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.


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.

The Medieval Reform Attempt That Tried to Rescue the Church From Semi-modalism

Anyone following this blog will be aware of my contention that the church fathers of the Nicene and Ante-Nicene era articulated the classical doctrine of the Trinity as scripture reveals it and the apostles handed it down orally, but that later, in the post-nicene era, the false teaching of semi-modalism became prevalent in the western church starting in the fifth century, and eventually left no quarter of the church unaffected by its crafty lies.

There are, however, reasonable questions that can be asked as to how exactly this change took place. How could the church trade in its orthodox trinitarianism, such as that articulated by the Nicene Creed, for semi-modalism, a false teaching antithetical to the classical doctrine of the Trinity? Where was the opposition to these changes?

The full answer to these questions is beyond the scope of this post. We must remember that since the late second century the Roman church had seriously struggled with classical modalism, and seems to have never fully escaped the sway of modalism afterwards, in one form or another. We must also remember that both the heresy of Arianism itself, as well as the special philosophical language introduced by orthodox Christians to combat it, caused an immense amount of doctrinal confusion in the century following Nicea. A growing linguistic and cultural divide between the Latin-speaking western churches and the Greek-speaking eastern churches also made it easier for things to get out of hand.

But even a several centuries after Augustine had lead most of the Latin church into a whole-hearted embrace of semi-modalism, opposition to this false doctrine can still be seen. One effort at reform in particular stands out because it received the attention of an “ecumenical” council (meaning, it was inclusive of European churches only, by this time, since the great schism had already excluded most professing Christians from the catholic church in the minds of the Latin churchmen).

The effort I speak of was of one Abbot Joachim. Abbott Joachim in the thirteenth century condemning the writings of Peter Lombard, who had authored his famous Sentences in the previous century, a work which became a staple textbook of semi-modalistic medieval scholasticism. Abbot Joachim condemned Lombard for teaching that the essence, that is, the divine nature shared by the persons of the Trinity, was itself a person, and thus introducing a fourth person into the Trinity. He bravely and boldly took a stand against semi-modalism, authoring a controversial book on the subject in hopes of providing a doctrinal corrective to the semi-modalism he saw Lombard as teaching.

This book apparently created quite a lot of controversy in his time, as he gained the attention of a Papal council for his efforts. But semi-modalism, by this time, had already gained wide acceptance by the Latin church, led by the historically modalistic church of Rome.

The Fourth Lateran Council, instead of taking action to combat semi-modalism as Joachim’s work recommended, defended the false teaching of semi-modalism, and condemned Abbot Joachim. This represents a tragic moment in church history, in this author’s opinion.

Part of the decision given by the council read as follows:

“We therefore condemn and reprove that small book or treatise which abbot Joachim published against master Peter Lombard concerning the unity or essence of the Trinity, in which he calls Peter Lombard a heretic and a madman because he said in his Sentences, “For there is a certain supreme reality which is the Father and the Son and the holy Spirit, and it neither begets nor is begotten nor does it proceed”. He asserts from this that Peter Lombard ascribes to God not so much a Trinity as a quaternity, that is to say three persons and a common essence as if this were a fourth person. Abbot Joachim clearly protests that there does not exist any reality which is the Father and the Son and the holy Spirit-neither an essence nor a substance nor a nature — although he concedes that the Father and the Son and the holy Spirit are one essence, one substance and one nature…

We however, with the approval of this sacred and universal council [universal as in Roman Catholic only, lest the Eastern Orthodox or Coptics seem to be slandered by this shameful decision], 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. Thus there is a distinction of persons but a unity of nature. Although therefore the Father is one person, the Son another person, and the Holy Spirit another person, they are not different realities, but rather that which is the Father is the Son and the Holy Spirit, altogether the same; thus according to the orthodox and catholic faith they are believed to be consubstantial [notice they redefine the consubstantiality at Nicea]. For the Father, in begetting the Son from eternity gave him His substance as he himself testifies: What the Father gave me is greater than all. It cannot be said that the Father gave him part of his substance and kept part for himself since the Fathers substance is indivisible, in as much as it is altogether simple. Nor can it be said that the Father transferred his substance to the Son in the act of begetting, as if he gave it to the Son in such as way that he did not retain it for himself; for otherwise he would have ceased to be substance. It is therefore clear that in being begotten the Son received the Father’s substance without it being diminished in any way, and thus the Father and the Son have the same substance. Thus the Father and the Son and also the Holy Spirit proceeding from both are the same reality.”

This sad statement, masquerading as the decision of an ecumenical council, skillfully avoids calling the Trinity as a whole or the divine nature/essence a person, and in fact denies it. Instead it leaves us with the extremely ambiguous and unhelpful confession that the Trinity as a whole is one “reality”.

While it avoids out-and-out expressing semi-modalism, the council’s summary of the faith is still ultimately semi-modalistic. The council claims that there is “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” and calls this “supreme reality” the “one principle of all things, creator of all things invisible and visible, spiritual and corporeal; who by his almighty power at the beginning of time created from nothing both spiritual and corporeal creatures, that is to say angelic and earthly, and then created human beings composed as it were of both spirit and body in common.” Notice, this one “reality” which is the Father, Son, and Spirit is a “he”. Thus they clearly treat this ‘thing’ as a person, although they do not come out and say such expressly.

It is worth noting that the decision of the council records that Abbot Joachim provided a great deal of scriptural testimony to prove his contentions. This seems to have ultimately have been ignored in favor of the above confession, which does not even seem to make any attempt to prove what it is saying from scripture.

For those who will take the decision of this Papal council as proof that semi-modalism is true, little can be done to help; but anyone who will acknowledge that we must see every point of doctrine proven from scripture before we will believe it will find that the council’s decision provides little more than the opinions of men, who, in this case, were wrong.