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It is fair to say that no doctrine of the Christian faith was subjected to as penetrating analysis in the early church as was the doctrine of God. This lesson will highlight the development of Trinitarianism in the patristic age.


The history of this doctrine falls into three stages.


·First, there is the Pre-Nicene period, extending from the death of John the Apostle to a.d. 325.


·The second stage focuses on the climactic encounter between the teaching of Arius and Athanasius and the emergence of the Nicene Creed (a.d. 325). The Council of Nicea was not an exhaustive effort, but was purposely restricted in focus. Although not addressed to the Trinitarian problem per se, the Nicene Creed did declare the fundamental equality of deity between Father and Son.


·Finally, in the Post-Nicene period the debate took a decidedly Christological turn in which the focus was the relationship between the divine and human natures in Christ. In the course of this process a Trinitarian conclusion was reached at Constantinople in 381 and a Christological one at Chalcedon in 451.


Our focus will be on developments in stage one, that is, in the period preceding the Council of Nicea in 325. Further developments in Trinitarian thought will be addressed when we take up the Christological debates that followed Nicea.


1. The Post-Apostolic Fathers [Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, Papias, and the document called The Shepherd of Hermas] - The post-apostolic fathers were committed to both monotheism and the deity of Christ, but made no effort at reconciling the two. As J. N. D. Kelly notes, the post-apostolic fathers appear "as witnesses to the traditional faith rather than interpreters striving to understand it" (Early Christian Doctrines [New York: Harper & Row, 1960], 90). Generally speaking, these men repeated the biblical assertions concerning both Father and Son but declined to speculate or theorize on the relation of the two in the Godhead. For them, monotheism was viewed as “the dividing line between the Church and paganism” (83).


Christ’s pre-existence is affirmed but not explained and there are occasional hints of binitarianism in which the pre-incarnate Christ is identified with the Holy Spirit (see The Shepherd of Hermas, Similitudes, 9.I.1.).


2. The Apologists [Justin Martyr, Quadratus, Aristides, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus] - The principal contribution of the apologists was the doctrine called Logos Christology. Justin Martyr proposed that the pre-existent Christ was the reason or intelligence of God. This relationship between Christ and God was not personal, as if Son to Father. Rather, Christ was to the Father what rational thought is to the mind. Thus, as a thought is expressed verbally, the Logos (Word) of God assumed a physical form and became a man in Christ Jesus. In a sense, then, the Son was “derived” from the Father, yet without a diminishing of the latter. As a single torch serves to light several fires yet without lessening the light of the original flame, so the Word issued forth from the Father without depriving the latter of His Word


Whereas the apologists did not conceive of God as a Trinity of persons (indeed, the Word was not truly and personally the “Son” until he was put forth by God for the purpose of creation and redemption), they did affirm an eternal and essential union of God and Logos. Says Kelly,


"when Justin spoke of Him [the Logos] as a 'second God' worshipped 'in a secondary rank', and when all the Apologists stressed that His generation or emission resulted from an act of the Father's will, their object was not so much to subordinate Him as to safeguard the monotheism which they considered indispensable" (101).


3. Economic Trinitarianism - Tertullian (d. 225) and Hippolytus (d. 236) conceived of God from two perspectives:


·First, as He is in Himself, intrinsically, without regard or relation to anything external to His own self-sufficient being; and


·Second, as He is in relation to the world, extrinsically, through the divine activities of creation, redemption, revelation.


With respect to the former, God is one, yet contains within himself his Word or Reason and Wisdom (on the analogy, again, of the mental functions in a human). As to the latter, his Word and Wisdom manifest themselves, respectively, as Son and Spirit. Thus in the economy of God, that is to say, in the implementation of his eternal purpose in creation and redemption, God is three, revealing himself in an “order” (taxis) as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.


The Economic Trinitarians, however, insisted that the personal relationships of Father, Son, and Spirit do not exist until the manifestation of God in creation and redemption. Prior to that time the distinctions are real, but not personal. Hence God is properly a Father and Christ properly the Son of this Father, not in the eternal being of God, but when manifested in the economy of God's redemptive purpose on earth.


Tertullian even suggested that subsequent to the work of redemption and the creation of the new heavens and new earth the Son will “recede” into the Divine Being, still distinct in the constitution of the Godhead but not personally as Son.


To his credit, Tertullian was the first to speak of the Godhead as a Trinity (trinitas), and did not hesitate to describe both Son and Spirit as persons (prosopon). But again, these are characteristics of God only in the temporal economy (i.e., the earthly outworking of redemption), not in the eternal being of God.


4. The Contribution of Origen (a.d. 185-254) - Origen affirmed an eternal trinity of persons in the Godhead. But to avoid tri-theism (three gods) he insisted that the Father was the fountain-head of deity from whom the Son was in some sense derived. The Son, argued Origen, is a secondary God (deuteros theos; Contra Celsus, 5.39). The Son is God, but not in and of himself. He is God by participation in and derivation from the foundational deity of the Father. Thus Origen introduced a strong note of subordination of the second and third persons of the Trinity.


The unity of Father and Son corresponds to the unity between light and its brilliance or between water and the steam that rises from it. "Different in form," explains Kelly, "both share the same essential nature; and if, in the strictest sense, the Father alone is God, that is not because the Son is not also God or does not possess the Godhead, but because, as Son, he possesses it by participation or derivatively" (130). Thus Origen moved closer to orthodox trinitarianism when he affirmed an eternal distinction of persons in the Godhead. But at the same time he affirmed the subordination of the Son to the Father.


In spite of his subordinationism, and much to his credit, Origen also articulated the concept of the eternal generation of the Son. David Bell provides this helpful explanation:


“Eternal generation means that when the Father put forth or produced or generated the Son, he did not do so in the same way as a woman brings forth a baby, or a bullet comes out of a gun. In both these cases, the action is a single action, done once and for all. But when a candle shines and gives forth its light, the light is emitted continually so long as the flame is burning. It is a continual act, not a single action, and it is in this way that God the Son is begotten. God the Father continually pours forth God the Son, just as the rational human mind continually generates human will (this is Origen’s own analogy), and since God the Father is eternal and has never been without the Son (for Origen learned from St. John that ‘he was with God in the beginning [Jn 1:2]), so it follows that in the case of God, continual generation is eternal generation. From the beginning of eternity to its end, God the Father generates the Son as light forever generates its own radiance (again, the analogy is Origen’s own). Light without radiance is unthinkable, says Origen, and more than that, light and its radiance show a community of substance. In other words we have here light from light . . ., not trees from light or heat from light or horses from light; but as a river puts forth a stream (water from water) or the rational mind puts forth its will (mind from mind), what is put forth here is the same ‘stuff’ or ‘material’ or ‘substance’ as that which puts it forth. Father and Son, light and splendour, river and stream, mind and will are each consubstantial, ‘of the same substance’, and since the Greek word for ‘same’ is homos and the Greek word for ‘substance’ is ousia, the two terms combine to form the adjective homo-ousios” (52).


5. Third-Century Anti-Trinitarianism - A heresy known as Monarchianism (also known as Sabellianism after one of their leaders, Sabellius [early 3rd century]) emerged in Asia Minor and flourished in the West. In accordance with their name (monarchy = single principle, Gk.), the monarchians stressed divine unity to the exclusion of any personal distinctions in the Godhead. Monarchians opted for one of two explanations concerning the Son and Holy Spirit.


Dynamic Monarchianism (first advocated by Theodotus, a learned Byzantine leather merchant) conceives of Jesus prior to his baptism as wholly human. As a reward for his exceptional moral virtue, Jesus was adopted as God's Son and empowered by the Spirit through which he subsequently performed his miracles. Jesus was "divine" not because of any equality in essence with the Father but by virtue of a received power (dunamis). This view, also called Adoptionism, did not flourish as well as did its sister view.


The most influential spokesman for this view was Paul of Samosata, Metropolitan of Antioch in Syria, who was finally condemned at the synod of Antioch in 268.


Modalistic Monarchianism believed in both the unity of the Godhead and the deity of Christ. The only viable way to maintain both, so they argued, was to identify the Son (and the Spirit) with the Father. There is only one God who, depending on the circumstances, need, and work in which he is engaged, will variously manifest himself either as Father or Son or Spirit. These names do not stand for distinct persons in the Godhead but were simply different expressions for the same God. Jesus is one of several modes whereby the one God reveals himself. [Cf. the so-called Oneness Pentecostals or Jesus only Pentecostals; the UPC.] The Monarchians were also called Patripassians by their opponents, because they taught that the Father (Latin, pater) suffered (Latin, passus) as the Son. Consider these statements by Noetus of Smyrna, one of its most outspoken advocates: “When the Father had not yet been born, He was rightly called the Father; but when it had pleased him to submit to birth, having been born, He became the Son, He of Himself and not of another” (quoted by Hippolytus in Refutations, IX,10). Again, “Christ is himself the Father, and . . . the Father himself was born, He suffered and died” (Hippolytus, Against Noetus, 1).




The reason for these differing explanations of the nature of God may be found in the specific biblical texts to which they appealed. Jaroslav Pelikan (The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition 100-600 [Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971], 175) has identified four classes of Christological texts that bore considerable influence in the early church. See Figure 1.


(1) Texts of adoption which appear to speak of a time when Jesus, who was at first only a man, became divine either at his baptism or resurrection (Ps. 2:7; Acts 2:32-36; Mt. 3:13-17).


(2) Passages of identity which either predicate deity of the Son or apply to him texts and titles otherwise true only of YHWH (Jn. 10:30; Heb. 1:8; Rom. 10:12-13).


(3) Texts that appear to affirm a distinction between Father and Son (Prov. 8:22-31; Ps. 110:1; John 17).


(4) Texts of derivation, "which, by referring to the Father as 'the greater' or using such titles as angel, Spirit, Logos, and Son, suggested that he 'came from God' and was in some sense less than God" (Pelikan, 175).