Once upon a time, there was one God, a unitarian, solitary Deity who lived in his eternity all by himself. And then one day, before there were days, the one God decided to create a universe and people it with human beings made in his image. After these human beings fell into disobedience and sin, he entered into a history of self-revelation and salvation with them. He spoke to Abraham and bound him to himself by covenantal promises. He revealed himself to Moses and the Hebrews and shared with them his Torah and holy Name. He sent his prophets to guide, correct and form his people. And in the fullness of time he sent his Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, who addressed him as “Father” and taught his followers to do the same, thus becoming known as “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 1:3, Eph 1:3, 1 Pet 1:3). After raising Jesus from the dead, God sent his disciples into the world to proclaim the gospel and make disciples, baptizing them in the triadic name of the one God, now addressed as Father, and of his son Jesus, who has perfectly disclosed to the world the divine character and the way of eternal life, and of the Holy Spirit, the salvific power and energy of deity poured out upon the Church on Pentecost (Matt 28:19:-20). And for three centuries the Church was faithful to its mission and the revelation of the one God. But then it abandoned the truth, embraced the heretical doctrine of tri-personal divinity, and began to violently persecute the followers of the one God. The knowledge of the one God was lost to the Church for 1400 years, but in his grace God eventually raised up the erudite scholar and Anglican priest Samuel Clarke. Clarke read the Scriptures with fresh and unbiased eyes and rediscovered the biblical truth of the divine unicity. In 1712 he published the fruits of his scholarship, one of the great works of Christian theology: The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity. Sadly, this important work has been ignored by trinitarian Christians, such is the Satanic power of tradition and dogma. But a new day is dawning. God is restoring the Church to its original unitarian foundation.
This unitarian narrative enjoys a measure of plausibility and persuasive power—at least up until the great trinitarian “apostasy” of the fourth century, for which the narrative is unable to provide compelling reasons. Why did St Athanasius and the Cappadocians concoct the unprecedented and theologically revolutionary homoousion, and how could they have believed they were faithfully continuing the apostolic tradition, when even their great teacher Origen, according to Dale Tuggy’s reading, appears to have taught otherwise? Tuggy has no answer. All he can do is invoke the decision of the Emperor, Theodosius I, to impose the Nicene faith on the Roman Empire in A.D. 380 and suppress all expressions of Arianism. In Tuggy’s words:
Secular power forced a “win” for the Nicene side, but what was won was not so much the doctrinal argument as the ecclesial power-struggle. This became a pattern when something similar happened at the 451 council. What went undone was any careful, clear exposition of how to interpret the revised Nicene creed of 381. As it was the language which was enforced, the precise meaning of it wasn’t the primary concern. From time to time, in the centuries that followered, some thoughtful trinitarian would venture to clarify what the statements must mean. [Tuggy cites John Philoponus and Peter Abelard as examples], but was typically denounced and condemned as a heretic by his fellow trinitarians. Sometimes another would step forward with a rival exposition, only to be denounced in turn. Some were actually executed because of their theological convictions, notably unitarian Christians in what historians now call the “Radical” wing of the Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries. Their killers were both Protestants of the “Magisterial” wing of the Rformation and Roman Catholics. Both persecutors followed traditions established in the late fourth century of using governmental power to strong-arm “heretics.” (What is the Trinity?, pp. 58-59)
After the triumph of Nicaea, unitarian divinity would continue to be taught in the persecuted communities of Judaism and later by the victorious armies of Islam, but within the imperial Church the true faith was successfully exterminated. Trinity replaced the One. At this point the unitarian narrative loses its persuasiveness. How does one prove the assertion that the Trinitarian faith triumphed across the Empire, century after century, because—and principally because—of state coercion? Tuggy offers no substantiation. Is it not at least possible, nay probable, that the Nicene faith ultimately triumphed because it provided a superior theological explanation for the eucharistic life of the Church and the soteriological claims of the gospel? (see, e.g., Basil Studer, Trinity and Incarnation, and John McGuckin, “The Holy Trinity as the Dynamic of the World’s Salvation in the Eastern Fathers,” in The Holy Trinity in the Life of the Church, pp. 65-78). Emperors do not always win. St Ambrose publicly rebuked Theodosius for the massacre at Thessalonica in 390. The Oriental Churches successfully defied (and continue to this day to defy) the imperial imposition of the Chalcedonian definition. St Maximus the Confessor refused to accept the monothelite heresy and was tortured and exiled by Constans II in 662. I also find it odd that Tuggy would cite Philoponus and Abelard, neither of whom were condemned for teaching unitarianism but rather tritheism. At this point one might be excused for thinking that for Tuggy just about any stick is good enough to beat catholic Christianity with. I kept waiting to hear about Galileo’s house arrest.
Tuggy stands on stronger ground when discussing the triadic views of the second-century/early third-century theologians, men like Tatian, Athenagoras, St Justin Martyr, Hippolytus, and Tertullian. They evidently taught what is often called a two-stage theory of the divine logos: in the divine eternity reason (logos) was a divine attribute, right alongside, one might say, God’s goodness, justice, and wisdom—an eternal property within God, not a person or self alongside God. But at the moment of creation, or perhaps a finite time before it, God utters his reason into personal existence, a divine being and second self, to assist him in the making of the world. This Word protects the divine transcendence from involvement in creation. Tertullian is representative of catholic theology for this period. Tuggy explains Tertullian’s view in his article for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Under the influence of Stoic philosophy, Tertullian believes that all real things are material. God is a spirit, but a spirit is a material thing made out of a finer sort of matter. At the beginning, God is alone, though he has his own reason within him. Then, when it is time to create, he brings the Son into existence, using but not losing a portion of his spiritual matter. Then the Son, using a portion of the divine matter shared with him, brings into existence the Spirit. And the two of them are God’s instruments, his agents, in the creation and governance of the cosmos.
The Son, on this theory, is not God himself, nor is he divine in the same sense that the Father is. Rather, the Son is “divine” in that he is made of a portion of the matter that the Father is composed of. This makes them “one substance” or not different as to essence. But the Son isn’t the same god as the Father, though he can, because of what he’s made of, be called “God”. Nor is there any tripersonal God here, but only a tripersonal portion of matter – that smallest portion shared by all three. The one God is sharing a portion of his stuff with another, by causing another to exist out of it, and then this other turns around and does likewise, sharing some of this matter with a third.
For Tertullian, Tuggy summarizes, “the Son is neither eternal nor as divine as the Father. Nor is Tertullian an anomaly. Again, the two-stage logos theory is standard for this era, aside from ‘monarchian’ dissenters” (p. 49). Classical trinitarianism affirms four propositions, states Tuggy: 1) the Son is as divine as the Father; (2) the Son is eternal; (3) the Spirit is as divine as the Father and Son; (4) the Spirit is eternal. Logos theology fails all four conditions, yet it was recognized as orthodox in its time. How curious.
But let me throw a spanner into the works—St Irenaeus of Lyons. Irenaeus is recognized by many scholars as the first truly important theologian of the post-apostolic Church. Hans Urs von Balthasar refers to him as “theology’s founding father and a paradigmatic figure in its history” (The Scandal of the Incarnation, p. 8). As a youth Irenaeus heard St Polycarp, who was himself a disciple of the Apostle John, preach and teach. Irenaeus thus embodies a living link to the apostolic tradition. Now if Tuggy is correct that two-stage logos theory dominated orthodox reflection during the second- and early third-century period, then Irenaeus should also fall into this category, and Tuggy certainly intimates that he does. After all, Irenaeus explicitly confesses belief in “one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them” (Against Heresies I.10.1). Yet Tuggy fails to mention that many scholars contest the claim that Irenaeus is accurately described as a two-stage logos theorist. Tuggy notes the dispute on his blog but not in his book. I judge this to be a misleading and tendentious omission.
Irenaeus exhibits little interest in philosophical speculation on the inner life of the Godhead. He refuses to step outside the economia as revealed in the Scriptures. Exegesis is determinative. Hence we do not find in Irenaeus a clear distinction between the immanent and economic Trinities. His reflection begins and ends with Jesus Christ, the incarnate and risen Son. Protology is eschatology; creation, recreation. The Crucified is the Word through whom the world has been made. “Since he who saves already existed,” Irenaeus astonishingly declares, “it was necessary that he who would be saved should come into existence, that the One who saves should not exist in vain” (AH 3.22.3; see “God Creates the World From the Cross“). Put that into your analytic pipe.
Irenaeus fits neither into classical trinitarian categories nor into the Hellenistic logos schemes of Justin Martyr and Tertullian (see Jackson Lashier, “Irenaeus as Logos Theologian” and Irenaeus on the Trinity). Unlike the Apologists, he does not need the Logos to protect the divine transcendence, for God “contains all things, and is Himself contained by no one” (AH 4.20.2). The Father is as metaphysically intimate to his creation as are his Word and Spirit. Yet following Scripture, Irenaeus affirms the creation of the cosmos by the Father through and by his two eternal hands:
Those who obey him always learn that he is so great a God and that he is the very one who by himself created and made and adorned and contains all things. Now [included] among all things are both us and our world. We too, then, together with these things which are contained [by him], were made by him. And this is the one about whom Scripture said, “And God formed man, taking dust of the earth, and breathed into his face the breath of life” (Gen 2:7). Therefore, angels did not make us, nor did they form us, nor, indeed, could angels make an image of God, nor [could] any other besides the true God, nor [could] a Power far removed from the Father of all things. For God did not need these [beings] to make what he had himself beforehand determined to make, as if he himself did not have his Hands. For always present with him are the Word and Wisdom, the Son and Spirit, by whom and in whom he made all things freely and of his own will, to whom he also speaks, when he says, “Let us make man after our image and likeness” (Gen 1:26)—he himself taking from himself the substance of those things which have been created and the pattern of those things which have been made and the figure of those things in the world which have been adorned. (AH 4.20.1 [Briggman translation])
Irenaeus rejects the claim that God created intermediaries through which he created the world. He has his Word and Spirit, which have always existed with him. As Anthony Briggman plausibly notes, Irenaeus most likely believed that the Word and Spirit were ontologically equal to the Father, “else a gradation of divine being would exist within the Godhead. Irenaeus’ conception of divinity has no room for such a subordinationist understanding of the Godhead, for it would bring his position uncomfortably close to the celestial chain of being advocated by some of his opponents” (Irenaeus of Lyons and the Theology of the Holy Spirit, p. 122). Briggman’s interpretation is supported by the following passage:
In this way, then, it is demonstrated [that there is] One God, [the] Father, uncreated, invisible, Creator of all, above whom there is no other God, and after whom there is no other God. And as God is verbal, therefore, He made created things by the Word; and God is Spirit, so that He adorned all things by the Spirit, as the prophet also says, “By the Word of the Lord were the heavens established, and all the power by his Spirit” (Ps. 33:6/32:6 LXX). Thus, since the Word ‘establishes,’ that is, works bodily and confers existence, while the Spirit arranges and forms the various ‘powers’, so rightly is the Son called the Word and the Spirit the Wisdom of God. Hence, His apostle Paul also well says, “One God, the Father, who is above all, and through all and in us all”—because ‘above all’ is the Father, and ‘through all’ is the Word—since through Him everything was made by the Father—while ‘in us all’ is the Spirit, who cries “Abba, Father,” and forms man to the likeness of God. Thus, the Spirit demonstrates the Word, and, because of this, the prophets announced the Son of God, while the Word articulates the Spirit, and therefore it is He Himself who interprets the prophets and brings man to the Father. (On the Apostolic Preaching 5)
Now I know that some scholars disagree with the above interpretation of St Irenaeus. I lack the competence to adjudicate. All I can say is that after spending an intensive week last month with Fr John Behr studying Irenaeus, I judge that Tuggy’s unitarian model does not work well with the Bishop of Lyons. With Scripture and the liturgical tradition, Irenaeus affirms the Father as the one God, creator of heaven and earth, yet at the same time his theological analysis pushes beyond the bounds of the inherited category of divinity. As I said, a spanner in the works.