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Beza on the Trinity, part 5

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.

Part 4

But as for the reason why the same relationship does not obtain among created species, Your Excellency should also consider the following. Created species, like a person, although they cannot be divided as to form, nevertheless because they are constituted of quantitative individuated elements (as I would express it), they are in fact divided according to their quantitative extension.[28]

Consequently, let us use the following as an example: although Peter, John, and James are one in terms of both their universal and specific[29] form, they are not, however, one individual but are referred to as three. There can really be no doubt that they are not only distinguished by their incommunicable properties but also divided by their quantitative extension. Similarly, we not only say that Gabriel, Raphael, and Michael are three distinct hypostases of one angelic nature. We also hold that they are three spirits. Even though they are not limited by corporeal extension, still, bound by the peculiar quality of their substance they are truly separated one from another. But in the divine essence that is most simple in every respect, and most infinite in act,[30] there can be no place for either division or composition, but for distinction only. This is something that neither flesh nor blood has revealed to us but the Son himself. Moreover, the same logic that applies to a subject’s nature also holds with respect to those things that are predicated of that nature absolutely. And so likewise, the individual Persons are the one and same eternal, immeasurable, infinite, and omnipotent God.

And so, when we read in the work of that man who is both in substance and name “Gentile,”[31] i.e., in his pamphlet against Athanasius, that there are multiple “eternals and omnipotents,” we realized that what the Apostle had foretold had been fulfilled in him. I mean that men of this type were given over to a reprobate mind, to a mind devoid of all reason and judgment.[32] Now we must take a different position on those properties that are predicated by relation, and that one in particular which they describe as ὑφισταμένην ἰδιότητα (hyphistamenēn idiotēta).[33] Because, as Tertullian correctly explains in his work Against Praxeas, the nature of the relations[34] is that they can be neither the same nor can one differ from another.

Finally, how can they be so outrageous as to ascribe to us what they call a “quaternity”? For they dream that we posit that God exists in himself (and this is a topic that Hilary discusses at length yet without clarity in book 4 of his work) by some unknown kind of separate οὐσία (ousia) anterior to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thus, they claim, we hold that there is a kind of fourth “shared” God[35] to whom those three persons are adjoined, leaving four gods as the result. Or, at the least, that we hold that those three persons like parts of a whole constitute that one “shared” being.

But the basic experience common to the created order teaches us just how stupid their invention is. For those things that are called universals do not exist in themselves but only the hypostases that subsist in them exist. Unless perhaps these men count human nature apart from its own individuated properties as a singular entity.[36] Applying this concept to individuated properties results in an increase in the number of such singular entities.[37]

Part 5

And so these men should know that when we speak of the divine essence we conceive in the mind not of some shared or conglomerate God, but that in which those individual persons subsist distinctly—as we said before—by their own unique properties, in the whole and same being. By the term “Trinity” we understand not one shared God separately, but three persons subsisting in one essence. This is because, as Gregory Nazianzus has correctly written, we cannot in the mind conceive the one essence apart from the three persons, nor the three persons apart from that whole same and singular essence. It also follows from this, as my father of blessed memory John Calvin, the true defender of this truth, properly wrote, that the prayer “Holy Trinity, One God” smacks of barbarism. For if the expression is not softened by a skillful interpretation, it seems to suggest either that there is something that subsists outside the three persons or aggregates the three persons themselves, guiding the invocation toward some universal (though this universal is not per se beyond the persons, but those three[38] subsist in it).

I do not doubt that those who first spoke this way[39] meant something different. But they who have adopted this position, as Your Excellency writes, are causing great harm to a very good man and openly revealing their own irreverence. From our perspective, these men demand that we fight not with arguments that they call merely human but from the Word of God. As though it were some kind of philosophical invention to hold that there are truly three persons, while of these same persons there is in number only one essence! But while I wait for a more full response from your Excellency, I shall at the same time do the following, in order to explain more precisely the particular relevant passages of God’s Word. I shall set against these men whatever the Scriptures state in defense of the one God, and against a multiplicity of gods. And because we, though we are commanded to adore one God, nevertheless worship the Son and the Holy Spirit no differently than we do the Father, therefore we believe and confess that the Son, the Holy Spirit, and the Father are individually the one God who alone must be worshiped, though from the Father, as from a foundation, the distinctions of the persons derives.

Moses in his song bears witness that Jehovah alone was Israel’s guide.[40] But Paul plainly calls him Christ.[41] And so they must acknowledge that there are not two gods but that the one in number, who alone was called the guide, is Jehovah, even though one is the person of the Father, the other that of the great Angel himself.[42] Yet I will say more about these matters on a later occasion when what I am asking for from your Excellency becomes available. As it is, I direct my attention to your Majesty. I plead with you, Most Noble Prince, that you compel those men to acknowledge openly the blasphemy that they have for some time now entertained: that there are numerically many gods.

They must, I say, admit along with us either that there is one and the same God or that many gods are derived from one. Furthermore, they must acknowledge that they are becoming detestable to this one true God and all his saints. Come on, let them own up to their own doctrine openly, the teaching they have swallowed from Philoponus, Severus, Damian, and other monsters of unhappy memory.[43] And if they can, they must prove it with arguments, or from the Scriptures, or from the consensus of the Fathers and the ancient church. We in our turn accept the same constraint. And if we cannot make their blasphemy as obvious as the sun at noon, then, Most Noble Prince, we do not at all object to being considered and treated as false prophets.

They praise Hilary alone more than all others, not of course because no one is more confusing or vague than he![44] Still, we do not by this statement intend any insult to him. But why do they not acknowledge without argument that Augustine is the best and most learned writer? Obviously it is because they consider him a sophist, and so they toss around the phrase “some Augustinian God” as a joke. And yet even that phrase, Most Noble Prince, is so offensive to the minds of all godly people (and rightly so) that I am not in the least surprised that all such godly people who now live flee from these men no less than from the devil himself. For who could persuade a man of good judgment that Augustine taught anything different on the subject of the Trinity than the churches of Africa? And could believe that these churches held a position that was any different than what the Catholic consensus maintained? I do indeed acknowledge that the Fathers have their warts (who could deny that?); but they are the kind of blemishes that still reveal a solid foundation. When this has been removed, what will we conclude their faith was, and what will we think of their church?


[1] Cf. The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Path to Independence, by Anatol Lieven (Yale University Press, 1994), 47–48.

[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 (heteroousion) and ὁμοιούσιον (homoiousion) 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 (autotheos).

[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 AD. The quote is taken from his work De Synodis Fidei Catholicae Contra Arianos, chapters 12 and 13. Beza may well have consulted Erasmus’ 1523 edition of Hilary, though the phrase was commonplace.

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

[28] secundum quantitatem.

[29] This is to be taken in the derivative sense, i.e., relating to species, and not in the colloquial way used today.

[30] actu infinitissima.

[31] Giovanni Valentino Gentile. Beza here, for polemical purposes, is calling him gentile in the sense of barbarian or reprobate.

[32] Romans 1:28.

[33] Underlying quality of individuation.

[34] relativorum, scilicet, in the godhead.

[35] communis Deus.

[36] unum quidpiam; the idea is that human nature does not exist except as realized in individual persons. It makes no sense, therefore, to talk of a human nature and predicable properties apart from individuals, even though the shared qualities of all human beings considered conjointly constitute human nature. Beza is asking if his opponents want to deny this point.

[37] For example, saying that a man is wise does not mean that the quality of wisdom exists as unum quidpiam (a separate, individuated entity) apart from particular individuals. Such a position leads to the absurd expansion of meaningless, unpopulated metaphysical categories.

[38] tria illa is neuter, therefore it cannot refer to the persons of the Trinity.

[39] I.e., using the phrase Sancta Trinitas unus Deus.

[40] Deuteronomy 32.

[41] 1 Corinthians 10.

[42] magni ipsius Angeli, by which Beza means a theophany of Christ.

[43] John Philoponus (c. 490–c. 570), Severus of Antioch (d. 583), Damian of Alexandria (578–605).

[44] Beza is being facetious. Hilary’s orthodoxy is not in question but the obscurity of his writing makes him an easy ally for the anti-Trinitarians.

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, May 2019.

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