Historical Theology Part 3 – The Trinity

June 22, 2016 ()

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Lesson 2 – June 22, 2016

The Trinity – God as One in Three

Biblical Support:  Mt. 28:19; 2 Cor. 13:14.


A. The Church Fathers (100-150).

1. The relationship of the Father to the Son.

a) Clement of Rome (d. 101?) “Have we not one God, and one Christ, and one Spirit of grace poured upon us?” (1 Clement 45.6).

  1. b) The preexistence of Christ - Christ is viewed as having spoken through the Spirit in the Psalms (Ps. 16:2; 22:1). The Epistle of Barnabas said that Christ cooperated with God in the creation (5:5; 6:12), that He received commands before the incarnation (14:3,6), and that He is the “Lord of the entire cosmos” (5:5, 12:7).
  2. c) Ignatius (c.35-c.107), a disciple of the apostle John, referred to Jesus Christ as “our God,” “God incarnate,” and “God manifest as man” (To the Ephesians 7:2; 19:3).
  3. d) The author of 2 Clement exhorted his readers to “think of Jesus as of God, as judge of the living and the dead” (1:1).
  4. The relationship of the Spirit to the Father and the Son. Confusion of the Spirit with the Son.  Hermas in The Shepherd, says “that the Spirit is the Son of God” (9.1).  The full deity of the Holy Spirit was not grasped and was not a matter of discussion.
  1. The Apologists (150-300).
  2. The relationship of the Father to the Son.
  3. a) This was primarily developed in the deity of Christ.
  4. b) Attacks against the deity of Christ.

(1) Marcion, a second century teacher, held to  modified Gnostic position to assert two Gods and two Christs.

(2) Ebionites, sect of Christian Judaizers who denied the deity of Christ.

(3) Gnostics, who denied the deity of Christ.

(4) Monarchianism.   Preserved the unity of God.   First was “Dynamic or Adoptionistic Monarchians” who explained the relationship of God to Christ as that of a power that came upon the man Jesus at His baptism wherein He received Christ, infusing Him with the power of divinity.    They rejected Christ’s deity. This view was not widely held but was condemned by the Synod of Antioch in 269.                 Second was Modalism, or Patripassianism.  Much more pervasive than Adoptionism.  In defending the unity of God they sacrificed the distinct and separate personalities in the Godhead.  Father and Son were same person.

The person who is almost synonymous with Modalism in the church is Sabellius of Pentapolis.   Basil the Great (c.330-379)Ex says he taught that the “same God, being one substance was metamorphized as the need of the moment required and spoke  now as Father, now as the Son and now as the Holy Spirit “ (Epistle 210.3). The Father would change into the Son or Holy Spirit at different times.

As the early church fathers rejected Adoptionism and Modalism,.

  1. c) Justin Martyr (c.100-c.165) understood the preexistence of Christ, the plural references that God makes of Himself (such as “Let Us” in Gen. 1:26) and the personification of God as Wisdom in creating the world (Job 28).  But of the Son he said He was “God’s Word, God’s agent or representative in the world.”   Less than full deity.
  1. d) Tertullian (c.160-c.225) of North Africa, developed distinctive terminology for the doctrine of God.  He coined:
  2.   “trinitas”, or Trinity, for the plurality of God.                                                                                                    2. “Persona”, or person for the Greek term hypostasis.
  3. “Substance” which refers to that which the persons have in common.
  4. The relationship of the Spirit to the Father and the Son.

IRENAEUS correctly saw that the Spirit was the divine person and power that worked in the prophets and apostles  and who permanently indwells the believer. He identified three distinct persons in the Godhead and refers to the “let Us” statements in Genesis as proof (Against Heresies 1.2.1; 4.34.1).                Most like Justin Martyr seemed to continue to identify the Spirit as Christ.

So in this period the persons of the Godhead are distinguished but the equality of the persons is not developed nor fully understood.

  1. The Theologians (300-600).

Constantine emerged as tolerant and sympathetic of the Christian faith.  Christianity became the official religion of the empire!

  1. The relationship of the Father to the Son.
  2. a) Arius (d. 336), a presbyter in Alexandria, was influenced by Adoptionism, denied the equality of the persons in the Godhead. Arius believed that the Son was not always, not eternal.
  1.                                b) Athanasius (c.296-373), bishop in Alexandria. Athanasius insisted on the coequality of the Father and the Son. He charged Arius with destroying the equality of the persons in the Godhead.          Arius was expelled from Alexandria and he found sympathy in Constantinople. The controversy only continued and grew hotter and threatened the empire with schism.

The first ecumenical (worldwide) gathering of church leaders in the year 325.  They met in Nicaea in Bithynia.          The council had three factions: a) a minority who feared the error of Modalism.  b) a group of similar size that feared the Subordinationist error. c) The majority of bishops who did not understand the issues and longed for peace.

Debate over terms “substance” and “person.”  This controversy was resolved by the three Cappadocian scholars:  Basil of Caesarea (c.330-379), Gregory of Nazianzus (330-390), Gregory of Nyssa (c.330-c.395).  They argued that the terms “essence” and “persons” were not to be understood as synonymous terms.   In the singular essence of God exist three persons.

  1. The relationship of the Spirit to the Father and the Son.                 Macedonius (d. c.362), a bishop in Constantinople and a semi-Arian suggested that the Spirit was a creature, subordinate to the Son.

Athanasius had Macedonius’s view of the Spirit being a creature condemned at the Synod of Alexandria in 362.

The second ecumenical council met at Constantinople in 381.  The council reiterated the Nicene Creed and expanded its statement of the Trinity including the Holy Spirit.


The views of the Nicene Creed and the Council of Constantinople went unchallenged for over 1,000 years.

The main point of contention came in the Roman Catholic Church over the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.   In 589 a provincial council in Toledo (Spain) added three works to the Trinitarian creed of Constantinople (381).  After the statement that the Spirit proceeds or is sent from the Father into the world, the council added the phrase “and the Son.”  This was based on Jn. 14:26 or 15:26. This became the filioque controversy.          This contributed to the Schism of 1054.

Anselm (c.1033-1109) protected the unity of the Godhead against tritheism.   Peter Abelard (1079-1143) tried to assign a particular attribute to each member of the Trinity (Father is power, Son is wisdom, Spirit is good).  Thomas Aquinas (c.1225-1274) thought the existence of God could be proved by rational argument but not the Trinity without revelation.


John Calvin (1509-1564), God cannot be truly known apart from His revelation of Himself as triune.  To deny one God in three persons is heresy.

Laelius Socinus (1525-1562) rooted in the liberal spirit of the Renaissance, Italian Rationalism. Their ideas became Socinianism, an antitrinitarian movement.

Michael Servetus (c.1511-1553), the Unitarian heretic, denied the trinity. In 1531 wrote Errors of the Trinity where he said those who held to the Trinity were really Tritheists (believe in 3 gods) or atheists. Said the gods of the Trinity were a 3-headed monster and a deception of the devil.


The secularism of the Enlightenment brought the authority of reason into the church as equal to the authority of the church or the Bible.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804),  experience and reason came to define knowledge.  With Kant, truth was experience-based.  He sought to divorce religious truth from the realm of scientific analysis and reason (by which David Hume attacked the reasonableness of the supernatural) and put it in the sphere of personal, moral sense, a God-given universal principle in all humankind.

  1. The European Protestant Liberal Tradition.

Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), “The father of modern theology”, a theologian and founder of the University of Berlin tried to defend the Christian faith from the intrusion of the skeptical, rationalistic Enlightenment as well as traditional orthodoxy by suggesting that knowledge is rooted in the subjective and personal. He retreated to Modalism, and embraced the unity of God but rejected the equality of persons in the Godhead.

  1. The European Protestant Evangelical Tradition.

Karl Barth (1886-1968),  believed in the three distinct persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit who are one God in the unity of their essence.

  1. American Protestant Liberal Tradition.
  2. Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969) God evolved from brutality to love and kindness. The Trinity was viewed as a moral threeness-in-oneness, a trifold revelation of the moral character of God.
  3. Paul Tillich (1886-1965), a theologian at Union Theological Seminary. He believed the Trinity was invented by man to supply a remedy for feelings of alienation and despair.

The liberal tradition reversed the creation record of God saying “let us make man in our image” to man declaring, “Let us make God in our image.”  Theology has become a branch of science, sociology and psychology.