The Trinity from Canon to Creed

Korey D. Maas
Tuesday, May 15th 2007
Nov/Dec 2003

Thoughtful new candidates for church membership might wonder about it. Skeptical undergraduates are fond of mentioning it. And to the smartly dressed folks who ring your doorbell with complimentary copies of Watchtower and Awake!, it is something of a mantra: "The word 'Trinity' is not in the Bible." And indeed it is not. How, then, did the word ever come to be part of the church's common vocabulary, since the church takes Scripture as the sole source and norm of Christian doctrine?

This question itself contains a partial answer. Scripture alone is the source of Christian doctrine; it is not the only source of Christian vocabulary. The real question is not whether a particular arrangement of seven specific letters can be found between Genesis 1:1 and Revelation 22:21. The real question is whether Scripture reveals that the reality signified by these letters exists, no matter what name we attach to it. This was clearly understood by Christians in the early church, and it has been reiterated by theologians ever since. One of them, B. B. Warfield, has put the crucial issue like this: "[T]he definition of a Biblical doctrine in such un-Biblical language can be justified only on the principle that it is better to preserve the truth of Scripture than the words of Scripture."

The Earliest Christians and the Trinity

The earliest Christian communities confessed a belief in the triune God before the term "Trinity" came into use. Indeed, they could hardly have done less. Each of them had entered the church according to the biblical mandate of Christ himself, by being baptized into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (see Matt. 28:19). They also heard and repeated this trinitarian formula in the daily and weekly liturgy. As candles were lighted for worship, the congregation sang together, "We praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." And they were dismissed from worship with St. Paul's benediction to the Corinthians: "May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all" (2 Cor. 13:14).

"Sure," the man waving the Watchtower might protest, "but just because they mentioned Father, Son, and Spirit together doesn't mean they actually believed each to be God himself." Well, actually, that is exactly what they believed. In the same liturgies, for example, they sang hymns to "the suffering God" and the "God who is born." Even the uninitiated immediately recognized the unmistakable implications of such phrases. This is why, early in the second century, a Roman governor named Pliny (a.d. 61[or 62]-ca. 113) expressed his hostility toward Christianity to the Emperor Trajan by observing that, when Christians gathered for worship, they sang "a hymn to Christ as though to God." What sounded dubious to the pagan Pliny-the equation of the man Jesus with God himself-was not considered at all strange by those steeped in the liturgy of the church and the Scriptures upon which it was built. The apostolic fathers often spoke of Christ by referring to him as "our God" and "God incarnate." They encouraged one another to "think of Jesus Christ as of God." The fact that the church's first major heresy was Docetism-the belief that Jesus was not a man at all, but only God-is a significant indication of just how often and how boldly Jesus' divinity was confessed. Nor did these early Christians neglect the Holy Spirit. Ignatius of Antioch (ca. a.d. 35-ca. 110) reminded the church at Ephesus that Christ was conceived "by Mary and the Holy Spirit" and then clarified his point by noting that Jesus was born "of Mary and of God."

Being a minority religion whose adherents often met secretly for fear of persecution, early Christianity was eyed suspiciously by nearly everyone, but to monotheistic Jews and polytheistic Greeks and Romans this belief of Christians was viewed as particularly odd. With Christianity's rapid growth and spread, it came more and more to be seen as a potentially dangerous oddity that undermined the religion of Jews and Greco-Romans alike. Jews accused Christians of denying the plain evidence of Deuteronomy 6:4-"the Lord is one." Greeks and Romans, scandalized by Christians' refusal to worship more than one god, denounced them as atheists. Both, quite understandably, were baffled by the realization that this new sect actually was claiming what seemed to be quite extraordinarily contradictory: God is one, but God is also three.

Second-Century Defense

In the face of both ridicule and persecution, second-century Christians were forced to mount an intellectual defense. Justin Martyr (ca. a.d. 100-ca. 165), the most energetic of the second-century apologists, entered the battle on both fronts. He handily refuted the Roman charge of atheism by matter of factly pointing out that, far from recognizing no god at all, the church recognizes the Father as God, the Son as God, and the Holy Spirit as God. In addressing the Jewish appeal to Deuteronomy, Justin confirmed the Christian belief in one God; but, he pointed out, the Old Testament itself reveals that there is more to God's unity than at first meets the eye. Appealing to verses including Genesis 1:26, where God said, "Let us make man in our image," he argued that the Godhead must consist of a plurality.

But perhaps Justin's most significant contribution to the debate was emphasizing the term "Logos." Literally meaning "word," Logos was a Greek term familiar both to Jews and to philosophically minded Greeks and Romans, who equated it with reason and especially with the divine reason active in the world's creation. Making much of his opponents' willingness to recognize the divine status of the Logos, Justin laid special stress on the New Testament confession of Christ: "In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God" (John 1:1). His contemporaries Irenaeus (ca. a.d. 130-ca. 200) and Theophilus (fl. ca. a.d. 180) followed suit, and upped the ante with Psalm 33:6-"By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host." God's Spirit (in Hebrew, the same word as "breath") as well as his Word, or Logos, was active in creation. In this context of divine creation, Theophilus became the first to speak of God as "the triad."

Some have complained that these second-century apologists, by choosing to highlight a term that carried philosophical baggage, irreversibly mired the doctrine of the Trinity in the realm of philosophical speculation rather than keeping it grounded in Scripture. Justin no doubt fixed on the term because it made biblical claims more readily understandable for those with philosophical leanings, but it would be entirely unfair to accuse him of swapping Scripture for philosophy. In any case, it is clearly evident that orthodox trinitarian doctrine did not become mired in philosophy when attention is turned to Tertullian (ca. a.d. 155[or 160]-after 220), a theologian writing shortly after the time of Justin.

Tertullian was the first to refer to God as a "trinitas." He was at the same time a most emphatic and outspoken opponent of any commingling of philosophy and theology. This led him famously to ask: "What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem, or the academy with the church?" And he had good reason to fear pagan philosophy's encroachment on Christian theology-not through the influence of the apologists but through certain second-century heretical reactions to orthodox theology. Overly enamored with the logic of mathematics and the philosophy of Aristotle (384 b.c.-322 b.c.), some claimed that confession of a "triad" could only be a confession of three separate gods. Tertullian dismissed this claim by turning again to the Gospel of John: "If the Word was with God, and was God, what follows? Would one allege that he mentions two gods? I shall not assert two gods, but one, and two persons." Distinct persons but one substance was his conclusion; and if philosophers or mathematicians could not grasp it, its truth remained unaffected.

Third- and Fourth-Century Developments

Tertullian's fear of philosophical speculation was soon borne out by developments that followed on the meditations of Origen (ca. a.d. 185-ca. 254), one of the early church's most prominent-and most slippery-theologians. In the early third century Origen was head of the catechetical school in the city of Alexandria, a city deeply immersed in Platonic philosophy. Like Justin, Origen faced the task of presenting Christianity to an audience that thought philosophically. He went beyond Justin, however, in his attempt to make the faith amenable to such thinkers. Although he did not hesitate to confess the Trinity, he made some lamentable concessions in attempting to explain it. Platonic philosophy conceived of a hierarchy of greater and lesser divine beings, and so Origen spoke of the Trinity hierarchically, saying that while the Father was the God, the Son was merely God-at times he even went so far as to refer to him as "a secondary God." Origen was too careful a theologian to separate the persons of the Trinity or to deny the divinity of any. But not all of his followers were so conscientious and some pressed his less guarded statements to extreme conclusions.

Origen's tendency to subordinate the Spirit to the Son and the Son to the Father reached its logical conclusion in the next century, with an Alexandrian presbyter named Arius (ca. a.d. 250-336). Whereas Origen had sometimes named Christ to be God in a lesser sense than the Father, Arius refused to acknowledge the designation at all. God, he asserted, was only an honorific title granted to Jesus: "Even if he is called God, he is not truly God." Tertullian's foes had privileged mathematics and Origen had leaned on philosophy, but Arius' presuppositions were largely biological: Jesus is the Son of God; to be a son is to be born; moreover, nature makes plain that sons are born only after their fathers; therefore, "There was when he [the Son] was not." But if the Son is not eternal, Arius concluded, then he is not God; he is not the Creator but merely a creature. (Already in the previous century, Novation, the first theologian to write a treatise specifically on the Trinity, had anticipated this dubious argument and answered it. Indisputably, he said, the Father has always existed; but one cannot be a father without a son. Therefore, the Son, too, must always have existed.)

Arius recognized that his opinion was uncomfortably novel. Even the earliest Christians had, after all, sung hymns to Christ, prayed to Christ, and worshiped him. Arius proposed to get around these problematic facts simply by encouraging the church to continue its worship of Jesus without recognizing him as God. This, his bishop pointed out, was a sheer absurdity that combined the worst of two worlds: Jewish rejection of Christ's divinity and pagan worship of nondeities. Arius was promptly excommunicated and sent into exile. But he had no intention of going quietly. He attempted to rally support for his cause, and both church and empire were thrown into violent disarray as riots broke out in major cities. Before long, the controversy came to the attention of the Emperor Constantine (a.d. 306-337). Having been recently converted to Christianity, and having even more recently unified his empire, he was loathe to watch it torn apart by heresy and schism. At his instigation, then, the first ecumenical council of the church was called.

In June 325, nearly three hundred bishops gathered in the city of Nicea. Arguments were heard, compromises suggested, and finally-perhaps unsurprisingly-an appeal was made to the liturgy. A baptismal creed was brought forward as a possible point of agreement and with some modification it became the first draft of what is now known as the Nicene Creed. Over against Arius' assertion that the Son had been created and therefore was not God, the council confessed Jesus to be "true God of true God, begotten not made." The next clause, however, proved contentious. Christ, it read, was "of one substance with the Father." None but Arius and his followers doubted the substantial unity of the Godhead; the problem was how exactly to describe it. The phrase "of one substance with the Father" introduced a term-homoousios, "of one substance"-that, like the word "Trinity" itself, was not to be found in Scripture. Prompted by concerns similar to those that led others to fear a philosophical intrusion into theology, even some orthodox bishops cried foul. With the support of the emperor and his theological advisors, however, the clause was hesitantly allowed to stand as the best possible summary of the biblical data.

But if the terminology of Nicea's creed signaled the triumph of orthodoxy, it was only a brief victory. Only twenty-five years later Constantius, Emperor Constantine's son and a decided Arian sympathizer, became sole ruler of the Roman Empire. Under his protection and guided by his dictum-"I do not want words used that are not in Scripture"-Arius' followers were allowed to convene a succession of local church councils that stripped the Nicene Creed of its defining vocabulary. These stealthy and subversive maneuvers led Jerome (ca. a.d. 347-419 [or 420]), an early theologian always quick with a blunt witticism, to observe wryly that one day, entirely by surprise, "the world groaned and marveled to find itself Arian."

Athanasius Contra Mundum("Athanasius Against the World")

But a brilliant young African named Athanasius (ca. a.d. 293-373) was not about to watch the Nicene formula be hijacked by Arians, the emperor, or even (in Jerome's words) the world. Athanasius, who was present at Nicea in 325, had been elevated to the position of bishop of Alexandria in 328, and thus inherited the mantle of the man who had first called Arius to account. He defended the Nicene council's conclusions by explaining that, because the Arians had been consistently evasive about the definition of biblical words, the bishops present were forced to reach outside Scripture for suitably precise terms. He went on to emphasize that what really mattered was not the particular vocabulary used but the meaning underlying any vocabulary. His arguments won him many enemies-he was chased from Alexandria five times and spent more than twenty years in exile-but they eventually proved irrefutable.

Athanasius-unlike his opponents who started from mathematics, philosophy, or biology-argued first and foremostly from the doctrine of salvation, the central tenet of Christian faith. This, he insisted, was the fundamental issue. God alone saves; no demigod, no superman, and certainly no ordinary Jewish carpenter could accomplish the salvation of an utterly corrupt and sinful human race. And yet the plain texts of the New Testament and the church's liturgy proclaimed Christ the Savior. How could this be? Because, as Jesus himself proclaimed, "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30) and "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9). For this reason and no other, Athanasius explained, the faithful offer Jesus their hymns, praise, and prayers. He-as God with the Father-has saved.

Even in this brief survey it appears that, at least from the time of Arius onward, the dispute concerning the Trinity centered on the persons of Father and Son, neglecting the Holy Spirit. Indeed, the creed of 325 addressed the subject only by confessing that "we believe in the Holy Spirit." Amphilochius of Iconium attempted to explain this apparent lacuna by saying that "since the question of the Holy Spirit was not being discussed at the time, they did not go into it at any greater length." This is undoubtedly true. But to concede that the Nicene bishops did not deal with it at length is not to say that the question was being ignored. Even as Athanasius was presenting his defense of God the Son, others were doing the same for God the Spirit; and, significantly, they did so by arguing on the same basis. Again the doctrine of salvation came to the fore. Basil of Caesarea (ca. a.d. 329-379-also known as Basil the Great) defended the Spirit's full deity by noting Christ's mandate to baptize in the name of Father, Son, and Spirit. This baptism was, in the words of Titus, a "washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit" (Tit. 3:5). And, as the Apostle Peter proclaimed, it "now saves you" (1 Pet. 3:21). But, Basil emphasized again, only God himself can save. To reject the Spirit's deity, he concluded, is to reject salvation by rejecting the means by which it is achieved.

As it would time and again in many later ecclesiastical controversies, the clear biblical witness to the central doctrine of salvation proved decisive. In 381, the ecumenical council of Constantinople rejected all Arian substitutions and reaffirmed Nicea's creed; additionally, the Holy Spirit's status was clarified with the explicitly worded recognition that he is "the Lord and giver of life . . . who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified." The logic of philosophy, biology, and mathematics could not stand against the authority of divine revelation: No triune God at work, no salvation for sinners.

This conclusion was spelled out finally and most fully in the last of the ecumenical creeds. Named in honor of the man who had so persistently and persuasively proclaimed the substance of its confession, the Athanasian Creed opens unambiguously: "Whoever shall be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. . . . And the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity." Thus the word "Trinity" finally entered the official and universally recognized doctrinal statements of the Christian church, not because it is a term found in Scripture but because it describes the God found in Scripture. Even more decisively, it describes the God who there finds us. The very same God who was born in human flesh to redeem us has in our baptism placed his own divine name upon us: "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."

1 [ Back ] In this article, Korey D. Maas has quoted from B. B. Warfield, which can be found in the essay "The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity," in B. B. Warfield, Biblical and Theological Studies (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1968), p. 22.
Tuesday, May 15th 2007

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