Saturday, October 30, 2010

Hippolytus and the Trinity Doctrine (A Dialogue)

Here is another dialogue between me and a Trinitarian friend and interlocutor:

Greetings [Sam],

Hippolytus died circa 236 C.E. While his writings may
have been "unsystematic," as you say, there is almost
no doubt (historically) that he was accused of being
a "ditheist" by Bishop Callistus. W.H.C. Frend thinks
that the bishop may have been justified in labeling
Hippolytus thus. He also thinks that Hippolytus
thought of the Logos as a created being, deified for
a time. The Catholic writer Edmund Fortman in his book
_The Triune God_ also informs us that Hippolytus
"rather deliberately seems to avoid putting the Holy
Spirit on the same personal plane with the Father and
the Son, and to regard Him more as a divine force
than a divine person" (page 119). Granted, as Fortman
writes, Hippolytus may not have highlighted the
"personality" of the Spirit because he was not
dealing with a heated issue that arose prior to 381 C.E.,
namely, the Pneumatomachi Controversy. Nevertheless,
he does not seem to ascribe personhood to the Spirit
of God and he appears to subordinate the Son
(ontologically) to the Father.

I have no serious quarrells here, as far as I
can tell. Muslims regularly accuse Christians of
tri-theism, and Christians aren't always cautious to
avoid being thus misunderstood. If you ask nearly
any rank-and-file Christian to explain "God," he will
almost always, if he ventures the least bit beyond
the confessional formulations, end up saying things
that could be understood either in the direction of
modalism or tri-theism. Beyond that, it's an
empirical fact that trinitarian concepts are refractory to
facile understanding and that many people-- even theologians
otherwise known for reasonably careful thought-- have
expressed themselves incautiously or misunderstandingly
on the Trinity.

The primary point I want to make about Hippolytus,
however, is that his views do not stem from lack of
precision or conceptual clarity. Nor do they originate
from his being less than circumspect when it comes to
articulating his theological concepts. Hippolytus
expresses himself the way he does, I contend, because
he believes that Christ is a deified creature, one who
has gradually progressed from LOGOS ENDIAQETOS to

[Foster Previously]
The problem, as Swete notes, is that the language of
Hippolytus does not allow for the Holy Spirit being
an eternal divine relation or Person--he also believes
that the Son as such is not eternal--and his thought
evidently contains elements of subordinationism. That
is, Hippolytus is not just maintaining that the Son
or Spirit are subordinate to the Father as respects
function; they are subordinate PER ESSENTIAM. Such
claims are utterly at odds with Nicene Christianity.

I find it difficult to be surprised by any of
this. Until controversy compels the Church to
publicly clarify her mind on a doctrinal issue such as this and
define it (as at Nicea), one expects to find a great
deal of latitude in what is believed and asserted
about the question. This is the case at present with
questions such as those eschatological questions
concerning the anti-Christ, the meaning of the
'millenial' reign of Christ, the tribulation, the
'binding of Satan', etc., etc. And it was the case
with other doctrines before they were defined.

I don't think the Church allows that much latitude.
Bishop Callistus (who was evidently a modalist or
Monarchian) accused Hippolytus of being a ditheist.
Frend thinks Callistus was quite justified in
appending this descriptive term to the Roman
theologian. Moreover, if Hippolytus really did believe
that Christ was a deified or apotheosized creature as
suggested by _Refutation of all Heresies 10_, this
would put him outside the bounds of orthodoxy. We are
not just talking about imprecise God-talk: the
Christological ideas contained in the writings of
Hippolytus are at odds with basic Trinitarian thought.

Hence, if Hippolytus held a form of subordinationism
of the Holy Spirit or Son, this should not surprise
us. Further, as mentioned before, there is a legitimate
respect in which these two Persons of the Trinity ARE
subordinate to the Father and proceed from Him, even
if this isn't clearly articulated in the possibly
deficient formulations of Hippolytus.

According to orthodox Trinitarian thought, the Son and
Spirit may be subordinate to the Father in a
functional sense--though Kevin Giles disputes this
point--but no orthodox Trinitarian is going to openly
or knowingly concede the second and third Persons of
the Trinity are inferior in essence, which (as you
know) is what subordinationism entails.

[SNIP for editorial purposes]

[Prior Foster]
The problem with God willing the Son into existence,
even if He did so by means of His own essence or
substance, have been detailed by Jesuit Edmund
Fortman (quoted earlier). Fortman lists what he calls two
"grave defects" with Hippolytus' "theory" of the
Father metaphysically (!) willing the Son into
existence: (1) The Logos was not a person or the Son
eternally, but only precreationally [if the Father willed him intro existence];
(2) "The generation of the Son was not essential to God but
only the result of a free decision of God.
Hence God might have remained without a Son and thus might have
remained only one Person" (Fortman, page 118). In
other words, the generation of the Son, according to
Hippolytus as interpreted by Fortman, was something
that may or may not have transpired.
It was a contingent divine act [if the Father willed the Son into existence].

Yes, indeed. I don't dispute this [what has been said hitherto about Hippolytus]. What I dispute is the notion that he can be taken for a
careful trinitarian theologian. He's the theological
equivalent of an Empedocles, and the notion that his
writings can meaningfully be adduced against Nicea
seem not more plausible to me than that Empedocles
metaphysic should be proposed as counting against
the Periodic Table of Elements developed in the 19th
Century. At most, it seems to me, Hippolytus gives
us one snapshot of the kinds of inchoate Trinitarian
opinions that existed in the ante-Nicene period.

I wonder if Hippolytus can be taken for a "trinitarian
theologian" at all. At what point does a person become
a non-Trinitarian theologian? The problem I see with
the paragraph above is that you appear to assume that
Hippolytus is expressing an "inchoate" form of the
Trinity doctrine in a non-precise manner. But I submit
that a comparison between Ptolemy and Copernicus would
be more apt. Hippolytus does not seem to espouse an
inchoate form of Trinitarianism at all. His writings
help us to see that the famed "way to Nicea" was
filled with twists, turns and diversions. Nicea was
firm in its insistence that the Son is begotten, not
created. He is consubstantial with the Father (says
Nicea), not by promotion or progressive divinization,
but UT NATURA or PER ESSENTIAM. I don't believe that
Hippolytus' statements were even headed in this

[Foster Previously]
If the pre-Nicenes truly did not view Christ as
"fully God," then the early Christians were not simply
saying that Christ is subordinate to the Father. Augustine
of Hippo writes that each divine Person is fully God or
that the whole of the Godhead is in each Person. To say
otherwise, to deny that Christ is "fully God," is to
blatantly contradict what Augustine averred. One who
makes such a declaration is not merely insisting that
Christ is subordinate in function to the Father.
Rather, a Christian who does not affirm the full
deity of Christ is subordinating him to the Father
vis-a-vis being, essence or nature.

This is assuming that "fully God" can mean only
what you think it means. But why should we believe
that? It is also to assume that each ante-Nicene
utterance regarding a Person of the Trinity is to be
accorded the same weight you would accord it in a
theological treatise on the Holy Trinity. But why
should we think that? It seems to me that there are a
wide variety of contexts in which men made reference
to "God" ("Father," "Son," and "Holy Spirit") in the
first three centuries. If I were to respond in the
affirmative to my young son's question "Daddy, did
Jesus pray to God?" would this mean that I was denying
that Jesus is "fully God"?

I use the terminology "fully God" as the Nicenes used
it and as Augustine employed the nomenclature. For
Augustine of Hippo, the whole of the divine substance
is in each Person somewhat perichoretically. For
Auggie, the Son is VERE DEUS, VERE HOMO. I understand
this to mean that Christ (in Augustine's paradigm)
exemplifies or instantiates every divine property
exemplified or instantiated by the Father and the Holy
Spirit, EX HYPOTHESI. One Catholic theologian writes:

"There are various aspects hence arising, which do not
belong to the Divine Essence as such, but are peculiar
to one of the other of the Persons and not common to
all. These are the only differences between the
Persons. They are not differences of substance or of
the essential divine attributes; so they mark, not a
multiplication of the Godhead, but of the
personalities in the one Godhead."

Hence, "fully God" (as I see it) has reference to the
divine essential attributes or necessary properties.
So, in answer to your question, I would say that you
are not necessarily denying that Jesus is God because
you answer in the affirmative. Of course, your example
has to do with Christ in his incarnate state though,
and not with intra-Trinitarian relations per se. In
any event, what I'm trying to say is that God is
supposed to instantiate or exemplify certain
properties or particular attributes. If a being does not
possess (i.e. exemplify) such attributes EX TOTO, then the said entity [in question]
cannot be "fully God." Therefore, if the Son
(according to Hippolytus) is a deified creature or not
eternal as such, how can he be fully God? Since God is eternal or everlasting.




Βασίλειος said...

Hi Edgar,

I don’t want to say much on Hippolitus because of my lack of time, but I want to highlight what I personally find very enlightening in his words.

Hippolitus has a doctrinal debate with Noetus, who holds that Jesus is the Almighty God. Noetus supports his belief using some scriptures that seem to say that Jesus is the Almighty, actually the very same scriptures—not coincidentally, historically speaking—Trinitarians have been using since the 4th century to support their position about homoousion.

What is very interesting for the researcher of the history of dogma is the refusal of Hippolitus to such claims and his exegesis about the controversial scriptures. Hippolitus did not answer as the Trinitarians would answer. Hippolitus did not accept the equality between the Father and the Son, neither did he speak about the homoousion (even in his own terms) nor about the alleged “two natures” of Jesus. Such doctrines seem to be unknown or, at least, unaccepted to him.

Simply put, he said that everything the Son possess it is because it was granted to him by His Father. This not homoousion at all! This is not power by nature, this is not power without beginning; this is power given in specific time according to the will of the Father, Whom Hippolitus calles the “God” and “Lord” of the Son.

Allow me to close my comments by quoting his words (Against Noetus 6):

“And well has he named Christ the Almighty. For in this he has said only what Christ testifies of Himself. For Christ gave this testimony, and said, All things are delivered unto me of my Father; and Christ rules all things, and has been appointed Almighty by the Father. And in like manner Paul also, in setting forth the truth that all things are delivered unto Him, said, Christ the first-fruits; afterwards they that are Christ's at His coming. Then comes the end, when He shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when He shall have put down all rule, and all authority, and power. For He must reign, till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. For all things are put under Him. But when He says, All things are put under Him, it is manifest that He is excepted which did put all things under Him. Then shall He also Himself be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all. If, therefore, all things are put under Him with the exception of Him who put them under Him, He is Lord of all, and the Father is Lord of Him, that in all there might be manifested one God, to whom all things are made subject together with Christ, to whom the Father has made all things subject, with the exception of Himself. And this, indeed, is said by Christ Himself, as when in the Gospel He confessed Him to be His Father and His God. For He speaks thus: I go to my Father and your Father, and to my God and your God.

Edgar Foster said...

Hi Basileios,

Like you, I don't have a lot of time this morning, but I appreciate your remarks and wanted to let you know that I discussed Hippolytus in my master's thesis and doctoral work. From the primary and secondary literature on Hippolytus, it seems clear that he did not view Jesus as fully God.

Best regards,