What is Classical Trinitarianism?

When it comes to Christian doctrine, nearly everyone knows of importance of the doctrine of the Trinity. And yet, not everyone is equally aware that throughout history, and throughout different parts of the church, the doctrine of the Trinity has been understood in various different ways. “Classical Trinitarianism” is the term I use to refer to the doctrine of the Trinity as articulated by the orthodox church fathers who lived both prior to and during the time of the Council of Nicea. This understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity is faithfully set forth in the writings of such church fathers as Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, Cyril of Jerusalem, those assembled at the Council of Nicea in 325, and those assembled at the Council of Antioch in 345.

Classical trinitarianism can be summed up as teaching that there are three (and only three) distinct and inseparable divine persons, each sharing the same eternity and same divine nature: the one God, the Father Almighty, His only-begotten Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and His Holy Spirit, Who eternally proceeds from Him.

This is the most ancient articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity the church has, dating back to an era before the politics of the Roman government played a major role in the doctrinal positions of the churches, to a time when the teaching of the apostles was still ringing freshly in the ears of their students, the first generation of church fathers.

While this view can be historically established as the ancient view of Christianity received by tradition from the apostles, far more importantly this understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity entirely biblical. Every part of it can be proven from the holy and infallible scriptures, and unlike many later articulations that describe the Trinity in unbiblical terms, or add things to the doctrine of the Trinity which cannot be found in scripture, classical trinitarianism simply says what the scriptures say about the persons of God, His only-begotten Son, and His Holy Spirit.

Many rival formulations of the doctrine of the Trinity make the issues involved extremely complex, philosophical, esoteric, and paradoxical. While certainly some aspects of the doctrine of the Trinity are beyond our comprehension, the scriptural doctrine of the Trinity is far less complicated and confusing than many theologians have made it out to be.

Following the great commission given in Matthew 28, and the apostle Paul’s summary of what unites Christians in Ephesians 4:4-6, the biblical doctrine of the Trinity can be summed up as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” and “one Spirit… one Lord… and one God and Father Who is over all and through all and in all.” Similarly we receive a beautiful symbolic picture of the Trinity in Revelation chapters 4-5, which describe “the Lord God Almighty” seated on His throne, “the Lamb” of God standing at His right hand, and the “Spirit of God” pictured before the throne of God as the fire of seven lamps burning.

What we see from each of these passages is that the doctrine of the Trinity is ultimately the doctrine of what we believe about three persons: the one God, the Father Almighty, His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ the Lord, and His Holy Spirit, the Paraclete. Thus the ancient Creeds of the church have delivered the doctrine of the Christian faith as summed up in three points, firstly, pertaining to the “one God”, the Father, the Almighty, secondly, pertaining to His Son, Who is His eternal Word and Wisdom, begotten of Him before time, Who took on a human nature and came to earth for our salvation in the incarnation, and thirdly, pertaining to the Holy Spirit, with Whom believers are sealed.

Thus we see one of the earliest summaries of Christian doctrine from Irenaeus of Lyons sums up the Christian faith:

“This then is the order of the rule of our faith, and the foundation of the building, and the stability of our conversation: God, the Father, not made, not material, invisible; one God, the creator of all things: this is the first point of our faith. The second point is: The Word of God, Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord, who was manifested to the prophets according to the form of their prophesying and according to the method of the dispensation of the Father: through whom all things were made; who also at the end of the times, to complete and gather up all things, was made man among men, visible and tangible, in order to abolish death and show forth life and produce a community of union between God and man. And the third point is: The Holy Spirit, through whom the prophets prophesied, and the fathers learned the things of God, and the righteous were led forth into the way of righteousness; and who in the end of the times was poured out in a new way upon mankind in all the earth, renewing man unto God.” (Irenaeus, Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching)

We can also observe the same structure in the ancient baptismal Creeds of the church, which served as local summaries of Christian doctrine for new converts to recite at their baptism. The baptismal Creed of Jerusalem read:

“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before the ages, true God, by whom all things were made, who was incarnate and made man, crucified and buried, and the third day ascended into the heavens, and sat down at the right hand of the Father, and is coming to judge quick and dead.

And in the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete, who spake by the prophets;

And in one holy catholic Church; and resurrection of the flesh; and in life everlasting.”

Finally the famous Nicene Creed is structured in fundamentally the same way, following the pattern set in scripture in Ephesians 4:4-6 and 1 Corinthians 8:6, saying:

“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the essence of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of the same essence as the Father, through Whom all things came into being, things in heaven and things on earth, Who because of us men and because of our salvation came down, and became incarnate and became man, and suffered, and rose again on the third day, and ascended to the heavens, and will come to judge the living and dead,

And in the Holy Spirit.

But as for those who say, There was when He was not, and, Before being born He was not, and that He came into existence out of nothing, or who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypostasis or essence, or created, or is subject to alteration or change – these the Catholic and apostolic Church anathematizes.”

All these summaries of faith are clear on several important points of trinitarian doctrine, identifying each person of the Trinity in the way the scriptures describe Them. The Father is the one God, the Almighty; the Son is our one Lord, only-begotten of the Father before all time, thus being a distinct person from the Father Who is co-eternal with Him, and eternally of the same divine nature as He. Likewise the Holy Spirit of God is identified as a third distinct person, God’s Spirit.

Yet these statements of faith, while wholly biblical, can leave us with some questions: Why is the Father identified as the “one God”, when the Son is also taught to be “God of God”, sharing the same divine nature as the Father? And while each person of the Trinity is identified distinctly in these statements, in what sense are these three persons “one”?

The answers to these questions are ultimately not as mysterious and paradoxical as heretics or Latin medieval scholastics would have you believe.

The early church fathers taught that there was only one God because there is only one supreme uncaused Cause of all things, and one supreme authority over all things, the person of the Father. Whereas the Son is described by scripture as eternally “begotten” of the Father, and the Spirit as eternally “proceeding” from Him, the Father simply is, existing as He is without any cause or origin whatsoever. He Himself is the Cause not only of all creation, but also of His own Son and Holy Spirit through Whom He made all things. Likewise, the Father alone is the Supreme Authority over all absolutely, having authority over not only over all creation, but also over His own Son and Holy Spirit. For scriptural proof and patristic quotes on these topics, see Why There is Only One God: One Supreme Cause and Why There is Only One God: Headship.

The three persons of the Trinity are never explicitly described as being “one” anywhere in scripture; the one verse that says that has been nearly universally recognised as a later interpolation of the text, and does not appear in most Bibles. Even so, the sense of that verse is the same as other passages of scripture, which teach that the Father and Son are “one”. A cursory examination of the passages quickly reveals their meaning: most of them speak of the perfect agreement between the persons, in which respect they are “one” in will and mind, just as many individual believers in the book of Acts are described as being of “one mind” (Acts 2:46) and “one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32):

“Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are… that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.” (John 17:11, 21 NKJV)

So we see then that the close relational unity of the persons, and the perfect agreement They share, is spoken of as unity, a unity that believers are said to be able to share in. While this unity between God, His Son, and His Spirit includes this unity of perfect agreement, it extends beyond that; the persons are described by scripture as mutually indwelling each other, and being inseparable from each other. Thus John 1:18 says “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.”(NKJV). The Son, then, is eternally in the bosom of the Father, distinct from Him, and yet inseparable from Him.

Related to this inseparability of the persons, we often see in scripture that God works though His Son and Holy Spirit. In the creation, sustenance, redemption, and the judgement of the world, scripture tells us that God works through His Son and Holy Spirit.

Similarly, we see that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one in respect to Their divine power. We see this spoken of in John 10:

“And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand. 30 I and My Father are one.”” (John 10: 28-30 NKJV)

This is because all three persons share the same divinity: the Father Himself is the Original and source of this divinity, Who simply is what He is in Himself, with no source or cause whatsoever; the Son and Holy Spirit, on the other hand, have this divine nature from the Father, the Son by means of His eternal generation from the Father, and the Holy Spirit as He eternally proceeds from the Father. The Son and Holy Spirit then, in what They are, that is, in their very nature, are identical to the Father, being in Themselves the same love, goodness, power, wisdom, and divinity that He is the very definition of in what He is. For this reason the Father is often spoken of in exclusive terms, such as being said to be alone good, or the only wise, or that He alone is holy in the scriptures. These things are not said to exclude the Son and Holy Spirit from these divine attributes (for how could the Wisdom of God lack wisdom, or the Holy Spirit lack holiness?), but because the Father is the Original of all these things, the very definition of them in His own nature; and from Him, the Son and Holy Spirit have that divine nature which is proper to Him communicated to Them, so that They have the same divinity, the same nature, and all the same divine attributes. For more on this see Why There is Only One God: One Divine Nature and No One Good But the Father?.

We see, then, that the answers to these questions are not beyond the scope of what God has revealed to us in the scriptures. There is one God because the Father is one (Who alone is called by scripture the “one God” and “only God”). The Father alone is the supreme uncaused Cause of all and Supreme Authority over all (the idea carried by the Greek word often translated “Almighty”). His Son and Holy Spirit, however, are united with Him, or one with Him, in that they share the same divine nature as He, are inseparable from Him, and are always in perfect agreement with Him.

To conclude this introduction to classical trinitarianism, let us close with the Creed composed at Antioch in 345, known as the Macrostich (or “long-lined creed”). This ancient Creed includes a great deal of detail, proclaiming the truth of classical trinitarianism and providing detailed explanations of the points of doctrine it confesses, and carefully distinguishing classical trinitarianism from the various heresies, specifically rejecting Arianism, Modalism, and Tritheism:

“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, the Creator and Maker of all things, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named.

And in His Only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ, who before all ages was begotten from the Father, God from God, Light from Light, by whom all things were made, in heaven and on the earth, visible and invisible, being Word and Wisdom and Power and Life and True Light, who in the last days was made man for us, and was born of the Holy Virgin, crucified and died and was buried, and rose again from the dead on the third day, and was taken up into heaven, and sat down on the right hand of the Father, and is coming at the consummation of the age to judge the living and the dead, and to render to everyone according to his works; whose kingdom endures unceasingly unto all the ages; for He sits on the right hand of the Father, not only in this age, but also in that which is to come.

And we believe in the Holy Ghost, that is, the Paraclete, which, having promised to the apostles, He sent forth after the ascension into heaven, to teach them and to remind of all things; through whom also shall be sanctified the souls of those who sincerely believe in Him.

But those who say that the Son was from nothing, or from other subsistence and not from God; and that there was a time or age when He was not, the catholic and holy church regards as aliens. Likewise those who say that there are three Gods, or that Christ is not God, or that before the ages He was neither Christ nor Son of God, or that Father and Son or Holy Ghost are the same, or that the Son is unbegotten, or that the Father begat the Son not by choice or will: the holy and catholic church anathematizes.

1. For neither is it safe to say that the Son is from nothing, (since this is no where spoken of Him in divinely inspired Scripture,) nor again of any other subsistence before existing beside the Father, but from God alone do we define Him genuinely to be generated. For the divine Word teaches that the Unbegotten and Unbegun, the Father of Christ, is One.

2. Nor may we, adopting the hazardous position, ‘There was once when He was not,’ from unscriptural sources, imagine any interval of time before Him, but only the God who has generated Him apart from time; for through Him both times and ages came to be. Yet we must not consider the Son to be co-unbegun and co-unbegotten with the Father; for no one can be properly called Father or Son of one who is co-unbegun and co-unbegotten with Him. But we acknowledge that the Father who alone is unbegun and unbegotten, has generated inconceivably and incomprehensibly to all; and that the Son has been generated before ages, and in no wise to be unbegotten Himself like the Father, but to have the Father who generated Him as His beginning; for ‘the head of Christ is God’ (1 Corinthians 11:3).

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

4. Nor again, in saying that the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is one only God, the only unbegotten, do we therefore deny that Christ also is God before ages; as the disciples of Paul of Samosata, who say that after the incarnation He was by advance made God, from being made by nature a mere man. For we acknowledge, that though He be subordinate to His Father and God, yet, being before ages begotten of God, He is God perfect according to nature and true, and not first man and then God, but first God and then becoming man for us, and never having been deprived of being.

5. We abhor besides, and anathematize those who make a pretence of saying that He is but the mere word of God and unexisting, having His being in another – now as if pronounced, as some speak, now as mental – holding that He was not Christ or Son of God or mediator or image of God before ages; but that He first became Christ and Son of God, when He took our flesh from the virgin, not quite four hundred years ago. For they will have it that then Christ began His kingdom, and that it will have an end after the consummation of all and the judgment. Such are the disciples of Marcellus and Scotinus of Galatian Ancyra, who, equally with Jews, rejected Christ’s existence before ages, and His Godhead, and unending kingdom, upon pretence of supporting the divine monarchy. We, on the contrary, regard Him not as simply God’s pronounced word or mental, but as Living God and Word, existing in Himself, and Son of God and Christ; being and abiding with His Father before ages, and that not in foreknowledge only, and ministering to Him for the whole framing whether of things visible or invisible. For it is He to whom the Father said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’ (Genesis 1:26), who also was seen in His own person by the patriarchs, gave the law, was spoken by the prophets, and at last became man and manifested His own Father to all men, and reigns to never-ending ages. For Christ has taken no recent dignity, but we have believed Him to be perfect from the first and like in all things to the Father.

6. 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.

7. And at the same time those who irreverently say that the Son has been generated not by choice or will, thus encompassing God with a necessity which excludes choice and purpose, so that He begat the Son unwillingly, we account as most irreligious and alien to the Church; in that they have dared to define such things concerning God, beside the common notions concerning Him, so, beside the intention of divinely inspired Scripture. For we, knowing that God is absolute and sovereign over Himself, have a religious judgment that He generated the Son voluntarily and freely. Yet, as we have a reverent belief in the Son’s words concerning Himself (Proverbs 8:22), ‘The Lord created me a beginning of His ways for His works,’ we do not understand Him to have been originated like the creatures or works which through Him came to be. For it is irreligious and alien to the ecclesiastical faith, to compare the Creator with handiworks created by Him, and to think that He has the same manner of origination with the rest. For divine Scripture teaches us assuredly and truly that the Only-begotten Son was generated sole and solely. Yet, in saying that the Son is in Himself, and both lives and exists like the Father, we do not on that account separate Him from the Father, imagining place and interval between their union in the way of bodies. For we believe that they are united with each other without mediation or distance, and that they exist inseparably. All the Father encompassing the Son, and all the Son hanging and adhering to the Father, and alone resting on the Father’s breast continually. 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.

Thus much, in addition to the faith before published in epitome, we have been compelled to draw forth at length, not in any officious display, but to clear away all unjust suspicion concerning our opinions among those who are ignorant of our affairs; and that all in the West may know, both the audacity of the slanders of the heterodox, and as to the Orientals, their ecclesiastical mind in the Lord, to which the divinely inspired Scriptures bear witness without violence, where men are not perverse.”

Did Origen Invent The Doctrine of Eternal Generation?

I have heard various people mention Origen as being the one who “invented” eternal generation. Often those saying this are opponents of the doctrine, and the design is to discredit the doctrine on the merits of its founder. But I have even seen those seemingly defending eternal generation seeming to give credence to the notion that Origen was the first to articulate the doctrine.

One example of this point being brought up as a negative is Walter R. Martin in The Kingdom of the Cults, in the chapter on the “Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Watch Tower”, where he says:

“Arius derived many of his ideas from his teacher, Lucian of Antioch, who in turn borrowed them from Origen, who himself introduced the term “eternal generation” or the concept that God from all eternity generates a second person like Himself, ergo the “eternal Son.” Arius of course rejected this as illogical and unreasonable, which it is, and taking the other horn of dilemma squarely between his teeth reduced the eternal Word of God to the rank of a creation! It is a significant fact, however, that in the earliest writings of the church fathers doting from the first century to the year 230 the term “eternal generation” was never used, but it has been this dogma later adopted by Roman Catholic theology, which has fed the Arian heresy through the centuries and today continues to feed the Christology of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.” (pp. 101, 102—1977; pp. 115, 116—1985 rev. ed.; p. 168—1997 rev., updated, expanded anniversary ed., Hank Hanegraaff, general editor; pp. 137, 138—2003 rev., updated, expanded ed., Ravi Zacharias, general editor. (my source for this quote: Articuli Fidei))

This simply is not true, and it is somewhat amazing that it is necessary to point out. Are people on both sides of the debate so illiterate respecting the theology of the early church that they are unaware of earlier articulations of the doctrine of eternal generation? Or is the general understanding of the doctrine so shallow that it is only recognized when called by its name, and invisible when mentioned without the label “eternal generation”?

Of first importance is the question of whether eternal generation is demonstrable from the holy scriptures, for the answer to that question only will let us know if the doctrine is true and worthy of being believed. For my treatment of that subject, see Eternal Generation Proved from the Scriptures. For our purposes in this post, I will seek to demonstrate from the writings of those fathers who taught prior to Origen that he can by no means be fairly deemed to have “invented” the doctrine.

Since the label “eternal generation” is not used commonly, it is important to be able to recognize the doctrine in substance in the following quotes. The doctrine in a nutshell is that prior to creation, and therefore, prior to time itself, the Son was begotten from the Father in such a manner that He has both His person and essence from the Father. The important implications of this doctrine are that the Son is genuinely a distinct person from the Father, caused by Him, of the same divine nature as Him, and co-eternal with Him, inasmuch as there can be no difference between the Father and Son in time or chronology caused by an event which occurred outside of time. The Nicene Creed sums up the doctrine nicely as follows, when it declares that the Son is “begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the essence of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made”. That in mind, lets examine several instances of this doctrine being taught prior to Origen.

Ignatius of Antioch.

Ignatius of Antioch is a noteworthy church father of the generation following the apostles. The man probably interacted personally with Paul, and perhaps with other apostles as well. There are seven letters of his that are considered by scholars to perhaps be authentic, but issues with interpolations abound. There are also additional letters ascribed to him widely agreed to be spurious. Scholars disagree over the validity and purity of the potentially-authentic seven letters. With that in mind, it is difficult to cite anything found in his letters as genuine proof of a given doctrine having been taught by him. However, treating the seven letters as potentially being authentic, let us examine a few quotes in Ignatius’s letters which clearly speak of eternal generation:

“But our Physician is the only true God, the unbegotten and unapproachable, the Lord of all, the Father and Begetter of the only-begotten Son. We have also as a Physician the Lord our God, Jesus the Christ, the only-begotten Son and Word, before time began,57 but who afterwards became also man, of Mary the virgin. For “the Word was made flesh.””(Chapter VII, Epistle to the Ephesians, Longer Version)

“For the Son of God, who was begotten before time began,131 and established all things according to the will of the Father, He was conceived in the womb of Mary, according to the appointment of God, of the seed of David, and by the Holy Ghost.” (Chapter XVIII, Epistle to the Ephesians, Longer Version)

“…your presbyters in the place of the assembly of the apostles, along with your deacons, who are most dear to me, and are entrusted with the ministry of Jesus Christ. He, being begotten by the Father before the beginning of time,192 was God the Word, the only-begotten Son, and remains the same for ever; for “of His kingdom there shall be no end,”193 says Daniel the prophet.” (Chapter VI, Epistle to the Magnesians, Longer Version)

“On this account also they were persecuted, being inspired by grace to fully convince the unbelieving that there is one God, the Almighty, who has manifested Himself by Jesus Christ His Son, who is His Word, not spoken, but essential. For He is not the voice of an articulate utterance, but a substance begotten by divine power, who has in all things pleased Him that sent Him.”(Chapter VIII, Epistle to the Magnesians, Longer Version)

“These things [I address to you], my beloved, not that I know any of you to be in such a state;228 but, as less than any of you, I desire to guard you beforehand, that ye fall not upon the hooks of vain doctrine, but that you may rather attain to a full assurance in Christ, who was begotten by the Father before all ages, but was afterwards born of the Virgin Mary…” (Chapter XI,Epistle to the Magnesians, Longer Version)

“How could such a one be a mere man, receiving the beginning of His existence from Mary, and not rather God the Word, and the only-begottenSon? For “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,722 and the Word was God.”723 And in another place, “The Lord created Me, the beginning of His ways, for His ways, for His works. Before the world did He found Me, and before all the hills did He beget Me.”724” (Chapter VI, Epistle to the Tarsians)

Justin Martyr.

Justin Martyr’s writings are ripe with explicit references to the Son’s eternal generation from the Father. What’s more, Justin, acting in the role of an apologist for Christianity at large, can fairly be said to represent not only his own personal beliefs but the beliefs of the church at large in his time, in the following statements:

“And that you will not succeed is declared by the Word, than whom, after God who begat Him, we know there is no ruler more kingly and just.” (Chapter XII, First Apology)

“And that this may now become evident to you—(firstly50) that whatever we assert in conformity with what has been taught us by Christ, and by the prophets who preceded Him, are alone true, and are older than all the writers who have existed; that we claim to be acknowledged, not because we say the same things as these writers said, but because we say true things: and (secondly) that Jesus Christ is the only proper Son who has been begotten by God, being His Word and first-begotten, and power; and, becoming man according to 171 His will…” (Chapter XXIII, First Apology)

“For they who affirm that the Son is the Father, are proved neither to have become acquainted with the Father, nor to know that the Father of the universe has a Son; who also, being the first-begotten Word of God, is even God. And of old He appeared in the shape of fire and in the likeness of an angel to Moses and to the other prophets; but now in the times of your reign,140 having, as we before said, become Man by a virgin, according to the counsel of the Father, for the salvation of those who believe on Him, He endured both to be set at nought and to suffer, that by dying and rising againHe might conquer death.” (Chapter LXIII, First Apology)

““I shall give you another testimony, my friends,” said I, “from the Scriptures, that God begat before all creatures a Beginning,403 [who was] a certain rational power [proceeding] from Himself, who is called by the HolySpirit, now the Glory of the Lord, now the Son, again Wisdom, again an Angel, then God, and then Lord and Logos; and on another occasion He calls Himself Captain, when He appeared in human form to Joshua the son of Nave (Nun). For He can be called by all those names, since He ministers to the Father’s will, and since He was begotten of the Father by an act of will;404 just as we see405 happening among ourselves: for when we give out some word, we beget the word; yet not by abscission, so as to lessen the word406 [which remains] in us, when we give it out: and just as we see also happening in the case of a fire, which is not lessened when it has kindled [another], but remains the same; and that which has been kindled by it likewise appears to exist by itself, not diminishing that from which it was kindled. The Word ofWisdom, who is Himself this God begotten of the Father of all things, andWord, and Wisdom, and Power, and the Glory of the Begetter, will bear evidence to me, when He speaks by Solomon the following:

‘If I shall declare to you what happens daily, I shall call to mind events from everlasting, and228 review them. The Lord made me the beginning of His ways for His works. From everlasting He established me in the beginning, before He had made the earth, and before He had made the deeps, before the springs of the waters had issued forth, before the mountains had been established. Before all the hills He begets me. God made the country, and the desert, and the highest inhabited places under the sky. When He made ready the heavens, I was along with Him, and when He set up His throne on the winds: when He made the high clouds strong, and the springs of the deep safe, when He made the foundations of the earth, I was with Him arranging. I was that in which He rejoiced; daily and at all times I delighted in His countenance, because He delighted in the finishing of the habitable world, and delighted in the sons of men. Now, therefore, O son, hear me. Blessed is the man who shall listen tome, and the mortal who shall keep my ways, watching407 daily at my doors, observing the posts of my in goings. For my outgoings are the outgoings of life, and [my] will has been prepared by the Lord. But they who sin against me, trespass against their own souls; and they who hate me love death.’” (Chapter LXI, Dialogue With Trypho)

“But this Offspring, which was truly brought forth from the Father, was with the Father before all the creatures, and the Father communed withHim; even as the Scripture by Solomon has made clear, that He whomSolomon calls Wisdom, was begotten as a Beginning before all His creatures and as Offspring by God, who has also declared this same thing in the revelation made by Joshua the son of Nave (Nun).” (Chapter LXII, DialogueWith Trypho)

“For I have already proved that He was the only-begotten of the Father of all things, being begotten in a peculiar manner Word and Power byHim, and having afterwards become man through the Virgin, as we have learned from the memoirs.” (Chapter CV, Dialogue With Trypho)

“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. “And now I shall again recite the words which I have spoken in proof of this point. When Scripture says,‘The Lord rained fire from the Lord out of heaven,’ the prophetic word indicates that there were two in number: One upon the earth, who, it says, descended to behold the cry of Sodom; Another in heaven, who also is Lord of the Lord on earth, as He is Father and God; the cause of His power and ofHis being Lord and God. Again, when the Scripture records that God said in the beginning, ‘Behold, Adam has become like one of Us,’692 this phrase, ‘like one of Us,’ is also indicative of number; and the words do not admit of a figurative meaning, as the sophists endeavour to affix on them, who are able neither to tell nor to understand the truth. And it is written in the book of Wisdom: ‘If I should tell you daily events, I would be mindful to enumerate them from the beginning. The Lord created me the beginning of His ways forHis works. From everlasting He established me in the beginning, before He formed the earth, and before He made the depths, and before the springs of waters came forth, before the mountains were settled; He begets me before all the hills.’ ” 693 When I repeated these words, I added: “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.”” (Chapters CXXVIII and CXXIX, Dialogue With Trypho)

Irenaeus of Lyons.

Second-century church father Irenaeus of Lyons is another witness to the fact that the doctrine of the Son’s eternal generation was a doctrine already taught and believed by the church prior to Origen:

“If any one, therefore, says to us, “How then was the Son produced by the Father?” we reply to him, that no man understands that production, or generation, or calling, or revelation, or by whatever name one may describe His generation, which is in fact altogether indescribable. Neither Valentinus, nor Marcion, nor Saturninus, nor Basilides, nor angels, nor archangels, nor principalities, nor powers [possess this knowledge], but the Father only who begat, and the Son who was begotten. Since therefore His generation is unspeakable, those who strive to set forth generations and productions cannot be in their right mind, inasmuch as they undertake to describe things which are indescribable.” (Chapter XXVIII, Against Heresies, Book II)

“So then the Father is Lord and the Son is Lord, and the Father is God and the Son is God; for that which is begotten of God is God.” (The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching)

We see then, that there is no reasonable way to argue that the doctrine has its origin in Origen. The testimony of two of the most influential church fathers of the second century, Justin Marytr and Irenaeus, serves sufficiently to put this odd historical inaccuracy to rest. And if any of the quotes provided from Ignatius be regarded as genuine, one will be hard pressed to argue there is a single generation prior to Origen that we do not see the church’s belief in the doctrine of eternal generation stated in some historical document or another.

Examining Scripture: Deuteronomy 6:4 “the Shema”- the Father, or the Trinity?

Deuteronomy 6:4 is a famous verse: “Hear, O Israel, The Lord our God is one Lord.” (LXX Bible). It is used not only by Christians, but also Jews and various other sects to prove that the scriptures teach monotheism, the belief that there is only one God.

This is of course true; but it is also noteworthy that this passage of scripture tells us that God is one and does not include an explanation of what is meant by this in relation to the Trinity. Revelation was progressive, and at this point in history, not as much detail had been revealed about the Trinity in the scriptures. That said, this verse is not primarily intended to teach us about the doctrine of the Trinity; it is a blanket statement of monotheism.

As previously discussed in The Priority of the New Testament in Trinitarian Doctrine, we must read less clear passages of scripture with the aid of those which are more clear. When a given passage of scripture reveals that there is only one God, and does not speak in further detail to how this fits with the doctrine of the Trinity, our first response should be to seek clarification on this topic from other passages of scripture that speak to this point. It is unwise to simply jump to trying to invent our own custom interpretation of the passage without examining it in light of other related passages of scripture.

When we look at New Testament passages related to Deut. 6:4, we find several. Firstly let us note that it is quoted in Mark 12:28-34:

“Then one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, perceiving that He had answered them well, asked Him, “Which is the first commandment of all?”

29 Jesus answered him, “The first of all the commandments is: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ This is the first commandment. 31 And the second, like it, is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

32 So the scribe said to Him, “Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth, for there is one God, and there is no other but He. 33 And to love Him with all the heart, with all the understanding, with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

34 Now when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, He said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

But after that no one dared question Him.” (NKJV)

This whole exchange is admittedly vague enough to say that it does not speak with certainty as to who the person Deuteronomy 6:4 refers to is, but it is noteworthy at the very least that the Lord gives no indication whatsoever that he views that verse as referring to Himself. This is significant, because if the Trinity in totality were being referenced there, as semi-modalists suggest, then it would refer to Christ, along with the Father and the Spirit. The lack of any indication this is the case leaves no support for interpreting Deuteronomy 6:4 as referring to the whole Trinity in this passage.

Let us then examine other passages which could be considered parallel in the New Testament, inasmuch as they also speak of the fact that there is only one God:

“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)

Unlike Deuteronomy 6:4, these passages not only state clearly that there is only one God, but also explicit identify Who is referred to by that title: the person of the Father in particular. Theses passages, unlike Deuteronomy 6:4 go beyond merely affirming monotheism to include detail on how these statements fit with the doctrine of the Trinity, by identifying the one God as the first person of the Trinity.

If then we are willing to read the less-clear passage, Deuteronomy 6:4, with the assistance of these more-clear passages, we will be forced to admit that the most reasonable interpretation of Who Deuteronomy 6:4 is referring to is the person of the Father alone. This is to read the less-clear passage in light of the more-clear, and to read both Testaments in tandem with each other, assuming that when scripture speaks of there being one God in the Old Testament it means the same thing, and refers to the same person, as the the New does when it speaks of the “one God”.

Some, of course, jump on this as a chance to exclude the Son and Holy Spirit either from existence altogether as the Jews and modalists, or from the divine nature, as the Arians do. Such radical departures from what scripture in totality teaches us are certainly not warranted by this interpretation. For scripture to speak of the Father as the one God, without making explicit mention of the other persons at the same time, does not give us license to ignore what the rest of scripture teaches about God’s only-begotten Son and Holy Spirit. Scripture is clear in teaching that the Son and Spirit are distinct persons from the one God, the Father. Both these persons share the same divine nature as the Father: see: Does teaching the Father is the one God undermine the divinity of Christ? and Why There is Only One God: One Divine Nature.

That Deuteronomy 6:4 is most reasonably taken, then, as speaking of the person of the Father, I have now shown. And on the basis of sound reasoning from the scriptures, this conclusion ought to be accepted. Yet I am aware that many throughout church history have insisted that this verse refers to the entire Trinity, or even to the person of the Son in some stranger interpretations. Because of this, I think it useful to include a few quotes here from the church fathers, showing that several of them also regarded this as an acceptable interpretation:

 

Ignatius of Antioch:

“For Moses, the faithful servant of God, when he said, “The Lord thy God is one Lord,” and thus proclaimed that there was only one God, did yet forthwith confess also our Lord when he said, “The Lord rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah fire and brimstone from the Lord.”” (Epistle to the Antiochenes, Chapter 2)

“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…” (Letter to the Philippians, Chapter 2)

Irenaeus of Lyons:

“…or shall it be (what is really the case) the Maker of heaven and earth, whom also the prophets proclaimed,—whom Christ, too, confesses as His Father,— whom also the law announces, saying: “Hear, O Israel; The Lord thy God is one God?”” (Against Heresies, Book 4, Chapter 2)

Apostolic Constitutions:

“For He did not take away the law of nature, but confirmed it. For He that said
in the law, “The Lord thy God is one Lord;”1168 the same says in the Gospel, “That they might know Thee, the only true God.”” (Apostolic Constitutions, Book 6, Section 4, Chapter 23)

Athanasius:

“Has then the divine teaching, which abolished the godlessness of the heathen or the
idols, passed over in silence, and left the race of mankind to go entirely unprovided with
the knowledge of God? Not so: rather it anticipates their understanding when it says:
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God is one God;” and again, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy
God with all thy heart and with all thy strength;” and again, “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and Him only shalt thou serve, and shalt cleave to Him.” 2. But that the providence and ordering power of the Word also, over all and toward all, is attested by all inspired Scripture, this passage suffices to confirm our argument, where men who speak of God say: “Thou hast laid the foundation of the earth and it abideth. The day continueth according to Thine ordinance.” And again: “Sing to our God upon the harp, that covereth the heaven with clouds, that prepareth rain for the earth, that bringeth forth grass upon the mountains, and green herb for the service of man, and giveth food to the cattle.” 3. But by whom does He give it, save by Him through Whom all things were made? For the providence over all things belongs naturally to Him by Whom they were made; and who is this save the Word of God, concerning Whom in another psalm182 he says: “By the Word of the Lord were the heavens made, and all the host of them by the Breath of His mouth.”” (Contra the Heathen, Part 3)

And of the Father it is written, ‘The Lord thy God is One Lord,’ and, ‘The God of gods, the Lord, hath spoken, and hath called the earth;’ and of the Son, ‘The Lord God hath shined upon us,’ and, ‘The God of gods shall be seen in Sion.’ And again of God, Isaiah says, ‘Who is a God like unto Thee, taking away iniquities and passing over unrighteousness?’” (De Synodis, Part 3)

That the Word “God” Never Refers to Multiple Persons of the Trinity Together in Scripture

As we examined some in The Priority of the New Testament in Trinitarian Doctrine, semi-modalists have their own special hermeneutic by which they insist that the scriptures must be interpreted. This hermeneutic is nothing other than insisting that every time the word “God” is used without qualification, this refers to the entire Trinity. They then employ this to say that the vast majority of places in scripture in which God speaks, it is in fact the Trinity in view.

This hermeneutic has no basis in either scripture or rationality, but rather serves the end of semi-modalists by inserting their absurd concept of a person who is three persons into everywhere in scripture that does not explicitly state that this is not what is meant.

This is quite contrary to the plain sense of the scriptures. In most places scripture speaks of “God” there is something in the context which indicates that a single person is in view, such as a singular personal pronoun. This then excludes the Trinity from being in view in such places, as the Trinity is not a single person, but a group of three persons. When scripture tells us there is a single person in view by using singular personal pronouns, we must acknowledge that only one person, and thus not the entire Trinity, is in view.

The word “God” (except perhaps when speaking of idols) is in scripture only ever used for a single person in any given instance; there are myriad places in scripture where this is obvious from the context and grammar. It is only natural to read any ambiguous places the same way, since scripture is consistent with itself, and reason teaches us to interpret those passages which are less clear by those that are more clear. And if we take our hermeneutics from scripture, we will quickly see that not only is the word “God” used for a single person, but that usually the person in view is the Father, although sometimes it is used of the Son as well.

We can again arrive at this understanding from scripture itself. Throughout the New Testament, when the term “God” is used absolutely and without qualification, it is in reference to the person of the Father. This is ubiquitous throughout the New Testament. Only a few times the word is used for the Son. If then we read the the Old Testament with the aid of the New, so that we are interpreting those older scriptures in which were hidden many things in type and shadow and mystery with the aid of those scriptures which provide us with a fuller and clearer revelation, then we will likewise understand that normally in the Old Testament, as in the New, the term “God” is usually used to denote the person of the Father.

Several of Samuel Clarke’s theses from The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity are related to this:

VIII. The Father (or First Person) is absolutely speaking, the God of the Universe; the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God of Israel; of Moses, of the Prophets and Apostles; and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

IX. The scripture, when it mentions the One God, or the Only God, always means the Supreme Person of the Father.

X. Whenever the Word, God, is mentioned in Scripture, with any High Epithet, Title, or Attribute annex’d to it; it generally (if not always) means the Person of the Father.

XI. The Scripture, when it mentions GOD, absolutely and by way of Eminence, always means the Person of the Father.

XXIV. The Word, God, in the New Testament, sometimes signifies the Person of the Son.

XXXIII. The Word, God, in Scripture, never signifies a complex Notion of more persons than One; but always means One person only, viz. either the person of the Father singly, or the person of the Son singly.

Clarke’s assessment of the manner in which scripture speaks is attested to by several early church fathers as well:

Justin Martyr

“Accordingly, it is shown that Solomon is not the Lord of hosts; but when our Christ rose from the dead and ascended to heaven, the rulers in heaven, under appointment of God, are commanded to open the gates of heaven, that He who is King of glory may enter in, and having ascended, may sit on the right hand of the Father until He make the enemies His footstool, as has been made manifest by another Psalm. For when the rulers of heaven saw Him of uncomely and dishonoured appearance, and inglorious, not recognising Him, they inquired, ‘Who is this King of glory?’ And the Holy Spirit, either from the person of His Father, or from His own person, answers them, ‘The Lord of hosts, He is this King of glory.’ For every one will confess that not one of those who presided over the gates of the temple at Jerusalem would venture to say concerning Solomon, though he was so glorious a king, or concerning the ark of testimony, ‘Who is this King of glory?'” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 36)

“But when you hear the utterances of the prophets spoken as it were personally, you must not suppose that they are spoken by the inspired themselves, but by the Divine Word who moves them. For sometimes He declares things that are to come to pass, in the manner of one who foretells the future; sometimes He speaks as from the person of God the Lord and Father of all; sometimes as from the person of Christ; sometimes as from the person of the people answering the Lord or His Father, just as you can see even in your own writers, one man being the writer of the whole, but introducing the persons who converse. And this the Jews who possessed the books of the prophets did not understand, and therefore did not recognise Christ even when He came, but even hate us who say that He has come, and who prove that, as was predicted, He was crucified by them.” (First Apology, Chapter 36)

“And that this too may be clear to you, there were spoken from the person of the Father through Isaiah the Prophet, the following words: The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib; but Israel does not know, and My people has not understood. Woe, sinful nation, a people full of sins, a wicked seed, children that are transgressors, you have forsaken the Lord. And again elsewhere, when the same prophet speaks in like manner from the person of the Father, What is the house that you will build for Me? Says the Lord. The heaven is My throne, and the earth is My footstool. Isaiah 66:1 And again, in another place, Your new moons and your sabbaths My soul hates; and the great day of the fast and of ceasing from labour I cannot away with; nor, if you come to be seen of Me, will I hear you: your hands are full of blood; and if you bring fine flour, incense, it is abomination unto Me: the fat of lambs and the blood of bulls I do not desire. For who has required this at your hands? But loose every bond of wickedness, tear asunder the tight knots of violent contracts, cover the houseless and naked, deal your bread to the hungry. Isaiah 1:14, Isaiah 58:6 What kind of things are taught through the prophets from [the person of] God, you can now perceive.
And when the Spirit of prophecy speaks from the person of Christ, the utterances are of this sort: I have spread out My hands to a disobedient and gainsaying people, to those who walk in a way that is not good. Isaiah 65:2 And again: I gave My back to the scourges, and My cheeks to the buffetings; I turned not away My face from the shame of spittings; and the Lord was My helper: therefore was I not confounded: but I set My face as a firm rock; and I knew that I should not be ashamed, for He is near that justifies Me. Isaiah 50:6 And again, when He says, They cast lots upon My vesture, and pierced My hands and My feet. And I lay down and slept, and rose again, because the Lord sustained Me. And again, when He says, They spoke with their lips, they wagged the head, saying, Let Him deliver Himself. And that all these things happened to Christ at the hands of the Jews, you can ascertain. For when He was crucified, they did shoot out the lip, and wagged their heads, saying, Let Him who raised the dead save Himself. Matthew 27:39
And when the Spirit of prophecy speaks as predicting things that are to come to pass, He speaks in this way: For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. Isaiah 2:3 And that it did so come to pass, we can convince you. For from Jerusalem there went out into the world, men, twelve in number, and these illiterate, of no ability in speaking: but by the power of God they proclaimed to every race of men that they were sent by Christ to teach to all the word of God; and we who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willingly die confessing Christ. For that saying, The tongue has sworn but the mind is unsworn, might be imitated by us in this matter. But if the soldiers enrolled by you, and who have taken the military oath, prefer their allegiance to their own life, and parents, and country, and all kindred, though you can offer them nothing incorruptible, it were verily ridiculous if we, who earnestly long for incorruption, should not endure all things, in order to obtain what we desire from Him who is able to grant it.” (First Apology, Chapter 37-39)

Irenaeus of Lyons

“it is necessary to say that it is not David who speaks, nor any one of the prophets, in his own person: for it is not a man who speaks the prophecies; but the Spirit of God, assimilating and likening Himself to the persons represented, speaks in the prophets, and utters the words sometimes from Christ and sometimes from the Father.” (Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching)

Origen

“But if he were dealing honestly in his accusations, he ought to have given the exact terms of the prophecies, whether those in which the speaker is introduced as claiming to be God Almighty, or those in which the Son of God speaks, or finally those under the name of the Holy Spirit.” (Against Celsus, Book 7, Ch 10)

All these ancient theologians attest to the fact that throughout the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit speaks sometimes in the person of men, as recording what they said, and at other times in His own person, and at other times He speaks in the person of the Son, or of the Father, as communicating Their words. They never consider it possible nor make any mention of the possibility that “a complex notion of more persons than one” is speaking as a single person.

“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.

Athanasius

“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).

Contrasting Irenaeus and Augustine on the Identity of the One God

There is a great deal of doctrinal continuity between second century church father Irenaeus of Lyons and fifth century church father Augustine of Hippo. Both, for instance, articulated the divinity of the Son. But despite areas of doctrinal agreement, there is also some major doctrinal discontinuity between these two notable theologians, especially concerning the identity of the “one God” of the Christian faith.

As has been previously noted on this blog, Augustine was a strong early proponent of the idea that the one God of the Christian faith is the Trinity. We see this idea thus expressed by his own pen:

“That one God, therefore, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, who will not appear, except for joy which cannot be taken away from the just…” (On the Trinity, Book 1, Ch. 13)

“…neither here does it appear plainly whether it was any person of the Trinity that appeared to Abraham, or God Himself the Trinity, of which one God it is said, You shall fear the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.” (Book 2, Ch. 10)

“O Lord the one God, God the Trinity, whatever I have said in these books that is of Yours, may they acknowledge who are Yours; if anything of my own, may it be pardoned both by You and by those who are Yours. Amen.” (Book 15, Ch. 28)

In contrast, Irenaeus of Lyons, on the other hand, can be noted to be equally emphatic in proclaiming that the one God of the Christian faith is the person of the Father in particular:

“And others of them, with great craftiness, adapted such parts of Scripture to their own figments, lead away captive from the truth those who do not retain a stedfast faith in one God, the Father Almighty, and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Against Heresies, Book I. Chapter III. 6.)

“The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God” (Against Heresies, Book I. Chapter X. 1.)

“These have all declared to us that there is one God, Creator of heaven and earth, announced by the law and the prophets; and one Christ the Son of God. If any one do not agree to these truths, he despises the companions of the Lord; nay more, he despises Christ Himself the Lord; yea, he despises the Father also, and stands self-condemned, resisting and opposing his own salvation, as is the case with all heretics.” (Against Heresies, Book III. Chapter I. 2.)

“And therefore it is right first of all to believe that there is One God, the Father, who made and fashioned all things, and made what was not that it should be, and who, containing all things, alone is uncontained.” (The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching)

While both theologians appeal to scripture in support of their position, it is clear which of these viewpoints actually represents the biblical position:

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 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

It is also noteworthy, that although Augustine lived after the Nicene Council and knew of its Creed, it is Irenaeus, who lived prior to the Council, who is doctrinally in agreement with its decision, not Augustine:

“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty…” (First words of the Nicene Creed)

Another point of contrast, already noticeable above, is that Irenaeus is in agreement with and appeals to the church’s tradition as further testifying to the truth of what he says. He speaks not of his own novel opinions, but declares that the whole church believes what he is saying pertaining to the one God of the Christian faith being the person of the Father in particular. Irenaeus not only goes to great lengths to show what he is saying from the scriptures, but also includes the historical testimony of prior church fathers, and the contemporary church of his day.

Augustine, on the other hand, appeals to scripture to as supportive of what he says (although ultimately failing to provide any proof on this particular point of doctrine), but does not rely heavily on historical testimony or the church’s tradition on this point of doctrine. This is of course because most prior theologians did not hold his view, but rather that of Irenaeus.

Augustine makes some general appeals to those who came before him, but does not even seem to be aware that he is disregarding the doctrine of most orthodox theologians prior to him. It may be conjectured that this was due to his receiving his doctrine from his immediate predecessor, Ambrose, and other early semi-modalists in Rome and the west. If this is so, then we cannot fairly view Augustine as an innovator on this point, but as faithfully following a new school of thought that can be traced back to a few years before his conversion, which he received from his teachers. Thus he can appeal to those who came before him, while ultimately disagreeing with most of the ancient church.

Historically western theology since the time of Augustine has generally taken his position as fact without question, largely ignoring the testimony of the Irenaeus, and of scripture. Perhaps as Irenaeus’s position is better understood by western scholars we will see a return to the classical trinitarianism taught not only by him, but by many orthodox church fathers in the nicene and ante-nicene eras. Such a revival of interest in classical trinitarianism and Irenaeus’s articulations of that can be seen in the contemporary Eastern Orthodox church, a fact which may appear a bit ironic when we consider that he was a western church father (Lyons being in modern day France).

For more quotes from Irenaeus on the subject, as well as from other fathers, see here: https://nicenefaith.wordpress.com/2017/03/08/i-believe-in-one-god-the-father-almighty/.

Irenaeus Highlights

Irenaeus of Lyons, unlike many church fathers, is one relatively well known to modern Christians. The second century bishop of Lyons is famous for his staunch opposition to the various pseudo-gnostic heresies that faced the church in his day, and especially for the multi-volume work Against Heresies that he authored to combat them. He also authored a lesser-known work summarizing an orthodox understanding of the Christian faith and proving its tenets from the scriptures called Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, which I highly recommend.

Here I want to briefly examine some quotes from his writings that highlight his strongly held and clearly-articulated belief that the one God of the Christian faith is the person of the Father in particular.

“And others of them, with great craftiness, adapted such parts of Scripture to their own figments, lead away captive from the truth those who do not retain a stedfast faith in one God, the Father Almighty, and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Against Heresies, Book I. Chapter III. 6.)

Due to the clarity of these quotes, comment is largely unnecessary. While Irenaeus is writing against the heretics of old his words still hold a strong rebuke for the modern semi-modalists who have taken up their mantle.

“The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God” (Against Heresies, Book I. Chapter X. 1.)

“These have all declared to us that there is one God, Creator of heaven and earth, announced by the law and the prophets; and one Christ the Son of God. If any one do not agree to these truths, he despises the companions of the Lord; nay more, he despises Christ Himself the Lord; yea, he despises the Father also, and stands self-condemned, resisting and opposing his own salvation, as is the case with all heretics.” (Against Heresies, Book III. Chapter I. 2.)

“Since, therefore, this is sure and stedfast, that no other God or Lord was announced by the Spirit, except Him who, as God, rules over all, together with His Word, and those who receive the Spirit of adoption, [3805] that is, those who believe in the one and true God, and in Jesus Christ the Son of God; and likewise that the apostles did of themselves term no one else as God, or name [no other] as Lord; and, what is much more important, [since it is true] that our Lord [acted likewise], who did also command us to confess no one as Father, except Him who is in the heavens, who is the one God and the one Father;–those things are clearly shown to be false which these deceivers and most perverse sophists advance” (Against Heresies, Book IV, Chapter I. 1.)

“And therefore it is right first of all to believe that there is One God, the Father, who made and fashioned all things, and made what was not that it should be, and who, containing all things, alone is uncontained.” (The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching)

“This then is the order of the rule of our faith, and the foundation of the building, and the stability of our conversation: God, the Father, not made, not material, invisible; one God, the creator of all things: this is the first point of our faith. The second point is: The Word of God, Son of God, Christ Jesus our Lord, who was manifested to the prophets according to the form of their prophesying and according to the method of the dispensation of the Father: through whom all things were made; who also at the end of the times, to complete and gather up all things, was made man among men, visible and tangible, in order to abolish death and show forth life and produce a community of union between God and man. And the third point is: The Holy Spirit, through whom the prophets prophesied, and the fathers learned the things of God, and the righteous were led forth into the way of righteousness; and who in the end of the times was poured out in a new way upon mankind in all the earth, renewing man unto God.” (Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching)