Hippolytus of Rome relates the events of his own time in the late second and early third century in his work Refutation of All Heresies. Among the other heresies of his day, he devotes a great deal of attention to the then new heresy of Modalism, also known as Sabellianism or Patripassionism. This heresy, by teaching that the Father and Son are together the same individual being, both mere modes and names of one and the same Supreme Being, sets out to, in effect, crucify the Father, and deny the real existence of the Son. There is much that is very noteworthy in Hippolytus’s coverage of the origins of modalism, the account of which I will quote at full length below.
Semi-modalistic trinitarianism is built upon a twisting of the Nicene concept of co-essentiality. The pro-nicene church fathers of the mid-fourth century defined co-essentiality as meaning nothing more than that the persons of the trinity, as truly distinct rational individual beings (that is, persons) shared a common nature or species. A common analogy used by the Nicene fathers to capture their meaning, for example, is of three men being co-essential, in that they, while remaining three distinct individuals, share a common and identical human nature. Although there are three men, there is only one nature between them, human nature. Such was the original meaning of co-essentiality.
For example, Athanasius said:
“Even this is sufficient to dissuade you from blaming those who have said that the Son was coessential with the Father, and yet let us examine the very term ‘Coessential,’ in itself, by way of seeing whether we ought to use it at all, and whether it be a proper term, and is suitable to apply to the Son. For you know yourselves, and no one can dispute it, that Like is not predicated of essence, but of habits, and qualities; for in the case of essences we speak, not of likeness, but of identity. Man, for instance, is said to be like man, not in essence, but according to habit and character; for in essence men are of one nature. And again, man is not said to be unlike dog, but to be of different nature. Accordingly while the former [men] are of one nature and coessential, the latter are different in both.”
Hilary of Poitiers likewise clarified:
“Since, however, we have frequently to mention the words essence and substance, we must determine the meaning of essence, lest in discussing facts we prove ignorant of the signification of our words. Essence is a reality which is, or the reality of those things from which it is, and which subsists inasmuch as it is permanent. Now we can speak of the essence, or nature, or genus, or substance of anything. And the strict reason why the word essence is employed is because it is always. But this is identical with substance, because a thing which is, necessarily subsists in itself, and whatever thus subsists possesses unquestionably a permanent genus, nature or substance. When, therefore, we say that essence signifies nature, or genus, or substance, we mean the essence of that thing which permanently exists in the nature, genus, or substance.”
And Basil of Caesarea wrote:
“The distinction between οὐσία [essence] and ὑπόστασις [person] is the same as that between the general and the particular ; as, for instance, between the animal and the particular man.” (Letter 236)”
This understanding of co-essentiality is likewise required by the council of Chalcedon:
“our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood”
Its clear, then, that the original intent of declaring that the Father, Son, and Spirit share one essence was not to make Them out to all be one person, one individual being, but simply to declare that They shared a common nature or species. This meaning changed, however, and was not kept clear as time went on; the Western churches going to far as to eventually formally change the meaning of co-essentiality in the 4th Lateran council in 1215. Rather than indicating a generic unity of sharing one nature, now co-essentiality was defined as teaching that the unity the persons shared was of being one single numerically individual reality, one rational individual being- that is, in reality, one person. The ‘essence’ was no longer viewed as a nature, but a single subsistent ‘supreme reality’.
“We, however, with the approval of this sacred and universal council, believe and confess with Peter Lombard that there exists a certain supreme reality, incomprehensible and ineffable, which truly is the Father and the Son and the holy Spirit, the three persons together and each one of them separately. Therefore in God there is only a Trinity, not a quaternity, since each of the three persons is that reality — that is to say substance, essence or divine nature-which alone is the principle of all things, besides which no other principle can be found. This reality neither begets nor is begotten nor proceeds; the Father begets, the Son is begotten and the holy Spirit proceeds.” (From Canon 2)
This teaching is a drastic departure from the faith of the early pro-nicene bishops, and represents the culmination of what many in the Nicene era had feared might result from the introduction of ‘essence’ speculation into the church’s dogma. A council of fathers gathered in Antioch in 345 had specified their belief that the Father, Son, and Spirit were not “one supreme reality”, that is, one person, one individual rational being, but rather, three:
“Nor again, in confessing three realities and three persons, of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost according to the Scriptures, do we therefore make Gods three; since we acknowledge the self-complete and unbegotten and unbegun and invisible God to be one only, the God and Father (John 20:17) of the Only-begotten, who alone has being from Himself, and alone vouchsafes this to all others bountifully.” (Macrostich)
Later in the same creed they went on to condemn the very view the 4th Lateran would later make dogma for the Roman churches:
“And those who say that the Father and Son and Holy Ghost are the same, and irreligiously take the three names of one and the same reality and person, we justly proscribe from the Church, because they suppose the illimitable and impassible Father to be also limitable and passable through His becoming man. For such are they whom Romans call Patripassians, and we Sabellians. For we acknowledge that the Father who sent, remained in the peculiar state of His unchangeable Godhead, and that Christ who was sent fulfilled the economy of the Incarnation.”
But one need not wait until the fourth century to find fathers who clearly taught that the Father, Son, and Spirit were not one numerically individual thing, one person. Second century father Justin Martyr, one of the earliest and best of the fathers, clearly understood the Father and Son to be numerically distinct persons, two distinct rational individual beings, not merely two names of or modes of one and the same reality:
“When Scripture says, ‘The Lord rained fire from the Lord out of heaven,’ the prophetic word indicates that there were two in number: One upon the earth, who, it says, descended to behold the cry of Sodom; Another in heaven, who also is Lord of the Lord on earth, as He is Father and God; the cause of His power and of His being Lord and God.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 29)
“And that this power which the prophetic word calls God, as has been also amply demonstrated, and Angel, is not numbered [as different] in name only like the light of the sun but is indeed something numerically distinct, I have discussed briefly in what has gone before; when I asserted that this power was begotten from the Father, by His power and will, but not by abscission, as if the essence of the Father were divided; as all other things partitioned and divided are not the same after as before they were divided: and, for the sake of example, I took the case of fires kindled from a fire, which we see to be distinct from it, and yet that from which many can be kindled is by no means made less, but remains the same.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 128)
“You perceive, my hearers, if you bestow attention, that the Scripture has declared that this Offspring was begotten by the Father before all things created; and that which is begotten is numerically distinct from that which begets, any one will admit.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 129)
Semi-modalistic trinitarianism, then, in proclaiming the the persons of the Trinity are numerically one substance, one individual, is clearly at odds with both the original dogmatic conception of co-essentiality held by the Nicene fathers, which proclaimed co-essentiality to mean nothing more than a mere generic unity of nature between really distinct individuals, as well as being at odds with the faith of the ante-nicene fathers, going back as close to the apostles as we can find.
For a look at how this semi-modalistic conception of the Trinity is opposed to scripture itself, and the very fundamental tenets of the Christian faith it teaches, see here.
The so-called Athanasian Creed, not authored by Athanasius, but by an anonymous medieval author, gives a long summary of Augustinian trinitarian dogma. It was not the product of, nor received the official sanction of, any of the supposed ‘7 ecumenical councils’. It reads as follows:
1. Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith;
2. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.
3. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;
4. Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.
5. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit.
6. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal.
7. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit.
8. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated.
9. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible.
10. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal.
11. And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal.
12. As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible.
13. So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty.
14. And yet they are not three almighties, but one almighty.
15. So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God;
16. And yet they are not three Gods, but one God.
17. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Spirit Lord;
18. And yet they are not three Lords but one Lord.
19. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord;
20. So are we forbidden by the catholic religion to say; There are three Gods or three Lords.
21. The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten.
22. The Son is of the Father alone; not made nor created, but begotten.
23. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.
24. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits.
25. And in this Trinity none is afore or after another; none is greater or less than another.
26. But the whole three persons are coeternal, and coequal.
27. So that in all things, as aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped.
28. He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.
29. Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe rightly the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
30. For the right faith is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man.
31. God of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and man of substance of His mother, born in the world.
32. Perfect God and perfect man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting.
33. Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood.
34. Who, although He is God and man, yet He is not two, but one Christ.
35. One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking of that manhood into God.
36. One altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person.
37. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man, so God and man is one Christ;
38. Who suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead;
39. He ascended into heaven, He sits on the right hand of the Father, God, Almighty;
40. From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
41. At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies;
42. and shall give account of their own works.
43. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.
44. This is the catholic faith, which except a man believe faithfully he cannot be saved.
1) Does not the teaching that ‘in the Trinity, none is greater or less than another’, contradict the Lord’s own statement, “My Father is greater than I”?
2) If the response to this is that the statement “My Father is greater than I” must be understood in a nuanced way, so that in once sense the Father is greater than the Son, and in another They are equal, then is the creed not convicted of being too broad in its statement, and in error, since it does not make any such distinction in that place?
3) Does not declaring that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are co-equal contradict the scriptures which say “God is the head of Christ”, and all the passages in the Old and New Testaments in which the Father is said to be the God of the Son, and that the Son acts according to the will of the Father, and can do nothing apart from the Father?
4) Does not declaring that the Son and Holy Spirit are ‘Almighty’ (Ruler over all) together with the Father clearly contradict the scriptures, which only call the Father “God Almighty”, and declare Him alone to be the Head and God of all things, even of His Son and Spirit?
5) Can something which contradicts the scriptures be fairly made to be standard which one must assent to be saved?
6) Does not saying that the Holy Spirit is ‘Lord’ and ‘God’ go beyond what can be proven from the scriptures?
7) Does not saying that the persons of the Trinity share one metaphysical nature go beyond what can be proven from the scriptures?
8) Can something which cannot be either proven nor disproven by the scriptures rightly be set up as a dogmatic standard which on must assent to in order to be saved?
9) Is it in the authority of any earthly man to set up, apart from the scriptures, or against the scriptures, their own opinions as a standard which others must consent to in order to be saved?
10) Does not the Athanasian Creed contradict the creed of the councils of Arminium and Seleucia, which have the approval of an ecumenical council?
11) How can a creed which contradicts the decision of an ecumenical council be counted as the catholic faith?
12) Since the so-called Athanasian creed includes the doctrine that the Holy Spirit proceeds not only from the Father, but from the Father and the Son, which the churches of East reject, how can the doctrine it teaches be counted catholic, or universal?
13) How can a creed which declares an equality of authority between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit by declaring Them to each be equally ‘Almighty’, be said to teach the catholic faith, when this notion contradicts the teaching of the ante-nicenes, who taught that there is a divine monarchy, with the Father, as the one God, at its head? How can a doctrine be called ‘catholic’ or universal, which could not find acceptance among the churches in the first three centuries after the apostles?
14) Does not the creed break with older trinitarian standards when it applies the title of the Son “one Lord”, and the title of the Father “one God” both to the Trinity as a whole instead of those persons individually?
15) How can a creed teaching Chalcedonian christology, which would be neither acceptable to the Gothic and Vandal Homoian churches, the ‘Nestorian’ Oriental Orthodox churches, nor the Coptic Miaphysite churches, be considered to teach the catholic faith? Or what is universal, or catholic, about doctrines which the whole church is not in agreement upon?
16) Is not the language of the Creed that there “the Father is ‘x’, the Son is ‘x’, the Spirit is ‘x’, yet there are not three ‘x’s, but one ‘x'” manifestly paradoxical?
17) Does not such paradoxical language, which is unintelligible to most, constitute a needless stumbling block to the simple and less-educated?
18) If a creed’s use is to express belief, then is it not requisite that for a creed to be useful, it must be believed?
19) How can people be said to believe what they do not understand the meaning of? Merely giving assent to a series of words which one does not comprehend the significance of can hardly be counted as belief, can it?
20) If then the creed, by being needlessly paradoxical and confusing, is unintelligible to the masses, is it not necessarily a useless creed, since it does not make known the actual beliefs of most who are compelled to give assent to it? And if it does accurately represent the beliefs of an elite few, since it fails to meaningfully communicate that view to the masses, is it not also useless on that count?
21) Finally, how can a creed which contains so so many propositions which are contradictory to the scriptures, and so many propositions which are highly controversial among the churches, and rejected by many of them, and which is so confused, paradoxical, and incoherent in what it says, put itself on such a high and lofty pedestal as to say that anyone who holds a different opinion than what it says, or does not think the same way, shall be damned, and is no Christian? Is it not the greatest hubris to put such a creed on the same level with scripture, in making it a standard which must be believed to be saved, although it contains many things not found in the scriptures?
-The joint councils of Arminium and Seleucia met in 359 to resolve the ongoing trinitarian debates of the fourth century. The council of Nicea had succeeded in largely nullifying the threat of Arianism, but also, by introducing highly philosophical, extra-biblical, controversial language of ‘ousia’, ‘being’, or ‘substance’, had continued to be a source of controversy to the churches of the Roman empire.
When doctrinal error is mentioned in respect to the Fourth Lateran Council, a number of issues could be brought up depending on what tradition is examining the council. Protestants reject its teaching on transubstantiation as error; Eastern Orthodox reject its teaching on the Filoque; the Oriental Orthodox would reject its Chalcedonian articulation of the hypostatic union. Everyone but the papists themselves takes issue with the council’s strong assertion of papal supremacy and authority (written, conveniently, by the Pope himself, as all the canons). But in this article, I want to draw attention to a lesser-known doctrinal error the council did much to promote: the anti-trinitarian doctrine of semi-modalism.