The Early Christian Definition of the Trinity

A friend of mine is very concerned about my position on the Trinity, despite the fact that I have proven that what I say is not only the view all the apostles’ churches, but also the definition confirmed in the Nicene Creed, formulated at the first Council of Nicea. It is also the view repeated, but not understood, by hundreds of millions of churches every week all over the world in the form of the Apostles Creed.

The definition of the Trinity found in the Nicene and Apostles Creed is difficult to understand if you cannot disengage yourself from modern adjustments made to the doctrine, but it is really quite simple if you can.

The early churches held to these tenets:

  1. There is one God, and that one God is the Father.
  2. The one God has a Son, who was begotten (or generated or emitted) in eternity past, before the beginning began. The Son is his Reason/Word, which was inside of God until he was begotten. God then created all things through the Word, his Son.
  3. There is a Holy Spirit.

For example:

When God wished to make all that he determined, he begot this Word, uttered, the firstborn of all creation, not himself being emptied of the Word [or Reason], but having begotten Reason, and always conversing with his Reason.And this is what the holy writings teach us, as well as all the Spirit-bearing men, one of whom, John, says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God” [Jn. 1:1], showing that at first God was alone, and the Word in him. (Theophilus. To Autolycus II:15)

God and Matter

To the early Christians, there were two substances in the universe. One was the uncreated, eternal substance of God, and the other was matter, which at that time was a term for the material God used to create everything, whether angels, humans, animate organisms, or inanimate objects.

One apologist from the late second century wrote:

The multitude … cannot distinguish between matter and God, or see how great the interval is which lies between them … we … distinguish and separate the uncreated and the created, that which is and that which is not. (Athenagoras. A Plea for the Christians 15, AD 177)

Because, for the most part, Christians have long forgotten this teaching, we miss it when it is mentioned in Scripture:

Since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think divinity is like gold, silver, or stone, carved by art and men’s plan. (Acts 17:29)

This is the same context in which the early Christians point out the difference between divinity and matter. The worship of idols is forbidden because they are matter, like us. We must worship only what is eternal, only God, the only true divinity.

The Firstborn of all Creation

The Son of God, says Paul, was the “firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15). The creed so many of us recite every Sunday says he is “begotten, not made, one in substance with the Father.”

While the angels, humans, animals, and everything we see is created from matter, which had a beginning and is therefore temporary, the Word of God that was born “before the beginning began” came from inside of God.

At first God was alone, and the Word in him. (Theophilus, to Autolycus II:22, AD 168)

For before all things God was alone … He was alone, because there was nothing external to him but himself. Yet not even then was he alone; for he had with Him that which he possessed in himself … his own Reason. … even then, before the creation of the universe, God was not alone, since he had within himself Reason, and, inherent in Reason, his Word, which he made second to himself by agitating it within himself. (Tertullian. Against Praxeas 5. c. AD 210)

The Word (Gr. Logos) was not of temporary matter, but of the eternal substance of God because he was birthed from out of the heart of God.

Divinity and the Substance of God

The early Christians liked to refer to this substance as “divinity.”

Paul referred to the substance of God this way as well, as you may have noticed above.

For in him dwells all the fullness of divinity bodily. (Col. 2:9)

The King James Version has “the Godhead” here rather than divinity. “Godhead,” however, is just a 17th-century way to say “Godhood,” or divinity. (This dictionary is just one of many that can be found with a search for “define godhead.”)

If this teaching seems a little strange to us today, it is simply because we are not used to the explanation of it that is throughout the writings of the early Christians.

We employ language which makes a distinction between God and matter, and the natures of the two. … we acknowledge a God, and a Son his Logos, and a Holy Spirit, united in essence [or substance]. (Athenagoras. A Plea for the Christians 24)

Nor let anyone think it ridiculous that God should have a Son … The Son of God is the Logos of the Father. (ibid. 10)

The early churches claimed this teaching was passed to them from the apostles.

This post was actually supposed to be on a different aspect of the early Christians’ definition of the Trinity, but this foundation was necessary first. Tomorrow we will address the plurality of God.

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