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.)

OBJ. “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.”

ANSW. 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 only One True God, and only One TRUE Lord or Mediator. There are (saith St. Paul) that are called, (that is, that were feigned1 by the Heathens,) Gods many, and Lords manyBut 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 myScheme in particular; but ’tis the Argument which Deists use, (with what Reason, I have elsewhere shewn,) 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 Godthe FatherOF whom are all things? Which is overturning the Apostles whole Argument, and introducing an absolute Confusion of Persons. Our One God, says the Apostle, is the Father: If then the One LordJesus Christ, be That One God, whom the Apostle defines to be the Fatherof 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 Godthe Almighty Father; and One Lordthe Only-begotten Son of That Almighty Father; and One Holy Spirit of Godthe 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 GodOne 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 allwho 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  ὁ παντοκράτωρSupreme Ruler over All, and ὁ πατὴρ πάντων, (Eph. 4:6) 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 Allwho is above All, may yet truly and properly be stiled God; has been largely explained the the foregoing Papers.2

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 insuperableDifficulty in This learned Author’s 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 Beingno Existence at all, but can only be ModesPowersCharacters 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 Operationof 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 with That which from the Time of the Fourth Century has been stiled Orthodox; it deserves to be remarked on the contrary, that by his plainly making the Son to be, homoousios, but tautousious with the Father, that is, One and the same Individual Being; his Assertion 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.

Special thanks to Alexander Ascuitto for transcribing this. See his site here.

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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.

Leaving aside the essence or essences of the persons of the Trinity, Clarke insists on limiting the discussion to the persons and Their attributes, roles, and properties. As this is the way scripture speaks of the Trinity, this is helpful.

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.

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“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 divinity of the Son, Who shares in His Father’s dominion over all things. 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.

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, 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 a communicable 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”.

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.

 

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