“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).

Semi-modalism’s Absurdity in Light of the Simplicity of the Divine Nature

“Simplicity” in respect to God may sound odd to those not familiar with the historic use of the term and the doctrine it denotes. God is beyond our comprehension, infinite, and transcendent; when we speak of God’s ‘simplicity’, we are not saying that God is easily comprehended by our minds. Rather, ‘simple’ here is being used as the opposite of compound; the idea is that God does not have parts that He is composed of.

This of course fits with the fact that God is incorporeal, and infinite, etc. But even beyond imagining God as somehow being composed of physical or material parts, some are inclined to think of the attributes of God as parts of Him. Some will speak of God as if He is part holy, and part loving, as though God were a blend of many individual parts. This however, is not how the scriptures reveal God.

The idea of simplicity is that rather than being composed of parts, God is what He is. For example, God is just; therefore, He is, in His very nature, the definition of justice. God is good; He is the very definition of goodness. God is loving; therefore, God is love. We can follow this pattern with a whole list of God’s attributes.

Scripture speaks of the simplicity of God, for example, when it says “God is love” (1 John 4:8). And the idea that God is what He is is expressly stated in Exodus 3:14 “And God saith unto Moses, `I Am That Which I Am;’ He saith also, `Thus dost thou say to the sons of Israel, I Am hath sent me unto you.'” (YLT).

This conceptually makes a lot of sense when we begin considering the attributes of God. Take love, for example. It is intangible, and eternal. Love is not something created by God that did not exist at one point and came into existence later; in fact, if any attribute of God came into existence as a creation of God, God would have changed, a thing which is impossible: ““For I am the Lord, I do not change; Therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob.” (Mal 3:6 NKJV). So we know that God has always had all His attributes, without change. That means that they are eternal.

But they do not exist eternally as something separate from God that is coeval with Him. Before creation, there was only God, His Son, and His Spirit; these attributes exist eternally as what God is. Love, justice, truth, and perfection exist eternally as what God is in His very nature. The essential attributes of God exist eternally as what God is.

When we examine this relative to the classical trinitarianism scripture teaches, we understand that Father as the one God, Who is what He is of Himself. In what He is, He is the very definition of goodness, love, justice, and perfection. His simple divine nature is properly His own; He has it from no other source. And this simple divine nature is communicated to His only-begotten Son in His eternal generation, so that the Son has the same simple divine nature. The Holy Spirit likewise, eternally from the Father by procession, has the Father’s simple divine nature as His own.

Each person then, is the very definition of love, goodness, justice, etc in their very nature, for they all possess the same simple divine nature, the Father possessing it unoriginately, and the Son and Spirit participating in the Father’s divine nature. Thus there is one God, Who alone is good; yet His Son and Spirit participate in this same goodness. So there are three persons who are good, each in their nature the very definition of goodness; yet there is only one goodness, the one essence they share.

Semi-modalism, however, stumbles and falls to pieces over the doctrine of simplicity. Semi-modalism, unlike classical trinitarianism, posits one divine person who is the three divine persons of the Father, Son, and Spirit. However, since the divine nature is simple, how can this one person be three persons? The super-person, “God the Trinity”, cannot be simple, since he is compound of the three real persons of the Trinity, in the vain imagination of the semi-modalists. For in simplicity, all of God’s attributes are equated with one another; God’s nature is equally the very definition of both love and justice, for example. In God, love and justice are not two different things, but both are what God is in his nature.

However, in semi-modalism, this does not work. For semi-modalists posit a real relational distinction between the persons of the Father, Son, and Spirit, so that the persons are not equated with one another. This is why they are semi-modalists, not classical modalists like Sabellius. However, if these persons are not equated, yet are all together a single person, then this single person is unlike and unequal to himself, and not at all simple. “God the Trinity” then, since he is both the Father and the Son, is imagined to be both unbegotten as Father and begotten as Son, and proceeding as Spirit. What absurdity, what blasphemous heresy, teaches a God who is a Father-Son, begetter and begotten of his own self? When examining this it is difficult to see a meaningful difference between the false teaching of the semi-modalists and that articulated by Sabellius himself. For all they have done is resurrected his heresy in a slightly modified form.

Yet if they will say that their super-person, their “triune God”, is simple, then He cannot have parts, and the things he is must be identical to one another; this then would be a denial of any real personal distinctions between the persons of the Trinity, and bring them to be classical modalists, since the Father, Son, and Spirit then must be regarded as identical with each other. Yet if they deny that their imagined person of the “triune God” is simple, then he cannot be regarded as God at all, since the divine nature is simple. How blasphemous then they would be to give worship to a person who is not true God, and to make him out to be the real persons of the Trinity! Or else perhaps they will posit the absurdity that he is God in nature, yet not simple. If this is the case, then he possesses not the same divine nature as the real persons of the Trinity; and having introduced a second divine nature, they convict themselves of being polytheists, believing in multiple gods.

Such then, is the absurdity of the semi-modalists, whose pseudo-trinitarianism is incompatible with scripture’s teaching of the simplicity of the divine nature. Let us, however, hold both simplicity and the doctrine of the Trinity as being equally true, and entirely compatible, as we have seen above, how unlike semi-modalism, classical trinitarianism is entirely compatible with the doctrine of divine simplicity.

Equivocation Over the Term “Person”

Semi-modalism is the false doctrine that teaches that the three real persons of the Trinity are together a single person. Most semi-modalists, however, refuse to use the term “person” for the Trinity, although conceptually they treat the Trinity as a whole as a person in every way except using that term for it.

For example, instead of saying that they believe that ‘God is a person who is three persons’, they will say that ‘God is a being who is three persons’. This sounds closer to orthodoxy; yet there is no substantial difference in meaning.

Such is the skillful deceptiveness of this soul-poisoning error. By minutely altering that ancient saying “one essence in three persons” to “one being in three persons”, no apparent error is introduced, since “being” is a term vague enough to denote either person or essence. Yet this vagueness is used to alter the meaning entirely from the original.

For when the semi-modalist speak of one “being” who is the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, is it not obvious from their employment of the personal pronoun “who” that they regard this being as a person, just as when we speak of a “human being”, we usually do not refer to the human nature considered in abstract, but to an individual human person? So these deceivers equivocate with the terminology of “being” to teach their counterfeit doctrine of the Trinity, which in truth is no doctrine of the Trinity at all, since by making the Trinity itself as a whole out to be a person they introduce a fourth person, and destroy the doctrine of the Trinity and instead teach a quadrinity.

Yet these false teachers act as though if only they can avoid pronouncing the word “person” they will not be convicted of error by the Lord, as though the word used in expressing oneself is the thing of primary importance, and not the meaning and idea behind it.

Others will say that the Trinity as a whole, that is, the Father, Son, and Spirit together are not one person, (for they deny this word), but rather say that it is a single subsistent “thing” or “reality”. Again we see what vague language they must introduce in order to keep up the subterfuge that they are trinitarians. What then, is this “thing” which is the Father, the Son, and the Spirit together, when we closely enquire as to their meaning?

We find that this “thing” meets the very definition they will admit for “person”; though they pretend they are not the same. For a person, they will say, is an individual subsistence of a rational nature. Thus angels, for example, as being both individual existences and possessing a rational nature, are persons. So too they will admit individual men are persons under this definition, and also the real persons of the Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But what then is this thing? For they identify this “thing”, this “reality” which is the Trinity as truly existing, or subsisting, and define it as being individual and singular, and also regard it as being of a rational nature, namely, the divine nature. In what area then, does it fall short of the definition of “person”? In truth, it does not.

And the same false teachers treat this “thing” which meets the definition of a ‘person’, yet is robbed of the title by them, as being a person in every way. They pray to “God the Trinity”, the “triune God”; they speak of this “thing” using singular personal pronouns; they attribute to it consciousness, will, and action, and speech, and in short, everything pertaining to a person, excepting that they deny it the word “person”. Their deception then is obvious, although perhaps it is as much a self-deception as it is a deception of those who hear them.

Let those then who equivocate over the terminology of “person” give up their subterfuge, and like Van Til, come out and openly admit what they think in language that does not hide it. For by hiding their true belief behind ambiguous language, and equivocating as they do, do they not acknowledge the shamefulness of their own belief? For if it is true, it is noble, for truth is excellent; let them then come out and openly make it known. Or else why do they so dishonor the god of their imaginations by denying him personhood? What insult to the “triune God”, that he may receive men’s worship and prayers, and be called by personal pronouns, and have names and titles belonging to the real persons of the Trinity applied to him, and yet he is denied the honor of being called a person!

Or if those who are merely confused and ill taught speak in these ways, and treat the Trinity as a person in the way they speak, and yet acknowledge that it is in truth an error to regard the Trinity as a whole as a person, and for this reason deny it the term “person”, they do well; but let them then abandon their misunderstanding wholeheartedly, and not waver between truth and error any longer. But let them acknowledge the one true God as a person; the person of the Father. And let them acknowledge a second divine person also, one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of the one true God, and together with Him and His Father, Who is the one true God, let them acknowledge a third divine person, the Holy Spirit. And these three persons together are the Trinity; not a singular person, but a group of three and only three persons, all three of Whom possess exactly the same divine nature, or essence. And so we may return to that ancient formula “one essence in three persons” as it was intended, to denote how the one God, and His only-begotten Son, and His Holy Spirit all share the same divine nature, and not giving in to any system of false doctrine that would confound this formula to teach a person who is three persons.

 

Demonstration From Scripture that the One God is the Father in Particular

It is important to see every point of doctrine proven from scripture in order to know with certainty that it is true; conversely we endanger ourselves if we rashly accept what merely seems plausible without a true demonstration from the scriptures. For scripture commands that we “Test all things; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thess 5:21)

For those who think this idea is merely a peculiarity of the protestant tradition, we may learn that this idea is in fact a patristic doctrine held by the early church fathers:

“Have thou ever in thy mind this seal, which for the present has been lightly touched in my discourse, by way of summary, but shall be stated, should the Lord permit, to the best of my power with the proof from the Scriptures. For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell thee these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures.” (Cyril, Archbishop of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture 4)

We see the same idea expressed by Clement of Alexandria:

“But those who are ready to toil in the most excellent pursuits, will not desist from the search after truth, till they get the demonstration from the Scriptures themselves… He, then, who of himself believes the Scripture and voice of the Lord, which by the Lord acts to the benefiting of men, is rightly [regarded] faithful. Certainly we use it as a criterion in the discovery of things. What is subjected to criticism is not believed till it is so subjected; so that what needs criticism cannot be a first principle. Therefore, as is reasonable, grasping by faith the indemonstrable first principle, and receiving in abundance, from the first principle itself, demonstrations in reference to the first principle, we are by the voice of the Lord trained up to the knowledge of the truth.
For we may not give our adhesion to men on a bare statement by them, who might equally state the opposite. But if it is not enough merely to state the opinion, but if what is stated must be confirmed, we do not wait for the testimony of men, but we establish the matter that is in question by the voice of the Lord, which is the surest of all demonstrations, or rather is the only demonstration; in which knowledge those who have merely tasted the Scriptures are believers; while those who, having advanced further, and become correct expounders of the truth, are Gnostics. Since also, in what pertains to life, craftsmen are superior to ordinary people, and model what is beyond common notions; so, consequently, we also, giving a complete exhibition of the Scriptures from the Scriptures themselves, from faith persuade by demonstration.” (Stromata, Book 7, Chapter 16)

And Irenaeus of Lyons considered it so important to see even the most basic tenets of the Christian faith demonstrated from the scriptures, and not believed on the authority of mere human opinion, that he authored his Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, in which he admirably shows the agreement of the holy tradition of the church with the holy and infallible scriptures, and proves each point of the traditional faith from the same.

And the teaching of these ancient Christians is itself well supported from the scriptures, which commend the Jews of Berea as “noble-minded”(Act 17:11) because they did not accept or reject what the Apostle Paul himself taught except upon seeing it proven from the scriptures, the Holy Spirit through the apostle in another place commanding every Christian to “Test all things; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thess 5:21).

Having then, demonstrated the need for demonstration from the scriptures itself from the scriptures, and having provided a few testimonies to the same effect from the holy fathers of the church, let us move on to our main subject, concerned with the identity of the one God.

The opinion of many, led astray by false teachers, is that the one God is a person who is the three persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The greater part who have been deceived have no idea of their own peril, but having uncritically accept what some teachers have told them, have been carried away by lies contrary to the teaching of scripture.

But the teaching of scripture stands, and the truth in unchanged by the false opinions of the multitude. And as Justin Martyr says “Neither shall light ever be darkness as long as light exists, nor shall the truth of the things pertaining to us be controverted. For truth is that than which nothing is more powerful. Every one who might speak the truth, and speaks it not, shall be judged by God.” I must then, although I would rather avoid the controversy entailed, do my best to speak the truth, although I am the least of all Christians.

The points of doctrine then, which I undertake to prove from the scriptures, that you may have a true knowledge of them, not founded on human opinion or plausible arguments, but upon proof from very voice of God speaking in the holy scriptures, are these:

  1. That the “one God” of scripture is a person.
  2. That the person of the one God is the Father in particular.

Firstly, let us fix in our minds what a “person” is: a person is commonly acknowledged to be an individual of a rational nature. For instance, we may speak of human persons, since individual men are individual and possess a rational nature. We may also regard angelic creatures as persons, since they also exist as individuals and possess a rational nature. God, His Son, and His Spirit are also persons, since each of them is an individual of a rational nature. Persons, since they are by definition rational and individual, possess their own distinct consciousness, will, and mind. As rational individuals, they act, think, and speak.

That the “one God” scripture reveals is a person is demonstrated from;

  • That it is self-evident that the “one God” is individual.
  • His actions demonstrate that He is rational.
  • That He is God proves He is rational, since rationality is proper to the divine nature.
  • Scripture’s use of singular personal pronouns for Him demonstrates that He is an individual.

Thus, once we see all these points proven, we will have it proven that the one God is both rational and individual; thus, by definition, a person.

We see that the one God acts in these passages of scripture:

“Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why do we deal treacherously with one another By profaning the covenant of the fathers?” (Malachi 2:10)

“since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.” (Romans 3:30)

We see that God is rational from these passages of scripture:

““Come now, and let us reason together,” Says the Lord, “Though your sins are like scarlet, They shall be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They shall be as wool.” (Isaiah 1:18)

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The everlasting God, the Lord, The Creator of the ends of the earth, Neither faints nor is weary. His understanding is unsearchable.” (Isaiah 40:28)

“For the Lord gives wisdom; From His mouth come knowledge and understanding;” (Proverbs 2:6)

Having it proven then from the holy scriptures that the one God is rational, and from the very term “one God” itself having it self-evident that He is individual, we have proven that He is a person. But scripture gives us further proof of this by using singular personal pronouns for Him; since by definition a singular personal pronoun indicates a single person.

We have already quoted above:

“since there is one God who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith.” (Romans 3:30)

The “one God” then is not an “it” and so impersonal, but is rather called by scripture “who”, thus teaching us that the one God is a person.

“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.” Now when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, He said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”” (Mark 12:32-34)

Here the scribe says that there is one God, and calls Him “He”. If then, the one God were not a person, then the scribe did not indeed answer wisely, since he speaks of Him as one. But Christ, the Wisdom of God, acknowledges that “he answered wisely”.

Again the Spirit through Paul teaches

“yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live.” (1 Corinthians 8:6)

We see then the one God spoken of with the singular personal pronouns “whom” and “Him”.

Lastly we will cite Ephesians 4:6:

“one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”

Here again we see the one God is proven to be a person by the use of the personal pronoun “who”.

So we see it proven again that the one God is a person, having proved it first from the fact that scripture shows the one God to be an individual of a rational nature, and thus a person by definition, so also we have now shown that scripture declares that the one God is a person by using personal pronouns for Him. We have then, demonstrated from infallible scripture this first point of doctrine, that the one God is a person.

On then, to the second point of doctrine of our demonstration, that is, having established that the one God is a person, proving now from the scriptures that He is the person of the Father in particular.

This is made clear from the following passages:

“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

Here the one God is explicitly shown to be the same person as the Father.

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

Here the Lord teaches us to call the Father the “only true God” by His own example when He prayed to the Father on the night He was betrayed.

“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

Here the Holy Spirit expressly declares through the apostle that the one God is the Father.

From these explicit testimonies is clearly demonstrated the fact that the one God is the Father. And He cannot be, as some have though, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit if He is a person; for a person, as we have said, is an individual, and thus singular. And we also noted the use of singular, not plural, personal pronouns used for the one God, thus proving that the one God is not a company of persons but a single person, and that this person is none other than the Father, the one Whom the Lord Jesus Christ called “the only true God”.

Here then both points of doctrine have been clearly and thoroughly proven from the scriptures; let he who has ears hear. What you may once have safely regarded as mere opinion is now declared to you by the voice of God to be sure and certain truth, which cannot be safely disregarded.

But someone will perhaps not regard the testimony of scripture alone as sufficient, but will require an official ruling from the church. Such foolishness deserves no answer; but that they may through the truth be drawn to repentance, let them read only the first line of the Creed composed by the Council of Nicea, the first ecumenical council, when it says “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all thing.s..” and they will know that what I have already demonstrated from the scriptures is indeed true.

 

Above scripture quotations taken from the NKJV unless otherwise noted.

Hilary of Poitiers on Correct and Incorrect Understandings of Co-essentiality

In the midst of the Arian controversy of the fourth century, orthodox Christians struggled over how to best articulate the doctrine of the Trinity in a way that would exclude both Arianism, which regarded Christ as a creature, and Modalism, which regarded the three persons of the Trinity as being a single person. The Nicene Creed ended up serving as a solution; it clearly distinguished between the distinct persons of the Trinity “one God, the Father Almighty”, “one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God”, and “the Holy Spirit”, thus excluding Modalism, while also defining that Christ was “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”, to the exclusion of Arianism.

The language of the Son being begotten “from the essence of the Father” and being “of the same essence” were included specifically to confess the divinity of Christ, contra Arianism. The point of this confession that the Son was co-essential with the Father was that He was eternally of the same divine nature as the Father; thus truly God in nature from all eternity.

While this language was orthodox when used with this meaning, a great many orthodox bishops were weary of the language, especially the language that the Son is “of the same essence” as the Father, since this language had been used by modalists in articulating their heresy. This terminology became the subject of much controversy in the approximately fifty years between the Council of Nicea and Council of Constantinople, where the Nicene Creed was again finally confirmed by the church, not only because the Arians opposed it, but also because many orthodox bishops wanted to avoid the language that had been previously condemned because of its use by modalists. These orthodox bishops worried that such language may be intended to confess modalism by making the Father, Son, and Spirit out to be a single person. For this reason, many did not accept the decision of Nicea for many years, although consensus was eventually reached by the time of the Council of Constantinople in 381, in large part thanks to the efforts of Athanasius in favor of the terminology.

Because the language of essence (ousia in Greek) and co-essentiality (‘homoousias’ in Greek) was the subject of so much controversy, and is not used in scripture, it became the subject of quite a bit of writing by orthodox church fathers such as Athanasius and Hilary of Poitiers. Hilary of Poitiers, writing on the regional synods held by Eastern churches in the intervening period between the Council of Nicea in 325 and the Council of Constantinople in 381, gave an extremely helpful explanation of what the language meant in his work On the Synods of the Easterners.

In this work he goes into detail in explaining what the orthodox framers of the Nicene Creed intended by the language of ‘essence’ and ‘co-essentiality’, as well as the various ways that the language could be misunderstood heretically, which he acknowledged gave some legitimacy to those who opposed such language for fear of it carrying a heretical meaning. Hilary urges that it must be carefully defined, and understood according to the orthodox intention of the Nicene Council, and that so long as it is understood rightly, it must be accepted as orthodox.

Sadly, in later church history, the language and concept of co-essentiality was indeed twisted contrary to its original meaning (see: https://contramodalism.com/tag/fourth-lateran-council/). Semi-modalism thrives off of a twisting of the doctrine of co-essentiality that teaches that ultimately the persons of the Father, Son, and Spirit are together a singular person who exists as all three; the person of “God the Trinity”. The concern of orthodox church fathers like Hilary that such language would be misunderstood if not carefully defined has truly been realized, and needs to be corrected.

In this post, I hope to examine and highlight Hilary’s insightful teaching on this subject. I urge the reader to pay special attention to Hilary’s teaching that co-essentiality understood rightly teaches not that the Father and Son are one concrete “thing”, nor a single person, but that they are of exactly the same and identical divine nature, as two truly distinct persons. Note also the ways in which he says the concept can be misunderstood heretically, and how much this sounds precisely like semi-modalism. To the interested reader, I highly recommend the entire work, available online here: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3301.htm.

Hilary of Poitiers writes:

“Many of us, beloved brethren, declare the substance of the Father and the Son to be one in such a spirit that I consider the statement to be quite as much wrong as right. The expression contains both a conscientious conviction and the opportunity for delusion. If we assert the one substance, understanding it to mean the likeness of natural qualities and such a likeness as includes not only the species but the genus, we assert it in a truly religious spirit, provided we believe that the one substance signifies such a similitude of qualities that the unity is not the unity of a monad but of equals. By equality I mean exact similarity so that the likeness may be called an equality, provided that the equality imply unity because it implies an equal pair, and that the unity which implies an equal pair be not wrested to mean a single Person [here he predicts semi-modalism]. Therefore the one substance will be asserted piously if it does not abolish the subsistent personality or divide the one substance into two, for their substance by the true character of the Son’s birth and by their natural likeness is so free from difference that it is called one [note that the substance is one not because it is one existing “thing” which is the Father and Son, but because the Father and Son have an exactly identical nature].

68. But if we attribute one substance to the Father and the Son to teach that there is a solitary personal existence although denoted by two titles: then though we confess the Son with our lips we do not keep Him in our hearts, since in confessing one substance we then really say that the Father and the Son constitute one undifferentiated Person [semi-modalism]. Nay, there immediately arises an opportunity for the erroneous belief that the Father is divided, and that He cut off a portion of Himself to be His Son. That is what the heretics mean when they say the substance is one: and the terminology of our good confession so gratifies them that it aids heresy when the word ὁμοούσιος is left by itself, undefined and ambiguous. There is also a third error. When the Father and the Son are said to be of one substance this is thought to imply a prior substance, which the two equal Persons both possess. Consequently the word implies three things, one original substance and two Persons, who are as it were fellow-heirs of this one substance. For as two fellow-heirs are two, and the heritage of which they are fellow-heirs is anterior to them, so the two equal Persons might appear to be sharers in one anterior substance. The assertion of the one substance of the Father and the Son signifies either that there is one Person who has two titles, or one divided substance that has made two imperfect substances, or that there is a third prior substance which has been usurped and assumed by two and which is called one because it was one before it was severed into two. Where then is there room for the Son’s birth? Where is the Father or the Son, if these names are explained not by the birth of the divine nature but a severing or sharing of one anterior substance?

69. Therefore amid the numerous dangers which threaten the faith, brevity of words must be employed sparingly, lest what is piously meant be thought to be impiously expressed, and a word be judged guilty of occasioning heresy when it has been used in conscientious and unsuspecting innocence. A Catholic about to state that the substance of the Father and the Son is one, must not begin at that point: nor hold this word all important as though true faith did not exist where the word was not used. He will be safe in asserting the one substance if he has first said that the Father is unbegotten, that the Son is born, that He draws His personal subsistence from the Father, that He is like the Father in might, honour and nature, that He is subject to the Father as to the Author of His being, that He did not commit robbery by making Himself equal with God, in whose form He remained, that He was obedient unto death. He did not spring from nothing, but was born. He is not incapable of birth but equally eternal. He is not the Father, but the Son begotten of Him. He is not any portion of God, but is whole God. He is not Himself the source but the image; the image of God born of God to be God. He is not a creature but is God. Not another God in the kind of His substance, but the one God in virtue of the essence of His exactly similar substance. God is not one in Person but in nature, for the Born and the Begetter have nothing different or unlike. After saying all this, he does not err in declaring one substance of the Father and the Son. Nay, if he now denies the one substance he sins.

70. Therefore let no one think that our words were meant to deny the one substance. We are giving the very reason why it should not be denied. Let no one think that the word ought to be used by itself and unexplained. Otherwise the word ὁμοούσιος [co-essential] is not used in a religious spirit. I will not endure to hear that Christ was born of Mary unless I also hear, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was GodJohn 1:1 I will not hear Christ was hungry, unless I hear that after His fast of forty days He said, Man does not live by bread aloneMatthew 4:4 I will not hear He thirsted unless I also hear Whosoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirstJohn 4:13 I will not hear Christ suffered unless I hear, The hour has come that the Son of man should be glorified. I will not hear He died unless I hear He rose again. Let us bring forward no isolated point of the divine mysteries to rouse the suspicions of our hearers and give an occasion to the blasphemers. We must first preach the birth and subordination of the Son and the likeness of His nature, and then we may preach in godly fashion that the Father and the Son are of one substance. I do not personally understand why we ought to preach before everything else, as the most valuable and important of doctrines and in itself sufficient, a truth which cannot be piously preached before other truths, although it is impious to deny it after them.

71. Beloved brethren, we must not deny that there is one substance of the Father and the Son, but we must not declare it without giving our reasons. The one substance must be derived from the true character of the begotten nature, not from any division, any confusion of Persons, any sharing of an anterior substance. It may be right to assert the one substance, it may be right to keep silence about it. You believe in the birth and you believe in the likeness. Why should the word cause mutual suspicions, when we view the fact in the same way? Let us believe and say that there is one substance, but in virtue of the true character of the nature and not to imply a blasphemous unity of Persons. Let the oneness be due to the fact that there are similar Persons and not a solitary Person [here classical trinitarianism is vindicated in teaching that God and His Son are co-essential in that they are identical in nature, having the same divine nature, and semi-modalism is refuted for teaching that the Trinity of three persons is itself a solitary person].

72. But perhaps the word similarity may not seem fully appropriate. If so, I ask how I can express the equality of one Person with the other except by such a word? Or is to be like not the same thing as to be equal? If I say the divine nature is one I am suspected of meaning that it is undifferentiated: if I say the Persons are similar, I mean that I compare what is exactly like. I ask what position equal holds between like and one? I enquire whether it means similarity rather than singularity. Equality does not exist between things unlike, nor does similarity exist in one. What is the difference between those that are similar and those that are equal? Can one equal be distinguished from the other? So those who are equal are not unlike. If then those who are unlike are not equals, what can those who are like be but equals?

73. Therefore, beloved brethren, in declaring that the Son is like in all things to the Father, we declare nothing else than that He is equal. Likeness means perfect equality, and this fact we may gather from the Holy Scriptures, And Adam lived two hundred and thirty years, and begot a son according to his own image and according to his own likeness; and called his name SethGenesis 5:3 I ask what was the nature of his likeness and image which Adam begot in Seth? Remove bodily infirmities, remove the first stage of conception, remove birth-pangs, and every kind of human need. I ask whether this likeness which exists in Seth differs in nature from the author of his being, or whether there was in each an essence of a different kind, so that Seth had not at his birth the natural essence of Adam? Nay, he had a likeness to Adam, even though we deny it, for his nature was not different. This likeness of nature in Seth was not due to a nature of a different kind, since Seth was begotten from only one father, so we see that a likeness of nature renders things equal because this likeness betokens an exactly similar essence. Therefore every son by virtue of his natural birth is the equal of his father, in that he has a natural likeness to him. And with regard to the nature of the Father and the Son the blessed John teaches the very likeness which Moses says existed between Seth and Adam, a likeness which is this equality of nature. He says, Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill Him, because He not only had broken the Sabbath, but said also that God was His father, making Himself equal with GodJohn 5:18 Why do we allow minds that are dulled with the weight of sin to interfere with the doctrines and sayings of such holy men, and impiously match our rash though sluggish senses against their impregnable assertions? According to Moses, Seth is the likeness of Adam, according to John, the Son is equal to the Father, yet we seek to find a third impossible something between the Father and the Son. He is like the Father, He is the Son of the Father, He is born of Him: this fact alone justifies the assertion that they are one [this paragraph refutes those who try to make the oneness of the Father and Son, and their co-essentiality, to consist of being one subsisting “thing”; rather, their essential oneness lies in the two persons each distinctly possessing the exact same divine nature, and so there only being one divine nature between the two of Them].

74. I am aware, dear brethren, that there are some who confess the likeness, but deny the equality. Let them speak as they will, and insert the poison of their blasphemy into ignorant ears. If they say that there is a difference between likeness and equality, I ask whence equality can be obtained? If the Son is like the Father in essence, might, glory and eternity, I ask why they decline to say He is equal? In the above creed an anathema was pronounced on any man who should say that the Father was Father of an essence unlike Himself. Therefore if He gave to Him whom He begot without effect upon Himself a nature which was neither another nor a different nature, He cannot have given Him any other than His own. Likeness then is the sharing of what is one’s own, the sharing of one’s own is equality, and equality admits of no difference. Those things which do not differ at all are one. So the Father and the Son are one, not by unity of Person but by equality of nature [contrast this with later articulations of co-essentiality, like that of the Fourth Lateran Council, which redefined it to mean a unity of persons into a single person, only avoiding the term “person”; Van Til would later come out and express the belief frankly, calling the Trinity itself a single “person”. We see from Hilary’s own words here how antithetical this view is to the intention of the orthodox church fathers of the Nicene era].

75. Although general conviction and divine authority sanction no difference between likeness and equality, since both Moses and John would lead us to believe the Son is like the Father and also His equal, yet let us consider whether the Lord, when the Jews were angry with Him for calling God His Father and thus making Himself equal with God, did Himself teach that He was equal with God. He says, The Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father doJohn 5:19 He showed that the Father originates by saying Can do nothing of Himself, He calls attention to His own obedience by adding, but what He sees the Father do. There is no difference of might, He says He can do nothing that He does not see because it is His nature and not His sight that gives Him power. But His obedience consists in His being able only when He sees. And so by the fact that He has power when He sees, He shows that He does not gain power by seeing but claims power on the authority of seeing. The natural might does not differ in Father and Son, the Son’s equality of power with the Father not being due to any increase or advance of the Son’s nature but to the Father’s example. In short that honour which the Son’s subjection retained for the Father belongs equally to the Son on the strength of His nature. He has Himself added, Whatever things He does, these also does the Son likewiseJohn 5:19 Surely then the likeness implies equality. Certainly it does, even though we deny it: for these also does the Son likewise. Are not things done likewise the same? Or do not the same things admit equality? Is there any other difference between likeness and equality, when things that are done likewise are understood to be made the same? Unless perchance any one will deny that the same things are equal, or deny that similar things are equal, for things that are done in like manner are not only declared to be equal but to be the same things.

76. Therefore, brethren, likeness of nature can be attacked by no cavil, and the Son cannot be said to lack the true qualities of the Father’s nature because He is like Him. No real likeness exists where there is no equality of nature, and equality of nature cannot exist unless it imply unity, not unity of person but of kind. It is right to believe, religious to feel, and wholesome to confess, that we do not deny that the substance of the Father and the Son is one because it is similar, and that it is similar because they are one.

77. Beloved, after explaining in a faithful and godly manner the meaning of the phrases one substance, in Greek ὁμοούσιον, and similar substance or ὁμοιούσιον, and showing very completely the faults which may arise from a deceitful brevity or dangerous simplicity of language, it only remains for me to address myself to the holy bishops of the East. We have no longer any mutual suspicions about our faith, and those which before now have been due to mere misunderstanding are being cleared away…”

This treatment of co-essentiality is instructive for modern Christians. To those familiar with later articulations of co-essentiality by semi-modalists, it should be clear that they have fallen into exactly the sorts of errors Hilary of Poitiers warned against by conceiving of the essence shared by the persons of the Trinity as a singular personal subsistence; in other words, a person. Hilary’s words make it clear that semi-modalistic misunderstandings of co-essentiality are not faithful to the original meaning of the doctrine and terminology employed by the Nicene Creed and orthodox church fathers. We must reject the later innovations of semi-modalism and return to the classical understanding of co-essentiality articulated by the Nicene church fathers if things are to improve.

The Grievous Error of the Fourth Lateran Council

When doctrinal error is mentioned in respect to the Fourth Lateran Council, a number of issues could be brought up depending on what tradition is examining the council. Protestants reject its teaching on transubstantiation as error; Eastern Orthodox reject its teaching on the Filoque as heretical; the Oriental Orthodox would reject its Chalcedonian articulation of the hypostatic union. Everyone but the papists themselves takes issue with the council’s strong assertion of papal supremacy and authority (written, conveniently, by the Pope himself, as all the canons). But in this article, I want to draw attention to a lesser-known doctrinal error the council did much to promote: the anti-trinitarian doctrine of semi-modalism.

The Fourth Lateran Council is not primarily known today for its decisions regarding the doctrine of the Trinity. The thirteenth-century Papal Council, held in a Roman palace, dealt with a host of issues, including crusades, defining and officially confessing the doctrine of transubstantiation, the filioque, and papal authority. Yet its impact on trinitarian doctrine for Roman Catholicism is actually very great (the council is generally rejected by protestant and Eastern churches, as it took place after the Great Schism, and prior to the Reformation, with significant parts of its rulings being rejected by the Reformers).

The council’s importance to Rome’s views on the Trinity is primarily because of the council’s dealings with Abbot Joachim of Fiore’s treatise on the Trinity, in which Joachim accused Peter Lombard of teaching heresy in his famous Sentences. The heresy Joachim had in view was none other than semi-modalism. Abbot Joachim recognised that teaching that the Trinity was a single conscious thing who is the three real persons of Father, Son, and Spirit, is far different than scripture’s teaching of three distinct persons of one essence, and made efforts to draw attention to this departure from scripture’s teaching. He correctly pointed out that Peter Lombard’s semi-modalism effectively made the Trinity itself into a fourth divine person, ultimately to the destruction of the doctrine of the Trinity.

The bishop of Rome and the council he had called did not agree with Abbot Joachim’s assessment. His teachings on the subject were condemned, and the council affirmed the already well-entrenched error of semi-modalism as the official Roman Catholic belief, as they officially redefined the doctrine of consubstantiality to no longer teach that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share one and the same divine nature to instead mean than the Father, Son, and Spirit were the same conscious “reality”- in concept, a person. They avoided the language of “person” for this reality, denying Abbot Joachim’s criticism that conceiving of the Trinity this way was to believe in a fourth person of the Trinity, since to admit such would be obviously heretical.

This equivocation on the terminology of “person” and on the subject of consubstantiality have continued down to our own day, as semi-modalists continue to follow the pattern of substituting out another word besides “person” for the singular, personal, conscious, rational reality that they teach is the three persons of the Father, Son, and Spirit. They call this “thing” the “essence” or “substance” which exists in the three persons of the Trinity, while originally the Nicene church fathers introduced this language not to indicate that a person was three persons, but to speak of the single divine nature shared by the three persons of the Trinity. This fact can be seen clearly from their own writings.

Hilary of Poitiers, for example, wrote thus:

“IV. If any one dares to say that the Unborn God, or a part of Him, was born of Mary: let him be anathema.

42. The fact of the essence declared to be one in the Father and the Son having one name on account of their similarity of nature seemed to offer an opportunity to heretics to declare that the Unborn God, or a part of Him, was born of Mary. The danger was met by the wholesome resolution that he who declared this should be anathema. For the unity of the name which religion employs and which is based on the exact similarity of their natural essence, has not repudiated the Person of the begotten essence so as to represent, under cover of the unity of name, that the substance of God is singular and undifferentiated because we predicate one name for the essence of each, that is, predicate one God, on account of the exactly similar substance of the undivided nature in each Person.” (De Synodis)

Even in the post-nicene period, this classical understanding of co-essentiality can be clearly seen in the Chalcedonian Definition when it says:

“We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in divine nature and also perfect in human nature; truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body; co-essential with the Father according to the divine nature, and co-essential with us according to the human nature; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the divine nature, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the human nature…”

Notice Christ is said to be co-essential with man according to his human nature. This is consistent with an understanding of essence as a general nature considered in abstract, such as human nature, or the divine nature. Christ being co-essential with man literally means he is of the same human nature as all other men. By way of parallel, which is obviously drawn by the Definition, Christ is also eternally co-essential with the Father as His Son, in that He has from all eternity the same divine nature as the Father. This same understanding can also be seen articulated by Basil the Great (see: https://contramodalism.com/2018/01/12/basil-the-great-on-the-distinction-between-essence-and-person/ ).

In contrast, the idea that co-essentiality would somehow mean that the subjects were one “thing”, with its own real concrete existence, does not fit at all with the Chalcedonian Definition. Christ is co-essential with man- yet there is no real existence to the human nature considered in abstract. Human nature finds real existence in human persons; but considered in abstract, it is only an idea, lacking concrete existence. Yet if we apply the Fourth Lateran Council’s semi-modalistic re-definition of co-essentiality to the Chalcedonian Definition, this is exactly the way we must understand it. Yet clearly, this idea is nonsensical.

So we are able to see a medieval papal redefinition of co-essentiality:

“We, however, with the approval of this sacred and universal council, believe and confess with Peter Lombard that there exists a certain supreme reality, incomprehensible and ineffable, which truly is the Father and the Son and the holy Spirit, the three persons together and each one of them separately. Therefore in God there is only a Trinity, not a quaternity, since each of the three persons is that reality — that is to say substance, essence or divine nature-which alone is the principle of all things, besides which no other principle can be found. This reality neither begets nor is begotten nor proceeds; the Father begets, the Son is begotten and the holy Spirit proceeds.” (From Canon 2)

This redefinition of co-essentiality is erroneous, as it ultimately makes the Father, Son, and Spirit into a single person who is all three together. This doctrine is mutually exclusive to the classical doctrine of the Trinity taught by scripture and the orthodox church fathers of the Nicene and Ante-Nicene eras which is summed up in the Nicene Creed.

The Roman Catholic Church needs to abandon this grievous error and return to the classical trinitarianism contended for by such Western church fathers as Irenaeus of Lyons and Hilary of Poitiers. Those of other traditions should take heed of this error hidden among the historically more conspicuous problems with the rulings of the Fourth Lateran Council. We may be thankful that both Protestant and Eastern churches are free from commitment to the canons of this council, and thus are not, like the Roman Catholic church, bound to the error of semi-modalism in an official capacity by the ruling of the Papal council.

Semi-Modalism In the Dutch Reformed Confessions

Cornelius Van Til is known for coming out and openly admitting his belief that the Trinity itself, that group of three divine persons of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is itself a single person. While many prior to him clearly treated the Trinity as a person, they eschewed the terminology, as it is obviously nonsensical. Yet the concept that there is a single consciousness, a single person, who is the entire Trinity, and exists as all three real persons of the Trinity, can be seen going back to Augustine.

Cornelius Van Til, coming from a Dutch Reformed heritage, had been strongly indoctrinated with this semi-modalistic version of the doctrine of the Trinity, and it is therefore not surprising that he conceptually held to it. Van Til deserves accolade for actually coming out and clearly stating his true belief that the Trinity is a person (see: https://contramodalism.com/tag/cornelius-van-til/ ), yet he cannot by any means be considered the source of the idea itself.

We can clearly see that the Dutch Reformed tradition’s confessional documents, which sum up their doctrinal beliefs, are semi-modalistic. This can be seen by critically examining both the Second Helvetic Confession and Belgic Confession’s chapters on the doctrine of the Trinity:

“GOD IS ONE. We believe and teach that God is one in essence or nature, subsisting in himself, all sufficient in himself, invisible, incorporeal, immense, eternal, Creator of all things both visible and invisible, the greatest good, living, quickening and preserving all things, omnipotent and supremely wise, kind and merciful, just and true. Truly we detest many gods because it is expressly written: “The Lord your God is one Lord” (Deut.6:4). “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:2-3). “I am the Lord, and there is no other god besides me. Am I not the Lord, and there is no other God beside me? A righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me” ((Isa. 45:5, 21). “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6).

GOD IS THREE. Notwithstanding we believe and teach that the same immense, one and indivisible God is in person inseparably and without confusion distinguished as Father, Son and Holy Spirit so, as the Father has begotten the Son from eternity, the Son is begotten by an ineffable generation, and the holy Spirit truly proceeds from them both, and the same from eternity and is to be worshipped with both.” (Second Helvetic Confession, Chapter 3)

“In keeping with this truth and Word of God we believe in one God, who is one single essence, in whom there are three persons, really, truly, and eternally distinct according to their incommunicable properties— namely, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Father is the cause, origin, and source of all things, visible as well as invisible. The Son is the Word, the Wisdom, and the image of the Father. The Holy Spirit is the eternal power and might, proceeding from the Father and the Son.

Nevertheless, this distinction does not divide God into three, since Scripture teaches us that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit each has a distinct subsistence distinguished by characteristics— yet in such a way that these three persons are only one God. It is evident then that the Father is not the Son and that the Son is not the Father, and that likewise the Holy Spirit is neither the Father nor the Son. Nevertheless, these persons, thus distinct, are neither divided nor fused or mixed together. For the Father did not take on flesh, nor did the Spirit, but only the Son. The Father was never without the Son, nor without the Holy Spirit, since all these are equal from eternity, in one and the same essence. There is neither a first nor a last, for all three are one in truth and power, in goodness and mercy.” (Belgic Confession, Article 8)

First lets examine the quote from the Second Helvetic Confession. Towards the beginning it says “God is one in essence or nature, subsisting in himself, all sufficient in himself, invisible, incorporeal, immense, eternal, Creator of all”. This is in itself somewhat ambiguous- a classical trinitarian could also speak of the one God Who is one in essence or nature -the Father, as per the Nicene Creed- while acknowledging that the Son and Spirit also share that same divine nature. In fact, if this whole paragraph were speaking of the Father, there is nothing objectionable about it at all. Many orthodox church fathers speak in very similar ways.

The key difference however between the Second Helvetic Confession and the orthodox church fathers is that the fathers would have identified the subject of that paragraph as the person of the Father (see: https://contramodalism.com/2017/03/08/i-believe-in-one-god-the-father-almighty/ ). This fits with the singular personal pronouns used, as well. But unfortunately, the Second Helvetic didn’t intend it this way. Rather the next paragraph begins by saying: “Notwithstanding we believe and teach that the same immense, one and indivisible God is in person inseparably and without confusion distinguished as Father, Son and Holy Spirit…”.

Here we see that the Confession directly equates the singular person spoken of in the first paragraph with the real three persons of the Trinity together; that is, it teaches that there is one person who is three persons. The Confession has in the first paragraph spoken of a singular person: not just by using explicitly singular personal pronouns, but by saying “subsisting in himself” they very clearly regard the subject as a person (in historic philosophical language, subsistence=person, while substance=essence). Yet when we come to the second paragraph, this singular subsistence/person is identified as being three subsistences/persons. Thus, it clearly teaches semi-modalism, only barely coming short of Van Til’s later articulation of it by not expressly using the word “person” for the Trinity as a whole.

Next, we come to the quote from the Belgic Confession. It begins saying “In keeping with this truth and Word of God we believe in one God, who is one single essence, in whom there are three persons, really, truly, and eternally distinct according to their incommunicable properties— namely, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” This is mainly where we see semi-modalism. The second paragraph does not seem to contain anything expressly semi-modalistic, and the third paragraph is only ambiguous when it says that the three persons are one God, since this could be taken in a classical sense to mean that they all share one divine nature, or in a semi-modalistic sense to say that the three are one person. So much for the second and third paragraphs, then.

Returning to the first paragraph of the Belgic Confession, we must note firstly that it fails to correctly identify the one God as the Father. Instead, it equates the one God with the essence/divine nature, which exists in the three real persons of the Trinity. But it does more than this; it confesses the one God to be a person who is the essence, which in turn has the three persons of the Trinity in it.

That it treats the “one God” here as a person is obvious from the singular personal pronoun used- “one God, who is one single essence”. If this is slightly baffling to the reader, they should not be surprised; essence and person are distinct philosophical categories. Confounding them cannot but result in doctrinal error (see: https://contramodalism.com/tag/essence-vs-person/ ).

Yet this is precisely what appears to be done here, as the one God, regarded as a person, is equated with the essence which exists in the three real persons of the Trinity. This twisting of the patristic formulation of the Trinity “one essence in three persons” to “one person in three persons” is semi-modalism.

So there you have it; the Helvetic Confession and Belgic Confession, upon close examination, are shown to teach semi-modalism. This doesn’t mean that the Confessions as a whole are not useful and valuable for their articulations of other areas of doctrine, but it is important that their teaching on the Trinity be recognized as problematic, or else more Christians will fall into these same errors.