Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism Sacred Doctrine

Zanchi on the Trinity (1)

Now perhaps might be a good time to review the basics of orthodox Trinitarianism. To do so, we will use the second chapter of Girolamo Zanchi’s 1586 work De religione Christiana fides (A Confession of Faith concerning the Christian Religion)1 as a brief summa of the classical doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The chapter, De Deo, divinisque personis et proprietatibus (“On God, and on the Divine Persons and Properties”), has seven sections, so this post is the first in a series of seven.

Text and Translation

I. Unum tantum esse Deum, in tres personas distinctam.

Edocti igitur a Deo in Sacris literis, quae sunt ipsius verbum, credimus, unum tantum esse Deum, hoc est, unam simplicissimam, impartibilem, aeternam, viventem, perfectissimamque essentiam in tribus ὑφισταμένοις, seu (ut Ecclesia solita est loqui) personis, aeterno nimirum Patre, aeterno Filio, aeterno Spiritu sancto, inter se vere, sed citra omnem divisionem, distinctis, subsistentem: principium et causam rerum omnium.

I. That there is only one God, distinguished in[to] three persons.

Therefore, having been taught by God in the sacred writings, which are his Word, we believe that there is only one God, that is, one most simple, indivisible, eternal, living, and most perfect essence, subsisting in three hypostases, or (as the Church is accustomed to speak) persons, namely, the eternal Father, the eternal Son, the eternal Holy Spirit, distinguished among themselves truly, but apart from all division: the principle and cause of all things.2


  1. The anonymous 1599 English translation, published in the magnificent Brill edition of this work, misreads the Latin text, I believe, in one respect. The segment from unam simplicissimam…subsistentem is translated as “one simple, indivisible, eternall, living and most perfect essence in three existences, or (as the church useth to speake) persons, namelie subsisting of…”. This misses a chiasmus: essentiam [A]…ὑφισταμένοις/personis [B]…distinctis [B]…subsistentem [A] (the preposition in governs everything from tribus through distinctis, though the anonymous translator seems to take Patre (etc.) as ablatives with subsistentem). This is a small matter that does not effect the sense, but the artful Latin word-order does in fact lend a rhetorical weight to the theological point that is lost in translation: the diversity in the Trinity is one that exists within the overarching unity of the “only one God.”
  2. Zanchi’s Trinitarian theology is not a matter of “philosophy” taking precedence over “exegesis” (as if the two could even be separated and one could do “exegesis” without “philosophy”), though of course the 16th-c. Protestants thought the study of philosophy to be absolutely basic and essential for sound exegesis. No, Zanchi says that his doctrine depends upon God’s own teaching in Holy Scripture ([e]docti a Deo in Sacris literis). The marginalia of the De religione gives three texts for the assertions in this section. First, Deuteronomy 4.6: “Keep [my statutes and rule] and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.'” This text undergirds Zanchi’s belief that doctrine must rest on the authority of the Word, as mentioned above. (On the other hand, I am tempted to think it is an accidental metathesis for Deut. 6.4, the so-called Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one,” which, I will admit, I expected to find used as a proof-text here and which is obviously germane to the section–thus I was puzzled when I turned to 4.6 and I thought I had turned to the wrong passage. I know of no textual support for the reading “6.4,” however, and so the evidence indicates that Zanchi’s concern is to indicate the dependence of his Trinitarian theology on divine revelation; igitur indicates that this section on God follows on consequently from his treatment of Scripture in caput 1, De scripturis sanctis (“On the Sacred Scriptures”). Second, Matthew 28.19: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…”. This text indicates the real distinction of Persons in the Godhead. Third, 1 John 5.7: “For there are three that testify…”. Zanchi persumably is thinking of the expanded version of this verse in the so-called Comman Iohanneum, absent from most manuscripts: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one” (KJV). Again, the text is used to support personal distinctions in the Godhead.
  3. Zanchi affirms the absolute simplicity of the divine essence, for which he employs the superlative simplicissimam and which he further clarifies by claiming it has no parts and cannot be made to have any (impartibilem).
  4. ὑφισταμένοις is a synonym for the technical term hypostases, and I have rendered it as such, rather than as “persons,” for two reasons: as a reminder that “person” in Trinitarian theology does not mean what the term “person” means in normal colloquial usage; and because Zanchi himself uses the term personis immediately afterwards. And when he does use the term, it should be noted, he points out that it is ecclesiastical-speak (ut Ecclesia solita est loqui), presumably to mark its difference in this (theological) context from its connotations in ordinary parlance.
  5. The threefold use of aeterno reminds us that each of the Three is himself fully God.
  6. Distinction does not entail division: the distinctions are real, but they do not denote partitions of the divine essence. To allow them to do so would be to compromise monotheism.
  7. This one God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–and not one (or more) of the Persons, is the first principle and cause of all things. When thinking of creation, or any of the divine works ad extra, we must remember the rule indivisa sunt opera Trinitatis (“the works of the Trinity are undivided”; Bonaventure)/ omnia opera Dei ad extra sunt indivisa omnium personarum (“all the works of God ad extra are the undivided [works] of all the Persons”; Suarez)/ Opera Trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa (“the works of the Trinity ad extra are undivided; Owen)–this, in opposition to the works ad intra, filiation and spiration, or generation and procession.


  1. I have referred to this section previously here.
  2. The translation is my own.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.