scripture.

In thesis 19, Clarke for some reason adds that the Spirit is not only from the Father, which He truly is, but that He is from the Father through the Son. Why a man so committed to sola scriptura, and willing to throw off common biases to look at theological matters as rationally and objectionably as possible, would here maintain the filoque, is an utter mystery to this author. Surely it is plausible; but what appears to be wanting, is any definite reason to suppose that it positively is the case, from the holy scriptures. Without demonstration of a given point of doctrine from the holy scriptures, it can hardly be regarded as definitely being true, or rightly be made a point of dogma.

Thesis 25 may be clarified further, in my opinion, to note particularly that Godhood, or divinity, biblically, is dominion. As Sir Isaac Newton observed:

“This Being [God] governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all: And on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God Pantokrator [Greek word usually translated “Almighty”], or Universal Ruler. For God is a relative word, and has a respect to servants; and Deity is the dominion of God, not over his own body, as those imagine who fancy God to be the soul of the world, but over servants. The supreme God is a Being eternal, infinite, absolutely perfect; but a being, however perfect, without dominion, cannot be said to be Lord God; for we say, my God, your God, the God of Israel, the God of Gods, and Lord of Lords; but we do not say, my Eternal, your Eternal, the Eternal of Israel, the Eternal of Gods; we do not say, my Infinite, or my Perfect: These are titles which have no respect to servants. The word God usually signifies a Lord; but every lord is not a God. It is the dominion of a spiritual being which constitutes a God; a true, supreme, or imaginary dominion makes a true, supreme, or imaginary God.” (Newton, General Scholium)

This Clarke seems to acknowledge, but does not state as clearly as may be desired, and is perhaps too vague in his notion of what Godhood is, as in general being relative- which it is; but does not clearly define it, as it is, as being dominion specifically.

 

Samuel Clarke’s 55 Theses, Part 2: Theses 16-30

Here is part 2 of section 2 of Samuel Clarke’s Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity. The introduction is available here. The first part, theses 1-15, can be read here. My comments on the first part can be read here.

XVI.

     They therefore have also justly been censured, who taking upon them to be wise above what is written, and intruding into things which they have not seen; have presumed to affirm [Gr text] that there was a time when the Son was not.

See beneath, thesis 17.

XVII.

     The Son (according to the reasoning of the primitive writers) derives his Being from the Father, (whatever the particular manner of that derivation be,) not by mere necessity of nature, (which would be in reality self-existence, not filiation;) but by an act of the Father’s incomprehensible power and will.

Notes on thesis 17.

     It cannot be denied but the terms [Son and beget] do most properly imply an act of the Father’s will. For whatever any person is supposed to do, not by his power and will, but by mere necessity of nature; ’tis not properly He that does it, but necessity of fate. Neither can it intelligibly be made out, upon what is founded the authority of the Father, and the mission of the Son, if not upon the Son’s thus deriving his Being from the Father’s incomprehensible power and will. However, since the attributes and powers of God are evidently as eternal as his Being; and there never was any time, wherein God could not will what he pleased, and do what he willed; and since it is just as easy to conceive God always acting, as always existing; and operating before all ages: it will not at all follow, that that which is an effect of his will and power, must for that reason necessarily be limited to any definite time. Wherefore not only those ancient writers who were esteemed Semi-Arians, but also the learnedest of the fathers on the contrary side, who most distinctly and explicitly contended for the eternal generation of the Son, even they did still nevertheless expressly assert it to be an act of the Father’s power and will.

“Him [saith Justin Martyr] who, by the will of the Father, is God; the Son and Messenger of the Father.” (Dial. cum Trypho.)

Again: “For he hath all these titles [before-mentioned, viz. that of Son, Wisdom, Angel, God, Lord, and Word,] from his ministering to his Father’s will, and from being begotten of the Father by his will.” (Ibid.)

And in that remarkable passage, where he compares the generation of the Son from the Father, to one light derived from another; he adds, “I have said that this Power [meaning the Son] was begotten of the Father, by his power and will.” (Ibid.)

[Note: In all these passages, the words [Gr text], signify evidently, not volente, voluntate; not the mere approbation, but the act of the will. And therefore St. Austin is very unfair, when he confounds these two things, and asks (utrum Pater sit Deus, volens an nolens,) whether the Father himself be God, with or without his own will? The answer is clear: He is God, [volens,] with the approbation of his will; but not voluntate, not [Gr text], not, [Gr text], not by an act of will, but by necessity of nature.]

Irenaeus frequently styles the Son, [Latin text] the eternal Word of God; and affirms, that [Latin text] he always was with the Father, that [Latin text] he did always co-exist with the Father; and blames those who did [Latin text] ascribe a beginning to his production: And yet (I think) there is no passage in this writer, that supposes him to be derived from the Father by any absolute necessity of nature.

Origen speaks thus concerning the time of the Son’s generation: “These words, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee; are spoken to him by God, with whom it is always today: For there is no evening nor morning with him: but the time co-extended, if I may so speak, with His unbegotten and eternal life, is the today in which the Son was begotten: So that the beginning of his generation can no more be discovered, than of that day.” (Comment. in Joh. pag. 31.) And yet none of the ancient writers do more expressly reckon the Son among the [Gr text] Being derived from the power and will of the Father, than Origen: See the passage cited above, in thesis 14.

Novatian expresses himself thus: “The Son, being begotten of the Father, is always in [or with] the Father: —- He that was before all time, must be said to have been always in [or with] the Father.” (De Trin. c. 31.) And yet in the same chapter he expressly adds: “The Word, which is the Son, was born of the Father, at the will of the Father: —- He was produced by the Father, at the will of the Father. (Ibid.) Upon which passages the learned Bp Bull makes this remark: “When the Son is said to be born of the Father, at the will of the Father, that will of the Father must be understood to be eternal.” (Defens. Sect. 3. cap. 8. S 8.)

And Alexander Bishop of Alexandria: “We believe (saith he) that the Son was always from the Father. But let no one by the word [always,] be led to imagine him to be self-existent. For neither the term, was; nor, always; nor, before all ages; mean the same as being self-existent. —- The phrases, was; and, always; and, before all ages; whatever their meaning be, cannot imply the same as self-existence.” (Theodorit. lib. 1. c. 4.)

Eusebius, in the following passages, expresses his sense of the Son’s being always with the Father: “The singular [saith he] and eternal generation of the only begotten Son.” (Eccles. Theol. 1. 1, c. 12.) And again; “‘Tis manifest that the only-begotten Son was with God his Father, being present and together with him, always and at all times.” (Lib. 2. c. 14.) And again; “But [the consideration of Christ before his incarnation] must extend back beyond all time, and beyond all ages.” (Demonstr. Evang. lib. 4, c. 1.) And again; “That the Son was begotten; not as having at a certain time not been, and then beginning to be; but being before all ages, and still before them, and being always present as a Son with his Father; not self-existent, but begotten of the self-existent Father; being the only-begotten, the Word, and God from God.” (Ibid. c. 3.) And again; “That the Son subsisted from endless age, or rather before all ages; being with Him, and always with him who begat him, even as light with the luminous body”: (Ibid. 1. 5. c. 1.) [Which similitude ** how far it is true, see explained in the following page.] ** See my commentary on 40 select texts, in answer to Mr. Nelson, p. 158. And again; “To Him, [viz. to the Father] is intercession made for the salvation of all, by the pre-existing only-begotten Word Himself, by him first and only, who is over all, and before all, and after all, the great High Priest of the Great God, ancienter than all time and all ages, [Gr. the ancienter of all time and of all ages,] sanctified with the honor and dignity of the Father.” (De land. Constantini, c. 1.) And again: “The only-begotten Word of God, who reigneth with his Father from beginningless ages, to endless and never-ceasing ages. (Ibid. c. 2.)

And yet nobody more expressly than the same Eusebius, declares that the Son was generated by the power and will of the Father: “The Light [saith he] does not shine forth by the will of the luminous body, but by a necessary property of its nature: But the Son, by the intention and will of the Father, received his subsistence so as to be the Image of the Father: For by his will did God become the Father of his Son, and caused to subsist a second light, in all things like unto Himself.” (Demonstr. Evangel. lib. 4, cap. 3.) And again; “Receiving before all ages a real subsistence, by the inexpressible and inconceivable will and power of the Father.” (Ibid.)

And the Council of Sirmium: “If any one says that the Son was begotten not by the will of the Father, let him be anathema. For the Father did not beget the Son by a physical necessity of nature without the operation of his will; but he at once willed, and begat the Son, and produced him from Himself, without time, and without suffering and diminution himself.” (Anathemat. 25.) And this canon, saith Hilary, was therefore made by the Council, “lest any occasion should seem given to heretics, to ascribe to God the Father a necessity of begetting the Son, as if he produced him by necessity of nature, without the operation of his will.” (De Synod.)

And Marius Victorinus: “It was not [saith he, speaking of the generation of the Son,] by necessity of nature, but by the will of the Father’s Majesty.” (Adv. Arium.)

And Basil the Great: “God [saith he] having his power concurrent with his will, begat a Son worthy of Himself; he begat him, such as he Himself would” (Hom. 29.)

And again: “It is the general sentiment of all Christians whatsoever, that the Son is a Light begotten, shining forth from the unbegotten Light; and that He is the True Life and the True Good, springing from that Fountain of Life, the Father’s goodness.” (Contr. Eunom. lib. 2.)

And Gregory Nyssen: “For neither [saith he] doth that immediate connection between the Father and the Son, exclude [or, leave no room for the operation of] the Father’s will; as if he begat the Son by necessity of nature, without the operation of his will: neither does the supposition of the Father’s will [operating in this matter,] so divide the Son from the Father, as if any space of time was requisite between, [for the will of the Father to operate in.]” (Contr. Eunom. lib. 2.)

And again: “If he begat the Son when he would, (as Eunomius contends;) it will follow, that since he always willed what is good, and always had power to do what he would, therefore the Son must be conceived to have been always with the Father, who always wills what is good, and always has power to do what he wills.” (c. Eunom. 8.)

And, among modern writers, the learned Dr. Payne: “There are several things, I own [saith he] in the blessed Trinity, incomprehensible to our reason, and unaccountable to our finite understandings —-; As, why, and how an infinite and all-sufficient God, should produce an eternal Son, —-; Whether this were by a voluntary or a necessary production; etc.”

XVIII.

     The [Logos, the] Word or Son of the Father, sent into the world to assume our flesh, to become man, and die for the sins of mankind; was not the [[Gr text], the] internal reason or wisdom of God, an attribute or power of the Father; but a real Person, the same who from the beginning has been the Word, or Revealer of the will, of the Father to the world.

See the texts, No 535, 680, 654, 616, 617, 6 18, 607, 612, 638, 574, 584, 586, 588, 569, 631, 641, 642, 652, 672.

See beneath, theses 22 and 23.

Notes on thesis 18.

     That [the [Gr text], the [Gr text], the [Gr text],] the Word, the Wisdom, the Power, of the Father, was inseparably united to Christ, and dwelt in him, [the Father which dwelleth in me, he doth the works, Joh. 14:10;] is acknowledged on all hands, even by the Socinians themselves. But the question is, whether that Logos, of whom it is declared in Scripture that He was made flesh, and dwelt among us; that he came down from heaven, not to do his own will, but the will of him that sent him; that he came in the flesh;  that he took part of flesh and blood; that he was made in the likeness of men, and found in fashion as a man; does not signify the real Person, to whom the forementioned powers and titles belongs, both before and after his incarnation, in different manners.

As to the sense of Antiquity. Among the writers before the time of the Council of Nice, Theolphilus, Tatian, and Athenagoras, seem to have been of that opinion, that [the Logos] the Word, was [the [Gr text]] the internal Reason or Wisdom of the Father; and yet, at the same time, they speak as if they supposed that Word to be produced or generated into a real Person. Which is wholly unintelligible: And seems to be a mixture of two opinions: the one, of the generality of Christians, who believed the Word to be a real Person: the other, of the Jews and Jewish Christians, who personated the internal Wisdom of God, or spake of it figuratively (according to the genius of their language) as of a Person. See my commentary on 40 select texts, in answer to Mr. Nelson, p. 178.

Irenaeus and Clemens Alexandrius, speak sometimes with some ambiguity; but upon the whole, plainly enough understand the Word or Son of God, to be a real Person. The other writers before the Council of Nice, do generally speak of Him clearly and distinctly, as of a real Person. See a large passage of Justin Martyr, in the latter part of his Dialogue with Trypho; where speaking against those, who taught [[Gr text]] that the Son was only a power emitted from the Father, so as not to be really distinct from him; in like manner as men say the light of the sun is upon earth, yet so as not to be a real distinct thing from the sun in the heavens, but, when the sun sets, the light also goes away with it; he, on the contrary, explains his own opinion to be, that as angels  are permanent beings, and not mere powers; so the Son, whom the Scriptures call [[Gr text]] both God and an Angel, [[Gr text]] “is not, like the light of the sun, a mere name [or power,] but a really distinct Being, begotten from the Father by his power and will; not by division, as if the Father’s Substance could be parted, as all corporeal things are divided and parted, and thereby become different from what they were before part was taken from them; but as one fire is lighted from another, [so as to be really distinct from it,] and yet the former suffers thereby no diminution.” And indeed St John himself, styling him [Theos] God, (which can be understood only of a real Person,) Joh. 1:1; compared with Rev. 19:13, where he says, “His name is called the Word of God”; does sufficiently determine the point.

About the time of the Council of Nice, they spake with more uncertainty; sometimes arguing that the Father considered without the Son, would be without Reason and without Wisdom, (which is supposing the Son to be nothing but an attribute of the Father:) and yet at other times expressly maintaining, that the Son was “neither the word spoken forth, nor the inward word [or reason] in the mind of the Father, nor an efflux of him, nor a part [or segment] of his unchangeable nature, nor an emission from him; but truly and perfectly a Son.” (Athanas. Exposit. Fidei.) But the greater part agreed in this latter notion, that he was a real Person: and the learned Eusebius has largely and beyond contradiction proved the same, [viz. that the Son is neither, [Gr text], a mere power or attribute of the Father; nor the same Person with the Father; but a real distinct living Subsistence, and true Son of the Father;] in his Books, de Ecclesiastica Theologia, against Marcellus of Ancyra, a Follower of Sabellius and Paul of Samosat: And particularly, Book I, chap. 8, and chap. 20; which highly deserve the perusal of all learned men.

After the time of the Council of Nice, they spake still more and more confusedly and ambiguously; till at last the Schoolmen, (who, as an + excellent writer of our Church expresses it, “wrought a great part of their Divinity out of their own brains, as spiders do cobwebs out of their own bowels; starting a thousand subtilties, —- which we may reasonably presume that they who talk of them, did themselves never thoroughly understand”;) made this matter also, as they did most others, utterly unintelligible. + Archbishop Tillotson, sermon concerning the unity of the divine nature.

XIX.

     The Holy Spirit is not self-existent, but derives his Being from the Father, (by the Son,) as from the Supreme Cause.

See the texts, No 1148, 1154, 546; and 1149-1197.

See above, theses 5 and 12; and below, thesis 40.

XX.

     The Scripture, speaking of the Spirit of God, never mentions any limitation of time, when he derived his Being from the Father; but supposes him to have existed with the Father from the beginning.

See the texts, No 1132*, 1148, 1154.

See above, theses 3 and 15.

XXI.

     In what particular metaphysical manner the Holy Spirit derives his Being from the Father, the Scripture hath no where at all defined, and therefore men ought not to presume to be able to explain.

See the texts, No 1148, 1154.

See above, thesis 13.

Notes on thesis 21.

     Thus Basil: “If [saith he] you are ignorant of many things; nay; if the things you are ignorant of, be ten thousand times more than those you know, why should you be ashamed, among so many other things, to take in this likewise, that safe method of confessing your ignorance as to the manner of the existence of the Holy Spirit?” (Orat. contr. Sabell.)

And again: “The very motions of our own mind, [saith he,] whether of the soul may be said more properly to create or beget them; who can exactly determine? What wonder then is it, that we are not ashamed to confess our ignorance how the Holy Spirit was produced? For, that he is superior to created Beings, the things delivered in Scripture concerning him do sufficiently evidence: But the title of unoriginated, this no man can be so absurd as to presume to give to any other than to the Supreme God: Nay, neither can we give to the Holy Spirit, the title of Son; for there is but one Son of God, even the only-begotten. What title then are we to give the Spirit? We are to call him the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Truth, sent forth from God, and bestowed through the Son: Not a servant, but Holy and Good, the directing Spirit, the Quickening Spirit, the Spirit of Adoption, the Spirit which knoweth all the things of God. Neither let any man think, that our refusing to call the Spirit a creature, is denying his personality, [or real subsistence:] for it is the part of a pious mind, to be afraid of saying any thing concerning the Holy Spirit, which is not revealed in Scripture; and rather be content to wait till the next life, for a perfect knowledge and understanding of his nature.” (Contra Eunom. lib. 3.)

XXII.

     The Holy Spirit of God does not in Scripture generally signify a mere power or operation of the Father, but more usually a real Person.

See the texts, No 1017, 1032, 1043, 1045, 1046, 1048, 1059*; 1077, 1129, 1138, 1143, 1144, 1147, 1155, 1171, 1172.

See above, thesis 18; and below, thesis 23.

XXIII.

     They who are not careful to maintain these personal characteristics and distinctions, but while they are solicitous (on the one hand) to avoid the errors of the Arians, affirm (in the contrary extreme) the Son and Holy Spirit to be (individually with the Father) the Self-existent Being: These, seeming in words to magnify the name of the Son and Holy Spirit, in reality take away their very existence; and so fall unawares into Sabellianism (which is the same with Socinianism.)

See above, theses 18 and 22.

Notes on thesis 23.

     “It is so manifestly declared in Scripture, [saith Novatian] that He, [viz. Christ] is God; that most of the heretics, struck with the greatness and truth of his divinity, and extending his honor even too far, have dared to speak of him not as of the Son, but as of God the Father himself.” (De Trin. cap. 18.)

And Origen: “Be it so [saith he,] that some among us, (as in such multitude of believers there cannot but be diversity of opinions,) are so rash as to imagine our Savior to be Himself the Supreme God over all; Yet we do not so, who believe his own words, My Father which sent me, is greater than I.” (contr. Cels. lib. 8.)

And Athanasius: “Was not the Son [saith he] sent by the Father? He himself every where declares so: and He likewise promised to send the Spirit, the Comforter; and did send him according to his promise. But now they who run the Three Persons into One, destroy (as much as in them lies) both the generation [of the Son,] and the mission [of the Son and Spirit.]” (contra Sabell.)

And Basil: “If any one [saith he] affirms the same person, to be the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit; imagining One Being under different names, and one real subsistence under three distinct denominations; we rank such a person among the Jews.” (Monachis Suis, epist. 73.)

And again: “Unto this very time, in all their letters, they fail not to anathematize and expel out of the Churches the hated name of Arius: but with Marcellus, who has introduced the directly contrary impiety, and profanely taken away the very existence of the divinity of the only-begotten Son, and abused the signification of the word (Logos,) [interpreting it of the internal reason of the Father;] with this man they seem to find no fault at all.” (Ad Athanas. epist. 52.)

And Nazianzen, speaking somewhere of the same opinions, calls those men [[Gr text]] over-orthodox, who by affirming the Son and Holy Spirit to be unoriginated, did consequently either destroy their personality, that is, their existence; or introduce three co-ordinate self-existent Persons, that, [[Gr text]] a plurality of Gods.

The learned Bishop Bull, speaking of the ancient writers before the Council of Nice: “Though perhaps [saith he] they do indeed somewhat differ from the divinity of the schools; on which, Petavius lays too much stress in these mysteries.” (Sect. 2. cap. 13, S 1.)

And again: “He [viz. Petavius] thought every things jejune and poor, that was not exactly agreeable to the divinity of the schools, itself more truly in most things jejune and poor.” (Sect. 3. cap. 9, S 8.)

XXIV.

     The Person of the Son, is, in the New Testament, sometimes styled, God.

See the texts, No 533-545.

See below, theses 25 and 27.

XXV.

     The reason why the Son in the New Testament is sometimes styled God, is not so much upon account of his metaphysical substance, how divine soever; as of his relative attributes and divine authority (communicated to him from the Father) over us.

See the texts, No 533—-545.

See beneath, thesis 51.

Notes on thesis 25.

     So far indeed as the argument holds good from authority to substance, so far the inferences are just, which in the School of Divinity are drawn concerning the substance of the Son. But the Scripture itself, being written as a rule of life; neither in this, nor in any other matter, ever professedly mentions any metaphysical notions, but only moral doctrine; and metaphysical or physical truths accidentally only, and so far as they happen to be connected with moral.

The word, God, when spoken of the Father himself, is never intended in Scripture to express philosophically his abstract metaphysical attributes; but to raise in us a notion of his attributes relative to us, his supreme dominion, authority, power, justice, goodness, etc. For example: When God the Father is described in the loftiest manner, even in the prophetic style, Rev 1:8, he which is, and which was, and which is to come; tis evident that these words, signifying his self existence or underived and independent eternity, are used only as a sublime introduction to, and a natural foundation of, that which immediately follows, viz. his being (ho Pantokrator) Supreme Governor over all.

And hence (I suppose) it is, that the Holy Ghost in the New Testament is never expressly styled God; because whatever be his real metaphysical substance, yet, in the divine economy, he is no where represented as sitting upon a throne, or exercising supreme dominion, or judging the world; but always as executing the will of the Father and the Son, in the administration of the government of the Church of God; according to that of our Savior, Joh. 16:13 “He shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak.” See below, theses 32 and 41.

XXVI.

     By the operation of the Son, the Father both made and governs the world.

See the texts, No 546, —- 553, 642, 652.

Notes on thesis 26.

     There is hardly any doctrine, wherein all the ancient Christian writers do so universally, so clearly, and so distinctly agree; as in this. And therefore I shall mention but one or two authors.

“There is one God [saith Irenaeus] Supreme over all, who made all things by his Word: —- And out of all things, nothing is excepted; but all things did the Father make by Him, whether they be visible or invisible, temporal or eternal.” (lib. 1, cap. 19.)

Again: “That the Supreme God did by his Word [which, saith he just before, is our Lord Jesus Christ,] make and order all things, whether they be angels, or archangels, or thrones, or dominions; is declared by St. John, when he saith, All things were made by him, and without him was not any thing made.” (Lib. 3. cap. 8.)

And again: “Believing [saith he] in the one true God, who made heaven and earth, and all things that are therein, by his Son Jesus Christ.” (lib. 3, cap. 4.)

And Athanasius: “By whom [viz. by the Son,] the Father frames and preserves and governs the universe.” (contra Gentes.)

And again: “By the Son [saith he,] and in [or through] the Spirit, God both made and preserves all things.”

XXVII.

     Concerning the Son, there are other greater things spoken in Scripture, and the highest titles ascribed to him; even such as include all divine powers, excepting only supremacy and independency, which to suppose communicable is an express contradiction in terms.

Notes on thesis 27.

     The Word, [saith Justin] is the first power (next after God, the Father and Supreme Lord of all,) and it is the Son.” (Apol. 1.)

See the texts, which declare;

That He knows men’s thoughts, No 554, 557, 562, 564, 565, 573, 589, 599, 605, 614, 627, 657, 669.

That he knows things distant, No 571.

That he knows all things, No 606, 613.

That he is the Judge of all, No 582, 623.

That it would have been a condescension in him, to take upon him the nature of angels, No 654.

That he knows the Father, No 555, 576; even as he is known of the Father, No 592.

That he so reveals the Father, as that he who knows Him, knows the Father, No 590, 598, 600, 603.

That he takes away the sin of the world, No 570.

That he forgave sins, and called God his own Father, No 580, 649, 650.

That all things are His, No 604, 608, 655, 656.

That he is Lord of all, No 620, 621*, 622, 630, 633, 638, 651, 652, 665, 679, 681.

That he is the Lord of Glory, No 626, 663.

That he appeared of old in the person of the Father, No 616, 617, 618, 597.

That he is greater than the temple, No 556.

That he is the same for ever, No 652, 662.

That he hath the keys of hell and of death, No 667.

That he hath the Seven Spirits of God, No 670, 674.

That he is Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, No 666, 667, 668, 686,

That he is the Prince of Life, No 615.

That he and his Father are one, [[Gr text]] No 594, 595, 609, 610, 611.

That he is in the Father, and the Father in Him, No 596, 600, 602, 610, 611.

That he is the Power and Wisdom of God, No 625, 644.

That he is holy and true, No 671, 672.

That he is in the midst of them who meet in his Name, No 558, 621, 624, 648.

That he will be with them always, even unto the end, No 560.

That he will work with them and assist them, No 563, 640, 643.

That he will give them a mouth and wisdom, No 566.

That he will give them what they ask in his Name, No 601.

That he hath Life in himself, No 583, 667.

That he hath power to raise up himself, No 572, 593.

That he will raise up his disciples, No 582, 585, 587.

That he works as the Father works, and does all as He doth, No 579, 581, 582.

That he has all power in heaven and in earth. No 559, 578, 628, 629, 639, 646, 653, 664, 671.

That he is above all, No 577, 633, 638, 642.

That he sits on the throne, and at the right hand, of God, No 633, 647, 652, 659, 666, 661, 664, 673, 676.

That he was before Abraham, No 591.

That he was in the beginning with God, No 567.

That he had glory with God before the world was, No 607, 612.

That he was in the form of God, No 638.

That he came down from heaven, No 574, 584, 586, 588; and is in heaven, No 575.

That he is the Head, under whom all things are reconciled to God, No 632, 633, 635, 636, 642, 646.

That in him dwelleth the fulness of the Godhead, No 642, 645.

That he is the Image of God, No 631, 641, 652.

That he is in the bosom of the Father. No 569.

That his generation none can declare, No 619, 658.

That he is the Word of God, No 680, 535; the Son of God, No 561; the only-begotten Son, No 568; the firstborn of every creature; No 641, 642, 672.

See also the texts, wherein are joined together

The kingdom of Christ and of God, No 637, 677.

The throne of God and of the Lamb, No 684, 685.

The wrath of God and of the Lamb, No 675.

The first fruits to God and to the Lamb, No 675.

God and the Lamb, the light of the new Jerusalem, No 683.

God and the Lamb, the temple of it, No 682.

In order to understand rightly and consistently, and in what sense, in several of these passages, many of the same powers are ascribed to Christ, which in other passages are represented as peculiar characteristics of the Person of the Father; it is to be observed, that with each one of the attributes of the Father, there must always be understood to be connected the notion of supreme and independent; but the titles ascribed to the Son, must always carry along with them the idea of being communicated or derived. Thus, for example, when all power is ascribed to the Father; ’tis manifest it must be understood absolutely, of power supreme and independent: but when the Son is affirmed to have all power, it must always be understood (and indeed in Scripture it is generally expressed) to be derived to him from the supreme power and will of the Father. Again; When the Father is said to create the world, is must always be understood, that he of his own original power created it by the Son: But when the Son is said to create the world, it must be understood that he created it by the power of the Father. See and compare thesis 10 above, with this whole thesis 27; and the texts there cited, with those referred to here; particularly No 447, 362, 58, 669, and 789.

XXVIII.

     The Holy Spirit is described in the New Testament, as the immediate Author and Worker of all miracles, even of those done by our Lord himself; and as the Conductor of Christ in all the actions of his life, during his state of humiliation here upon earth.

See the texts, wherein he is declared to be:

The immediate Author and Worker of all miracles, No 996, 997, 1001, 1009, 1011, 1012, 1014, 1015, 1016, 1017, 1018, 1019, 1021.

Even of those done by Christ himself, No 1000, 1010, 1013, 1023.

And the Conductor of Christ, in all the actions of his life here upon earth, No 998, 999, 1002, 1003, 1004, 1005, 1006, 1007, 1008, 1010, 1020, 1022.

XXIX.

     The Holy Spirit is declared in Scripture to be the Inspirer of the prophets and apostles, and the Great Teacher and Director of the apostles in the whole work of their ministry.

See the texts, No 1024—-1073.

XXX.

     The Holy Spirit is represented in the New Testament, as the Sanctifier of all hearts, and the Supporter and Comforter of good Christians under all their difficulties.

See the texts, No 1074—-1120.

Thoughts On Samuel Clarke’s 55 Theses, Part 1: Theses 1-15

As I noted in the preface I wrote to the introduction of Samuel Clarke’s Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity, I am in general agreement with Clarke. Such being the case I am able to highly endorse his book as an excellent resource on the doctrine of the Trinity. However, I also mentioned in that preface, that there are a number of details within the grand scheme of our doctrine with which I disagree with Clarke. It is my hope in this article to briefly outline the main point of disagreement with his first 15 theses.

Firstly, in thesis one, Clarke begins with the a priori assumption that in addition to being the uncaused Cause of all, and autotheos, the person of God is “simple, uncompounded, and undivided”. This one detail, of divine simplicity, seems to me to contradict one of the most fundamental premises of Clarke’s entire work, which is that all our doctrine is to be drawn from the Holy Scriptures, and we ought not go beyond what can be demonstrated from them. I believe Clarke is correct in stating that the rest of thesis 1, minus this clause, is assumed throughout scripture, and moreover it can be demonstrated from the same. But that God is “simple, uncompounded, and undivided,” scripture has nowhere declared. As such, it remains a plausible theory, but it must be acknowledged that, without any positive demonstration from scripture, it remains a merely tentative notion.

In theses 2-3, it should be noted simply for sake of clarity, that when Clarke speaks of the Son and Spirit being with the Father “from the beginning”, this should not suggest to the reader that Their eternality is denied. As can be seen later on, Clarke does not deny it, and it is an important point of revealed doctrine that the Son and Holy Spirit, together with the Father, the one God, are eternal. We may fairly speak of Them as having been “from the beginning”, however, not only in emulation of scripture’s own language, but more technically, in the sense that prior to the beginning, when time was created by God through the Son, there was no space of time which we may properly speak of any person of the Trinity existing in, but They existed before, outside of, and apart from time together, prior to its creation. And it was in this atemporal or pretemporal state in which the Son was uniquely begotten from the Father, and the Spirit drew His origin from the Father.

In thesis 5, Clarke begins employing the somewhat problematic language of “self-existence”, something which ascribes to that Father alone, and later denies to the Son. This is problematic because the bare phrase “self-existent” can be taken in two senses, either in reference to self-caused, or rather, uncaused existence, or in reference to self-sustained existence, and these are two distinct notions. Perhaps one of the greatest flaws of Clarke’s work is his failure to clearly delineate between these two concepts. In the explanatory notes, however, we may observe that Clarke a couple of times equates self-existence with “unbegotten”, which gives us indication that he may have indeed intended it as a way of denoting the idea of uncaused existence. So long as that is how the term is understood, Clarke’s usage of it is accurate; the Father alone is without cause, source, or origin, while the Son has the Father as His own Cause, Source, and Origin. In this usage of “self-existent”, to affirm it of the Father and deny it to the Son is quite true and quite scriptural.

However, we must note that the term can also bear the meaning of self-sustained existence, and must remember that this quality, unlike uncaused existence, is indeed communicable, and was communicated by the Father to the Son. We read in John 5:26 (NASB) “For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself;” this life in oneself, this other sort of ‘self-existence’, we might say, belongs to the Son as well as the Father, because the Father gave it to Him. The very fact that it is received from the Father precludes all possibility of confounding ‘life in oneself’ with uncaused existence, for the Son does not have this quality without cause, source, or origin, but from the Father as His personal Cause, Source, and Origin. This quality of self-sustained existence then deals with perpetual existence; we know that God sustains the existence of all creation perpetually, through the Son. Creation does not possess ‘life in itself’, but is wholly dependent upon the constant action of God, through the Son, in upholding the existence of all things (Heb 1:3). The Son is not like this, He does not stand in need, as creatures do, of being perpetually upheld and sustained in His existence by the Father; having once, before the ages, received life from the Father in His ineffable generation, He forevermore has “life in Himself”, self-sustained existence, as the Father has “life in Himself”, dependent on no other being to sustain or uphold His life whatsoever.

It should simply be noted, for sake of clarity, that in the many places where Clarke speaks “absolutely”, this is an antiquated way of saying, without qualification, such as that when the term “God” is used absolutely, eg, without qualification, it always or almost always refers to the person of the Father.

Relatedly, in thesis 8, Clarke says that the title “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”, when used absolutely, belongs to the Father alone. This is probably correct, so long as we understand then that at the burning bush, the title is not used absolutely, but is modified by the earlier introduction in the passage that the one speaking is the Angel of the LORD, who came down from heaven, the pre-incarnate Son.

In thesis 14, Clarke says that those who hold Christ to be “the self-existent Substance” are worthy of censure. The language of “Substance” is somewhat unclear, but it is quite likely to take that as a reference not to an abstract metaphysical substance, a generic substance or secondary substance, but in reference to a primary substance, an individual, in this case, the Father. I believe it should be understood in the latter sense, especially when we consider that in thesis 4 Clarke simply eschews discussion of secondary substance altogether as going into the area of theory and speculation beyond what we have revealed in the scriptures. To then suppose that he here denies generic co-essentiality outright, would seem to make him contradict himself; while to read “Substance” here as a synonym for person, (as in antiquity especially, it often was), is to read Clarke’s theses in a manner most consistent with themselves. The theory of the generic co-essentiality of the Son with the Father, remains a wholly plausible one.

The Semi-Modalism of Marius Victorinus

Marius Victorinus is not the best-known church father. Of his works, we have his book on the Trinity preserved, authored sometime between 355-364 AD. This puts the authorship of the book right in the middle of the ongoing Nicene controversy, and is a valuable resource in giving us another individual perspective of what the fourth-century ecclesiastical melee looked like.

Marius Victorinus was a Homoousian, which is valuable for a number of reasons. He is also one of the earliest examples of semi-modalism this author is aware of. Besides advocating such radical departures from previous church tradition as defining the Trinity as the one God, rather than the Father in particular, Victorinus also provides us an excellent example of what the Homoians of the fourth century were trying to avoid when they eschewed the term ‘homoousias’.

Marius Victorinus goes much farther than other more moderate and orthodox Homoousians like Athanasius and Basil, who carefully defined what they meant by ‘homoousias’ as indicating that the persons of the Trinity share a generic unity of metaphysical nature. Marius Victorinus provides yet another example in a long list of fourth century fathers such as Marcellus of Ancyra and Scotinus of Galatia who advocated the term ‘homoousias’ while insisting on a modalistic or semi-modalistic trinitarianism. The Homoian and Homoiousian opposition to the term ‘homoousias’ can be better understood in light of the startlingly modalistic way several contemporary advocates of ‘homoousias’ meant the term to be understood. The idea that the term was modalistic was not merely some distant memory of ante-nicene Sabellian usage of the term, nor an insightful prediction of how the term could eventually be taken wrongly in the future- it was right before the eyes of the fourth century moderates who advocated the use of other terminology.

The following sampling of quotes is taken from: Victorinus, M. (1981). Theological Treatises on the Trinity. (H. Dressler, Ed., M. T. Clark, Trans.) (Vol. 69, p. 334). Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press.

“But Christ irrigates the whole universe, both visible and invisible; with the river of life he waters every substance among the existents. Yet insofar as he is life, he is Christ; insofar as he waters, he is the Holy Spirit; insofar as he is the power of vitality, he is Father and God, but the whole is one God.”

Here we have pretty blatant semi-modalism. In other parts of the book, he distinguishes the persons as distinct individuals, as we shall see, or else we should be inclined to call this simply out-and-out modalism altogether. His theology is also subject to extreme over-philosophization, something the Homoian movement was keen to avoid by sticking to strictly scriptural terminology. For Victorinus, some of this over-phisophizing took the form of seemingly regarding each person individually as being in themselves a Trinity of three as well. This bizarre belief exceeds even semi-modalism, but many of the same ideas are present.

“But although we confess two individuals, nevertheless we affirm one God and that both are one God, because both the Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father.”

“That is why the Father and the Son and the Spirit are not only one reality, but also one God.”

“O God, you are limitless, infinite, invisible, but to some limitless, infinite, and to others invisible, to thyself limited, finite, visible;
Hence, then, you also have form; therefore you are identical with Logos because Logos is form;
And because to you form is knowledge, but knowledge is Holy Spirit, therefore you are God and Logos and Holy Spirit.
O Blessed Trinity.”

In saying, “You are God and Logos and Holy Spirit”, Victorinus anticipates the Augustinian tradition’s later semi-modalistic articulation of the Trinity, since the persons together are spoken of and related to as if They form a single person.

“You also O Holy Spirit are knowledge;
But all knowledge is knowledge of form and substance; therefore you know God and have the form of God;
Hence you are God and Son, O Holy Spirit;
O Blessed Trinity.”

Here we see and example of each person being a sort of Trinity within the Trinity. While calling this “insanity” seems harsh, I am at a loss of what else could well-describe this.

“One substance therefore is God, Logos and Spirit, dwelling in three and existing thrice in all three;
But this is both form and knowledge;
So every simple singularity is tripled;
O Blessed Trinity.”

So we see again each person is a Trinity within a Trinity.

“The three are therefore one,
And three times over,
Thrice are the three one,
O Blessed Trinity”

Some moderns wonder at why anyone would object to a Nicene understanding of the term ‘Homoousias”, and the concept of co-essentiality, especially when it is carefully defined as Athanasius meant it. People saying things like the above quote are a major part of the answer to that question. Not all Homoousians were Athanasius- within the ranks of this vocal minority were some whose theology should make anyone reconsider the wisdom of making the term dogma.

Finally we come to this:

“This is our God;
This is one God;
This is the one and only God;
O Blessed Trinity.

To him we all pray,
The one whom we implore,
The one who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
O Blessed Trinity.”

Unlike even most contemporary Homoousians, Marius Victorinus could not be more emphatic that the one God of Christianity is the Trinity as a whole, (and as a Trinity of Trinities, apparently). While we have limited access to early sources, the fact that it is in the modalistic ravings of a nutcase like this that we first begin to see monotheism’s emphasis shifted from the person of the Father as the one God to the Trinity as the one God should be deeply worrying to those who favor the same language. We also see the Trinity being treated as a single person, being called collectively by single personal pronouns, and having worship directed to it as a single entity.

It would take a while for Victorinus’s emphases to work their way into the mainstream of Homoousian thought. Eventually Augustine would adopt very similar language in his treatment of the Trinity; in the meantime, other prominent Homoousians like Hilary of Poitiers and Basil of Caesarea would remain on the more moderate side of the Homousian party, and continue to generally stick to more traditional-sounding formulations.

The similarity between Marius Victorinus’s articulations of (what I shudder to refer to as) the Trinity and that of Augustine later are no simple co-incidence. According to Augustine, in his Confessions (Book 8, 2, 3-6), Marius had a significant influence on Ambrose, and by extension, his student Augustine. According to Augustine’s account of Victorinus’s conversion from paganism, Victorinus, originally from Africa, went to the Roman church to convert, where he seems to have enjoyed great prestige. It seems then that the tradition of ‘latin trinitarianism’, ‘Augustinian trinitarianism’, or semi-modalism, does not truly begin with Augustine, but with Victorinus, a half-century earlier, at least.

Moody Bible Institute Trades Blatant Semi-Modalism For Ambiguity

The Moody Bible Institute made an official change to article 1 of their doctrinal statement earlier this year. The statement from Moody can be read here: https://www.moodybible.org/news/global/2018/moodyleadershipdoctrinalannouncement/.

As the statement briefly outlines, the old version, in use since 1928, reads:

“God is a Person who has revealed Himself as a Trinity in unity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit—three Persons and yet one God.”

This was replaced with the following:

“God is triune, one Being eternally existing in three co-equal Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; these divine Persons, together possessing the same eternal perfections, work inseparably and harmoniously in creating, sustaining, and redeeming the world.”

The former version was rightly criticized as inaccurate, and it is encouraging to see that some change has come from that criticism. It blatantly treats the Trinity of three persons as being a single person, which is itself not unusual. What is remarkable about it is rather that it openly uses the specific term “person” for the Trinity, rather than something more ambiguous. Despite the fact that the prominent version of the doctrine of the Trinity in the west for over a millennia has been one which presents the Trinity as a person, it seems it is still considered a theological faux pas to actually come out and use the word “person” for the Trinity as a whole, even among those who in concept believe precisely that.

The original version, however, bears a ring of frank honesty about what its author, and presumably those in charge of the Institute at that time, believed. Like Cornelius Van Til, the original statement is both noteworthy and commendable for coming out and honestly stating the belief of those it represented. Usually the alternative of equivocating over the term ‘person’ is chosen instead, and so such honesty stands out. To believe that the Trinity is a person is rank heresy, but it is more commendable to at least come out in the open about such a belief than it is to attempt to hide it away under the guise of ambiguous and highly philosophical language, as many do.

Unfortunately, it is precisely that sort of ambiguity that marks the new version of the statement. The new versions rightly identifies that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct persons. However, the language with which it replaces the statement that “God is a Person” is quite ambiguous itself. God is now instead defined as “triune”, and “one Being”. This language can be used in reference to an abstract metaphysical nature shared by the persons, as in a Cappadocian view of co-essentiality, although the word “triune” is still ultimately unfitting even in that case. The metaphysical essence that the persons of the Trinity are supposed to share, after all, is not ‘three in one’ (triune), but simply conceived of as being ‘one’.

Calling God a “Being” is extremely ambiguous, since “being” has two significantly different possible meanings in trinitarian thought. “Being” can refer to an individual being, or a generic being. An individual being, if that being is of a rational nature, as the persons of the Trinity are, is a person. A common example of this is that we may call a human person “a human being”. This is used to refer to an individual human, not a generic concept of humanity in general. But, on the other hand, we can speak of “being” as a general concept of a nature as well, such as if one were to say that men in their very being are inclined towards evil. In such a statement about being, “being” is used to denote man’s metaphysical nature in general, not a specific human person.

Similarly, in discussions regarding a co-essential view of the Trinity, “being”, used in a bare and undefined way, is far too ambiguous a term to be helpful. This is because in historic thought on a co-essential Trinity, generic metaphysical essence has been distinguished from individual persons Who possess that nature. Thus the famous slogan, ‘one essence, three persons’. In that slogan that which is one is distinguished from that which is three; essence and person are distinct metaphysical categories.

Since “being”, however, can be used a a synonym for either “essence” or “person”, it confounds this meaningful and necessary distinction, unless it is further clarified. Simple saying that there is one “being” in three persons leaves wide open the possibility that “being” there is to be understood merely as a synonym for “person”, thus being no better than the original statement which it replaces. Rather than being an improvement, if the term “being” is used here as a synonym for “person”, it is rather a dishonest attempt to preserve the sound of orthodoxy while denying it conceptually. If, on the other hand, essence is intended to be denoted, one must wonder what value can be found in leaving the language so ambiguous rather than simply saying what is meant outright in unambiguous language. At the very least, the use of such ambiguous language appears to be there to allow for a heretical reading, even if it is now ambiguous enough to not require a heretical reading.

 

Do the Church Fathers Matter?

Those familiar with this blog will be familiar with the great weight I place on sola scriptura. It is a necessary paradigm for determining true doctrine from false doctrine amid a sea of false teaching. Summed up, it is the principle that we must obey the command to “Test all things, and hold fast that which is good” (1 Thess 5:21); what is “good” being, in respect to doctrine, what is true, and in respect to practice, those practices which are legitimately apostolical and in accord with the will of God; and that what is indeed true in respect to doctrine and legitimate in respect to practice can ordinarily only be known by way of demonstration from the holy scriptures. Ordinarily to know that any doctrine is true or practice legitimate, we must see it demonstrated from the holy scriptures, either by an explicit testimony, or by demonstration that it is a necessary consequence of what is said.

This method will ordinarily provide the Christian with as much knowledge of true Christianity as they can ever hope to have in this world. The word “ordinarily” is inserted because what we really want is knowledge, and knowledge can only come by demonstration from an infallible indemonstrable first principle, taken on faith. Ordinarily this is only the scriptures- but at times in history it has includes other special revelation. God is not limited by the scriptures. But this exception laid aside, we can reasonably speak in generalities; not all of God’s people will hear a prophet speak, an apostle preach, or be visited by an angel. Of course the frequency of these things, the legitimacy of supposed instances of these things, etc, is a highly debated issue, and not something I intend to speak to here. Whether one believes that prophecy is ordinary to the church at all times, or is a rare event largely limited to ancient history and the apostolic era, anyone can agree that at times God has chosen to give men special revelation besides the scriptures, and that this revelation is just as reliable and just as useful a first principle for the discovery of truth as scripture is.

But these things are not common, not equally available to all believers. For instance, I know from the scriptures that some in Corinth prophesied, but I do not know what they said. In contrast to that, all believers have access to God’s infallible revelation in the scriptures. Thus ordinarily, scripture alone is our indemonstrable first principle, and ordinarily, only what can be demonstrated from the scriptures is truly known by the believer. Thus anything beyond what is demonstrable from the scriptures remains a mere theory, and in order for anything to be accepted, it ought to be positively proven from the scriptures. No doctrine that cannot be demonstrated has a place in the dogma of the church.

All that said, given these views, one might wonder why this blog gives so much attention to the early church fathers. After all, if sola scriptura is true, then no one needs the church fathers to come to a knowledge of the truth. Why then should we read the church fathers, or bother studying them at all?

One might argue that we need the church fathers for sake of catholicity. What catholicity is, and that as a paradigm it is flawed I have covered here. The various versions of the paradigm employed by different traditions are woefully arbitrary, inconsistent, and self-defeating. But one version especially is popular with many who value the church fathers. This is called the Vincentian Canon, named after fifth century church father Vincent of Lerins.

Vincent’s big idea is that we should all be catholic, and that what is catholic is what has ‘been believed always, everywhere, and by all’. Its perhaps the simplest form of the catholicity paradigm. And it sounds quite nice. After all, you can fool some people some of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all of the time. Anything that everybody in the church has always agreed on must be a genuine apostolic tradition, it is reasoned. This view lives for ‘patristic consensus’, and whatever is understood to have had a consensus in the early church is deemed ‘catholic’, and true. This is one of the only versions of ‘catholicity’ that doesn’t betray its own name, since, according to this standard, anything that meets it must be truly universal, at least up till a certain point in history.

The Vincentian Canon is a beautiful idea. But it is fatally flawed. Like some mythical creature, its beauty is only dampened by the cold reality that it is not truly attainable. That’s because in order to know that there was a patristic consensus on any doctrine not only takes an enormous amount of research among the many volumes of church fathers available in English translations, and a knowledge of many ancient original languages to access untranslated works which are otherwise inaccessible, but also requires access to the great multitude of patristic writings that are not available to us, because they are lost to history.

In Eusebius of Caesarea’s famous Church History, we get a glimpse at what a fourth century theological library might look like. Eusebius painstakingly takes the time to list the works of many major church fathers, such as Irenaeus. From these lists, we are well aware that the surviving works we have from the many ante-nicene fathers are only a very small portion of what was produced in that era. There are many fathers we have no surviving works from at all. Many are known only by fragmentary quotes from later authors who quoted them in their own preserved works, thereby preserving small portions of otherwise lost books.

As if this is not depressing enough to the eager student of the ante-nicene fathers, we must also remember that the fathers Eusebius gives us lists of works from, and whose works we have preserved, are almost all Greek-speaking fathers from within the bounds of the Roman Empire. Almost all the ante-nicene fathers who we know much about and have surviving works from are from around the Mediterranean basin. Even still, fathers from ancient Roman Britain and Hispania are almost completely unknown. When we consider the ancient churches of Ethiopia, Assyria, China, and India, and how vast they were, we realize that we truly only have a relatively small sampling of ante-nicene writings, and even a relatively small knowledge of ante-nicene authors. We know who influential fathers within the Mediterranean basin area were- but who were the prominent theologians of non-Greek speaking lands? Who were the Irenaeuses and Justin Martyrs of ancient Britain, Ethiopia, China, and India? We simply do not know.

This massive gap in our data is significant. To claim that looking at the small sampling of sources we do have is enough data by which to determine what was believed ‘always, everywhere, and by everyone’, is simply ludicrous. We may make educated guesses. We may see things in which we find consensus among surviving sources, and extrapolate from that incomplete data that it is very likely that all churches would have held a given belief. But we lack the concrete evidence to make a solid case, let alone to suppose that we truly know. After all, on top of everything mentioned above, even what was preserved from the Mediterranean basin was often selectively preserved according to the ‘orthodoxy’ of later periods- works supporting Quartodecimanism, Iconoclasm, non-nicene views of the Trinity, and pre-millennialism, for instance, were far less likely to be preserved than their ‘orthodox’ counterparts.

This means that the Vincentian Canon is impossible- we cannot know what was believed everywhere, always, and by everyone, in the early church. We lack the data, and what those who claim to use this paradigm to discover truth present to us is not what they claim. To base one’s doctrine off such great uncertainty is foolish. It is to make speculation and guesswork into dogma. We should rather base our dogma off an actual knowledge of truth, for which we must go to God’s infallible revelation in the holy scriptures.

All the more so, then, after dismantling the theory of the Vincentian Canon, one might wonder what use studying the writings of the church fathers is? After all, if we cannot gain a certain knowledge of true doctrine and legitimate practice from them, but only what is tentatively true, what is the point of investing effort in understanding their doctrines and beliefs?

The answer is multifaceted. Firstly, sola scriptura does not deny the value of teachers. Scripture affirms the value of teachers to help us understand the truth. Whatever we receive from teachers must be taken as tentative until it is confirmed to be true by demonstration from the holy scriptures- but that tentative instruction is extremely valuable, as a guide to understanding the scriptures, and as a witness to the truths they teach. While doctrines must be confirmed by scriptural demonstration to be known, they can be pointed out to us by teachers. Were it not for such instruction drawing our attention to what scripture says, we would often not understand the scriptures as clearly and fully as we can with the aid of such instruction. The very principle of “Test everything, and hold fast to that which is good” requires that we be receiving some extra-biblical instruction which requires testing.

Studying the church fathers is also valuable in order to avoid novelty. If a doctrine was not believed within the first three centuries of Christianity, it is almost certainly false. The apostles, after all, are the original teachers of the early church. What they taught was the doctrine of the early church. Of course, we do not have a complete record of all that was believed early on. Even honest men make mistakes and err, and false teachers and outside influences may result in certain truths receiving an undeservedly small amount of attention, or being lost early in church history. Certainly, new things were added over time. Seeing a doctrine in the fathers is no assurance that it is true. But the faith handed down once for all was not invented in the sixteenth century. It found a home in the hearts of first century Christians, instructed by the apostles themselves, and those Christians, and their students, remain among the best possible resources at our disposal for tracking down what that apostolic faith is.

Due to the incomplete record of early Christian belief, we may fairly say that not having a record of someone holding a given doctrine within the first few centuries of church history does not mean that it is not true. Scripture is our source of knowledge of what is true, and if some doctrine is demonstrable from it, we can know it is true, even if it lacks patristic witness. Yet, that being said, novelty is still suspect. And so studying the church fathers, and showing one’s beliefs to be in accord with the teachings of the church fathers, bears much value, to see for oneself, and to show others, that one’s views are not the novel inventions of a much later time.

The writings of the church fathers, then, are to be valued highly; not overvalued, as an infallible authority on par with scripture when they are not, but as knowledgable teachers, who can help guide us to the truths taught by scripture, which we will know to be true by seeing them demonstrated from the holy scriptures themselves. Any Christian who neglects them, neglects a valuable help that God has given him, and those who study their writings know how blessed it is to be their students.