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Beza on the Trinity, part 3

David C. Noe

The following excerpt was translated from Theodore Beza’s The Unity of the Divine Essence and the Three Persons Subsisting in It, Against the Arians’ Homoiousios, published in Geneva, March 19, 1565 (the fourteenth day before the calends of April). It is a five-page introduction to his Theses or Axioms on the Trinity of the Persons and Unity of the Essence, with which it was published. The text is from Tractationes Theologicae Bezae, Volumen I, Jean Crespin, Geneva 1570, 646–50.

A letter to the most illustrious Prince Nicholas Radzvilas,[1] the supreme Marszałek[2] of the great Duchy of Lithuania.

Most illustrious Prince, I received two letters from your Excellency at the same time: one addressed to Mr. John Calvin of blessed memory, and the other to myself. Both of them were written beautifully and with refinement. Because I am replying so tardily, I ask your Excellency not to think this is due to any disregard, nor to any other reason than that there was a shortage of couriers traveling from here to Tubingen, the place where your letters to us originated. These are the reasons why my reply is so brief even though this is a quite serious and urgent matter.

I have read, and not without absolute terror, some comments which Gregorius Pauli,[3] Casanonius, and several others who have been enchanted by Biandrata and Gentile[4] wrote in different treatises. They are converting[5] the three persons or ὑποστάσεις into three numerically distinct[6] οὐσίας or essences. In their writings I have found so many things that are both opaque and even contradictory that not even at present do I have full clarity as to their doctrinal positions and arguments.

But your letters, although they were written far more lucidly, nevertheless—if I may speak frankly with your Excellency—do not fully make up for my simple mindedness.[7] This is especially the case in your explanation of that third conciliatory statement which, if I understand it correctly, I think is hardly at all different from the position of either Gentile or Pauli.

And so, because there is not yet much agreement between us concerning the substance of these issues, and far less even with respect to the arguments of our opponents, we can’t help but be legitimately afraid that we could seem to be working in vain over these much disputed topics.[8] Or that we are not adequately precise in attacking our opponents’ position. This circumstance could inflame these already unfortunate debates rather than extinguish them. And furthermore, even the debate itself shows, with so many written documents flying back and forth, that the controversy is increasing rather than diminishing, while each man does not allow what he has just written to be adequately grasped.

Therefore, before I publish a fitting answer to the individual arguments, I demand[9] this from you, your Excellency, in the name of Christ: you must compel[10] those who do not agree with this proposition—Father, Son, Holy Spirit[11] are one and the same God—to do as follows. They must write out, point by point, clearly and distinctly, their own entire dogma both on the essence and on the hypostases,[12] in definite and clear theses. Then they must provide their own positions as derived both from the Word of God and from the writings of the Greek and Latin fathers. Finally, if you have no objection, they must supply refutations of our arguments, which they know full well.

Part 2

Now I shall finally have the opportunity to answer both more candidly and more concisely. This is something that we would have done voluntarily even if your Excellency, in keeping with your own zeal for your country and even more for the whole church, had not petitioned us. But now, since your Excellency has specifically appealed to us, we have decided without reservation to complete this task much more willingly and carefully, with the small measure of grace granted us by the most great and mighty God.

 Yet in the meantime, so that some people do not conclude that we have delayed our response because we have retreated from our position or because of duplicity, we assert openly before your Excellency, most illustrious Prince, that by God’s grace we persist in the true and orthodox position. Not only that, we have also been greatly strengthened in our position by reading their falsehoods. We hold that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three truly distinct persons, and nevertheless one and the same God according to essence. For what could be more inappropriate, no, what could be more irreligious than to multiply in number the most simple[13] infinity? And so we must recoil from the blindness of the Jews, who removed the distinction between persons, and likewise abhor Sabellius’s insolence. He recognizes the persons but only distinguishes between them verbally, not in fact. The Arians’ blasphemy is also reprehensible. Some of them regard Christ as of a different substance, others as of like substance.[14] The Macedonians are similarly detestable for attacking the deity of the Holy Spirit.

But we think that all these, however loathsome they are, have nevertheless said things less absurd than the Severians[15] once did and those with whom we are now dealing. For they retain the fundamental point that God is one as his essence is one, since the Word of God alone declares the real distinction of the essence into three persons without any division. But they have refused to reason soundly from that foundation. Thus it is no wonder that they have not held onto the distinction of persons. But what in the end will they leave intact in the foundation of religion if the divine essence has been torn apart into three gods?

Nevertheless, they would readily persuade us that they avoid a multiplicity of gods if they would only say that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one, i.e., in one divine nature or essence. But even if, for example, Peter, John, and James should be described as one in species, they are not for that reason constituted as three men. So what value is there in retreating from their position? Why have they not instead freely and sincerely maintained what directly follows from their dogma, namely that yes, there is one deity but three gods? And that they are not equal to one another, because to exist from a separate origin[16] is greater than to possess one’s own existence from another’s existence,[17] or to be God transiently?[18]

Certainly they must hold that God is either one in number or many. If one, then why are they fighting so fiercely? But if many—and evidently they believe that the Son’s essence has been propagated from the Father’s essence so that there are in number two essences—how will they so boldly dare to deny that they posit numerically multiple gods? Therefore, if we believe them, then those ancient idolaters[19] should not have been charged with merely worshiping multiple gods, but with worshiping multiple gods in three persons, and indeed false gods. This multiplication of the divine essence into two gods (for we have also heard that some of them erase the Holy Spirit) or into three gods, how is this consistent with their other dogma, that whatever things are predicated in the Scriptures of the one and only God must not be understood of the Son or Holy Spirit? For if the Father is the one and only God, it follows that the Son either is not God, or that he is God by another genus of deity than the Father. That is the Arians’ error. If when Abel was born Adam was the one and only man, his son Abel either was not man or was endowed with another human nature than his father’s, and thereby differed from him in species.

Part 3

As for their reply, that the Father alone is “very God,”[20] i.e., according to their interpretation that he has his being from himself and for that reason can alone be called God, is this not an absurd expression? For the fact that one’s existence derives from oneself or from another does not constitute a separate species of nature. And therefore the Father cannot nor ought to be designated the one and only God for the reason they offer, but rather the one and only Father. Just as the Son is designated the one and only Son because he is only begotten. Nor did anything like what these men invent ever occur to the Apostle when he called the Father the one and only God, and Jesus Christ the one and only Lord.[21] And we will, God helping us, explain this more fully on some other occasion.

Now, moving on to their accusation that we are Sabellians, what justification do they really have for doing this? Sabellius, who confounded the terms essence and person, held Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be one, while we hold that there are three, truly and really distinct by their incommunicable properties. So what similarity is there really between him and us? I would say the same as exists between darkness and light, since these two statements are not synonymous: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one; and Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one God. The first statement confounds the persons, and that is Sabellian. But the second teaches that the persons are distinct in such a way that the individual persons are one, and the same is the whole divine essence. And likewise, the individual persons are not only one deity but also the one and same God. Of this threefold subsistence in the one God the order begins from the Father and ends in the Holy Spirit. Therefore, since these men mock us as though we were saying things that are contradictory—because we maintain that the three are one—they barely deserve a reply. For we do not with Sabellius hold that the three persons are one, but we distinguish the hypostases in one essence according to the Word of God by their properties and numerically.

“All the same,” our opponents reply, “you do not say ‘one thing’ but ‘one God.’”[22] Quite the contrary! We do not simply say “one” but “one God.” This is plainly with reference to the one and same essence, in all which these three[23] so subsist that they are neither divided, nor at all conjoined or synousioi.[24] Instead, they are really distinct in their own incommunicable properties such that any one of the three according to hypostasis is different than the other two. And nevertheless, because the one subsists in the entire and same essence, therefore he is the one and same God as the other two.

The understanding of the Council of Nicea was no different when it wrote “God from God,” even though the phrase is somewhat vague. This was done not in order to establish two Gods or to derive any kind of deity from deity. Rather, it was simply to establish against Arius the identity of essence in two persons. Thus John writes that “the Word which was God was with God in the beginning.”[25] So he makes plain not that there are two numerical essences but two persons subsisting in the one and same essence. Hilary forcibly emphasizes the same sense in his well-known statement “One from One, Whole from Whole, Perfect from Perfect,” though he is the one author these men approve.[26] But Hilary’s purpose is not only to deny the existence of a twofold deity, but also to deny the existence of two gods numerically. Because obviously the Son is other than the Father, and therefore second in order (but not in degree of Godhead)[27] with respect to the fact that he is begotten. And yet because the Son wholly subsists in the one and same essence, he is one and same as the Father with respect to the fact that he is God.

Endnotes

[1] Cf. The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Path to Independence, by Anatol Lieven (Yale University Press, 1994), 47–8.

[2] This is the title of a very high-ranking official in the Polish court, a top adviser to the king.

[3] d. 1591.

[4] Giorgio Biandrata (1515–1588) and Giovanni Valentino Gentile (c.1520–1566), two famous, Italian born anti-Trinitarians.

[5] transformantes

[6] numero

[7] ruditati

[8] The syntax here is deliberately convoluted as Beza seeks to come to the point without offending the Prince. I have broken up a very long and hypotactically beautiful sentence into manageable English portions.

[9] flagitamus, a very strong word.

[10] adigas

[11] The conjunction here is omitted, a figure of speech called asyndeton, to stress the unity of the persons in the Godhead.

[12] Here Beza uses Latin instead of Greek, which he employs interchangeably.

[13] simplicissimam infinitatem; simple here means “uncompounded,” without “parts or passions” as WCF 2.1 states.

[14] Beza uses Greek here without Latin gloss, ἑτεροούσιον and ὁμοιούσιον respectively.

[15] This is a second century gnostic sect also known as Encratites.

[16] esse aliunde, as the Father on this theory.

[17] habere suum esse ab alterius esse, as the Son on this theory derives his existence from the Father.

[18] precario esse Deum, as the Holy Spirit, on this theory.

[19] I.e., the Trinitarian orthodox.

[20] αὐτόθεος

[21] I Corinthians 8:4.

[22] The distinction here is between unum, neuter and referring to one entity, and unus, which as masculine refers to Deus, i.e., God.

[23] Not persons (the form is masculine), but Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

[24] συνούσιοι, i.e., unity of substance that does not admit distinction.

[25] John 1.1; Beza uses his own Latin paraphrase here, not the Vulgate.

[26] I.e., of Poitiers, c. 310–367 A.D. The quote is taken from his work De Synodis Fidei Catholicae Contra Arianos, chapters 12 and 13. Beza may well have consulted for Hilary Erasmus’s Basil edition of 1523, though the phrase was a commonplace.

[27] Beza writes simply gradu, which I have interpreted.

David C. Noe is an elder at Reformation OPC, Grand Rapids, Michigan, a licentiate in the Presbytery of Michigan and Ontario, and serves as an associate professor and chair of the Philosophy and Classics Department at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also serves on the OPC Committee for the Historian. Ordained Servant Online, March 2019.

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