Recasting Nicea

I have had some interest in the theologian Samuel Clarke (1675-1729), particularly his trinitarian thought. I have just finished reading a great book on this aspect of Clarke’s thought, Thomas C. Pfizenmaier’s The Trinitarian Theology of Dr. Samuel Clarke (1675-1729): Context, Sources, and Controversy. Clarke was considered one of the brightest young lights in the church of England. In 1704-5 he gave the Boyle Lectures, and, particularly from that point, was seen as a key defender of orthodoxy. Then, in 1712, in the midst of anti-trinitarian thoughts, Socinian gibberish and the rise of deism, Clarke published his Scripture-Doctrine of the Trinity. This is a fascinating book, which starts with 55 propositions on the Trinity that is followed by an incredible listing of biblical support and Patristic backing.

Pfizenmaier provides a brief overview of the work. “In Part One, Clarke collected from the entire New Testament every text relating to the doctrine of the trinity with ‘such references and observations, as may (’tis hoped) be of considerable use towards the understanding of true meaning.'” (4) In part one Clarke collected some 1,251 texts from the New Testament. In part two, Clarke builds on his biblical exposition by developing propositions, from the “text up” as it were, and rounding those out with a barrage of quotes from Patristic sources. The third section is devoted to the “present liturgy of the Church of England,” where he addresses how the liturgy itself backs his view.

Clarke’s work caused something of a mass hysteria in the church and academy. In the midst of the powder-keg he hoped to quell, Clarke lit the match that set the whole church in an uproar. Since that time, even to today, Clarke has been labelled an Arian. One of Pfizenmaier’s main goals in his book is to undercut this reading of Clarke, and I have to say it is fascinating. It has been a little while since I’ve read Clarke’s Scripture-Doctrine of the Trinity, but I remember it well. Clarke is attempting to navigate tri-theism and modalism, and is convinced that both errors were being perpetuated in theology in his day. One of the most interesting aspect of Pfizenmaier’s thesis is that he narrates the close personal friendship Clarke had with Newton. In doing so, he develops Newton’s trinitarian thought alongside of Clarke’s (Newton wrote over one-million words of theology but never published it). Rather than being Arian, Pfizenmaier suggests, Newton and Clarke were both concerned with the twin errors of trinitarian thought, and they came to believe that the problem lay with a certain reading of Nicea.

Pfizenmaier quotes from a letter Clarke wrote to some Mr. Nelson. I will quote it here at length:

And that article in the Nicene Creed, [of one substance with the Father,] is now (through the ambiguity of the Latin and English translation,) by most men taken much otherwise, than the council intended it; For the greater part of modern Christians, (if we may judge by the writings of eminent divines,) understand it as if it had been “tautohousios” to signify, of one individual substance with the Father; Whereas all learned men know, that the Greek word [homoousios] never had any such signification, and that the Council meant no such thing; but, of the same kind of substance with the Father [ek tou ousia tou patros, so the Council of Nice explained themselves, though those words are now left out of the Creed;] The Son was, they said…from the substance of the Father: And therefore was not (which notion was then universally condemned) himself that individual substance from which he was begotten. But their meaning was; he was produced, not from any other substance, as man was formed from the dust of the earth,) but, after an ineffable manner, from the substance of the Father only. Which sense of theirs, is now generally mistaken” (173).

Clarke, and Newton, were homoiousians. They believed that persons and substances went together such that three persons and one substance was incoherent. Futhermore, they held that the Son was eternally willed by the Father from his own substance. The Son was still on the Creator-creature divide because the Son was not created out of nothing nor out of created matter, but out of God’s own substance. Furthermore, it is inaccurate to call Clarke an Arian because he did not believe that “there was a time when the Son was not.” Rather, the Son always was because he was always willed eternally.When Clarke was attacked on this point for leaving the Son’s existence in a precarious position, he responded with the immutable will of God, and suggested that being willed eternally by the Father was not, if anything, precarious, but incredibly stable.

Furthermore, rather than seeing Athanasius as the father of orthodoxy, Newton and Clarke saw him as the problem. Eusebius was the rightful interpreter of Nicea, and, in their minds, a Pro-Nicene theology, to use modern parlance, was a distinctively Eusebian and homoiousian theology. Note Eusebius’ explanation of the council:

When they had set this formulary, [the Nicene Creed] we did not leave without examination that passage in which it is said that the Son is of the substance of the Father, and consubstantial with the Father. Questions and arguments thence arose, and the meaning of the terms was exactly tested. Accordingly they were led to confess that the word consubstantial [homoousios] signifies that the Son is of the Father, but not as being a part of the Father. We deemed it right to receive this opinion; for that is sound doctrine which teaches that the Son is of the Father, but not part of His substance. From the love of peace, and lest we should fall from the true belief, we also accept this view, neither do we reject the term ‘consubstantial.’ For the same reason we admitted the expression, ‘begotten, but not made;’ for they alleged that the word ‘made’ applies generally to all things which are created by the Son, to which the Son is in no respect similar; and that consequently He is not a created thing, like the things made by Him, but is of a substance superior to all created objects. The Holy Scriptures teach Him to be begotten of the Father, by a mode of generation which is incomprehensible and inexplicable to all created beings. So also the term ‘of one substance with the Father,’ when investigated, was accepted not in accordance with bodily relations or similarity to mortal beings. For it was also shown that is does not either imply division of substance, or abscission, nor any modification or change or diminution in the power of the Father, all of which are alien from the nature of the unbeggotten Father. It was concluded that the expression ‘being of one substance with the Father,’ implies that the Son of God does not resemble, in any one respect, the creatures which He has made; but that to the Father alone, who begat Him, He is in all points perfectly like: for He is of the essence and of the substance of none save the Father” (93).

Clarke, therefore, with Newton, believed that their views were truly Nicene, if by “truly” we mean that Nicea as recast through Eusebius. As critical as Newton and Clarke both were to Athanasius, it is interesting that Athanasius would refer to their position as within the bounds of orthodoxy. The main line of their thought derived from the biblical argument that the word “God” in scripture meant “Father,” and that the economic subordination hinted to a real subordination in the Trinity (but not one which led to Arianism), coupled with the anti-speculative line Clarke was determined to hold, led him to forge an ancient via media between modalism and tri-theism without degrading into Arianism. Of course, in the midst of harsh polemics, such detailed argumenation does not do well. Clarke was deemed an Arian, even though he explicitly argued against Arianism, and his views, with his friend Newton’s, were lumped in with the anti-trinitarian sentiments of 17th-18th century thought.

So, any thoughts about this? What if someone wrote this book today? What would be the response?


14 thoughts on “Recasting Nicea

  1. I’d probably have to read the book and Clarke, but I’m not persuaded by their understanding of Nicea and tend to lean away from Trinitarian subordination. As to your questions concerning what if someone said/wrote things like this today, well there is Dale Tuggy ( So I’m not sure we have to speculate about your last two questions anymore, or too much longer. Tuggy and Steve Hays have been debating unitarianism (read the link), whether God always equals/refers to the Father, etc. over at Triablogue (which provides an example of your last question).

    • Noah, thanks for this, I’ll check it out. I think the important question concerns whether or not the Father’s focus on the Father alone as “God” actually necessitates a form of subordination. I tend to think not. I do find it interesting though that a robust notion of homoiosian theology was so unrecognizable to the church who only could see “Arianism” written all over it (regardless of their adament denial).

      • I agree with you on both points. The term ‘Arian’ seems to be applied to more than what the term historically referred to. Though it may not be ‘Arian,’ I still tend to see such a view as unorthodox.

        What do you mean precisely by ‘a robust notion of homoiosian theology?’

        Also, upon rereading your post you said, ‘as critical as Newton and Clarke both were to Athanasius, it is interesting that Athanasius would refer to their position as within the bounds of orthodoxy. The main line of their thought derived from the biblical argument that the word “God” in scripture meant “Father,” and that the economic subordination hinted to a real subordination in the Trinity (but not one which led to Arianism), coupled with the anti-speculative line Clarke was determined to hold, led him to forge an ancient via media between modalism and tri-theism without degrading into Arianism.’

        Are _you_ saying Clarke was in the bounds of orthodoxy or that _Clarke_ thought himself holding an orthodox middle ground between modalism and tri-theism (or are you continuing your point about how Athanasius would view him)? I’m probably over complicating the matter and it’s a little late. I tend to see Clarke on the horns of a dilemma in having to either opt for tri-theism (I don’t see how homoiousios/’kind-essence’ preserves monotheism) or holding God/Father as the supreme deity with the Spirit and Son ontologically subordinate and lower to God/Father and leading to a form of henotheism, both of which I believe to be unorthodox.

        • Both my comment about a ‘robust homoiosian’ theology and my comment about Athanasius were meant to be from Clarke’s own position. He saw himself as Eusebian and, therefore, within the boundaries of orthodoxy.

  2. “…being willed eternally by the Father was not, if anything, precarious, but incredibly stable.”

    Would he then have held that all things, having been willed by the Father, eternal? (And, if so, how does this maintain the creature/Creator distinction that he is claiming to maintain? If not, doesn’t this appear to be an inconsistency in his thought?). Forgive my many questions…I haven’t read Clarke.

    My initial reaction would be that Clarke is well outside of Nicaea, as he doesn’t seem to hold to the Constantinopolitan interpretation of Nicaea (381), nor Athanasius’ “discovery” at the Synod of Alexandria (362) that many of in the “homoiousion” camp were in agreement in meaning with those of the “homoousion” camp (they simply didn’t like the Sabellian history of the term “homoousion”).

    On a final note, I have always read Eusebius’ interpretation of Nicaea as humorous, in retrospect, for its “creative” interpretation of the Council.

      • OK, this explains it and makes his position consistent. However, it puts him at odds with the idea of God as Creator. Most early Church theologians understood that since God couldn’t add anything to himself later (such as becoming a Creator), he had to eternally will Creation, even though the Creation didn’t come about until “later” (which is the exact position that he seems to be claiming about Christ).

        To answer your next question, this is why it would be inconsistent – the Creation and Christ would be put on the exact same plane as eternally willed but Created as immortal (rather than eternal as they both have beginnings), thus the infinite qualitative distinction is broken down between Christ and Creation. Instead, one is left with a quantitative distinction between the two.

        However, if, as you put it, he doesn’t hold that the Creation was willed eternally, then the area to push him on is that God has become mutable in his construct.

        • Ok, I see where you are coming from now. Clarke does not talk about creation in this book, so I don’t know where he stands on that. Christ’s existence would be on a different plane than creation though because he is eternally willed and begotton. Clarke just denies that it is possible for two persons (or three) to partake of a singular essence, and so he is offering an account that tries to do justice to the biblical emphasis that the Father is deemed “God” and maintain the eternality of the Son and Spirit.

          • So for Clarke Christ does not have a beginning (I think my brain attached to that idea when I wrote my first comment because of the use of the word “produced” in the quote that you included)?

            If Christ does have a beginning for Clarke, I would argue that he isn’t on a different plane than Creation, at least as far as the “eternally willed” part goes.

            If he doesn’t have a beginning and is truly eternal, does Clarke basically affirm two (or three with the Spirit) eternal essences? And, how is he defining essence (my understanding is that the Patristics largely treated ousios and physis as a predicate once they were able to sort out their language application at Chalcedon)?

            Finally, does he engage the Synod of Alexandria in his work at all? This may be helpful, especially in light of McGuckin’s understanding that the synod reveals a large amount of homoiousios supporters were actually in agreement with Athanasius’ homoousios camp in meaning, but were using different terms b/c of their dislike for homoousios’ Sabellian history.

            Sorry for all of the questions…Trinitarian development just happens to be a current interest and I’m quite curious about Trinitarian claims and arguments.

            • Thanks for this. Clarke did hold to an eternal generation of the Son. This is why I originally used the word “produced.” Clarke believed, with many in his era, that if a person exists, that person must have it’s own essence. This is why he believed that trinitarian dogma almost always slipped into modalism or tritheism. What Clarke fails to provide is a biblical account for that, and since he was railing against metaphysics (as if he didn’t utilise metaphysics in his account), he would need to do so.

  3. Whether Clarke supports it or not … isn’t it easy to argue that 1) everything that exists, was known and willed by God, from the beginning? And 2) so everything – Christ and Creation say – really had no begnning at all, any more or less than God himself? This WOULD put Jesus and Nature on increasingly similar footing, by the way.

    So that, by the way, 3) EVERYTHING is of one substance with God? As one might expect biblically; from a God who made all things; and who “fills all things, in heaven and earth” (Jer.?).

    So that 4) in effect, Creation joins the Trinity in a Sense? Rather as through Jesus, “flesh” is joined to deity. Or God becomes flesh, etc..

    Putting both Jesus and Creation on higher footing in the Trinity too?

    This make any sense to anyone?

  4. Where is everybody? Hope I didn’t finally confuse everyone so much they gave up.

    Then too, these are controversial things, to be sure.

    But others should feel free to interject.

    I’m happy to stand back a bit – and turn comments over to others.

  5. Pingback: The Spirit of Truth and Power « Theology Forum

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