Another Source Showing the Concept of a ‘Triune God’ in Official Eastern Orthodox Dogma

There seems to be something of a divide within Eastern Orthodoxy today on one of the most fundamental issues of the faith- the identity of the one God. Many Eastern Orthodox theologians and laypeople believe that the one God is tri-personal or triune, comprised of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together in a single being. Others, however, following an older tradition, have embraced a triadology that is fundamentally unitarian, believing in the one God as only a single person, the God and Father of the Lord Jesus; in their view, the Son and Holy Spirit share a generic nature with this one God, but are numerically distinct from Him. The Eastern Orthodox call this idea that the one God is only one person, the Father, ‘the Monarchy of the Father’ and don’t like the ‘unitarian’ label- but disputes over wording aside, it’s the same idea.

The history behind this divide is a long one, stemming ultimately from what some Eastern Orthodox have called a “patristic renaissance” in the last few centuries, in which many Eastern Orthodox have sought to return to their roots by going back to the Greek Church fathers for instruction. Prior to this the Eastern Orthodox Churches experienced several centuries of oppression by Muslim rulers which lead many EO clerics to get their training in western seminaries, often giving their theology a bit more of a western tint. The ‘patristic renaissance’ ostensibly serves to correct this some, and to reground Eastern Orthodox thinking back in their own unique heritage. The result has been that some have rediscovered ‘the Monarchy of the Father’ among those ancient writings, and now there is a significant push to bring this doctrine back into the spotlight in Eastern Orthodox triadology.

Trinitarianism (the belief in a triune God) has been deemed by the proponents of the Monarchy of the Father as an invention of the Latin church, the result of serious misunderstanding of orthodox and creedal triadology, while in their view, the Greek churches faithfully upheld Monarchian Triadology at least into the time of Photius I in the ninth century. In other words, they see trinitarianism (the belief that the one God is triune) as a uniquely western error, developing in the late fourth century, that was not accepted by the Eastern churches generally. Others such as myself, and more notably, Dr. Dale Tuggy, have argued that while the doctrine of a triune God is indeed a late doctrinal development coming at the end of the fourth century, it is not a uniquely western error. Dr. Tuggy argues persuasively in his most recent paper that from the end of the fourth century the doctrine of a triune God had proponents in the East, among the most influential bishops of the time, such as Gregory Nazianzen. For political reasons this doctrine was not expressly affirmed at the council of 1 Constantinople in 381, but can be found in several eastern sources well before Photius I, as Dr. Tuggy outlines in his paper.

I recently became aware of an additional source showing this, and wanted to share it here. There was an Eastern bishop active in the late sixth and early seventh century named Sophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, who wrote an encyclical letter detailing, among other things, what he regards as the orthodox understanding of the Trinity. In it, he speaks clearly of the one God as the entire Trinity- that is, a triune or tri-personal God:

“Nor as the one God is a Trinity and is recognized and proclaimed as three hypostases and worshipped as three persons, Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit, is he said to be contracted or compounded or confused, that is, by coalescing himself into one hypostasis and combining [himself] into one person that cannot be numbered.” (Sophronius of Jerusalem and Seventh-Century Heresy, p. 77)

Notice that the one God is directly stated to be a trinity of three persons, that is, a single ‘tri-personal God’. The one God that is described as a trinity here is also a single “he” and “himself”, further solidifying that the one God here is presented as an individual, not merely a generic nature shared by three individuals. Put in more technical terms, the unity of being ascribed to the Trinity here is an individual/numerical consubstantiality, not a generic consubstantiality.

“The Arians’ impiety divides the one God into unequal gods and partitions the one Godhead into dissimilar godheads, and separates the one lordship into three heterogeneous lordships.” (ibid, p. 77)

This criticism of Arianism only makes sense in a context where the one God is regarded as the entire Trinity together, rather than the person of the Father in particular. The Arians are said to divide the one God into unequal parts- that is, they make the three persons of the triad unequal and different. That means that it’s the triad, all three persons together, that are being spoken of as singly being the one God here.

“As, therefore, we have been taught to think of one God, so too we have received the tradition of confessing one Godhead; and just as we have learned to worship three hypostases, so too have we been instructed to glorify three persons, not acknowledging the one God apart from the three persons, nor understanding the three consubstantial persons in the Trinity -that is, Father, Son, Holy Spirit- as being distinct from the one God.” (ibid, p. 79)

At first this almost makes it sound like there’s a difference drawn between the one God and the one Godhead, but it rather seems to be the case that these are being equated- the belief in one God is articulated as belief in a single Godhead that exists as three persons. This is confirmed when we see him speak of hypostases and persons in a similarly confusing way, almost as if he is drawing a distinction between them- but obviously he is not. The one God for him just is the one Godhead that exists in three persons, and the three hypostases just are the three persons. The declaration that all three persons of the Trinity -Father, Son, and Spirit- cannot be understood as distinct from the one God is utterly incompatible with the Monarchy of the Father, in which the Son and Spirit are as distinct from the one God as they are from the Father, because in that view, the Father just is the one God.

The fact that one of the Eastern Orthodox Patriarchs in the early sixth century articulates the doctrine of the Trinity this way is a death-blow for the view that the doctrine of a triune God was a purely western mistake, not embraced by the Eastern churches. A Greek Patriarch in Jerusalem speaks the same way Augustine and the Roman Popes speak in the West. But, there’s more- this letter was also accepted by Pope Agathos I, in an official capacity:

“We have also examined the synodal letter of Sophronius of holy memory, some time Patriarch of the Holy City of Christ our God, Jerusalem, and have found it in accordance with the true faith and with the Apostolic teachings, and with those of the holy approved Fathers. Therefore we have received it as orthodox and as salutary to the holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, and have decreed that it is right that his name be inserted in the diptychs of the Holy Churches.”

That’s important because that letter by Pope Agathos I and his rulings in it -including the official reception and approbation of Sophrinius’ letter- was adopted by the so-called 6th ecumenical council, the 3rd council of Constantinople, later in the seventh century (see the acts of that council, including that letter, here).

This means that Patriarch Sophronius’ statements about one God who is three persons (a ‘triune God’), quoted above, end up not only expressing his own opinion, but are also part of the official canonical teaching of an ecumenical council, the rulings of which are considered binding upon the Eastern Orthodox churches. This lays waste to the notion that the doctrine of a tri-personal God was limited to the Latin church while the Greek churches kept themselves clean from it; it’s on the books for both, by way of the ruling of an ecumenical council.

This has lots of implications for the Eastern Orthodox church. It means that they did (like the Roman church) experience a development of doctrine in which they changed from a belief in the one God as being only a single person, the Father, to believing that the one God is a ‘triune God’ consisting of Father, Son, and Spirit together. Further it demonstrates that their conception of consubstantiality developed from a view of generic consubstantiality (a shared nature among three individuals) to an individual consubstantiality (where Father, Son, and Spirit are just the same individual). That doesn’t look very good for the claim that their views have not changed over time, nor does it comport well with the supposed infallibility of these “ecumenical” councils, since (as many modern EO like to point out) the earliest “ecumenical” council, Nicea, did not affirm this doctrine, but rather affirms the Monarchy of the Father/unitarianism. This reveals a serious conflict within Eastern Orthodox tradition itself, as the teachings of their bishops and councils disagree with each other.

Church History

God and His Clones? A Look At Monarchian Trinitarianism

‘Monarchian Trinitarianism’ is a view that has begun to gain some traction in recent years, especially among the Eastern Orthodox, largely as a result of going back to the fourth century pro-Nicene church fathers and learning from them. Church fathers like Athanasius, Hilary of Poitiers, Basil of Caesarea, and Gregory of Nyssa have been especially influential in modern articulation of this view. Monarchian trinitarians typically look to Athanasius and the Cappadocian fathers’ controversial interpretations of the Nicene Creed as authoritative for catholic Christianity, and interpret the Bible through a lens of these fathers’ interpretive tradition.

The result is a good aggregate of the views of these fathers, who didn’t always agree with each other on the details or carry the same emphases. Monarchian trinitarians consider themselves ‘trinitarian’ because they believe that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three equally divine persons; however, they also believe that the one God is only one person, the Father. This doctrine is variously called either ‘unitarianism’ or ‘the monarchy of the Father’, but the basic idea is much the same; the one God and the only uncaused person is Father specifically out of the three persons.

In Monarchian Trinitarianism, however, the Father being the one God does not mean that the Father alone is divine or alone possesses the attributes of the one God, but rather that only the Father is uncaused. In all other respects, the Son and Spirit are taught to be equal and generically identical to the one God. The Son and Spirit are believed to be two distinct individual beings, or persons (not merely distinct personalities or modes), who bear this generic identicality to the one God because they are eternally, and each in a unique fashion, caused by the one God; the Son by means of generation, and the Spirit, in a markedly unimaginative use of language, by ‘spiration’.

But lest one reason that just as three persons with a human nature are three humans, the three persons of the monarchian trinity, sharing a divine nature, are three Gods, Monarchian Trinitarianism throws in a few more caveats to ostensibly solve the problem of having two too-many deities. Firstly, the Son and Holy Spirit are said to share the mind and will of God the Father. What’s meant by this is debatable; the question of whether this patristic language should be taken more along the lines of some sort of numerically singular hive-mind the three persons share, or if it should be taken as a generic identicality of will and mind (as in the case of the divine nature shared by the persons) seems unclear. But either way, the idea that you can’t count three minds and three wills is thought to help prevent us from being able to count three Gods. Additionally, Monarchian Trinitarianism teaches that all three persons perform all actions performed toward creation together in a single token action. That means not simply that the three cooperatively perform actions together, but that somehow, while being three distinct individuals, they each do the exact same thing, in the most specific sense imaginable. What prevents the simple fact that the persons are individuated from each other by the fact that they are three individual beings (hypostases) in the first place from making this joint non-individuated performance of single token actions impossible? Good question, but one to which this author has found no good answer.

What are we left with then, overall, from this doctrine? That what makes the one God special and makes Him the one and only God is not that He alone is divine, nor His special attributes like omniscience, omnipotence, and immutability, but merely the fact that He is the uncaused original amid what are effectively two clones -two other beings produced from Him which are identical to Him in every way, and just as old as Him, while being distinct individuals from Him. These two clones think what He thinks and want what He wants, and act with Him in every action; but the Son and Spirit in this system are by all account no different in any meaningful way than if God had two clones.

The obvious problem with this is, how does this not make three Gods? If human cloning were a reality, a man and his two clones would not be one man, but three men. And no matter how absolutely generically identical they might be in attributes and characteristics, they will always be distinguishable from one another as three men by the fact that each is a distinct individual human being from the others; they are, to put it in church-father language, three hypostases. So long as having a human nature makes you human, then no matter how identical this man and his two clones are, and no matter how much they pal around together and do the same stuff and think the same way, they shall always remain three men. So likewise if there is any sense in which a person having a divine nature makes them God -which is exactly the sense in which pro-Nicene church fathers like Hilary of Poitiers and Basil of Caesarea said the Son and Spirit were God- then the three persons of Father, Son, and Spirit all having a divine nature will make them three Gods. One of these persons being the uncaused original and the other two being carbon-copies of that original makes little difference here; three individuals of the human nature remain three men, and three individuals of the divine nature would be three Gods.

The fact that this view is in a very real sense tritheism is one of the greatest obstacles this view faces. But lets’ suppose for sake of argument, for a moment, that this tritheism issue were resolved by the aforementioned hive-mind and shared token actions among these three persons; somehow, and in no way which appears to really be the case, this made it impossible for us to count three Gods of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Are there any other significant problems with what Monarchian Trinitarianism proposes?

The answer must be yes, if we consider the scriptures’ teaching that the one God is unique and incomparably greater than all to be of any importance. Monarchian Trinitarianism will affirm this, of course, in a very heavily qualified sense; the Father is first, not in time, but in logical priority, and gets the glorious title “one God” pinned on Him like a token badge to distinguish Him from His two clones, as being the original from which they are atemporally multiplied. In this sense alone, the Father is said to be greater than the Son and Holy Spirit. But at the end of the day, the original in a threesome comprised of himself and two clones is hardly unique. To say that ‘there is none like him’ would be a patent and unconvincing lie. Yet the God of the scriptures declares, quite truthfully, that there is none like Him: “Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me,” (Isaiah 46:9). Again and again in the scriptures this important truth of God’s total uniqueness is reiterated (see Deut 33:26, Ps 40:5, 86:8, Isa 40:18, 46:5, Job 23:13). This truth that the one God is unique, incomparably greater than all, and has none like Him, is too central to the glory of God proclaimed in the scriptures to be ignored. No view of Jesus and the Holy Spirit which jeopardizes this important truth can be acceptable to those committed to believing all that scripture teaches. However logically plausible one will deem Monarchian Trinitarianism to be, it is rendered utterly incompatible with the scriptures by making the one God out to be nothing more than one out of three of a kind, the original alongside two identical clones.

That Monarchian Trinitarianism says the Father is technically unique in being uncaused is not enough- as the Monarchian Trinitarians are quick to point out in their debates against Eunomians, unique causal relations are not sufficient to make the persons substantially different from one another; despite these differences in causation, the persons of the the Monarchian Trinity are all essentially equal and exactly alike. Yet in stark contrast to this, the one God proclaims that there is none alike to Him; He is unique not merely in some heavily qualified sense, like being the uncaused original who serves as a basis for two identical clones who are exactly alike to him in all ways except that they are clones, but in an absolute and unqualified sense. We must note that in scripture the uniqueness of God is never limited to God’s unique attribute of being uncaused, but is broad, absolute, and unqualified. In the Monarchian Trinity, it is not the person of the Father Himself that is unique in any way, but merely His origin (or lack thereof) that is unique. But there is nothing about Him in His own being that is unique compared to the Son and Holy Spirit. This does not agree with scripture in the slightest. “Many, O LORD my God, are the wonders which You have done, And Your thoughts toward us; There is none to compare with You.” (Psalm 40:5 NASB)

Arguments For Unitarianism

How Many Persons Were Involved in Creation?

It’s an important part of both trinitarian, Arian, and semi-arian christology that Jesus Christ pre-existed his humanity and played some role in the creation of the universe described in Genesis 1. For many Arians and semi-arians especially, belief in Jesus as creator is an important part of the reason they believe that Jesus literally pre-existed in the first place. Those who deny Jesus’s alleged literal pre-existence point out that in the Hebrew scriptures, a single person, the God of Israel, takes credit for creation, and emphatically states that He created alone (Isa 44:24). The book of Revelation echoes this same teaching, which I’d like to briefly highlight here.

Then the angel whom I saw standing on the sea and on the land lifted up his right hand to heaven, 6 and swore by Him who lives forever and ever, who created heaven and the things in it, and the earth and the things in it, and the sea and the things in it, that there will be delay no longer,

Revelation 10:5-6 (NASB)

Notice here that an angel swears by someone- a person, which we see from this entity being called a “Him” and a “who”. This “Him” is the Creator of all things; and that this single entity performed the rational action of creating further shows us that this is a single person; a person, after all, is simply a rational individual being. Since this is a single entity who has performed an a rational action, the subject here can be seen to be a person, by definition, even aside from the explicitly personal language used.

We must notice then that this single person is described by no other descriptor than “Him who lives forever and ever, who created heaven and the things in it, and the earth and the things in it, and the sea and the things in it”. Now if there were two or more persons of whom this description were true, then we could not know who is being referred to here; yet, obviously this is intended to tell us the identity of the one the angel swore by. This only makes sense, and is only useful, if there is only one person of whom it can be said that they are the Creator of all things. We may note that it begins by simply describing this person as one Who lives forever; but since this is a description that would fit many persons, the additional disambiguation is added that this is He who made all things. Yet this disambiguation is futile and fails to actually clarify the identity of the person the angel swore by at all if in fact both the Father and Jesus were involved in the work of creation. In such a scheme, we are left wondering who is referred to here, with no possible resolution. The fact that this text assumes that there is only one person who created all things, the God of Israel, and that He can thus be uniquely identified by this descriptor, is a serious problem for those who believe that Jesus the Messiah literally pre-existed and acted in the creation of the universe.

And I saw another angel flying in midheaven, having an eternal gospel to preach to those who live on the earth, and to every nation and tribe and tongue and people; 7 and he said with a loud voice, “Fear God, and give Him glory, because the hour of His judgment has come; worship Him who made the heaven and the earth and sea and springs of waters.”

Revelation 14:6-7 (NASB)

Here we see another clear example of the same thing we observed above; mankind is told to worship “Him who made the heaven and the earth and sea and springs of waters”. That there is a single person (a single “Him” and “who”) whose identity can be disambiguated by this description assumes and implicitly communicates to us that there is in fact only one person, the person spoken of here, who created all things. Since all hands acknowledge that the Father is the Creator of all things, and this sort of language in Revelation limits us to understanding that only one person created all things, we must therefore conclude that the Father alone is the Creator of all things; Jesus did not play a role in the creation of the universe.

This holds serious implications for those whose christology depends on Jesus being involved in creation in order to demonstrate his pre-existence. Like God said through Isaiah, we find here that only one person, the God of Israel, the God and Father of the Lord Jesus the Messiah, created all things, which undermines the very core of the distinctive features of trinitarian, Arian, and semi-arian views on creation and christology.

Arguments For Unitarianism

100 Biblical Arguments For Unitarianism

The following was written in 1825 by Samuel Barrett (Boston: American Unitarian Association).

Unitarian Christians believe Jesus Christ to be the Son of God and the Saviour of men. They believe in the divinity of his mission and in the divinity of his doctrines. They believe that the Gospel which he proclaimed came from God; that the knowledge it imparts, the morality it enjoins, the spirit it breathes, the acceptance it provides, the promises it makes, the prospects it exhibits, the rewards it proposes, the punishments it threatens, all proceed from the Great Jehovah. But they do not believe that Jesus Christ is the Supreme God. They believe that, though exalted far above all other created intelligences, he is a being distinct from, inferior to, and dependent upon, the Father Almighty. For this belief they urge, among other reasons, the following arguments from the Scriptures.

1. Because Jesus Christ is represented by the sacred writers to be as distinct a being from God the Father as one man is distinct from another. “It is written in your law, that the testimony of two men is true. I am one who bear witness of myself, and the Father that sent me beareth witness of me,” John 8:17, 18.

Arguments For Unitarianism