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Beza on the Trinity, 21 Theses, Part 1 (1–15)[1]

David C. Noe

Theses or Axioms on the Trinity of Persons and their Unity of Essence as Derived from Theodore Beza’s Lectures

Thesis I. True knowledge[2] concerning God is the principal aspect of truly calling upon God. This is because we cannot worship what we do not know.

Thesis II. We must seek our conception[3] of God from his Word, because in it, and nowhere else, does he fully disclose himself to us for our salvation, and he does so such that the one who gains knowledge[4] of God outside his Word gains no knowledge for his salvation.[5]

Thesis III. Because God has not only fully disclosed himself to the world in the writings of the Prophets and Apostles in the most true fashion,[6] but even, most of all and especially, in their very suitable words and phrases, we must devote our effort not only to confining ourselves within the boundaries of Scripture (as regards the main point), but also observe the customary formulas of Scripture down to the finest little bit.[7]

Thesis IV. Nevertheless, the stubbornness of heretics made it necessary sometimes to  fashion terminology in order to avoid their petty objections. But the Holy Fathers of the church did not do this carelessly. Instead, they used the greatest reverence so that the meaning of the Scriptures was not in any way whatsoever diminished, nor was any innovation introduced into God’s Word.

Thesis V. This was why, long ago, the Greek terms οὐσία (ousia) and ὑπόστασις (hypostasis) were adopted against Sabellius Afer, who confused the persons with the essence, and against Samosatenus of Antioch,[8] who destroyed the Son’s divine nature. Nevertheless, the author of the letter to Hebrews in chapter 1 employed the second of these terms. Nearly the whole controversy regarding these topics depends upon the explanation of these two terms.

Thesis VI. Therefore, we must understand that when the Fathers are discussing the divine mysteries, they have borrowed these terms from natural phenomena.[9] This is not because they thought that subjects so distinct could properly be explained using the same terms. Instead, they did this so that, in some way, they might by a kind of comparison of things unequal set before our eyes divine realities. And with these as their weapons they resolutely silenced those who were transforming theology into mere philosophical wrangling.

Thesis VII. Therefore, we will state what οὐσία (ousia) and ὑπόστασις (hypostasis) mean when it comes to natural phenomena,[10] at least as much as the present argument will require, and then explain in what respect the same terms are applied to the divine mysteries.

Thesis VIII. There are some designations of a type of universal and indeterminate meaning. These by similar reasoning[11] are attributed to a whole host of predicates in which we note there is something shared. This element is in fact present in the very many different subjects concerning which, by similar reasoning, it is predicated. But still, it does not subsist outside of those subjects, just as likewise those subjects do not subsist except in that common shared element. When, for example, I say “person,” I do not conceive of anything that is properly subsisting per se, but I note in my mind a certain shared nature apart from any particular demarcation. By a similar reasoning Peter, Paul, Timothy, and other individual subjects like these subsist. Therefore, “person” is a term that indicates οὐσία (ousia), a concept expressed by the designation “person.”

Thesis IX. Furthermore, because this conceptualizing afterward descends from that aforementioned universal to the individual and particular instances through which those subjects are distinguished—I mean those in which that common notion was previously conceived and which subsist fully delineated[12] by those properties—therefore, designations have also been found that are adapted to expressing these distinctions. Thus we say Peter, Paul, and Timothy, which are expressed as names of these ὑπόστασεις (hypostaseis) or ὑφιστάμενοι (hyphistamenoi), i.e., names of subjects defined by their own properties and subsisting in their own, shared οὐσία (ousia).

Thesis X. The word “God” denotes an essence infinite, eternal, supporting itself by its own power, omnipotent, creating and conserving all the things that it has made, and thus an essence in which all perfection dwells. When I say the word “God,” I understand that essence indeterminately, which by a shared reason is predicated of its own hypostases that subsist in it.

Thesis XI. The subjects designated by these titles—Father, Son, Holy Spirit—are hypostases. That is, they are distinct in their properties, and subsisting from eternity in that common and eternal essence, because they are distinguished by their own properties. For the Father is unbegotten, begetting the Son. The Son is begotten from the Father. The Holy Spirit is neither begetting nor begotten, but from the Father and the Son proceeding.

Thesis XII. I am not concerned about a more subtle distinguishing characteristic between proceeding and begetting. And certainly those who have wrangled back and forth about this have ignorantly twisted the Scriptural passages that have no bearing on the issue. For the fact that the Holy Spirit is someplace said to proceed from the Father and the Son refers to his manifestation and gifts. Let it be adequate that he is the Spirit, and common to the Father and the Son, and on that basis has reference to each.

Thesis XIII. Because created substances have a finite essence, they necessarily therefore are finite, and consequently are distinguished not only by their individual properties, but their hypostases also have been truly separated. Therefore, Peter, Paul, and Timothy, although by a shared reasoning are called men, nevertheless in reality they are not one man but three men, even with respect to their very humanity. For because fathers cannot communicate their own complete essence with their sons, but it is only some portion which possesses the nature of the seed[13] that takes its origin from their fathers, the sons’ essence is derived from this. And so the sons do not possess that same singular humanity which belongs to their fathers but only a similar one that has flowed forth from it. Consequently, the particular humanity, inasmuch as it is finite, cannot exist in diverse subjects. And so, I claim, in all respects there are three: Peter, Paul, Timothy, not one.

Thesis XIV. But the consideration is quite different when it comes to things divine. For because divine essence is infinite, most simple, and eternal, therefore the three hypostases subsisting in it—although they are truly three in number—because these individual hypostases are distinguished by their own incommunicable properties, they are nevertheless not three gods nor are they said to be three gods in the same way that there are three men. This is because the Son is not begotten from the Father nor does the Holy Spirit proceed from Father and Son by some “cutting off”[14] of a portion, i.e., by division,[15] as when anything is divided into three pieces. Nor is this by some effluence,[16] that is, by ἀπόρροια (aporroia),[17] such as the procreation of children from the father’s seed. Nor is it by extension, i.e., περιβολή (peribole), which we see in the propagation that takes place in grafting of vines. But instead, in the divine this happens by an indescribable communication of the whole essence from eternity, in which no point of beginning, middle, or end can be stated.[18]

Thesis XV. Therefore, there is one and precisely the same essence of begetting, of begotten, and of proceeding, although it is not the case that the Father who begets is the Son that is begotten or the Spirit who proceeds. Nor that the Son is the Father who begets or the Spirit who proceeds. Nor is the Spirit the Father who begets nor the Son who is begotten. Nor is God himself thrice-named,[19] since the properties of persons are not imaginary accidents that can be present or absent, either actually or conceptually. But they truly reside in persons and distinguish them from others. And God is not a kind of accumulation[20] either, and this for two reasons. First, because these three persons are so distinguished as not to be separated. And second, because in any given person there is not some part of God’s essence but the whole essence, and this is unable to be separated into parts[21] because it is infinite.

Endnotes

[1] From Tractationes Theologicae Bezae, Volumen I (Geneva: Jean Crespin, 1570), 651.

[2] de Deo scientia.

[3] dei cognitio.

[4] sapit.

[5] Beza here both recognizes the existence of natural theology and limits its efficacy.

[6] verissime.

[7] mordicus.

[8] Also known as Paul of Samosata, c. AD 200–275, who was Bishop of Antioch 260–68.

[9] a rebus naturalibus.

[10] in rebus naturalibus.

[11] pari ratione.

[12] circumscripte.

[13] seminis rationem.

[14] resectione.

[15] Beza employs a Greek expression, κατὰ μερισμὸν, which he then glosses in Latin.

[16] Here Beza reverses this practice, giving first the Latin fluxu then a Greek gloss.

[17] The ancients (e.g., Thales, Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius) explained the effects of a magnet, the “Hercules Stone” which attracts iron, by its ἀπόρροιαι, “things that flow out from it” or effluvia.

[18] dari, i.e., cannot be stated or supplied because it does not exist.

[19] trinomius, a very rare word.

[20] aggregativus; this could be translated “aggregated.”

[21] insecabilis.

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, November 2019.

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