Five Common Objections to Biblical Trinitarianism Answered

In Five Simple Proofs That the Father Alone Is the Supreme Being we looked at several ways we can know on the basis of scripture, reason, and natural theology that the Son is not the same individual being as the Father. Here I want to examine the most common objections leveled against the biblical doctrine of the Trinity by semi-modalists, and briefly answer them. The objections are stated as they have frequently appeared in discussions.

Objection #1: If the Son is another distinct individual being besides the Supreme Being, the One God, and He is also called “God”, this makes two Gods, and so destroys monotheism.

Answer #1: This assumes that for monotheism to be true, there must only be one being in the universe to which the title “God” may be accurately applied; yet scripture contradicts this notion. For certainly scripture teaches that there is one God; “yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things” 1 Cor 8:6 NASB; but it also teaches that there are many beings that may be called gods, on account of the dominion they possess; “indeed there are many gods and many lords,” 1 Cor 8: 5 NASB. Rulers on Israel were called “gods” (Ex 22:28), Satan is called “the god of this world” for sake of the temporal power he has over the world system (2 Cor 4:4), and men who are enslaved to their appetites are even said to have their appetites as their gods (Phil 3:19). In scripture, to be ‘god’ is always relative; to be god is to be ‘God of’ or ‘God over’ something; and so throughout scripture, to be god, or possess divinity, is simply to possess dominion. And so on this account, the Son of God, being a distinct individual being from the Father, Who shares in the Father’s dominion over the universe, is God over all creation. Yet He Himself is subject to His Father as His God, He Who alone has supreme dominion over all things absolutely, and so on that account is alone styled ‘the one God’, and ‘the only true God’.

And so we know from scripture that there is one sense in which there is only one God, as there is only one Who is absolutely supreme over all, the Father, the Supreme Being; and yet there is another sense in which there are many beings which may be called gods, on account of the lesser dominion they have. Neither the divinity of the Son, or His true existence as a distinct individual being, then, will be found to be an obstacle to biblical monotheism.

Objection #2: The Son, as well as the Father, is called by the name LORD; therefore, They must be one individual being, and so the Son, as well as the Father, is the Supreme Being.

Answer #2: This assumes that there is only one individual being called LORD; an assumption contrary to scripture. For throughout scripture we see two beings called LORD; one supreme, invisible to mortal man (“You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live” Ex 33:20 NASB), and the other subordinate, sent by the former, appearing to men and conversing with them in His own person (“I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.” Gen 32:30 NASB). And so scripture speak of two named LORD; “Then the LORD rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven” Gen 19:24 NASB.

And the Son, after having laid aside His glory in the days of His humiliation, is expressly said to have been given the name LORD again by the Father: “For this reason also [His humiliation and passion], God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Phil 2:9-11 NASB. Now we must observe two things here: firstly, that unless the Son were a distinct individual being from the Father, He could not ever be given the name LORD by the Father; and secondly, that if the name LORD denotes the Supreme Being alone, Who some wrongly suppose Christ to be, then Christ would need to have always had the name LORD, even during the incarnation. The fact that it could be laid aside and taken up again shows that it is indeed a name, and is honorific, and does not only denote the very being of the one God, but is a name shared by the one God with another individual being, His Son.

Objection #3: The church has historically taught that the Father, Son, and Spirit are one individual being or essence; surely the church cannot have erred so grievously for so long, as to have been wrong on that point.

Answer #3: It would be enough to answer simply that knowledge of doctrinal truth is not gained from popularity or the consent of authorities, but by demonstration from the holy scriptures. For we are not to blindly accept whatever doctrines authority endorses, but rather “Test all things; hold fast what is good.” 1 Thess 5:21 NKJV. As second century father Clement of Alexandria said “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.”

The controversy then, will not be decided by popes, councils, or the opinions of theologians in church history, but by the voice of the Lord speaking in the scriptures. But that having been said, it is noteworthy that the orthodox fathers, from the earliest times through the fourth century, held that the Son and Father are two numerically distinct individual beings. For example, Justin Martyr in the second century said “And that this power which the prophetic word calls God, as has been also amply demonstrated, and Angel, is not numbered [as different] in name only like the light of the sun but is indeed something numerically distinct, I have discussed briefly in what has gone before; when I asserted that this power was begotten from the Father, by His power and will” (Dialogue, Ch 28). But more than that, even once it was becoming more and more common to insist on a generic unity of nature, in the Nicene and post-nicene eras, the best pro-nicene fathers expressly rejected as Modalism the notion that the Father and Son share the same individual being -the very view which has become so common in later history. For Athanasius declared “For neither do we hold a Son-Father, as do the Sabellians, calling Him of one but not of the same essence, and thus destroying the existence of the Son.” (Statement of Faith). And Basil the Great said “This term [co-essential] also corrects the error of Sabellius, for it removes the idea of the identity of the hypostases, and introduces in perfection the idea of the Persons. For nothing can be of the same substance with itself, but one thing is of same substance with another.” (Letter LII). We see that for these fathers, the co-essentiality of the Trinity was a merely generic one, a sharing of a common nature between multiple individual beings; in their mind the Father and Son shared a common generic being, but were not one individual being, which is said by both these fathers to have been the very heresy of Sabellianism (which is modalism).

Objection #4: The Son shares the moral perfections and likeness of the Father, and all His divine attributes, and also shares in His works; therefore, being united in these things, They must both be one and the same individual being, together the Supreme Being.

Answer #4: Since the only-begotten Son is the very Image of the invisible God (Col 1:15), the brightness of His glory, and the exact representation of His person (Heb 1:1-3), Who shares one common image and likeness with the Father (Gen 1:26), and has life in Himself as the Father has life in Himself (Jn 5:26), through Whom the Supreme Being created all things (Jn 1:1-3), upholds the existence of all things (Col 1:17), rules over all things (Matt 28:18), reconciles all things to Himself (Col 1:20), and shall judge all men (Jn 5:22), it is no surprise that the Son shares in the Father’s moral perfections and actions. Yet none of these things require the Son to be the same individual being as the Father, but rather show the impossibility of such; for the Image and the thing imaged cannot be one and the same individual being, and neither can one work instrumentally through another, unless there really is another being to work through. But the Son, while sharing in many of the Father’s attributes, cannot be said to share in all of them; for the Father is invisible to mortal man, and the Son visible; the Father is uncaused, while the Son is begotten; the Father has supreme authority over all, while the Son is Himself subject to the Father. If then, it will be argued that the Son having all the same attributes as the Father is something in favor or Him being the same individual being as the Father (which has been shown false), then it must be admitted as well that the fact that the Son does not possess all the same attributes as the Supreme Being is a powerful proof that He is not the Supreme being, the one God, but another distinct individual being besides Him.

Objection #5: In cases where the truth is uncertain, we ought to err on the side of safety, by honoring the Son more highly, rather than less highly; and so we ought to believe Him to be, together with the Father, the Supreme Being, the One God.

Answer #5: This incorrectly assumes, firstly, that there is a reasonable ground for uncertainty, where there is not; for scripture has made sufficiently clear, in the Old Testament and the New, that the Son and Father are two distinct individual beings, not one and the same (see Five Simple Proofs That the Father Alone Is the Supreme Being). But moreover, let us consider which view truly honors Christ more- that which by making Him the same individual being as the Father takes away His true existence entirely, and makes Him a mere mode or name of the Father, or that which says that He is another really existing individual being besides the Father, subordinate only to the Father, and superior to everything in all creation. It is evident that the latter view is far more glorifying to Christ, and so indeed is the safer view.

Numerical Vs Generic Unity of Substance

Semi-modalism is built upon a twisting of the Nicene concept of co-essentiality. In the Nicene era and its creed, for multiple persons to be co-essential meant that nothing more than that they, as truly distinct rational individual beings (that is, persons) shared a common nature or species. A common analogy used by the Nicene fathers to capture their meaning, for example, is of three men being co-essential, in that they, while remaining three distinct individuals, share a common and identical human nature. Although there are three men, there is only one nature between them, human nature. Such was the original meaning of co-essentiality.

For example, Athanasius said:

“Even this is sufficient to dissuade you from blaming those who have said that the Son was coessential with the Father, and yet let us examine the very term ‘Coessential,’ in itself, by way of seeing whether we ought to use it at all, and whether it be a proper term, and is suitable to apply to the Son. For you know yourselves, and no one can dispute it, that Like is not predicated of essence, but of habits, and qualities; for in the case of essences we speak, not of likeness, but of identity. Man, for instance, is said to be like man, not in essence, but according to habit and character; for in essence men are of one nature. And again, man is not said to be unlike dog, but to be of different nature. Accordingly while the former [men] are of one nature and coessential, the latter are different in both.”

Hilary of Poitiers likewise clarified:

“Since, however, we have frequently to mention the words essence and substance, we must determine the meaning of essence, lest in discussing facts we prove ignorant of the signification of our words. Essence is a reality which is, or the reality of those things from which it is, and which subsists inasmuch as it is permanent. Now we can speak of the essence, or nature, or genus, or substance of anything. And the strict reason why the word essence is employed is because it is always. But this is identical with substance, because a thing which is, necessarily subsists in itself, and whatever thus subsists possesses unquestionably a permanent genus, nature or substance. When, therefore, we say that essence signifies nature, or genus, or substance, we mean the essence of that thing which permanently exists in the nature, genus, or substance.

And Basil of Caesarea wrote:

“The distinction between οὐσία [essence] and ὑπόστασις [person] is the same as that between the general and the particular ; as, for instance, between the animal and the particular man.” (Letter 236)”

This understanding of co-essentiality is likewise required by the council of Chalcedon:

“our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood”

Its clear, then, that the original intent of declaring that the Father, Son, and Spirit share one essence was not to make Them out to all be one person, one individual being, but simply to declare that They shared a common nature or species. This meaning changed, however, and was not kept clear as time went on; the Western churches going to far as to eventually formally change the meaning of co-essentiality in the 4th Lateran council in 1215.  Rather than indicating a generic unity of sharing one nature, now co-essentiality was defined as teaching that the unity the persons shared was of being one single numerically individual reality, one rational individual being- that is, in reality, one person. The ‘essence’ was no longer viewed as a nature, but a single subsistent ‘supreme reality’.

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

This teaching is a drastic departure from the faith of the early church, and represents the culmination of what many in the Nicene era had feared might result from the introduction of ‘essence’ speculation into the church’s dogma. A council of fathers gathered in Antioch in 345 had specified their belief that the Father, Son, and Spirit were not “one supreme reality”, that is, one person, one individual rational being, but rather, three:

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

Later in the same creed they went on to condemn the very view the 4th Lateran would later make dogma for the Roman churches:

“And those who say that the Father and Son and Holy Ghost are the same, and irreligiously take the three names of one and the same reality and person, we justly proscribe from the Church, because they suppose the illimitable and impassible Father to be also limitable and passable through His becoming man. For such are they whom Romans call Patripassians, and we Sabellians. For we acknowledge that the Father who sent, remained in the peculiar state of His unchangeable Godhead, and that Christ who was sent fulfilled the economy of the Incarnation.”

But one need not wait until the fourth century to find fathers who clearly taught that the Father, Son, and Spirit were not one numerically individual thing, one person. Second century father Justin Martyr, one of the earliest and best of the fathers, clearly understood the Father and Son to be numerically distinct persons, two distinct rational individual beings, not merely two names of or modes of one and the same reality:

“When Scripture says, ‘The Lord rained fire from the Lord out of heaven,’ the prophetic word indicates that there were two in number: One upon the earth, who, it says, descended to behold the cry of Sodom; Another in heaven, who also is Lord of the Lord on earth, as He is Father and God; the cause of His power and of His being Lord and God.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 29)

“And that this power which the prophetic word calls God, as has been also amply demonstrated, and Angel, is not numbered [as different] in name only like the light of the sun but is indeed something numerically distinct, I have discussed briefly in what has gone before; when I asserted that this power was begotten from the Father, by His power and will, but not by abscission, as if the essence of the Father were divided; as all other things partitioned and divided are not the same after as before they were divided: and, for the sake of example, I took the case of fires kindled from a fire, which we see to be distinct from it, and yet that from which many can be kindled is by no means made less, but remains the same.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 128)

“You perceive, my hearers, if you bestow attention, that the Scripture has declared that this Offspring was begotten by the Father before all things created; and that which is begotten is numerically distinct from that which begets, any one will admit.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Chapter 129)

It is clear also, that Justin did not speak of merely his own opinion in these matters, but as an apologist, spoke on behalf of the Christians of his time; and anyone who wishes to, may read his contemporary fathers, and see their agreement.

Semi-modalism, then, in proclaiming the the persons of the Trinity are numerically one substance, one individual, is clearly at odds with both the original dogmatic conception of co-essentiality held by the Nicene fathers, which proclaimed co-essentiality to mean nothing more than a mere generic unity of nature between really distinct individuals, as well as being at odds with the faith of the ante-nicene fathers, going back as close to the apostles as we can find.

For a look at how this semi-modalistic conception of the Trinity is opposed to scripture itself, and the very fundamental tenets of the Christian faith it teaches, see here.

Another Example of Modern Trinitarianism Being Nothing More Than Modalism, Barely Disguised

“The word ‘person’ has changed its meaning since the third century when it began to be used in connection with the ‘threefoldness of God’. When we talk about God as a person, we naturally think of God as being one person. But theologians such as Tertullian, writing in the third century, used the word ‘person’ with a different meaning. The word ‘person’ originally derives from the Latin word persona, meaning an actor’s face-mask—and, by extension, the role which he takes in a play. By stating that there were three persons but only one God, Tertullian was asserting that all three major roles in the great drama of human redemption are played by the one and the same God. The three great roles in this drama are all played by the same actor: God. Each of these roles may reveal God in a somewhat different way, but it is the same God in every case. So when we talk about God as one person, we mean one person in the modern sense of the word, and when we talk about God as three persons, we mean three persons in the ancient sense of the word. … Confusing these two senses of the word ‘person’ inevitably leads to the idea that God is actually a committee.”

Alister E. McGrath, Understanding the Trinity, pp 130-131

The heresy represented in this quote, unfortunately, is not uncommon. The Trinity as a whole is made out to be one person in the modern sense- that is, one rational individual being, one individual intelligent agent, one “He”; while the Father, Son, and Spirit are deemed to be nothing more than mere “masks” of this one individual. This is the same insidious heresy of Sabellius, only slightly modified. This is semi-modalism, and it is damnable heresy; this needs to be said, not to show malice to those who hold it, but to warn men of the danger it presents.

Semi-modalism equivocates on what “person” means, as this quote shows. A semi-modalist will insist that they are not a modalist because the Father, Son, and Spirit are “three persons”- yet when they use the word ‘person’, they mean something other than what is normally meant by ‘person’. They equivocate by using a non-standard definition of the term, usually without making that clear, like McGrath does above.

The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are really three persons; not three modes, not three masks, of one and the self-same person, but are in fact and in truth three distinct rational individual beings. Scripture repeatedly teaches this: “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Rev. 6:16-17 NASB) “Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.” (John 14:23 NASB). The fact that scripture uses plural personal pronouns in these verses requires us to understand that the Father and Son are two persons.

“If I bear witness of Myself, My witness is not true. 32 There is another who bears witness of Me, and I know that the witness which He witnesses of Me is true… the Father Himself, who sent Me, has testified of Me. You have neither heard His voice at any time, nor seen His form.” John 5:31-32, 37 NKJV). The Son says here that He does not bear witness to Himself (v31). Yet He also says that the Father bears witness of Him- this require that He is a distinct person from His Father. The Father is not Him, but “another” Who can witness to Christ, without Christ witnessing to Himself. Were They the same person, the Father testifying to the Son would be the same as the Son testifying to Himself.

Semi-modalism is a dangerous heresy because making the Father, Son, and Spirit to be the masks or modes of one and the same person denies the central tenets of the Christian faith, by denying the real existence of the Son of the God, the one Mediator between God and man, apart from Whom no one can approach the Father.

“Now a mediator is not for one party only; whereas God is only one.” (Gal 3:20 NASB)

“For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,” (1 Tim 2:5 NASB)

It is clear that no person can be a mediator between themselves and another; the very nature of what a mediator between two parties is, requires that the mediator be a third party. If Christ then is the mediator between God and man, then He cannot be the same person, the same individual rational being, as the God to Whom He intercedes. If the Son is the same “person” as the Father according to the normal usage of the word, that is, the same rational individual being as the Father, then He cannot be a mediator between God and man, for this would make the mediator and the party being mediated to one and the same, which is impossible. As the Son would in fact be the same person as the Father Who we need a Mediator to approach, we would in fact have no Mediator- and so according to scripture, it would be impossible to approach God.

And so the God of the semi-modalists is unapproachable; for by making the Son and Spirit out to not really be distinct persons, but one and the same individual being as the Father, they deny their real existence. They have no one to Mediate between them and their God, and no one to sanctify them, since they have made the Mediator, the Son, and the Sanctifier, the Spirit, to be the very same one that they need a Mediator and a Sanctifier to approach.

And likewise, semi-modalism denies that saving confession, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. For the Son of another is necessarily another person, Who relates to that other as a Son. But the semi-modalists deny that the Son is another rational individual being besides the Father, and so, they make Him the same rational individual being as the Father. The same being, then, the same person, according to the normal usage of the term, will then at once be made to be His own Father and His own Son, which is absurd; and while saying that He is both, they will actually make Him neither. So the one they call Son will relate to God, not as a Father, not as one individual being to another, Who is His Father, but will relate to God as His own self. By making the Son a mask and mode of the one God, they deny His real personal existence as a Son, which necessarily must be another rational individual being besides the one Whose Son He is. And so they deny the Lord, the Son of God, making Him a Son in name only and not in truth.

They say that the Father Who testifies to the Son is not another besides Him, but merely another mode of His own person, and so, they make the Son’s testimony false, for “If I bear witness of Myself, My witness is not true.” And so they make God out to be a liar.

Let this then serve as a warning of the deceitful equivocation of the heretics; for they will say that “God is three persons”, but the “God” they speak of is one person, one rational individual being, and the three “persons” they speak of are no persons at all, but mere masks, modes, roles, name, or internal relations of one person. They speak of a “triune God”, a “tripersonal God”, when in reality, the God they speak of, when they are honest, is only one person, and not three; and He has no true Son, the Son being made to be simply a mode of His own person, not another person Who relates to Him as a Father; and there will be no mediator to bring them to their “tripersonal God”, for having made their mediator to be nothing more than a mode of the very person they need a mediator to approach, they will have no true mediator, no third party, to bring them to God.

Highlights from Maximinus’s Debate With Augustine

The debate between Augustine of Hippo and Maximinus the Homoian is well worth reading for anyone interested in understanding the theology of either Augustine or the Homoians. Maximinus’s lengthly explanations of his views provide one of the best primary sources we have on the details of fifth-century Homoian trinitarianism. It is noteworthy for its close resemblance to the theology of prominent second and third-century church fathers such as Justin Martyr and Novatian of Rome. Below are a few brief selections from Maximinus’s portion of the debate.

These excerpts show, among other things, that Maximinus and the Homoians at large, as represented by the ecumenical council of Arminium, were not Arians, as they are so often slandered as being. The thematic stress on the Father’s supremacy and infinitude, although something Arians agreed with, can be seen in the ante-nicene fathers going back to Novatian, Irenaeus, and Justin Martyr; it is by no means a mark of Arianism.

Maximinus said:

“In the case of God you should use a worthy comparison. I am, of course, displeased and pained at heart over what you go on to say, namely, that a human being generates a human being, a dog a dog. You should not use so foul a comparison for such greatness.†106

15, 7. “Who does not know that God begot God, that the Lord begot the Lord, that the King begot the King, that the Creator begot the Creator, that the Good begot the Good, that the Wise begot the Wise, that the Merciful begot the Merciful, and that the Powerful begot the Powerful? In generating the Son, the Father took nothing away from the Son. He is not envious, but as the source of goodness he begot this great good.†107 All of creation bears witness to his goodness, in accord with your statement, which I highly praise.†108 You drew from the divine scriptures the words, From the creation of the world his invisible reality, having been understood, is seen through those things that have been made, even his everlasting power and divinity (Rom 1:20).”
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“Moreover, it is proper and a mark of order that you employ worthy comparisons. After all, you are speaking of God, of that immensity, to which, even if one draws a comparison as great as possible in terms of human thought or even in accord with the authority of the divine scriptures, one finds that the comparison is inadequate in every respect to him who is incomparable.

15, 10. “In accord with the testimonies that I have produced, I say that the Father alone is the one God, not one along with a second and a third, but that he alone is the one God. If he alone is not the one God, he is a part.†122 I deny, after all, that the one God is composed of parts; rather, his nature is unbegotten, simple power. The Son before all ages is himself begotten as power. The apostle spoke of this power of the Son, When you and my spirit are gathered together with the power of the Lord Jesus (1 Cor 5:4). I state and profess what the holy gospels teach us. I state and profess that the Holy Spirit is also power in his proper character. The Lord bore witness concerning him, when he said to his disciples, Remain in the city of Jerusalem, until you are clothed from on high with power (Lk 24:49).
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15, 12. “The apostle says, The blessed and alone powerful, the King of kings. He calls the Father alone powerful, not because the Son is not powerful. Listen to the Holy Spirit crying out and bearing testimony to the Son, Lift up the gates, you†125 princes; be raised up, eternal gates, and the king of glory will enter. He continues, Who is this king of glory? Listen to the answer, The Lord strong and powerful (Ps 23:7-8). How can he fail to be powerful, when every creature proclaims his power?

15, 13. “How can he fail to be wise, when the Holy Spirit cries out in praise of his wisdom and says, How magnificent are your works, O Lord! You have made all things in wisdom (Ps 103:24). Since all things were made through Christ, the Holy Spirit undoubtedly praises him when he says, You have made all things in wisdom. Since that is so, we must ask how blessed Paul can say, The blessed and alone powerful. In my opinion, he calls him alone powerful, because he is alone incomparable in power. In awe before his incomparability, the prophet said, O God, who is like you? (Ps 82:2). Do you want to know that he alone is powerful? Look at the Son and admire the power of the Son. Recognize in the Son that the Father is alone powerful, because he has begotten one so powerful. In his immense power the Father begot the powerful creator.†126 In his power that he received from the Father, the Son did not create the creator, but established creation. He says, All things have been handed over to me by my Father (Mt 11:27). In awe of this power of God the Father, Paul said, The blessed and alone powerful. Job was a powerful and true man. We read, That man was a true and just worshipper of God, and in further describing his region, it says that he was powerful and great among all those in the East (Jb 1:1.3). How then can the Father alone be powerful? It says alone, because no one is comparable to him, because he alone has such greatness, such might, such power.

“In the same way, the blessed apostle Paul proclaims that the Father alone is wise, when he says, God who alone is wise (Rom 16:27). But we must look for an explanation of why he alone is wise, since Christ is also wise. You have already cited Christ the power of God and wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:24). We too have given testimonies that he created all things in wisdom. But the Father alone is truly wise. We believe the scriptures, and we venerate the divine scriptures. We do not want a single particle of a letter to perish, for we fear the threat that is stated in these divine scriptures, Woe to those who take away or add! (Dt 4:2). Do you want to know how great is the wisdom of the Father? Look at the Son, and you will see the wisdom of the Father. For this reason Christ himself said, One who has seen me has also seen the Father (Jn 14:9). That is, in me he sees his wisdom; he praises his might; he glorifies the Father who, one and alone, has begotten me, one and alone, so great and so good before all ages. He did not look for material out of which to make him, nor did he take someone as an assistant. Rather, in the way he knew, he begot the Son by his power and his wisdom.†127 We do not profess, as you say when you falsely accuse us, that, just as the rest of creation was made from nothing, so the Son was made from nothing like a creature. Listen to the authority of statement of the Synod; for our fathers in Ariminum said this among other things, ‘If anyone says that the Son is from nothing and not from God the Father, let him be anathema.’†128 If you want, I will offer testimonies. For the blessed apostle John speaks as follows, One who loves the Father also loves him who was born from him (1 Jn 5:1).
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“This is painful to hear, for you do not compare that great magnificence to the nobility of the soul, but to the fragility of the body. Flesh is, of course, born from the body, a bodily offspring. But the soul is not born from a soul. If, then, our soul generates without corruption and passion, not experiencing any lessening or any defilement, but lawfully in accordance with God-given rights generates an offspring, in wisdom giving its consent to the body,†130 it itself remains whole. How much more will the omnipotent God do so?†131 I said just before that words fail us in every human comparison with God,†132 though we try to put it as best we can. How much more incorruptibly has the incorruptible God the Father begotten the Son? He has, however, begotten him. Note my carefulness, for I have the testimonies of the holy scriptures, Who will tell of his generation? (Is 53:8). He begot as he willed, as one with power,†133 taking nothing away; he begot one with power without any envy entering in.
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“You say that God is one. Show me whether the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit are one God or whether we should call the Father alone God, whose Son, Christ, is our God. Are you urging us to profess one God the way the Jews do? From the subjection of the Son, are we not shown, as the Christian faith holds, that there is one God whose Son is our God, as we have said? Believe Paul that the Father and the Son are not a single one (unus), as he proclaims in nearly every letter. He says, Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2; Gal 1:3 and Eph 1:2). He also says, One is God the Father, from whom are all things, and we are in him,
and one is the Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and we are in him†166 (1 Cor 8:6). This is the one whom we Christians preach as the one God, and the Son proclaims that he is good, when he says, No one is good save the one God (Mk 10:18). It is not that Christ is not good, for he says, I am the good shepherd (Jn 10:11). It is not that the Holy Spirit is not good; hear the prophet as he cries out, Your good Spirit will lead me in the right path (Ps 142:10). Hear too the witness of the Savior who says, A good man brings forth good things from the treasure of his heart (Lk 6:45). Moreover, every creature of God is very good. If a creature is good, if man is good, if the Holy Spirit is good, if Christ is good, we must investigate how there is one who is good. The Savior, of course, said, No one is good save the one God, because he is the source of goodness and has received his goodness from no one. Christ has received his goodness from his Father so that he is good, and every good creature of God has received through Christ its goodness. But whether it is the Son or those who were made through him, each has drawn his goodness from that one source of goodness in accord with the measure of his faith. But the Father has received his goodness from no one. Thus Christ says, No one is good save the one. In that way, then, there is one God, because there is one who is incomparable, because there is one who is immense, as we have already stated.†167
15, 24. “We do not deny that the Son loves the Father, for we read the scripture, So that this world may know that I love the Father, and I do just as he has commanded me (Jn 14:31). It is clear that the Son is loved and loves and that he carries out the commandment of the Father, as he says. Thus they are one, in accord with his words, The Father and I are one (Jn 10:30). Insofar as he says, He who has seen me has also seen the Father (Jn 14:9), we must believe with certain faith that he who sees the Son sees and understands the Father through the Son.

15, 25. “You professed that the Father is greater on account of the form of the servant.†168 That strikes me as quite foolish. We know that you also said that he was made less than the angels in the form of the servant.†169 You have not sufficiently proclaimed†170 the glory of God in professing that the Father is greater than the form of the servant. Even the angels are greater than the form of the servant. Christ did not come to teach us that the Father is greater than the form of the servant. Rather, the Truth came to us to teach and instruct us that the Father is greater than the Son and greater than this Son who is the great God. We glorify the Father and profess that he is greater than the great God; we proclaim that he is higher than the high God. Is this the honor we owe to God that the Father is greater than the servant form?

15, 26. “You say that the divinity showed itself to the Patriarchs, and just before that you said that the divinity was invisible.†171 The Father, who is invisible, surely did not show himself. Otherwise, if we say that the Father was seen, we make a liar of the apostle, who says, No human being has seen him or can see him (1 Tm 6:16). Moreover, we find ourselves not only in opposition to the New Testament, but we are equally in opposition to the Old Testament as well. After all, Moses speaks this way too, No one can see God and live (Ex 33:20).

“This same Moses wrote in the Book of Genesis that from that first man up to the incarnation it was always the Son who was seen. If you demand testimonies, you have, of course, the passage in which the Father speaks to the Son, Let us make man to our image and likeness. There follows, And God made man (Gn 1:26-27). Which God made him if not the Son? You yourself have explained this in your treatises.†172 This Son, then, who is the prophet of his Father, also said, It is not good that man be alone; let us make a helper for him like him (Gn 2:18). This Son appeared to Adam in accord with what we read that Adam said, I heard your voice as you walked in paradise, and I hid myself because I was naked. You certainly have what God said to him, And who told you that you were naked unless you have eaten from that tree about which I commanded you that you not eat? (Gn 3:10-11). This God was seen by Abraham;†173 if you are willing to believe, the only-begotten God himself declared in the gospel that the Son was seen by Abraham. He said, Abraham, your father, rejoiced to see my day, and he saw it and he was glad (Jn 8:56). This Son was also seen by Jacob in the form in which he was to come, that is, in the form of a man; he is found to have wrestled with Jacob as a foreshadowing of what was to come. Jacob said, I have seen the Lord face to face, and my life has been preserved, and the name of this place was called The Vision of God. The God, who wrestled with Jacob, foreshadowing what we see fulfilled in the passion of Christ, attested to this. He said to Jacob, Your name will no longer be called Jacob, but your name will be Israel (Gn 32:28), that is, one who sees God. We prove that he was seen in the New Testament as well. The apostles said of him, And we have seen his glory, the glory as if of the Only-Begotten by the Father (Jn 1:14). But, if you claim, as you try to do, that the Father was seen, all the scriptures are for you filled with lies. Paul proclaims that the Father is invisible, and in the gospel the Lord affirms it.

“You often make the accusation against us that we boldly and presumptuously say things that we should not say. That will be up to the judgment of the reader to test. After all, we do not speak to obtain praise from someone, but out of the desire to strengthen the brotherhood we have. Perhaps you wanted to challenge us to make an answer so that those you have observed to belong to us might agree, as I said, with what you profess. For this reason, I had to answer you on account of the fear of God. It was not only by your words that you tried to take from me the discipleship of these men; you also gave me your treatise to which I had to answer those things which you have professed concerning the invisibility of the omnipotent God. Though with another intention, still in your own words, you stated that the Holy Spirit was seen in the form of a dove as well as in the form of fire and that the Son was seen in the form of man, but that the Father was seen neither in the form of a dove nor in the form of a man. He never turned himself into any forms and is never changed. Scripture says of him, I am who I am, and I have not changed (Ex 3:14 and Mal 3:6). The Son who, of course, had already been established in the form of God has, as you have stated, taken the form of the servant, but the Father has not. Likewise, the Holy Spirit took the form of the dove, but the Father did not. Acknowledge, then, that there is one who is invisible; there is one who is incomprehensible and immense. I pray and desire to be a disciple of the divine scriptures; I believe that Your Holiness recalls that I earlier gave the response that, if you produced the evidence that the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit have one power, one substance, one deity, one majesty, one glory, that, if you state this from the divine scriptures, if you produce any passage of scripture, we are eager to be found disciples of the divine scriptures.”

“I, Maximinus, bishop, have signed this.”

Consubstantiality And Subordinationism In Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Novatian

Four prominent ante-nicene authors -Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Novatian- all speak, on the one hand, of the Son as being of the same substance as the Father; yet, on the other, all of them deny the ontological equality of the Son with the Father, teaching that the Father possesses certain ontological attributes that the Son does not. In this article, I want to examine their particular pre-nicene understanding of co-essentiality, looking at both what it was and was not, and how it drastically differs from the later Athanasian doctrine of co-essentiality.

In sum, the ante-nicene view of co-essentiality found in these fathers entails that the Son is, to speak crudely by way of analogy, composed of the same stuff as the Father. Just as one fire kindled from another, or light from light, are the same thing in their substance, so the Son is taught to be the same generic substance as the Father. Yet substance here is not equivalent to the idea of nature; unlike in Athanasian co-essentiality, the Son being the same substance as the Father, in the theology of these authors, does not entail Him having the same nature as the Father.

Since Athanasian co-essentiality treats ‘substance’ and ‘nature’ as equivalent, this may be a confusing idea for many. But this distinction best explains the teaching of these ante-nicene fathers on the subject. To clarify what we mean here, we must contrast what, according to the ante-nicene conception of the these fathers, a ‘substance’ was, compared to ‘nature’.

A substance, in the idea of these fathers, was, effectively, what something was; what it was composed of. A nature, on the other hand, is effectively a fixed set of properties which define what a thing is ontologically. That means that while there is overlap in these ideas, they were not identical. An illustration will help: a chair, and a boat, may be made of the same wood; and so the substance of both is the same, being composed of the same wood. Yet the nature of the chair and of the boat, will reasonably be considered to be the same by no one, since the properties which define the wooden chair differ significantly from the properties which define the boat made of the same wood.

Similarly, we may use the analogy of the sun and a ray from the Son, as some of the fathers do. Both the sun and the ray, according to their reckoning, are composed of the same thing, the same substance. What the sun is, the ray is. Yet the ray, compared to the sun, is by no means ontologically identical to the sun; and the nature of a ray, compared to the sun, will be found to not be the same, the set of properties which define one differing from the set of properties which define the other. The temperature of the sun, the brightness of its light, how closely one may approach to it without being burned, etc, compared to the ray, will all be different. Yet, according to the reckoning of these fathers, the sun and its ray are both composed of a common substance.

So in the reckoning of the these fathers, the Father and Son share one substance;

“And that this power which the prophetic word calls God, as has been also amply demonstrated, and Angel, is not numbered [as different] in name only like the light of the sun but is indeed something numerically distinct, I have discussed briefly in what has gone before; when I asserted that this power was begotten from the Father, by His power and will, but not by abscission, as if the essence of the Father were divided; as all other things partitioned and divided are not the same after as before they were divided: and, for the sake of example, I took the case of fires kindled from a fire, which we see to be distinct from it, and yet that from which many can be kindled is by no means made less, but remains the same.” (Justin, Dialogue With Trypho, Ch 128)

When Justin declares that the Son is begotten from the Father like fire kindled from fire, he clearly intimates that the Son is the same substance as the Father, yet without any change to the Father.

“So then the Father is Lord and the Son is Lord, and the Father is God and the Son is God; for that which is begotten of God is God. And so in the substance and power of His being there is shown forth one God; but there is also according to the economy of our redemption both Son and Father. Because to created things the Father of all is invisible and unapproachable, therefore those who are to draw near to God must have their access to the Father through the Son.” (Irenaeus, Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, 47).

So Irenaeus says the Son shows forth that there is one God, because, although He is a distinct person from the Father, yet in sharing in the substance and authority of the Father, He shows forth that the Father is one God, and there is no other, as He (the Son) is of no other substance, and rules with no other power, than that of His Father.

“…especially in the case of this heresy [Modalism], which supposes itself to possess the pure truth, in thinking that one cannot believe in One Only God in any other way than by saying that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are the very selfsame Person. As if in this way also one were not All, in that All are of One, by unity (that is) of substance; while the mystery of the dispensation is still guarded, which distributes the Unity into a Trinity, placing in their order the three Persons— the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost: three, however, not in condition, but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as He is one God, from whom these degrees and forms and aspects are reckoned” (Tertullian, Against Praxeas, Ch 2)

And so Tertullian says that while the Son differs from the Father in form, He is one substance with Him.

“And thus by the word of the angel the distinction is made, against the desire of the heretics, between the Son of God and man; yet with their association, by pressing them to understand that Christ the Son of man is man, and also to receive the Son of God and man the Son of God; that is, the Word of God as it is written, as God; and thus to acknowledge that Christ Jesus the Lord, connected on both sides, so to speak, is on both sides woven in and grown together, and associated in the same agreement of both substances, by the binding to one another of a mutual alliance — man and God by the truth of the Scripture which declares this very thing…  The true and eternal Father is manifested as the one God, from whom alone this power of divinity is sent forth, and also given and directed upon the Son, and is again returned by the communion of substance to the Father.” (Novatian, On the Trinity, Ch 24, 31)

And so Novatian ascribes to the Son the substance of God, and that there is a “communion of substance” between the Father and Son.

So while they all saw the Son, as being genuinely and uniquely generated from the Father (not, as a creature, brought into existence out of nothing), as sharing one substance with the Father, yet they did not, for that reason, ever suppose the Son to be ontologically equal to the Father in all His attributes. For all these same fathers teach the ontological subordination of the Son to the Father, in no uncertain terms, ascribing the attributes of infinitude and invisibility solely to the Father. And Novatian does not hesitate to proclaim that the Son is not identical to the Father in nature, but only “of like nature with the Father in some measure” (On the Trinity, Ch 31). This will only make sense, as being congruent with what was quoted of him above, if we recognize that he did not understand substance and nature to be the same thing.

These fathers draw an ontological distinction between the Father and the Son, in proving that the Angel of the Lord is the Son, not the Father, as they employ the argument that the Father could not have appeared to the men of old, because of His infinitude and invisibility. Being infinite and invisible, it would be impossible to have been seen by men in a certain space; but the Son could do so. The obvious and unavoidable implication of the argument being that the Son did not possess these attributes equally with the Father, or else the same actions would have been equally impossible for Him to undertake, on account of Him having those same attributes of invisibility and infinitude.

So Justin in taught:

“Moses, then, the blessed and faithful servant of God, declares that He who appeared to Abraham under the oak in Mamre is God, sent with the two angels in His company to judge Sodom by Another who remains ever in the supercelestial places, invisible to all men, holding personal intercourse with none, whom we believe to be Maker and Father of all things…  Even if this were so, my friends, that an angel and God were together in the vision seen by Moses, yet, as has already been proved to you by the passages previously quoted, it will not be the Creator of all things that is the God that said to Moses that He was the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, but it will be He who has been proved to you to have appeared to Abraham, ministering to the will of the Maker of all things, and likewise carrying into execution His counsel in the judgment of Sodom; so that, even though it be as you say, that there were two–an angel and God–he who has but the smallest intelligence will not venture to assert that the Maker and Father of all things, having left all supercelestial matters, was visible on a little portion of the earth.” (Dialogue With Trypho, Ch 56, 60)

And in chapter 127 of his Dialogue With Trypho, Justin says:

“These and other such sayings are recorded by the lawgiver and by the prophets; and I suppose that I have stated sufficiently, that wherever God says, ‘God went up from Abraham,’ or, ‘The Lord spake to Moses,’ and ‘The Lord came down to behold the tower which the sons of men had built,’ or when ‘God shut Noah into the ark,’ you must not imagine that the unbegotten God Himself came down or went up from any place. For the ineffable Father and Lord of all neither has come to any place, nor walks, nor sleeps, nor rises up, but remains in His own place, wherever that is, quick to behold and quick to hear, having neither eyes nor ears, but being of indescribable might; and He sees all things, and knows all things, and none of us escapes His observation; and He is not moved or confined to a spot in the whole world, for He existed before the world was made. How, then, could He talk with any one, or be seen by any one, or appear on the smallest portion of the earth, when the people at Sinai were not able to look even on the glory of Him who was sent from Him; and Moses himself could not enter into the tabernacle which he had erected, when it was filled with the glory of God; and the priest could not endure to stand before the temple when Solomon conveyed the ark into the house in Jerusalem which he had built for it? Therefore neither Abraham, nor Isaac, nor Jacob, nor any other man, saw the Father and ineffable Lord of all, and also of Christ, but [saw] Him who was according to His will His Son, being God, and the Angel because He ministered to His will; whom also it pleased Him to be born man by the Virgin; who also was fire when He conversed with Moses from the bush.”

So Justin treats it as impossible that the Father could have done the things the Angel of the Lord did; so, he reasons, the Angel must have been the Son. He says we must not imagine that God moved from place to place, because He is immense and omnipresent; yet He ascribes to the Son being a certain place; the very thing that he argues would be impossible for the Father due to His very nature, He says was done by the Son, clearly indicating that He did not believe the Son shared the attributes under discussion with His Father. For had the Son shared these attributes equally, on account of which it was impossible for the Father to do such things, it would have been equally impossible for the Son to perform them.

And Irenaeus, in his Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, employed the same argument, to show that the Angel of the Lord was the Son, and could not have been the Father:

“For it was not the Father of all, who is not seen by the world, the Maker of all who said: Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool: what house will ye build me, or what is the place of my rest? and who comprehendeth the earth with his hand, and with his span the heaven —-it was not He that came and stood in a very small space and spake with Abraham; but the Word of God, who was ever with mankind, and made known beforehand what should come to pass in the future, and taught men the things of God.”

Irenaeus here is not so explicit as Justin, but it is clear that the argument is one and the same, and so, the logic of it is also the same. If he does not intend to show a difference between the Father and Son, as Justin did, then we must wonder what purpose quoting passages about God’s immensity and infinitude would be, other than that to say that on account of these it is impossible that He is the one Who appeared in a “very small space”. Whereas for the Son it was possible, which can only be so if He is not thought to be equally infinite with the Father.

Irenaeus also says, “to created things the Father of all is invisible and unapproachable, therefore those who are to draw near to God must have their access to the Father through the Son.” (Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, 47); thus declaring that the Father in invisible and unapproachable to created things, while the Son is not, and so declares a difference between them; men drawing near to the Father through the Son, not only after the Son’s incarnation, but also prior to the incarnation.

And Tertullian, in Chapter 16 of Against Praxeas, wrote along the same lines:

Moreover, how comes it to pass, that the Almighty Invisible God, whom no man has seen nor can see; He who dwells in light unapproachable; 1 Timothy 6:16 He who dwells not in temples made with hands; Acts 17:24 from before whose sight the earth trembles, and the mountains melt like wax; who holds the whole world in His hand like a nest; Isaiah 10:14 whose throne is heaven, and earth His footstool; Isaiah 66:1 in whom is every place, but Himself is in no place; who is the utmost bound of the universe — how happens it, I say, that He (who, though) the Most High, should yet have walked in paradise towards the cool of the evening, in quest of Adam; and should have shut up the ark after Noah had entered it; and at Abraham’s tent should have refreshed Himself under an oak; and have called to Moses out of the burning bush; and have appeared as the fourth in the furnace of the Babylonian monarch (although He is there called the Son of man) — unless all these events had happened as an image, as a mirror, as an enigma (of the future incarnation)? Surely even these things could not have been believed even of the Son of God, unless they had been given us in the Scriptures; possibly also they could not have been believed of the Father, even if they had been given in the Scriptures, since these men bring Him down into Mary’s womb, and set Him before Pilate’s judgment-seat, and bury Him in the sepulchre of Joseph. Hence, therefore, their error becomes manifest; for, being ignorant that the entire order of the divine administration has from the very first had its course through the agency of the Son, they believe that the Father Himself was actually seen, and held converse with men, and worked, and was thirsty, and suffered hunger (in spite of the prophet who says: The everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, shall never thirst at all, nor be hungry; Isaiah 40:28 much more, shall neither die at any time, nor be buried!), and therefore that it was uniformly one God, even the Father, who at all times did Himself the things which were really done by Him through the agency of the Son.”

See his argument, that it is absurd and impossible to suppose that God the Father could have been seen, and been present in a particular location, and have, as the Angel of the Lord, in his view, even suffered hunger and thirst, and yet all these things he readily ascribes to the Son. He does not say anything along the lines of that the Son is equally invisible, and infinite, and impassible, but instead treats it as to be expected that the Son was not defined by these qualities, while the Father is.

And Novatian, in chapters 17-18 of his treatise on the Trinity, is even more explicit than the rest:

“What if the same Moses everywhere introduces God the Father infinite and without end, not as being enclosed in any place, but as one who includes every place; nor as one who is in a place, but rather one in whom every place is, containing all things and embracing all things, so that with reason He can neither descend nor ascend, because He Himself both contains and fills all things, and yet nevertheless introduces God descending to consider the tower which the sons of men were building, asking and saying, Come; and then, Let us go down and there confound their tongues, that each one may not understand the words of his neighbour. Whom do they pretend here to have been the God who descended to that tower, and asking to visit those men at that time? God the Father? Then thus He is enclosed in a place; and how does He embrace all things? Or does He say that it is an angel descending with angels, and saying, Come; and subsequently, Let us go down and there confound their tongues? And yet in Deuteronomy we observe that God told these things, and that God said, where it is written, When He scattered abroad the children of Adam, He determined the bounds of the nations according to the number of the angels of God. Neither, therefore, did the Father descend, as the subject itself indicates; nor did an angel command these things, as the fact shows. Then it remains that He must have descended, of whom the Apostle Paul says, He who descended is the same who ascended above all the heavens, that He might fill all things, that is, the Son of God, the Word of God. But the Word of God was made flesh, and dwelt among us. This must be Christ. Therefore Christ must be declared to be God.

Behold, the same Moses tells us in another place that God was seen of Abraham. And yet the same Moses hears from God, that no man can see God and live. If God cannot be seen, how was God seen? Or if He was seen, how is it that He cannot be seen? For John also says, No man has seen God at any time; and the Apostle Paul, Whom no man has seen, nor can see. But certainly the Scripture does not lie; therefore, truly, God was seen. Whence it may be understood that it was not the Father who was seen, seeing that He never was seen; but the Son, who has both been accustomed to descend, and to be seen because He has descended. For He is the image of the invisible God, as the imperfection and frailty of the human condition was accustomed sometimes even then to see God the Father in the image of God, that is, in the Son of God. For gradually and by progression human frailty was to be strengthened by the image to that glory of being able one day to see God the Father. For the things that are great are dangerous if they are sudden. For even the sudden light of the sun after darkness, with its too great splendour, will not make manifest the light of day to unaccustomed eyes, but will rather strike them with blindness.

And lest this should occur to the injury of human eyes, the darkness is broken up and scattered by degrees; and the rising of that luminary, mounting by small and unperceived increments, gently accustoms men’s eyes to bear its full orb by the gentle increase of its rays. Thus, therefore, Christ also — that is, the image of God, and the Son of God— is looked upon by men, inasmuch as He could be seen. And thus the weakness and imperfection of the human destiny is nourished, led up, and educated by Him; so that, being accustomed to look upon the Son, it may one day be able to see God the Father Himself also as He is, that it may not be stricken by His sudden and intolerable brightness, and be hindered from being able to see God the Father, whom it has always desired. Wherefore it is the Son who is seen; but the Son of God is the Word of God: and the Word of God was made flesh, and dwelt among us; and this is Christ.”

The Father, then, according to Novatian, is invisible to mortal men, and infinite, and immense; and for these reasons it is absurd and impossible to suppose that He appeared to the patriarchs, but it must rather have been the Son; Who he then pre-supposes is different than the Father in those respects, or else his argument makes no sense. But a little while later, Novatian specifies that the Son is ontologically subordinate to the Father even more clearly, in chapter 31 of the same treatise:

“And He [the Son] is always in the Father, unless the Father be not always Father, only that the Father also precedes Him — in a certain sense — since it is necessary — in some degree — that He should be before He is Father. Because it is essential that He who knows no beginning must go before Him who has a beginning; even as He is the less as knowing that He is in Him, having an origin because He is born, and of like nature with the Father in some measure by His nativity… Assuredly God proceeding from God, causing a person second to the Father as being the Son, but not taking from the Father that characteristic that He is one God. For if He had not been born — compared with Him who was unborn, an equality being manifested in both — He would make two unborn beings, and thus would make two Gods. If He had not been begotten — compared with Him who was not begotten, and as being found equal — they not being begotten, would have reasonably given two Gods, and thus Christ would have been the cause of two Gods. Had He been formed without beginning as the Father, and He Himself the beginning of all things as is the Father, this would have made two beginnings, and consequently would have shown to us two Gods also. Or if He also were not the Son, but the Father begetting from Himself another Son, reasonably, as compared with the Father, and designated as great as He, He would have caused two Fathers, and thus also He would have proved the existence of two Gods. Had He been invisible, as compared with the Invisible, and declared equal, He would have shown forth two Invisibles, and thus also He would have proved them to be two Gods. If incomprehensible, if also whatever other attributes belong to the Father, reasonably we say, He would have given rise to the allegation of two Gods, as these people feign.”

It is clear, then, that of these fathers, some of the most eminent Christian writers of the second and third centuries, all believed that the Son is not ontologically equal with the Father, the Father alone being infinite and invisible, according to them.

And their teaching on this point will be observed to be both scripturally sound and reasonable; for the scriptures again and again teach that no man can see the Father and live (Exodus 33:20), and that no man has seen God at any time (John 1:18), and that no man has seen or can see the Father, Who dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim 6:16); yet the Son was seen face to face by many men of old prior to the incarnation, as these fathers have said; and John tells us that Isaiah saw his glory (John 12:41).

The Father, also, is infinite, not being limited by anything, knowing no external bounds, being beyond all measure and limitation. For “Great is the Lord, and highly to be praised, And His greatness is unsearchable.” (Psalm 145:3 NASB). And “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!” (Romans 11:33 NASB). “Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, In heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps.” (Psalm 135:6 NASB). God then is infinite, beyond all measure and all limitation. And this includes having a beginning; for to have an origin is itself to experience some limitation; and the Father has no beginning, no origin, or cause, or source. But the Son, on the other hand, has the Father Himself as the Author of His being, and the Beginning of His life, and the Cause of His person. The Father alone then, is infinite, as Novatian also testifies:

“And thus He is declared to be one, having no equal. For whatever can be God, must as God be of necessity the Highest. But whatever is the Highest, must certainly be the Highest in such sense as to be without any equal. And thus that must needs be alone and one on which nothing can be conferred, having no peer; because there cannot be two infinites, as the very nature of things dictates. And that is infinite which neither has any sort of beginning nor end. For whatever has occupied the whole excludes the beginning of another. Because if He does not contain all which is, whatever it is — seeing that what is found in that whereby it is contained is found to be less than that whereby it is contained — He will cease to be God; being reduced into the power of another, in whose greatness He, being smaller, shall have been included. And therefore what contained Him would then rather claim to be God. Whence it results that God’s own name also cannot be declared, because He cannot be conceived. For that is contained in a name which is, in any way, comprehended from the condition of His nature. For the name is the signification of that thing which could be comprehended from a name. But when that which is treated of is such that it cannot be worthily gathered into one form by the very understanding itself, how shall it be set forth fittingly in the one word of an appellation, seeing that as it is beyond the intellect, it must also of necessity be above the significancy of the appellation?” (On the Trinity, Ch 4)

And as Novatian says, there cannot, according to the nature of things, be two infinite beings or persons; for if one were greater than the other, the greater would be a limit to the other, and only one would in fact be infinite. Of if we were to conceive of two equally infinite, this would be an impossibility, as each would constitute a certain limit to, and measure of, the other. There can then only be one infinite person; and this we know is the Father. The Son is manifestly limited by the Father, when He says “Therefore Jesus answered and was saying to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner.” (John 5:19 NASB); and again “I can do nothing on My own initiative. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is just, because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” (John 5:30 NASB). And if anyone will simply believe the words of Christ, rather than seek to explain them away so that they may vindicate the opinions of Athanasius, the truth of the matter will appear plain to them, that the Son, being ever willingly and lovingly subject to the will of the Father, is limited in some sense, by the Father; while the Father, being Himself under the authority of none, is absolutely unlimited. For it is always the Father Who works through the Son, and not the other way around, showing that the Son always does the Father’s will, being subject to Him as an obedient and perfect Son, while the Father is subject to none, being Himself supreme over all.

And from this it will appear, that since there cannot be two infinite persons (a person being a rational individual being), that either the Father alone is absolutely infinite, and the Son is not, or else the Son is infinite, by being the same person as the Father. For it is clear that in this matter, the Father can have no equal. So either the Son will be equal with the Father by being the Father Himself, which is the demonic heresy of Sabellianism, or else the Son is Himself, as a truly distinct person from the Father (that is, as a true Son), not infinite as the Father is. The idea then, that the Son may be, as a distinct person from the Father, ontologically equal to Him, is shown to be nothing more than an inconsistent fiction; hear the Father say “To whom would you liken Me, And make Me equal and compare Me, That we would be alike?” (Isaiah 46:5 NASB). God has no ontological equal; and while His Son transcends all creation, as the one through Whom all things were made, and through Whom their existence is upheld, yet we must then believe His own words when He says “the Father is greater than I.” (John 14:28 NASB).

Those then, who seek to make the Son ontologically identical to His Father in all His attributes, on account of His being generated from the Father before the ages, neglect God’s utter uniqueness, and that not all of His ontological attributes are communicable to another person, by the very nature of things.

The reasoning of Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Novatian, then, is vindicated by the scriptures, that the Father alone is invisible and infinite; and so, not only in respect to causality and authority, but also ontologically, is greater than the Son. Yet as we have shown above, they did not, for this reason, think that the Son was of any other substance than that of the Father. And so it sufficiently shown that these fathers distinguished between substance, and nature and attributes; ascribing to the Son that He is of one substance with the Father, while He is also ontologically subordinate to the Father in some of His attributes.

And so the Son is the true Son of the Father, begotten of Him before creation, as fire from fire, as light from light; and that one is light is infinite, the other only transcendent of creation, will not take away from the fact that both the infinite light and the transcendent light begotten from it are both light; and yet, no one will on account of that fact, rightly make that which merely transcends creation, equal with that which is absolutely infinite. And though the ray and the sun are both rightly regarded as sun, and reckoned to be of one and the same substance, no one will consider the ray identical to the sun in all its attributes. But these things, being lesser, bear the image of that which is greater by their common substance. And so the unbegotten God, the Father, will rightly be regarded as ontologically greater than the only-begotten God, His Son.

This ante-nicene reckoning of consubstantiality, then, is shown to be consistent with the holy scriptures and the best logic; resolving the difficulties that arose from the later, Athanasian view of co-essentiality, which, in declaring the Son of the same substance as the Father, make Him out to be entirely identical to Him ontologically; and so deny that the Son was seen by men prior to the incarnation, as the scriptures teach, and introduce the absurdity of two infinite beings. For in proclaiming that the Son is invisible and infinite, equally with the Father, the Athanasian view sets itself irreconcilably opposed to scripture, and dooms itself to resort to modalism, inasmuch as the Son can never be maintained to be equally infinite with the father, unless He is made to be the very person of the Father Himself. And for this reason, an Athanasian view of co-essentiality has never been held for very long, except that it results in semi-modalism.

Do You Worship the Same God as Irenaeus?

One of Irenaeus’s main points throughout his writings, that he makes again and again, is that the one God, the Maker of all things, the Almighty, is the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. The one God and the Father are the exact same person; just as much as the Son is the Son of the Father, so He is the Son of the one God; just as the Son is not the Father, He is not the one God (although He is God). In the face of the old gnosticism, this was an important point to stress; the prominent heresies of his day denied the identity of the Father and the one God, just as the prominent heresy of our day does as well.

The below quote from Irenaeus, is, to this author, quite striking:

“Wherefore I do also call upon you, Lord God of Abraham, and God of Isaac, and God of Jacob and Israel, who is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of Your mercy, has had a favour towards us, that we should know You, who has made heaven and earth, who rule over all, who is the only and the true God, above whom there is none other God; grant, by our Lord Jesus Christ, the governing power of the Holy Spirit; give to every reader of this book to know You, that You are God alone, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical, and godless, and impious doctrine.” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 3, Ch 6.)

A question well worth asking is, do you worship the same God Irenaeus here prayed to? Can you pray to the one God as the Father of the Son, and speak of Him granting you the grace of the Holy Spirit through His Son? Or have you been led astray into confusion by false teachers, who make the Father, Son, and Spirit out to be one and the same person, the same one God? Is the person you pray to the same person the early church prayed to, or one they did not know? If the whole Trinity, Father, Son, and Spirit, is the one God to which you pray, then who will you have to intercede for you? Who will mediate between you and the one to whom you pray, if Christ, the one mediator between God and man, is the very same person you need a mediator by whom to approach? Who will sanctify you to approach the one God, Who will help your weakness in prayer, and intercede for you with deep groanings, if the Holy Spirit is the one you approach in need of such intercession and groanings?

Semi-Modalism & the Rule of Faith

The ancient “rule of faith” was a doctrinal standard employed by the early churches. It was used as a baptismal creed, a creed memorized by new converts and recited prior to baptism (off of which later creeds like that of Nicea and Arminium were based). Following the baptismal formula instituted by Christ, to baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the ancient baptismal creed followed this same outline, giving a brief confession of the identities of the Father, Son, and Spirit, coupled with a brief summary of the gospel under the head of the Son’s identity. In this way the ‘rule of faith’ can be seen as a summary of the Christian faith as presented in the scriptures, summarizing the identity of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, and the message of the gospel, as Paul said he delivered “as of first importance” in 1 Corinthians 15.

This ancient summary of the faith was held to by the churches as the teaching they had received from the apostles, which they had received from oral tradition, and was confirmed by demonstration from the holy scriptures. Irenaeus of Lyons, for example sets forth this rule as the standard of true Christian doctrine in both his Against Heresies, and his Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching. In Against Heresies he uses the rule of faith as the standard of Christian orthodoxy, against which the heretical claims of the various pseudo-gnostic sects were set in contradiction. Their contradiction of the rule of faith showed them to be heretics; on the other hand, faithful adherence to the rule would prevent one from falling into heresy. In Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, Irenaeus sets about demonstrating each point of the rule of faith from the holy scriptures, showing thereby that each point is beyond a doubt known to be true.

In Against Heresies, Irenaeus sums up the rule as follows:

“1. The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” and  the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory.” (Book 1, Chap 10.)

He goes on to explain:

“2. As I have already observed, the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world. But as the sun, that creature of God, is one and the same throughout the whole world, so also the preaching of the truth shineth everywhere, and enlightens all men that are willing to come to a knowledge of the truth. Nor will any one of the rulers in the Churches, however highly gifted he may be in point of eloquence, teach doctrines different from these (for no one is greater than the Master); nor, on the other hand, will he who is deficient in power of expression inflict injury on the tradition. For the faith being ever one and the same, neither does one who is able at great length to discourse regarding it, make any addition to it, nor does one, who can say but little diminish it.” (Ibid)

In Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, he sums it up in these words:

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

He goes on to explain that the rule is grounded in the baptismal formula of Matthew 28:

“And for this reason the baptism of our regeneration proceeds through these three points: God the Father bestowing on us regeneration through His Son by the Holy Spirit. For as many as carry (in them) the Spirit of God are led to the Word, that is to the Son; and the Son brings them to the Father; and the Father causes them to possess incorruption. Without the Spirit it is not possible to behold the Word of God, nor without the Son can any draw near to the Father: for the knowledge of the Father is the Son, and the knowledge of the Son of God is through the Holy Spirit; and, according to the good pleasure of the Father, the Son ministers and dispenses the Spirit to whomsoever the Father wills and as He wills.”

Tertullian similarly employed the rule of faith against heretics. He describes the rule of faith as the dogmatic standard of Christianity, a summary of the faith, which was beyond question to true Christians. No contradiction of the rule was to be allowed; such was heresy, and made the one denying the rule no true Christian at all. On the other hand, areas of theology which were not addressed in the rule were regarded as something that Christians were free to search out a knowledge of from the scriptures, to speculate on, and to disagree with one another on. The rule of faith was the standard of Christian doctrine which could not be denied; doctrines not addressed in it were free to be explored. In his book Against Praxeas, Tertullian sums up the rule as follows:

“We, however, as we indeed always have done (and more especially since we have been better instructed by the Paraclete, who leads men indeed into all truth), believe that there is one only God, but under the following dispensation, or οἰκονομία, as it is called, that this one only God has also a Son, His Word, who proceeded from Himself, by whom all things were made, and without whom nothing was made. Him we believe to have been sent by the Father into the Virgin, and to have been born of her — being both Man and God, the Son of Man and the Son of God, and to have been called by the name of Jesus Christ; we believe Him to have suffered, died, and been buried, according to the Scriptures, and, after He had been raised again by the Father and taken back to heaven, to be sitting at the right hand of the Father, and that He will come to judge the quick and the dead; who sent also from heaven from the Father, according to His own promise, the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete, the sanctifier of the faith of those who believe in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Ghost. That this rule of faith has come down to us from the beginning of the gospel, even before any of the older heretics, much more before Praxeas, a pretender of yesterday, will be apparent both from the lateness of date which marks all heresies, and also from the absolutely novel character of our new-fangled Praxeas.” (Chapter 2)

In Against Heresies, Tertullian gives the following summary of the rule, and explanation regarding a Christian’s freedom to speculate on other doctrines:

“Now, with regard to this rule of faith— that we may from this point acknowledge what it is which we defend — it is, you must know, that which prescribes the belief that there is one only God, and that He is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced all things out of nothing through His own Word, first of all sent forth; that this Word is called His Son, and, under the name of God, was seen in diverse manners by the patriarchs, heard at all times in the prophets, at last brought down by the Spirit and Power of the Father into the Virgin Mary, was made flesh in her womb, and, being born of her, went forth as Jesus Christ; thenceforth He preached the new law and the new promise of the kingdom of heaven, worked miracles; having been crucified, He rose again the third day; (then) having ascended into the heavens, He sat at the right hand of the Father; sent instead of Himself the Power of the Holy Ghost to lead such as believe; will come with glory to take the saints to the enjoyment of everlasting life and of the heavenly promises, and to condemn the wicked to everlasting fire, after the resurrection of both these classes shall have happened, together with the restoration of their flesh. This rule, as it will be proved, was taught by Christ, and raises among ourselves no other questions than those which heresies introduce, and which make men heretics. So long, however, as its form exists in its proper order, you may seek and discuss as much as you please, and give full rein to your curiosity, in whatever seems to you to hang in doubt, or to be shrouded in obscurity. You have at hand, no doubt, some learned brother gifted with the grace of knowledge, some one of the experienced class, some one of your close acquaintance who is curious like yourself; although with yourself, a seeker he will, after all, be quite aware that it is better for you to remain in ignorance, lest you should come to know what you ought not, because you have acquired the knowledge of what you ought to know. Your faith, He says, has saved you Luke 18:42 not observe your skill in the Scriptures. Now, faith has been deposited in the rule; it has a law, and (in the observance thereof) salvation.” (Chapter 13-14)

Similarly, the rule of faith was, as mentioned above, used as the baptismal creed of the various churches. The ancient creed of Jerusalem, for example, read thus:

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

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

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

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

All of these summaries of the Christian faith contain, as Irenaeus said, a skeleton of three articles: 1) the identity of the Father, 2) the identity of the Son, and 3) the identity of the Holy Spirit. The ancient heresies the church faced were considered heresies precisely because they contradicted this rule in one way or another. The Ebionites, for example, ancient unitarians, who denied the pre-existence of the Son, and regarded Him as a mere man, taught a different Christ, and so denied the second article of the faith. The gnostic heresies denied the identity of the Maker of all things and the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, thus denying the first article of the faith. The Modalists, by teaching that all three persons of the Trinity were one God, one person, denied the second and third articles of the faith by seeking to take away the distinct existence of the Son and Spirit as distinct persons from the Father, and so denied the first as well by denying the true fatherhood of God. When Arianism later came along, it was likewise condemned for contradicting the second article of the faith, by teaching that the Son, through Whom all things were made, was actually a creature Himself, and so taught a false Christ. All these heresies had in common that they struck at the true identities of the persons of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit; by doing so, they set themselves in opposition to true Christianity.

A critical examination of semi-modalism (as summed up, for instance, in the Pseudo-Athanasian Creed) in relation to the rule of faith shows that like the aforementioned heresies, semi-modalism denies the rule of faith as well. A complex and self-contradictory idea in itself, semi-modalism contradicts the rule of faith on multiple points. Semi-modalism is the belief that the Trinity is one person who is three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; the three persons are confessed to be equal in authority, and to together be “one God”. This one God, the Trinity, is deemed to be the Almighty, and the Maker of all things.

In sum, semi-modalism denies the rule of faith in the following ways:

1) Semi-modalism denies the first article of the faith by teaching the non-identity of the Father and the one God.

2) Semi-modalism denies the first article of the faith by denying that the Father is the Almighty.

3) Semi-modalism, by making all three persons of the Trinity into a single person, denies the second and third articles of the faith by taking away the distinct existence of the Son and Spirit as two distinct persons besides the one God.

4) Semi-modalism denies the second article of the faith by denying that Christ is the Son of the one God.

Let’s examine each point:

Firstly, semi-modalism denies the first article of the faith by teaching the non-identity of the Father and the one God. This is the most immediately obvious way that semi-modalism contradicts the rule of faith; while the ancient rule of faith begins by confessing with the scriptures that the one God is the Father particularly (1 Cor 8:6, Eph 4:6), semi-modalism defines the one God as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together. This difference is highly significant when we recall that the purpose of these statements is to correctly identify the persons of the Trinity; who is the Father? The rule of faith answers, ‘the one God, the Almighty, the Maker of all things’. Or asked conversely, Who is the one God? The rule of faith answers clearly: the Father, the Almighty, the Maker of all. Semi-modalism changes these answers, and takes these prerogatives away from the Father, applying them instead to the Trinity conceived of as a single person.

Since this first point focuses on the Father’s identity as the one God, let’s begin there. Godhood, biblically, is dominion; to be God is to possess dominion. As Sir Isaac Newton observed:

“This Being [God] governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all: And on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God Pantokrator [Greek word usually translated “Almighty”], or Universal Ruler. For God is a relative word, and has a respect to servants; and Deity is the dominion of God, not over his own body, as those imagine who fancy God to be the soul of the world, but over servants. The supreme God is a Being eternal, infinite, absolutely perfect; but a being, however perfect, without dominion, cannot be said to be Lord God; for we say, my God, your God, the God of Israel, the God of Gods, and Lord of Lords; but we do not say, my Eternal, your Eternal, the Eternal of Israel, the Eternal of Gods; we do not say, my Infinite, or my Perfect: These are titles which have no respect to servants. The word God usually signifies a Lord; but every lord is not a God. It is the dominion of a spiritual being which constitutes a God; a true, supreme, or imaginary dominion makes a true, supreme, or imaginary God.” (Newton, General Scholium)

For the Father to be God, then, denotes His dominion; that He is called simply “God” without qualification, and “the one God” (1 Cor 8:6), and “the only true God” (John 17:3), then, is on account of His supreme dominion over all, as Eph 4:6 says, “one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.” (NASB) That He is called the “one God” and “only true God” are not said to deny that the word “God” may be used of other persons, but by way of eminence, as denoting that He is supreme over all. As Paul wrote in 1 Cor 8:5-6, “For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth, (as there be gods many, and lords many,) 6 But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him.” (KJV). It is clear, then, that the rule of faith is wholly correct in declaring that the one God is the Father in particular.

Semi-modalism, on the other hand, denies this title to the Father, and gives it to a person who does not in reality exist, the Trinity conceived of as a person. That the Trinity is believed to be a person is clear from, among other things, the very fact that the title “one God” is applied to it. For let us consider what the significance of the phrase is: as we have said, Godhood, or deity, is dominion; corresponding to this, a God, then, is by definition a person who possesses Godhood; just as a Lord is a person who possesses lordship, and a King is a person who possesses regal authority. To call something a “God”, then, denotes that it is a person who possesses Godhood, that is, dominion (for which reason judges and saints in the Old Testament, could be called “gods”, and Satan, as the wicked ruler of this world, and as possessing a degree of dominion over the world, is called “the god of this world”). To call the Trinity a God, “one God”, then, is to declare the Trinity, according to the very meaning of the term “God”, to be a person who possesses Godhood (or dominion). To declare the Trinity to be one God is to take a personal title, which can only be used of a single person, and apply it to the Trinity: thus in declaring the Trinity to be “one God” semi-modalism necessarily confesses the Trinity to be a single person.

This person is treated as such; he is also called “one Lord” according to the pseudo-Athanasian Creed, another title that properly denotes a single person who possess lordship, thus again affirming the personhood of the Trinity as a whole. Likewise, in semi-modalism the Trinity is treated as a person by the ubiquitous usage of singular personal pronouns for the Trinity as a whole, and the Trinity, spoken of under such language, even receives prayer and hymns directed to it as its own person; for example:

“This is our God;
This is one God;
This is the one and only God;
O Blessed Trinity.

To him we all pray,
The one whom we implore,
The one who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
O Blessed Trinity.” (3rd Hymn of Marius Victorinus)

The identity of the person who has supreme dominion over all, as is denoted by the phrase, “one God”, then, is according to semi-modalism a person never mentioned in the scriptures, a person who is the Trinity itself as a whole. This is contrary to the scriptural claim of the rule of faith, which expressly identifies the “one God”, that person who possesses dominion over all, as the Father in particular. Semi-modalism seeks to take this unique prerogative away from the Father, and give it to another person; it is clear then, that semi-modalism here contradicts the ancient rule of faith.

The second point upon which semi-modalism contradicts the rule of faith is very similar to the first: Semi-modalism denies the first article of the faith by denying that the Father is the Almighty.

The ancient rule of faith almost always includes this detail, that not only is there one God, the Father, but that He is Almighty. To modern ears this may seem strange; our conception of what is signified by “Almighty” usually pertains to strength in the sense of ability; it is one of many divine attributes, and its constant inclusion in the first article of the rule of faith can seem out of place. Why only list one of many attributes, and always that one?

The reason for this is because “Almighty” in its original meaning was not talking about ability or strength, but authority; the Greek word rendered “Almighty” is ‘Pantokrator’, which literally means, ‘Ruler over all’, or ‘Supreme Ruler’. Not talking about innate or natural ability at all, but about authority, this term is limited by scripture to the person of the Father alone, and the early church, likewise kept this association. Its inclusion in the rule of faith can be seen as an explanation of what is meant by “One God”: there is one God, because there is one Almighty, one Pantokrator, only one person Who has supreme dominion and authority over all absolutely- the Father.

As we said above, this is the essence of Christian monotheism; while there are many to whom the word “god” can be applied to in a limited sense, there is only one, according to the scriptures, who has dominion over all absolutely, and so, one God, the Father. As all things are from the Father, and He has dominion over all that is from Him, so He rightly has dominion over all things. As Irenaeus said “God is not ruler and Lord over the things of another, but over His own; and all things are God’s; and therefore God is Almighty, and all things are of God.” (Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching)

The theological significance of the term “Almighty” then, has to do primarily with authority, not natural ability. Since this term then signifies a ‘Supreme Ruler’, it is firstly evident that the title must belong to a person, since all rulers are necessarily persons; and secondly, it is evident that this title can belong to only one person, and no more, by the very nature of its meaning. To be Ruler over all, or Supreme Ruler, Almighty, is to have dominion over all absolutely; this then admits of no equal, since if there were another with equal authority, then the original subject, not being Ruler over His equal, would not be Ruler over all. If there is an Almighty, a Pantokrator, then, He alone can be such, by the very definition of the term; and the rule of faith, like scripture, clearly tells us this is the Father, Who is the One God.

Semi-modalism, however, insists on making all three persons of the Trinity equal in authority:

“13. So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty…. 25. And in this Trinity none is afore or after another; none is greater or less than another. 26. But the whole three persons are coeternal, and coequal.” (Pseudo-Athanasian Creed)

This declaration that the Son and Spirit have equal authority with the Father, then, is a denial that the Father is Almighty. It is not possible to have three with equal authority, and yet have a supreme authority; none having greater authority over the other, none is supreme over the others, and so there is no absolutely supreme authority. If the three persons are equal, none of them rules over all, none is Pantokrator, none is Almighty. Semi-modalism is then, on this point squarely opposed to the rule of faith.

But semi-modalism, nonetheless, being self-contradictory, claims nonetheless that there is one Almighty- the Trinity as a person.

“14. And yet they are not three almighties, but one Almighty.” (Pseudo-Athanasian Creed)

Again, the Trinity is clearly treated as a single person in this case, since it is being declared to be the Supreme Ruler over all. If the Trinity is then a ruler of any kind, then it is, according to the meaning of the words, a person who rules; no ruler is not a person. Semi-modalism then once again attempts to rob the Father of one of his prerogatives and apply it instead to the Trinity conceived of as a person.

In sum, semi-modalism, when it declares the Trinity to be one person who is Almighty, declares the Almighty to be a different person than the rule of faith does; on the other hand, if a semi-modalist objects that they do not think the Trinity is a person, yet make the persons out to be equal in authority, they will still deny the rule of faith, by denying not only that the Father is Almighty, but that there is any Almighty, any Supreme Ruler over all, at all. All-in-all, semi-modalism shows itself to be irreconcilably at odds with the rule of faith on both the identity of the one God, and the identity of the Supreme Ruler over all, both of Whom the rule declares to be one and the same person, the Father.

In our third point, we consider that semi-modalism denies the second and third articles of the faith by taking away the distinct existence of the Son and Spirit as two distinct persons besides the one God, by making all three persons of the Trinity into a single person. By making the Trinity out to be a single person, as classical modalism did, semi-modalism denies the real identities of the Son and Holy Spirit. To put the matter simply: in the rule of faith, the Son and Spirit are two distinct persons besides the one God; in semi-modalism, the Son and Spirit are effectively part of the one God as “persons of” or “within” the one God.

We see this come to bear especially clearly in scholastic articulations of semi-modalism. In short, the Father, Son, and Spirit are defined as not being three individual realities (that is three persons), but as only one individual reality, as per the Fourth Lateran Council.

“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)

In this defining of Father, Son, and Spirit as one individual reality, semi-modalism is no different than classical Sabellianism. The Trinity itself is defined as a single supreme reality or being which is the principle of all things. If the Father, Son, and Spirit are all one rational individual Being (the very definition of a person), then the true distinct existence of the Son and Spirit as two other distinct rational Beings (that is, two distinct persons) in addition to the first is denied. The Son and Spirit are made to no longer be the Son of the one God and the Spirit of the one God, but mere “modes of subsistence” within him. The reality of both the Son and Spirit’s distinct existence from the Father is consumed into a single “supreme reality” which is all three. Rather than being worshipped as the Son of the Almighty, Christ is worshipped as the Almighty, as being, ultimately, the self-same person with the Father. Rather than being worshipped as the Son of the one God, the Son and Spirit are worshipped as themselves being the one God, as being one person with the Father.

As Samuel Clarke wrote:

“They who are not careful to maintain these personal characters and distinctions, but while they are solicitous (on the one hand) to avoid the errors 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.)” (Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity, Thesis 23)

This is quite at odds with the ancient rule of faith, which everywhere treats the Son and Spirit as truly distinct persons besides the Father. The Son in being Son, must necessarily be a distinct person; likewise, in being our “one Lord” He most clearly is a person, for a Lord is a person who possess lordship. The rule of faith, likewise, in teaching that the Spirit spoke through the prophets and was sent by the Son unto believers, teaches His existence as a third distinct person. Semi-modalism’s denial, then, of the distinct personal existence of the Son and Spirit, constitutes a clear denial of the second and third articles of the rule of faith.

Finally, let us examine our fourth point, related to the last, that semi-modalism denies the second article of the faith by denying that Christ is the Son of the one God. This is quite simple; if Christ is merely a person of the one God, a mere mode of subsistence of the one God, the Trinity conceived of as a person, as semi-modalism makes Him out to be, then He is not Himself the Son of the one God. For a Son, anyone will admit, is a distinct person from the person whose Son they are. They must be another besides the one whose Son they are, who relates to that person as a Father. If Christ is a mere subsistence of the one God, as semi-modalism says, then He relates to the one God as a mode of His subsistence, not as His Son; He is not begotten of Him, but rather is Him. On the other hand, if He were the Son of the one God, as the rule of faith says, then He must be another distinct individual being besides the one God, begotten from Him. He will no longer then be considered a mode of subsistence of the one God, but His Son. In short, Christ can either be the Son of the one God, or a mode of subsistence of one God, a person of God. The rule of faith teaches the former, semi-modalism the latter; their teachings are mutually exclusive.

In the end, then, we are forced to the conclusion that semi-modalism constitutes a rejection of the rule of faith; in total, it denies all three articles, and strikes at the very heart of what the rule of faith sets out to clearly confess: the identities of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. While the rule of faith, with scripture, says that the Father is the one God, the Almighty, Ruler over all, semi-modalism denies this, assigning these prerogatives to another person neither mentioned in the rule of faith nor scripture, “God the Trinity”, “the triune God”, the Trinity conceived of as a person, a god every bit as fictitious as those of Marcion and the gnostics of old, against which the same rule of faith was asserted to convict them of heresy. Likewise, while scripture and the rule of faith teach us to believe in the Son and Holy Spirit as two distinct persons in addition to the one God, semi-modalism ultimately denies the very existence of the Son and Spirit along with Sabellius and Praxeas of old, by making them out to be one and the same individual reality or being with the Father. Finally, while the rule of faith, like scripture, declares Jesus Christ to be the Son of the one God, semi-modalism denies this by making Him out to be nothing more than a subsistence or ‘person’ of the one God, denying that the Son relates to the one God as a Son.

To anyone willing to look at these matters objectively, it should be clear that semi-modalism blatantly contradicts the rule of faith at several points. That those who expound semi-modalism do not admit the contradiction between their heresy and the rule of faith should be of no surprise, and does nothing to lessen the real contradiction between these two opposing systems of doctrine. Arians too, we may recall, would not admit to violating the rule of faith with their heresy either; but sought to cunningly evade detection by means of equivocation. So semi-modalists do the same, yet, as in the case of the Arians, in truth it is inescapable that their doctrine contradicts the rule of faith, when their beliefs are brought out into the open.

In the end, one must choose between that ancient faith handed down once for all, as taught by the scriptures and preserved by the early church in the rule of faith, and semi-modalism. By the standards of that ancient rule, semi-modalism is every bit as much heresy as Sabellianism and Gnosticism; in its elaborate speculative denials of the first article of the faith, it bears a strong resemblance to gnosticism indeed; one might say semi-modalism is the new gnosticism. And like gnosticism of old, Christians will do well to shun it as the heresy it is, and instead hold fast to that apostolic rule of faith, that ancient and scriptural safeguard against heresy.