Samuel Clarke on Why Classical Trinitarianism is Not Tritheism

(From Clarke’s answer is recorded in the the fourth edition of Samuel Clarke’s Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity and Related Writings.)

Objection. “Three Divine Beings––must needs be conceived as Three Gods, notwithstanding any Subordination of the Second and Third Being to the First; or else we must free the Pagan World from the Absurdity of Polytheism, and the Guilt of Idolatry; these being generally, if not always, founded upon a Subordination of many Deities to the One Supreme.”

Answer. The Difference between Christianity and Paganism, is This. The Pagans acknowledged many FALSE (fictitious) Gods, and many FALSE (fictitious) Lords: On the contrary, Christians acknowledge the One TRUE God, and only One TRUE Lord or Mediator. There are (saith St. Paul) that are called, (that is, there were feigned by the Heathens,) Gods many, and Lords many; But to Us [Christians,] there is but One God, [viz.] the Father, Of whom are all things; and One Lord, [viz.] Jesus Christ, By whom are all things. Now to say, that besides the One True God, there cannot be also One True Lord or Mediator; is an Argument, not against my Scheme in particular; but ’tis the Argument which Deists use, (with what Reason, I have elsewhere shown,) against Christianity in general. Or to say, that there is also indeed One True Lord or Mediator, but that That One True Lord is the same Individual with the One True God; What is This, but to affirm in other Words, that the One Lord Jesus Christ, BY whom are all things, is the One God, the Father, OF whom are all things? Which is overturning the Apostle’s whole Argument, and introducing an absolute Confusion of Persons. Our One God, says the Apostle, is the Father: If then the One Lord, Jesus Christ, be That One God, whom the Apostle defines to be the Father, of whom are all Things; is not this expressly affirming that the Son is the Father? Than which, nothing can be more hard to understand, or to reconcile with the whole Doctrine of Scripture.

But why must Three Divine Beings, of Necessity be conceived as Three Gods? One God, the Almighty Father; and One Lord, the Only-begotten Son of That Almighty Father; and One Holy Spirit of God, the Spirit of That Almighty Father; are in our Creed represented to us as Three distinct Agents: And yet they are no more Three Gods, than they are Three Almighty Fathers, which is (according to the Creed) the Definition of God. One God, to whom Mediation is made; and One Mediator, making intercession for us to That One God, (which is St. Paul’s manner of speaking;) are no more Two Gods; than an Advocate with the Father, and the Father with whom that Advocate is, (which is St. John’s manner of expressing the same thing,) are Two Fathers. One Spirit, One Lord, One God and Father of all, who is above all; are by the Apostle represented to us, as Three distinct Agents: And yet they can no more truly be said to be Three Gods, than Each of them singly, (or than All of them together,) can be truly said to be The God and Father of All, who is Above All; Which is the Apostles Definition of the One Supreme God. Three perfectly co-ordinate, and equally Supreme Persons or Agents, (whatever Distinctness, or whatever Unity of Nature be supposed between them,) must of Necessity be conceived to be Three Gods, that is, Three Supreme Independent Governors of the Universe; because the proper Notion of God in Scripture, and in natural Reason also, as to all moral and religious Regards, is his being absolutely (greek word), Supreme Ruler over All, and (greek word), (Eph. iv. 6.) the Father or Author of all things: But, This Character being preserved entire, no other Power whatsoever ascribed or communicated to other Agents or Persons, can justly cause us to conceive more Gods than One. How and in what Sense the Son, though he be not That One God and Father of All, who is above All, may yet truly and properly be stiled God; has been largely explained in the foregoing Papers.

But now on the other side, if the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be conceived to be All but One Individual Being; it follows of Necessity that the Son and Holy Spirit have no Being at all; Which is an insuperable Difficulty in This learned Author’s (the author of the work wherein the objection was made against Clarke) Scheme. For if each of these Characters belong to One and the same Individual Being; and the Father Alone be (as is acknowledged) That Whole Being; it follows evidently that the Son and Holy Spirit, either are Themselves The Father, (which he is not willing to allow;) or else have no real Being, no Existence at all, but can only be Modes, Powers, Characters, or different Denominations of That One Supreme, that One Simple and Uncompounded Being, which is the Father of All. The plain Consequence of which is, that our Mediator and Redeemer is only a Mere Man, in whom God the Father manifested himself after an extraordinary manner and that the Holy Spirit is nothing but a mere Virtue or Operation of the Father. Which Notion, how much soever it may be defended, as an Hypothesis, by bare Reason, (as may be seen in the Socinian Writers;) yet I can by no means see how it is to be reconciled with what is taught in Scripture. Besides: Since this Learned Writer always supposes his own Scheme, to be the same and That which from the Time of the Forth Century has been stiled Orthodox; it deserves to be remarked on the contrary, that by his plainly making the Son to be, not (greek word), but (greek word) with the Father, that is, One and the same Individual Being; his Affection in reality appears to be the same with that, which from before the Days of Photinus to the Times of the Schoolmen, has by the Council of Nice, and all following Councils been condemned as Heterodox.

 

 

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.

Samuel Clarke’s ‘The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity’

Samuel Clarke was an eighteenth century Anglican clergyman and philosopher, and a friend of Sir Isaac Newton. He participated in the trinitarian debates following the Reformation, and authored his book The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity to sum up, prove, and defend his views on the Trinity.

The book is divided into three parts, proceeded by an introduction, in which he lays out the principle of sola scriptura as necessary for a right understanding of Christian doctrine, and qualifies certain aspects of the following work. In the first part of the book, he endeavors to extensively categorize all New Testament texts which refer to the Trinity or some aspect of it. In the second part, he gives a series of theses or propositions, in which he states his views. He grounds these propositions in the texts listed in the first section. In the third section, he compares his views, which he believes to be none other than what scripture teaches regarding the Trinity, with the liturgy and doctrinal standards of the church of England, wherein he shows firstly the many areas of agreement, and then treats those which appear to disagree.

Samuel Clarke’s book on the Trinity is one of the best written in the last millennium, in the opinion of this author. He is careful in his examination of scripture, precise in his articulation and argumentation, and is generally correct on nearly all the points he contends for.

One severe shortcoming of the work is Clarke’s hesitancy to treat the issue of essence, and the divine nature. He maintains that God’s metaphysical essence, as beyond our comprehension, is not safely made a point of dogma. He may perhaps be blamed on this point more for overcautiousness than unorthodoxy; scripture does speak of God’s incomprehensibility and infinitude, and this should cause us to approach such high topics as God’s divine nature with humility and caution. But scripture does speak of the divine nature in abstract, and give us the revelation needed to be able to speak with certainty and clarity on the fact that the Son is of the very same divinity, or divine nature, as the Father. So while we should exercise more caution than many, such as the scholastics, exercised when speaking of God’s essence, we ought to speak of what we can deduce clearly as proven from the holy scriptures.

Clarke insists on limiting the discussion to the persons and Their attributes, roles, and properties. As this is the way scripture usully speaks of the Trinity, this is helpful. Although his lack of treatment of the issue of God’s essence leaves a feeling of incompleteness, it stems perhaps from an understandable overreaction to the trend to emphasized God’s divine nature considered in itself, and treated as a person, over everything else. Clarke’s avoidance of this makes his book unique in its approach to the Trinity, reminiscent of pre-nicene treatments of the subject.

Here are some highlights from Clarke’s 55 propositions:

I. There is one Supreme Cause and Original of Things; One simple, uncompounded, undivided, intelligent Being, or Person; who is the Author of all Being, and the Fountain of all Power.

II. With This First and Supreme Cause or Father of all Things, there has existed from the Beginning, a Second divine Person, which is his Word or Son.

III. With the Father and the Son, there has existed from the Beginning, a Third divine Person, which is the Spirit of the Father and of the Son.

IV. What the proper Metaphysical Nature, Essence, or Substance of any of these divine Persons is, the scripture has no where at all declared; but describes and distinguishes then always, by their Personal Characters, Offices, Powers and Attributes.

V. The Father (or First Person) Alone is Self-existent, Underived, Unoriginated, Independent; made of None, begotten of None, Proceeding from None.

VI. The Father (or First Person) is the Sole Origin of all Power and Authority, and is the Author and Principle of whatsoever is done by the Son or by the Spirit.

VII. The Father (or first person) Alone, is in the highest, strict, and proper sense, absolutely Supreme over All.

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.

XII. The Son (or second Person) is not self-existent, but derives his Being or Essence, and all his Attributes, from the Father, as from the Supreme Cause.

XIII. In what particular Metaphysical Manner, the Son derives his Being or Essence from the Father, the Scripture has no where distinctly declared; and therefore men ought not to presume to be able to define.

XIV. They are therefore equally worthy of Censure, who either on the one hand presume to affirm, that the Son was made out of Nothing; or, on the other hand, that He is the Self-existent Substance.

XV. The Scripture, in declaring the Son’s Derivation from the Father, never makes mention of any Limitation of Time; but always supposes and affirms him to have existed with the Father from the Beginning, and before All Worlds.

XVI. They therefore have also justly been censured, who pretending to be wise above what is written, and intruding into things which they have not seen; have presumed to affirm that there was a time when he Son was not.

XVII. Whether the Son derives his Being from the Father, by Necessity of Nature, or by the Power of his Will, the Scripture hath no where expressly declared.

XVIII. The Word or Son of the Father, sent into the World to assume our Flesh, and die for the Sins of Mankind; was not the internal Reason or Wisdom of God, an Attribute or Power of the Father; but a real Person, the same who from the Beginning had been the Word, or Revealer of the Will, of the Father to World.

XIX. The Holy Spirit (or Third Person,) is not Self-existent, but derives his Being or Essence from the Father, (by the Son,) as from the Supreme Cause.

XX. The Scripture, speaking of the Spirit of God, never mentions any Limitation of Time, when he derived his Being or Essence from the Father; but supposes him to have existed with the Father from the Beginning.

XXI. In what particular metaphysical Manner the Holy Spirit derives his Being from the Father, the Scripture hath no where at all defined, and therefore men ought not to presume to be able to explain.

XXII. The Holy Spirit of God does not in scripture generlly signify a mere Power or Operation of the Father, but a real Person.

XXIII. They who are not careful to maintain these personal characters and distinctions, but while they are solicitous (on the one hand) to avoid the errours of the Arians, affirm (in the contrary extreme) the Son and Holy Spirit to be (individually with the Father) the Self-existent Being: These, seeming in the Words to magnify the Name of the Son and Holy Spirit, in reality take away their very Existence; and so fall unawares into Sabellianism, (which is the same with Socinianism.)

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.

XXXIV. The Son, whatever his metaphysical Essence or Substance be, and whatever divine Greatness and Dignity is ascribed to him in Scripture; yet in This He is evidently Subordinate to the Father, that He derives his Being and Attributes from the Father, the Father Nothing from Him.

XXXV. Every Action of the Son, both in making the World, and in all other his Operations; is only thr Exercise of the Father’s Power, communicated to him after an ineffable manner.

XXXVI. The Son, whatever his metaphysical Nature or Essence be; yet, in this while Dispensation, in the Creation and Redemption of the Worl, acts in all things according to the Wil, and by the Mission or Authority of the Father.

XXXVII. The Son, how great soever the metaphysical Dignity of his Nature was, yet in the whole Dispensation entirely directed all his Actions to the Glory of the Father.

XXXIX. The reason why the Scripture, though it styles the Father God, and also stiles the Son God, yet at the same time always declares there is but one God; is because in the Monarchy of the Universe, there is but One Authority, original in the Father, derivative in the Son: The Power of the Son being, not Another Power opposite to That of the Father, nor Another Power co-ordinate to That of the Father; but it self The Power and Authority of the Father, communicated to, manifested in, and exercised by the Son.

XLIII. Upon These Grounds, absolutely Supreme Honour is due to the Person of the Father singly, as being Alone the Supreme Author of all Being and Power.

“The Father Almighty”?

Over the course of this blog, a significant amount of attention has already been given to examining the first clause of the Nicene Creed, which reads “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty…” I have mostly focused on the Creed’s identification of the “one God” with the person of the “Father” in particular- a teaching that is foreign to the formal theology of most Christians today, yet as I have attempted to show, is not only proven from scripture (see Demonstration From Scripture that the One God is the Father in Particular), but was also the ecumenical teaching of the early church for the first few centuries (see I believe in one God, the Father Almighty).

In both the case of scripture and the teaching of the early church, the title “one God” is not applied exclusively to the person of the Father in order to deny the true divinity of the Son and Holy Spirit, Who each have the same divine nature as the Father, as They are eternally from the Father, the Son by His eternal generation, and the Spirit by eternal procession from the Father (see Eternal Generation Proved from the Scriptures, and Does teaching the Father is the one God undermine the divinity of Christ?). Rather, scripture, and the early church fathers, styled the Father alone the “one God” because He alone is the supreme uncaused Cause of all, and the supreme Authority and head over all- even over His Son and Spirit (see Why There is Only One God: One Supreme Cause, and Why There is Only One God: Headship).

I have often wondered, however, at the inclusion of the word “Almighty” in the first clause of the Nicene Creed. Why say “Almighty” instead of any other of a host of attributes and perfections we could speak of in relation to God? Why not include His perfection, holiness, justice, goodness, and love? Compared to other systematic treatments of God’s attributes, both prior to and since the Council of Nicea, this would be an extremely abridged treatment of the attributes of God. So why “Almighty” in particular, and why, also, is it included specifically in conjunction with the person of the Father, and not the Son and Holy Spirit?

One answer I recently encountered to these questions comes from Samuel Clarke’s excellent book on the Trinity On the Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity. He suggests that rather than understand the Greek word used for “Almighty” in scripture and the Creed as referring to the essential attribute of God’s unlimited power and ability (an attribute which, as it is proper to God’s divinity, is shared by His Son and Spirit Who have the same divinity), that it is better understood as referring to ‘supreme authority’.

If this reading is legitimate, it makes sense of the Nicene Creed’s language in particularly associating “Almighty” with the person of the Father. “Almighty” understood in terms of supreme authority would not be an essential attribute proper to the divine nature, but would rather refer to God’s role as supreme head over all things, even over His own beloved and only-begotten Son, and His Holy Spirit. If the word refers not to an attribute of the divine nature, but to the Father’s role as Supreme Authority over all, then it makes perfect sense why it would be included in the first clause of the Nicene Creed as a descriptor of the Father only, and also makes much sense of its usage in scripture.

The New Testament, for example, uses the term “Almighty” nine times, always for the person of the Father in particular. It is never used of the Son or the Holy Spirit. If Clarke’s reading of “Almighty” as a special prerogative of the Father is correct, it makes a lot of sense in light of the way scripture uses the term. The Father alone is the Supreme Authority over all; thus he alone is called “Almighty”. (Again, for clarity’s sake, if we speak of God’s essential power, all three persons possess that equally, as the Son and Spirit have the divine nature of God Himself.)

This explanation seems compelling, and makes more sense than reading “Almighty” in the Nicene Creed as merely being a grossly abridged description of God’s essential attributes. It also fits with the way it is used throughout the scriptures. Further, this understanding is supported by the Greek word for “Almighty” itself- the word literally rendered is ‘ruler over all’. This fact alone seems to confirm Clarke’s assessment, and combined with scripture’s application of this title solely to the Father presents a compelling case that when scripture speaks of the Father “Almighty” it is making reference to His sole and supreme authority over all.