Numerical Vs Generic Unity of Substance

Semi-modalism is built upon a twisting of the Nicene concept of co-essentiality. In the Nicene era and its creed, for multiple persons to be co-essential meant that nothing more than that they, as truly distinct rational individual beings (that is, persons) shared a common nature or species. A common analogy used by the Nicene fathers to capture their meaning, for example, is of three men being co-essential, in that they, while remaining three distinct individuals, share a common and identical human nature. Although there are three men, there is only one nature between them, human nature. Such was the original meaning of co-essentiality.

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.”

Hilary of Poitiers likewise clarified:

“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.

And Basil of Caesarea wrote:

“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)”

This understanding of co-essentiality is likewise required by the council of Chalcedon:

“our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood”

Its clear, then, that the original intent of declaring that the Father, Son, and Spirit share one essence was not to make Them out to all be one person, one individual being, but simply to declare that They shared a common nature or species. This meaning changed, however, and was not kept clear as time went on; the Western churches going to far as to eventually formally change the meaning of co-essentiality in the 4th Lateran council in 1215.  Rather than indicating a generic unity of sharing one nature, now co-essentiality was defined as teaching that the unity the persons shared was of being one single numerically individual reality, one rational individual being- that is, in reality, one person. The ‘essence’ was no longer viewed as a nature, but a single subsistent ‘supreme reality’.

“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 teaching is a drastic departure from the faith of the early church, and represents the culmination of what many in the Nicene era had feared might result from the introduction of ‘essence’ speculation into the church’s dogma. A council of fathers gathered in Antioch in 345 had specified their belief that the Father, Son, and Spirit were not “one supreme reality”, that is, one person, one individual rational being, but rather, three:

“Nor again, in confessing three realities and three persons, of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost according to the Scriptures, do we therefore make Gods three; since we acknowledge the self-complete and unbegotten and unbegun and invisible God to be one only, the God and Father (John 20:17) of the Only-begotten, who alone has being from Himself, and alone vouchsafes this to all others bountifully.” (Macrostich)

Later in the same creed they went on to condemn the very view the 4th Lateran would later make dogma for the Roman churches:

“And those who say that the Father and Son and Holy Ghost are the same, and irreligiously take the three names of one and the same reality and person, we justly proscribe from the Church, because they suppose the illimitable and impassible Father to be also limitable and passable through His becoming man. For such are they whom Romans call Patripassians, and we Sabellians. For we acknowledge that the Father who sent, remained in the peculiar state of His unchangeable Godhead, and that Christ who was sent fulfilled the economy of the Incarnation.”

But one need not wait until the fourth century to find fathers who clearly taught that the Father, Son, and Spirit were not one numerically individual thing, one person. Second century father Justin Martyr, one of the earliest and best of the fathers, clearly understood the Father and Son to be numerically distinct persons, two distinct rational individual beings, not merely two names of or modes of one and the same reality:

“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.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 29)

“And that this power which the prophetic word calls God, as has been also amply demonstrated, and Angel, is not numbered [as different] in name only like the light of the sun but is indeed something numerically distinct, I have discussed briefly in what has gone before; when I asserted that this power was begotten from the Father, by His power and will, but not by abscission, as if the essence of the Father were divided; as all other things partitioned and divided are not the same after as before they were divided: and, for the sake of example, I took the case of fires kindled from a fire, which we see to be distinct from it, and yet that from which many can be kindled is by no means made less, but remains the same.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 128)

“You perceive, my hearers, if you bestow attention, that the Scripture has declared that this Offspring was begotten by the Father before all things created; and that which is begotten is numerically distinct from that which begets, any one will admit.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 129)

It is clear also, that Justin did not speak of merely his own opinion in these matters, but as an apologist, spoke on behalf of the Christians of his time; and anyone who wishes to, may read his contemporary fathers, and see their agreement.

Semi-modalism, then, in proclaiming the the persons of the Trinity are numerically one substance, one individual, is clearly at odds with both the original dogmatic conception of co-essentiality held by the Nicene fathers, which proclaimed co-essentiality to mean nothing more than a mere generic unity of nature between really distinct individuals, as well as being at odds with the faith of the ante-nicene fathers, going back as close to the apostles as we can find.

For a look at how this semi-modalistic conception of the Trinity is opposed to scripture itself, and the very fundamental tenets of the Christian faith it teaches, see here.

Does the Submission of the Son to the Father Contradict the Notion that He has “one will” with the Father?

The authoritative headship of the Father over the Son was an important point of doctrine frequently emphasized by the fathers of the ante-nicene and Nicene eras. It was viewed by them as a clear teaching of scripture, and an important aspect of the doctrine of the Trinity. For example:

“I shall give you another testimony, my friends, from the Scriptures, that God begot before all creatures a Beginning, [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…” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 61)

“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.” (De Synodis, Quoting and commenting on the decision of the Council of Sirmium against Photinius)

“Believing then in the all-perfect triad, the most holy, that is, in the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and calling the Father God, and the Son God, yet we confess in them, not two Gods, but one dignity of Godhead, and one exact harmony of dominion, the Father alone being head over the whole universe wholly, and over the Son Himself, and the Son subordinated to the Father; but, excepting Him, ruling over all things after Him which through Himself have come to be, and granting the grace of the Holy Ghost unsparingly to the saints at the Father’s will. For that such is the account of the Divine Monarchy towards Christ, the sacred oracles have delivered to us.” (The Macrostich)

That the Son is subordinate to the Father as His Head is important as an aspect of Christian monotheism (see Why There is Only One God: Headship). There is only one God because there is only one supreme uncaused Cause of all, and one Supreme Authority over all -the Father. If the Son were equal to the Father in authority, and not under His headship, there would be two Supreme Authorities over all, and on that grounds, two Gods. The scriptural truth that “God is the head of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:3) is important then to how scripture teaches us that there is only one God.

Yet this teaching has come under fire in recent years. The argument leveled against this patristic and scriptural doctrine is that the Son cannot “submit” to the Father because this implies that They do not have the same will. In order for the Son to submit to the Father, it is argued, He must have a will contrary to His Father. Such a teaching, it is argued, goes against the historic doctrine that the persons of the Trinity share a common will.

For many this line of argument seems convincing, a good enough reason to jettison a view held by the early church. Yet upon close examination, this argument is shown to be seriously flawed.

Firstly, the argument hinges upon an assumption that in order for there to be submission of the Son to the Father, the persons must have conflicting wills. This assumption is unwarranted; the Son submits to the Father willingly, and as being in agreement with His Father, and thus having “one will” with Him. We can even borrow from human analogy; if a man tells his son to do something, and his son loves his father and delights to do whatever his father says, his son will happily and willingly submit to his father. This sort of willing submission is precisely how the church fathers described the submission of the Son to the Father. For example Hilary of Poitiers, as quoted above, refers to it as “the subordination of filial love”.

Secondly it is noteworthy that the fathers of the early church also acknowledged that the persons of the Trinity share one will, and yet in their view, this was in no way contradictory to the Son’s subordination to the Father as His Head.

“Reverting to the Scriptures, I shall endeavour to persuade you, that He who is said to have appeared to Abraham, and to Jacob, and to Moses, and who is called God, is distinct from Him who made all things,—numerically, I mean, not [distinct] in will. For I affirm that He has never at any time done anything which He who made the world—above whom there is no other God—has not wished Him both to do and to engage Himself with.” (Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho)

Here we see the way the Justin understood the Son’s subordination to the Father, and the Father and Son sharing “one will” fitting together; far from being contradictory, in Justin’s view we see the truth that the Son does not have a distinct will from the Father manifested in the Son’s perfect submission to the Father. It is His submission to the Father in which we see the Son’s perfect agreement with Him, as the Son willingly “ministers to the will of the Father” in “the subordination of filial love”.

If we are going to insist that the fathers are wrong on this point, especially in light of so much clear scriptural support for their position, we ought to have some good reason to do so. The fact is, we do not. The Son’s submission to the Father is a willing submission, grounded in the Son’s relationship to the Father as Son, stemming from His eternal generation.

Here a further distinction is worth noting, already mentioned in passing above, which yields further clarity. The persons of the Trinity possess one will in that They are each in perfect agreement with each other; each person, however, distinctly possesses the power of will. Thus the Father wills to send the Son and the Son wills to be sent; the Father wills to create through the Son, and the Son wills to be the Father’s instrument in the creation of the world. The perfect agreement and harmony between the persons renders the will “one”, similarly to how we see many distinct persons in the early church being described as “Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.” (Acts 4:32 NKJV).

This is contrasted with the view of those who conceive of the Trinity as a whole, or an essence shared by the persons, as a single person. Those who hold this view almost always mean something quite different than the fathers such as Justin and Hilary did when they speak of the persons of the Trinity sharing “one will”; what they refer to is that there is only one power of willing belonging properly to the sole person who is Father, Son, and Spirit, and thus the real persons of the Trinity possess the same will and mind because They are all ultimately a single person with a single power of will and mind. This bizarre ‘hive-mind’ view of the Trinity falls apart as soon as it is acknowledged that there is no such thing as a single subsistent individual who is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but that rather the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three distinct individual realities or persons.

Essence, nature, or genus do not possess the power of will, mind, or consciousness. These properties belong to persons. For the persons of the Trinity to be described of as “one will”, then, is appropriate as a way to describe the perfect agreement between Them, but erroneous if this is meant to ascribe the power of will to the common essence the persons share, and so to treat that essence as a person.

Finally, some will object that the Son’s submission to the Father was merely an aspect of the economy of the incarnation, and therefore, speaking of this as a permanent and eternal character of the Son’s relationship to His Father is a mistake. Such an objection ignores the many places in the Old Testament in which we see the Son as the Angel of the Lord, ministering to the Father’s will in bringing messages from the Father to men (“angel” means ‘messenger’). It was the Father Who sent, and the Son Who obeyed; the Son is the Messenger of the Father, never the other way around. Likewise it ignores that the Father created all things through the Son, not the Son through the Father. The fact is, throughout all history and from the beginning we see the Son’s loving subordination to the Father, as to His authoritative Head.

Additionally we may note that it is natural and common to all cultures to associate authority with fatherhood and submission to that authority to sonship. We know that all fatherhood in creation is a reflection of the eternal relationship between God and His Son; we see that authority structure even in the Law of Moses, where sons are commanded to honor, submit to, and obey their fathers. Because of this, it is most natural and reasonable to assume that the Son, simply by virtue of being Son, would be subordinate to His Father as His Head. In light of all this, if someone wishes to ague that the Son is not eternally subordinate to His Father, they ought to have some very good reason for saying so, seeing as this goes against all natural reason, and the pattern of authority and submission that we see between God and His Son throughout the whole of history. And the truth of the matter is, no such reason exists. Nowhere do we find scriptural warrant to limit this relationship to the incarnation, or the economy of redemption. Instead, everywhere we are given reason to understand that this relationship is eternal.

“The Father is greater than I”?

The view that the Father is eternally greater than the Son, although scriptural, rubs many the wrong way. This is primarily because of the misuse of that biblical expression to try to dishonor the Son and and make Him out to be a mere creature, or a mere man, by heretics. But many modern Christians might be surprised to find that this interpretation of the passage, viz, that it refers to the Father as the eternal origin of the Son, is actually quite common even among the pro-nicene church fathers.

We find a several instances of this interpretation even in the post-nicene ‘Cappadocian fathers’, as well as in the teachings of Alexander of Alexandria (Athanasius’s predecessor in the episcopate), and even Hilary of Poitiers:

Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria

“We have learnt that the Son is immutable and unchangeable, all-sufficient and perfect, like the Father, lacking only His “unbegotten.” He is the exact and precisely similar image of His Father. For it is clear that the image fully contains everything by which the greater likeness exists, as the Lord taught us when He said, ‘My Father is greater than I.’ And in accordance with this we believe that the Son always existed of the Father ; for he is the brightness of His glory, and the express image of His Father’s Person.’ But let no one be led by the word ‘always’ to imagine that the Son is unbegotten, as is thought by some who have their intellects blinded : for to say that He was, that He has always been, and, that before all ages, is not to say that He is unbegotten…

Therefore His own individual dignity must be reserved to the Father as the Unbegotten One, no one being called the cause of His existence : to the Son likewise must be given the honour which befits Him, there being to Him a generation from the Father which has no beginning ; we must render Him worship, as we have already said, only piously and religiously ascribing to Him the ‘was’ and the ‘ever,’ and the ‘before all ages ;’ not however rejecting His divinity, but ascribing to Him a perfect likeness in all things to His Father, while at the same time we ascribe to the Father alone His own proper glory of ‘the unbegotten,’ even as the Saviour Himself says, ‘My Father is greater than I.'” (Epistle of Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria, to Alexander, Bishop of Constantinople, from Theodoret’s, Ecclesiastical History, I.III – NPNF 3.39, 40.)

Basil the Great

“For since the Son’s beginning/origin (ἡ ảρχή) is from the Father, according to this, the Father is greater, as cause (ἀίτιος) and beginning/origin (ảρχή). Therefore the Lord said, My Father is greater than I, clearly because He is Father. Indeed, what else does the word Father mean unless the cause (τὸ αἰτία) to be/exist [Latin: esse] (εἶναι) and beginning/origin (ἀρχὴ) of that which is begotten of Him?” (Against Eunomius, I.25 – translation by David Waltz.)

Greek text:

Ἐπειδὴ γὰρ ἀπὸ τοῦ Πατρὸς ἡ ἀρχὴ τῷ Υἱῷ, κατὰ τοῦτο μείζων ὁ Πατὴρ, ὡς αἴτιος καὶ ἀρχή. Διὸ καὶ ὁ Κύριος οὕτως εἶπεν· Ὁ Πατήρ μου μείζων μου ἐστὶ, καθὸ Πατὴρ δηλονότι. Τὸ δὲ, Πατὴρ, τί ἄλλο ση μαίνει ἢ οὐχὶ τὸ αἰτία εἶναι καὶ ἀρχὴ τοῦ ἐξ αὐτοῦ γεννηθέντος; (Migne, PG 29.568)

Gregory Nazianzen –

“As your third point you count the Word Greater ; and as your fourth. To My God and your God. And indeed, if He had been called greater, and the word equal had not occurred, this might perhaps have been a point in their favour. But if we find both words clearly used what will these gentlemen have to say? How will it strengthen their argument ? How will they reconcile the irreconcilable? For that the same thing should be at once greater than and equal to the same thing is an impossibility; and the evident solution is that the Greater refers to origination, while the Equal belongs to the Nature ; and this we acknowledge with much good will. But perhaps some one else will back up our attack on your argument, and assert, that That which is from such a Cause is not inferior to that which has no Cause ; for it would share the glory of the Unoriginate, because it is from the Unoriginate. And there is, besides, the Generation, which is to all men a matter so marvellous and of such Majesty. For to say that he is greater than the Son considered as man, is true indeed, but is no great thing. For what marvel is it if God is greater than man ? Surely that is enough to say in answer to their talk about Greater.” (Orations, 30.7 – NPNF 7.312)

Hilary of Poitiers

“But perhaps some may suppose that He was destitute of that glory for which He prayed, and that His looking to be glorified by a Greater is evidence of want of power. Who, indeed, would deny that the Father is the greater; the Unbegotten greater than the Begotten, the Father than the Son, the Sender than the Sent, He that wills than He that obeys ? He Himself shall be His own witness :—The Father is greater than I. It is a fact which we must recognise, but we must take heed lest with unskilled thinkers the majesty of the Father should obscure the glory of the Son. Such obscuration is forbidden by this same.” (On the Trinity, III.12 – NPNF 9.65.)

“If, then, the Father is greater through His authority to give, is the Son less through the confession of receiving? The Giver is greater : but the Receiver is not less, for to Him it is given to be one with the Giver. If it is not given to Jesus to be confessed in the glory of God the Father, He is less than the Father. But if it is given Him to be in that glory, in which the Father is, we see in the prerogative of giving, that the Giver is greater, and in the confession of the gift, that the Two are One. The Father is, therefore, greater than the Son: for manifestly He is greater, Who makes another to be all that He Himself is, Who imparts to the Son by the mystery of the birth the image of His own unbegotten nature, Who begets Him from Himself into His own form, and restores Him again from the form of a servant to the form of God, Whose work it is that Christ, born God according to the Spirit in the glory of the Father, but now Jesus Christ dead in the flesh, should be once more God in the glory of the Father. When, therefore, Christ says that He is going to the Father, He reveals the reason why they should rejoice if they loved Him, because the Father is greater than He.” (On the Trinity, IX.54 – NPNF 9.174.)

Whatever the shortcomings of these fathers on other points of doctrine, it is at least very noteworthy that prominent Homoousians, who argued for the ontological equality of the Son with the Father, still readily interpreted the Son’s statement of the Father’s superiority over Him as referring to the fact that the Father is the eternal Cause of the Son by eternal generation.

“No other God besides Me”- the Trinity, or the Father?

Isaiah 43:11 and Isaiah 45:5-6 are very similar passages:

“I, even I, am the Lord, And besides Me there is no savior.” Isa 43:11 NKJV

“I am the Lord, and there is no other; There is no God besides Me. I will gird you, though you have not known Me, That they may know from the rising of the sun to its setting That there is none besides Me. I am the Lord, and there is no other;” Isa 45:5-6 NKJV

In these passages, obviously, God speaks in an exclusive way, proclaiming Himself the only true God. In light of the New Testament’s teaching that there is a Trinity of divine persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, some might wonder who the person speaking in these verses is. The most natural reading is that it is the Father, if for no other reason than that it is the ordinary pattern of scripture that when “God” is spoken of absolutely without qualification, it is referring to the one who scripture calls the “one God”, the person of the Father. We could give many examples of this throughout the New Testament, such as John 3:16, 18, and 2 Corinthians 13:14:

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. 17 For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. 18 “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” John 3:16-18 NKJV

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.” 2 Cor 13:14 NKJV

But sometimes the Son is also called “God”, so if a person is still unsure who is being spoken of, they may still wonder which person of the Trinity is in view. It is only natural, from the scriptures and reason, to think that one person is spoken of here, and utterly unnatural and foreign to scripture to think that a plurality of persons would speak as though they were one. So which person is it?

Greater clarity can be provided by employing one of the most natural, fundamental, and basic rules of scriptural interpretation: that we interpret scripture by scripture, understanding the unclear with the help of the clear. It is clear, in the fullness of revelation in the new Testament, that the “one God” 1 Cor 8:6 and “only true God” John 17:3 is the person of the Father in particular. Since this is explicitly taught, we can interpret scripture by scripture; if the scriptures throughout the New Testament reserve those titles for the person of the Father alone, we may safely understand that in the old testament, the same titles refer to the same person. This is the natural way to read these passages.

Yet, some insist that it must refer to the entire Trinity, a reading of the text that is entirely unnatural. The grammar of the text gives no indication of a plurality of persons, but rather, a single person is clearly indicated by the use of singular personal pronouns. But for dogmatic reasons, some wish to insert the entire Trinity, as if a single person, into the text of scripture here. This is all that those who want to teach that the Trinity is a single person can do; since no where in scripture is their absurd error ever taught, they must mutilate the scriptures to their own ends, and pretend they speak of a person unspoken of in scripture, their “God the Trinity”, that person who they suppose is all three persons of the Trinity.

And yet, as we have shown, the scriptural reading of these verses is to refer them to the person of the Father. This view, being the natural reading, is also, as should be expected, the way that we see the early church fathers of the ante-nicene and nicene eras apply these texts of scripture, as can be seen from the extensive quotations below:

Hilary of Poitiers

“XXIII. If any man, after the example of the Jews, understand as said for the destruction of the Eternal Only-begotten God, the words, I am the first God, and I am the last God, and beside Me there is no God Isaiah 44:6, which were spoken for the destruction of idols and them that are no gods: let him be anathema.

57. Though we condemn a plurality of gods and declare that God is only one, we cannot deny that the Son of God is God. Nay, the true character of His nature causes the name that is denied to a plurality to be the privilege of His essence. The words, Beside Me there is no God, cannot rob the Son of His divinity: because beside Him who is of God there is no other God. And these words of God the Father cannot annul the divinity of Him who was born of Himself with an essence in no way different from His own nature. The Jews interpret this passage as proving the bare unity of God, because they are ignorant of the Only-begotten God. But we, while we deny that there are two Gods, abhor the idea of a diversity of natural essence in the Father and the Son. The words, Beside Me there is no God, take away an impious belief in false gods. In confessing that God is One, and also saying that the Son is God, our use of the same name affirms that there is no difference of substance between the two Persons.” (Hilary of Poitiers, De Synodis)

Novatian of Rome

“And now, indeed, concerning the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, let it be sufficient to have briefly said thus much, and to have laid down these points concisely, without carrying them out in a lengthened argument. For they could be presented more diffusely and continued in a more expanded disputation, since the whole of the Old and New Testaments might be adduced in testimony that thus the true faith stands. But because heretics, ever struggling against the truth, are accustomed to prolong the controversy of pure tradition and Catholic faith, being offended against Christ; because He is, moreover, asserted to be God by the Scriptures also, and this is believed to be so by us; we must rightly — that every heretical calumny may be removed from our faith— contend, concerning the fact that Christ is God also, in such a way as that it may not militate against the truth of Scripture; nor yet against our faith, how there is declared to be one God by the Scriptures, and how it is held and believed by us. For as well they who say that Jesus Christ Himself is God the Father, as moreover they who would have Him to be only man, have gathered thence the sources and reasons of their error and perversity; because when they perceived that it was written that God is one, they thought that they could not otherwise hold such an opinion than by supposing that it must be believed either that Christ was man only, or really God the Father. And they were accustomed in such a way to connect their sophistries as to endeavour to justify their own error. And thus they who say that Jesus Christ is the Father argue as follows:— If God is one, and Christ is God, Christ is the Father, since God is one. If Christ be not the Father, because Christ is God the Son, there appear to be two Gods introduced, contrary to the Scriptures. And they who contend that Christ is man only, conclude on the other hand thus:— If the Father is one, and the Son another, but the Father is God and Christ is God, then there is not one God, but two Gods are at once introduced, the Father and the Son; and if God is one, by consequence Christ must be a man, so that rightly the Father may be one God. Thus indeed the Lord is, as it were, crucified between two thieves, even as He was formerly placed; and thus from either side He receives the sacrilegious reproaches of such heretics as these. But neither the Holy Scriptures nor we suggest to them the reasons of their perdition and blindness, if they either will not, or cannot, see what is evidently written in the midst of the divine documents. For we both know, and read, and believe, and maintain that God is one, who made the heaven as well as the earth, since we neither know any other, nor shall we at any time know such, seeing that there is none. I, says He, am God, and there is none beside me, righteous and a Saviour. And in another place: I am the first and the last, and beside me there is no God who is as I. And, Who has meted out heaven with a Span, and the earth with a handful? Who has suspended the mountains in a balance, and the woods on scales? And Hezekiah: That all may know that You are God alone. Moreover, the Lord Himself: Why do you ask me concerning that which is good? God alone is good. Moreover, the Apostle Paul says: Who only has immortality, and dwells in the light that no man can approach unto, whom no man has seen, nor can see. And in another place: But a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one. But even as we hold, and read, and believe this, thus we ought to pass over no portion of the heavenly Scriptures, since indeed also we ought by no means to reject those marks of Christ’s divinity which are laid down in the Scriptures, that we may not, by corrupting the authority of the Scriptures, be held to have corrupted the integrity of our holy faith. And let us therefore believe this, since it is most faithful that Jesus Christ the Son of God is our Lord and God; because in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and God was the Word. The same was in the beginning with God. And, The Word was made flesh, and dwelt in us. And, My Lord and my God. And, Whose are the fathers, and of whom according to the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for evermore.” (Novatian of Rome, On the Trinity, Chapter 30)

We see here Novatian refers the verse in question to the person of the Father, continuing afterwards to speak of the Son distinctly.

“Him, then, we acknowledge and know to be God, the Creator of all things — Lord on account of His power, Parent on account of His discipline — Him, I say, who spoke, and all things were made; He commanded, and all things went forth: of whom it is written, You have made all things in wisdom;  of whom Moses said, God in heaven above, and in the earth beneath; Deuteronomy 4:39 who, according to Isaiah, has meted out the heaven with a span, the earth with the hollow of His hand;  who looks on the earth, and makes it tremble; who bounds the circle of the earth, and those that dwell in it like locusts; who has weighed the mountains in a balance, and the groves in scales, that is, by the sure test of divine arrangement; easily fall into ruins if it were not balanced with equal weights, He has poised this burden of the earthly mass with equity. Who says by the prophet, I am God, and there is none beside me Isaiah 45:22 Who says by the same prophet Because I will not give my majesty to another, Isaiah 13:8 that He may exclude all heathens and heretics with their figments; proving that that is not God who is made by the hand of the workman, nor that which is feigned by the intellect of a heretic. For he is not God for whose existence the workman must be asked. And He has added hereto by the prophet, The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool: what house will you build me, and where is the place of my rest?  that He may show that He whom the world does not contain is much less contained in a temple; and He says these things not for boastfulness of Himself, but for our knowledge. For He does not desire from us the glory of His magnitude; but He wishes to confer upon us, even as a father, a religious wisdom. And He, wishing moreover to attract to gentleness our minds, brutish, and swelling, and stubborn with cloddish ferocity, says, And upon whom shall my Spirit rest, save upon him that is lowly, and quiet, and that trembles at my words?  Isaiah 66:2 — so that in some degree one may recognise how great God is, in learning to fear Him by the Spirit given to him: Who, similarly wishing still more to come into our knowledge, and, by way of stirring up our minds to His worship, said, I am the Lord, who made the light and created the darkness;  that we might deem not that some Nature, — what I know not — was the artificer of those vicissitudes whereby nights and days are controlled, but might rather, as is more true, recognise God as their Creator. And since by the gaze of our eyes we cannot see Him, we rightly learn of Him from the greatness, and the power, and the majesty of His works. For the invisible things of Him, says the Apostle Paul, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by those things which are made, even His eternal power and godhead; so that the human mind, learning hidden things from those that are manifest, from the greatness of the works which it should behold, might with the eyes of the mind consider the greatness of the Architect. Of whom the same apostle, Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory. 1 Timothy 1:17 For He has gone beyond the contemplation of the eyes who has surpassed the greatness of thought. For, it is said, of Him, and through Him, and in Him are all things. Romans 11:33 For all things are by His command, because they are of Him; and are ordered by His word as being through Him; and all things return to His judgment; as in Him expecting liberty when corruption shall be done away, they appear to be recalled to Him.

Chapter 4

Moreover, He is Good, Always the Same, Immutable, One and Only, Infinite; And His Own Name Can Never Be Declared, and He is Incorruptible and Immortal.

Him alone the Lord rightly declares good, of whose goodness the whole world is witness; which world He would not have ordained if He had not been good. For if everything was very good, Genesis 1:31consequently, and reasonably, both those things which were ordained have proved that He that ordained them is good, and those things which are the work of a good Ordainer cannot be other than good; wherefore every evil is a departure from God. ” (Novatian of Rome, On the Trinity, Chapters 3-4)

Here we see again Novatian applies the verse to the Father, the only true God, speaking of the same person who that verse speaks of as the one Whom the Lord said was alone good- the Father.

Ignatius of Antioch

“There is then one God and Father, and not two or three; One who is; and there is no other besides Him, the only true [God]. For “the Lord thy God,” saith [the Scripture], “is one Lord.” And again, “Hath not one God created us? Have we not all one Father? And there is also one Son, God the Word. For “the only-begotten Son,” saith [the Scripture], “who is in the bosom of the Father.” And again, “One Lord Jesus Christ.” And in another place, “What is His name, or what His Son’s name, that we may know?” And there is also one Paraclete. For “there is also,” saith [the Scripture], “one Spirit,” since “we have been called in one hope of our calling.” And again, “We have drunk of one Spirit,”” (Letter to the Philippians)

Here we see Ignatius apply the verse in question to the Father, going on afterwards to speak of the Son and Spirit.

Justin Martyr

“For God cannot be called by any proper name, for names are given to mark out and distinguish their subject-matters, because these are many and diverse; but neither did any one exist before God who could give Him a name, nor did He Himself think it right to name Himself, seeing that He is one and unique, as He Himself also by His own prophets testifies, when He says, “I God am the first,” and after this, “And beside me there is no other God.”” (On the Monarchy of God, Chapter 21)

It is manifest that he speaks of the Father in particular here, who he frequently styles “the unbegotten God”, as he describes the one to whom he refers the passage as having none before who might give Him a name- yet this is not true of all three persons, but of the Father in particular, as He is unbegotten and of none; yet the Son, being from the Father by eternal generation, was given by His Father “that name which is above all names”.

Irenaeus of Lyons

“1. God, therefore, is one and the same, who rolls up the heaven as a book, and renews
the face of the earth; who made the things of time for man, so that coming to maturity in
them, he may produce the fruit of immortality; and who, through His kindness, also bestows [upon him] eternal things, “that in the ages to come He may show the exceeding riches of His grace;”1195 who was announced by the law and the prophets, whom Christ confessed as His Father. Now He is the Creator, and He it is who is God over all, as Esaias says, “I am witness, saith the Lord God, and my servant whom I have chosen, that ye may know, and believe, and understand that I am. Before me there was no other God, neither shall be after me. I am God, and besides me there is no Saviour. I have proclaimed, and I have saved.”1196 And again: “I myself am the first God, and I am above things to come.”1197 For neither in an ambiguous, nor arrogant, nor boastful manner, does He say these things; but since it was impossible, without God, to come to a knowledge of God, He teaches men, through His Word, to know God. To those, therefore, who are ignorant of these matters, and on this account imagine that they have discovered another Father, justly does one say, “Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures, nor the power of God.”” (Irenaeus Chapter 5)

Here again we see Irenaeus take the natural meaning of the text, applying it to the Father, who teaches men about Himself through His Word, the Son.


“And he who worships and honours the Son, in the Son worships and honours the Father; for one is the Godhead; and therefore one the honour and one the worship which is paid to the Father in and through the Son. And he who thus worships, worships one God; for there is one God and none other than He. Accordingly when the Father is called the only God, and we read that there is one God, and ‘I am,’ and ‘beside Me there is no God,’ and ‘I the first and I the last,’ this has a fit meaning. For God is One and Only and First; but this is not said to the denial of the Son, perish the thought; for He is in that One, and First and Only, as being of that One and Only and First the Only Word and Wisdom and Radiance. And He too is the First, as the Fulness of the Godhead of the First and Only, being whole and full God. This then is not said on His account, but to deny that there is other such as the Father and His Word.”

“And this account of the meaning of such passages is satisfactory; for since those who are devoted to gods falsely so called, revolt from the True God, therefore God, being good and careful for mankind, recalling the wanderers, says, ‘I am Only God,’ and ‘I Am,’ and ‘Besides Me there is no God,’ and the like; that He may condemn things which are not, and may convert all men to Himself. And as, supposing in the daytime when the sun was shining, a man were rudely to paint a piece of wood, which had not even the appearance of light, and call that image the cause of light, and if the sun with regard to it were to say, ‘I alone am the light of the day, and there is no other light of the day but I,’ he would say this, with regard, not to his own radiance, but to the error arising from the wooden image and the dissimilitude of that vain representation; so it is with ‘I am,’ and ‘I am Only God,’ and ‘There is none other besides Me,’ viz. that He may make men renounce falsely called gods, and that they may recognise Him the true God instead. Indeed when God said this, He said it through His own Word, unless forsooth the modern2853 Jews add this too, that He has not said this through His Word; but so hath He spoken, though they rave, these followers of the devil. For the Word of the Lord came to the Prophet, and this was what was heard; nor is there a thing which God says or does, but He says and does it in the Word. Not then with reference to Him is this said, O Christ’s enemies, but to things foreign to Him and not from2855 Him. For according to the aforesaid illustration, if the sun had spoken those words, he would have been setting right the error and have so spoken, not as having his radiance without him, but in the radiance shewing his own light. Therefore not for the denial of the Son, nor with reference to Him, are such passages, but to the overthrow of falsehood.”

In both these passages it is clear Athanasius refers these words to the Father, saying in the latter that He spoke them through His Son.

Eusebius Pamphili

“And if he should say, “See, see that I am, and there is no God beside me,” again it was the Father claiming this through the Son as through an image and mediator. For if, then, Isaiah the prophet says, “Sons I have reared and brought up,” and again, “Israel does not know me, and my people do not understand me,” and again, “I have commanded the stars, and by my hand I made firm the heavens,” and everything else of this sort, we will not say that Isaiah said these things, but that God was speaking through him and in him [the prophet]? Will it, then, not be fitting also with regard to the only-begotten Son of God [to say] that the Father needed to confirm these things through him for those who stood in need of these sorts of commandments? These men were idolaters, as the same scripture teaches, saying, “And the Lord said, ‘Where are [their] gods, in whom they trusted, of whose sacrifices you eat the fat and of whose libations you drink the wine? Let them arise and help you, and let them become your protectors.” For to these remarks was added the statement “See, see that I am, and there is no God beside me.”

Chapter 22

Well now, if pronouncing countless times through the prophet he proclaimed, “Beside me there is no God,” and, “A righteous God and a savior, there is none beside me,” and, “You shall know no other god besides me, and besides me there is no savior,” and all the other remarks akin to these that are referenced in the other prophets, God was also on that basis “in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” and it was the Father himself who was saying these things to human beings through the only-begotten Son as through an interpreter.

And indeed, the Son himself handed down in the gospels, teaching [the people] to acknowledge only one God, when he said, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” Therefore, he himself was the true God, who alone is one and besides whom there is no other, who enjoined these things upon the Jewish nation when they had fallen into idolatry, not only through the prophets, but [also] through His own Son.”” (On Ecclesiastical Theology, Book 2, Chapters 21-22)

We may notice that there is no indication given whatsoever in any of these quotes that the fathers understood these passages to refer to a person other than the Father, and the Father alone; not to the exclusion of the Son and Spirit from the divine nature, as they explain, but rather to the exclusion of idols and false gods. Rather, they regarded these as words of the Father spoken in reference to His own person, through His Son, Who is His Word.

They do not refer these words to the Trinity conceived of as a person; but rather, these passages refute the blasphemy of “God the Trinity” altogether, since they rule out the possibility that there is any other person higher than or equal to God the Father; which certainly “God the Trinity” must be, since God the Father is but the third part of Him, according to the ravings of the semi-modalists.



Quote from Eusebius taken from: Eusebius Pamphilius, On Ecclesiastical Theology, trans. Kelly McCarthy Sproerl and Markus Vinzent (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2017).

Why There is Only One God: One Supreme Ruler Over All

Since the Father is God, and the Son is God, how are there not two Gods?

We begin answering this by noting that scripture is clear on the point that there is only one God, and that it is equally clear that this one God is the person of the Father in particular. This is seen explicitly from scripture:

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:4-5 NAS)

“This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” (John 17:3 NAS)

“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 NAS)

But even once it is understood that the Father is the one God of the Christian faith, the question still remains, how does the Son, Who is also God, not by His divinity destroy monotheism?

In our last installment of this series, we examined the first part of the answer to this question, namely, that the Father is the one and only God because the Father alone is the uncaused Cause of all. The Father through the Son created all things; but even the Son and Holy Spirit, we observed, have the Father as their atemporal origin and source, the Son being of the Father by eternal generation, and the Holy Spirit being of the Father by eternal procession. This means that the Father alone is entirely uncaused and unoriginate; no greater source or reason for His being can be pointed to than Himself. He simply is always all that He is, uncaused, unbegotten.

Since then, there is only one uncaused Cause, and this is the Father, we see why scripture styles God the Father in particular the one God, and why, since the Son and Holy Spirit are not also uncaused, they do not constitute second and third Gods.

Today we examine a second part of the answer to our question, related to the last, that just as the Father alone is the “one God” because He alone is the uncaused Cause of all, so also the Father alone is the Supreme Authority, the Head without a head, meaning, that He is the authoritative head over all, even over His own Son and Spirit, and there is none who has headship over Him; there is no higher authority than the one God, the Father.

We see God’s headship over His Son and Spirit in the following passages:

“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 Corinthians 11:3 NKJV)

15 So the Lord sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning until the appointed time, and seventy thousand men of the people from Dan to Beersheba died. 16 When the angel stretched out his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord relented from the calamity and said to the angel who destroyed the people, “It is enough! Now relax your hand!” And the angel of the Lord was by the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. (2 Samuel 24:15-16 NASB)

“Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.’”” (John 20:17 NKJV)

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,” (1 Peter 1:3 NKJV)

“To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, 6 and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.” (Revelation 1:5b-6 NKJV)

“that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 15:6 NKJV)

“Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works.” (John 14:10 NKJV)

“And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.” (John 14:16-17 NKJV)

“But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.” (John 14:26 NKJV)

In these passages we see that there is no higher authority over God the Father, and that He is Supreme:

“For when God made a promise to Abraham, because He could swear by no one greater, He swore by Himself, 14 saying, “Surely blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply you.” 15 And so, after he had patiently endured, he obtained the promise. 16 For men indeed swear by the greater, and an oath for confirmation is for them an end of all dispute.” (Hebrews 6:13-18 NKJV)

“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.” (1 Corinthians 15:24-28 NKJV)

From these passages we see that the Son and Spirit are subordinate to the Father as Their Head, and that the Father has headship over not only all creation, but also over His Son and Spirit. We also see that the Father Himself is the greatest authority, having no higher authority above Him; the Father alone is the Supreme Authority. On this account then, as well as the fact that the Father alone is the uncaused Cause of all, scripture styles the person of the Father the “one God”. And since the Son and Holy Spirit do not also have absolute supreme authority equal with the Father, They do not constitute second and third Gods, but the Father alone being the Supreme Authority over all is the one God.

Having seen this shown from scripture, let us now examine the testimonies of some of the ancient fathers of the church on this same point:

Novation of Rome

“Moreover, the Son does nothing of His own will, nor does anything of His own determination; nor does He come from Himself, but obeys all His Father’s commands and precepts; so that, although birth proves Him to be a Son, yet obedience even to death declares Him the minister of the will of His Father, of whom He is. Thus making Himself obedient to His Father in all things, although He also is God, yet He shows the one God the Father by His obedience, from whom also He drew His beginning.” (On the Trinity, Chapter 31)

“For all things being subjected to Him as the Son by the Father, while He Himself, with those things which are subjected to Him, is subjected to His Father, He is indeed proved to be Son of His Father; but He is found to be both Lord and God of all else. Whence, while all things put under Him are delivered to Him who is God, and all things are subjected to Him, the Son refers all that He has received to the Father, remits again to the Father the whole authority of His divinity. The true and eternal Father is manifested as the one God, from whom alone this power of divinity is sent forth, and also given and directed upon the Son, and is again returned by the communion of substance to the Father. God indeed is shown as the Son, to whom the divinity is beheld to be given and extended. And still, nevertheless, the Father is proved to be one God; while by degrees in reciprocal transfer that majesty and divinity are again returned and reflected as sent by the Son Himself to the Father, who had given them; so that reasonably God the Father is God of all, and the source also of His Son Himself whom He begot as Lord. Moreover, the Son is God of all else, because God the Father put before all Him whom He begot. Thus the Mediator of God and men, Christ Jesus, having the power of every creature subjected to Him by His own Father, inasmuch as He is God; with every creature subdued to Him, found at one with His Father God, has, by abiding in that condition that He moreover was heard, briefly proved God His Father to be one and only and true God.” (On the Trinity, Chapter 31)

Eusebius Pamphili

“But are you afraid, man, lest, having confessed that there are two hypostases, you introduce two sources and cast aside the monarchical divinity? Well then, learn that because there is one God who is without source and unbegotten, but the Son has been begotten from him, there will be one source and a single monarchy and kingship, since even the Son himself acknowledges his Father as source. “The head of Christ is God,” according to the Apostle. But are you anxious that one might have to accept that there are two gods if you confess that there are two hypostases of Father and Son? But know this too: that the man who grants that there are two hypostases of Father and Son is not compelled to say there are two Fathers, nor that there are two Sons, but will grant that one is the Father and the other is the Son. Thus, in the same way, it is not necessary for the man who posits two hypostases to grant that there are two gods. For we neither deem them equally worthy of honor, nor both without source and unbegotten, but deem the one [hypostasis] as unbegotten  and without source, while [we deem] the other as begotten and having the Father as his source. For this reason, even the Son himself teaches that his Father is also his God, when he says, “I go to my Father and to your Father and to my God and to your God.” Thus God is shown to be both Father and God of the Son himself. For this reason then, the God of the Son is proclaimed by the Church to be one. And the Son, when he is compared to the Father, will not also be God of the Father himself, but only-begotten Son, his “beloved,” “image of the invisible God,” and “radiance” of the paternal glory; and he reveres, worships, and glorifies his own Father, acknowledging him as God even of himself, to whom he has been reported also to pray, to whom he gives thanks, and to whom he also became “obedient unto death.” And he confesses that he lives “because of the Father” and is able to do nothing without the Father and that he does not do his own will but the will of the Father. Indeed, he explicitly says, “I have come down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.”” (On Ecclesiastical Theology, Book 2, Ch 7)

The Macrostich

“Believing then in the All-perfect Triad, the most Holy, that is, in the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and calling the Father God, and the Son God, yet we confess in them, not two Gods, but one dignity of Godhead, and one exact harmony of dominion, the Father alone being Head over the whole universe wholly, and over the Son Himself, and the Son subordinated to the Father; but, excepting Him, ruling over all things after Him which through Himself have come to be, and granting the grace of the Holy Ghost unsparingly to the saints at the Father’s will. For that such is the account of the Divine Monarchy towards Christ, the sacred oracles have delivered to us.”

Council of Sirmium

“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. (Council of Sirmium against Photinius)

Justin Martyr

“And now have you not perceived, my friends, that one of the three, who is both God and Lord, and ministers to Him who is in the heavens, is Lord of the two angels? For when [the angels] proceeded to Sodom, He remained behind, and communed with Abraham in the words recorded by Moses; and when He departed after the conversation, Abraham went back to his place. And when he came [to Sodom], the two angels no longer conversed with Lot, but Himself, as the Scripture makes evident; and He is the Lord who received commission from the Lord who [remains] in the heavens, i.e., the Maker of all things, to inflict upon Sodom and Gomorrha the [judgments] which the Scripture describes in these terms: ‘The Lord rained down upon Sodom and Gomorrha sulphur and fire from the Lord out of heaven.”” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 56)

“It is again written by Moses, my brethren, that He who is called God and appeared to the patriarchs is called both Angel and Lord, in order that from this you may understand Him to be minister to the Father of all things, as you have already admitted, and may remain firm, persuaded by additional arguments.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 58)

“I shall give you another testimony, my friends, from the Scriptures, that God begot before all creatures a Beginning, [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…” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 61)



Quotes from Eusebius taken from: Eusebius Pamphilius, On Ecclesiastical Theology, trans. Kelly McCarthy Sproerl and Markus Vinzent (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2017).

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: ).

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.