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 Titus 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