The Father’s Eternal Authority Over the Son

I hope to demonstrate that God’s dominion over His Son is eternal- that the Son, begotten of the Father prior to creation, has always been under the dominion and authority of His Father, the one God. As scripture says “God is the head of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:3), and the Son frequently refers to the Father as His God (John 20:17, Rev. 3:12).

We may note in support of this that God created the world through His Son, and not the other way around. Within that creation account in Genesis 1 we see the Son’s subordination to the Father as His head and God, with a pattern being established throughout the chapter, saying “God [the Father] said, Let there be…”, and “And God [the Son] made…”. This is again referred to in Psalm 148:5 “He [God] commanded, and they were created”; God did not command things which did not yet exist, but commanded His Son, Who was with Him, “through Whom all things were made” (John 1:1-3). From the beginning, then, the Son of God has always been under the authority of His Father, willingly subject to Him Who begat Him.

Yet some want to overthrow this doctrine, and claim that the Son was equal in authority to the Father prior to the incarnation. They attempt to limit the Son’s subordination to the Father to the incarnation. In doing so they unwittingly attempt overthrow monotheism. That is because according to scripture, for us there is one God, the Father, Who is over all (Eph 4:6), alone “Lord God Almighty” (Rev 4:8)- the word translated “Almighty” being the Greek word “Pantokrator”, literally meaning, ‘ruler over all’. This is in agreement with the Nicene Creed, and many other ancient creeds, which define the one God as “the Father Almighty [Pantokrator]”.

Godhood, after all, according to the scriptures is dominion. As Sir Isaac Newton observes:

“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)

Newton’s observations well account for how scripture uses the term “God”. To be “God” therefore is to have dominion, and Godhood is dominion. Thus scripture can justly call the judges of Israel and holy angels “gods” without this in any way blaspheming the one supreme God, the Father. That the Father is the one God then does not tell us something about His nature, but rather tells us that He is the one Who alone has supreme dominion over all, absolutely. Thus on the one hand, as Paul and other scriptures said, there are many gods, and yet in another sense, the highest sense, there is only one God, the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, Who alone has dominion over all things absolutely. This dominion (or Godhood) extends not only over all creation, but also over His own only-begotten Son, as we saw above. Thus Christ could say to His disciples, looking forward to His ascension “I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.”

That the Son, although He is another individual person from the Father, the one God, is also called “God” should be no surprise at all. For the Lord said “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matt 28:18). Having thus received Godhood over all creation from His Father, “in Him the fulness of deity dwells in bodily form” (Col 2:9). Nor was this deity something the Son merely received upon His exaltation to the right hand of the Father, but from the beginning, as the only-begotten Son of God begotten prior to creation and all time, the “the Word was God”. And thus the Son is called “Mighty God” (Isa 9:6), and thus the Psalmist says to the Son “Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: the sceptre of thy kingdom is a right sceptre. 7 Thou lovest righteousness, and hatest wickedness: therefore God, thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows.” (Ps 45:6-7 KJV).

The Son is then God and true God, but this does not make Him the Lord God Almighty, the one God, the only true God- for these titles belong to His Father alone, as His Father alone has Godhood over all things absolutely, including over the Son Himself; while the Son has Godhood over all creation which was made through Him, given to Him by the Father, which He exercises according to the Father’s will, on His behalf (John 5:30).

For the Father then to be the one God then is equivalent to saying that he has dominion over all things. Yet, if the Son were equal to the Father, He would not have dominion over all, as the Son would not be under His dominion.

Not only that, but if there were two equal authorities, there would be no Supreme Ruler over all- there would thus be no sense in which there were one God at all. Hence an attack on the Father’s eternal authority over the Son is an attack on monotheism itself. While appearing to honor the Son, making the Son out to be equal with the Father actually serves to overthrow the Christian faith, to the dishonor of both the Father and the Son.

If then, the Son had ever been equal with the Father, there would, at that time have not been one God, as there would be no divine monarchy of the universe, no one Supreme Ruler over all. Not only that, but the Father, besides lacking His identity as the one God, would also not be truly “Lord God Almighty”, since He would not be ‘Almighty’ (Ruler over all). This is of course, as absurd as it is blasphemous, to suggest that the Father became the one God at some point in time, or that there was a time when He was not “Lord God Almighty”. God is unchanging (Mal 3:6)- that means that whatever He is, He always is, always has been, and always will be. He is then eternally the one God, eternally and unchangingly the one “Lord God Almighty”.

That means that necessarily the Son has always been subject to the Father in all things, as the scriptures teach throughout. The Father did not become the one God, and the Almighty, at the time of the Son’s incarnation- He is eternally and unchangingly the one God, the only Lord God Almighty, and His Son has always been under His Godhood and headship, since before the foundation of the world when the Father begat the Son from Himself.

Sola Scriptura And the Trinity

The idea of sola scriptura is, simply put, that every point of Christian doctrine must be demonstrated to be true, and every practice must be demonstrated to be legitimate, from the holy scriptures in order to be accepted as true and legitimate and binding on Christians.

The logic of this stems from scripture itself: “Test all things; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thess 5:21 NKJV). This command, given to believers in the scriptures themselves, is short yet clear; all things are to be tested, and those which are good we are to hold fast to. When doctrine is presented to us, we must test it, and if it is shown to be good, we must hold fast to it; if a practice is suggested to us we must likewise test, and hold fast to those shown to be good.

What, then, is “good” doctrine? What is “good” practice? Simply, good doctrine is that which is true. Good practice is that which is legitimate and acceptable in God’s eyes. How then, do we know what doctrines are true, and what practices are legitimate?

Second century church father Clement of Alexandria explains well:

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

The way by which we as Christians can know that a doctrine is true, or a practice legitimate, then, is by seeing it demonstrated from the holy scriptures, which, as Clement says, are for us a first principle which we as Christians take on faith, as the infallible and inerrant word of God. From this infallible first principle, other knowledge can be safely attained by way of demonstration. The way in which we arrive at a knowledge then of what is good doctrine and practice is by way of demonstration from the scriptures- that which we see proven, we know is good.

We must then see every point of doctrine and every practice proven from the scriptures, in order to know that they are good. To seek demonstration of a given point from the scriptures then is the way which we can “test all things, and hold fast that which is good”. Upon which demonstration, any point of doctrine will appear more to us than mere opinion, but is known with certainty to be true and good; and any practice will no longer appear merely a human invention, but a practice genuinely given by God for His church.

It is worth noting here that what is proven good is to be accepted and held fast to, according to the command of scripture. This is not the same thing as simply saying that that which is proven bad- that which is proven to be false from the scriptures- is to be rejected, for in that case, any opinion which is not disproven might be accepted, even if it also lacks positive proof. What we are commanded to hold fast to is that which we know is good- which is exclusively that which we see proven from the scriptures.

This view has grown very uncommon among most Christian traditions. Even those which hold sola scriptura in name frequently insist that those traditional doctrines their churches teach should be accepted on the basis of tradition, despite lacking positive proof from the scriptures. Yet in the early church, there were more than a few who understood the importance of sola scriptura. Clement of Alexandria has already been mentioned; Cyril of Jerusalem will also bear witness when he says:

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

The view of both Clement and Cyril is clear; a doctrine stated without demonstration from the scriptures, even if given from an ecclesiastical authority, is to be regarded as mere opinion until proven from the scriptures. This is to safeguard believers from, like those in the world, simply building their beliefs off of mere opinions of men, and holding mere plausibilities as truth. “Ingenious reasoning” is not enough- demonstration from the holy scriptures is required, and by this means we “test all things, and hold fast to that which is good”.

What about the command given by the apostle to keep the traditions he had given the church, whether in writing or by spoken word? 2 Thess 2:15 NKJV says “Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.” Is this a contradiction? Is there an oral tradition in the church which scripture tells us to regard as authoritative?

The answer is ‘no’. The command given does not mention a tradition passed down from generation to generation, but the oral and written instruction that first century believers received from the apostles directly. The written part is clear; the oral part, some wish to present as more than it is. But what is actually said here must be admitted to be simply that believers are to regard instructions they receive *from the apostles* as authoritative, whether those be received by writing or by word. After the apostles fell asleep, however, no one in the church is ordinarily receiving instruction from the apostles by any means other than their writings in the holy scriptures. Were we able to learn orally from the apostles, we should for reason of this verse regard what they say as a standard, as we do with the written scriptures; but we do not have their oral instruction today, and so the only ordinary standard we have is the holy scriptures.

From the scriptures we may learn what the apostles taught, and what traditions they handed down. Most are not truly interested in their traditions- “apostolic tradition” is simply an excuse to shoehorn into the Christian faith doctrines and practices which we have no knowledge of being legitimate. From the scriptures we have an actual knowledge of apostolic tradition. But beyond the scriptures, we have no knowledge of it.

Many are inclined to point to the earliest fathers as a source for this oral tradition. However, there is no legitimate grounds for taking what the church fathers say as though it were the words of the apostles. The fathers do not share their authority, and we have no way of knowing the accuracy with which their traditions reflect those taught by the apostles. Reading the church fathers is probably the most profitable exercise one can undertake besides reading the scriptures in a study of Christian doctrine; this is not meant in any way to denigrate the fathers or their teachings- I highly recommend them.  But we must be realistic about their limits- their teaching is not infallible, and cannot be made a standard the way scripture can. Scripture is our infallible first principle by which we must test all things- including the teachings of the fathers. Indeed, as we read above, some of them very clearly wanted those who learned from them to test what they said by the scriptures.

The fact is, traditions found recorded in the writings of the fathers, ascribed to the apostles, can only be regarded as mere plausibilities, until they are demonstrated to be apostolic traditions from the scriptures. For even well-intentioned and godly men err; they make honest mistakes, and are not wholly free from sin. They can be deceived, and they can misunderstand. This does not mean we should cast aside their teaching, which is such a valuable resource as a help to understanding the scriptures, as any good teacher is, but we cannot make their teaching into more than it is by treating it as a first principle or rule of faith, when it is rightly neither, but is rather subject to being tested by the holy scriptures.

Having then examined ‘sola scriptura’, and seen it itself demonstrated from the scriptures, let us then examine the role this doctrine played in the trinitarian controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries.

We already saw a quote from Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures on the topic. Cyril is a noteworthy fourth-century bishop, whose theology is marked by a clear commitment to scripture as its source, which is reflected in how biblical the doctrines he teaches are. His lectures on the persons of the Trinity are among the best treatments of the Trinity we have from this era. Avoiding the extra-biblical speculation that marked both the Arian and Homoousian camps during the Arian controversy, Cyril’s lectures both reject Arianism and Sabellianism, clearly, and biblically, without needing to bring the extra-biblical language of ‘ousia’ into the discussion at all. His beliefs on the Trinity can be summed up:

“There is One God, the Father, Lord of the Old and of the New Testament: and One Lord, Jesus Christ, who was prophesied of in the Old Testament, and came in the New; and One Holy Ghost, who through the Prophets preached of Christ, and when Christ was come, descended, and manifested Him.” On the Article, And In One Holy Ghost, the Comforter, Which Spake In the Prophets. (Lecture XVI)

Cyril’s commitment to sola scriptura can be seen again in Lecture 16, when he says, speaking of the Holy Spirit “And it is enough for us to know these things; but inquire not curiously into His nature or substance : for had it been written, we would have spoken of it; what is not written, let us not venture on; it is sufficient for our salvation to know, that there is Father, and Son, and Holy Ghost.”

Thus Cyril’s basic approach to the intense controversies of his time can be seen; rather than siding with one side or the other in “ingenious reasonings”, he insists on sticking to “demonstration from the scriptures”, and purposefully avoids going beyond the scriptures. Thus questions of the Spirit’s metaphysical substance are not to be entertained, because scripture does not treat the subject.

Cyril’s methods, of avoiding unscriptural language, and attempting to stick closely to what could be demonstrated from scripture without going beyond it, were shared by others as well.

The ‘Homoians’ were a party that came to prominence in the late 350s. They sought to resolve the Nicene controversy by returning to scriptural language and leaving the metaphysical speculation that had both caused the controversy, and characterized the major parties in it. Rather than insisting on a dogmatic assertion of the Son’s metaphysical essence in relation to that of the Father, the Homoian position advocated sticking to scriptural language about the person of the Trinity. Thus rather than using “homoousias” or “Homoiousias” they advocated simply “homoi” (like) from which they took their name. Their confession was a simple and unoffending one- that the Son is “like the Father according to the scriptures”. This embraces the scriptural teaching that the Son, as a distinct individual from the Father (Who is the one God) is the ‘brightness of the Father’s glory’, the ‘exact representation of His person’, and ‘the image of Him, the invisible God’, without getting into questions of metaphysics.

On the subject of “ousia”, the Homoian position was articulated thus:

“But the name of ‘essence,’ which was set down by the Fathers in simplicity, and, being unknown by the people, caused offense, because the Scriptures do not contain it, it has seemed good to abolish, and for the future to make no mention of it at all; since the divine scriptures have made no mention of the essence of Father and Son. For neither ought ‘subsistence’ to be named concerning Father, Son and Holy Ghost. But we say that the Son is like the Father, as the divine Scriptures say and teach; and all the heresies, both those which have been already condemned, and whatever are of modern date, being contrary to this published statement, be they anathema.” (Creed of Constantinople, 360)

Old heresies, like Arianism, were still anathematized. But the decision of Nicea to include ‘homoousias’ in the Creed was regarded as a mistake, as going beyond scriptural revelation. This exceeding of scriptural revelation was the cause of the doctrinal controversies of the fourth century; the way to heal them, it was felt, was to return to a strictly scriptural doctrine of the Trinity.

But the Homoians were not merely an obscure party in the Nicene controversy. Their position gained imperial favor, and in 359, became the official position of all the churches in the Roman empire, and beyond. The emperor, setting about to resolve the ongoing doctrinal disputes surrounding the Trinity which had only grown more intense after Nicea, sought to call a second ecumenical council to end the controversy and bring the whole church to agreement. In order to make this practically easier, the council was to be held in two locations, one in the West at Arminium, and one in the East at Seleucia.

The second ecumenical council, then, met in the joint sessions of Arminium and Selucia in 359. It is reported that over 400 bishops attended the western council. The details of the council are obscure; most of the reports of it we have are from the standpoint of extreme hostility to the Homoian confession, after the Homoousians gained ascendency in 381. Such reports regard the councils as secretly Arian, and all Homoians as Arians in disguise; not because of actual evidence that suggests the Homoian confession was an insincere cover for Arianism, but because the polemic of the homoousians was to slander every opposing viewpoint as Arian in an attempt to discredit them. That the Homoian creed left Arianism anathematized gives firm enough evidence for any moderately fair-minded observer to understand that the Homoians were not Arians, and the Councils of Arminium and Seleucia were no Arian victory.

For some time, these councils provided a greater degree of peace to the churches. For almost 20 years this remained ‘the second ecumenical council’ and its creed, with its rescinding of the Nicene ‘homoousias’, remained the official doctrine of the whole church. The churches among the Gothic tribes also subscribed to this Creed; bishop Ulfilias was present at the Council of Constantinople in 360 when the Homoian Creed was officially ratified.

That the church agreed to this confession is significant. For a time, at least, the church was officially committed to a position resembling sola scriptura.

After the Council of Constantinople sought to invalidate and replace the councils of Arminium and Seleucia as the next ‘second ecumenical council’ in 381, making the homoousian confession in the form a modified Nicene Creed the dogma of all the churches within the Roman Empire, the Homoians did not simply disappear. When they were kicked out of the churches, and their bishops banned from their offices to be replaced by homoousians, they continued meeting in private.

Outside the Roman Empire the Homoians did not need to hide, however. The Gothic and vandal churches were still committed to the confession ratified at Arminium; as time passed and distance grew between the semi-modalism of the Latin homoousians and the Homoian faith of the barbarian churches, the homoousian position would become known to them at the “Roman Religion”, while they continued to see themselves as holding “the catholic faith” (E.A. Thompson, The Goths in Spain (Oxford, 1969), 40).

As to the view of the Homoians on sola scriptura, we have a debate between a Homoian bishop named Maximinus, and Augustine of Hippo, which shows quite well the Homoian commitment to sola scriptura. Maximinus’s statements give us quite a bit of detail. He said:

“If you produce from the divine scriptures something that we all share, we shall have to listen. But those words which are not found in the scriptures are under no circumstance accepted by us, especially since the Lord warns us, saying, In vain they worship me, teaching human commandments and precepts” (Mt 15:9).”

“I wanted the decree of the Council of Ariminum to be present, not to excuse myself, but to show the authority of those fathers who handed on to us in accord with the divine scriptures the faith which they learned from the divine scriptures.”

“My reply is clear: I believe that there is one God the Father who has received life from no one and that there is one Son who has received from the Father his being and his life so that he exists and that there is one Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, who enlightens and sanctifies our souls. I state this on the basis of the scriptures. At your bidding, I will follow up with testimonies.”

“The authors of religion never resort to false accusations. You asked for testimonies in order that I might show by testimonies what I have professed, and you yourself have professed three that are the same and equal, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. And, though you professed that the three are equal, you now turn around and produce the testimony of the divine scriptures that pertains not to their equality, but to the singleness of the omnipotent God, that there is one author of all things.†28 You take precedence by your age and have greater authority; hence, go first and show by testimonies that there are three equals, three omnipotents, three unbegottens, three invisibles, three incomprehensibles. Then we would have to yield to these testimonies. But if you cannot give an account of this from the divine scriptures, then I must produce testimonies to the extent that you want for everything I have said in the foregoing: either that the Father alone receives his life from no one or that the Son†29 has received his life from the Father, as I have professed, or what I have said of the Holy Spirit.”

“You yourself are caught doing what you blamed in us. It is certain, as the divine scripture warns us, that with much talking you will not escape sin, but that you will be wise, if you spare your lips. Even if one produces testimonies from the divine scriptures all day long, it will not be truly counted against one as wordiness. But if one uses some literary skill or cleverness of mind and makes up words which the holy scriptures do not contain, they are both idle and superfluous.”

“Hear†57 him as he cries out, speaking of the invisibility of the omnipotent God, that no one has ever seen God; the only-begotten Son who is in the embrace of the Father has revealed him (Jn 1:18). Instructed by this, Paul cries out and says, The blessed and alone powerful, the King of kings and the Lord of lords, who alone has immortality and dwells in inaccessible light. No human has seen or can see him; to him be honor and power forever. Amen (1 Tm 6:15-16). Again he says of him, To God who alone is wise, through Jesus Christ, to him be glory forever. Amen (Rom 16:27). And so, we speak of one God, because there is one God above all, unborn, unmade, as we went on to say.†58 But if you do not believe Paul when he calls the Son born, the firstborn of all creation, at least believe the Son when he speaks to Pilate who asked him, Are you then a king? Christ says, For this was I born (Jn 18:37). I read born; I profess what I read. I read firstborn; I do not disbelieve.†59 I read only-begotten; even if I am tortured on the rack, I will not say otherwise. I profess what the holy scriptures teach us.”

“Those who read can test whether I made this point on my own authority and with many words, as you charge, or whether I have answered with the authority of the divine scriptures.”

““You say that the Holy Spirit is equal to the Son.†91 Provide the scripture passages in which the Holy Spirit is adored, in which those beings in heaven and on earth and under the earth bend their knee to him. We have learned that God the Father is to be adored from the exclamation of blessed Paul, Therefore, I bend my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom all fatherhood in the heavens and on earth has its name (Eph 3:14-15). By the authority of the holy scriptures we adore the Father; likewise, taught by these divine scriptures we worship and adore Christ as God. Do the scriptures anywhere say that the Holy Spirit should be adored? If the Father bore witness to him to that effect, if the Son did so, if he himself has made such claims concerning himself, read it from the scriptures against what we have said.”

“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).”

“We ought to accept all the things that are brought forth from the holy scriptures with full veneration. The divine scripture has not come as a source of our instruction so that we might correct it. How I wish that we may prove to be worthy disciples of the scriptures!”

“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.”

From these quotes, Homoian reliance on the scriptures, and the insistence that systematized doctrine should not exceed the scripture, can be seen clearly.

Once the Homoian position fell out of favor and was replaced by the homoousian position, however, sola scriptura seems to have been abandoned by the churches in the Roman Empire. The rejection of Homoian theology and the Homoian creeds, and the ongoing association of sola scriptura with the Homoians, led to the Roman churches to seemingly entirely abandon sola scriptura and instead place a newfound emphasis on tradition and ecclesiastical authority.

For instance, rather than, like Cyril of Jerusalem and the Homoians, leaving the Holy Spirit’s substance in the realm of mystery as something not spoken of in scripture, the churches embraced the position of Basil of Caesarea, which affirmed the co-essentiality of the Holy Spirit, and the need to worship the Spirit- not on the basis of scripture alone, but “ingenious reasoning” and appeals to tradition, as Basil famously appealed to the traditional benedictions and doxologies as support for the worship of the Holy Spirit in the apparent absence of sufficient scriptural data.

It is interesting then to note that there was indeed significant support for a ‘sola scriptura’ approach to the doctrine of the Trinity in the fourth and fifth centuries. Sola scriptura is so far from being a novel doctrine of Protestantism that it was effectively the official position of the churches for nearly 20 years in the fourth century. Prior to that, and after that, testimony is mixed of course. But from scripture itself, and plain reasoning, we may understand both the importance of sola scriptura, and its application to our understanding of the Trinity, with the Homoians of old giving us a useful though imperfect pattern of what an understanding of the Trinity built upon the foundation of ‘sola scriptura’ looks like. Once the Protestant reformation did come, and with it a return to sola scriptura, there was a revival of Homoian views, including in the church of England among such men as Sir Isaac Newton and Samuel Clarke.

Samuel Clarke, Sir Isaac Newton, And Homoian Theology

My last post, Highlights from Sir Isaac Newton Concerning the Trinity, featured a number of highlights from Sir Isaac Newton’s personal writings, relating to his research in theology and church history. One of those quotes is, in my opinion, an especially noteworthy observation:

“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 a signifies 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)

Newton’s observation is a valuable one: in the scriptures, the word “God” is used as something relative, relating to authority. To be “God” is to have dominion; “deity” or “Godhood” is dominion, not some metaphysical quality relating to a being’s substance.

Newton went so far as to suggest that God’s metaphysical substance is something which to us is unknown, neither being known by our senses, nor elucidated on in the scriptures:

“We have ideas of his [God’s] attributes, but what the real substance of any thing is we know not. In bodies, we see only their figures and colours. We hear only the sounds. We touch only their outward surfaces. We smell only the smells, and taste the flavours; but their inward substances are not to be known either by our senses, or by any reflex act of our minds: much less, then, have we any idea of the substance of God.” (Isaac Newton, The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. tr. Andrew Motte (3 vols.; London, 1803), II, Bk. III, 312-13.)

Samuel Clarke, a personal friend of Newton, made similar observations in his published work The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity. Clarke’s theology is summed up in 55 theses, a couple of which deal with this same point:

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

“25. The Reason why the Son in the New Testament is sometimes stiled God, is not upon account of his metaphysical Substance, how Divine soever; but of his relative Attributes and Divine Authority (communicated to him from the Father) over Us.”

A section of Clarke’s note on thesis 25 is also of interest:

“The word, God, when spoken of the Father Himself, is never intended in Scripture to express Philosophically his abstract metaphysical Attributes; but to raise in us a Notion of his Attributes Relative to us, his Supreme Dominion, Authority, Power, Justice, Goodness, &c.”

The point that Clarke and Newton make is a compelling one. If “Godhood” in scripture pertains to authority rather than metaphysical nature, then verses which speak of the Father and Son as each being “God” cannot be taken as referring to metaphysical substance or essence at all. While throughout the scriptures, the “Personal Characters, Offices, Powers and Attributes” of God and His Son are spoken of, none of these amount to a treatment of the metaphysical nature of either person. Thus, if we limit ourselves to what God has revealed in the scriptures, rather than philosophical speculation, we will be left with agnosticism as to the metaphysical nature of God and His Son.

Such a view was by no means a novelty of Clarke and Newton. In the trinitarian debates of the fourth century, the leading view for a time, which gained the ecumenical approval of the church, was basically that of Clarke and Newton. After a few decades of bickering over the philosophical categories of ousia and hypostasis, and whether substance, or essence, or ousia, should be understood to be like or the same, whether homoousias denoted numerical or generic unity, etc, the bulk of the church was tired of the confusing and extra-biblical debates that had rent the unity of the church asunder. The majority of bishops, east and west, were willing to recognise that the church had erred by making matters of philosophical conjecture into dogma. These bishops- called ‘homoians’, for their favoring of simply describing the Son as “like” the Father, without reference to metaphysical nature- recognised that the scriptures do not speak of God’s essence, as such. They tell us about Who God is, what He is like, what His attributes are, what He has done and will do, etc, and likewise, the same sorts of things about His Son- but all without giving lessons on metaphysics.

Rather than pry into things which God has left a mystery to man, this majority of bishops agreed to end the divisive debates by repenting of the previous decisions to make matters of philosophical speculation about the metaphysical essence of God’s Son into dogma. The term “ousia” was to be eschewed altogether, and scriptural language about God and His Son was to be maintained.

Thus the ‘Homoian Creed’ of Constantinople in 360 declared that the Son was “begotten as only-begotten, only from the Father only, God from God, like to the Father that begat Him according to the Scriptures”, and went on to say:

“But the name of ‘essence,’ which was set down by the Fathers in simplicity, and, being unknown by the people, caused offense, because the Scriptures do not contain it, it has seemed good to abolish, and for the future to make no mention of it at all; since the divine scriptures have made no mention of the essence of Father and Son. For neither ought ‘subsistence’ to be named concerning Father, Son and Holy Ghost. But we say that the Son is like the Father, as the divine Scriptures say and teach”

This decision remained the official position of the churches within the Roman empire until the ascension of emperor Theodosius and subsequent changes he made to the church and her doctrine in 381.

Highlights from Sir Isaac Newton Concerning the Trinity

“We have ideas of his [God’s] attributes, but what the real substance of any thing is we know not. In bodies, we see only their figures and colours. We hear only the sounds. We touch only their outward surfaces. We smell only the smells, and taste the flavours; but their inward substances are not to be known either by our senses, or by any reflex act of our minds: much less, then, have we any idea of the substance of God.” (Isaac Newton, The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. tr. Andrew Motte (3 vols.; London, 1803), II, Bk. III, 312-13.)

“This Being 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, 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 a signifies 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)

“And therefore as a father and his son cannot be called one King upon account of their being consubstantial but may be called one King by unity of dominion if the Son be Viceroy under the father: so God and his son cannot be called one God upon account of their being consubstantial.” (Newton, The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy)

“The Homousians made the father and son one God by a metaphysical unity, the unity of substance: the Greek Churches rejected all metaphysical divinity as well that of Arius as that of the Homousians and made the father and son one God by a Monarchical unity, an unity of Dominion, the Son receiving all things from the father, being subject to him, executing his will, sitting in his throne and calling him his God, and so is but one God with the Father as a king and his viceroy are but one king.” (Newton, Yahuda MS 15.7)

“For the people of the Church Catholick were zealous for a monarchial unity against a metaphysical one during the first two centuries.” (Newton, Yahuda MS 15.7)

“The homousians taught also that the Son was not monoousio~ or tautoousio~ to the father but omoousio~, & that to make them monoousioi or tautoousioi or, to take the three persons for any thing else then personal substances tended to Sabellianism.” (Newton, Yahuda MS 15)

“Quaere 2. Whether the word homoousias ever was in any creed before the Nicene; or any creed was produced by any one bishop at the Council of Nice for authorizing the use of that word? Quaere 3. Whether the introducing the use of that word is not contrary to the Apostles’ rule of holding fast the form of sound words? Quaere 4. Whether the use of that word was not pressed upon the Council of Nice against the inclination of the major part of the Council? Quaere 6. Whether it was not agreed by the Council that the word should, when applied to the Word of God, signify nothing more than that Christ was the express image of the Father? and whether many of the bishops, in pursuance of that interpretation of the word allowed by the Council, did not, in their subscriptions, by way of caution, add toutv ejstin homoiousias. Quaere 7. Whether Hosius (or whoever translated that Creed into Latin) did not impose upon the Western Churches by translating homoousias by the words unius substantiae, instead of consubstantialis? and whether by that translation the Latin Churches were not drawn into an opinion that the Father and Son had one common substance, called by the Greeks Hypostasis, and whether they did not thereby give occasion to the Eastern Churches to cry out, presently after the Council of Sardica, that the Western Churches were become Sabellian? Quaere 8. Whether the Greeks, in opposition to this notion and language, did not use the language of three Hypostases, and whether in those days the word Hypostasis did not signify a substance? Quaere 9. Whether the Latins did not at that time accuse all those of Arianism who used the language of three Hypostases, and thereby charge Arianism upon the Council of Nice, without knowing the true meaning of the Nicene Creed. Quaere 10. Whether the Latins were not convinced, in the  Council of Ariminum, that the Council of Nice, by the word homoousias, understood nothing more than that the Son was the express image of the Father?—the acts of the Council of Nice were not produced for convincing them. And whether, upon producing the acts of that Council for proving this, the Macedonians, and some others, did not accuse the bishops of hypocrisy, who, in subscribing these acts, had interpreted them by the word oJmoiovusio~ in their subscriptions? Quaere 11. Whether Athanasius, Hilary, and in general the Greeks and Latins, did not, from the time of the reign of Julian the Apostate, acknowledge the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost to be three substances, and continue to do so till the schoolmen changed the signification of the word hypostasis, and brought in the notion of three persons in one single substance? Quaere 12. Whether the opinion of the equality of the three substances was not first set on foot in the reign of Julian the Apostate, by Athanasius, Hilary, &c.?”(Newton, “Quaeries Regarding the Word Homoousias”, Keynes MS 11)

For more excellent quotes from Sir Isaac Newton himself, as well as insightful analysis of Newton’s though on the Trinity, see Thomas Pfizenmaier’s paper ‘Was Isaac Newton An Arian?’: http://www.sfu.ca/~poitras/Arian_newton.pdf

An Excellent Article on Sir Isaac Newton’s Beliefs About the Trinity

Sir Isaac Newton is well-known for his scientific contributions, but his Christian theology is far less well-known. Although Newton never published his beliefs during his lifetime, he spent an enormous amount of energy studying the scriptures, church history, historical theology, and specifically, the doctrine of the Trinity. Interestingly, he appears to have come to many of the very same conclusions I have regarding the developments taking place in the Nicene era, and to have come to many of the same doctrinal conclusions I have as well.

Because Newton didn’t publish his views on doctrine, the large body of primary sources we have on his beliefs primarily come from his own personal notes. These are not easily available, and as such, finding reliable information on what he actually believed has been a task I have found somewhat difficult.

Thankfully, this essay gives a thorough overview of Newton’s beliefs, and is rich with quotations from the primary sources. The author’s analysis is also cogent and thought-provoking. I highly recommend this, for those who are interested:

http://www.sfu.ca/~poitras/Arian_newton.pdf