Tertullian was a Sabellian.

SUMMARY

Hypostases – The ancients used the Greek word hypostasis in their Christological debates. A hypostasis is a distinct existence. So, if we say that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases, then it means that they are three distinct Beings or Persons.

The two main Christological views at the time of Tertullian were Logos-theology and Monarchianism:

Logos-theology – Beginning in the second century, non-Jewish Christianity was dominated by Logos-theology. It taught that the Logos always existed inside God, became a distinct hypostasis when God decided to create, and is subordinate to the Father.

Monarchianism – Monarchianism opposed Logos-theology and taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are merely three names for one and the same hypostasis (Person). It is also known as Modalism.

Sabellianism – In the early third century, Sabellius refined Monarchianism into what is known as Sabellianism. It still teaches that Father, Son, and Spirit are one hypostasis (Person) but says that they are three portions of that Person, just like a human consists of a body, soul, and spirit.

Tertullian did not oppose Sabellianism because he wrote slightly before Sabellius. Tertullian’s enemy was the Monarchians. He was a Logos theologian, believing that the Son is subordinate to the Father. However, to combat the Monarchians, who criticized the Logos-theologians for dividing the substance of God, he said that the Logos remained part of the substance of God. The consequence is that Tertullian’s theology was similar to Sabellius’:

Like Monarchianism, both taught that Father, Son, and Spirit are a single hypostasis (Person).

But, while Monarchianism claimed that Father = Son = Spirit, both distinguished between Father, Son, and Spirit within the one hypostasis.

INTRODUCTION

Hypostases

The ancients used the Greek word hypostasis in their Christological debates. A hypostasis is a distinct existence. So, if we say that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases, then it means that they are three distinct Beings or Persons. However, if the three hypostases are equal, then you have three Gods, which is tritheism.1The following quote explains the meaning of hypostasis during the fourth century: “To defend themselves against charges of Sabellianism, the Nicenes developed not just the language of three prosopa, or ‘roles’ within the Trinity, but three hypostaseis, or distinct personalities. This approach proved problematic … for the Greek word hypostasis … meant ‘to stand under or among’, that is, ‘to be existent’. Such language suggested three distinct existences within the Godhead, and this sounded to nervous Christian ears like tritheism.” (Litfin)

Logos-theology

Beginning in the second century, following Justin Martyr, non-Jewish Christianity was dominated by Logos-theology. It taught a two-stage existence for the Logos: He always existed inside God, became a distinct hypostasis (Person) when God decided to create, and is subordinate to the Father. (See – the Apologists.)

Monarchianism

The Monarchians believed that Father, Son, and Spirit are merely three names for one and the same Person. The Son is not a distinct Being from the Father. Consequently, the Father suffered on the Cross:

“By their opponents they are accused of teaching that the Son and the Spirit do not have real independent existence and are in fact simply modes of the Father’s being.” (Ayres, p. 68)2Ayres, Lewis, Nicaea and its legacy, 2004, Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology“This ‘monarchian’ view was … suggesting the Father and Son were different expressions of the same being, without any personal distinctions between them. In other words, the Father is himself the Son, and therefore experiences the Son’s human frailties.” (Litfin)3“In the words of Noetus: … the Father … Himself became His own Son.” “It was therefore God who was born from a virgin and who confessed himself to humankind as the Son of God. At the cross, God commended his spirit to himself, as he acted to be dead, but he was not dead in reality, although he raised himself on the 3rd day.” (Willem H. Oliver, Department of Christian Spirituality, Church History and Missiology, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa)

“The Latin Fathers … called them ‘Patripassians‘ because they have identified the Father and the Son to such an extent that they believed that it was the Father who suffered and died on the cross.” (Willem Oliver)

It is also known as Modalism:

“Adolph Von Harnack coined the term ‘Modalism’ for this 2nd-century doctrine, which referred to the Trinity as consisting of ‘three modes or aspects of one divine existence’.” (Willem Oliver)

SABELLIANISM

Sabellianism is named after the early third-century theologian Sabellius. He refined Monarchianism into what is known as Sabellianism.

To believe, like the Monarchians did, that Father = Son = Spirit, means that only one hypostasis exists. Similarly, Sabellius taught that the Father, Son, and Spirit are one hypostasis (Person). He believed that “there is but one undivided person in God.” (219-220) Consequently, Sabellianism has been defined as:

The “refusal to acknowledge the distinct existence of the Persons.” (Hanson, p. 844)4“The proof texts which he (Hilary) throws at Sabellianism (refusal to acknowledge the distinct existence of the Persons) are …”Hanson, Bishop RPC, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – The Arian Controversy 318-381, 1988

“The denial of a distinction between the three within the Godhead.” (Hanson, p. 287)5“Its (the Dedication Creed’s) chief bête noire (the thing that it particularly dislikes) is Sabellianism, the denial of a distinction between the three within the Godhead …”

“Believing in only one Person (hypostasis) in the Godhead. … favour the expression ‘one hypostasis’.” (Hanson, p. 801)6“Basil suspected that Paulinus was at heart a Sabellian, believing in only one Person (hypostasis) in the Godhead. Paulinus’ association with the remaining followers of Marcellus and his continuing to favour the expression ‘one hypostasis’ … rendered him suspect.”

The main purpose of the Dedication Creed of 431 is to oppose Sabellianism. For that purpose, while Sabellianism favors “the expression ‘one hypostasis,’” (Hanson, p. 801) that creed explicitly confesses three hypostases.“7“The creed clearly and strongly argues against Sabellian emphases and those emphases were associated with Marcellan theology. We see these emphases, for instance, in the insistence that there are three names which ‘signify exactly the particular hypostasis and order and glory of each’.” (Ayres, p. 119)

It is sometimes stated that Sabellianism is another name for Monarchianism.8For example: “This movement called themselves ‘Monarchians’, the Greek Fathers called them ‘Sabellians’, as Sabellius was the person who has put this doctrine in its philosophical form, supplying its metaphysical basis.” (Willem Oliver) None of Sabellius’ writings have survived. Everything we know about him comes from the writings of his opponents and we know that one’s enemies seldom give a fair reflection of one’s views. But Von Mosheim made a study and concluded that Sabellius, while maintaining that Father, Son, and Spirit are one hypostasis (Person), opposed the Monarchian concept that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are simply three names for the same Person. Rather, he argued that Father, Son, and Spirit are three distinct forms or portions of the one divine Being. He maintained that, just like a man is one person, but has a body, a soul, and a spirit, so God is one Person, yet in that Person, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit can be discriminated:

“While he maintained that there was but one person in God, he yet held that there are three forms, or aspects of the one God. Divers forms of one and the same being involve some real distinction.” (page 218)

“Sabellius …  believed that, as a man in just one person, and yet in his person three things may be discriminated, not in thought only, but as having a real existence, namely, the body, the soul, and the spirit, so, also, although there is but one undivided person in God, yet in that person, the Father, the Son, and the holy Spirit can be discriminated, not in thought only, but they must be really discriminated and kept distinct.” (219-220)

“As Sabellius held to the simple unity of the person and nature of God, and yet supposed the Father, Son, and holy Spirit to differ really from each other, and not to be three names of the one God, acting in different ways; we are obliged to believe, that he considered the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as being three portions of the divine nature.” (220)

TERTULLIAN

He did not oppose Sabellianism.

Wikipedia states that Tertullian was “one of the chief critics of Sabellianism.” However, Sabellius (fl. ca. 215) wrote slightly later than Tertullian (ca. 160–225).9For example: “Shortly after Tertullian’s day, a theologian named Sabellius gave …” (Litfin) (Bryan M. Litfin, University of Virginia, Professor of Theology at Moody Bible Institute, Chicago) Consequently, Tertullian did not oppose Sabellius.

He was a Logos-theologian.

“Tertullian is often portrayed as a prescient figure who accurately anticipated the Nicene consensus about the Trinity.” For example:

“He also offered a formula that, more than a century later, would assume the status of doctrinal orthodoxy. God is … one substance cohering in three’.” (Litfin)

In Tertullian’s theology, “while the Son does share the substance of the Father, both are distinct Persons. This is precisely the trinitarian terminology that would eventually win the day.” (Litfin)

However, Tertullian was a Logos theologian:

He believed that the Son is subordinate.

He believed that the Son and the Spirit are subordinate to the Father. For example:

“The Father is the entire substance, but the Son is a derivation and portion of the whole, as He Himself acknowledges: “My Father is greater than I.” … Thus the Father is distinct from the Son, being greater than the Son.” (In Against Praxeas 9, Tertullian)

“He tended toward a profound theological subordination of the Son and the Spirit.” (Litfin)10“The Trinity, he believed, possessed a genuine, stepwise ranking according to each Person’s gradus, forma, and species. This is indeed a bold view of the architecture of the Trinity, one that skirts close to Arian subordinationism.” (Litfin) “The Son and Spirit are emissaries of the Father’s will—not ontologically inferior to him, yet ranked lower.” (Litfin)11“For Tertullian, the Son is second in order.” (Ayres, p. 73-74)

He believed that the Father was not always Father.

Consistent with Logos-theology, Tertullian taught that the Son or Logos was eternally within the being of the Father and only became distinct at a particular point for the purpose of creation, revelation, and redemption:

“The notion that the First Person was not essentially and eternally a Father … became anathema to later generations. Yet this was precisely what Tertullian believed, and for this reason his doctrine of temporal paternity and filiation was closer to the Arian point of view.” (Litfin)12“But even more problematic from an orthodox point of view was Tertullian’s firm conviction that a relationship of fatherhood and sonship is not intrinsic to the Trinity.” (Litfin)

“For Tertullian, the Son … comes from the Father in connection with the Father’s decision to create, he also insists that the Son was always in the Father: the same two-stage conception …” (Ayres, p. 73-74)13“Tertullian … believed and taught that, though the Son or Logos was eternally within the being of the Father, he only became distinct … at a particular point for the purposes of creation, revelation and redemption” (Hanson, p. 872)

He was a far cry from fully Nicene.

“Tertullian was not really a forward-thinking Nicene trinitarian born a century out of time, but a typical theologian of his day. … We should not be too quick to anoint Tertullian as the Latin foundation upon which the Greek edifice of Nicaea was going to be built.” (Litfin) “Historical theologians need to start admitting that Tertullian was a far cry from being fully Nicene.” (Litfin)

“When he (Tertullian) is examined against the background of his immediate predecessors, he falls into place as a typical second-century Logos theologian.” (Litfin)14“His ideas were essentially those of the Greek Logos theologians combined with insights from Bishop Irenaeus.” (Litfin)

He used the right pro-Nicene words.

Tertullian is regarded as important, not because of his theology, but for introducing certain words into the debate that later became ‘orthodox’, such as ‘trinity’, ‘substance’, and ‘person’. For example:

“Why such enthusiasm for Tertullian’s trinitarianism? As the above selections demonstrate, the answer is essentially terminological. Historical theologians like to suggest that Tertullian’s use of the term trinitas, and his one substantia/three personae formula, make him a kind of proto-Nicene hero.” (Litfin)

Tertullian’s enemy was Monarchianism.

When Tertullian wrote in the early third century, the two main competing Christological views were Logos-theology and Monarchianism. Since Tertullian was a Logos theologian, his main enemies were the Monarchians, also known as Modalism:

“Tertullian’s targets here are Monarchian theologians for whom the Word does not exist as a distinct existing thing.” (Ayres, p. 74)15Ayres here uses the word “thing.” That is not meant disrespectfully. In the context of the Arian Controversy with its ambiguous terminology, where the terms ‘Being’, hypostasis, and ‘Person’ are understood differently by different people, the word “thing” is useful because it lacks content. But, perhaps a less negative-sounding word such as ‘entity’ would have been better.

“The treatise Against Praxeas is widely recognized as Tertullian’s greatest work on the Trinity. The view apparently taught by Praxeas has come to be called ‘modalism’, thanks to that designation appearing in Adolf von Harnack’s History of Dogma (1897). Tertullian simply calls his opponent a ‘monarchian.” (Litfin)16Tertullian’s “efforts were directed against a view whose chief error was to conflate the Father and Son, meaning that, among other things, the Father suffered on the Cross—a view known as ‘patripassianism’, which Tertullian found abhorrent.” (Litfin)

He was a Sabellian.

He taught one hypostasis.

To show that Tertullian was a Sabellian, we must first show that he taught that the Father, Son, and Spirit are one single hypostasis.

The Monarchians criticized the Logos-theorists by saying that:

“The theology of the Apologists involves a division in the being and unity of God that is unacceptable.” (Ayres, p. 68)17Logos-theology teaches two creators and two Gods (bi-theism), “inconsistent with monotheism (Tertullian Praxeas, ch. 3)” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Tertullian developed his theory in response to this criticism. He deviated from the standard Logos theory by describing God as three Persons in one substance.18“In Tertullian’s new trinitarian schema, God is characterized by a single divine ‘substance’ of rulership over the cosmos. Yet he is fundamentally arranged or disposed in three personae.” (Litfin)

But the question remains, is that a distinction within one hypostasis (Person), as Sabellius proposed? Or did he understand Father, Son, and Spirit to be three hypostases (three Persons)? What did he mean by “personae?” For the following reasons, it is proposed that Tertullian’s God is one single hypostasis:

Part of the Father – Tertullian said, “For the Father is the entire substance, but the Son is a derivation and portion of the whole.” (Against Praxeas, Chapter 9) Therefore, the Son is part of the Father and not a distinct Person.

A Single Discrete EntityLitfin said, “The term substantia as Tertullian used it signified the existence of a single, discrete entity (here, the One God).” The entire substance is a “discrete entity;” not the individual parts. 

One hypostasis – Hanson explicitly states that the entire substance is one hypostasis: “The word in Greek translation of Tertullian’s una substantia would not be the word homoousios but mia hypostasis (one hypostasis).” (Hanson, p. 193)

Pro-Nicenes – We can also see the nature of Tertullian’s doctrine in the views of his spiritual children. The pro-Nicenes of the fourth century continued Tertullian’s understanding. Both Alexander and Athanasius described Father, Son, and Spirit as a single hypostasis. And the manifesto compiled by the Western delegates at the Council of Serdica explicitly confesses one hypostasis.

Tertullian’s Persons are not real.

A hypostasis is a distinct existence. Tertullian used the right words. However, since Father, Son, and Spirit are one hypostasis (one single existing Entity) his Persons are not real ‘Persons’, as is also indicated by the phrase “now-more-distinct:”

“Tertullian believed … (that) God, while not ceasing to be what he always was, nonetheless extended himself or projected himself forward, so that the three Persons became more clearly distinguished. By means of these now-more-distinct Persons, the one God creates the world, rules over it, and enters into it for salvation.” (Litfin)

Ayres says that “Tertullian argues for the true existence of the Son as a distinct reality” (Ayres, p. 74-75) but Sabellius would have said the same. Part of a being can still be called a “distinct reality.”

The Trinity doctrine follows Tertullian.

Some modern scholars argue for a social Trinity doctrine which claims that Father, Son, and Spirit are three hypostases with three distinct minds. The problem is that this is tritheism unless the Son and Spirit are subordinate, which Trinitarians cannot allow.

In contrast, the traditional Trinity doctrine and Tertullian use the term ‘Person’ in the same sense. In the traditional Trinity doctrine, the term ‘Persons’ is misleading because they are not real ‘persons’ but share one single mind (one rational faculty): 

“The champions of the Nicene faith … developed a doctrine of God as a Trinity, as one substance or ousia who existed as three hypostases, three distinct realities or entities (I refrain from using the misleading word ‘Person’), three ways of being or modes of existing as God.” (Hanson)

Therefore, the traditional Trinity doctrine and Tertullians’ are very similar: Both assert three Persons in one substance. But since, in both, the ‘Persons’ are not real, both are essentially Sabellian:

Athanasius taught one hypostasis. Basil of Caesarea was the first three-hypostasis pro-Nicene. He said that Father, Son, and Spirit are three distinct Persons with the same type of substance and, therefore, equal divinity. As stated, the difficulty with that view is tritheism. For that reason, the traditional Trinity doctrine says that Father, Son, and Spirit are one Being. Essentially, that reverts to Athanasius’ one-hypostasis view but adds Basil’s ‘three Persons’ (three hypostases). However, since the hypostases are not real persons, that is misleading. The traditional Trinity doctrine is camouflaged Sabellianism!

Conclusion

It is valid to classify Tertullian as a Sabellian if we define Sabellianism as teaching that Father, Son, and Spirit are only one Person within whom the Father, Son, and Spirit are somehow distinguished.


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FOOTNOTES

  • 1
    The following quote explains the meaning of hypostasis during the fourth century: “To defend themselves against charges of Sabellianism, the Nicenes developed not just the language of three prosopa, or ‘roles’ within the Trinity, but three hypostaseis, or distinct personalities. This approach proved problematic … for the Greek word hypostasis … meant ‘to stand under or among’, that is, ‘to be existent’. Such language suggested three distinct existences within the Godhead, and this sounded to nervous Christian ears like tritheism.” (Litfin)
  • 2
    Ayres, Lewis, Nicaea and its legacy, 2004, Ayres is a Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology
  • 3
    “In the words of Noetus: … the Father … Himself became His own Son.” “It was therefore God who was born from a virgin and who confessed himself to humankind as the Son of God. At the cross, God commended his spirit to himself, as he acted to be dead, but he was not dead in reality, although he raised himself on the 3rd day.” (Willem H. Oliver, Department of Christian Spirituality, Church History and Missiology, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa)
  • 4
    “The proof texts which he (Hilary) throws at Sabellianism (refusal to acknowledge the distinct existence of the Persons) are …”
  • 5
    “Its (the Dedication Creed’s) chief bête noire (the thing that it particularly dislikes) is Sabellianism, the denial of a distinction between the three within the Godhead …”
  • 6
    “Basil suspected that Paulinus was at heart a Sabellian, believing in only one Person (hypostasis) in the Godhead. Paulinus’ association with the remaining followers of Marcellus and his continuing to favour the expression ‘one hypostasis’ … rendered him suspect.”
  • 7
    “The creed clearly and strongly argues against Sabellian emphases and those emphases were associated with Marcellan theology. We see these emphases, for instance, in the insistence that there are three names which ‘signify exactly the particular hypostasis and order and glory of each’.” (Ayres, p. 119)
  • 8
    For example: “This movement called themselves ‘Monarchians’, the Greek Fathers called them ‘Sabellians’, as Sabellius was the person who has put this doctrine in its philosophical form, supplying its metaphysical basis.” (Willem Oliver)
  • 9
    For example: “Shortly after Tertullian’s day, a theologian named Sabellius gave …” (Litfin) (Bryan M. Litfin, University of Virginia, Professor of Theology at Moody Bible Institute, Chicago)
  • 10
    “The Trinity, he believed, possessed a genuine, stepwise ranking according to each Person’s gradus, forma, and species. This is indeed a bold view of the architecture of the Trinity, one that skirts close to Arian subordinationism.” (Litfin)
  • 11
    “For Tertullian, the Son is second in order.” (Ayres, p. 73-74)
  • 12
    “But even more problematic from an orthodox point of view was Tertullian’s firm conviction that a relationship of fatherhood and sonship is not intrinsic to the Trinity.” (Litfin)
  • 13
    “Tertullian … believed and taught that, though the Son or Logos was eternally within the being of the Father, he only became distinct … at a particular point for the purposes of creation, revelation and redemption” (Hanson, p. 872)
  • 14
    “His ideas were essentially those of the Greek Logos theologians combined with insights from Bishop Irenaeus.” (Litfin)
  • 15
    Ayres here uses the word “thing.” That is not meant disrespectfully. In the context of the Arian Controversy with its ambiguous terminology, where the terms ‘Being’, hypostasis, and ‘Person’ are understood differently by different people, the word “thing” is useful because it lacks content. But, perhaps a less negative-sounding word such as ‘entity’ would have been better.
  • 16
    Tertullian’s “efforts were directed against a view whose chief error was to conflate the Father and Son, meaning that, among other things, the Father suffered on the Cross—a view known as ‘patripassianism’, which Tertullian found abhorrent.” (Litfin)
  • 17
    Logos-theology teaches two creators and two Gods (bi-theism), “inconsistent with monotheism (Tertullian Praxeas, ch. 3)” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
  • 18
    “In Tertullian’s new trinitarian schema, God is characterized by a single divine ‘substance’ of rulership over the cosmos. Yet he is fundamentally arranged or disposed in three personae.” (Litfin)
  • 19
    Overview of the history, from the pre-Nicene Church Fathers, through the fourth-century Arian Controversy

What is the difference between the Trinity doctrine and Modalism?

Summary

In Modalism, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are mere “modes” of how the one God interacts with creation. Like an actor on a stage, God sometimes appears as the Father, other times as the Son, and others as the Spirit. But it is one single Actor.

In the traditional Trinity doctrine, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct Persons sharing one undivided divine substance. For the Trinity doctrine to be different from Modalism, personhood must be real. For three reasons, in my view, the Persons in the Trinity doctrine are NOT real persons but mere modes of God:

Firstly, in the traditional Trinity doctrine, the three Persons are not three parts of God, but each of them is the full divine essence. In other words, each of the three Persons is God in His entirety. This means that they are identical, which means that they are mere modes of God.

Secondly, in the orthodox doctrine, the Father, Son, and Spirit share one single mind and will.

Thirdly, in the Trinity doctrine, the only difference between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is their relationships, namely that the Father begets the Son and the Spirit proceeds from the Son and/or the Father. However, that doctrine also explains those relationships as essential, which means that they make no difference: Always and under all conditions, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are identical and share one single mind or will.

In conclusion, therefore, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are mere “modes” of God and the Trinity doctrine is a form of Modalism.

– END OF SUMMARY –


Modalism

In Modalism, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are mere “modes” of how the one God interacts with creation; for example, as the Father in the creation and the giving of the Law, as the Son in Jesus Christ, and as the Holy Spirit after Christ’s ascension.

Sabellius, an ancient leading proponent of Modalism, argued that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are ‘masks’ or personae worn by the one divine Person. Like an actor on a stage, God could sometimes appear as the Father, other times as the Son, and others as the Spirit. However, these are not actually three different actors.

For the Modalist, Christ is not only God, he is the Father himself. This would mean that the Father suffered and died on the Cross.

This view was rejected and Sabellius was excommunicated in AD 220.

Trinity Doctrine

The orthodox Trinity doctrine, as taught by the mainstream church, including most Protestant churches, similar to Modalism, regards the Son and the Holy Spirit to be “God” but describes the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as three distinct Persons. To maintain the oneness of God, so that the doctrine does not teach tri-theism (three Gods), the Father, Son, and Spirit are said to share the one undivided divine essence (also called being or substance).

So, both Modalism and the Trinity doctrine proclaim one God and one substance. But while Modalism describes the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as modes, the Trinity doctrine describes them as Persons. For the Trinity doctrine to be different from Modalism, the Persons must be more than mere modes. For three reasons, in my view, the Persons in the orthodox Trinity doctrine are mere ‘modes’:

1. Identical

Firstly, on the principle of divine simplicity, which is a remnant of ancient Greek philosophy, but which is still today accepted by theologians as valid, the Trinity doctrine teaches that God does not have parts. Consequently, the three Persons are not three parts of God, but each of them is the full divine essence. In other words, the three Persons are identical: Each of them is God in His entirety.

This principle may be illustrated by the following formula:

God = the Father = the Son = the Holy Spirit.

The Athanasian Creed expresses this principle as follows:

“The Father is God;
the Son is God;
and the Holy Ghost is God.
And yet they are NOT THREE GODS;
BUT ONE GOD”

Thomas Aquinas, who is “recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as its foremost Western philosopher and theologian” (Britannica) confirmed this:

It cannot be said that the divine Persons are distinguished from each other in any absolute sense; for it would follow that there would not be one essence of the three persons.” [Summa 1036]

So, if the three Persons are identical, then they are mere modes of God.

2. One Single Mind

Secondly, generally, we think of a person as a self, a thinker, with his own will and mind. But, in the Trinity doctrine, the Father, Son, and Spirit share one single mind and will. The argument is that mind and will are rooted in the substance of God, not in the Persons. The disastrous consequence, of course, is that the Father cannot love the Son and the Son cannot love the Father. Similarly, the Son cannot truly intercede with the Father.

Today, many think of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as each having His own mind, but that means that they proclaim three Gods (tri-theism).

The fact that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the standard Trinity doctrine, share one single mind and will, strengthens the view that they are mere modes of God.

3. Relations make no difference.

People are differentiated by both their persons and their relations:

    • Each person is different.
    • People are also defined by their relationships with other people, for example in marriage, family, etc.

In the orthodox Trinity doctrine, as already stated, the three Persons are identical because they share one single divine substance. Consequently, the only difference between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is in their relationships, namely:

      • The Father begets the Son and
      • The Spirit proceeds from the Son (in Western catholic thinking) or from the Father (in Eastern Orthodox thinking).

The following confirms that Aquinas argued that the only difference between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is those relationships:

“So then the only question left is what makes the persons distinct from one another? What makes the distinction real? The answer is that they are distinct only in their relation to one another.” [Summa 1028]

“The divine persons are distinguished from each other only by the relations.” [Summa 1036]

Aquinas’ justification for the view that the Spirit must proceed from the Son illustrates the notion that the only difference between the Father, Son, and Spirit is their relations, for, he says, if the Spirit proceeds from the Father, then the Spirit is the same as the Son because both have a relationship only with the Father. For the Son to be distinguished from the Holy Spirit, there must be a relationship between them as well. [Summa 1036] Quoting Aquinas:

“It must be said that the Holy Ghost is from the Son. For if He were not from Him, He (the Holy Ghost) could in no wise be personally distinguished from Him (the Son).”

However, in the orthodox understanding of the Trinity, the relationships are essential. As Aquinas argued, “in creatures relations are accidental, whereas in God they are the divine essence itself.” Therefore, the “relations in Him are essential, not accidental[Summa 1039]. To explain:

With people, a person becomes a parent when a child is born. That is what Aquinas means by “accidental.”

But in God, these relations are not caused by events. They are “essential,” meaning that these relations do not bring about change.

Since the relations are essential, they make no difference. Always and under all conditions, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are identical, each being the entire substance of God and the three sharing one single mind and will.

Conclusion

In conclusion, in Modalism, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are mere “modes” of how the one God interacts with creation. In contrast, the Trinity doctrine describes the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as Persons but if we analyze what these Persons are, we discover that they are identical in all respects and share one single mind. Consequently, they effectively are “modes” and the Trinity doctrine is a form of Modalism. Simply claiming that the Trinity doctrine is not Modalism does not help. We need to consider the substance of the theory.

For further reading, see plato.stanford.edu/entries/trinity, especially the sections that address modalism.


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