Historical Development of the Trinity Doctrine – Available articles

These articles trace the development of the Trinity doctrine through the first about 500 years of the Church’s history, with the emphasis on the fourth century (the 300’s).

THE FIRST 300 YEARS

During the first three centuries, the church was persecuted by the Roman Empire. Did the Pre-Nicene Fathers believe in the Trinity?

IGNATIUS OF ANTIOCH
(c. 35-107) described the Son as our God, immortal and being life. But he also described the Father as the only true God, unapproachable and Begetter of the only-begotten Son.

POLYCARP
(c. 69–155) made a clear distinction between God and the Son, identified the “Lord God Almighty” as the Father alone and described the Father as Jesus’ God. 

JUSTIN MARTYR
(c. 100–165) said that God begot Jesus “before all creatures a Beginning.” “Through the Word, God has made everything.”  Justin proposed that Jesus was “born of the very substance of the Father,” but still distinct from and subordinate to the Father.

IRENAEUS
(c. 115-190) identified the Father as the only true God. He alone is Almighty and He is the Head of Christ. Using Irenaeus as a norm, the early church fathers did not believe in the Trinity.

THE MEANING OF THEOS
The pre-Nicene Fathers describe the Son as “our God” but the Father as “the only true God.” This confusion is caused by translations. The ancient writers did not have a word that is equivalent to the modern word “God.”  They described the Son as “our god” (small “g”) and the Father as “the only true god” (small “g”).

THE “ORTHODOX” WHEN THE ARIAN CONTROVERSY BEGAN
What is regarded today as the orthodox view of God was developed during the fourth and fifth centuries, but what was the traditional Christology when the Arian Controversy began early in the fourth century?

SABELLIUS
Was Sabellius (fl. c. 217-220) the first Trinitarian? Literature usually refers to Sabellius as a heretic for teaching modalism, but Von Mosheim made an in-depth study of the Christianity of the first 300 years and interpreted Sabellius’ theology very differently, namely that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three portions of the single divine essence. Although this is very different from the later developed Trinity doctrine, it also represents a significant movement away from the Logos-Christology of his day in the direction of Trinitarianism.

Nicene Creed of AD 325

The Nicene Creed is the most famous and influential creed in the history of the church (Justin Holcomb).

Eusebius’ explanation of the Nicene Creed – Eusebius of Caesarea, perhaps the most respected theologian at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, afterward wrote to his church in Caesarea to explain certain “objectionable expressions” the Nicene Creed. That letter explains the proceedings at the council and how these “objectionable expressions” were understood at the time. However, the article concludes that the decisions of Nicaea were really the work of a minority. Due to the pressure exerted by the emperor, the formulation presented by the party of Alexander was accepted and became adopted as the Nicene Creed.

The real dispute and main meaning of the Nicene Creed
It is often said that the Council of Nicaea was called to determine whether Jesus is God. But that does not accurately describe the dispute prior to Nicaea or the meaning of the creed. This article analyses the development of Christology from the Bible to the Nicene Council and concludes that the delegates at Nicaea held to Logos-Christology. Therefore, the creed must be interpreted accordingly.

Why the creed uses ousia and hypostasis as synonyms
Contrary to the Trinity doctrine, the original Nicene Creed used the words hypostasis (person) and ousia (substance) as synonyms, saying that the Son of God is the same hypostasis (Person) as the Father. This implies that the Nicene Creed teaches Sabellianism (Modalism). It was explicitly to neutralize the objection that the creed teaches Sabellianism that Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa, about 50 years after the Nicene Creed was formulated, proposed a change in the meaning of the word hypostasis.

Fourth Century Arianism

After the Nicene Creed was formulated in 325, the church soon rejected it and returned to the views it held during the previous centuries. In the year 380, emperor Theodosius made an end to the Arian Controversy. These articles explain the intervening period:

The end of Roman Arianism

Authors on the Arian Controversy

These are extracts from the writings of some authors that themselves analyzed the ancient documents:

Fifth Century Arianism

Sixth Century

Later developments

Trinity – General

What is the difference between the Trinity theory and modalism?
While some people put the emphasis on the three-ness of God, often resulting in tri-theism, in the orthodox understanding of the Trinity, the emphasis is fully on the one-ness of God. Consequently, I fail to see the difference between the three Persons.

Is the Athanasian Creed consistent with
the “Monarchy of the Father?”

In the Athanasian Creed, the “one God” is the Trinity, existing in one substance and one mind. In Eastern Orthodoxy, the “one God” is the Father, and the trinity has three distinct substances and wills. Furthermore, while, the Athanasian Creed only allows relational subordination, in Eastern Orthodoxy, the Son is ontologically, functionally, and relationally subordinate to the Father.

A response to GotQuestions’ article.
The Trinity concept is a humanly devised theory and we must test it against the Bible. This article shows that the Trinity doctrine contradicts itself.

Elohim, translated God, is plural.
Is God more than one Person? Hebrew pluralizes nouns when it desired to express greatness. Ancient translations always translate elohim with the singular theos.

An Eastern Orthodox view of the Trinity – Fr. Thomas Hopko
The Eastern Orthodox Church reflects the theology of the ancient church. The one God in whom we believe is not the Holy Trinity but the Father of Jesus Christ. The Son is divine with the same divinity as God.

Articles I must improve

For a discussion of the major role which Caesar Constantine played in the formulation of the Nicene Creed of 325, listen to Kegan Chandler on the term “homoousios”  The famous church historian Eusebius tells us that it was the emperor Constantine who suggested using the word homoousios.  Chandler ventures an educated guess as to what Constantine was thinking… and it has something to do with Egypt!

For a discussion of the church fathers, showing that they all believed that Jesus is subordinate to the Father, and that the idea of Christ being equal to the Father only developed during the Middle Ages, see the discussion by Dr. Beau Branson on the Monarchy of the Father (Trinities 240).

List of all articles on this website

The ‘orthodox’ view of God when the Arian Controversy began

In response to my question of why Theodosius was successful in bringing the Arian Controversy to a close, Anne gave me references to some articles. I have read one by Steven Wedgeworth. It is a very interesting article (for people with such morbid interests). It discusses the large number of creeds that were formulated in the decades after the Nicene Creed was accepted in 325, culminating in the Homoean creed that was accepted, under the ‘guidance” of Emperor Constantius, at the Council of Constantinople in AD 360.

(The Homoeans or Homoians were the people that maintained that the Bible does not reveal anything about the substance (ousia) of God and, therefore, to speculate about His substance is arrogance. This is in contrast to the Nicene Creed that claimed that the Son is of the same substance as the Father.)

The creed of the Council of Constantinople in AD 360 became the official creed of the Christian Church. All use of ousia was forbidden and it seemed as if Arianism has triumphed.

I am also currently reading RPC Hanson on the Arian Controversy. Some regard him as our greatest authority on that controversy (e.g., Hart). Hanson and Wedgeworth present the same interesting historical facts, such as:

    • The decisive influence which the emperors had on the decisions of the church councils,
    • That Athanasius was guilty of violence,
    • That the Arian Controversy, to an extent, was a dispute between the East and the West, and
    • That, in 358, the anti-Nicene party split between the Homoiousians (similar substance) and the Homoeans (those who refused to talk about substance).

But there is one contextual matter where Hanson and Wedgeworth seem to disagree: While Hanson claimed that no ‘orthodoxy’ existed when the controversy began and that orthodoxy was only created through that controversy, Wedgeworth speaks of Orthodoxy as something that already existed when the Arian Controversy began. To illustrate the difference in more detail:

Steven Wedgeworth

Wedgeworth refers to “the orthodoxy of Athanasius,” “the orthodox bishops” in the year 360, and the “early church historians” who defended “the orthodoxy” at the Western council at Arminium in 360. He describes the Homoean synod of Constantinople in 360 as “the defeat of Orthodoxy.”

Wedgeworth also refers to “supposed orthodox arguments (that) could perhaps be made against using “substance” language in regards to the godhead.” In this regard, he mentions Origen who have already rejected the term years before, and Paul of Samatosota who had been condemned for his use of homoousios, which the Church condemned as a Sabellian theology.

(Sabellianism is the teaching that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three faces of one single Person. For a discussion, see my question on the difference between Modalism and the traditional understanding of the Trinity doctrine.)

In opposition to the orthodox writers and bishops, Wedgeworth referred to the “heretics.“ He said, for example, that “the heretics typically took pre-existing Christian or Jewish tradition, combined it with certain philosophical rhetoric.”

RPC Hanson

Hanson, in contrast to Wedgeworth, wrote (link):

“At the beginning of the controversy nobody knew the right answer. There was no ‘orthodoxy’ on the subject of ‘how divine is Jesus Christ?’, certainly not in the form which was later to be enshrined in the Creed of Constantinople.”

Hanson adds that the controversy raged for no less than sixty years. It is highly unlikely that a controversy will last that long if the orthodox form was perfectly well known when it began.

Subordinationism

There is a third option, namely that, when the controversy began, there was a general agreement in the church that the Son is subordinate to the Father. Hanson explains the build-up to the Arian Controversy as follows:

During the first three centuries, Greek philosophy was still a strong force in the Roman Empire. In that philosophy, God is immutable and is only able to communicate with our world of change and decay through an intermediary. For that reason, Middle Platonist philosophy postulated a nous or Second Hypostasis as an intermediary between the high God and the physical world. (link)

During those centuries, Christians were still being persecuted by the Roman Empire. The Apologists (the pre-Nicene fathers) defended Christianity before the Gentile peoples of the Roman Empire. For this purpose, they found it effective to identify “the pre-existent Christ … with the nous or Second Hypostasis.” (link) Since the nous of Greek philosophy was “a second, created god lower than the High God,” (link) the pre-Nicene fathers described Christ as “a subordinate though essential divine agent.” (link) Therefore, as Hanson explains, going into the controversy, the orthodoxy was that Christ is subordinate to the Father:

The “conventional Trinitarian doctrine with which Christianity entered the fourth century … was to make the Son into a demi-god.” (link)

The pre-Nicene fathers did regard Christ as divine, but as Hanson noted:

“The word theos or deus, for the first four centuries of the existence of Christianity had a wide variety of meanings. There were many different types and grades of deity in popular thought and religion and even in philosophical thought.” (link)

In the thinking of the pre-Nicene fathers, “of course Christ was divine,” but since they assumed that many levels of divinity exist, the question that started the Arian Controversy was: “How divine, and what exactly did ‘divine’ mean in that context?” (link)

(Theos is the Greek word that is translated as “god” or “God,” depending on the context. Deus is its Latin equivalent.)

So, my question is: What was the ‘orthodox’ view of God and Christ when the Arian Controversy began?:

      • The Trinity doctrine as per Wedgeworth;
      • None, as per Hanson, or
      • Subordinationism?

Or am I making a category error? Why would Hanson state that the pre-Nicene fathers believed that Christ is subordinate to the Father but still say there was no ‘orthodoxy’ on the subject of ‘how divine is Jesus Christ?’

And why would Wedgeworth talk about ‘orthodoxy’ as if it is the present-day Trinity doctrine, already existing in 360 AD? Did he use the term ‘orthodoxy’ proleptically (the representation of a thing as existing before it actually does)?

Conclusion

This is a copy of a question that I posted on Stackexchange to see how people would respond. 

Articles in this Series:
Historical Development of the Trinity Doctrine

First 300 years (The persecuted church)

Fourth Century (State Church)

Fifth & Sixth Centuries

Extract from specific authors