Dan Popp
The early church and the Trinity
A layman reads The Ante Nicene Fathers
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By Dan Popp
September 22, 2009

Contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. Jude 3b, NASB

One of the more fantastical myths about the early church is that it knew nothing of the doctrine the Trinity. The Council of Nicaea (or sometimes Constantine) is accused of introducing this "pagan" dogma into Christianity. But there's a mountain of evidence in the writings of the earliest Christians, compiled in The Ante Nicene Fathers, that the doctrine we call "The Trinity" was a core belief of Jesus' church from its first breath.

Let's start with an admission, and a definition. The word "Trinity" does not appear in the Bible. Someone who uses this fact to support an anti-Trinitarian view is making what's called an "argument from silence" a logical fallacy. Imagine someone claiming that no one on earth believed that "what goes up, must come down" until Isaac Newton developed a model for the phenomenon and called it, "gravity."

The word "Trinity" does appear in the writings of the primitive church. And, as anyone may read for himself, Christians in the first three centuries unanimously believed that there is only one God; and that the Father is God, Jesus is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. That's the definition of the Trinity: one God in three Persons. Not three Gods; not one God in three disguises; three distinct "Selves" in one divine Being.

The Trinity in the Early Church Writings

The first comprehensive exposition of the Trinity appears in Tertullian's treatise Against Praxeas, composed about AD 208. That's more than a century before heretics claim the doctrine was cooked up. Tertullian wrote:

    We [Christians], however, as we indeed have always done (and more especially since we have been better instructed by the Paraclete, who leads men indeed into all truth), believe that there is one only God, but under the following dispensation, or oikonomia, as it is called, that this one only God has also a Son, His Word, who proceeded from Himself, by whom all things were made, and without whom nothing was made. Him we believe to have been sent by the Father into the Virgin, and to have been born of her being both Man and God, the Son of Man and the Son of God, and to have been called by the name of Jesus Christ; we believe Him to have suffered, died, and been buried, according to the Scriptures, and, after He had been raised again by the Father and taken back to heaven, to be sitting at the right hand of the Father, and that He will come to judge the quick and the dead; who sent also from heaven from the Father, according to His own promise, the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete, the sanctifier of the faith of those who believe in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Ghost. That this rule of faith has come down to us from the beginning of the gospel.... (Against Praxeas, Chapter 2, emphasis added)

Tertullian also wrote: "...the Father and the Son are demonstrated to be distinct; I say distinct, but not separate." (A.P. Chapter 11) And: "I must everywhere hold one only substance in three coherent and inseparable (Persons)." (Chapter 12).

He makes it clear that Christians do not believe in multiple gods. "That there are, however, two Gods or two Lords, is a statement which at no time proceeds out of our mouth...." "For (in the Scriptures) there was declared to be none other than One God and One Lord...." He says that the monotheism of Christianity is a stumbling-block for pagans: "The Gentiles would have to pass from the multitude of their idols to the One Only God, in order that a difference might be distinctly settled between the worshippers of One God and the votaries of polytheism."

    Besides, if...we were to invoke a plurality of gods and lords, we should quench our torches, and we should become less courageous to endure the martyr's sufferings, from which an easy escape would everywhere lie open to us, as soon as we swore by a plurality of gods and lords, as sundry heretics do, who hold more gods than One. (Chapter 13)

Tertullian's understanding of the Trinity does not differ at all from our modern conception, nearly 2,000 years later.

But the term "Trinity" was used by Christians before Tertullian's thorough explanation. In AD 168 Theophilus of Antioch wrote in his second book to Autolycus, "In like manner also the three days which were before the luminaries are types of the Trinity, of God, and His Word, and His Wisdom." (Chapter 15) That is the earliest reference extant, and as the editor of The Ante Nicene Fathers points out, Theophilus is not introducing it as a new concept to be explained; rather he's using the well-known concept of the Trinity to illuminate something else.

In the Beginning

Christians from the earliest days worshiped Christ as God, honored the Father as God and glorified the Spirit as God; believing, as do Christians today, in "one God."

While some of the apostles were still alive, Clement of Rome wrote a letter to the Corinthians. In the second chapter of that work he said, "Content with the provision which God had made for you, and carefully attending to His words, ye were inwardly filled with His doctrine, and His sufferings were before your eyes."

For readers unaccustomed to tracing that many pronouns back to their source, I'll repeat the word they replace so you can get the full effect: "Content with the provision which God had made for you, and carefully attending to [God's] words, ye were inwardly filled with [God's] doctrine, and [God's] sufferings were before your eyes."

God's sufferings?

How could God be said to suffer unless Christ is God?

Justin Martyr confirms that explanation when he later writes that Jesus "has truly become man capable of suffering." (Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter 98)

So at the earliest possible moment Christians have confirmed for us and in the most convincing way, that is, casually their belief that Jesus is God.

In Chapter 22 of Clement's letter he again speaks as if his hearers are perfectly comfortable with this doctrine. "Now the faith which is in Christ confirms all these admonitions. For [Christ] Himself by the Holy Ghost thus addresses us: 'Come, ye children, hearken unto Me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord....'" and Clement continues to quote Psalm 34 (after starting with verse 11)! Clement could not have written that Jesus a man of his own time was the author of Psalm 34 if he believed the Lord to be a mere man.

In Chapter 46 of this same letter to the Corinthian believers Clement writes, "Have we not all one God and one Christ? Is there not one Spirit of grace poured out upon us?" Contrary to myth, the one God and the three Persons of the Trinity are prominent in the very earliest Christian writings this one dated no later than AD 97.

Likewise, brother Mathetes writes to Diognetus, around the year 130:

    [God] did not, as one might have imagined, send to men any servant, or angel, or ruler, or any one of those who bear sway over earthly things, or one of those to whom the government of things in the heavens has been entrusted, but the very Creator and Fashioner of all things by whom He made the heavens.... As a king sends his son, who is also a king, so He sent Him; as God He sent Him; as to men He sent Him; as a Savior He sent Him...." (Chapter 6)

Here we have Christ the King, the Son, the Co-Creator, the Savior, the man, God.

Mathetes again, Chapter 11: "[The Word] is He who was from the beginning, who appeared as if new, and was found old, and yet who is ever born afresh in the hearts of the saints. This is He who, being from everlasting, is to-day called the Son...."

Ignatius, writing in his various epistles before his martyrdom in AD 107, gives us the phrases:

"The blood of God,"
"The only true God,"
"The only-begotten Son and Word, before time began,"
"Our Lord and God, Jesus Christ,"
"God being manifested as a man, and man displaying power as God,"
"Our God, Jesus Christ (several repetitions and variations),"
"One God,"
"His eternal Word,"
"Jesus Christ His Son, who is His Word, not spoken but essential.
For He is not the voice of an articulate utterance, but a substance
begotten by divine power,"
"God the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ, His Son, with the co-
operation of the Spirit,"
"God the Word," and
"God incarnate."

But Ignatius charges that heretics who would make Jesus identical with the Father err when they "suppose Christ to be unbegotten." "There is but one unbegotten Being, God, even the Father; and one only-begotten Son, God, the Word and man; and one Comforter, the Spirit of Truth."

Justin Martyr

Justin, killed for his faith in AD 165, penned:

"We reasonably worship Him, having learned that He is the Son of the true God Himself, and holding Him in the second place, and the prophetic Spirit in the third...." (First Apology, Ch. 13)

"To God alone we render worship." (First Apology, Ch. 17)

"The Father of the universe has a Son; who also, being the first-begotten Word of God, is even God." (First Apology, Ch. 63)

"Next to God, we worship and love the Word who is from the unbegotten and ineffable God, since He also became man...." (Second Apology, Ch. 13)

"There will be no other God, O Trypho, nor was there from eternity any other existing...." (Dialogue with Trypho, Ch. 11)

"[In the Old Testament] Christ is King, and Priest, and God, and Lord, and angel, and man, and captain, and stone, and a Son born...." (Trypho, Ch. 34)

"[In the Old Testament] Christ is called both God and Lord of hosts." (Trypho, Ch. 36)

"This Christ existed as God before the ages, then He submitted to be born and become man...." (Trypho, Ch. 48)

"But this Offspring, which was truly brought forth from the Father, was with the Father before all creatures...." (Trypho, Ch. 62)

"He is witnessed to by Him who established these things, as deserving to be worshiped, as God and as Christ." (Trypho, Ch. 63)

    Wherever God says, "God went up from Abraham," or, "The Lord spake to Moses," and "The Lord came down to behold the tower which the sons of men had built," or when "God shut Noah into the ark," you must not imagine that the unbegotten God Himself came down or went up from any place. ...For neither Abraham, nor Isaac, nor Jacob, nor any other man, saw the Father and ineffable Lord of all, and also [Father and Lord] of Christ, but [saw] Him who was according to His will His Son, being God, and the Angel because He ministered to His will; whom it also pleased Him to be born man by the Virgin; who also was fire when He conversed with Moses from the bush. (Trypho, Ch. 127)

In his Hortatory Address to the Greeks Justin teaches that Satan's original lie was that there were, or could be, other gods:

    The misanthropic demon contrived to deceive them when he said to them, "If ye obey me in transgressing the commandment of God, ye shall be as gods," calling those "gods" which had no being, in order that men, supposing that there were other gods in existence, might believe that they themselves could become gods. (Ch. 21, emphasis added)

I've presented only a sampling of at least 37 references to one God and/or three Persons in Justin Martyr's works.

Irenaeus

Irenaeus' monumental work Against Heresies, published between AD 182 and 188, contains at least 61 references to a lone God, and/or distinct persons in the Father, Son and Spirit. Again I will list only a few:

"Such, then, are the first principles of the Gospel: that there is one God, the Maker of the universe..." (Book III, 11.7)

"All those who had seen God after the resurrection..." (this line appears twice in Book III, 13.1)

    He [Jesus] speaks undoubtedly these words to those who have not received the gift of adoption, but despise the incarnation of the pure generation of the Word of God...who became flesh for them. For it was for this end that the Word of God was made man, and He who was the Son of God became the Son of man, and that man, having been taken into the Word, and receiving the adoption, might become the son of God. (Book III, 19.1)

"But what He is Himself in His own right, beyond all men who ever lived, God, and Lord, and King Eternal, and the Incarnate Word...may be seen by all who have attained to even a small portion of the truth." (Book III, 19.2)

"[Jesus] thus indicates in the clearest manner that the writings of Moses are His words. ...So also, beyond a doubt, the words of the other prophets are His...." (Book IV, 2.3)

"And for this reason, [God], beyond comprehension, and boundless and invisible, [in Christ] rendered Himself visible, and comprehensible, and within the capacity of those who believe, that He might vivify those who receive and behold Him through faith." (Book IV, 20.5)

"Thus, therefore, was God revealed; for God the Father is shown forth through all these [operations], the Spirit indeed working, and the Son ministering, while the Father was approving, and man's salvation was being accomplished." (Book IV, 20.6)

"This is my earnest object...that...I may restrain them from such a great blasphemy, and from insanely fabricating a multitude of gods." (Book IV, 34.5)

In Book V we read a typical expression of some of the early churchmen: that the Son and Spirit are the figurative "hands" the operating agents of God the Father. "For by the hands of the Father, that is, by the Son and the Holy Spirit, man...was made in the likeness of God." (6.1)

"Rightly then does His Word say to man, 'Thy sins are forgiven thee;' He, the same against whom we had sinned in the beginning, grants forgiveness of sins in the end." (Book V, 17.1)

"For the Creator of the world is truly the Word of God: and this is our Lord, who in the last times was made man." (Book V, 18.3)

In the Fragments of Iranaeus, #52 begins: "The sacred books acknowledge with regard to Christ, that as He is the Son of man, so is the same Being not a [mere] man; and as He is flesh, so is He also Spirit, and the Word of God, and God."



The mini-overview we've just done from Clement of Rome through Irenaeus covers only Volume 1 of The Ante Nicene Fathers. There are 9 volumes, not counting the Index. And I've passed over some relevant passages in the minor authors in the first volume, not to mention any I may have overlooked. Multiply the length of this article by twenty or thirty times, and you would have an idea of the amount of evidence disproving the claim that the Trinity was an innovation by the Council of Nicaea.

On some other subjects the "Fathers" were not so clear and unanimous. You may find texts to support both sides of a particular argument for example the "Free will vs. Election" debate. But we find no ambiguity or divided opinion on the doctrine of the Trinity. Those who did not believe in One-God-in-Three-Persons were not erring brethren to be corrected, but heretics to be opposed.

It's beyond the scope of this article to show proofs of the Trinity in the Bible itself. My objective here was only to debunk the myth that the doctrine of the Trinity is something the early Christians would have found strange and foreign. It was not a council, nor Constantine, nor anyone but the Lord and His Apostles, speaking by His Spirit, that brought us this teaching.

The author grants permission to reprint this article for personal use. You may want to keep a copy near the front door, so you can exchange literature with non-Trinitarians who ring your bell.

Here is a free, online edition of The Ante Nicene Fathers:

http://biblestudy.churches.net/CCEL/FATHERS2/INDEX.HTM

And you can purchase the printed version here:

http://www.christianbook.com/Christian/Books/product?item_no=30823&item_code=WW&netp_id=133622&event=ESRCN&view=covers

© Dan Popp

 

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