Photinus: Know the Heretics
Questioning the Trinity
After the Council of Nicaea in 325, the orthodox understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity as three persons sharing one divine essence was not universally agreed upon. One theologian who disagreed was Photinus, the Bishop of Sirmium and the disciple of Marcellus.
Did God Choose a Man to Become His Son?
The theology of Photinus veered close to adoptionism by suggesting that the man Jesus was chosen by God to be his Son when he was in Mary’s womb. Photinus denied the doctrine of the pre-existence of the Son.
Photinus elevates man to the place of Son…
Ambrose described Photinus’ theology in his De Fide: “We say that God is One, not as does Photinus, holding that the Son first came into existence in the Virgin’s womb.”
Hilary of Poitiers also spoke of the theology of Photinus in his De Trinitate:
Sabellius denies that there is a Son of God; against him Photinus elevates man to the place of Son. Photinus will hear nothing of a Son born before the worlds… Our present adversaries are ranted in the matter of the Divine nature of the Son… Photinus is convicted of ignorance, or else of falsehood, in his denial of the Son’s birth before the worlds…Photinus maintains His manhood, though in maintaining it he forgets that Christ was born as God before the worlds.
In other words, Photinus did not believe that the second person of the Trinity—the divine Word, the Son of God—existed with the Father in eternity past. He believed there is no second person of the Trinity that existed before the human person Jesus of Nazareth.
The Word Was With God in the Beginning
The most straightforward response to this denial of the pre-existence of the Son is found in John 1:1-3. This passage explicitly expresses the fact that the Word, Jesus—who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14)—existed from before creation with the Father. Indeed, it was through him that all things were created.
Hilary of Poitiers cites John 5:17-19 to show that the works of the Father are often executed by the Son. Hilary argued that because the Son has the power to do the same things as the Father, he must have the same nature.
The Word existed from before creation with the Father
Contrary to Photinus’ teaching, the Father and the Son co-existed in complete equality from eternity past, and it was the second, eternally-existing person of the Trinity who took on flesh and became incarnate in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Contemporary Relevance: Jesus Is Fully God
The error of Photinus is important for several reasons. If the Son did not exist eternally with God the Father, then he cannot be fully and completely God. If the Son is merely a man chosen by God to be his son, then Jesus cannot be fully God and fully man.
This error would obliterate the doctrine of the atonement. The reason that Christ can satisfy the wrath of God is that he is fully God, and the reason that he can represent humanity is that he is fully man. Without the doctrine of the pre-existence of the Son, Jesus is merely a man who lived a good life as a spiritual teacher here on earth but can in no way be the savior of the world.