Against Generic Co-essentiality

Having dealt a lot with the heretical doctrine of numerical or individual coessentiality in past articles, I want to address in this post the doctrine of generic or natural co-essentiality. This doctrine differs enormously from the former; while the former teaches that the Father and Son are the same individual substance, that is, the same individual being or person, the latter which we shall address here pertains to the notion that the Father and Son, as two genuinely distinct individual beings, or persons, share one and the same generic nature.

This idea was the view which prevailed, thanks to Emperor Theodosius, within the Roman Empire at the close of the fourth century, becoming the official dogma of the Eastern churches under Byzantine rule (the Western churches only very briefly, if at all, held to this view, instead embracing the Sabellian doctrine of numerical coessentiality). Such notable Homoousians as Athanasius and Basil the Great held and promoted this doctrine of generic coessentiality, which to this day, despite modalistic influence, has a continued following in Eastern Christianity and among some Protestants.

The idea of generic co-essentiality is that of a shared nature, genus, or species; Basil summed it up as “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); 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.”

The idea, then, is of a nature shared among multiple distinct persons or individual beings (hypostases); just as three men share a common human nature, a set of communicable ontological properties possessed by all men, which define a given being as “human”, so the persons of the Trinity, these fathers taught, share a common nature which makes them ontologically identical. The Son in comparison to the Father is often summed up, in this view, to be ‘everything that the Father is, except that He is begotten, not unbegotten’. He is then equal to and identical to the Father in all attributes, except the causal relation of having been begotten by the Father, rather than being unbegotten, as the Father is.

This doctrine simply does not work; it contradicts the holy scriptures, our divine, inspired source of knowledge in such matters.

The holy scriptures teach us that God (the one God, the Father) is omniscient; He knows all things perfectly and unchangingly. “God is greater than our heart and knows all things.” 1 John 3:20 NASB. “Great is our Lord and abundant in strength; His understanding is infinite.” Psalm 147:5 NASB. The Son, on the other hand, evidently did not know all things when He said “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” Matthew 24:36 NASB. Someone might object that the Son only said this in reference to His human nature, and that while His human nature did not know, His divine nature did; to this I respond that natures do not know anything, nor do they possess any consciousness or mind of their own, but rather, persons do. So long then, as it is acknowledged that the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, is one person, not two, it must be admitted that He, that is, the person Himself, did not know all things, while the Father in His own person always does know all things.

The holy scriptures also teach us to believe that God is immutable; He does not change. “For I, the Lord, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed.” Malachi 3:6 NASB. “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.” James 1:17 NASB. The Son, however, has often changed since the foundation of the world, although He has now come to change no more, as having been perfected. For the Son changed to take on various forms to appear to men in the Old Testament, as the Angel (that is, Messenger) of the Lord. He appeared as a man to Abraham; He appeared in fire to Moses at the burning bush; in the form of man He again wrestled with Jacob; and in the form of God He was seen by Moses, Aaron, and the elders of Israel on Sinai, and again, in that same glory, by Isaiah. But more on these appearances later. And at last, He took on human flesh from the virgin Mary, and in that flesh grew, and matured, and died, and rose from the dead.

Surely no thinking man can regard such actions as not involving change in the Son’s own person; who will be so insane as to say that He is the same, and unchanged, after He has taken a human body into the unity of His person, as He was before, when he had no flesh? One might respond that the Logos Himself, considered in His capacity as Logos specifically, did not suffer change in taking on flesh. To which I say, such may well be the case; yet when we consider not merely the part of Him that was the Logos, but His person on the whole, it cannot be avoided that, as a person, to go from having no body, to having a body, is a change. The Son then, was capable of changing, and did so, only upon His perfection coming finally to the state of immutability of which it is said that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Hebrew 13:8 NASB.

The Father then, is entirely unchanging and immutable, always and eternally being the same without any change or alteration; while the Son indeed, having first been begotten by the Father before the world was, changed into various forms to appear to men, and then for our salvation even took human flesh into the unity of His person, finally coming to change no more once He had risen from the dead. The Father, as being unchanging, would never have appeared to men under various forms, nor would He have taken on flesh; and so there is manifestly a great difference in the attributes of God and His Son shown here by the holy scriptures.

We may also note that the scriptures reveal that the Father is invisible; “Who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see.” 1 Tim 6:16 NASB. “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” 1 John 1:18 NASB. “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” 1 Timothy 1:17 NASB. The Son, the only-begotten God, on the other hand, as we have already mentioned above, was often seen by men; He is the visible Image of the invisible God (Col 1:15). As the Angel of the Lord He was the one by Whom God spoke with Abraham (Gen 18), Who rained fire from His Father on Sodom and the surrounding cities (Gen 19:24), Who wrestled with Jacob (Gen 32:22-40), Who spoke to Moses from the burning bush (Ex 3:2), and from the pillar of cloud and of fire (Num 14:14), Who appeared to Joshua as the Captain of the Lord’s hosts (Josh 5:13-15), Who spoke to Hagar (Gen 16:7-14), Gideon (Jud 6:22), Manoah (Jud 13:9-23), and other saints of old (Jud 2:1-6), the Word of the Lord Who came to the prophets and spoke with them (1 Kings 9:9, Isa 38:4, Jer 1:1-2, Ezek 1:3), Whose glory was seen by Isaiah (Isa 6, John 12:41). He was seen then, not only in His incarnation, and after His resurrection, but also beforehand. There is a clear difference then between the Father and the Son, that the one, no one can see or has seen, and the other was seen at many times under different forms, and finally, when He took on flesh for our salvation.

The Father, we read in the scriptures, is absolutely Almighty; the term ‘Almighty’ only ever being used for Him in the whole New Testament, and meaning, literally ‘Ruler over all’ (Gr. ‘Pantokrator’). He is “the Lord God Almighty, Who was, and is, and is to come” (Rev 4:8). He, the living God, the Father of His people, is alone Almighty; “For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, “I will dwell in them and walk among them; And I will be their God, and they shall be My people. 17 “Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate,” says the Lord. “And do not touch what is unclean; And I will welcome you. 18 “And I will be a father to you, And you shall be sons and daughters to Me,” Says the Lord Almighty.” 2 Corinthians 6:16-18 NASB. And it is clear from the very nature of things, that only one person, one individual being, can be Ruler over all, Almighty, absolutely. For if that one had an equal, neither one having higher authority than the other, and so, neither one ruling over the other, neither would be found Almighty, since neither would truly rule over all, and there would be no supreme Ruler over all at all. If then it is acknowledged that the Father alone is Almighty absolutely, as having dominion not only over the whole universe, but even over the Son (1 Cor 11:3, 1 Cor 15:28), then the Son is not equal to Him in this respect, but subject to Him as to His own God and Father (Rom 15:6). And while the Son, as sharing in the Father’s dominion over the universe, may even be said to be ‘almighty’ in that lesser respect, as He, subordinate to the Father, rules over the universe according to the Father’s will and on His behalf, yet only one of Them is Almighty absolutely, as ruling over all things without exception, namely, the Father, and so, this is shown to be a difference between the Father and the Son also.

We may also note that the scriptures declare that the Father is the one from Whom are all things, as He is the supreme uncaused Cause of all things. “Yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.” 1 Corinthians 8:6 NASB. “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.” Romans 11:36 NASB. Yet all things are not from the Son in this same way, but are through Him. For the Father is the supreme Cause of all things, having made all things through the Son. Their functions, then, are clearly distinct; the Father acts towards the universe through the mediation of the Son, and not the other way around.

Scripture further reveals to us that God (the Father) is infinite. To be infinite is to be without external bound or limitation; and as God is, as we have said above, the Supreme Ruler over all, and further, the Supreme Cause of all. If then, He is entirely uncaused, and simply eternally and unchangingly is, and is absolutely sovereign over all, it follows that God is subject to no external bound or limitation whatsoever, in either His ontological being, nor in His actions. That He is not bound by anything external to Him in His being and attributes necessarily follows from the fact that as the Cause of all else that exists, He Himself is uncaused; thus no one ever determined what God’s attributed and being would be. He was not made, caused, or begotten according to the will or design of another, but rather He simply is, and is as He is, eternally and unchangingly, without any cause, source, or origin. This is a respect in which God is totally unique compared to everything else in existence, for everything else, including His own Son, does owe its cause and origin, and thus, its being and attributes, to Him. All that God caused has its being and attributes according to His will. Likewise, since God is sovereign over all, there is nothing external to Him binding His actions; He is not subject to another, so as to have anything required of Him by another, but is totally free. “Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, In heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps.” Psalm 135:6 NASB. There is none to place Him under obligation or law; His future is not predestined by another.

God’s absolute freedom and infinitude in these respects is unique to Him, as we have said, and so, is not shared by His Son. While of the Father is is written “But our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases.” Psalm 115:3 NASB, the Son declares “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner.” John 5:19 NASB. He says, “I can do nothing on My own initiative. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is just, because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” John 5:30 NASB. The Son clearly teaches us to believe that He is limited by the Father’s will. In this the Son clearly stands in contrast to the Father then, that while the Father is absolutely free and infinite, not bound or subject to the will of another, the Son is indeed limited by the Father, as respects both His being and attributes, which He has from the Father, and as respects His actions.

What more shall we say? Scripture teaches that the Father is alone good (Mark 10:18), alone holy (Rev 15:4), “the only wise God” (Rom 16:27), “the blessed and only Sovereign” (1 Tim 6:15), “the only true God” (Jn 17:3). It says these things on account the the surpassing and incomparable greatness of God, for in contrast to all else which is good, and holy, and wise, and which possesses sovereignty, and divinity, it is as though He alone is such things, and that all else is as nothing in these things, in comparison to Him Who is incomparably greater than all. Not only does the Son declare that His Father is “greater than all” (Jn 10:29), and “greater than I” (Jn 14:28), but even declares Him to be incomparably greater than all; for He says to the Father in the Psalm “There is none to compare with You” Psalm 40:5 NASB. God then has no equal, and the Son is not equal to Him in these attributes, as He is greater than the Son in goodness, and holiness, and wisdom, and sovereignty, and divinity -not that the Son is not very great in all these things- but His Father is still greater, as being incomparably greater than all, even greater than His Son. For as the Son says “There is none to compare with You.” Psalm 40:5 NASB. And God testifies Himself, saying “To whom then will you liken Me, That I would be his equal?” says the Holy One.” Isaiah 40:25 NASB, and “To whom would you liken Me And make Me equal and compare Me, That we would be alike?” Isaiah 46:5 NASB.

Who then will make the Son equal with the Father, in contradiction to the words of both the Father and the Son, Who both testify to the truth that God has no equal, but is incomparably greater than all? Where is this teaching that there is another Who is identical to God and equal with Him in all respects and in all attributes, except that He is begotten while God the Father is unbegotten? Who can read these things and not recognize that rightly did Ulfilas characterize this a “devilish invention and doctrine of demons”, on account of how blasphemous these things are to God? For in supposing that they exalt the Son with this doctrine, really, they give the Son a false and empty honor (as no honor not founded in truth has any weight to it) and rather blaspheme the one the Lord Jesus Christ teaches us to call “the only true God”, by making Him Who is incomparably greater than all out to merely be one of two or three of a kind.

The doctrine of generic co-essentiality, then, that ‘the Son is identical to the Father in all His attributes, except that He is begotten rather than unbegotten’, is shown to be quite unbiblical, and ultimately, quite blasphemous. I do not say that it is heresy, for it does not violate that ancient rule of faith; but it is a false and harmful doctrine, nonetheless, and one quite clearly opposed to the teaching of the scriptures themselves.

Moody Bible Institute Trades Blatant Semi-Modalism For Ambiguity

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

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

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

This was replaced with the following:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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. And so we may return to that ancient faith in one God, and His only-begotten Son, and His Holy Spirit, and not giving in to any system of false doctrine that would confound this to teach a person who is three persons.

 

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; 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 that the one God is only one person, the Father, 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 heresy 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 Novatian. 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 heresy of semi-modalism in an official capacity by the ruling of the Papal council.

Basil the Great on the Distinction Between Essence and Person

Basil the Great is one of the better-known theologians of the early church. He wrote at the beginning of the post-nicene era, and did much to combat Arianism. Basil wrote a letter to his brother Gregory in which he elucidates the distinction between ‘person’ or ‘hypostasis’ and ‘nature’ or ‘essence’. While the terminology he was using was perhaps somewhat new, the conceptual difference between the person, or the individual, and nature, or essence, which is common to many individuals, is a very old one, logically necessary to articulate a Nicene version of the doctrine of the Trinity. The idea of this distinction is important for sake of understanding the development of trinitarian doctrine over time. The entire letter can be read here: https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf208.ix.xxxix.html.

“1. Many persons, in their study of the sacred dogmas, failing to distinguish between what is common in the essence or substance, and the meaning of the hypostases, arrive at the same notions, and think that it makes no difference whether οὐσία or hypostasis be spoken of. The result is that some of those who accept statements on these subjects without any enquiry, are pleased to speak of “one hypostasis,” just as they do of one “essence” or “substance;” while on the other hand those who accept three hypostases are under the idea that they are bound in accordance with this confession, to assert also, by numerical analogy, three essences or substances. Under these circumstances, lest you fall into similar error, I have composed a short treatise for you by way of memorandum. The meaning of the words, to put it shortly, is as follows:

2. Of all nouns the sense of some, which are predicated of subjects plural and numerically various, is more general; as for instance man. When we so say, we employ the noun to indicate the common nature, and do not confine our meaning to any one man in particular who is known by that name. Peter, for instance is no more man, than Andrew, John, or James. The predicate therefore being common, and extending to all the individuals ranked under the same name, requires some note of distinction whereby we may understand not man in general, but Peter or John in particular.

Of some nouns on the other hand the denotation is more limited; and by the aid of the limitation we have before our minds not the common nature, but a limitation of anything, having, so far as the peculiarity extends, nothing in common with what is of the same kind; as for instance, Paul or Timothy. For, in a word, of this kind there is no extension to what is common in the nature; there is a separation of certain circumscribed conceptions from the general idea, and expression of them by means of their names. 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.

3. My statement, then, is this. That which is spoken of in a special and peculiar manner is indicated by the name of the hypostasis. Suppose we say “a man.” The indefinite meaning of the word strikes a certain vague sense upon the ears. The nature is indicated, but what subsists and is specially and peculiarly indicated by the name is not made plain. Suppose we say “Paul.” We set forth, by what is indicated by the name, the nature subsisting.”

Its noteworthy then that Basil understood ‘essence’ as a generic nature shared by multiple distinct persons. When the Son was confessed to be ‘co-essential’, that is, of the same essence as the Father, then, what was being communicated was the idea that Christ shared a common nature or genus with His Father. Over the following centuries, that view would be replaced by the alternative view that the one essence that the Father and Son share is a person, who is them both; the heresy of semi-modalism.