Day 1, Lecture 1 – Outline
Speaker: Dr. Charles Lee Irons
Hello and welcome to the first lecture in our series on the doctrine of the Trinity in History and Scripture.
This first lecture is dealing with the doctrine of the Trinity in church history. My name is Dr. Charles Lee Irons and I’m delighted to be with you today, and to fellowship with you, dear brothers and sisters of Zion Cornerstone Reformed Church.
This is a very important and difficult topic: The doctrine of the Trinity. I’m sure many of you have puzzled over it, and have spent many times, many hours searching the Scriptures and trying to understand what this doctrine is.
Before we look at the doctrine of the Trinity in church history, I’d like to just first give a brief definition of what the doctrine is. I’m taking this from Louis Berkoff’s Systematic Theology. He has a number of points, but his first three points are a good summary of the doctrine.
The first point for him is that there is in the divine being but one indivisible essence. That is, in the divine being, there is one essence, one divine nature that is indivisible. It can’t be separated into different parts, and that has to do with the doctrine of the divine simplicity.
His second point is that in this one divine being there are three persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And I think that’s a very obvious point; I think that’s [that is] the doctrine of the Trinity right there.
But the key point is, point number three: that the whole undivided essence of God belongs equally to each of the three persons.
So point number one: There is in the divine being but one indivisible essence. Point two: In this one divine being there are three persons. And point three: The whole undivided essence of God belongs equally to each of the three persons.
It’s not as though the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three parts of one God. As if you had like a let’s say a pie, and you divided it up into three sections. No, that’s not the case. The whole undivided essence of God belongs equally to each of the three persons.
So [it’s] it’s a pretty hard concept to wrap your mind around,isn’t it? It’s not easy, but that is the orthodox classical doctrine of the Trinity.
Now, it took the church a while to come to this degree of clarity and precision on the doctrine. The church always believed in the Trinity. The church always believed that we were baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. And so the Trinitarian formula was in the church from the very beginning, from day one. But there had to be, God in his providence knew that there had to be, theological controversy. There had to be heresy in order for the church to clearly reject that heresy, and then use that as an opportunity to clarify and formulate more precisely what the doctrine is.
And so what I want to talk about in this first lecture is just a brief sketch of how God used these controversies in the early church to help the church to come to a clear understanding of what God had revealed in Scripture. It’s not as though the church is coming up with this doctrine on its own, making it up as some sort of man-made doctrine. The church is basing this doctrine on Scripture, but God used in his providence, he used these controversies as an opportunity for the church to meditate more carefully on Scripture. And then, on the basis of that, to clarify and come up with helpful terminology to formulate a clear doctrine of the Trinity.
It’s interesting to think about this that [that] God took just as much care to secure the church’s understanding of revelation as he did to give the revelation in the first place, right? So he took tremendous care in, and first of all in, giving the revelation. We see the revelation of the Trinity unfolding in Scripture and in redemptive history, the incarnation of Christ, and the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost, and the apostolic doctrine, and the gathering of the apostolic writings into the New Testament. God inspired the prophets and the apostles, and he took great care to reveal himself as a Triune God to his people.
But he also took care after the revelation was complete. To be sure, through his providence, this is not inspiration now. God didn’t inspire the church to write the Nicene Creed, for example. The Nicene Creed is not an inspired document. But he took tremendous care in making sure that the church would come to a better understanding of the revelation that he already gave. And so we see [in this case] that providence is an important part not of revelation, but of the church’s understanding of [the] revelation, which is then written down in precise theological formulations. So I don’t think that the Nicene Creed should be placed on the same level as Scripture or above Scripture, for sure. But it should be given pride of place in our understanding of Scripture, and we should respect it as part of God’s work of helping the church to understand what the Scripture is saying.
So one of the key things that we have to look at in that, and as we examine how God providentially guided the church, is we have to look at the controversy that took place in the 4th century. Now remember that the 4th century refers to the three hundreds (300s A.D.). So we’re talking about the period of time in the 300s A.D., approximately two and a half centuries after the apostolic age.
Around the earth 318, there was a presbyter named Arius who was leading one of the parishes of the church of Alexandria in Egypt. And he began teaching some things about the Son, about [sometimes he’s referred to as] the Logos—referring to John 1, “In the beginning was the Logos and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God…and then the Logos became flesh, and dwelt among us.” So often in the 4th century, theologians referred to what we would call “the second person of the Trinity,” but that terminology hadn’t been developed yet. They would refer to the Son as the Logos to clarify that we’re talking about him in his pre-existence state, before he became incarnate.
Arius taught several things about the Logos or about the Son. One, he taught that the Logos was pre-existent; he was a pre-existent being before his incarnation; he even existed before creation. But he was not eternally pre-existent. And so [Arius] said there was a time when he did not exist. And so he said that the Logos, the Son, was created by God out of nothing. And that means then that he is a creature, and so as a creature, the Logos was subject to alteration or change. In other words, he was not immutable, he’s not the immutable divine being. He is capable of changing, and his will is mutable just like Adam’s before the fall. And so [he was capable] the Logos was capable of sinning. He didn’t sin, but he was capable of it.
And so Arius then was teaching something that was somewhat new. It wasn’t “brand new,” but it was somewhat new at the time. There had been others, there had been a few precursor heretics who had taught something similar. But he was teaching something that was really challenging people to think about who the Logos was, and he was doing so in a way that was contrary to the tradition that had been received, and it created some controversy.
In response, the bishop of Alexandria at that time was Alexander. So “Alexander of Alexandria” is his name. He was the bishop prior to Athanasius. Athanasius will be his successor maybe about a decade later. Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria, heard a debate between Arius and another teacher in the church, and he listened to both sides. And he decided that Arius was wrong, and he told him, “Stop teaching your views.” But Arius wouldn’t stop. This is the nature of heretics, right? Heretics just aren’t content to just simply hold their private personal opinions, but they’re out there trying to like convince the church, and trying to gain support. Arius wouldn’t stop, and he gained supporters for his views among both the clergy and the laity, in the local area in the church of Alexandria and the surrounding regions of what we would call Egypt today (northern Egypt).
In the year 321, there was a council that was held (not an ecumenical council of all the bishops of the church, but a local council of all of the bishops in that area of basically the northern Egypt area), and they deposed Arius. That is, they removed him from his office as a presbyter.
Now what Arius did next caused the controversy to spill over into the whole church throughout the Roman empire. Arius fled Egypt and he moved to Palestine where he found people who were sympathetic with his views. He won the support of a Eusebius (Not the famous Eusebius that we are used to thinking of, Eusebius of Caesarea, who wrote the Ecclesiastical History and some other works that are still respected today). This is a different Eusebius, same name, different guy. He was the bishop of Nicomedia. Now Nicomedia was the eastern capital of the Roman empire at that time. Later on, the Eastern empire or the Eastern capital would be moved to Constantinople, that is the city of Constantine. But that wouldn’t happen until like the year 330.
At this time the Eastern capital of the Roman empire was Nicomedia, and since Eusebius of Nicomedia was the bishop there, he had a lot of influence. And eventually, he was able to convince Constantine and his sons, or at least some of his sons, to hold to his Arian views. So Arius is the guy that started the controversy, but then Eusebius of Nicomedia becomes sort of the torchbearer for his views. And since he’s a more influential person, he has a high ranking position in the church, and even in the government in a way, he really causes this controversy now to become empire-wide.
Arius stayed with Eusebius. While he was staying with him, he wrote some letters. He wrote a treatise defending his views. The treatise was called the Thalia which unfortunately have been somewhat mostly lost, although we do have a few fragments from the Thalia in the writings of Athanasius, because Athanasius wrote against the Arians including Arius himself, and Eusebius and so on, and in his writings he quotes from what Arius said.
Now, Eusebius of Nicomedia—using his stature, using his standing as this bishop of a very important city, basically the capital of the Roman empire at least in the Eastern half—used his influence to create this empire-wide controversy. He wrote letters. He began a letter campaign, writing letters to other bishops and so on, pressuring Alexander. Remember Alexander back down in Alexandria, who was the bishop that opposed Arius and got Arius deposed. Eusebius is writing letters to all the other bishops in the empire, critiquing Alexander, saying Alexander is wrong and calling upon Alexander to restore Arius, and saying that everything is fine with his teachings.
And so this, then, kind of causes the controversy over Arianism—that is, over this doctrine that the Logos, what we would call the second person of the Trinity, is a creature—an empire-wide disagreements and dissensions. People are taking sides, and so it comes to the attention of the Emperor of Constantine himself.
In the year 324, Constantine defeats Lycenius. There’s some Roman history here that you need to know about, but I’m not going to get into it. Basically, Constantine and Lycinius were engaged in an almost like a civil war, trying to outdo each other to see who could become the Emperor of both the Eastern and the Western empire. So Constantine was busy with all these wars, but in 324, he defeated Lycinius. And as a result, he became the sole Emperor of both the Eastern and the Western empire, and now things are sort of at peace.
And so now he’s done with all his wars, Constantine is now turning his attention to the theological war that is going on in the church between these two groups of bishops. The bishops that are siding with Eusebius of Nicomedia, and the bishops that are siding with Alexander of Alexandria over this issue of, “Is the Logos a creature or is he fully divine? Does he land on the creator side of the Creator-creature distinction?” At first, the Emperor Constantine thought that it was just a minor disagreement. You know he’s not a theologian. In fact, he’s not even really a Christian at this time, even though he’s sympathetic with Christianity. He hasn’t been baptized. So at first, Constantine thought that this was just a minor theological disagreement, [you know] where theologians are splitting hairs, and he thought that there could be some agreement. He thought that the two sides could just [you know] get along, and there could be a reconciliation. He tried that, but he realized that this was a much bigger issue than he thought. And so he realized that the only solution was to call all of the bishops of the empire together to a church council, and so this is the Council of Nicea in the year 325.
The Council of Nicea was held in the months of May and June. It was held in northwest Turkey, what is today Turkey, on the shore of a large lake about 85 miles southeast of Constantinople, what is today Constantinople or in Istanbul. Arius and his supporters were there, and they presented a Confession of Faith of their views, and this was immediately rejected by the council.
Then that other Eusebius that I mentioned, Eusebius of Caesarea, he read out his baptismal creed. Now, at this time in the church, each of the major churches of the empire—let’s say the church of Caesarea, the church of Jerusalem, and the church of Alexandria, and the church of Rome, and so on—they all had their own what are called “baptismal creeds.”
That is the creed that was used at the baptism of an adult. When an adult was converting to the church, he would be asked, “Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?” “Yes I do.” “Do you believe in Jesus Christ the only begotten Son of God?” “Yes I do?” “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?” “Yes I do.” These baptismal creeds were then [kind of] preliminary creeds, not the full creed of Nicea. They didn’t explicitly deal with the issue of whether the Logos is a creature or not. That is Arianism. But they were just Trinitarian formulas based upon the Trinitarian formula that Jesus gave in Matthew 28:19, “…baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the holy Spirit..” So the church had these baptismal creeds, [kind of] like the Apostles’ Creed today that go through each of those three articles: the article on God the Father, the article on God the Son, and the article on God the Holy Spirit. Now the article on God the Son could include some additional information about how he was born of a virgin, how he suffered under Pontius Pilate, and so on.
So Eusebius of Caesarea, who’s not fully Arian—he’s kind of sympathetic with the Arian group, but he’s not a full Arian—[he] read out his baptismal creed as a suggestion for the council to look at. And they all agreed that his creed, his baptismal creed that was used in his church, was orthodox. But the problem is that it didn’t explicitly exclude the views of Arius. And so, what the church council did was they took another baptismal creed that was similar to Eusebius’, and they modified it by inserting certain key phrases into it, such as the key phrase “being of one substance with the Father,” which in Greek is “homoousios“. (We’ll talk about that in a minute). They also added the anathemas at the end. The anathemas are saying, “if you believe what Arius teaches then you are anathema. You are under a curse.”
So what is the Creed of Nicea?
I’m going to read it to you. It’s not exactly the same as what we today call the Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed that we use today is a revised version of the creed of Nicea, revised about some 50 to 60 years later at the second ecumenical council in Constantinople in the year 381. But the original one is very interesting. So listen as I’m going to read it to you. It says this:
“We believe in one God the Father, Almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible…” So that part’s the same. That would have been in all of these baptismal creeds as well.
“…and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, only begotten. That is, from the substance of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one substance (that’s homoousios) with the Father, through whom all things came into being, things in heaven and things on earth, who for us men and for our salvation, came down and became incarnate, and became man, and suffered, and rose again on the third day, and ascended to the heavens, and will come to judge the living and the dead, and in the Holy Spirit…”
And here’s the anathemas: “…but as for those who say there was when he was not, and before being born he was not, and that he came into existence out of nothing, or who assert that the Son of God is of a different hypothesis, or substance, or created, or is subject to alteration, or change, these the catholic and apostolic church anathematizes…”
So, in 381, the major changes that were made were that the anathemas were removed, and the section on the Holy Spirit was expanded to explicitly affirm the deity of the Holy Spirit. There were also some minor linguistic changes in the section on the deity of Christ, where it talks about “begotten of the Father,” and so on. Just some minor things there to smooth it out, but the the essence of that doctrine that Jesus Christ is “the only begotten Son of God, begotten from the Father,” and therefore “begotten not made, of one substance with the Father,” that part is essentially carried over into the version of the Nicene Creed that we know today.
So God used the controversy over Arius to lead the church to come together to this ecumenical council. “Ecumenical” does not mean ecumenical in the bad sense of people from bad theological traditions all trying to get along and agree on something minimal. It’s ecumenical in the sense that it’s universal. That is, the entire church of the time came together, and unanimously—almost unanimously since there were two Arians at the council who wouldn’t sign off on it—but aside from those two guys, the church unanimously agreed on this doctrine of the Trinity affirming God the Father Almighty, affirming Jesus Christ the only begotten Son who is of the same substance with the Father, and then affirming the Holy Spirit. Although that third point of the Holy Spirit (even though it’s kind of implied) is not fleshed out until about five decades later at the council of Constantinople in 381.
But God used the controversy over Arianism to help the church to come to this clear formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity affirming the deity of the Logos. That he is not a creature, but he’s begotten not made. And [God just gives] a clear biblical statement of this doctrine of the Trinity for the church for all time, and the church ever since has continually gone back to the Nicene Creed as the basis of its doctrine of the Trinity. And in fact, it’s the one ecumenical creed that all orthodox Christians hold to today.
And by orthodox, I just mean Trinitarian. I’m not saying that Roman Catholics and Eastern orthodox are “orthodox” in the sense of holding to the true gospel. But at least, they all agree on the doctrine of the Trinity. And so we do have that in common with Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians, even though we view their churches as having lost the gospel and of being corrupt in many ways. Yet at least, they do hold to the Trinity. And so this is what defines, what it means to be a Christian, as opposed to other cults—as opposed to Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other fringe groups that are not even Christian because they cannot subscribe to the creed [the Nicene Creed] that affirms the Trinitarian doctrine.
Now, let me just make some comments here on this creed.
So, first of all, the word homoousios is used there. This is translated, “of one substance with the Father.” It’s from two words “homo” and “ousios.” Homo means “the same,” and ousios is from the Greek word for “substance” which is “ousia,” meaning substance or being or essence. And so, by affirming that the Son is homoousios with the Father, the creed is affirming the deity of Christ. It’s saying that he is of the same essence as the Father. He’s not a creature. He’s not of a different essence. Creatures are not divine. Creatures are not of the same essence as God the Father. You and I, we’re not homoousios with God. We’re not of the same nature as God. We’re created beings. We’re made out of nothing, and so we don’t have the same divine essence. But this term homoousios is affirming that the Son is of the same nature or essence as the Father.
Now it’s not a Scriptural term, but it does represent Scriptural teaching. And the basis of it, the scriptural basis of it, is all of the language that goes before.
So let me repeat that section again in Article 2. It says that “…We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ the Son of God begotten from the Father as only begotten that is from the substance…” (that’s the word ousia) “…from the substance of the Father, God from God…” (that is, he is God the Son from God the Father, begotten from God the Father as God the Son) “…Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made…” And that’s the key phrase everyone focuses on, the homoousios part of it, which is certainly important.
But to really understand the biblical basis for that homoousios, you have to understand that the phrase before “begotten not made” is totally biblical. It’s from John 1. Remember in John 1, you have that opening statement “In the beginning was the Logos…” [I already quoted it] “…the Logos was with God…” [and then it says that] “…through him all things were created, and without him was not anything made that was made…”
So it puts him on the Creator side of the Creator-creature distinction.
And then you go down to verse 14, and it says that this Logos, who was in the beginning with God the Father, and through whom all things were made, this Logos “…became flesh…” (the incarnation) “…and he dwelt among us and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father…” The only begotten from the Father. So he’s begotten, not made, right? Because going back to verse 3 “…all things were made through him…” So he’s not made. He’s not a creature. So he’s begotten not made.
So this phrase “begotten not made” is critical, and it goes back to the prologue of John, chapter 1 verse 1 through 18. The word “begotten” is used again in verse 18, where it says “…no one has seen God but the only begotten God who is in the Father’s bosom. He has made him known…” So, if you take “begotten” in verses 14 and 18, and you compare that with verse 3, which says that “all things were made through him”—that’s how you get this doctrine that the Son is begotten from the Father and not made.
Therefore, from that biblical teaching, they then conclude [that] he is of the same substance with the Father, he is of one substance with the Father. So again “homoousios” is not a scriptural term but it represents scriptural teaching. And the grounding of it—the logic, the biblical and scriptural logic, of the homoousios part—is grounded in John 1:1-18 and in the fact that that passage teaches that he is the only begotten Son of God and that he’s begotten not made.
So Irenaeus, for example… (this [logic] is not new to the Nicene Creed, this logic goes back to a century earlier)… Irenaeus said that, “the Father is God and the Son is God, for whatever is begotten of God is God.”
Isn’t that clear?
Don’t you like that? The Father is God and the Son is God, for whatever is begotten of God is God. If the Son of God is eternally begotten of God the Father, God of God, then he must be God. Being a son means having the same nature as the father who begat you. Athanasius puts it this way, he says, “…nor is the pigeon born from the dove.” So like begets like. A divine being, the Father, begets a divine Son.
The Sonship metaphor that is used there for “being begotten” is not simply about this close intimate relationship between a Father and a Son, or how they love one another or anything like that. That’s part of it, but that’s not the point. It’s about this idea of the offspring having the same nature as the one who begat him. That’s why Jesus can say, “I and the Father are one” in John 10:30, and Paul himself also says that “…Jesus is the image of the invisible God…,” and the author of Hebrews says that “…he’s the radiance of the glory of God, and the exact imprint of his nature…” That language of the radiance of the glory of God, that’s where the Nicene Creed gets that language of “Light from Light.”
So, the “homoousios” clause then is very important because it provides a clear biblical teaching. Of course, it’s an extra-biblical term, but it’s based on biblical teaching. It provides clear biblical teaching to affirm both the unity and the distinction between the Father and the Son. The Son and the Father are not the same, right? The Father is the Father. The Son is the Son. The person of the Father, and the person of the Son are distinct, but they have the same nature. Why? Because the Son is the Son of God. He’s the eternally begotten Son of God the Father, begotten of the Father’s essence.
Hillary Poitier, who was another church Father, contemporary with Athanasius (sometimes he’s called the Athanasius of the West, because he was a Westerner) spoke in Latin, (he’s expounding the creed), and he said, “Is not the meaning here of the word ‘homoousios’ that the Son is produced of the Father’s nature? The essence of the Son having no other origin and that both therefore have one unverying essence.”
So he points to this idea of the Son’s origin. That is, that “he is begotten of the Father” as the basis for the Son having the same essence as the Father. And he’s interpreting the Nicene Creed when he says that. So that helps us to understand from a contemporary what the church Fathers were trying to say by using that word homoousios.
Now I’d just like to address a couple of false historical claims about the history of the doctrine of the Trinity. Actually three false historical claims.
The first one is that [you might have heard this before], some people will say the Emperor Constantine is the one who called the council of Nicea, in which that part is true. But then they add that he presided over it, and controlled the outcome. And so this is a false claim that is trying to discredit the creed of the council of Nicea, by saying that it really wasn’t the church that was coming to this understanding… it was just the secular emperor who was controlling things and led the production of this creed.
Again, it is true that he convened it, but he didn’t control the deliberations at the council, and he didn’t control the outcome. Remember, he thought that they could all agree, and then he realized that wasn’t the case, and so he brought the bishops together, and [kind of] says, “You guys hash it out.” The person who presided over the council was not Constantine, but his advisor who was named Hosius. He was a bishop as well who was [kind of] his personal spiritual advisor at the time. Hosius is the one who presided over the council. Constantine himself didn’t have a predetermined outcome in view. He was just more interested in bringing resolution to a theological debate that was dividing the empire.
Afterwards, it is true that Constantine enforced the decision of the council by exiling the two bishops that wouldn’t sign it, but he didn’t have authority over the council. He didn’t lead it in one direction or another. One scholar says that the creed produced by the council was carefully and thoroughly debated, and not merely imposed by Constantine. That’s R.P.C. Hanson in The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God.
So that’s one misleading claim you may have heard.
Another one that you may have heard is related to this, that Constantine is the one that came up with this word homoousios, and that he’s the one that demanded that it be inserted into the creed. And again this is not true.
Ambrose (He was a little bit later. He was the one that helped bring about the conversion of Augustine in the 380s) said that the term homoousios was first used by the Arians themselves as something that they thought was a negative thing. So, in fact, remember our friend Eusebius of Nicomedia, the “bad Eusebius,” the one who was friendly with Arius? And trying to write those letters, Eusebius of Nicomedia had written in one of his letters, “If we say that the Son is true God and uncreated, then we are in the way to confess him to be of one substance (homoousios) with the Father.”
And so actually, the church Fathers at the council had a copy of that letter where [Eusebius] said that. They read it to the council, and when the orthodox bishops heard that the Arians like Eusebius were daunted by this term, and were afraid of it and didn’t like it, they decided, “Aha! This is what we can use. We’ll put it into the creed as a way of making sure that they can’t sign it. At least not as Arians, unless they convert to the orthodox view.” So they put the term homoousios into the creed specifically because they had heard that the Arians didn’t like the word, and they understood the implication of it.
So the term was [really] invented by the Arians, and the orthodox were simply using it as a weapon against them.
You have to remember that the Arians were very, very clever. They’re always trying to find ways to present themselves as orthodox, and so just simply using the language of Scripture wouldn’t have worked with them. For example, if you just said that the Logos is divine, the Logos is God, even they would have said that that’s what it says in John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, the Word with God, the Word was God.” They would have accepted that term. But in their minds, they would have understood it as not God in the fullest sense of being God with a capital “G”, but God in a lower case “g,” some kind of created semi-deity.
So they had all these clever ways of trying to get around things, and that’s why the orthodox felt that they needed to put that word in there to clearly divide and distinguish, and say, “No, that’s your view. That’s heresy. Here’s the orthodox view.”
That helps us to see the value of creeds, doesn’t it? Creeds sometimes are based upon Scripture, and the authority of a creed is that it’s totally scriptural teaching, right? It doesn’t have any authority apart from Scripture. But since it’s the church trying to formulate doctrine in opposition to heresy, sometimes the church needs to use certain words and formulations to clearly state what the heresy is, and what the truth is. And so sometimes these creeds will go beyond Scripture—not in terms of the content, not in terms of the doctrine—but going beyond Scripture in terms of the formulation of the doctrine in order to clarify what the truth is.
The third misleading statement you may have heard is this one: That this was a new development in the church, and that from the beginning, the church was originally composed of Jewish believers who believed that Jesus was merely a human messiah, and that it wasn’t until later with more and more Gentiles coming into the church that the Christians began to think of Christ as divine. And so this misleading claim is that it was the Council of Nicea that first made this statement that Jesus is divine.
That is not true at all.
In fact the absolute deity of Christ was the unquestioned and universal belief of the church in the two centuries leading up to the Council of Nicea. And you can see this throughout. We don’t have time to get into all the quotations, but I have all kinds of quotations from the second century and the third century long before the fourth century in the Council of Nicea.
For example, Ignatius of Antioch who died in the year 107. (That’s really early). He wrote: “God appeared in human form to bring the newness of eternal life.” That’s in his letter to the Ephesians. I already quoted Irenaeus who said, “The Father is God, and the Son is God for whatever is begotten of God is God.” Tertullian, he also believed in the Trinity. In fact, he was the first theologian to use that term. He said, “There are three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, yet of one substance.” Hippolytus was a presbyter in the church of Rome who lived around the year 160, and died in the year 236. He said, “The Father indeed is one but there are two persons because there is also the Son, and then there is the third the Holy Spirit.” Novation died in the year 258 also in the church of Rome, he wrote that, “He is God therefore (referring to Christ), but God in such a manner as to be the Son not the Father.”
And I could go on. There’s many, many quotes from the pre- or the ante-Nicene ante [a-n-t-e] not anti, but a-n-t-e means just before the Nicene era. There are many ante-Nicene Fathers who affirm the deity of Christ. There are even a few heretics. I mentioned this before that Arius was not the first one who denied the deity of Christ. There were a few early heretics as early as the second century who thought that Jesus was merely a man. Like Theodotus, the leather merchant and Artemon, and so on. And also Paul of Samosata, who believed in something closer to Arius, that he was a divine pre-existent being of some sort, and then he was adopted as God’s Son. He was actually deposed from his office as a bishop in the year 268, which is several decades before the Council of Nicea.
So it’s not the case that the Trinity was created out of whole cloth at the Council of Nicea. The doctrine was there all along, and it was particularly there in [I mentioned] the baptismal creeds which were used in baptisms but also in the worship of the church. The early church worshipped Christ as divine. They called upon his name. They sang hymns in honor of him, they worshipped him as a divine Savior. And so the church always knew that Jesus was divine, but it took this heresy of Arianism to clarify exactly “how do we affirm that doctrine?” and “how does it connect with the fact that there is only one God?” We’re not saying there are three Gods, right? There’s only one God in three persons.
So God used this theological controversy and the long battle with Arianism, which continued even after the Nicene Creed, and continued from that period on all the way up until the year 381 at the Second Council. And that was during the time when Athanasius had his battles. Many of the emperors who succeeded Constantine were Arians, especially his son Sonstantius, and Athanasius was exiled five times from his office as the bishop of the church of Alexandria.
But in spite of all these battles, God used these battles to help give the church greater precision in its formulation. Not in its commitment, but in the formulation of this doctrine. The church was always committed to the doctrine, and always believed it, but through the battle with heresy the church came to greater precision in understanding the doctrine and how to formulate it, and how to defend it biblically.
And so we can thank God that he used the church and he used controversy in the church for good. Yes, there was much suffering, and much pain, and conflict, but God used it for good in the end. And so we, many years later now, can look back upon it and be thankful for it. And we can confess the words of the Nicene Creed along with these ancient Fathers of the church, and we can do so thankfully and joyfully, knowing [also] that we’re confessing what is biblically true.
And God then uses these things to bless us and even those who come much generations later. How many of us even know anything about what it was like to live in the Roman Empire of that time? We’re in different continents, in different cultures and different times, and yet even we can receive this inheritance, this legacy that God has given to us. And we can embrace it with a whole heart as we confess that Jesus is indeed the only begotten Son of God, and therefore of the same essence as the Father.
All right, so that is the first lecture on just a brief sketch of the doctrine of the Trinity in church history, and the next time we’re going to look at the biblical basis for it.