Polycarp’s view of God and Christ: Did Polycarp believe in the Trinity?

This is the second article in the series on the development of the Trinity doctrine.  The previous article defined this doctrine and gave a brief overview of its development.  The current article discusses the views of one of the first post-Biblical writers, namely Polycarp, who lived from about the year 70 to 155.  The following short excerpt comes from the Martyrdom of Polycarp (ch. 14), giving Polycarp’s prayer just prior to his execution:

O Lord God Almighty, Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have received knowledge of you, the God of angels and powers and of all creation … I glorify you, through the eternal and heavenly high priest, Jesus Christ, your beloved Son, through whom be glory to you, with him and the Holy Spirit, both now and for the ages to come. Amen.

(Michael Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, Third Edition (Grand Rapid: Baker Academic, 2007), pp. 321-323.)

The Martyrdom of Polycarp is sometimes a bit incredible.  For example, when they attempted to burn Polycarp in a great fire, it miraculously shaped itself into the form an arch and burned around him, emitting a sweet odor like frankincense.  It is, therefore, difficult to say how trustworthy this document is, but it is accepted as early and that it has a historical core.

Slick probably thinks that this quote proves the Trinity because:

(1) it mentions all three Persons together; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
(2) Polycarp glorifies the Father “with” Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
(3) This implies that the Holy Spirit is self-aware. 

Triad

Trinitarians are fond of the triadic passages in the New Testament, which are passages where the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are mentioned together.  In these statements, they find support for their view that the Three are one and equal.  This is also what Slick by implication is doing in his article. 

To mention the three Persons together does indeed indicate a close relationship, but it does not prove that they are one, or that they are equal, or consist of the same substance.  On the contrary, Polycarp identifies the “Lord God Almighty” as the Father alone.  He does not identify the Son as God or as Almighty, but as “the eternal and heavenly high priest.”

In his only authentic work, Polycarp clearly distinguished between God and Jesus when he wrote, “Now may the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the eternal high priest himself, the Son of God Jesus Christ, build you up” (Holmes, p295).

The word “through” appears three times in Polycarp’s prayer, and explains the Son’s roles: “Through” the Son we receive knowledge of God and through the Son do we glorify God.  The Son’s role as “high priest” also emphasizes His intermediary role between God and man.

Worship

That our glory goes to the Son as well, is consistent with the Bible.  Jesus Himself said, “all will honor the Son even as they honor the Father” (John 5:23).  This does not mean that the Son is God or is equal to Father, as per Slick’s definition of the Trinity, for it is God who exalted Him, “so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow” (Phil. 2:9-10; cf. Heb. 1:6). 

As stated, the Trinity doctrine argues that Jesus had both a divine and human nature and that only His human nature died on the Cross.  But God exalted His Son to be worshiped after His human nature already died (Phil. 2:8-9), as some propose, and only His divine nature existed.  That means that He is subordinate to the Father also in His present state.  His subordination is confirmed by the verses that say that He now sits at God’s right hand (e.g. Acts 2:33), and even in that position He received the Revelation from God (Rev. 1:1) and recognize the Father as His God (Rev. 3:12).

On the other hand, since the Son is worshiped together with the Father, it would be very difficult to believe that Jesus did not exist before He was born as a human being, as Dr. Tuggy proposes.

Holy Spirit

The version of Polycarp’s prayer which Slick quotes implies that the Holy Spirit is given glory and that the Holy Spirit is therefore self-aware.  But the version of the prayer that is preserved in Eusebius’ Church History (4.15.35) reads differently.  It does not say “and the Holy Spirit,” but that Polycarp glorified God “through…Jesus Christ…in the Holy Spirit.”  As a result of this textual uncertainty, we should not rely on this quote as evidence of Polycarp’s confession in the Spirit as a distinct person.

Eternal

Polycarp described the Son as “the eternal and heavenly high priest.”  He was not always high priest because sin and man did not always exist.  He became high priest at His ascension (Heb. 2:17; 5:9-10).  “Eternal” therefore does not mean that He always existed.  It rather means that he will be our high priest for as long as we need a high priest.

Conclusion

Did Polycarp believe in the Trinity?  He made a clear distinction between God and the Son, describing the Father as Almighty God and the Son as the High Priest.  As mediator, the Son is subordinate to the Father. 

There is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Titus 2:5).

Polycarp did not make any mention of substance or that Jesus has both a divine and a human nature.