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ETS and the trinity: the case for potestas

August 3, 2012

I did not foresee that this would be a series. To access all posts on this topic, click on the tag at the top for “ETS.” I should know by now that any linguistic investigation is limitless, bounded only by the amount of free time and energy one has at any given time.

Regarding potentia and potestas, there are two possibilities. The first is that they are roughly equivalent and not distinguished in historic church doctrine. In this case “power” and “authority” are indivisible. If the Son is equal in power, he is also equal in authority to the Father.

The second possibility is that these two words are used with different meanings, potentia for power (might), and potestas for power (authority). In that case, we seek affirmation that the Son is equal to the Father in both, while complementarians say that the Son is equal to the Father in power (might), but not in power (authority.)

The doctrinal statement of ETS includes the statement that Father and Son are equal in power. While this phrase comes from the Westminster Catechism, which was written in English, it was subsequently translated into Latin as equal in potentia.

My best guess is that the use of the word potentia was not intended to exclude or contrast with potestas; these two were not regularly differentiated and contrasted, according to others. Here are potentia and potestas in the Lewis and Short Lexicon. The proverb “knowledge is power” is derived equally from ipsa scientia potestas est and scientia est potentia (also sapientia est potentia.) When the two were contrasted, in Hobbes and Spinoza, they are often both translated into English by the word “power,” one as power and the other as Power.

However, it we return to the notion that the two are distinguishable, then we can consider the rough equivalencies, exousia is translated into Latin as potestas (later autoritas), and into early English translations as “power.” Dunamis is translated into Latin as virtus and and later potentia, and into English as “power.” Erasmus notes that potentia is better for dunamis and potestas for exousia. The Westminster Catechism was written in English and used the word “power” which could mean either power (might) or power (authority) or both. But in 1660, it was translated into Latin as potentia.

Now, the question remains whether historic Christianity claimed that the Father and Son are equal in potestas (authority, exousia.) Here are the occurences I have found so far.

First, Augustine wrote,

non secundum imparem potestatem uel substantiam uel aliquid quod in eo patri non sit aequale missus est, sed secundum id quod filius a patre est, non pater a filio. Verbum enim patris est filius, quod est sapientia eius dicitur.

According to Augustine, the Son was not unequal to the Father in potestas (authority). This, of course, is always translated into English as “power” but it means “power (authority)” and not “power (might).”

Second, the creed of the Synod of Toledo 675 includes the phrase,

una est majestas sive potestas,
nec minoratur in singulis, nec augetur in tribus
. Swainson, page 242
one majesty and power (authority)
not less as one, not greater as three

Third, there is a canon from the 7th to 9th century, the canon of Autun, existing in several manuscripts, which contains the following line. This line is found in other creeds and manuscripts as well.

tres itaque Personae sed una potestas Swainson. 273

In a 12th century exposition on the Athanasian creed, which I include here,

there are three phrases of interest:

unus Deus, una potestas, una majestas
one God, one power(authority), one majesty

una deitas, aequalis potestas, una coaeternitas
one deity, equal power (authority), one coeternity

una natura, una divinitas, una majestas, una gloria et potestas
one nature, one divinity, one majesty, one glory and power (authority)

Finally, in 1570, a Latin version of Chrysostom’s works were published. In Vol. 5, p 609, Paris edition, translated by Erasmus, is this phrasing from his Homily on the Creed,

Patri coaequalis in deitate, Dei et Deus: sed tamen non duo Dii, sed unus Deus.
In potestate una potestas, in esse una essentia, una virtus, una majestas

coequal in deity with the Father, God of God, yet not withstanding there are not two Gods, but one God
in potency, in essence, in substance – one power [authority], one essence, one virtue, one majesty. Hopkins. 297

We are left with two options. Either “power” in the creeds means both “power” and “authority” and these are indivisible, or, the meanings are separate, but throughout church history, basic creeds were understood to be saying that the Son was equal to the Father, or one with the Father, with respect to both “power” and “authority.” I don’t see a third option, in which the Son is under the potestas (authority)  of the Father. I do not see this expressed in any of the creeds or expositions on the creeds before complementarianism. I will write more on this tomorrow.

To access all posts on this topic, click on the tag at the top for “ETS.”

Hopkins, John Henry. The primitive creed, examined, explained. 1834.

Swainson, Charles Anthony. The Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds: their literary history ; together with an account of the growth and reception of the sermon on the Faith, commonly called “the Creed of St. Athanasius” 1875. London. Murray.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 4, 2012 10:42 am

    However, it we return to the notion that the two are distinguishable, then we can consider the rough equivalencies, exousia is translated into Latin as potestas (later autoritas), and into early English translations as “power.” Dunamis is translated into Latin as virtus and and later potentia, and into English as “power.” Erasmus notes that potentia is better for dunamis and potestas for exousia. The Westminster Catechism was written in English and used the word “power” which could mean either power (might) or power (authority) or both. But in 1660, it was translated into Latin as potentia.

    Is it helpful to see how these Greek phrases figure together in various pre-translated and Greek-translated and also Greek-NT contexts contexts?

    We should then [in our hypothetical case just discussed here] catch the just man in the very act of resorting to the same conduct as the unjust man because of the self-advantage which every creature by its nature pursues as a good, while by the convention of law it is forcibly diverted to paying honor to ‘equality.’ The licence [ἐξουσία] that I mean would be most nearly such as would result from supposing them to have the power [δύναμιν] which men say once came to the ancestor of Gyges the Lydian. They relate that he was a shepherd in the service of the ruler at that time of Lydia, and that after a great deluge of rain and an earthquake the ground opened and a chasm appeared in the place where he was pasturing; and they say that he saw and wondered and went down into the chasm; and the story goes that he beheld other marvels there and a hollow bronze horse with little doors, and that he peeped in and saw a corpse within, as it seemed, of more than mortal stature,

    Plato’s Republic [359c,d]

    As to Power [δυνάμεως]: here too it may fairly be said that the type of character it produces is mostly obvious enough. Some elements in this type it shares with the wealthy type, others are better. Those in power [δύναμις] are more ambitious and more manly in character than the wealthy, because they [δυνάμενοι] aspire to do the great deeds that their power [δύναμιν] permits them to do. Responsibility makes them more serious: they have to keep paying attention to the duties their position [ἐξουσία] involves. They are dignified rather than arrogant, for the respect in which they are held inspires them with dignity and therefore with moderation — dignity being a mild and becoming form of arrogance. If they wrong others, they wrong them not on a small but on a great scale.

    Aristotle’s Rhetoric [1394a]

    There is no man that has power [ἐξουσιάζων] over the spirit to retain the spirit; and there is no power [ἐξουσία] in the day of death: and there is no discharge in the day of the battle; neither shall ungodliness save her votary.

    The Preacher’s Qoheleth, translated into Greek as Ecclesiastes [8:8]

    If the axe-head should fall off then the man troubles his countenance and he must put forth more strength [δυνάμεις δυναμώσει]: and [in that case] skill is of no advantage to a man.

    The Preacher’s Qoheleth, translated into Greek as Ecclesiastes[10:10]

    For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming. Then cometh 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 [πᾶσαν ἀρχὴν καὶ πᾶσαν ἐξουσίαν καὶ δύναμιν]. For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.

    Paul’s letter I Corinthians [15:22-26]

  2. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    August 4, 2012 7:10 pm

    Its surprising, but in Aristotle, dunamis is used to refer to actual realized power, not just a hypothetical ability to do something IF one had the position, but it refers to really having and exerting power. Complementarians say that Christ is equal in power(dunamis) to God, but in inherent eternal submission to God. is that hypothetically possible?

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