“Blogging the Institutes” is my on-going attempt to paraphrase John Calvin’s work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. You can find out more about the series in the Introduction. For all the posts in this series, check out the Master List.
The Church Fathers were Trinitarians
The false teachers try to use quotes from Irenaeus to argue against the Trinity. In some passages, he says that the Father of Christ is the only eternal God of Israel. They ignore the wider context of Irenaeus’ point. He was arguing against those who deny that the Father of Christ was the same God who spoke in the old times through Moses and the prophets. His whole goal was to make it plain that in the Scriptures no other God is spoken of except the Father of Christ. In the same way, it is not strange that he concludes that the God of Israel was none other that the God celebrated by Christ and the apostle.
Now, in order to resist a different heresy, we also say that the God who appeared to the Old Testament patriarch was none other than Christ. They might object and say that this God was only the Father. While we argue that the Son is God, we by no means exclude the Father. When the readers pays attention to the purpose of Irenaeus, the dispute is ended. Indeed, we only to look to another passage where he says this, “The God of the Scriptures, who is God alone, is truly the only God; and Christ is called God alone too.” Let’s remember the context. He was discussing the fact that the name of the Father cannot be applied to someone is not truly God. In another passage, he argues that the Son, as well as the Father, was the God proclaimed by the prophets and apostles. He afterwards explains how Christ, who is Lord of all, King, and Judge, received power of the One who is God of all. At the same time, he shortly affirms that the Son is make of heaven and earth. He also delivered the Law by the hand of Moses, and appeared to the OT patriarchs.
If anyone now insists that according to Irenaeus the Father alone is the God of Israel, I will refer him to the passage in which he distinctly says that Christ is ever one and the same. He also applies to Christ the word of Habakkuk’s prophecy, “God comes from the south” (Habakkuk 3:3). To the same effect he says, “Therefore, Christ himself with the Father is the God of the living.” Later, he explains that Abraham believed God because Christ is the maker of heaven and earth and very God.
Some even try to twist Tertullian’s words. Although his writing at times is rugged and obscure, he teaches the same doctrine we do. For him, while there is one God, his Word, is part of God’s work in the world. there is only one God in unity of substance. But in a mystery, the unity is arranged into Trinity. There are three, not in terms of substance but form, not in power but in order. He holds that the Son is second to the Father. But what he means is that the only difference is by distinction. In one place he says the Son is visible. But after he explains both views he declares that he is invisible when regarded as the Word.
In sum, by affirming that the Father is characterized by his own Person, he shows that he supports the Trinity. Although he does not acknowledge any other God than the Father, he shows that he does not exclude the Son when read in its immediate context. He denies that the Son is a different God from the Father. The unity of the Trinity is not threatened by the distinction of Person. It is easy understand his meaning from the whole teaching. He argues against Praxeas that although God has three distinct Persons, there are not several gods. His unity is not divided. According to the false teaching of Praxeas, Christ could not be God without the Father. This is why Tertullian spends so much time on the distinctions between the Persons. When he calls the Word and Spirit a portion of the whole, he is not talking about God’s substance and the arrangement and economy of the Persons. In a similar way, he ask, “How many persons. Praxeas, do you think there are, but just as many as there are name for?” He shortly afterwards says, “That they may believe the Father and the Son, each in his own name and person.” These quotes refute those who try to marshal Tertullian to their heretical cause.
When you compare the writings of the ancient fathers with each other, no one will find anything in Irenaeus that is different from what is taught by those who come after him. Justin Martyr agrees with our teaching fully. Some object and claim that Justin calls the Father of Christ the one God. The same thing is taught by Hilary, who uses an even harsher expression by saying that eternity is in the Father. Is he withholding divine essence from the Son? No. His whole work is a defense of the doctrine we hold. Yet, these false teachers try to use Hilary’s words to prove he teaches their heresy.
They even try to use Ignatius to prove their false doctrines. Nothing can be more nauseating than the absurdities they try to smuggle in Ignatius’ names. Therefore, we must not tolerate them using true teachers to advance their heresy.
Moreover, we see the unanimity of the ancient father’s beliefs. No Greek or Latin writer ever apologizes for deviating from earlier orthodox writers. In the Council of Nicea, Arius did not even attempt to cloak his heresy by using other writers (proving he could find none to support his beliefs). Augustine, who all these anti-Trinitarians oppose, examined all the ancient writings and reverently embraced the doctrine taught by them. Augustine is very scrupulous in explaining all the differences he has with the earlier father, even if they are very minor. If he finds anything ambiguous or obscure in other writers, he does not disguise it. He assumes it as a fact: the doctrine opposesd by the Arians was received without argument from the earliest history of the church.
At the same time, he wasn’t ignorant of what some other had previously taught. When he says that “unity is in the Father,” he asks whether God can forget himself? In another passage, he clears away the air when he says the Father is the beginning of the Godhead. He wisely infers that the name of God is specially given to the Father. Unless the beginning were from him, the simple unity of essence could not be maintained.
I hope that believers will admit that I have disposed of all the false teachings by which Satan trues to pollute the pure doctrine of the faith. The whole teaching on the Trinity has, I trust, been expounded. My readers will hopefully temper their curiosity and not long for perplexing and complex debates. I didn’t try to satisfy everyone’s speculations. But I also haven’t left out anything which I didn’t like either. At the same time, to build up the church, I have thought it better to not touch on various topics, which would have yielded very little profit. What’s the point of discussing a question like whether or not the Father always generates? This idea of continual generation becomes absurd from the moment its read about.