The Trinity in History

I’m frustrated one more time by the ridiculous claim that the churches couldn’t decide on a proper description of the Trinity until the Council of Nicea. It’s one thing when modern gnostics or those deceived by them invent history and slander Christians. It is quite another when Christian historians do it.

I have always said there a very small difference between the Trinity as taught by the early Christians and the Trinity as taught in Catholic and Protestant churches, perhaps nothing more than semantics.

I’m beginning to question that. If that is so, then why do historians consistently teach the inconsistency of early Christian teaching on the subject when there is no inconsistency? What about the teaching of the early churches is so objectionable that we refuse even to acknowledge it exists?

I don’t have the answer to that last question, but now I have run across an even worse description of the doctrine of the Trinity in the early church. The book is called Turning Paints: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity. It says:

The broader issues at stake [at the Council of Nicea] involved questions that had been asked for at least 150 years. The central question was how to define Jesus’s special status as … “the Son of God,” the “Word” or “Logos” of God, and the Savior who was “one with the Father.” Any number of solutions had been proposed to this question. Yet many of the best-known efforts to define precisely the nature of Christ’s divine character had been clearly unsatisfactory. (p. 40, emphasis mine)

The author goes on to present a couple versions of monarchianism as ideas proposed by the church. He doesn’t mention that the leading monarchianists were excommunicated. Monarchianists, more commonly known as modalists, believed that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were all one person, not three. They rejected the teaching that there could be three persons in the divinity, yet only one God. Since the churches were agreed that the one God had a Son who shared his divinity yet was a distinct “person,” monarchianists were excommunicated for heresy.

The author then goes on to list Origen’s teaching on the subject as though it were different from other early Christian writers on the subject. It is not. It is only different from our teaching on the subject.

This is all very frustrating to me because the only way I can prove this to you is by showing you the teaching of Justin, Theophilus, Athenagoras, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullion, Origen, Dionysius, and Alexander, all of whom wrote extensively on the Trinity.

That’s not possible in a blog, so I have done it elsewhere. There are three ways you can get your hands on the consistent teaching of the churches on the relationship between the Father and the Son, which was later confirmed at the Council of Nicea.

1. You can read my book, Decoding Nicea, which is now available on Kindle as well.

2. For those of you that don’t have the time or inclination or money to read the whole book, you can read the two chapters that discuss the teaching on the Trinity prior to Nicea online at http://www.christian-history.org/support-files/chapter-16-17.pdf. (You can also right click and download this .pdf. My gift to you.)

3. You can read the following telling quote from Philip Schaff, the noted 19th century church historian and author of the 8-volume History of the Christian Church. In his introduction to Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, found in the first volume of the second series of The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, he writes:

That Eusebius [of Caesarea] was a decided subordinationist must be plain to every one that reads his works with care, especially his earlier ones. … The same subordinationism may be clearly seen in the writings of Dionysius of Alexandria and of Gregory Thaumaturgus, two of Origen’s greatest disciples. … Eusebius in his earlier writings shows that he holds both [the divinity of Christ and his subordination to the Father] … but that he is as far from a solution of the problem, and is just as uncertain in regard to the exact relation of Father and Son, as Tertullian, Hippolytus, Origen, Dionysius, and Gregory Thaumaturgus were.

Understand that being a “subordinationist” is not a good thing in modern eyes. Being referred to as a “subordinationist” means, to modern apologists, you do not understand the equality of the persons in the Godhead. (Godhead, by the way, is a middle English word for Godhood, and it simply means divinity.)

Subordinationism

Note: I’m not all that sure what “subordinationist” means. My understanding is that it means that the Son is subordinate to the Father. Since the Father always sends the Son, and the Son always does the Father’s will, I can’t imagine why anyone would object to subordinationism. I think, based on the alarm with which apologists and historians reference subordinationism, that they understand it to mean that the Father is in some way greater than the Son. Even that is indeed a teaching of the early Christians. It seems odd that anyone objects to it, since Jesus said himself that the Father was greater than him (Jn. 14:28), and also said that the Father knows things that he does not know (Mk. 13:32). You might want to see my article on the subject at Is the Nicene Creed Heretical?.

You can get a hint of scholarly opinion of subordinationism in this review of the first edition of Decoding Nicea. Despite this well-known apologist’s delight in my book, he remains horrified that I spoke of subordinationism in a positive light.

But look at the people who are guilty of subordinationism!

1. Eusebius of Caesarea: Eusebius is the only eye-witness of the Council of Nicea who has described the proceedings. (Athanasius has some comments about the behavior of the Arians, but no real description of what went on there.) He was very likely the presiding bishop at the council. Really, it ought to be impossible to question the beliefs of Eusebius without questioning the Nicene Creed itself.

2. Origen, Dionysius, and Gregory Thaumaturga: These are two of Alexandria’s most famous bishops, with Gregory succeeding Dionysius in the mid-third century. It is true that they were likely influenced by Origen, who was considered the greatest teacher of his time and who was an older contemporary of Dionysius.

3. Tertullian and Hippolytus: Tertullian’s main works were written while Hippolytus was a child or young man. Tertullian hailed from Carthage, close enough to Rome to look to Rome for apostolic authority. Hippolytus was from Rome and eventually split the church there when he rejected the election of Callistus as bishop. Despite Hippolytus being remembered as “antipope,” his writings are highly regarded for their historical value and witness to the practices of the church in Rome in the early third century. Tertullian was the first early Christian writer to use the Latin term Trinitas, and there is no clearer exposition of the early Christian view of the Trinity than his Against Praxeas.

Schaff goes on to say:

The logical consistency of the doctrine of the consubstantiality of the Son … must in time overcome this decaying remnant of the ante-Nicene [before Nicea] subordinationism.

“Decaying remnant of ante-Nicene subordinationism”?

Where does the Nicene Creed mention subordinationism, much less reject it?

The worst part of this last quote from Schaff is the insinuation that the ante-Nicene churches either rejected or were ignorant of “consubstantiality.” I assert they were not only aware of it, but explicitly taught it, even as early as the second century.

We acknowledge a God, and a Son, his Logos, and a Holy Spirit, united in essence. (Athenagoras. A Plea for the Christians 24)

How Important Is This?

Honestly, I still wonder how important all the above is, except …

It frustrates me that truth is hidden from so many Christians. Worse, it frustrates me that so many Christians don’t care. Even in the midst of the disputes and divisions that are so rampant in modern Christianity, the majority of Christians are satisfied with the traditions they were raised in. It’s impossible to rouse them from their comfortable wanderings through this world even with Scripture, much less to get them to examine the history of the church and learn “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.”

That problem is surely the much greater problem, but it is exacerbated when historians, equally bound by their own tradition, write books that dodge the critical differences between the faith taught by the apostles to their churches and those that are espoused by our modern churches.

At the very least, please tell us the truth. Let us know the differences exist, and present them fairly.

I know that the idea that the doctrine of the Trinity developed until it reached its zenith at Nicea is so popular that it is difficult for any Christian, historian or not, to find out the idea is not true without reading all those writers for themselves.

My contribution to this is to provide you with the most extensive set of quotes on the subject of the Trinity that you can find in our modern world. You can find it in my book, if you care to buy it, or you can read it online, free, in these two chapters from the book. Those two chapters are 68 pages with explanations and quotes on the various facets of the early Christian view of the Trinity.

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