The Dogma of the Trinity
The Council of Nicæa in A.D. 325 is a defining moment for the Church second only to Pentecost. The 3rd century prepared for it by clarifying the confession of the Church. As Pelikan said, ‘The climax of the doctrinal development of the early church was the dogma of the Trinity. In this dogma, the church vindicated the monotheism that had been at issue in its conflicts with Judaism, and it came to terms with the concept of the Logos, over which it had disputed with paganism.’ (The Christian Tradition, I, p. 172) The dogma of the Trinity was already implicit in the baptismal formula: ‘in the name [εἰς τὸ ὄνομα, singular] of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost,’ (Mt. 28:19); but it did not become explicit until the last decades of the 2nd century.
From the beginning, Christians were convinced that Jesus was: • God • who suffered. St Paul said ‘we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness,’ (1 Cor. 1:23) and it was this fundamental contradiction, this fundamental absurdity—how a man could be God and how a God could suffer and die—that the theologians of the Church wrestled with.
The importance of the issue is stressed in the earliest Christian sermon after the New Testament that has come down to us, written about A.D. 150: ‘Brethren, we must think of Jesus Christ as of God, as of ‘the Judge of the living and the dead,’ and we must not think little of our salvation, for if we think but little of him we also hope to obtain but little.’ (2 Clem. 1: 1–2. [The Apostolic Fathers, I, p. 129, trans. Kirsopp Lake, Loeb Classical Library, 1912].)
Because Christians believed that the birth, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ are the fulfilment of the divine plan manifest in the Old Testament, they clarified the meaning of Jesus by reference to passages of the Old Testament correlated with their fulfilment in the New. As Pelikan said (op. cit. pp. 175–190), these passages are of four kinds: of adoption, of identity, of distinction and of derivation. Some examples follow.
Verses of adoption suggest that Jesus should be understood as a man whom God adopted to perform the divine saving work in the world: ‘And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased,’ (Luke 3:22) echoing the words of the Psalms: ‘The Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee.’ (Psalm 2:7)
Verses of identity suggest that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are the same being, just three names according to the different modes in which they appear to us: ‘I am God, and beside me there is no God’ (Isaiah 45:5), correlated with the New Testament verses, ‘I and my Father are one’ (John 10:30) and ‘He that hath seen me hath seen the Father.’ (John 14:9)
Verses of distinction contrast one Lord with another Lord, for example, ‘The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool … The Lord hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.’ (Psalm 110:1 and 4), echoed by St Paul, ‘So also Christ glorified not himself to be made an high priest; but he that said unto him, Thou art my Son, to day have I begotten thee. As he saith also in another place, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec.’ (Heb. 5:5–6)
Verses of derivation refer to the Father as ‘greater’ or use titles such as angel, spirit, logos, son, suggesting that Christ in some sense came from the Father.
St Justin Martyr cited the Epiphany to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre in Genesis 18 as proof ‘that there is, and that there is said to be, another God and Lord subject to the Maker of all things; who is also called an Angel, because He announces to men whatsoever the Maker of all things—above whom there is no other God—wishes to announce to them.’ (Dialogue with Trypho, 56; trans. Marcus Dods and George Reith, Ante-Nicene Fathers, I (1885), from the New Advent website.)
The Old Testament prophecies that the spirit of God would be placed upon him (Isaiah 42:1; 62:1) affirmed of Christ (Mt. 12:18; Lk 4:18).
The use of ‘logos’ to mean the command of God, for example: λόγον γὰρ συντελῶν καὶ συντέμων ποιήσει κύριος ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς in Rom. 9:28, paraphrasing Isaiah 10:23, and translated in the Authorised Version, ‘For he will finish the work [λόγον], and cut it short in righteousness: because a short work will the Lord make upon the earth.’ From this it is but a short step to the Logos as the creator Word of God.
For ‘son’, the verses cited as examples of adoption, also St Paul’s citation in his sermon in Antioch: ‘… as it is also written in the second psalm, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee.’ (Acts 13:33)
A focus on any one of these classes of verses to the exclusion of the others could lead to error. In the 3rd century, it was the verses of adoption and of identity that led to heresies, respectively the adoptionist and the monarchian heresies.
Probably many early Christians held ideas inspired by the verses of adoption—in formal terms, espoused an adoptionist christology—as well as others, possibly several contradictory ones at the same time, but when it was formulated as doctrine they found it to be an inadequate account of their faith.
Adoptionist christology in the 3rd century is associated with four people. Two, of whom little is known, were the Theodoti, Theodotus the Cobbler and his follower Theodotus the Money-changer. The first came to Rome from Byzantium in the time of Pope Victor, c. 190, proclaiming that Jesus was a man who was anointed with the Holy Ghost at his baptism and only then became the Christ. He was excommunicated by Pope Victor. His namesake and follower was excommunicated by Pope Zephyrinus a decade or two later. The sect was known as Theodotians. A third, apparently a member of the sect, was Artemon, of whom all that is known is that he taught at Rome c. 235 and was excommunicated for the heresy.
The most sophisticated interpreter of adoptionism in the 3rd century was Paul of Samosata. He was born in Samosata in Mesopotamia into a wealthy family and became Procurator Ducenarius to Queen Zenobia of Palmyra. He was chosen bishop of Antioch in 260 and taught that the Godhead was a Trinity of Father, Wisdom and Word as a single being until creation, when the three were differentiated. He held that from the Incarnation the Word rested upon the human Jesus as one person upon another and that the incarnate Christ differed only in degree from the prophets.
Paul of Samosata’s teachings revealed the weakness of adoptionism. Eusebius said of him, ‘… this person espoused low and mean views as to Christ, contrary to the Church’s teaching, namely that He was in His nature an ordinary man …’ (Ecclesiastical History, vii, 27 [Loeb Classical Library ed., II, 209–11].) It was condemned by the teaching in 2 Clement: ‘… if we think but little of him, we also hope to obtain but little.’ Our salvation could not come from any being less than God.
The heresy that the verses of identity gave rise to was taught by three men in the early 3rd century, Noetus, Praxeas and Sabellius. It is known as Sabellianism after the last.
We know of Noetus from the refutation of his heresy by St Hippolytus Romanus (Contra Noetum). He was a native of Smyrna and was condemned by an assembly of presbyters there c. 200 for alleging that Christ was the Father Himself, and that the Father Himself was born, and suffered, and died. ‘Now they [the followers of Noetus] seek to exhibit the foundation for their dogma by citing the word in the law, ‘I am the God of your fathers: you shall have no other gods beside me’; and again in another passage, ‘I am the first,’ He says, ‘and the last; and beside me there is none other.’ Thus they say they prove that God is one. And then they answer in this manner: ‘If therefore I acknowledge Christ to be God, He is the Father Himself, if He is indeed God; and Christ suffered, being Himself God; and consequently the Father suffered, for He was the Father Himself.’ (Contra Noetum, ch. 2 [trans. J.H. MacMahon, Ante-Nicene Fathers, V, 1868, from the New Advent website].)
Praxeas also was active about the year 200. We know of him from Tertullian’s Adversus Praxean, written about 213 in Tertullian’s Montanist phase. Tertullian had two complaints against Praxeas—that he brought the Noetian heresy from Asia to Rome and that he turned Pope Victor against the Montanists.
It was Tertullian who gave the name ‘monarchianism’ to this heresy, a name subsequently extended by modern theologians to the adoptionist teaching as well. Tertullian explains as follows:
‘The simple, indeed (I will not call them unwise and unlearned), who always constitute the majority of believers, are startled at the dispensation [of the Three in One], on the ground that their very rule of faith withdraws them from the world’s plurality of gods to the one only true God … They are constantly throwing out against us that we are preachers of two gods and three gods, while they take to themselves pre-eminently the credit of being worshippers of the One God; just as if the Unity itself with irrational deductions did not produce heresy, and the Trinity rationally considered constitute the truth. ‘We,’ say they, ‘maintain the Monarchy [the sole rule of God]’ … As for myself, however, if I have gleaned any knowledge of either language [Greek, from which the term μοναρχία was borrowed, or Latin, where it is here being used], I am sure that Monarchy has no other meaning than single and individual rule; but for all that, this monarchy does not, because it is the government of one, preclude him whose government it is, either from having a son, or from having made himself actually a son to himself, or from ministering his own monarchy by whatever agents he will.’ (Adversus Praxean, ch. 3 [trans. Peter Holmes, Ante-Nicene Fathers, III, 1885, from the New Advent website])
Because Praxeas contended that Father, Son and Holy Spirit were no more than names for the specific mode in which the divine manifests itself in human affairs, it is called by the wonderful name ‘modalist monarchianism.’ The Noetian teaching is called ‘adoptionist’ or ‘dynamic monarchianism.’
Sabellius was a theologian in Rome who was active about the year 220, two decades after Noetus and Praxeas. Sabellianism became the common name for modalist monarchianism. He is known from Epiphanius’s Panarion, whose account suggests that he ‘advanced beyond the simpleminded language of Noetus and Praxeas by positing a more precise succession of the manifestations of Father, Son and Holy Spirit,’ using the three energies of the sun, light, warming and astrological, as types. (Pelikan, op. cit., p. 179)
What made modalist monarchianism unbelievable in the end was the impassibility of God. Tertullian posed the issue thus: ‘Let us be content with saying that Christ died, the Son of the Father; and let this suffice, because the Scriptures have told us so much. For even the apostle, to his declaration—which he makes not without feeling the weight of it—that ‘Christ died,’ immediately adds, ‘according to the Scriptures,’ in order that he may alleviate the harshness of the statement by the authority of the Scriptures, and so remove offence from the reader … But it is enough for me that the Spirit of God suffered nothing as the Spirit of God, since all that It suffered It suffered in the Son. It was quite another matter for the Father to suffer with the Son in the flesh [as the monarchians claimed].’ (Adversus Praxean, ch. 29 [op. cit.]) Put succinctly, it was difficult enough to accept that the Son suffered, impossible to believe that the Father could suffer, so they could not be just two modes of the same being.
The Way Forward
No one class of verses is allowed to predominate. Verses of derivation provide titles for the persons of the Trinity. ‘Angel’ and ‘spirit’ are false leads, suggesting Gnosticism or Stoicism, while ‘spirit’ creates ambiguity between a binitarian (Father–Son/Spirit) and trinitarian (Father–Son–Spirit) view. ‘Logos’ and ‘Son of God’ turn out to be the winning combination and they absorb the connotations of the other titles. ‘Logos’ combines the Old Testament sense of revelation with Greek philosophy’s sense of the agent of creation. ‘Son’ and ‘Logos’ are seen as timeless and transcendent. In particular, ‘Son’ is not seen as an analogy to human offspring.
By the end of the third century, the debate had gone a long way to clarifying the question of the Son’s relationship to the Father, far enough to reveal the heresy lying behind the views of Arius, dealt with at the Council of Nicæa in 325 and the Council of Constantinople in 381. The question of the relationship of the divine to the human in Christ would occupy the 4th century and first decades of the 5th, leading to the councils of Ephesus in 431 and of Chalcedon in 451.