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.
The early church fathers express a wide range of views on many topics. Issues of authority and how doctrine was to be determined valid, and the role of scripture, like other topics, saw a variety of views. While not necessarily ubiquitous throughout the early church fathers, several fathers ranging from the ante-nicene through post-nicene eras spoke in favor of what is basically ‘sola scriptura’.
They did not, of course, speak of it by that name. In short, for them, it was the principle that in order for doctrines to be established as true, they must be demonstrated from the scriptures. This idea of demonstration is simply that a given doctrinal proposition must be proven from the scriptures, either by way of an explicit testimony, or else as a necessary deduction from them, in order to be accepted by Christians as true. That it come from an esteemed person or an ecclesiastical authority is not enough- it must be demonstrated from the scriptures, these fathers argued.
The so-called Athanasian Creed, not authored by Athanasius, but by an anonymous medieval author, gives a long summary of Augustinian trinitarian dogma. It was not the product of, nor received the official sanction of, any of the supposed ‘7 ecumenical councils’. It reads as follows:
1. Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith;
2. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.
3. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;
4. Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.
5. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit.
6. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.
7. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit.
8. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated.
9. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible.
10. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal.
11. And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal.
12. As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible.
13. So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty.
14. And yet they are not three almighties, but one almighty.
15. So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God;
16. And yet they are not three Gods, but one God.
17. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Spirit Lord;
18. And yet they are not three Lords but one Lord.
19. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord;
20. So are we forbidden by the catholic religion to say; There are three Gods or three Lords.
21. The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten.
22. The Son is of the Father alone; not made nor created, but begotten.
23. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.
24. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits.
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.
27. So that in all things, as aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.
28. He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.
29. Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe rightly the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
30. For the right faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man.
31. God of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and man of substance of His mother, born in the world.
32. Perfect God and perfect man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting.
33. Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood.
34. Who, although He is God and man, yet He is not two, but one Christ.
35. One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of that manhood into God.
36. One altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person.
37. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man, so God and man is one Christ;
38. Who suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead;
39. He ascended into heaven, He sits on the right hand of the Father, God, Almighty;
40. From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
41. At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies;
42. and shall give account of their own works.
43. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.
44. This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved.
1) Does not the teaching that ‘in the Trinity, none is greater or less than another’, contradict the Lord’s own statement, “My Father is greater than I”?
2) If the response to this is that the statement “My Father is greater than I” must be understood in a nuanced way, so that in once sense the Father is greater than the Son, and in another They are equal, then is the creed not convicted of being too broad in its statement, and in error, since it does not make any such distinction in that place?
3) Does not declaring that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are co-equal contradict the scriptures which say “God is the head of Christ”, and all the passages in the Old and New Testaments in which the Father is said to be the God of the Son, and that the Son acts according to the will of the Father, and can do nothing apart from the Father?
4) Does not declaring that the Son and Holy Spirit are ‘Almighty’ (Ruler over all) together with the Father clearly contradict the scriptures, which only call the Father “God Almighty”, and declare Him alone to be the Head and God of all things, even of His Son and Spirit?
5) Can something which contradicts the scriptures be fairly made to be standard which one must assent to be saved?
6) Does not saying that the Holy Spirit is ‘Lord’ and ‘God’ go beyond what can be proven from the scriptures?
7) Does not saying that the persons of the Trinity share one metaphysical nature go beyond what can be proven from the scriptures?
8) Can something which cannot be either proven nor disproven by the scriptures rightly be set up as a dogmatic standard which on must assent to in order to be saved?
9) Is it in the authority of any earthly man to set up, apart from the scriptures, or against the scriptures, their own opinions as a standard which others must consent to in order to be saved?
10) Does not the Athanasian Creed contradict the creed of the councils of Arminium and Seleucia, which have the approval of an ecumenical council?
11) How can a creed which contradicts the decision of an ecumenical council be counted as the catholic faith?
12) Since the so-called Athanasian creed includes the doctrine that the Holy Spirit proceeds not only from the Father, but from the Father and the Son, which the churches of East reject, how can the doctrine it teaches be counted catholic, or universal?
13) How can a creed which declares an equality of authority between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit by declaring Them to each be equally ‘Almighty’, be said to teach the catholic faith, when this notion contradicts the teaching of the ante-nicenes, who taught that there is a divine monarchy, with the Father, as the one God, at its head? How can a doctrine be called ‘catholic’ or universal, which could not find acceptance among the churches in the first three centuries after the apostles?
14) Does not the creed break with older trinitarian standards when it applies the title of the Son “one Lord”, and the title of the Father “one God” both to the Trinity as a whole instead of those persons individually?
15) How can a creed teaching Chalcedonian christology, which would be neither acceptable to the Gothic and Vandal Homoian churches, the ‘Nestorian’ Oriental Orthodox churches, nor the Coptic Miaphysite churches, be considered to teach the catholic faith? Or what is universal, or catholic, about doctrines which the whole church is not in agreement upon?
16) Is not the language of the Creed that there “the Father is ‘x’, the Son is ‘x’, the Spirit is ‘x’, yet there are not three ‘x’s, but one ‘x'” manifestly paradoxical?
17) Does not such paradoxical language, which is unintelligible to most, constitute a needless stumbling block to the simple and less-educated?
18) If a creed’s use is to express belief, then is it not requisite that for a creed to be useful, it must be believed?
19) How can people be said to believe what they do not understand the meaning of? Merely giving assent to a series of words which one does not comprehend the significance of can hardly be counted as belief, can it?
20) If then the creed, by being needlessly paradoxical and confusing, is unintelligible to the masses, is it not necessarily a useless creed, since it does not make known the actual beliefs of most who are compelled to give assent to it? And if it does accurately represent the beliefs of an elite few, since it fails to meaningfully communicate that view to the masses, is it not also useless on that count?
21) Finally, how can a creed which contains so so many propositions which are contradictory to the scriptures, and so many propositions which are highly controversial among the churches, and rejected by many of them, and which is so confused, paradoxical, and incoherent in what it says, put itself on such a high and lofty pedestal as to say that anyone who holds a different opinion than what it says, or does not think the same way, shall be damned, and is no Christian? Is it not the greatest hubris to put such a creed on the same level with scripture, in making it a standard which must be believed to be saved, although it contains many things not found in the scriptures?
-The joint councils of Arminium and Seleucia met in 359 to resolve the ongoing trinitarian debates of the fourth century. The council of Nicea had succeeded in largely nullifying the threat of Arianism, but also, by introducing highly philosophical, extra-biblical, controversial language of ‘ousia’, ‘being’, or ‘substance’, had continued to be a source of controversy to the churches of the Roman empire.
Basic reason is enough to know that when only one person is spoken of, singular personal pronouns are employed, while when a plural number of persons are in view, this is grammatically reflected by the usage of plural personal pronouns. The inspired scriptures are careful in this respect, since they are in every respect accurate and without error. Every letter of the holy scriptures, the Lord taught, is of value, importance, and significance (Matt. 5:17-18, Matt. 22:32). Thus we can and must learn even from the fine details of scripture, not least of which is the sort of pronouns it uses; ordinarily when scripture uses a singular pronoun, it is intentionally communicating to us that a single person is in view, while it denotes multiple persons by using plural personal pronouns.
“If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater; for this is the witness of God which He has testified of His Son. 10 He who believes in the Son of God has the witness in himself; he who does not believe G
od has made Him a liar, because he has not believed the testimony that God has given of His Son. 11 And this is the testimony: that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. 12 He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (1 John 5:9-12 NKJV)
The truth laid out in these verses is simple- he who has the Son has life; he who does not believe in the Son of God, does not have life. Salvation comes through Jesus Christ, the one Mediator between God and man (1 Tim 2:5), and no one comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6).
To believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, then, is manifestly required for salvation. The confession that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” is central to the true Christian faith (Matt 16:16).
Yet tragically, many professing Christians deny the Son of God. They do this by embracing Augustinian trinitarianism.
The personhood of the Holy Spirit is something many Christians assume. Because we are well used to the idea of the Trinity being a group of three persons, many people come to the texts of scripture with an a priori assumption that the Holy Spirit is person, and that wherever the Spirit of God is mentioned, that is understood to refer to a distinct person from the Father and the Son.
That the Father is the one God is important to know, for scripture reveals it; but it is important to know not only that these words are true, but what those words mean according to the scriptures. How, after all, can the Father be the “one God” (1 Cor. 8:6), while the Son is also called God (Jn 1:1)?
To answer this question it is important to understand what the term “God” even means in itself. It is a term used very frequently throughout the scriptures, not only for the Supreme God, the Father, the “Lord God Pantokrator” (Rev 4:8), but also for beings as low as men and angels. As Jesus noted in John 10:35 “He [God] called them gods, to whom the word of God came”, speaking of a psalm where the men of Israel were called “gods”. In Psalm 82:1 “God stands in the congregation of the mighty; He judges among the gods”, calling created angels gods. Paul is well aware of this when he writes “For even if there are many called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords), 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live.”
Most Christians are willing to recognize that modalism is heresy; yet at the same time, what passes for a rejection of modalism today is so lacking that many closet modalists can seemingly vindicate themselves of being modalists ( in name, at least) while still holding to the same fundamental doctrines as those who openly hold to modalism.
This is because it has become acceptable to respond to modalism by stating that the persons of the Trinity are not identical to each other; the Father is not the Son, nor the Son the Father, and neither of them is the Holy Spirit. And yet, this does not exclude all forms of modalism, nor does it address the fundamental underlying tenet of modalism that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all one person.
As noted in Equivocation Over the Term “Person”, many modern Christians effectively state their belief in trinitarianism as a belief in one person (the Trinity or the essence) who is three persons (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit). This is almost always done by using a synonymous word for “person” in respect to the Trinity as a whole, such as “being”; a word vague enough that it can be used either for an abstract essence or for an individual person, which in most cases like this, is used to mean the latter (a fact often betrayed by the use of singular personal pronouns such as “he” for the “being”). Others will use terms such as “reality”, “thing”, or some other term to describe the person who they conceive of as being three persons; yet using a different word in place of “person” hardly alleviates the problem, since what we ought to primarily be concerned with is not the modes of expression people employ (although these are important), but what is meant by them.
Since, then, the fundamental problem posed by modalism is that it conceives of God as a single individual who somehow is the Father, Son, and Spirit, if we merely require someone to affirm that there is some kind of distinction between “Father”, “Son”, and “Spirit” such as that they are not totally synonymous with each other, we have failed to address the primary issue. Many modalists are willing to affirm such a distinction. While they believe there is only one divine individual, they are also willing to affirm that the names “Father”, “Son”, and “Spirit” refer to three things that are not totally interchangeable with each other.
This distinction may be as shallow as the names themselves; it may extend to seeing them as signifying historically distinct modes by which the one individual manifests himself to the world; or they may view each name as signifying a distinct mode of subsistence within a single individual. Others would view them as effectively signifying different parts of this one individual. All these notions are blasphemous and false; yet by merely accepting the affirmation of some difference between “Father”, “Son”, and “Spirit” as being enough to clear a person of being a modalist, we will have let most modalists pass themselves off as trinitarians with little difficulty.
Even Sabellius himself was willing to say that there were three distinct “personas”, after all. Other early modalists would also try to affirm that while in their minds “Father” and “Son” were the same individual, only the Son died, not the Father. Yet today, it seems we have pushed the threshold of what constitutes trinitarianism so low that those who call the Trinity as a whole a single person, and a single individual, are not regarded as modalists. While they are not given the label they deserve, the underlying beliefs are fundamentally the same. Just as the Sabellians of old taught, if “Father” and “Son” are the same individual, then the Father became man and died on the cross. And yet today this view is tolerated, so long as the person specifies that it was the mode of “Son” that died, not the mode of “Father”.
To really be cleared of modalism, a person must be willing not only to to say that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are somehow distinct, but that They are distinct as three individuals, three real persons. A modalist can say that they are somehow distinct, especially if that modalist is willing to equivocate over the term “person”, using it to mean something less than a really distinct individual. A trinitarian must affirm that there are in reality three distinct individuals, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
If we wish to guard against semi-modalism, we must go farther still. A semi-modalist does affirm that there are really three distinct persons; however, the semi-modalist believes these three persons to be one person as well. This view is nonsensical; yet, it is held by many, more often than not as an unconscious inconsistency in their own thinking. Yet, some would venture to hold such a view consciously, being willing to say that they believe in one person who is three persons, and really mean “three persons” by those words. The only way to guard against such an error is to not only require a confession of three distinct persons, three distinct individual realities, but to also require a denial that those three are one person or individual reality.
Thus the ancient Macrostich says:
“3. Nor again, in confessing three realities and three persons, of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost according to the Scriptures, do we therefore make Gods three; since we acknowledge the self-complete and unbegotten and unbegun and invisible God to be one only, the God and Father (John 20:17) of the Only-begotten, who alone has being from Himself, and alone vouchsafes this to all others bountifully.”
“And those who say that the Father and Son and Holy Ghost are the same, and irreligiously take the three names of one and the same reality and person, we justly proscribe from the Church, because they suppose the illimitable and impassible Father to be also limitable and passable through His becoming man. For such are they whom Romans call Patripassians, and we Sabellians. For we acknowledge that the Father who sent, remained in the peculiar state of His unchangeable Godhead, and that Christ who was sent fulfilled the economy of the Incarnation.”
It is not enough that someone be willing to say the words “three persons”; they must be willing to affirm that they mean that in the sense it is intended, that they believe in three distinct individual realities, not merely three modes or manifestations termed “persons”. Likewise, a trinitarian must be willing to affirm that there is only three persons; this guards against the semi-modalism that imagines a fourth distinct individual (or person) who is the three persons of Father, Son, and Spirit.
In the broad scheme of trinitarian doctrine, there are only three overarching positions to choose from, each of those three being able to be further divided into different variations. These three options are modalism, tritheism, and subordinationism; there are no other alternatives, and every view on the Trinity fits somewhere within these categories.
All three systems broadly agree on the three basic facts that there is one God, and three divine persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But these facts alone, stated this way, are too vague; and the way each system explains how these facts fit together is different. They do not agree on what it means that there is one God, or what it means that there are three divine persons.
Modalism explains monotheism by arguing that there is only one divine person, and thus only one God. It either makes the three persons out to be one person, or else denies either the divinity or the distinct existence of two persons. Sometimes this is done by denying distinct existence of the Son and Holy Spirit, other times by saying that “Father”, “Son”, and “Spirit” are just three different names, or three different modes of manifestation, of one person, other times by declaring that the three persons are ultimately a single person at the deepest level, although on the surface and in a relative way relate to each other as though three persons. Thus by defining the oneness of God as there being only a single divine person, they ultimately deny that there are three divine persons in anything but name only.
Tritheism goes to the opposite extreme by denying that there is truly one God by making the three persons not only really distinct, but also separate, and entirely equal. By proclaiming three independent identical divine persons, they make there out to be three gods. A weak attempt to say otherwise often comes in the form of arguing that there being one God simply means that there is only one divine nature of Godhood, which is shared by the three identical persons. But this falls apart easily, for just as three human persons with one common human nature are three men, so the tritheistic reckoning of three divine persons with one common divine nature makes there out to be three gods.
Subordinationism avoids the pitfalls of modalism and tritheism. There is not one God because there is only one divine person, as there are three divine persons, truly distinct from each other. It likewise avoids the pitfall of tritheism by not making the Son and Spirit identical and equal to the Father, but rather regards them as subordinate. There are various forms of subordinationism, all of which teach that the Son and Holy Spirit are subordinated to the Father as Their Cause and Authoritative Head. Thus, in this classical trinitarianism, there is one God because there is only one Supreme uncaused Cause of all, Who is the one Supreme Authority over all, the person of the Father. Not only is all creation caused by the Father through His Son and Spirit, but His Son was atemporally begotten of Him before the ages, and His Spirit eternally proceeds from Him; thus all things run up into one supreme cause, the Father, Who alone simply is what and who He is without cause, source, or origin. Likewise although the Son has been given all authority in heaven and earth, even He Himself is subject to the Authority of the one Who subjected all things to Him, His God and Father. Thus all authority runs up into one Supreme Authority over all Who has no higher authority above Him. Thus there is one God, the Father, and yet there are three truly distinct divine persons.