This YouTube video identifies Partialism as a heresy. It states that Partialism is the heresy wherein The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each described as 1/3 of God. To me, it's a vaguely familiar false understanding of the Trinity; but I can't find any solid information about it.

Are there any historical documents, early Church writings, or documents from a major denomination (Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox, Lutheran, etc.) that assert this idea by this or any other name as a heresy or false understanding of the Trinity?

If the condemnation of this idea can't be pinned directly to a historical document or Church Father, when can we reasonably assert that it was condemned, if ever?

Per Peter Turner, the wikipedia page on Partialism is an occasion of sin. I have not attempted to verify this, but the relevant Wikipedia page is the one on divine simplicity.

  • 9
    better inform people that the wikipedia entry on partialism is an occasion of sin
    – Peter Turner
    Jul 25, 2013 at 18:35
  • 5
    Wow. Why yes it is. Apparently Partialism is not only a heresy, but also NSFW. Who knew... Jul 25, 2013 at 19:16
  • 3
    I verified it for you. Yes, the Wikipedia page is NSFW, and that's because "partialism" also refers to sexual fetishes centered on specific parts of the body. Jul 25, 2013 at 21:36
  • @StevenDoggart Partialism in the dictionary is defined as having a separate religious definition which has nothing to do with the sexual fetish.
    – user4060
    Jul 25, 2013 at 21:50
  • @svidgen, I don't know why this popped up on the top of the C.SE page today, but I really wanted this to be a new question so I could say "mostly"
    – Peter Turner
    Mar 15, 2023 at 20:50

4 Answers 4



The short answer: No; it seems that partialism is not a "real," historically defined heresy.

Explanation: Before writing this post, I checked the applicable titles from among my usual textual sources -- a variety of historic theological works that are now in the public domain and available online. When that yielded no references to "partialism," I went several pages deep on various Google searches. That search turned up many pages that described "partialism," although few of them listed any references, and those that did and those that did not all seemed to have come from one of two sources: Either a page at Monergism.com on Trinitarian Heresies, or a YouTube video entitled "St. Patrick's Bad Analogies." I then wrote the answer that follows, which offers some historic information on the doctrine of the Trinity, but does not reference "partialism" directly.

Some time later, I decided to continue looking for answers by visiting a seminary here in town that has a pretty heavy duty library. Having searched there extensively, I'm now going to go ahead and say: "Partialism" is not an historically defined Trinitarian heresy.

My search at the seminary library included extensive online databases of academic theological journals; no less than twenty separate dictionaries of Christianity that covered the entirety of church history in (tens of?) thousands of pages; multiple encyclopedias of Christianity; and various other books. There was not a single, solitary occurrence of the word "partialism" to be found anywhere.

The reason I mentioned all this is to illustrate how it is that I reached the bolded conclusion above. While I of course could be wrong, it's also interesting to note that, in the "St. Patrick's Bad Analogies" video, where historic references are offered for various of the Trinitarian Heresies that are described, when "Partialism" is mentioned, a joke is offered in place of any history.

Perhaps "partialism," with its many internet references, belongs on Snopes.com?

Original Post:

The Short Answer: The Council of Nicea is one historic event that, though it did not addresses Partialism by that name, did clarify the orthodox doctrines regarding the ideas expressed in Partialism.


This answer describes some church history events from the fourth century CE in detail. It specifically looks at the Council of Nicea, the Arian Controversy, and the work of Athanasius, all of which directly addressed the ways in which the Father and Son relate to each other as two Persons of the Trinity.

It does not directly address partialism by that name, however, and is offered as relevant historical background, as the Council of Nicea arguably created the frame within which all following Trinitarian doctrine was developed. (It's also a nice opportunity for me to make a few notes to summarize some of my recent reading).

The Council of Nicea and the Arian Controversy1

The Council of Nicea, or First Ecumenical Council, was held in 325 CE. The Roman Emperor Constantine had called the meeting of bishops from across his newly unified empire to decide the orthodox stance on various doctrinal issues, and especially to resolve the Arian Controversy.

The Arian Controversy had begun a few years earlier, as a dispute between two leaders of the Christian Church in Alexandria: Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, and a popular presbyter named Arius. The main issue was whether or not the Son was co-eternal with the Father, or whether the Son was created by the Father. The latter was Arius' teaching. While it may sound like a theological subtlety, it actually had profound soteriological implications at a point in history when many of the doctrines that we take for granted today had not yet been decided.

When the time came for the presentation of the Arian perspectives at the Council, Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia -- not to be confused with Eusebius of Caesaria, the widely regarded "Father of Church History" -- presented the ideas taught by Arius', with whom he agreed, in a speech, since only bishops could address the Council. The response of the majority of the bishops in attendance was condemnatory, and some went so far as to tear Eusebius' notes from his hands and trample them underfoot, shouting "blasphemer!" and "heretic!"

The Nicene Creed was formulated by the Council as a response to Arianism. Emperor Constantine himself -- perhaps prompted by an advisor -- suggested the use of the Greek word homoousios, "of the same substance," to describe the nature of the Father and Son, and this word was included in the Creed. The official response to the Arian Controversy, now the Heresy of Arianism, seemed settled.

The Resurgence of Arianism and the Response Led by Athanasius of Alexandria2

Not everyone accepted the findings of the Council of Nicea, however, and some of those who continued to embrance Arianism had significant political influence. The state had a important role in determining what was and what was not acceptable church teaching, and the matter was further complicated when Constantine died and was succeeded by his three sons, each of whom ruled over a different portion of the Roman Empire. Constantius, the son who ruled over the eastern portion of the empire, including Alexandria in Egypt, was pro-Arian, and years later would come to be the sole emperor in 353 CE.

Enter Athanasius of Alexandria, who had attended the Council of Nicea as a young man, where he was part of Alexander's group. Athanasius was not known as a particularly intellectual man, though he did write extensively, and neither were his political connections great, but he was widely revered for his monastic discipline and holiness of life. In 328 CE he became bishop of Alexandria, though he did not seek the office and even tried to avoid being appointed. He would go on to lead the response against the Arian resurgence.

As a result of his efforts, Athanasius endured suffering both from the state and from other leaders of the church. He was banished from and returned to Alexandria on more than one occassion, and his opponents spread rumors to the effect that he practiced occult magic, that he was a tyrant over the Alexandrian church, and even that he was a murderer -- all of which rumors he successfully defeated in time. Athanasius remained "a man of the people," and was given a hero's welcome when he returned from the banishment imposed by state officials, fearful as they were of his ability to influence the public.


After several years of many individuals working to teach the Nicene faith, Arianism was on the decline, with the majority of the church rejecting the idea that the Son was created by the Father. Many of those who plainly rejected Arianism were reluctant to accept the language of the Nicene Creed however, due to a concern that the word homoousios could be interpreted as meaning that there was no distinction between the Son and the Father (which was related to Patripassionism, another doctrinal controversy). The word homoiousios, "of a similar substance," was suggested as a more accurate description of the relation of the Father and the Son.

Initially, Athanasius said that those who favored the term homoiousios were just as heretical as the Arians. He stated his doctrine in no uncertain terms in his Four Discourses Against the Arians:3

As we said above, so now we repeat, that the divine generation must not be compared to the nature of men, nor the Son considered to be part of God, nor the generation to imply any passion whatever; God is not as man; for men beget passibly, having a transitive nature, which waits for periods by reason of its weakness. But with God this cannot be; for He is not composed of parts, but being impassible and simple, He is impassibly and indivisibly Father of the Son.

Continued study and debate over the next few years led him to a more comprehensive view, however. His final determination on the matter, as summarized by church historian Justo Gonzalez, was as follows:4

Finally, in a synod gathered in Alexandria in 362 CE, Athanasius and his followers declared that it was acceptable to refer to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as "of one substance" as long as this was not understood as obliterating the distinction among the three, and that it was also legitimate to speak of "three substances" as long as this was not understood as if there were three gods.

A few years after Athanasius' death, the Second Ecumenical Council was held in Constantinople in 381 CE, and the doctrine of the Council of Nicea was ratified. In addition to establishing the equality of the Holy Spirit within the Trinity, the Council further established the Nicene understanding as orthodox teaching across the Empire, and again condemned the Arian teaching as heretical.

The emphasis during this period of history on the particular words used to describe the relative equality of the "substance" of which the Father and Son are composed seems to speak directly to the concept of Partialism.


  1. The Story of Christianity, Revised Edition, by Justo Gonzalez. Chapter 17, "The Arian Controversy and the Council of Nicea."
  2. Gonzalez. Chapter 19, "Athanasius of Alexandria."
  3. Four Discourses Against the Arians. Discourse One, paragraph 28. New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia.
  4. Gonzalez. Chapter 17.
  • Found and added a highly relevant quote. Hope you don't mind.
    – svidgen
    Jul 26, 2013 at 13:54
  • @svidgen: I relocated the quote to a point where I think it works better with the narrative. Kudos for checking the writings of Athanasius himself. "To the sources!," as Erasmus would have said. Good find. Jul 27, 2013 at 21:29
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    Perhaps it's the case that while the word "partialism" does not occur in these reference texts, the idea of separating God into non-coequal parts, is. It certainly seems to be one of the ideas of multiple heretical sects, both old and new. Certainly it seems the idea of Partialism is a heretical one.
    – user32
    Sep 7, 2014 at 18:35

What a great question!

I just want to contribute one other thought.

Partialism is kind of a theological impossibility, thus it doesn't need to be expressly condemned because a theologian should never get there in the fist place.

Here is what I mean: An orthodox confession would include the proclamation that God is Spirit (John 4:24). Spirit can't be divided into parts because it doesn't occupy space. It is utterly simple and incomposite.

He is simple, not composed of parts, without structure, altogether like and equal to himself alone. - Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 2:13:3

What is God? ‘God,’ as the Lord says, ‘is a spirit.’ Now spirit is properly substance, incorporeal, and uncircumscribed. And that is incorporeal which does not consist of a body, or whose existence is not according to breadth, length, and depth. And that is uncircumscribed which has no place, which is wholly in all, and in each entire, and the same in itself. - Clement of Alexandria On Providence

God is of a simple nature, not conjoined nor composite. - Ambrose of Milan The Faith 1:16:106

We are not by nature simple; but the divine nature, perfectly simple and incomposite, has in itself the abundance of all perfection and is in need of nothing - Cyril of Alexandria Dialogues on the Trinity 1

The nature of the Godhead, which is simple and not composite, is never to be divided into two - Cyril of Alexandria Treasury of the Holy Trinity 11

Why does John say, ‘No one has ever seen God’ [John 1:18]? So that you might learn that he is speaking about the perfect comprehension of God and about the precise knowledge of him. For that all those incidents [where people saw a vision of God] were condescensions and that none of those persons saw the pure essence of God is clear enough from the differences of what each did see. For God is simple and non-composite and without shape; but they all saw different shapes - John Chrysostom Against the Anomoians 4:3

So, while there is distinction of the Persons of the Trinity, there is not separation of the nature (substance) of God, because God is Spirit.

To me, the affirmation of God as Spirit means that Partialism hasn't been formally condemned as a heresy since the logical train of thought eventually leads to one of these problematic issues that takes precedent:

  1. One holds to partialism by rejecting that God is spirit. or
  2. One holds to partialism by redefining the nature of spirit. or
  3. One holds to partialism without redefining spirit, and inevitably and necessarily concludes that there must be three gods, aka Tri-theism (Semi-Arianism).

That God is simple (and hence, not composed of parts) is a dogma of the Catholic faith defined at the Fourth Lateran Council in November 1215:

"We firmly believe and simply confess that there is only one true God, eternal and immeasurable, almighty, unchangeable, incomprehensible and ineffable, Father, Son and holy Spirit, three persons but one absolutely simple essence, substance or nature." (Lateran IV, Confession of Faith)

It was also upheld in the condemnation of the Trinitarian doctrine of Joachim of Fiore at the same council:

"We, however, with the approval of this sacred and universal council, believe and confess with Peter Lombard that there exists a certain supreme reality, incomprehensible and ineffable, which truly is the Father and the Son and the holy Spirit, the three persons together and each one of them separately. Therefore in God there is only a Trinity, not a quaternity, since each of the three persons is that reality -- that is to say substance, essence or divine nature-which alone is the principle of all things, besides which no other principle can be found. This reality neither begets nor is begotten nor proceeds; the Father begets, the Son is begotten and the holy Spirit proceeds. Thus there is a distinction of persons but a unity of nature. Although therefore the Father is one person, the Son another person and the holy Spirit another person, they are not different realities, but rather that which is the Father is the Son and the holy Spirit, altogether the same; thus according to the orthodox and catholic faith they are believed to be consubstantial. For the Father, in begetting the Son from eternity, gave him his substance, as he himself testifies : What the Father gave me is greater than all. It cannot be said that the Father gave him part of his substance and kept part for himself since the Father's substance is indivisible, inasmuch as it is altogether simple. Nor can it be said that the Father transferred his substance to the Son, in the act of begetting, as if he gave it to the Son in such a way that he did not retain it for himself; for otherwise he would have ceased to be substance. It is therefore clear that in being begotten the Son received the Father's substance without it being diminished in any way, and thus the Father and the Son have the same substance. Thus the Father and the Son and also the holy Spirit proceeding from both are the same reality." (Lateran IV, On the error of abbot Joachim)

[Note, if one is going to admit "partialism" as the video describes it, one automatically has to admit that there is a whole distinct from the parts, and so this yields Joachim's theory that there is a quaternity rather than a Trinity.]

Finally, in the third section of the council documents, we read,

"We excommunicate and anathematize every heresy raising itself up against this holy, orthodox, and catholic faith which we have expounded above. We condemn all heretics, whatever names they may go under." (Lateran IV, On Heretics)

[This is not to contradict what has gone before, only to point out that Catholics, at least, would hold "partialism" to be heresy. I think the Orthodox would as well, although they don't accept Lateran IV, based on the witness of the Church Fathers presented in one the other posts on this thread.]


I was looking into Arianism, and a Wikipedia page has The Profession of Faith of Arius in which Arius describes the belief of Mani or the Manicheans about the Son as "meros omousian". Meros means part, component, share, or portion, and omousian is a form of homoousios i.e. same essence/substance. That means that Partialism could have been a historical heresy taught by Mani or developed and believed by Manicheans.

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