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§ 5. Points decided by these Councils.
A. Against Sabellianism.
These Councils decided that the terms Father, Son, and Spirit, were not expressive merely of relations ad extra, analogous to the terms, Creator, Preserver, and Benefactor. This was the doctrine known as Sabellianism, which assumed that the Supreme Being is not only one in essence, but one in person. The Church doctrine asserts that Father, Son, and Spirit express internal, necessary, and eternal relations in the Godhead; that they are personal designations, so that the Father is one person, the Son another person, and the Spirit another person. They differ not as ἄλλο καὶ ἄλλο, but as ἄλλος καὶ ἄλλος; each says I, and each says Thou, to either of the others. The word used in the Greek Church to express this fact was first πρόσωπον, and afterwards, and by general consent ὑπόστασις; in the Latin Church, “persona,” and in English, person. The idea expressed by the word in its application to the distinctions in the Godhead, is just as clear and definite as in its application to men.
B. Against the Arians and Semi-Arians.
The Councils held that the Father, Son, and Spirit are the same in substance, and equal in power and glory. Whatever divine perfection, whether eternity, immutability, infinity, omnipotence, or holiness, justice, goodness, or truth, can be predicated of the one, can in the same sense and measure be predicated of the others. These attributes belonging to the divine essence, and that essence being common to the three persons, the attributes or perfections are in like manner common to each. It is not the Father as such, nor the Son as such, who is self-existent, infinite, and eternal, but the Godhead, or divine essence, which subsists in the three persons. The Greek words used to express that which was common to the three persons of the Trinity were, as we have seen, οὐσία, φύσις, and at first, ὑπόστασις; to which correspond the Latin words substantia, or essentia, and natura; and the English, substance, essence, and nature. The word selected by the Nicene fathers to express the idea of community of substance, was, ὁμοούσιος. But this word, as we have already seen, may express either specific sameness, or numerical identity. In the former sense, all spirits, whether God, angels, or men, are ὁμοούσιοι. They are similar in essence, i.e., they are rational intelligences. That the Council intended the word to be taken in the latter sense, as expressing numerical identity, is plain, (1.) Because in its wider sense ὁμοούσιος does not differ from ὁμοιούσιος, which word the Council refused to adopt. The Arians were willing to admit that the Father, Son, and Spirit were ὁμοιούσιοι, but refused to admit that they were ὁμοούσιοι. This proves that the words were used in radically different senses. (2.) Because this Council declares that the Son was eternal; that He was not created or made, but begotten ἐκ τῆς οὐσίας τοῦ πατρός, “of the very essence of the Father.” (3.) This is implied in the explanation of “eternal generation” universally adopted by the Nicene fathers, as “the eternal communication of the same numerical essence whole and entire, from the Father to the Son.” (4.) If the term ὁμοούσιος be taken in the sense of specific sameness, then the Nicene Creed teaches Tritheism. The Father, Son, and Spirit are three Gods in the same sense that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are three men, for all men in that sense of the term are ὁμοούσιοι. It is the clear doctrine of these Councils that the same numerical, infinite, indivisible essence subsists in the three persons of the Trinity. This is still further evident from the inadequate illustrations of this great mystery which the early fathers sought for in nature; as of the light, heat, and splendor of the sun; the fountain and its streams; and especially from memory, intelligence, and will in man. In all these illustrations, however inadequate, the point of analogy was unity (numerical identity) of essence with triplicity.
C. The Mutual Relation of the Persons of the Trinity.
On this subject the Nicene doctrine includes, —
1. The principle of the subordination of the Son to the Father, and of the Spirit to the Father and the Son. But this subordination does not imply inferiority. For as the same divine essence with all its infinite perfections is common to the Father, Son, and Spirit, there can be no inferiority of one person to the other in the Trinity. Neither does it imply posteriority; for the divine essence common to the several persons is self-existent and eternal. The subordination intended is only that which concerns the mode of subsistence and operation, implied in the Scriptural facts that the Son is of the Father, and the Spirit is of the Father and the Son, and that the Father operates through the Son, and the Father and the Son through the Spirit.
2. The several persons of the Trinity are distinguished by a certain “property,” as it is called, or characteristic. That characteristic is expressed by their distinctive appellations. The first person is characterized as Father, in his relation to the second person; the second is characterized as Son, in relation to the first person; and the third as Spirit, in relation to the first and second persons. Paternity, therefore, is the distinguishing property of the Father; filiation of the Son; and procession of the Spirit. It will be observed that no attempt at explanation of these relations is given in these ecumenical creeds, namely, the Nicene, that of Constantinople, and the Athanasian. The mere facts as revealed in Scripture are affirmed.
3. The third point decided concerning the relation of the persons of the Trinity, one to the other, relates to their union. As the essence of the Godhead is common to the several persons, they have a common intelligence, will, and power. There are not in God three intelligences, three wills, three efficiencies. The Three are one God, and therefore have one mind and will. This intimate union was expressed in the Greek Church by the word περιχώρησις, which the Latin words inexistentia, inhabitatio, and intercommunio, were used to explain. These terms were intended to express the Scriptural facts that the Son is in the Father, and the Father in the Son; that where the Father is, there the Son and Spirit are; that what the one does the others do (the Father creates, the Son creates, the Spirit creates), or, as our Lord expresses it, “What things soever” the Father “doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise.” (John v. 19.) So also what the one knows, the others know. “The Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God. For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God.” (1 Cor. ii. 10, 11.) A common knowledge implies a common consciousness. In man the soul and body are distinct, yet, while united, they have a common life. We distinguish between acts of the intellect, and acts of the will, and yet in every act of the will there is an exercise of the intelligence; as in every act of the affections there is a joint action of the intelligence and will. These are not illustrations of the relations of the persons of the Trinity, which are ineffable, but of the fact that in other and entirely different spheres there is this community of life in different subsistences, — different subsistences, at least so far as the body and soul are concerned.
This fact — of the intimate union, communion, and inhabitation of the persons of the Trinity — is the reason why everywhere in Scripture, and instinctively by all Christians, God as God is addressed as a person, in perfect consistency with the Tripersonality of the Godhead. We can, and do pray to each of the Persons separately; and we pray to God as God; for the three persons are one God; one not only in substance, but in knowledge, will, and power. To expect that we, who cannot understand anything, not even ourselves, should understand these mysteries of the Godhead, is to the last degree unreasonable. But as in every other sphere we must believe what we cannot understand; so we may believe all that God has revealed in his Word concerning Himself, although we cannot understand the Almighty unto perfection.
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