Lesson 5: The Trinity in Tradition

Some rationalists and modernists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries claimed that there is no convincing proof of belief in the Trinity among Christians until the beginning of the fourth century. So our next step is to consider some of the evidence from the first three centuries that proves the Church always believed in the Trinity, even though some of their expressions are different from what came later in the major Councils of the Church. In this lecture we will show that the trinity of persons in the unity of the divine essence is certain from the constant tradition of the Church before the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. The witnesses during this period are often referred to as the Pre- or Ante-Nicene Fathers.

At the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. Arianism was condemned. You will recall that Arius said that the Word was the first creature of the Father and so was not really divine. A creed was proclaimed in which what pertains to the consubstantiality of the Son and to his generation from the substance of the Father was added to the ancient creeds (see D 54 for the Nicene Creed). With that the trinitarian doctrine was protected against the errors of subordination and other errors opposed to orthodoxy. At that time there was no controversy about the Holy Spirit, and having established the true divinity of the Son, there was no problem about admitting the divinity of the Holy Spirit. When Macedonianism appeared about the middle of the fourth century (which denies the divinity of the Holy Spirit), it was firmly rejected at Constantinople I in 381. Here we are mainly concerned with the tradition of the first three centuries.

Catholics hold that from the very beginning the Church always believed in the Holy Trinity according to its essential elements, namely, there is one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in three distinct Persons.

How do we establish this position? The first argument is from the condemnation of Arianism at Nicaea. Arianism was looked upon as a new blasphemy and caused much commotion. This in itself is an indication that it was opposed to the traditional belief. At Nicaea the Fathers added to the original profession of faith the idea of consubstantiality and they also said that the Son is generated "from the substance of the Father" (Latin: ex substantia Patris). With these additions the true divinity of the Son was asserted along with his procession from the Father as a true generation; it also affirmed the unity of the divinity as shared by both Father and Son without any division of the substance. By these words all the suggestions of the Arians re ditheism, modalism and division in the divine substance were excluded.

Other testimonies of the common faith are shown in the following ways: a) in the baptismal liturgy which used the formula "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit," and from the triple immersion at Baptism as witnessed by the Didache, St. Justin and St. Irenaeus. b) In prayer which is normally directed to the Father, but always along with the Son and the Holy Spirit. c) In the doxologies, "Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit."

Our thesis is proved from the authority of the Church in condemning the heretics. Thus, the Roman Pontiffs Saints Victor, Zephyrinus and Callistus condemned the Monarchianists and the Sabellians. Pope St. Dionysius (ca. 260 A.D.) condemned all the anti-trinitarian errors in his letter which can be found in Denzinger D 48-51.

Most of the Pre-Nicene writers are witnesses to the trinitarian faith. They firmly hold for the unicity of God, and the distinction of Persons, which they derive from the two processions (which we will take up in the next lecture). They rejected the main points of Arianism even before it was proclaimed. For example, St. Clement of Rome (ca. 95 A.D.) said: "God lives and the Lord Jesus lives, and the Holy Spirit, who are the faith and hope of the elect." (This can be found in William A. Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. I, The Liturgical press, 1979; under R 28.)

The statements of some of the Ante-Nicene writers, which can be and have been interpreted in various ways, do not negate the universal tradition of the Church with regard to faith in the Trinity. These difficulties are of two kinds:

1) In several writers there are expressions which seem to favor subordinationism; the Arians and Semi-Arians made great use of them. For example, they say the Father is superior to the Son and the Holy Spirit, who are in the 2nd and 3rd place; Origen calls the Son "the Second God"; the generation of the Son is said to be voluntary rather than necessary and eternal; Origen and Theophilus of Antioch said that the Son served the Father in creation and did his will.

2) When they explain the dogma they use theories which seem to be tainted with subordinationism and modalism: a) they explain the generation of the Son in reference to the creation of the world (Theophilus & Tertullian); b) they attribute the theophanies in the OT to the Son, because the Father is invisible by reason of his immensity, but the Son is visible according to the operation proper to him; c) Origen seems not to give full simplicity to the Son because he contains the ideas of things to be created; the Son has less knowledge than the Father; he limits the operations of the Son and the Holy Spirit; he says one should pray only to the Father (see his De Principiis 1, 35).

Catholic authors are divided on the interpretation of these statements and theories of the Ante-Nicene Fathers. Here are a few of their responses.

To 1) The Faith of the early Church did not depend on the authors cited. Some of them were at some point heretics or schismatics. There were doubts about their doctrine during their lives, v.g., Tatian, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Novatian, and perhaps Origen. There was always a basic understanding of this important doctrine of the Trinity according to its essentials, i.e., the unicity of God, three really distinct Persons and their equal divinity.

To 2) The doubtful modes of expression of these authors can be given an orthodox interpretation. Thus, putting the Word in the second place can be merely a way of speaking about the three Persons; that the Father is superior to the Son can refer to his priority or origin; Origen's "second God" can mean the 2nd one having divinity; that the Word serves the Father in creation is a metaphor used also by St. Irenaeus.

So the statements of the apologists of the 2nd century and the theologians of the 3rd century, even though they sound like the gentile syncretists, are really very different in content and can be given an orthodox interpretation.

Reading Assignment

In a theological dictionary or encyclopedia read the articles on the following Ante-Nicene writers: St. Justin Martyr, St. Irenaeus, St. Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen.

Writing Assignment

Write paper of two to three pages on one of the men mentioned above, or on the Council of Nicaea, the first ecumenical Council in 325 A.D.


Read Book V of St. Augustine's De Trinitate. 


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