One Essence or Same Essence?

In discussions of trinitarian doctrine, its commonplace for people to want to distinguish between “generic unity” and “numerical unity” when talking about consubstantiality. What is meant by “generic unity” is that the persons of the Trinity share in a common essence, meaning that the persons share the same divine nature or genus. This is frequently contrasted with “numerical unity”, the meaning of which tends to vary some. Sometimes, this boils down to describing the persons of the Trinity as a single individual, a single person. In other instances, this is used to try to distinguish between the idea that the persons are of the “same essence” from the idea that They are “one essence”.

This language is somewhat lamentable, as the term “numerical unity” is quite vague, and according to what it sounds like, could just as well be used to refer to generic unity as well, since we can just as well count natures as we can count individuals. The Trinity, of course, is not a single individual, and in cases that this is what is intended by “numerical unity”, it is tantamount to modalism. What I would like to address in this post, however, is the notion that there is a difference between “one essence” and “same essence”.

The short answer is, there is no difference. It is two ways of saying the exact same thing; thus the Nicene Creed, which employs the word ‘homoousias’ (literally homo=same, ousia=essence, ‘same essence’) sees this word translated both ways, but more commonly as “one essence”.

This is an important point, because often, when a distinction is drawn between these two expressions, “one essence” is ultimately getting used in a way that is modalistic. This meaning of “one essence”, as a redefinition of ‘homoousias’ by later theologians contrary to its intended meaning, has been treated in The Grievous Error of the Fourth Lateran Council.

What, then, is the difference? The Fourth Lateran council, and many others, intend to indicate a single individual reality, or person, by “one essence”; whereas the fathers who introduced the language of ‘homoousias’ intended the language to instead signify what gets labeled “generic unity”, that is, that the persons of the Trinity share the same divine nature (contra Arianism).

This idea can just as well be summed up by “one essence” as it can be by “same essence”. This is because when two things are entirely identical, with no difference that distinguished them, either in nature, or subsistence, or body, or time, or space, or any other way that two things are distinguished as being distinct from one another, they cannot rightly be counted as “two”, but as one. In the case of the divine nature, this is precisely what we are dealing with; the nature shared by all three persons is identical in each person, without variation. As a “nature”, or “genus”, then, there is nothing on account of which we could count the nature to anything beyond one. For the persons, then, to share the same nature, is for Them to have one nature, or one essence.

It is noteworthy that the fathers who introduced the language of ‘homoousias’ defined it in terms of this sort of generic unity, a sameness and identicality of nature among the persons of the Trinity. For example, Athanasius said:

“Even this is sufficient to dissuade you from blaming those who have said that the Son was coessential with the Father, and yet let us examine the very term ‘Coessential,’ in itself, by way of seeing whether we ought to use it at all, and whether it be a proper term, and is suitable to apply to the Son. For you know yourselves, and no one can dispute it, that Like is not predicated of essence, but of habits, and qualities; for in the case of essences we speak, not of likeness, but of identity. Man, for instance, is said to be like man, not in essence, but according to habit and character; for in essence men are of one nature. And again, man is not said to be unlike dog, but to be of different nature. Accordingly while the former [men] are of one nature and coessential, the latter are different in both.”

It is significant here that he employs the analogy of three men to define what he means (and he is giving a definition of the word ‘homoousias’ here). Those who would see a difference between “same essence” and “one essence” would be willing to say that men are of the same essence, but not “one essence” as the persons of the Trinity are. Yet, we can see that no such distinction was drawn by those responsible for introducing the language of co-essentiality into trinitarian dogma in the first place.

Also noteworthy is Hilary of Poitiers’s definition of “essence” given in De Synodis:

“Since, however, we have frequently to mention the words essence and substance, we must determine the meaning of essence, lest in discussing facts we prove ignorant of the signification of our words. Essence is a reality which is, or the reality of those things from which it is, and which subsists inasmuch as it is permanent. Now we can speak of the essence, or nature, or genus, or substance of anything. And the strict reason why the word essence is employed is because it is always. But this is identical with substance, because a thing which is, necessarily subsists in itself, and whatever thus subsists possesses unquestionably a permanent genus, nature or substance. When, therefore, we say that essence signifies nature, or genus, or substance, we mean the essence of that thing which permanently exists in the nature, genus, or substance.

Hilary of known as “the Athanasius of the West” and “the hammer of the Arians”; and we see him define co-essentiality in the same way Athanasius did, as teaching that the persons of the Trinity share the same nature or “genus”. For him, “one essence” and “same essence” are the same thing.

Also noteworthy is his admission that ‘homoousias’ and ‘homoiousias’ mean the same thing when each is understood orthodoxly; something those who hold to a later re-definition of ‘homoousias’/’one essence’ are unable to say:

“Holy brethren, I understand by ὁμοούσιον God of God, not of an essence that is unlike, not divided but born, and that the Son has a birth which is unique, of the substance of the unborn God, that He is begotten yet co-eternal and wholly like the Father. I believed this before I knew the word ὁμοούσιον but it greatly helped my belief. Why do you condemn my faith when I express it by ὁμοούσιον while you cannot disapprove it when expressed by ὁμοιούσιον? For you condemn my faith, or rather your own, when you condemn its verbal equivalent. Do others misunderstand it? Let us join in condemning the misunderstanding, but not deprive our faith of its security. Do you think we must subscribe to the Samosatene Council to prevent any one from using ὁμοούσιον in the sense of Paul of Samosata? Then let us also subscribe to the Council of Nicæa, so that the Arians may not impugn the word. Have we to fear that ὁμοιούσιον does not imply the same belief as ὁμοούσιον? Let us decree that there is no difference between being of one or of a similar substance.

Finally, a quote from Basil the Great, a post-nicene father from the following generation:

“The distinction between οὐσία [essence] and ὑπόστασις [person] is the same as that between the general and the particular ; as, for instance, between the animal and the particular man.” (Letter 236)”

“Suppose then that two or more are set together, as, for instance, Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, and that an enquiry is made into the essence or substance of humanity; no one will give one definition of essence or substance in the case of Paul, a second in that of Silvanus, and a third in that of Timothy; but the same words which have been employed in setting forth the essence or substance of Paul will apply to the others also. Those who are described by the same definition of essence or substance are of the same essence or substance when the enquirer has learned what is common, and turns his attention to the differentiating properties whereby one is distinguished from another, the definition by which each is known will no longer tally in all particulars with the definition of another, even though in some points it be found to agree.” (Letter 38)

Here we see again, that ‘homoousias’ was meant by the fathers who promoted it as indicating that the persons of the Trinity share the same divine nature, comparable to how three men share the same human nature.

Finally, it is noteworthy that not only did the fathers who promoted the ‘homoousian’ language not intend it to signify something other than “generic unity”, but they actually rejected other possible definitions of the term “homoousias” that approach what many since have wanted to distinguish as “numerical unity”, that the three persons are in some way a single individual:

“Many of us, beloved brethren, declare the substance of the Father and the Son to be one in such a spirit that I consider the statement to be quite as much wrong as right. The expression contains both a conscientious conviction and the opportunity for delusion. If we assert the one substance, understanding it to mean the likeness of natural qualities and such a likeness as includes not only the species but the genus, we assert it in a truly religious spirit, provided we believe that the one substance signifies such a similitude of qualities that the unity is not the unity of a monad but of equals. By equality I mean exact similarity so that the likeness may be called an equality, provided that the equality imply unity because it implies an equal pair, and that the unity which implies an equal pair be not wrested to mean a single Person. Therefore the one substance will be asserted piously if it does not abolish the subsistent personality or divide the one substance into two, for their substance by the true character of the Son’s birth and by their natural likeness is so free from difference that it is called one.

68. But if we attribute one substance to the Father and the Son to teach that there is a solitary personal existence although denoted by two titles: then though we confess the Son with our lips we do not keep Him in our hearts, since in confessing one substance we then really say that the Father and the Son constitute one undifferentiated Person. Nay, there immediately arises an opportunity for the erroneous belief that the Father is divided, and that He cut off a portion of Himself to be His Son. That is what the heretics mean when they say the substance is one: and the terminology of our good confession so gratifies them that it aids heresy when the word ὁμοούσιος is left by itself, undefined and ambiguous. There is also a third error. When the Father and the Son are said to be of one substance this is thought to imply a prior substance, which the two equal Persons both possess. Consequently the word implies three things, one original substance and two Persons, who are as it were fellow-heirs of this one substance. For as two fellow-heirs are two, and the heritage of which they are fellow-heirs is anterior to them, so the two equal Persons might appear to be sharers in one anterior substance. The assertion of the one substance of the Father and the Son signifies either that there is one Person who has two titles, or one divided substance that has made two imperfect substances, or that there is a third prior substance which has been usurped and assumed by two and which is called one because it was one before it was severed into two. Where then is there room for the Son’s birth? Where is the Father or the Son, if these names are explained not by the birth of the divine nature but a severing or sharing of one anterior substance?

69. Therefore amid the numerous dangers which threaten the faith, brevity of words must be employed sparingly, lest what is piously meant be thought to be impiously expressed, and a word be judged guilty of occasioning heresy when it has been used in conscientious and unsuspecting innocence. A Catholic about to state that the substance of the Father and the Son is one, must not begin at that point: nor hold this word all important as though true faith did not exist where the word was not used.” (Hilary of Poitiers, De Synodis)

 

 

Equivocation Over the Term “Person”

Semi-modalism is the false doctrine that teaches that the three real persons of the Trinity are together a single person. Most semi-modalists, however, refuse to use the term “person” for the Trinity, although conceptually they treat the Trinity as a whole as a person in every way except using that term for it.

For example, instead of saying that they believe that ‘God is a person who is three persons’, they will say that ‘God is a being who is three persons’. This sounds closer to orthodoxy; yet there is no substantial difference in meaning.

Such is the skillful deceptiveness of this soul-poisoning error. By minutely altering that ancient saying “one essence in three persons” to “one being in three persons”, no apparent error is introduced, since “being” is a term vague enough to denote either person or essence. Yet this vagueness is used to alter the meaning entirely from the original.

For when the semi-modalist speak of one “being” who is the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, is it not obvious from their employment of the personal pronoun “who” that they regard this being as a person, just as when we speak of a “human being”, we usually do not refer to the human nature considered in abstract, but to an individual human person? So these deceivers equivocate with the terminology of “being” to teach their counterfeit doctrine of the Trinity, which in truth is no doctrine of the Trinity at all, since by making the Trinity itself as a whole out to be a person they introduce a fourth person, and destroy the doctrine of the Trinity and instead teach a quadrinity.

Yet these false teachers act as though if only they can avoid pronouncing the word “person” they will not be convicted of error by the Lord, as though the word used in expressing oneself is the thing of primary importance, and not the meaning and idea behind it.

Others will say that the Trinity as a whole, that is, the Father, Son, and Spirit together are not one person, (for they deny this word), but rather say that it is a single subsistent “thing” or “reality”. Again we see what vague language they must introduce in order to keep up the subterfuge that they are trinitarians. What then, is this “thing” which is the Father, the Son, and the Spirit together, when we closely enquire as to their meaning?

We find that this “thing” meets the very definition they will admit for “person”; though they pretend they are not the same. For a person, they will say, is an individual subsistence of a rational nature. Thus angels, for example, as being both individual existences and possessing a rational nature, are persons. So too they will admit individual men are persons under this definition, and also the real persons of the Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But what then is this thing? For they identify this “thing”, this “reality” which is the Trinity as truly existing, or subsisting, and define it as being individual and singular, and also regard it as being of a rational nature, namely, the divine nature. In what area then, does it fall short of the definition of “person”? In truth, it does not.

And the same false teachers treat this “thing” which meets the definition of a ‘person’, yet is robbed of the title by them, as being a person in every way. They pray to “God the Trinity”, the “triune God”; they speak of this “thing” using singular personal pronouns; they attribute to it consciousness, will, and action, and speech, and in short, everything pertaining to a person, excepting that they deny it the word “person”. Their deception then is obvious, although perhaps it is as much a self-deception as it is a deception of those who hear them.

Let those then who equivocate over the terminology of “person” give up their subterfuge, and like Van Til, come out and openly admit what they think in language that does not hide it. For by hiding their true belief behind ambiguous language, and equivocating as they do, do they not acknowledge the shamefulness of their own belief? For if it is true, it is noble, for truth is excellent; let them then come out and openly make it known. Or else why do they so dishonor the god of their imaginations by denying him personhood? What insult to the “triune God”, that he may receive men’s worship and prayers, and be called by personal pronouns, and have names and titles belonging to the real persons of the Trinity applied to him, and yet he is denied the honor of being called a person!

Or if those who are merely confused and ill taught speak in these ways, and treat the Trinity as a person in the way they speak, and yet acknowledge that it is in truth an error to regard the Trinity as a whole as a person, and for this reason deny it the term “person”, they do well; but let them then abandon their misunderstanding wholeheartedly, and not waver between truth and error any longer. But let them acknowledge the one true God as a person; the person of the Father. And let them acknowledge a second divine person also, one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of the one true God, and together with Him and His Father, Who is the one true God, let them acknowledge a third divine person, the Holy Spirit. And these three persons together are the Trinity; not a singular person, but a group of three and only three persons, all three of Whom possess exactly the same divine nature, or essence. And so we may return to that ancient formula “one essence in three persons” as it was intended, to denote how the one God, and His only-begotten Son, and His Holy Spirit all share the same divine nature, and not giving in to any system of false doctrine that would confound this formula to teach a person who is three persons.

 

How the Monarchy and Divinity are Special to the Father yet Shared by all Three Persons of the Trinity

Having recently examined the topic of equality and subordination in the Trinity, and discussed how in order to accurately speak of the equality and subordination of the Son to the Father we must not speak broadly of equality or subordination, but must rather distinguish between the categories of nature, headship, and causality. We examined how scripture teaches that the Son is equal with the Father in respect to His divine nature, since He eternally has the same divine nature as the Father, yet in respect to headship and causality the Son is subordinate to the Father as to His authoritative head and origin. This subordination to the Father as His head and origin stems from the fact that the Son has his ontological origin from the Father in being begotten of the Him before the ages, and therefore is truly Son of the Father, eternally under His headship, yet also eternally equal to Him in respect to the divine nature he possesses.

After seeing these points demonstrated from scripture, we also saw a sampling of the extensive testimony given by the orthodox church fathers of the ante-nicene and nicene eras in favor of these points of doctrine.

In this post I want to briefly treat the topic of how the monarchy and divinity both belong to the Father in a special way, yet are shared by all three persons of the Trinity.

By “monarchy” we refer to rulership and headship. The one God, the Father, has headship not only over all creation, but even over His own Son and Spirit. This headship is a monarchy, that is, a rule of one, because it belongs to the Father alone to be supreme head over all, not only over all creatures, but also over the Son and Spirit, as we have said. Yet the Son and Spirit share in the Father’s monarchy, inasmuch as God rules and administrates His kingdom through His Son and Spirit. So the Son and Spirit also enjoy headship over all creation together with the Father, while having the Father as their head, lest by having three equal heads there be no longer a monarchy but a polyarchy. In this way then we see that the monarchy is properly regarded as belong specially to the Father, yet this rule is not limited to the Father, but the headship over all creation is shared by His Son and Spirit as well.

In respect to “divinity” we speak of the divine nature, the single sort of divinity shared by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The one God, the Father, has His own divine nature as proper to Himself, from no source or origin whatsoever. The Father in respect to His person and His divine nature is unbegotten and unoriginate. The one divine nature then, is properly regarded as being in a special way the Father’s divine nature, as He possesses it as His own proper nature, of Himself, and not of another. The Son and Spirit however, as we have expressed before, share this same divine nature, this paternal divinity, as it is communicated to them from the Father in the eternal generation of the Son and eternal procession of the Spirit. The one God, the Father, is divine of Himself; the Son is divine because of His eternal generation from the Father, from which he possesses the paternal divinity. The Spirit, likewise, possesses the paternal divinity which is proper to the Father as He eternally proceeds from Him.

In light of what has been said above, we may properly regard the monarchy the three persons share as the ‘monarchy of the Father’, and likewise, the divinity They share as ‘the Father’s divinity’, while acknowledging that the Son and Spirit share in the Father’s monarchy and divinity.

Subordination and Equality in the Trinity

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

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

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

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

In the category of nature we are dealing with essence, or substance, or genus; the broad elements that are common among many individuals. Basil of Caesarea puts it well: “The distinction between οὐσία [essence] and ὑπόστασις [person] is the same as that between the general and the particular ; as, for instance, between the animal and the particular man.” (Letter 236) In respect to nature, the Father and Son are entirely equal; this is what the Nicene Creed confesses when it say that the Son is co-essential with the Father; He has an exactly identical nature with the Father, admitting of no difference whatsoever.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

““I shall give you another testimony, my friends,” said I, “from the Scriptures, that God begat before all creatures a Beginning,403 [who was] a certain rational power [proceeding] from Himself, who is called by the Holy Spirit, now the Glory of the Lord, now the Son, again Wisdom, again an Angel, then God, and then Lord and Logos; and on another occasion He calls Himself Captain, when He appeared in human form to Joshua the son of Nave (Nun). For He can be called by all those names, since He ministers to the Father’s will, and since He was begotten of the Father by an act of will…” (Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 61)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And now I shall again recite the words which I have spoken in proof of this point. When Scripture says, ‘The Lord rained fire from the Lord out of heaven,’ the prophetic word indicates that there were two in number: One upon the earth, who, it says, descended to behold the cry of Sodom; Another in heaven, who also is Lord of the Lord on earth, as He is Father and God; the cause of His power and of His being Lord and God.” (Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 129)

“For the Word, being Son of the One God, is referred to Him of whom also He is; so that Father and Son are two, yet the Monad of the Godhead is indivisible and inseparable. And thus too we preserve One Beginning of Godhead and not two Beginnings, whence there is strictly a Monarchy. And of this very Beginning the Word is by nature Son, not as if another beginning, subsisting by Himself, nor having come into being externally to that Beginning, lest from that diversity a Dyarchy and Polyarchy should ensue; but of the one Beginning He is own Son, own Wisdom, own Word, existing from It.” (Athanasius, Against the Arians, Discourse 4)

“We believe then In the Only-Begotten Son of God, Who Was Begotten of the Father Very God. For the True God begets not a false god, as we have said, nor did He deliberate and afterwards beget ; but He begot eternally, and much more swiftly than our words or thoughts: for we speaking in time, consume time; but in the case of the Divine Power, the generation is timeless. And as I have often said, He did not bring forth the Son from non-existence into being, nor take the non-existent into sonship : but the Father, being Eternal, eternally and ineffably begot One Only Son, who has no brother. Nor are there two first principles; but the Father is the head of the Son 1 Corinthians 11:3; the beginning is One… Suffer none to speak of a beginning of the Son in time, but as a timeless Beginning acknowledge the Father. For the Father is the Beginning of the Son, timeless, incomprehensible, without beginning. The fountain of the river of righteousness, even of the Only-begotten, is the Father, who begot Him as Himself only knows.” (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 11)

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hilary of Poitiers writes:

“Many of us, beloved brethren, declare the substance of the Father and the Son to be one in such a spirit that I consider the statement to be quite as much wrong as right. The expression contains both a conscientious conviction and the opportunity for delusion. If we assert the one substance, understanding it to mean the likeness of natural qualities and such a likeness as includes not only the species but the genus, we assert it in a truly religious spirit, provided we believe that the one substance signifies such a similitude of qualities that the unity is not the unity of a monad but of equals. By equality I mean exact similarity so that the likeness may be called an equality, provided that the equality imply unity because it implies an equal pair, and that the unity which implies an equal pair be not wrested to mean a single Person [here he predicts semi-modalism]. Therefore the one substance will be asserted piously if it does not abolish the subsistent personality or divide the one substance into two, for their substance by the true character of the Son’s birth and by their natural likeness is so free from difference that it is called one [note that the substance is one not because it is one existing “thing” which is the Father and Son, but because the Father and Son have an exactly identical nature].

68. But if we attribute one substance to the Father and the Son to teach that there is a solitary personal existence although denoted by two titles: then though we confess the Son with our lips we do not keep Him in our hearts, since in confessing one substance we then really say that the Father and the Son constitute one undifferentiated Person [semi-modalism]. Nay, there immediately arises an opportunity for the erroneous belief that the Father is divided, and that He cut off a portion of Himself to be His Son. That is what the heretics mean when they say the substance is one: and the terminology of our good confession so gratifies them that it aids heresy when the word ὁμοούσιος is left by itself, undefined and ambiguous. There is also a third error. When the Father and the Son are said to be of one substance this is thought to imply a prior substance, which the two equal Persons both possess. Consequently the word implies three things, one original substance and two Persons, who are as it were fellow-heirs of this one substance. For as two fellow-heirs are two, and the heritage of which they are fellow-heirs is anterior to them, so the two equal Persons might appear to be sharers in one anterior substance. The assertion of the one substance of the Father and the Son signifies either that there is one Person who has two titles, or one divided substance that has made two imperfect substances, or that there is a third prior substance which has been usurped and assumed by two and which is called one because it was one before it was severed into two. Where then is there room for the Son’s birth? Where is the Father or the Son, if these names are explained not by the birth of the divine nature but a severing or sharing of one anterior substance?

69. Therefore amid the numerous dangers which threaten the faith, brevity of words must be employed sparingly, lest what is piously meant be thought to be impiously expressed, and a word be judged guilty of occasioning heresy when it has been used in conscientious and unsuspecting innocence. A Catholic about to state that the substance of the Father and the Son is one, must not begin at that point: nor hold this word all important as though true faith did not exist where the word was not used. He will be safe in asserting the one substance if he has first said that the Father is unbegotten, that the Son is born, that He draws His personal subsistence from the Father, that He is like the Father in might, honour and nature, that He is subject to the Father as to the Author of His being, that He did not commit robbery by making Himself equal with God, in whose form He remained, that He was obedient unto death. He did not spring from nothing, but was born. He is not incapable of birth but equally eternal. He is not the Father, but the Son begotten of Him. He is not any portion of God, but is whole God. He is not Himself the source but the image; the image of God born of God to be God. He is not a creature but is God. Not another God in the kind of His substance, but the one God in virtue of the essence of His exactly similar substance. God is not one in Person but in nature, for the Born and the Begetter have nothing different or unlike. After saying all this, he does not err in declaring one substance of the Father and the Son. Nay, if he now denies the one substance he sins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Grievous Error of the Fourth Lateran Council

When doctrinal error is mentioned in respect to the Fourth Lateran Council, a number of issues could be brought up depending on what tradition is examining the council. Protestants reject its teaching on transubstantiation as error; Eastern Orthodox reject its teaching on the Filoque as heretical; the Oriental Orthodox would reject its Chalcedonian articulation of the hypostatic union. Everyone but the papists themselves takes issue with the council’s strong assertion of papal supremacy and authority (written, conveniently, by the Pope himself, as all the canons). But in this article, I want to draw attention to a lesser-known doctrinal error the council did much to promote: the anti-trinitarian doctrine of semi-modalism.

The Fourth Lateran Council is not primarily known today for its decisions regarding the doctrine of the Trinity. The thirteenth-century Papal Council, held in a Roman palace, dealt with a host of issues, including crusades, defining and officially confessing the doctrine of transubstantiation, the filioque, and papal authority. Yet its impact on trinitarian doctrine for Roman Catholicism is actually very great (the council is generally rejected by protestant and Eastern churches, as it took place after the Great Schism, and prior to the Reformation, with significant parts of its rulings being rejected by the Reformers).

The council’s importance to Rome’s views on the Trinity is primarily because of the council’s dealings with Abbot Joachim of Fiore’s treatise on the Trinity, in which Joachim accused Peter Lombard of teaching heresy in his famous Sentences. The heresy Joachim had in view was none other than semi-modalism. Abbot Joachim recognised that teaching that the Trinity was a single conscious thing who is the three real persons of Father, Son, and Spirit, is far different than scripture’s teaching of three distinct persons of one essence, and made efforts to draw attention to this departure from scripture’s teaching. He correctly pointed out that Peter Lombard’s semi-modalism effectively made the Trinity itself into a fourth divine person, ultimately to the destruction of the doctrine of the Trinity.

The bishop of Rome and the council he had called did not agree with Abbot Joachim’s assessment. His teachings on the subject were condemned, and the council affirmed the already well-entrenched error of semi-modalism as the official Roman Catholic belief, as they officially redefined the doctrine of consubstantiality to no longer teach that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share one and the same divine nature to instead mean than the Father, Son, and Spirit were the same conscious “reality”- in concept, a person. They avoided the language of “person” for this reality, denying Abbot Joachim’s criticism that conceiving of the Trinity this way was to believe in a fourth person of the Trinity, since to admit such would be obviously heretical.

This equivocation on the terminology of “person” and on the subject of consubstantiality have continued down to our own day, as semi-modalists continue to follow the pattern of substituting out another word besides “person” for the singular, personal, conscious, rational reality that they teach is the three persons of the Father, Son, and Spirit. They call this “thing” the “essence” or “substance” which exists in the three persons of the Trinity, while originally the Nicene church fathers introduced this language not to indicate that a person was three persons, but to speak of the single divine nature shared by the three persons of the Trinity. This fact can be seen clearly from their own writings.

Hilary of Poitiers, for example, wrote thus:

“IV. If any one dares to say that the Unborn God, or a part of Him, was born of Mary: let him be anathema.

42. The fact of the essence declared to be one in the Father and the Son having one name on account of their similarity of nature seemed to offer an opportunity to heretics to declare that the Unborn God, or a part of Him, was born of Mary. The danger was met by the wholesome resolution that he who declared this should be anathema. For the unity of the name which religion employs and which is based on the exact similarity of their natural essence, has not repudiated the Person of the begotten essence so as to represent, under cover of the unity of name, that the substance of God is singular and undifferentiated because we predicate one name for the essence of each, that is, predicate one God, on account of the exactly similar substance of the undivided nature in each Person.” (De Synodis)

Even in the post-nicene period, this classical understanding of co-essentiality can be clearly seen in the Chalcedonian Definition when it says:

“We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in divine nature and also perfect in human nature; truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body; co-essential with the Father according to the divine nature, and co-essential with us according to the human nature; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the divine nature, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the human nature…”

Notice Christ is said to be co-essential with man according to his human nature. This is consistent with an understanding of essence as a general nature considered in abstract, such as human nature, or the divine nature. Christ being co-essential with man literally means he is of the same human nature as all other men. By way of parallel, which is obviously drawn by the Definition, Christ is also eternally co-essential with the Father as His Son, in that He has from all eternity the same divine nature as the Father. This same understanding can also be seen articulated by Basil the Great (see: https://contramodalism.com/2018/01/12/basil-the-great-on-the-distinction-between-essence-and-person/ ).

In contrast, the idea that co-essentiality would somehow mean that the subjects were one “thing”, with its own real concrete existence, does not fit at all with the Chalcedonian Definition. Christ is co-essential with man- yet there is no real existence to the human nature considered in abstract. Human nature finds real existence in human persons; but considered in abstract, it is only an idea, lacking concrete existence. Yet if we apply the Fourth Lateran Council’s semi-modalistic re-definition of co-essentiality to the Chalcedonian Definition, this is exactly the way we must understand it. Yet clearly, this idea is nonsensical.

So we are able to see a medieval papal redefinition of co-essentiality:

“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)

This redefinition of co-essentiality is erroneous, as it ultimately makes the Father, Son, and Spirit into a single person who is all three together. This doctrine is mutually exclusive to the classical doctrine of the Trinity taught by scripture and the orthodox church fathers of the Nicene and Ante-Nicene eras which is summed up in the Nicene Creed.

The Roman Catholic Church needs to abandon this grievous error and return to the classical trinitarianism contended for by such Western church fathers as Irenaeus of Lyons and Hilary of Poitiers. Those of other traditions should take heed of this error hidden among the historically more conspicuous problems with the rulings of the Fourth Lateran Council. We may be thankful that both Protestant and Eastern churches are free from commitment to the canons of this council, and thus are not, like the Roman Catholic church, bound to the error of semi-modalism in an official capacity by the ruling of the Papal council.