This essay will examine the history of the Christian Doctrine of the Trinity. In doing so, the views on the Doctrine of God in regard to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit of different eras will be examined, including the views held by the Apostolic Fathers, the Apologists, the Anti-Gnostic Fathers, and the Alexandrian Fathers. Also, the controversy over the Trinity that arose during the 4th century, and the views of later church leaders will be presented.
The Apostolic Fathers wrote of God in terms of the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, following the baptismal formula. The Father and the Son were both written about, with both the humanity and deity of Christ being affirmed. But in doing so, they did not seem to be aware of any implications or problems that may be involved therein. While the divine person of the Christ was recognized without any limitations, little mention was made of the Holy Spirit outside of the baptismal formula.1
The Apologists were the early Church Fathers who were thought to have lived before the last Apostle died. Numbered among them are Barnabas, Hermas, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Papias, and Ignatius. They took up the defense of the Truth against the general public, and religious and secular leaders. The main goal of their defenses, or apologies, was to make the Christian religion acceptable to the educated, and in so doing, persuade the rulers to not persecute the Church. To this end, they wrote that although God is incomprehensible, Self-existent, Immutable, Eternal, and with no needs or passions, He none the less created the world. Using a favored term of the upper classes, they wrote of how Christ is the Logos. The Logos, as defined by the Fathers, was the Divine Reason and Intelligence that existed in the Father since before the beginning of time and whom the Father begat by an exercise of will. Being the Divine Reason, the Logos was present with God when the Universe was created. Thus, the Son and the Father together are the one God, and to God alone is worship due. The Logos became man. As such, he truly suffered, but still had His divinity concealed in His flesh. The Holy Spirit is spoken of as the Wisdom of God, but little else is said about Him.2
Numerous perversions of the Gospel that came into prominence during the 2nd and 3rd centuries that needed to be combated. Some of these include Gnosticism, Dynamic Monarchism, and Modalistic Monarchism. Gnosticism is a form of Dualism, among its beliefs is the idea of there being two separate gods: the supreme God and the Creator.3 Dynamic Monarchism held that the Logos was of the same substance as the Father, but only because He was not a separate Person, but an impersonal power emanating from God.4, 5 Modalistic Monarchism, also known as Sabellianism after man who first held the view (Sabellius), held that the names Father, Son and Holy Spirit are nothing more than names of God that describe Him in different modes of existence and action, such as in creation (Father), or incarnation (Son), or regeneration (Holy Spirit). 6
The Anti-Gnostic Fathers, Justin, Tatian, Athenagoras and Theophilus of Antioch, were the men who stepped into the fray to combat these heresies, and others. In so doing, they became the next major contributors to Doctrine of the Trinity. The main goal of these men was to stop the heretical ideas of Gnostics and Monarchians. They spoke out against the Gnostic error of separating God and the Creator. In Tertullian’s refutation of the Monarchians’ ideas, he was the first to introduce the idea of trinity, stressing there is only one God in substance in three Persons. Although he stressed the unity of the trinity, he believed one Person was subordinate to the others. 7 Tertullian taught that Christ was an independent Person who grew from the Father as a tree grows from a root. 8 Irenaeus taught that the Son became true God and true man when he became Jesus. 9 The Anti-Gnostic Fathers taught that God is an active, intelligent, just, good, uncreated, spirit who is known through revelation. God the Father, through and by Word (Christ) and Wisdom (Holy Spirit) of God, created all things. The three Persons are three in order, form, and aspect, but one in condition, power, substance and unity. 10
The next major church leaders to leave an impact on the Doctrine of the Trinity are the Alexandrian Fathers, the chief of whom was Origen. Origen taught that God is a Spirit with an intellectual nature, but who is incomprehensible and beyond limits of space or time. Although God is incomprehensible, he none the less has a personality. He created the world and governs it in His justness and goodness. The Son springs from the Father at His Divine Will in an eternal act of begetting. As such, there is no time when the Son did not exist. Seeberg seems to think that Origen taught that the Son and the Father are of the same nature and substance. He takes the position that although the Son springs from the Father, and is of the same nature and substance as the Father (indeed even the same in thought and will), He still is separate and complete, with His own subsistence. Although Origen uses terminology of two persons within one God, he uses the term “second God” when discussing the Son, giving the impression that the Son is subordinate to, and dependent on, the Father. 11 Shedd takes the position that Origen took it further than simply designating the Son to be lower in order than the Father. Origen taught that because the Son is being eternally generated, He does not have the same essence of the Father. The Son is somewhere between the Father and the creatures of the universe – uncreated like the Father, but not equal in stature, nor in essence, to Him. The Son’s divinity is derived from the Father, rather than inherent. Indeed, according to Shedd, Origen taught that the Son, being eternally generated by the Father, did not have His own subsistence. It seems that Origen’s teachings point to a polytheistic view of the Godhead, rather than a monotheistic view. 12 Both Clement and Origen taught that when the Son became incarnate, he became a real man. Clement, however, believed that Christ only used food to avoid any denial of His humanity, not because He needed it. Clement also held that Christ was incapable of emotions of joy and grief. These beliefs seem to argue against the true humanity of Christ. Origen felt that the souls of Christ and the Logos completely intermingled to such an extent that there was no true separation of the dual natures of Christ. 13 The Holy Spirit is said to be uncreated, but still is brought into existence as the first thing created though the Son by the Father. As such, He is lower in order than the Son. He is thought to be active only in believers’ souls. But even so, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit has not yet been defined. 14
As discussed, Origen believed the Son and the Father were of different Essences. He taught that the Son had a second Essence, which was different from both the Essence of the Father, and that of the created man. This error in doctrine is what Arius used to say that logically there can be no level of essence between that of God the Father and that of the creature. Because of this, he held that the Son is not divine in any sense, but is the first and highest of the created creatures. 15 Arius went even further and said the Son had temporal existence, and that the Son produced the Holy Spirit as the first created being. 16,17 Arius’ Bishop, Alexander, opposed him by stating that eternal generation is the transmission of the identical substance of the Father, not a secondary essence. Because they have the same substance, they are equal in nature or essence. Alexander further insisted that the Logos was eternal, not of a temporal nature. 18 Athanasius, a Deacon of Alexander’s, also confronted Arius’ ideas. Athanasius held that the Father begat the Son by a necessary act of internal generation, not a voluntary willful decision. Athanasius wrote that the Father and Son are of the same essence, or substance, with no division in that substance. He also held that there were three separate persons present within the one essence, and had been so for all eternity. Thus Athanasius was able to express how the Son and the Father are of the same substance, but could differ in personal subsistence. This definition allowed Athanasius to harmonize his beliefs that being reunited with God was necessary for salvation and that no one but God Himself can perform the reuniting itself. By this reasoning, if only Christ can redeem us, then He must be God. 19,20
Although Arius’ ideas were condemned by the Synod of Alexandria, the unrest caused by the controversy surrounding Arius’ ideas caused the Emperor Constantine to convene a General Council of the Church. 21 The Council was held in Nicaea in 325 in an attempt to completely define the Doctrine of the Trinity. In this way, the Emperor hoped to calm the political unrest and the members of the Nicene Council hoped to deal with previous heresies and prevent future heresies concerning the Trinity, particularly in relation to the nature of the unity and three persons that make up the one God. 22,23 Monarchism had focused on God’s unity at the expense of the three Persons, while Arianism and Origenism had focused on the distinct personality and Deity of the Son at the expense of the unity of God and equality among the three Divine Persons. The members of the Council needed to establish that God has three Persons who share the same substance of Essence, while simultaneously maintaining God’s unity and trinity and eternality. 24
There were three parties present at the Council, the Arian party, the Athanasian party, and a compromising party. Eusebius of Nicodemia presented a confession of faith for the Arians that was quickly rejected. The compromise party presented some additions to Eusebius’ confession of faith that seemed to try to appease both the Arian and the Athanasius parties. The statement of Faith presented by this party conceded much to the Athanasian viewpoint, with the exception of saying that the Son was of the same substance as the Father. They wanted to say that the Son of similar substance of the Father, rather than same. 25 Although most of the Council approved of the compromise, Alexander and Athanasius stood firm in demanding recognition of the deity and eternality of Christ and unity of God. They sought to ensure there was no ambiguity in the teaching of the substance of the Son in relation to that of the Father, nor in the teaching of whether the Son had not existed at some point or was created from something. After considerable debate, the Emperor decided to support the Athanasius party. 26 This is the statement finally agreed upon by the Council:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, make of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only begotten, i.e., of the nature of the Father. God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made, both things in heaven and things on earth; who for us men and for our salvation came down and was made flesh and assumed man’s nature, suffered and rose the third day, ascended to heaven, [and] shall come again to judge the quick and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost. But the holy and apostolic church anathematizes those who say that there was [a time] when he was not, and that he was made from things not existing, or from another person or being, saying that the Son of God is mutable, or changeable. 27
While all but six of the people who attended the Council signed the confession of faith, it would be a tenuous victory for Athanasius. The Nicene Creed had not been what the majority of the Bishops had supported; they had agreed to it because of the weight of the Emperor’s support of it, rather than because of Athanasius’ arguments. 28 The precedent set by Emperor Constantine of interfering in Church affairs was followed by his sons. Eusebius of Nicodemia and his followers were to gain control of the Church in the East, with the help of Emperor Constantius. The Church, particularly in the East, became predominantly Semi-Arian, perhaps because it was similar to the teachings of Origen, and the Emperors would usually support the majority. While the East supported Semi-Arianism, the West remained supportive of the Nicene Creed, possibly in part due to the influence of the teachings of Tertullian. In what may have been another attempt by the Emperor to manage strife in his empire, a Council in Tyre in 335 removed Athanasius from office and banished him. Upon the Emperor’s death, Athanasius was allowed to return, but he had to flee again in 339. While Athanasius was persecuted in the East, the West continued to support him. A Council in Rome in 341 and one in Sardica in 343 supported Athanasius and his views. They also supported the ideas of another champion of the Nicene Creed, Marcellus.
Marcellus tried to support the monotheistic views presented in the Nicene Creed. He did this, however, by asserting that the Logos in God was divine energy that became personal at the incarnation. He also denied that the term ‘generation’ could be applied to the per-existent Logos, and said the name ‘Son of God’ could only be applied to the incarnate Logos, who at the end of his incarnation returned to the his pre-incarnate state of being in relation to the Father. This theory widened the gap between the East and West in that it allowed the Eusebians to charge their opponents with Sabellianism. Even Athanasius attacked Marcellus’ views. 29,30
Meanwhile Councils in Antioch in 341 and 344 tried to form more of a consensus on a confession of Faith. While they managed to reject the idea that the Son had a temporal beginning, they failed to support either the idea of the Son having the same substance as the Father or the idea of the Father having begotten the Son by a necessary act of internal generation. 31,32 But all the attempts at reconciliation would fail.
Emperor Constantius forced the West to quit supporting Athanasius in 355. Once the support for the Nicene Creed crumbled, the Anti-Nicene party had no one to combat against, and so had nothing to hold it together. At this point, the party splintered into many smaller groups that while in agreement against Athanasius’ ideas, none the less disagreed with each other on other doctrinal issues. Another attempt was made at the Council of Sirmium in 357 to set aside the use of the terms which pertained to substance, saying these matters went beyond human knowledge. But eventually the true Arians were to drive the most conservative Semi-Arians into the Nicene camp. 33
Meanwhile, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus found a way to safeguard the personality of the Logos and at the same time maintain the unity of the three Persons in one God. They saw a confusion in thinking concerning the terms used for substance, essence, and person. Instead of starting with the one divine essence of God and showing how there were three Persons within the one essence, they started with the idea of three Persons in one Divine Being. By comparing the relation of the three Persons in one Divine Being to the relation of three men to humanity, they were able to free the Nicene Creed from the charge of Sabellianism and simultaneously maintain the unity and trinity of God. 34
Up until Origen and Arius, little had been taught concerning the Holy Spirit. As previously mentioned, these two men held that the Holy Spirit was the first being created by the Son. Athanasius taught the Holy Spirit was a separate person from the Father, but of the same essence as He. The Nicene Creed had only a statement of belief of His existence, and nothing concerning His Person or essence. The Council of Constantinople met in 381 and approved the Nicene Creed while adding this concerning the Holy Spirit:
And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Life-giving, who proceeds from the Father, who is to be glorified with the Father and the Son, and who speaks through the prophets. 35
While this addition to the Nicene Creed established the position of the Holy Spirit in the Trinity, it failed in defining the relation of the Holy Spirit to the other two Persons or whether the Holy Spirit shared the same essence of the Father. Athanasius, Basil, and Gregory of Nyssa, held that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father, without opposing the idea that He also proceeds from the Son. Epiphanius and Marcellus of Ancyra held that the Holy Spirit proceeded from both the Son and the Father, which is the position held by most Western theologians. 36
The Doctrine of the Trinity was closed at different times in the West and the East. In the East, John of Damascus, sometimes after 754, held that there was one divine essence where the Person of the Father was the source of the Godhead. The three are one in everything but modes of existence: non-generation (Father), generation (Son), and procession (Holy Spirit). The Godhead contains the Person of the Father, who contains the Son, who in turn contains within Him, the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father through the Logos. This was a form of subordinationism, which the West could never agree to. 37 The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit reached its final stage in the West in Augustine’s work ‘De trinitate’ in the year 430. Augustine stressed the unity of essence and the Trinity of Persons. Each Divine Person possesses the entire, identical, essence. Where one is present, so too are the other two. Each one is dependent upon the other two. Thus, the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son simultaneously. 38 Though Augustine wrote his ideas of the Trinity in 430, it was not until the year 589 at the Synod of Toledo that the word ‘filioque’ was added to the Constantinopolitan Symbol, causing it to read “… proceeds from the Father and the Son.” The East has considered this to be heresy since it was added. 39
Once the Doctrine of the Trinity was closed, little new was added by later theologians. Roscelinus, in applying the Nominalist theory, tried to say the three Divine Persons are essentially different individuals who were only generically one, but Anselm pointed out this idea leads to Tritheism. Gilbert of Pointiers used Aristotelian Realism to try to say that the divine essence is not God but the form of God; that this essence is common to all three Persons is the only way they could be considered one. He was charged with Tetratheism. Abelard identified the three Persons with the attributes of power (Father), wisdom (Son), and goodness (Holy Spirit). He was charged with Sabellianism. Thomas Aquinas and Calvin both held to the Nicene Creed, although some have questioned whether the latter believed in the eternal generation of the Son. Most of the Protestant denominations have held to the Nicene Creed. 40
One group that did not agree with the Nicene Creed was that of the Socinians, in the 16th century. They believed, much as the Arians did, that three Persons possessing a common essence was contrary to reason. But they went beyond the Arians by not believing in the pre-existence of the Son and denying the Deity of Christ and of the Holy Spirit. They held that Christ was simply a man with special knowledge of God, and the Holy Spirit was energy that flowed from God to man. These people were the forerunners to the Unitarians and Modernists. Some Arminians, Episcopius, Curcellaeus, and Limborch, said that the Father was pre-eminent over the other Persons in order, dignity, and power of domination. They believed that belief in the equality in rank of the Three Persons would lead to Tritheism. 41
In the period since the Reformation, there have been some theologians who did not adhere to the Nicene Creed. Samuel Clarke, court preacher to England’s Queen Anne, asserted an Arian view concerning subordination. Waterland, Master of Magdalen College, refuted Clarke’s ideas, and the Queen deposed him from office. Moses Stuart and Emmons, both New England theologians, criticized the doctrine of eternal generation. Emanuel Swedenborg, Scheiermacher, Hegel, and Dorner all had Sabellian views of the Trinity. 42
This essay has reviewed the evolution of the Doctrine of the Trinity, as it grew from no apparent notice of problems to fine distinctions between the divine essence and the divine persons. Various false teachings that have been found throughout the history of the Church have been presented, as well as the refutations of those teachings. Finally, the Nicene Creed with the additions by the Council Constantinople and the Synod of Toledo has also been presented, along with various church leaders’ views since that time.
1 Berkhof, Louis. The History of Christian Doctrines (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House. 1937), 40.
2 Seeberg, Reinhold, History of Doctrines, Trans. Charles E. Hay (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1977), 112-115.
3 Berkhof, 47-48.
4 Berkhof, 78.
5 Shedd, William G.T. A History of Christian Doctrine (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1889; reprint Minneapolis, MN: Klock & Klock Christian Publishers, 1978), 256-257.
6 Berkhof, 79.
7 Berkhof, 63.
8 Seeberg, 120-121.
9 Berkhof, 65.
10 Seeberg, 120-121.
11 Seeberg, 148-151.
12 Shedd, 293-298.
13 Berkhof, 73.
14 Seeberg, 148-151.
15 Shedd, 306-308.
16 Shedd, 306-308.
17 Berkhof, 90.
18 Shedd, 306-308.
19 Berkhof, 85-86.
20 Shedd, 306-308.
21 Seeberg, 216.
22 Shedd, 306-308.
23 Seeberg, 216.
24 Shedd, 308-309.
25 Berkhof, 86.
26 Berkhof, 87.
27 Seeberg, 217.
28 Berkhof, 87.
29 Berkhof, 88-89.
30 Seeberg, 220-221.
31 Seeberg, 219.
32 Berkhof, 89.
33 Berkhof, 89.
34 Berkhof, 90.
35 Berkhof, 90-91.
36 Berkhof, 91.
37 Seeberg, 236-237.
38 Seeberg, 236-239.
39 Ryrie, Charles C., Basic Theology, (Colorado Springs, CO: Victor Books, 1986), 386.
40 Berkhof, 94-96.
41 Berkhof, 96.
42 Berkhof, 97.
Berkhof, Louis. The History of Christian Doctrines. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House. 1937.
Ryrie, Charles C. Basic Theology. Colorado Springs, CO: Victor Books. 1986.
Seeberg, Reinhold. History of Doctrines. Translated by Charles E. Hay. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1977.
Shedd, William G.T. A History of Christian Doctrine. Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1889. Reprint Minneapolis, Minnesota: Klock & Klock Christian Publishers, 1978.