Doctrine of the Trinity (part 6)

July 31, 2011     Time: 00:23:52

We have been talking about attempts on the part of the early Church Fathers to formulate a doctrine of the Trinity.

We saw the roots of this doctrine lay in the Logos Christology of the early Greek apologists of the second century, who thought of the Logos, described in John 1, as the mind of the Father – the mind of God – which then proceeded out of God as a distinct individual, through whom then the world was created.

During the third century, a heresy arose which is called “Modalism” or “Sabellianism” or “Monarchianism.” According to this heresy, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all divine, but they are not distinct persons. It is really a form of Unitarianism – there is one person who is God, but this one person plays three different roles or is expressed toward us with three different faces, as it were, and we call them the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But really there is only one person that God is.

We saw that early Church Fathers like Tertullian spoke strongly against this view and appealed to Scriptural passages where the persons of the Trinity use first person personal pronouns (“I”) and second person personal pronouns (“you”) in addressing each other. So they stand in an “I-thou” relationship, which necessitates there being distinct persons. As Tertullian says, nowhere does the Scripture say, “I am my only beloved Son; today I have begotten myself.” The Scripture says, “Thou art my beloved Son; today I have begotten you.”1


Question: Sabellianism died out pretty quickly because it was so radically different than the Christianity of the day; but it is, or has in the early twentieth century, kind of reappeared with the Jesus Only Pentecostalism. But I would like to ask: when a teacher or a preacher uses the analogy of water, steam, and ice to explain the Trinity, is that not a form of Modalism?

Answer: It does seem to be Modalism because what the person is saying is that this one substance can take three different forms. It can be a solid as ice, or it can be a liquid as water, or it can be a gas as steam. It seems to me that that is Modalism on the face of it. I have been told by chemists, however, that there is something called “the triple point” where there is a temperature/pressure point at which the substance H2O can be solid, gas and liquid. However, I haven’t looked into this – it sounds phony to me because I suspect that what that means is it can be either gas, liquid, or ice at that point; but it would seem to me to be a self-contradiction to say it is all three simultaneously; that it is both solid, gas, and liquid at the triple point. But I have not looked into this further. That would be an attempt to avoid the charge that this analogy is Modalistic.

Comment: The triple point is when they exist in equal amounts in each one. When you have liquid water, there is still steam and water vapor in the air so both exist at the same time. There is just more liquid than there is gas. The triple point is when you have any amount of water in the system with equal amount as solid, equal amount as liquid, equal amount as gas. That is the difference.2

Answer: In which case, I am not sure that is a good analogy, then, for the Trinity!

Question: It is not all three at the same time; that would be a contradiction. Are you later going to draw the distinction between Modalism and anti-social and non-social Trinitarianism?

Answer: I will get into Latin and Social Trinitarianism a little bit later on. So hang on to that!

Question: I am having trouble understanding. I understand three centers of consciousness and how that can delineate them as individuals. What I am not understanding is what makes them whole.3

Answer: Right – that is the problem! That is a really, really good question. I will address that later on when we get to our own attempt to provide a model of the Trinity. Right now, our interest is purely historical at first, to see what the early Church Fathers said about this. Then we will try to address that.

But you see what this person is asking? If you’ve got three persons – if they are one – then one what? How can you not have three things – three different beings – if you have three persons? It is a really difficult question. What the Church Fathers wanted to say is that there is one substance which is expressed in three persons. But trying to understand that is difficult. We will address that later on when we get beyond the mere historical background.

Question: That is why I like the three phases of water, because the thing we are trying to say is – if I have a glass of ice water, I have a system. They are all three present at the same time in different forms – I have vapor over the top, I have ice and I have water. So I have one substance but I have three forms or expressions of that substance. That is my comment, but my question is – can you contrast Modalism and Adoptionism?

Answer: Adoptionism is a more Christological theory, or view, rather than a view about the Trinity. What it said was that – certain early church thinkers, like Paul of Samosata, said that Jesus was just a human being whom God adopted to be his Son and therefore he was not eternally God. You still have a unitarian view of God, but God adopts this man Jesus and makes him his Son. Some Adoptionists might even say that Jesus was deified and that he somehow became God in virtue of being adopted. That is a heresy that isn’t so much a Trinitarian heresy (which is what we are looking at) but a Christological heresy about the Doctrine of Christ. We will talk about that when we talk about the Doctrine of Christ.

Question: Don’t all analogies fail? I don’t know if I ever heard one that doesn’t.

Answer: I am not a big fan of analogies. I don’t see any reason to think that there has to be an analogy for God – for the Trinity. Why should there by anything in the created world that should reflect the nature of God in this way? I think what we want to do is craft a doctrine that is comprehensible and that makes sense. But there is no reason to think there has to be an analogy for it. If we can find one, great! All the better! But I do not think that should be the focus of our attention. If God is unique – well, so much the better!

Followup: Define God, and give two examples – that sort of thing!

Answer: Yeah! “Define God, and give two examples!” he says. [laughter]


Let’s move on, then, to Arianism, which was a heresy that arose in the fourth century – that is to say, the early 300s. Arius was a presbyter of the Church in Alexandria in Egypt. He was opposed by his bishop who was Athanasius, one of the greatest of the Church Fathers in Alexandria who became a champion of orthodox Trinitarian theology.

In the year 319, Arius began to propagate the doctrine that the Son is not the same substance as the Father. Rather, the Son was created by the Father before the beginning of the world. So before God created the world, he created the Son, Christ. Therefore, Christ had a beginning and was not of the substance, or nature, of the Father. He was different – he was a created thing.

The reason that most theologians, like Athanasius, found Arius’ doctrine to be abhorrent was not, as Arius himself fancied, because he affirmed that the Son had a beginning. After all, some of the Logos theologians (these early Greek apologists) also thought that the Logos had a beginning.4 They thought that the Logos existed in God as the mind of God. He was immanent in the mind of God. Then he came forth and was begotten by the Father and then created the world. So even within orthodox circles, there was the idea that the Son might not be eternal as a distinct person but was begotten at a certain point of time. Arius thought, “Well, I am not saying anything different than these early apologists in saying that there was a time when the Son didn’t exist.”

But he missed the point. As Athanasius said, what was really objectionable about Arius’ doctrine was not that the Son had a beginning, whereas God is without a beginning. Rather, it was that Arius denied that the Logos existed even immanently in the mind of God prior to creation, so that the Logos was, in fact, a work of God. He was a creature that God made. He wasn’t begotten from the Father; he wasn’t of the substance of the Father; he was a work and therefore a creature – he was part of creation. That was what was objectionable. So Athanasius wrote that, on Arius’ view, the Son is “a creature and a work, not proper to the Father’s essence.” That’s from his Orations against the Arians [1.3.9].

One of the key terms in this early debate was the Greek term homoousios, which expressed the sameness of substance of the Son with the Father. Homo means “same” as in “homogenized milk” (it is all the same, the cream isn’t separated from the milk). Homo means “same” as in “homosexual” – same sex. Ousios comes from the Greek word ousia which means “substance.” So, to say that the Son and the Father are homoousios is to say they are the same substance. That is to say, they are the same nature, the same essence, or the same thing, the same being.

The doctrine of Arius, by contrast, was heteroousios. Hetero means “different” as in “heterosexual” – different sexes. So, to say that the Son and the Father were heteroousios meant that they had a different substance. They were not the same substance or essence. The Son was, in fact, a creation or a work that the Father had made and was therefore distinct from his nature.


Question: I thought that the word the Arians used was homoiousios which meant “of a similar” substance – not necessarily different but similar. Is that correct?

Answer: Not exactly! The semi-Arians – those who were trying to find some sort of accommodation between these – proposed the word homoiousios, which I might as well talk about right now, since it has been brought up.

Homoiousios meant “similar in substance.” So the Father and the Son had a similar nature, similar substance, but it wasn’t the same. The whole difference in this controversy therefore lay in this single Greek letter “iota.” So when people say things like “I don’t give an iota about that!”, what that is referring to is this early Trinitarian controversy, where the whole difference between heresy and orthodoxy hung on this single iota – whether you thought that the Son was merely similar to the Father in substance or you thought he was the same substance. Because if he is the same, you affirmed the deity of Christ; if you say he is only similar, you have denied the deity of Christ.

Those are some of the key terms that were used in this debate.


Question: According to this heresy, was Jesus created before or after Genesis 1:1?

Answer: It would be before the beginning. Before the beginning of the world, he created Christ.

Followup: Wouldn’t that technically be before time began? So, wouldn’t Jesus have been created in some infinite, eternal time frame?

Answer: The Arian watchword was – “there was a time when he was not” or “there was once when he was not.”5 I doubt that they reflected very deeply upon whether or not that necessitated a beginning of time. But the idea was that Christ, the second person – well, excuse me, he would not be the second person – the Son is not co-eternal with the Father but had a beginning at some time.

Question: Did the Arians believe that the Son was worthy of the same worship as the Father?

Answer: I don’t see how they could hold to that because he’s not God. You can honor him, but you couldn’t worship him, otherwise you would be worshiping a creature.

Council of Nicaea

In the year 325, the Emperor Constantine, who was the first Christian emperor and who proclaimed an edict of toleration for Christianity throughout the Roman Empire, convened an ecumenical council of the church at Nicaea in modern day Turkey. This was the first such council where representatives from the universal church all around the Roman Empire came to Nicaea to deal with this issue, which was threatening to tear the church apart.

At this council in Nicaea, there were basically four parties that were represented there. On the one hand, there were the Athanasians, the partisans of Athanasius, who had the strong view that God the Father and Christ were of the same substance. On the other hand, there were about six bishops who were Arians, six of them who sided with Arius. There were probably around 70 to 90 bishops who were semi-Arians, who held to the homoiousios view. Then there was this big center party of about 200 bishops who were basically just confused and didn’t know what to think about this. In the debates at the council, the Athanasians prevailed and the Council of Nicaea promulgated the Nicene Creed, which affirms the full deity and distinctness of the Son.

Let me read to you from the statement that the Council issued:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things, visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ [so you see there? “God the Father,” “the Lord Jesus Christ” – right out of the New Testament, the titles that they give to the persons], the Son of God, begotten from the Father, only-begotten, that is, from the substance of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father [homoousios], through Whom all things came into being, things in heaven and things on earth, Who because of us men and because of our salvation came down and became incarnate, becoming man, suffered and rose again on the third day, ascended into the heavens, and will come to judge the living and the dead.

And in the Holy Spirit.

So you have the three persons of the Trinity: God the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.

Then the Council appended these anathemas, or condemnations, against the Arians:

But for those who say ‘there was when he was not’ and ‘before being born he was not’ and that ‘he came into existence out of nothing’ or who assert ‘the Son of God is from a different hypostasis or substance, or is created, or is subject to alteration or change’ – these the Catholic Church anathematizes.

There are several features of this remarkable statement that I think are worthy of comment.6

First of all, the Son (and, by implication as well, the Holy Spirit) are declared to be of the same essence (homoousios) as the Father. Not homoiousios, as the semi-Arians claimed, but he is the substance of the Father. Therefore, the Son is declared to be begotten, not made. This is very significant. When things are begotten, the offspring have the nature of their parents – kittens are born of cats, dogs are begotten by dogs, cows beget cows. But if something is made, it is of a quite different nature than the artisan who made it. Michelangelo can make a statue, or someone can make a wood cabinet or make an automobile. That is different than their nature. In saying that the Son is begotten, not made, it is expressing that he is of the same nature as the Father – begotten from the Father.

Notice also especially that this affirmation is made with respect to Christ’s divine nature, not his human nature. I think we tend to think that Christ is begotten by God in his human nature and that he had a virginal conception in Mary’s womb and was begotten miraculously by the Holy Spirit. But what the Council is affirming here is that Christ is begotten in his divine nature, not his human nature. This represents the vestige, or the influence of, the old Logos Christology, which saw the Logos as something proceeding out of the Father and becoming a distinct person. That is preserved in the Nicene Creed in this language of the begetting of the Son from the Father. But notice that, as the anathemas that are appended to the Creed made very clear, this is an eternal begetting. This is not a begetting that took place at a point in time just prior to creation. The Son is eternally begotten from the Father. There was never a time when he was not, the condemnations say. So the analogy here is like the rays of the sun that proceed from the sun. As long as the sun exists, the rays of the sun proceed from it. If the sun has existed from eternity past, the sunshine, the rays, will exist from eternity past. They do not begin to exist at some later time. The idea here is that the Son is eternally begotten from the Father and therefore never had a beginning.

Next time, I want to talk about the condemnation of those who say that Christ is a different hypostasis or ousia or substance from the Father because this became a matter of tremendous controversy and confusion in the early Church. Eventually, it led to the Creed being changed and revised so as to affirm that although there is one substance in the Trinity, there are actually three hypostases, or three individuals or persons. The word is being used here in a quite different way that occasioned a great deal of controversy and confusion.


1 cf. Hebrews 1:5, 5:5; Acts 13:33; Psalms 2:7

2 This isn’t exactly correct. The true definition of “triple point” is “the temperature and pressure at which three phases (gas, liquid, and solid) of a substance coexist in thermodynamic equilibrium”

3 5:08

4 10:04

5 15:02

6 20:04