An Eastern Orthodox view of the Trinity – Fr. Thomas Hopko

Purpose

This is a summary of a well-known talk on the Trinity by a well-known Eastern Orthodox theologian, Father Thomas Hopko. I added some comments. I do not agree with everything which Hopko says, but I think he did a brilliant job of reconciling the ancient creeds with the Bible. The reader is advised to listen to that podcast before reading this article. But first, I would like to argue why we should listen to the Eastern Orthodox Christians:

The Eastern Orthodox Church

The beliefs of Eastern Orthodoxy is important because Christianity originated in the Eastern Roman Empire (in Judea) and because most of the Christian theologians of the first centuries, like Athanasius, Origen, the Cappadocian Fathers, and Augustine of Hippo were from the Eastern Roman Empire, including Africa. For that reason also, most of the delegates at Nicaea in 325 AD were from the Eastern Roman Empire (God in Three Persons, Millard J. Erickson, p82-85). However, the Muslim conquests of the seventh century and later significantly weakened the church in the east. At the same time, the church in the Western Roman Empire – the Church of Rome – became a powerful force in Europe. For that reason, the theology of the church in the Western world today has been inherited, largely, from the Church of Rome.

There always were theological differences between the east and the west. For example, over the day on which Passover should be celebrated and the filioque controversy. As another example, at the Council of Sardica, somewhere in 342 to 347, many Eastern bishops left the meeting to hold another council in Philippopolis because they were fearing domination of the council by Western bishops (Pavao, p120). Pavao claimed that “Arianism was exclusively an eastern phenomenon even prior to Nicea” (Decoding Nicea, p115). Consequently, the development of theology in the east followed a different path than in the west. Furthermore, the persecution that the church in the east suffered over the centuries stifled the development of doctrines. The church in the east, for that reason, retained the theology of the early church to a greater extent.

For these reasons, I propose, it is important that we understand how the Eastern Orthodox Church understands the Trinity.

Summary

In this section, I summarize Hopko’s talk. According to Hopko:

The Trinity

The Trinity is the tri-hypostatic Divinity or Godhead; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; one in essence and undivided.

Jesus Christ

synagogue official came and bowed downJesus of Nazareth is “the Christ; the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16). He is not created but begotten timelessly of the Father before all ages. Therefore, He is divine with the same divinity as the one true and living God. As the Nicene Creed says, “God from God, true God from true God … homoousios” with the Father. The term homoousios might be better translated as “who is of the same divinity as the one God who is His Father.”

He is the Logos (Word) and Wisdom and Icon (Image) of God. Since John 1:1c means that the Word is divine with the same divinity as God, it should be translated as “and the Word was divine.”

The One God

The one God in whom we believe is not the Holy Trinity. The one God is the Father of Jesus Christ. To say that there is one God who is the Holy Trinity is Modalism. We may use the terms tri-personal or tri-hypostatic divinity but there is no tri-personal God.

Of God

As the Son is the Logos and Wisdom OF God and the Spirit OF God, the Son and the Spirit belong to the Father.

Never Separated

The one true and living God, who is the Father Almighty, has never been and will never be separated from His Son and His Spirit. He would be God without the hundred billion galaxies but He would not be God without the Logos and the Spirit. He has with Him eternally His Son and His Holy Spirit.

One divinity

The church fathers would never have said that the Father is of one essence with the Son. They would only say that the Son is of one essence with the Father. As there is one God – the Father, there is one divine nature. Since the Son is “God from God” (Nicene Creed), His divinity is the Father’s divinity (or nature). The divinity of the Holy Spirit is also the Father’s divinity.

Hopko never explicitly describes the Son as part of God but he does quote Irenaeus saying that the Son and the Spirit are the two hands of God. And at another point, he implies that the Son is “an element of the divinity and being of God.”

Act as One

The Father, Son, and Spirit act as one. Every activity of God (creation, sanctification, redemption, etc.) comes from the Father, through the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit comes forth from God by the manner of procession; He proceeds from Him. He is not another Son.

The Spirit of God does not proceed from the Father AND the Son together; He proceeds from the Father alone. The Spirit is also the Spirit of the Son because He proceeds from the Father and rests on the Son. Everything that the Son has, divinely or humanly, He has received from the Father. From the Son, the Spirit then proceeds to us. The Son is the agent of all of the Father’s activities in the world, including the sending of the Holy Spirit.

Hypostases

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three Persons or three hypostasies. But hypostases is a better term because there are three instances of divine life in perfect and total unity.

Incarnation

Jesus as human babyThis very one who is begotten of the Father is born as a man (as a human being) from the virgin Mary. The Logos is NOT so perfectly divine, as some say, that He cannot become flesh; that He cannot become man. As the Nicene Creed says, He became flesh (incarnate) AND He became human (was made man). He is a real human being but He is not a mere human being. He is the divine Son of God who is also Mary’s son, who is a real human being just like we are.

He is divine with the same divinity as the one and true living God AND He is human with the humanity which all men and women have.

That is why He has two natures, meaning that He is fully divine but also fully and completely, truly human.

While the Godhead are three divine hypostases (Persons) with one divine nature, Jesus Christ is one hypostasis (one Person) with two natures because divine.

Conclusion

The Holy Trinity is the tri-personal Godhead; the one God and Father, the one Lord Jesus Christ, and the one Holy Spirit in perfect unity.

– END OF SUMMARY – 

Hopko’s Talk

In this section, I provide a summarized transcript of Hopko’s talk which I typed myself. Perhaps the reader will be able to listen to the talk while reading this. I added headings, comments, and text references.

The Trinity

The Trinity is the tri-hypostatic Divinity – the tri-personal Godhead; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; one in essence and undivided.

Importance of the Trinity

The dogma of the Holy Trinity is often called the dogma of dogmas, like the Lord of Lords, or King of kings.

Saint Gregory, the theologian, said that, when it comes to various other doctrines, not to get it completely totally accurate is not supremely dangerous for the salvation of souls, but when it comes to God – how the one God and Father relates to the only-begotten Son and Holy Spirit, if you don’t get that right, everything else is skewed, for all the other doctrines are rooted and grounded in the right understanding of the relationship and the communion that exists between the one God and Father, and His one only-begotten Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

The word Trinity

“Trinity” is not a Biblical word. It is a word that emerged in Christian history – very early – in the second and third centuries.

Who is Jesus?

The Trinity can only be properly understood when we begin with contemplating the Person of Jesus. The Trinity doctrine is the elaboration or outgrowth of the confession of who and what Jesus is.

Who Jesus is, is rooted and grounded in the gospel itself. The main question of the gospel is, “Who do you say I am?” That is the main question which Jesus asks in the gospels. After preaching, teaching, doing His miraculous signs – after He does all the things that the Scriptures said that the Messiah would do when he came, namely to bring the kingdom of God to the world and to bring all created beings in perfect harmony with the uncreated (God), Jesus asks, “Who do you say I am?

COMMENT: Here, Hopko says much more than what I typed. I think his argument is that God, through Jesus, when “the end” comes, will restore perfect peace in all the universe (1 Cor 1:24) and that the world had a foretaste of this when He was on earth. We see that in how He healed people and how He controlled the winds and the waves of nature.

In response, Christians confess that Jesus of Nazareth is the messianic prophet, priest and king; the Christ; the Son of the living God; the Lord. Christians confess that Jesus of Nazareth is the incarnate Word of God; the Logos and wisdom of God in human flesh. He is the Son of God; begotten of the Father before all ages and born of the theotokos Mary; the birth giver of God on earth. He is divine with the same divinity as the one true and living God. In the language of the Nicene Creed, He is “God from God, true God from true God; begotten of the Father; not created, of one very same essence (ousia) – one same being or divinity with God the Father Himself.”

All of that is the result of the confession of who Jesus is. The question is given by Jesus Himself: “Who do you say I am?” And that is where Peter confessed, in what may be called the fundamental Christian Creed: “You are the Christ; the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:16).

The Rock

Jesus then said to Peter, “flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven” (Matt 16:17). He added that the whole foundation of the covenant church – the ultimate final church on the planet earth would be those who believe that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of the living God.

COMMENT: This is an interesting interpretation of Jesus’ words: “you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church” (Matt 16:18).

God is not the Trinity

It is critically important to note that, in the Bible and, therefore, in the creeds, such as the Nicene Creed (325) and Creed of Constantinople (381), the one God in whom we believe is not the Holy Trinity. The one God is God the Father. In the Bible, the one God is the Father of Jesus Christ. He is the Father who sends His only begotten Son into the world.

And Jesus Christ is the Son of God. In a parallel manner, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God and, because the Christ is the Son of God on whom God the Father sends and affirms His Holy Spirit, the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ – the Messiah. This is very important because there are wrong understandings of the Holy Trinity.

Unitarianism

These are those who deny that there is a trinity of divine Persons – of divine hypostasies. Unitarians would say that God is just a unipersonal nomad and that He has no Son; the divinity is His and His alone, and everything that exists in addition to the one God is a creature – has been created by God – has been brought into being out of nothing – not an element of the divinity and being of God Himself.

COMMENT: The Nicene Creed also uses the phrase “out of nothing.” It refers to things that have been created, in contrast to the Son and the Spirit that are “out of” the uncreated being of God.

COMMENT: The phrase “not an element of the divinity and being of God Himself” implies that, in Hopko’s theology, the Son and the Spirit are elements of the divinity and being of God. That is similar to the pre-Nicene Fathers, who thought of Christ as “a derivation and portion of the whole” (Tertullian (AD 165-225), in Against Praxeas 9 “Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. III : Against Praxeas”)

Here the orthodox Christian would say that that is just plain wrong. It is an incorrect understanding of what it means that Jesus is THE Son of God, THE Wisdom of God, and THE Icon of God. To say that the Word of God is a creature would be a wrong interpretation of both the New and Old Testaments. To say that the Spirit of God is a created being would just be totally wrong.

Modalism

The other terrible error is usually called Modalism. This is where people say that there is one God who is the Holy Trinity. They say, ‘He who is the Trinity’.

COMMENT: With this, I think, Hopko classifies the western understanding of the Trinity as Modalism (Sabellianism).

We orthodox Christians, following Scripture and the credal statements, can never say this. We say, there is the one God who is the Father, and He has with Him eternally, whom He begets timelessly before all ages, His only begotten Son, who is also His Logos (His Word) and His Wisdom and His Icon (Image), but this only begotten Son is divine with the very same divinity as the one true and living God. He is another (different?) Who from the Father.

Three Instances of Divine Life

There are three ‘Whos’; He who is the Father, He who is the Son and He who is the Holy Spirit. They are three Persons or three hypostasies. But hypostases is a better term because there are three instances of divine life in perfect and total unity.

The Son of God

But it is important to remember that the one God is the Father of Jesus: Jesus is the Son of God. As the Nicene Creed says, Jesus is “God from God; true God from true God.”

God’s Son, who is of the same divinity as the Father and who is born from Him; comes forth from Him. And this one true and living God also has with Him His Spirit who proceeds from Him – who comes forth from Him.

Begetting versus Proceeding

According to the Scriptures, the Son comes forth from God by means of begetting; He is a Son as a son is to a father. That is who and what the Son is.

And the Holy Spirit comes forth from God by the manner of procession. He is not another Son. It is a different kind of relationship.

The Son is the Son of God because He is begotten of the Father, meaning that He has no human begetter. He has no human father. His Father, literally, is God. God, who is His Father, begets Him before all ages.

Begetting versus Born

And then this very one who is God’s Son is born as a man (as a human being) from the virgin Mary. In Greek, the same verb, when it applies to the Father, is “beget.” When it applies to a mother, it is “born.” So, we would not say that Jesus was begotten of Mary humanly; He was “born” of Mary humanly. But we would also not say that He was born of the Father; He was begotten of the Father.

John 1

In John’s gospel, in the beginning, the Logos was with God, and the Logos was divine. All things came to be through Him (John 1:1-2). Orthodox Christians interpret these sentences to show that the Logos is really divine with the same divinity as the Father.

And then in the prologue of John’s gospel, it says that “the logos became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). As the Nicene Creed would say:

the only-begotten …
Who for us men, and for our salvation,
came down and was incarnate and was made man

You have those two words; that He became flesh (incarnate) and He became human (was made man), born of the virgin Mary. So, He who was divine became human.

If we ask who He is, He is the divine Son of God who is also Mary’s son, who is a real human being just like we are. That is why Eastern Orthodox Christians reject Nestorianism.

Arianism

We not only deny Arianism which says that the Logos – the Son of God was a creature. No, He is not a creature. He belongs to the being of God and His being is divine.

Nestorianism

But we also deny the Nestorians who say that the one born of Mary is NOT the same one as the One begotten of the Father; that the Logos is so perfectly divine that He cannot become flesh; that He cannot become man. The Nestorians say that He can be enjoined to or united with a man but He cannot really be born of a woman. Eastern Orthodox Christians say, o yes, He can and He did. Truly divine and truly human. That is why the council of Chalcedon would say that He is divine with the same divinity as the one and true living God – the One who is the one God – AND He is human with the humanity which all men and women have. That is why we say He is of two natures or has two natures, meaning that He is truly divine and truly human.

Jesus is called God.

And when He is divine, we can call Him God.

Thomas did call Him God. He exclaimed, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).

Some of the sentences of Paul can be read as if Jesus is called God. It depends a little bit on punctuation, but like “our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).

Even certain Old Testament terms, like calling Him Lord in a divine manner, such as, “The LORD (YHVH) says to my Lord, Sit at My right hand” (Psm 110:1). He is using the same term for the one who sits at His right hand as for God Himself, for “the LORD” mean Yahweh and Yahweh is God.

And Jesus in John’s gospel even uses the “I am,” for example, “before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). That is a divine name. So, here, the confession is that the man Jesus is the divine Son of God.

Homoousios

And that is what the council of Nicaea defended. The Nicene Creed used one non-Biblical term to make this point, and that term is homoousios, which can be translated “of one essence” or “of the same essence” or “substance.” Sometimes to be clearest, we might better translate it into English as “who is of the same divinity as the one God who is His Father.” And that is how the Bible speaks.

The Trinity in the Bible

Many years ago, I went to my professor of theology and I said to Him, Prof, I do not find the Trinity in the Bible.

Of course, in those days I had a very skewed idea of the Trinity. I thought of the Trinity as one God who is somehow three, like three-leave clover or water could be liquid or steam or ice. In fact, I have come to learn that those symbolisms are modalistic. They are not accurate. You can speak of God as fountain and stream or something like fire and heat and warmth as emanating from God the Father through His Son Jesus Christ and His Spirit, but not all analogies are apt.

To understand the Trinity properly, you begin with Jesus and you read the Scriptures. Then you can contemplate how the one God is God the Father WITH His Son and WITH His Spirit. Very often the preposition “with” is used but “and” is also used. For example, in the baptismal formula, we baptize in the name of the Father and, therefore, also of the Son because there is no Father without the Son and, therefore, also the Holy Spirit because there is no Holy Spirit without the Father and the Son. And there is no Son without the Father and the Spirit. And there are no Son and Spirit without the Father.

The church fathers of the fourth century, like Gregory the theologian, would never have said that the Father is of one essence with the Son. They would only say that the Son is of one essence with the Father. The reason is that the Son’s divinity is the Father’s divinity. The Son is “God from God” (Nicene Creed). He is a divine Person “from” the one God.

In the Old Testament, there is also the “word” of God and the “Spirit of God” who is not God but is “of” God and divine with the same divinity as God. The Spirit of God inspired the prophets. You will read texts like; the heavens were made by the Word of the LORD; all the earth by the breath of His lips.” You will find sentences about the son of man that is presented to the Father (Dan 7:13).

You cannot read the New Testament without God, who is clearly God, who is not Jesus and who is not the Holy Spirit. And you can’t read the New Testament without Jesus Christ who is not God the Father and who is not the Holy Spirit. And you can’t read the Scriptures without meeting at every page the Holy Spirit, who is not the Son and who is not the Father. But when you read the text, you see that the Son and the Spirit are OF the Father – FROM the Father – BELONGING TO the Father.

Yet, they are divine. They present themselves as fully divine and like the two hands of God (quoting Irenaeus). God is not without His hands. He never works with only one hand. When God speaks His word, He breaths, and when He breaths, He speaks. You cannot even think of God without His Son. Then you come to the conclusion that the one true and living God is the Father. The one true and living God is not the Creator. God would be God without the hundred billion galaxies. But God would not be God without the Logos and the Spirit; without the Word of God and the Breath of God.

So, even if you would speak to a good orthodox Jew and ask, is God ever devoid of His wisdom? A good orthodox Jew would say, never! Is God ever without His word? Never! Is God ever without His breath? No, no, He is the living God; the Spirit of God is divine. So, we Christians could say, see, you believe in the Holy Trinity because you cannot conceive of God without His Word and without His Spirit.

The Son of God is a real human being but He is not a mere human being. He is the human being that the Son of God has become when He was born of Mary.

John is the great theological gospel that shows the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But if you just take Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

When they speak of the birth of Jesus, they say He would be called the Holy One, the Son of the Most High; that He will establish the kingdom of God, His Father is God.

He has no human father. He is conceived of the Holy Spirit. Just like the Spirit of God brooded over the emptiness at the beginning of creation, so the same the Holy Spirit brooded over the barren womb of Mary and then God speaks His Word and His Word is incarnate in Mary’s womb. The Word becomes flesh in Mary’s womb.

When He goes to the temple, He says He must be about His Father’s work and He is filled with the Holy Spirit.

At His baptism, The Father speaks and says, “this is my beloved Son” and the Spirit rests on Him in the form of a dove.

The Spirit is the Spirit of God who is His Father, but then He says that the Spirit is His own Spirit because everything that He has, divinely of humanly, He has received from the Father.

In Hebrews, it even said that it was the Spirit of God who led the Son of God to be crucified in the flesh for the salvation of the world. In John’s gospel, He says the Father is always with Him (John 8:29; 16:32).

So, as a Christian, you cannot contemplate God without immediately and necessarily contemplating the Son and the Holy Spirit. The minute I think about God, I think about Christ and the Spirit. You cannot think about one without thinking about all three.

Filioque

The Spirit is the Spirit of the Son because He proceeds from the Father and rests on the Son. That is why we orthodox is against the filioque in the creed (“and the Son” – Athanasian Creed). There was a break with the West. We claim that the Spirit of God does not proceed from the Father and the Son together. We believe that He proceeds from the Father alone. And He rests on the Son from all eternity and does the same thing when the Son becomes man. He rests upon Him as a man too. We can say that the Spirit proceeds to us from the Father THROUGH the Son. That is true. The Son is the agent of all of the Father’s activities in the world, including the sending of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus said, “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father” (John 15:26).

Three in Perfect Unity

So, you always have these three in perfect unity. Therefore, when I think of one, I immediately think of all three together.

There is one God because there is one Father. And there is one God because there is one divine nature of the Father, which is the nature of the Son and the nature of the Holy Spirit too. So, the Son and the Spirit are of the same essence as the Father. That is what Scripture teaches us, if you put it in philosophical terms. That is what the Bible teaches. They needed that word (homoousios) to defend the Bible.

And when you contemplate the activities of God, you see that every activity proceeds from the Father. The Source of every divine activity – creation, sanctification, redemption, whatever God is doing, it comes from the Father – it is God’s. But the Agent is always the Son. God creates through His Son. He speaks through His Son. He redeems through His Son. So, the Son is His Word. The Son is the Savior, but then, all these activities are accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit. So, every activity of God is from the Father, through the Son in the Spirit. Or, you can say from the Father, AND the Son AND the Spirit.

So, we worship the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit – the Trinity; one in essence; undivided. We pray to thee, o one God and Father, AND thy only-begotten Son AND thy Holy Spirit.

The Son is incarnate and crucified, but the Father is in Him at all time. He is never separated from the Father. Even when He experiences in His humanity the abandonment of God to die the death, He is not separated from the Father. God is in Him. The Holy Spirit is in Him. God, the Father, is raising the dead through Him by the power of the Holy Spirit.

So, when we think of the one God and Father, who is never devoid of His Son and Spirit, we think of the one divinity.

No Triune God

In eastern orthodoxy, the term triune God is not a traditional formula. You find the term tri-personal or tri-hypostatic divinity. There is no tri-personal God. There is the one God and Father Almighty. That is the one God. But then that one God is Father eternally with His Son who is God from God, and with His Holy Spirit.

Is the Spirit called theos?

The Nicene Creed did not call the Holy Spirit theos (God). Gregory, the theologian, was the first one to do that – late in the fourth century. The Bible never calls the Holy Spirit theos. The Nicene Creed called the Son “God from God” but it did not call the Spirit “God from God.” The closest thing in the Bible is when it says that Ananias and Saphira lied to “God.”

Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit … You have not lied to men but to God” (Acts 5:3-4).

And then Jesus said that the one sin that is unforgivable is the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. And blasphemy can only be done against God – a divine Person.

Three Persons with one divine nature

What we say is that the Godhead are three divine hypostases (Persons) with one divine nature. There is one God and Father, whose nature also belongs to the Son and Spirit and there is one divine activity with three who act; the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Then we say that Jesus is one hypostasis (one Person) with two natures because He is fully divine but, because He is also born of Mary, He is fully and completely, truly human.

So, we have, the Godhead being three Persons in one nature, and then we have Jesus Christ being one Person in two natures.

Conclusion

So, how must we think about the Trinity? We begin with the Scriptures, we contemplate Christ, then we contemplate how Christ relates to the one God and Father, how He relates to the one Holy Spirit. We see how the unity of the divine divinity belongs to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This is what we must always remember and never forget – it begins with Christ and it begins with the Scriptures. It begins with the activity of God in saving the world in the Person of Jesus. It begins with the question, “Who do you say I am?” And when we say, “You are the Christ, the Son of God,” the result will be the dogma of the Holy Trinity – the tri-personal Godhead; the one God and Father, the one Lord Jesus Christ and the one Holy Spirit in perfect unity.

Article Series on this Website

Jesus Christ and the Trinity

Daniel

      • Is Daniel a Fraud? – It is claimed by liberal theologians that Daniel was written in the second century before Christ, presenting history as if it is a prophecy. 
      • Daniel 2, 7, and 11 – These prophecies should be read together. 
      • Daniel 9 – Discussion of the Four Major Interpretations of the 490 years

Revelation

Other

Was Sabellius the first Trinitarian?

Context of this article

In my understanding, Jesus never claimed to be God but always indicated that He is subordinate to the Father. He claimed to be the Son of God (John 10:36). Even at Pentecost, Peter proclaimed Jesus as:

A man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst” (Acts 2:22).

The high Christology passages of the Bible, such as John 1, Hebrews 1, Galatians 1, and Philippians 2, were only revealed by the Holy Spirit in the subsequent decades because, before Christ died, the disciples were not ready to process such information (John 16:12).

This left the church, after the New Testament was compiled, to work out how Christ relates to God. At first, while the church still was persecuted, the apologists found it convenient to explain Christ as the Logos of Greek philosophy; separate from and subordinate to the transient high God. This was also the view of Origen – the great theologian of the third century

But in the third century, a movement developed, spearheaded by Noetus, Praxeus, and Sabellius, in which the Son was no longer subordinate to the Father. However, to remain true to the Jewish/Christian principle that God is one, they proposed that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three faces or modes of the one God. We refer to this as modalism or Sabellianism.

However, this was condemned as heresy (Wikipedia). The majority view remained the logos theology of the previous centuries. This is confirmed by Frend (Frend, WHC: The Rise of Christianity) who stated that, at Nicaea:

“The great majority of the Eastern clergy were ultimately disciples of Origen. … they were simply concerned with maintaining the traditional Logos-theology of the Greek-speaking Church.”

But now the question in this article is whether Sabellius really taught modalism. In Christianity, God is always one. The question always is whether He is also three, as in the Trinity doctrine. In modalism, God is not three. The question here is whether Sabellius taught that God is both one and three.

Summary

Johann Lorenz von Mosheim (1694-1755), a German Lutheran theologian who founded the pragmatic school of church historians (Britannica), discusses the theology of Sabellius – a third-century priest and theologian – on pages 215 to 225 of his book – The Christianity of the first 325 years – which is available on Google Play Books.

Contrasting views

Since none of Sabellius’ own writings have survived, and since everything that we know about him comes from the writings of his opponents (Wikipedia), it is difficult to determine what he really taught. On page 217, Von Mosheim explains that, in ancient times, different people had different views of what Sabellius taught:

According to the majority, Sabellius taught that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are only three names of the one God (modalism).

But others said that Sabellius taught that the Father is truly God and that the Son and the Holy Spirit both are divine virtues that came from the Father. Therefore, they conclude that Sabellius’ doctrine approximates that of the Socinians.

Von Mosheim’s View

Von Mosheim, “after very carefully comparing and pondering the statements of the ancients,” concludes that both these views are wrong. As from the last paragraph on page 217, Von Mosheim explains his own understanding:

Sabellius’ goal was “to reconcile … the scriptural doctrine of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with the doctrine of the unity of the divine nature. His goal, therefore, was to prevent “a plurality of Gods” by denying a “distinction of persons in the divine nature.” In other words, he maintained that there is only one divine person. (p217-218)

But Sabellius still believed the distinction of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be a real distinction, and not a mere appellative or nominal one.

Like body, soul and spirit

In the remainder of the chapter, Von Mosheim, from ancient writings, defends his interpretation. One example is particularly striking. From the writings of Epiphanius, he shows that the Sabellians used to illustrate their doctrine by saying that, just as a man is but one person, and yet in his one person, three things may be discriminated – 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. (p219-220)

Conclusion

On this basis, Von Mosheim concludes that Sabellius considered the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be three portions of the divine nature, severed, as it were, from God, and differing from each other – not subsisting as three persons. (p220)

Consequently, these three forms of God, according to Sabellius, were neither three qualities of the divine nature, nor three modes of acting, nor three names of the one God; but they were parts or portions, separated in a sense from God, and yet in another sense connected with him.

The First Trinity Doctrine

In the Trinity doctrine, God is one substance or essence but three distinct persons. According to Von Mosheim, Sabellius also taught that God is one in one sense and three in another, namely one “person” but three “forms” that really differ.

Since the difference between the words “person” (hypostasis) and ousia (substance) was only worked out by Basil the Great late in the fourth century (see, e.g., Lienhard or Pomazansky), these words had different meanings when Sabellius lived. For example, Sabellius used the words “person” and “nature” as synonyms (page 220). When we compare Sabellius’ teachings with the Trinity doctrine, therefore, we must look beyond words to the underlying principles.

What Sabellius taught, as explained by Von Mosheim, is clearly not the Trinity doctrine as described, for example, in the Athanasian Creed, but if we replace Sabellius’ references to “person” with “divine essence,” and “forms” with “person,” do we not have an entry-level Trinity doctrine? As Prof Ninan stated, “The first attempt to understand the concept of Trinity was proposed by Sabellius around 217-220 AD.”

Perhaps Sabellian is so prominent in fourth-century writings because these writers attempted to show how their teachings differ from Sabellianism because that was already condemned as heresy (Wikipedia).

Since virtually all orthodox theologians prior to the Arian controversy in the latter half of the fourth century were subordinationists to some extent (Badcock, Gary D. (1997), Light of Truth and Fire of Love: A Theology of the Holy Spirit, p. 43 or Origen (Wikipedia)), and since Sabellius’ theology was a significant break away from the subordinationist orthodoxy of his day, perhaps the orthodox theologians should rename ‘Sabellius the heretic’ to ‘Sabellius the Great!’

– END OF SUMMARY – 

Purpose

Johann Lorenz von Mosheim (1694-1755) was a German Lutheran theologian who founded the pragmatic school of church historians, which insisted on objective, critical treatment of original sources. In 1723, Mosheim became professor at Helmstedt and in 1747 was made professor of divinity and chancellor of the university at Göttingen. (Britannica).

Von Mosheim’s 514-page book – The Christianity of the first 325 years – was translated into English by James Murdock and is available on Google Play Books. Pages 215 to 225 discuss Sabellius – a third-century priest – and his theology. This post is an extract from those pages. I provided headings and certain bolded key phrases. [In square brackets I provide some explanations.] And I also provided a summary below.

Introduction

After the middle of this century, Sabellius, an African bishop, or presbyter, of Ptolemais, the capitol of the Pentapolitan province of Libya Cyrenaica, attempted to reconcile, in a manner somewhat different from that of Noetus, the scriptural doctrine of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with the doctrine of the unity of the divine nature. (page 215)

… the error of Sabellius infected several of the Pentapolitan bishops, and perhaps some others … from unquestionable testimony, it appears that, in the fourth and fifth centuries, there were Sabellians in various places. (page 215-6)

Different from Noetus

The doctrine of Sabellius was not identical to that of Noetus. I rephrase the rest of this paragraph:

Noëtus taught that the person of the supreme Deity assumed the human nature of Christ into union with himself. Sabellius did not teach this. He taught that only “an energy or virtue, emitted from the Father of all, or, if you choose, a particle of the person or nature of the Father, became united with the man Christ.” (page 216)

And such a virtue or particle of the Father, he also supposed, constituted the holy Spirit. (page 216)

[This point is important because it is generally thought that Sabellius and Noetus had the same teaching (Wikipedia).]

Hence, when the ancients call Sabellius and his disciples Patripassians, the appellation must be understood differently from what it is when applied to Noetus and his followers. (page 216)

[“Patripassianism” comes from the Latin words pater for “father”, and passus from the verb “to suffer” and is the teaching that the Father suffered on the Cross.]

Evidence of Sabellius’ teachings

The name of Sabellius is of much more frequent and marked notice, in the writings of the ancients, than the name of Noetus. Nor is he mentioned solely by those who treat expressly of the sects in the early ages … but there is frequent mention of him also, by those who contended with the Arians and the other corrupters of the doctrine of three persons in God, and by those who expounded the true doctrine concerning God and Christ. (page 216)

Nevertheless, the history of Sabellius is very brief.

[None of Sabellius’ writings have survived. Everything that we know about him comes from the writings of his opponents (Wikipedia).]

His views of God and Christ are stated variously, both by the ancients and moderns. (page 216)

Views Widespread

That his error spread widely … is fully stated by Athanasius…  and more concisely by Eusebius …. (page 216)

The zeal of Dionysius may have driven the Sabellians from Libya and Egypt. But in the fourth century, according to Epiphanius, (Hæres. Isii. § 1. p. 513) the Sabellians were considerably numerous in Mesopotamia, and at Rome. (page 216)

And in the fifth century, the abbot Euthymius … boldly assailed … the Sabellian doctrine which confounds or combines the Father and the Son. … (page 216)

The Majority View

Respecting the real sentiments of Sabellius, there is great disagreement among learned men. The majority says:

He taught that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are only three names of the one God, originating from the diversity of his acts and operations: that he is called the Father, when he performs the appropriate works of a Father, such as precreating, providing, cherishing, nourishing, and protecting; that he is called the Son, when operating in the Son, and thereby accomplishing what was necessary for the salvation of mankind; and that he is called the Holy Spirit, when he is considered as the source of all virtue and sanctification. (page 217)

This exposition of his views is supported by numerous passages from the ancients, who say that Sabellius taught that the Father himself bore the penalties of the sins of mankind; whence he and his disciples were denominated Patripassians. This opinion, Christian Worm, in his Historia Sabelliana, supports with all the arguments and authorities he can command. (page 217)

The Minority View (page 217)

But others, relying chiefly on the authority of Epiphanius, maintain that the ancients misunderstood Sabellius;

That he did not hold the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to be only three appellations of the one God, as acting in different ways;

But that he believed the Father to be truly God, in whom is no division; and the Son to be a divine virtue, descending from the Father upon the man Christ, so that he might be able to work miracles, and to point out correctly the way for men to be saved;

And that he believed the Holy Spirit to be another ray or virtue from the divine nature, moving the minds of men and elevating them to God.

And on this ground, they conclude

That there was a great difference between the doctrine of Sabellius and that of Noëtus, already described; and

That the name of Patripassians was inapplicable to Sabellius, because he did not teach that the Father, or God, suffered penalties, but only some [p. 690] virtue, proceeding from the Father, was present with the man Christ, and aided him when he bore our penalties.

And they say that the doctrine of Sabellius did not differ greatly from that which is maintained by the Socinians. –

Thus have thought, besides others of less fame, Alexander Morus …  Isaac de Beausobre … and Simon de Vries …

Von Mosheim’s View

After very carefully comparing and pondering the statements of the ancients, I have concluded,

That those err who make the Sabellian doctrine and that of Noëtus to be the same;

But those also are deceived, to some extent, who deny that the Sabellians could, with any propriety, be called Patripassians by the ancients, declaring that they were very much like the Socinians,

And that if the statements of Epiphanius are compared with those of the earlier writers, the whole controversy will be settled. (p 217)

I will now state, as carefully and perspicuously as I can, what appears to me true in regard to this subject.

Only one God

I That fear, lest God, who as both reason and the Scriptures teach is a perfectly simple unity, should be rent into a plurality of Gods, which influenced Noëtus, likewise induced Sabellius to deny the distinction of persons in the divine nature, and to maintain that there is only one divine person … And hence, according to Epiphanius, (Hæres. Isii. { 1, p504) whenever the Sabellians fell in with unlearned persons, whom they hoped easily to convert, they proposed to them this one question: … What then shall we say? Have we one God, or three Gods? (p217-218)

Real distinctions between Father, Son, and Spirit

II But while Sabellius maintained that there was but one divine person, he still believed the distinction of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, described in the Scriptures, to be a real distinction, and not a mere appellative or nominal one. (p218)

That is, he believed the one divine person whom he recognized, to have three distinct forms, which are really different, and which should not be confounded. (p218)

This remark is of the greatest importance to a correct understanding of Sabellius’ doctrine; and it ought, therefore, to be accurately substantiated.

First Witness – Arnobius

The first witness I adduce is … Arnobius, junior ~ a writer of the fifth century, whose work … was published by Francis Feuardent, subjoined to the works of Irenæus. Though he lived long after Sabellius, he is an author of much importance on this subject, because he gives us statements from a work of Sabellius himself, which he had before him.

He makes Serapion say, ( in Feuardent’s edition of Irenæus, Paris, 1675, Fol. p. 520): Ego tibi Sabellium lego, (Serapion, therefore, must be considered as holding in his hand some book of Sabellius, [p691] from which he read, )

anathema dicentem his, qui Patrem, et Filium et Spiritum sanctum esse negarent, ad convincendam Trinitatem. Serapion had before said : In Sabellii me insaniam induxisti, qui unum Deum, Patrem et Filium et Spiritum sanctum confitetur.

And when Arnobius had replied:

Sabellium negare Filium et Spiritum sanctum; that is, that Sabellius taught that the Son and the Holy Spirit are nothing different from the Father,

Serapion produced an actual work of Sabellius and showed from it that Sabellius did not maintain what Arnobius asserted, or did not confound the Son and Holy Spirit with the Father, but clearly discriminated the two former from the latter. (p218)

Arnobius, on hearing this, yields the point, or admits that it is so; but still, he maintains, that there is a wide difference between the doctrine of Sabellius and that of other Christians; because the latter believed the Son to be begotten by the Father, which Sabellius denied:

Nos autem Patrem dicimus et credimus, qui genuit Fi liun, et est Pater unici sui Filii ante tempora geniti. And this is a just representation: for although Sabellius made a distinction between the Father and the Son, yet he would not admit that the Son was a divine person, begotten by the Father. (p218)

From this passage, therefore, it is manifest :

(a) That Sabellius held to a Trinity.

(b) That he anathematized those who denied the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or a Trinity. Whence it follows, that

(c) Sabellius held to a real, and not a merely nominal distinction between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (p218)

Had he supposed the terms Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, were three names of the one supreme Deity, there would have been no ground for his anathema. For there never was, and never can be, a single Christian who denies that these terms occur in the Bible, and are there applied to God. It is unquestionable, both from the course of the argument, and from the nature of the case, that Sabellius condemned those who commingled and confounded the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But, most certainly, they do confound the Trinity, who make the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to differ in nothing but in name. Therefore, it was such persons that Sabellius anathematized. (p218-9)

Second Witness – Basil the Great

A second witness comes forward, viz. Basil the Great; who, although he sometimes seems to favor those who held that Sabellius taught a nominal distinction in the Trinity, yet, in two passages shows, not obscurely, that Sabellius held to some real distinction in God.

One of the passages is, ( Epist. ccx. Opp. tom. iii. p. 317. edit Benedict. ):

‘Ανυπόστατον των προσώπων αναπλασμόν, ου δε ο Σαβέλλιος παρητήσατο, ειπών,, τον αυτόν Θεόν ένα το υποκειμένω όντα, προς τις εκάστοτε παραπιπτόυσας χρείας μεταμορφόυμενον, νύν μεν ως πατέρα, νύν δε ως υιόν, νύν δε ως πνεύμα άγιον suadézerfal. lllud hypostasi carens personarum commentum ne Sabellius qui dem rejecit, quippe cum dicat eundem Deum, cum subjecto unus sit, pro occur rentibus subinde occasionibus transformatum, modo ut Patrem, modo ut Filium, modo ut Spiritum s : inctum loqui.

The other passage is (Epist. ccxxxv. p. 364.):

Σαβέλλιος πολλαχου συγχέων την έννοίαν, επιχειρει διαιρεϊν τα πρόσωπα, την αυτήν υπόστασιν λέγων προς την εκάστοτε παρεμπίπτουσαν χρείαν μεταχηματίζεσ- [ p. 692. } fai. Sabellius, tametsi confundit notionem ( Dei ), tamen sæpe conatur personas distinguere, dum hypostasin eamdem ait pro usu subinde occurrente varias per sonas induere.

Basil, indeed, speaks less clearly than I could wish, on this very obscure subject. But this is plain enough, that the Trinity of Sabellius was not merely nominal or verbal. For 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, and that he assumes the one or the other of these forms, according to the state of things. But diverse forms of one and the same being, however they may be considered, involve some real distinction, and cannot be confounded with different appellations for the same thing.

Third Witness – An Analogy

But nothing will better elucidate and confirm my position, than the comparison by which the Sabellians were accustomed to illustrate their doctrine concerning the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as it is stated by Epiphanius, (Hæres. lxii. p513).

Having stated the Sabellian doctrine in the cornmon form: έιναι εν μία υποστάσει τρείς óvoparías, there are three appellations in one person; he proceeds to show that this language must not be construed too rigidly, by saying:

n’s ¿ v dvJpurco, σώμα, και ψυχή, και πνευμα. Και ειναι μεν το σώμα, ως ειπείν τον πατέρα, ψυχήν δε ώς ειπείν τον υιόν, το πνευμα δε ως ανθρώπου, δυσως και το άγιον πνευμα εν Tu Océrati. Patrem, Filium, Spiritum sanctum sic se habere in Deo quemad modum in homine corpus, animam et spiritum; corporis instar Patrem, animæ Filium, Spiritum denique sanctum in Divinitate instar spiritus se habere.

Comparisons, undoubtedly, are not to be pressed too far; but this one would lose every shadow of likeness and similarity, and would become a dissimilarity rather than a similarity if Sabellius had taught only a Trinity of names or words. If the difference between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is the same — I do not say altogether, but only in part — as that between the body, the rational soul or spirit, and the sentient soul in man; then, necessarily, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, must differ really from each other. (p219)

Sabellius, therefore, believed that, as a man is but one person, and yet in his one 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. (p219-220)

Other testimonies will occur as we proceed.

Three portions of the one divine nature

III 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 (p693) being three portions of the divine nature, severed, as it were, from God, and differing from each other, yet not subsisting as three persons, but all dependent on the one individual divine nature.

[Notice that person and nature are used as synonyms.]

The Father

And therefore God, when about to create the universe, did not put his whole person in action, but he sent out a portion of his nature, by which he accomplished his design. And this portion of the Divinity is called the Father; because, by its agency, God has become the parent of all things, or procreates, sustains, cherishes, and governs all. This Father produced Christ in the womb of the virgin Mary, and for that reason is emphatically Christ’s Father; and Christ is called the Son of God, because he holds the relation of a Son, in regard to this divine energy.

The Son

Again, when the same God would reclaim to himself the human race by Christ, he sent forth another portion of himself, which, being united to Christ, is called the Son; because he resides in the Son of God, and by that Son teaches and works, and, in a certain sense, makes one person with the Son.

Holy Spirit

Lastly, God sent out a third particle of his nature, perfectly separate from the two former, by which he animates the universe, and enlightens, excites, and regenerates the minds of men. This portion of God is called the Holy Spirit; because, like a wind, he excites and produces holy movements in men.

The three forms … of God, therefore, according to Sabellius, were neither three qualities of the divine nature, … nor three modes of acting, nor three appellations of the one God; but they were parts or portions, rent, indeed, in a sense from God, and yet in another sense connected with him.

Comparison with the Sun

This exposition is compatible with that celebrated comparison taken from the sun, which Epiphanius mentions, and which had led some worthy men to make the Sabellians agree with the Socinians.

Epiphanius (Hæres. lxii. p. 513) says, that the Sabellians were accustomed to explaining their doctrine by comparison with the sun, thus:

In the sun there is but one substance … but there are three powers … namely … the illuminating power, the warming power, and the circular form. The warming power answers to the Holy Spirit; the illuminating power, to the Son; and the form or figure … to the Father. (p220)

This representation seems in itself to favor the opinions of those who make Sabellius discard all real distinctions in the divine nature. But Epiphanius explains the comparison in a manner that makes it apparent, that Sabellius did not intend, by this new comparison, to subvert his former comparison, taken from the soul, body, and spirit in a man. For he adds, that the Son was sent out like ray from the Father, to perform what was requisite for the salvation of mankind, and, having accomplished the business, returned again to heaven; and that the Holy Spirit also, in like manner, should be viewed as something sent into the world. Now, whatever is sent forth from God, and afterward returns to God, must undoubtedly be something actually separate in some way from the divine nature: because, it could not possibly return back [p694) to God, unless it had departed and been separated from God. (page 220-221)

Let no one trouble himself with the difficulties which this dogma involves; for the question is, not how wisely Sabellius reasoned, but what distinction he made between the Father, the Son, and the holy Spirit.

What the ancients said about Sabellius

In the remainder of the chapter, Von Mosheim discusses what various ancient writers have written about Sabellius. He argues that they sometimes contradict and correct themselves. But since the purpose of this post is simply to show what Von Mosheim’s conclusions were – not what earlier authors argued – that analysis is not copied here.

Final Observation

At Nicaea, as the conservative website BIBLE.CA confesses, most of the delegates opposed the Nicene Creed because of the phrases containing the word ousia (substance), including homoousios (same substance). They were concerned that this taught Sabellianism, which was already condemned (Wikipedia). The Sabellian theologians used these words to explain their theories. The use of the word homoousios by the Sabellian bishops of Libya had been condemned by Dionysius of Alexandria in the 260s (WHC Frend. The Rise of Christianity, 1985, p140-141).

Now, if it is true that the Nicene Creed is a revived form of Sabellianism, then it revived a theory which the church already condemned in previous centuries. In another article, I argue that the traditional Trinity doctrine is essentially modalism.

It is further important to understand that these controversial ousia-terms were included in the Nicene Creed because Emperor Constantine insisted on it (BIBLE.CA or Erickson or A Short History of Christian Doctrine, Bernard Lohse, 1966, p51-53). As Frend stated, “The Emperor exerted all his influence toward securing unanimity.”

In conclusion, it seems as if the Nicene Creed is a revival of an already condemned theology because of pressure from the emperor.

Trinity – Available Articles

First 300 years (the persecuted church)

Nicene Creed – AD 325

Fourth Century Arianism

Authors on the Arian Controversy

Fifth Century Arianism

Sixth Century

Later developments

Trinity – General