Polycarp’s view of God and Christ: Did he 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 historical development. The current article builds on the previous one and discusses the views of one of the first post-Biblical writers; Polycarp, who lived from about the year 70 to 155.

Summary of this article

Polycarp mentioned the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit together in a single passage (a triadic passage), but that does mean that they are one Being, or that they are equal, as required by the Trinity doctrine.  To the contrary:

      • Polycarp identified the “Lord God Almighty” as the Father alone.
      • He also made a distinction, not only between the Father and the Son, but between God and Jesus.
      • He identified the Father as Jesus’ God.

Polycarp was not a Trinitarian. He did glorify the Father “with” Jesus Christ, but that does not mean that the Son is God or that He is equal to Father, for it is God who gave Him such an exalted name “that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow.” 

Polycarp identified Jesus Christ as “the eternal and heavenly high priest.” Through the Son we receive knowledge of God and through the Son do we glorify God.  He is “the eternal … high priest” because He will be our high priest for as long as we need a high priest.

Polycarp did not mention “substance” or that Jesus has both a divine and a human nature. These concepts have been developed much later.

These concepts will now be discussed in more detail:

Polycarp’s Prayer

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. A
men.
(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 of 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.

The Trinitarian apologist Matt Slick selected the quote above probably because:

(1) It is a triadic passage (a passage that mentions the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit together).
(2) Polycarp glorifies the Father “with” Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
(3) This implies that the Holy Spirit is Person. 

These three concepts are discussed below:

(1) Triadic Passages

Trinitarians often use the triadic passages in the New Testament as support for the view that the three Persons are one Being and are equal. To mention the three Persons together does indeed indicate a close relationship, but it does not prove that they are one Being, or that they are equal, or that they consist of the same substance. 

The quote above indicates that Polycarp did not think of them as equal. He identified 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.” This is consistent with the Bible, which never identifies Jesus as Almighty, but makes a distinction between Jesus and the Almighty.

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).

This is also consistent with the Bible. Each and every one of Paul’s letters start with a similar phrase, where the word “and” is used to distinguish between God and Jesus, for example:

God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 1:7)

Furthermore, note that the last quote from Polycarp refers to the Father as Jesus’ God.  This concept also repeatedly found in the Bible (e.g. Eph 1:3; John 20:17; Heb 1:9).  In Revelation 3:12, Jesus repeats this concept after His human existence on earth.

The word “through” appears three times in Polycarp’s prayer quoted above. This word 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.

(2) WE WORSHIP THE SON.

Polycarp is quoted above as saying, “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.”

This means that our glory goes to the Son as well.  This is also consistent with the Bible.  Jesus Himself said, “all will honor the Son even as they honor the Father” (John 5:23).  However, this does not mean that the Son is God or that He 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 in the previous article, according to the Trinity doctrine, Jesus had both a divine and human nature.  Presumably, His human nature died on the Cross. But according to Philippians 2:8-9, God exalted His Son to be worshiped AFTER His death; when only His divine nature existed. That means that He is subordinate to the Father also in His divine nature. His present subordination to the Father 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 glorified position at God’s right hand 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.

(3) IS THE HOLY SPIRIT A DISTINCT PERSON?

The version of Polycarp’s prayer quoted above implies that the Holy Spirit is given glory and that the Holy Spirit is, therefore, a self-aware Person. But the version of that same 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 HIGH PRIEST

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 was high priest.  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 alone as Almighty God and the Son as the High Priest “through” we learn about God and “through” whom we glorify God.  The frequent use of the word “through” indicates that Polycarp thought of Jesus as Mediator, but as Mediator, He is distinct from the Father. 

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

Polycarp did not mention “substance” or that Jesus has both a divine and a human nature. These concepts have been developed much later.

ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES

FIRST 300 YEARS

FOURTH CENTURY

FIFTH CENTURY

LATER DEVELOPMENT

Historical Development of the Trinity doctrine in the first six centuries

Summary of this article

This article series traces the development of the Trinity theory through the centuries, commencing with the pre-Nicene fathers, through the tumultuous events of the fourth century and into the subsequent centuries. 

This first article defines the Trinity and explains the conceptual and historical development of the Trinity Doctrine:

The first step and foundational principle of the Trinity theory is that Jesus is God as much as the Father is God.

To reconcile this with the monotheism of the Bible, the next development was the concept that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are a single Being. But since there are differences between them, the thought was added that they are three different Persons within one single Being.

However, Christ Jesus, indicated that He is subordinate to the Father. To solve this challenge, Trinitarians developed the thought that Jesus had both a human and a divine nature. In His human nature, He is limited, but in His divine nature, He knows all things.

These formulations of the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were developed over a period of about 400 years.

PURPOSE

Nicene Creed
Emperor standing behind the church fathers

The purpose of this article series is to trace the development of the Trinity theory through the centuries, commencing with the pre-Nicene fathers, through the tumultuous events of the fourth century and into the subsequent centuries.

In the year 325, the Council of Nicaea concluded that the Lord Jesus Christ has the same substance as the Father (homoousios) and is co-equal with the Father. The purpose of the first articles is to determine what Christians believed about Christ and the Trinity in the three centuries before Nicaea.

METHOD

Matt Slick is a prominent Trinitarian apologist.  To prove that Christians did believe in the Trinity during the first three centuries, his brief post, “Early Trinitarian Quotes,” provides a collection of proof-texts from prominent second and third centuries theologians.

Sean Finnegan—a Unitarian (believing that the Father alone is God)—responded to Slick’s article with an article titled Trinity before Nicaea.  His purpose was to show that Christians in the first three centuries did not believe in the Trinity. He discussed Slick’s articles but added further quotes. Dr. Tuggy’s podcast 262 presents his response. Dr. Tuggy is a well know Socinian Unitarian, which means that he believes that Christ did not exist before His human birth.  

The current article series analyzes the quotes from both these articles to determine what the Christian authors believed in the first three centuries about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The purpose is not to determine whether those early Christians were correct in what they taught, but, rather, to understand whether the Nicene and later creeds were consistent with the teachings of the early Christians.

To simplify these articles, many of the quotes below are summarized.  For the full quotes, refer to Finnegan’s article.

TRINITY DEFINED

Slick’s definition of the Trinity, in summary, is as follows:

Trinity
Trinity

God is one, but is a Trinity of three distinct persons; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each has a will and is self-aware, but they are not three beings. They consist of one substance.  Each person is the one God and is eternal, equal to the others and equally powerful.  

Jesus, as a man, has both a divine and human nature.

In this definition, “each person is the one God.” This means that God = the Father = the Son = the Holy Spirit. This sounds like Modalism, where the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not three different Persons, but three modes of the same Being. But then Slick adds that they are “three distinct persons.” In Slick’s definition:

The three-ness of God is expressed as three separate wills and self-awareness.
The one-ness of God is expressed as a single substance, understood as a single Being.

HISTORICAL AND CONCEPTUAL DEVELOPMENT

The conceptual progression and historical development of the Trinity theory can be described as follows:

JESUS IS GOD.

Worship JesusBased on the High Christological statements in the Bible, Trinitarians believe that Jesus is God as much as the Father is God.  This was the main point of the Nicene Creed of the year 325, which identified the Son as “true God from true God.”

THREE PERSONS IN ONE BEING

This creed caused much dispute and controversy in the church for the next 50 years, for the Bible is clear that only one God exists (monotheism).  Trinitarians, therefore, developed the concept that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are a single Being; that together they are the one God of the Bible. However, since there are differences between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, such as that the one is begotten and the other not, the thought developed that they are three different Persons within the one single Being.  This concept was reflected in the writings of the Cappadocian Fathers, late in the 3-hundreds (fourth century).

The word Trinity has two possible meanings. With a lower case, “trinity” simply means a group of three.  Some early Christians used the word in that sense.  They did not yet differentiate between upper case and lower case letters, but that was the meaning they attached to the Greek and Latin equivalents of the word.  But, today, we do differentiate between upper and lower case, and we use the word “Trinity,” with a capital “T,” as a proper name for the single Being who consists of three divine Persons.

TWO NATURES

But then, Christ Jesus, when He was on earth, did not know the day and hour of His return, and said that only the Father knows that.  And in many other ways, He indicated that He is subordinate to the Father.  For example, He was sent by the Father and the Father gave Him what to say and what to do. 

Trinitarians, therefore, developed the thought that Jesus had both a human and a divine nature.  In His human nature, He did not know the day or die hour, but in His divine nature, He knows all things.  This “two natures” theory was articulated at the council of Chalcedon in 451.

The foundation on which the Trinity theory rests is, therefore, the conclusion that the Son is God as much as the Father is God is.  Both the One Being/Three Persons and the dual nature theories simply are secondary attempts to reconcile the Bible with the conclusion that the Son is God. 

The concepts in this section will be brought out in more clarity in the articles that will follow.

ARIANISM

AriusIn the fifty years after Nicaea, that creed was rejected by most church leaders. Arianism was the main competitor for the Trinity theory and dominated the church until the year 380.  Arianism is explained in a later article.  In summary, Arianism argues that the Son is not equal to the Father, but was begotten by the Father before time and that God created all things through the Son.  In other words, in the infinity beyond time, the Father was before the Son, but then we use the word “before” metaphorically. 

QUESTIONS

The articles below discuss the Christologies of Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus (bishop of Lyons), Tertullian and Origen. Origen was the greatest and most influential Christian theologian before Augustine. The purpose is to evaluate the following aspects from the definition of the Trinity against their works:

1. The Son is God.
2. The three Persons are equal.
3. The Holy Spirit is self-aware.
4. The three Persons consist of one substance.
5. Jesus has both a divine and a human nature.

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