The Origins of the Trinity


It must be admitted by all, adherents as well as dissenters, that the full doctrine of the Trinity took several hundred years to define and formulate. More than a century after the last of the twelve apostles had died, the Church Fathers grappled with this dogma, trying to figure out in what fashion Yeshua (Jesus) could be GOD, or a God. Similar to the way that blasts from a hammer and chisel gradually begin to give form to a giant block of granite, so too the early Church fathers hammered out some sort of doctrine which we have come to know today as the Trinity.

The initial concept of some sort of Trinitarian formula may have originated from the passage at the close of Matthew's Gospel where Yeshua was commissioning His disciples.

MATTHEW 28:18-20 And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.

There has been much debate through the years as to whether or not this command for the disciples to baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit was actually spoken by the Lord. One reason for the hesitancy in accepting the passage as genuine, is the fact that we have no record of anyone ever carrying it out. Not once does a Biblical character baptize with this formula.

Nevertheless, the concept was widely accepted and practiced by the Church in the centuries following the apostolic era. The presumption that somehow all three (the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) were GOD eventually began to be proposed. Many came to believe that Yeshua was somehow divine, or godlike, yet it was not easy to reconcile that concept with scripture. Many theories were put forth over the succeeding years but no firm doctrine was accepted till late in the fourth century when the converted Roman emperor Constantine demanded that the Church come to some sort of agreement as to the nature of GOD with His Son.

Theophilus of Antioch (late in second century) was the first Christian of record to define the Trinity. His concept was that it represented God and HIS Word plus wisdom. After a few hundred years and a few hundred blasts from the chisel, a formula was finally decided upon which is still widely accepted today.

In this paper, we will attempt to track the development of the concept of the Trinity during these early years. In the massive work, The Rise of Christianity, consisting of over a thousand pages, W. H. C. Frend has compiled a detailed account of the history of the early Church. As such, he catalogues and chronicles the birth and growth of the concept of the Trinity throughout those early centuries. From his book, one can quickly yet thoroughly acquire an in-depth knowledge of how this mystery of the God-head came to be so widely accepted in the early Church. We will take advantage of Mr. Frend's labors and quote it numerous times in the following analysis.

Origen (185-254?) was probably the first, at least the earliest that we have a record of, where someone put forth the idea of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit representing some form of a trinity. We quote The Rise of Christianity from page 283. The [ ]'s represent my own insertions.

He himself [Origen] was prepared to strain even the concept of monotheism, not shrinking from describing to a surprised audience the deity in terms of "two Gods," united however in love and power. His definition, too, of the Holy Spirit as "the highest of the angels" opened the way to a veritable galaxy of angelic beings to whom the lesser deities of paganism could be likened. Embarrassing concessions to polytheism were avoided only after a debate on the nature of the Trinity that began c. 200 and did not end until the Council of Constantinople of 382.

Thus it was well over one hundred years after most if not all of the original apostles had died that this concept of the Father and Son being one GOD began to be proposed. That should cause us to pause and consider why such a supposedly important doctrine was of seemingly so little concern for so long a time.

Again, in The Rise of Christianity we quote from page 343.

In the Monarchian controversies between 200 and 230 a somewhat similar situation arose, with the disputes taking place both in Rome and in the cities of the province of Asia. Their importance lies in the fact that with them began the Trinitarian and christological controversies that dominated the history of the Christian doctrine in the next two centuries....But with the ever-lengthening delay in the Parousia the question had to be answered: How was Christ worshipped "as God"? What was his relation to the Father? How could the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in whose name the catechumen was baptized, be reconciled with monotheism?....

Noetus, a native of Polycarp's see of Smyrna, had been proclaiming (c. 200) that "Christ was the Father himself and the Father himself was born, suffered and died." He was reprimanded by the presbyters at Smyrna, but expostulated, "What evil then am I doing in glorifying Christ?" He left for Rome where a similar reception awaited him. Yet he had voiced what many Christians in the East felt and continued to feel, namely that in some way God really suffered on the cross for humanity.....Sabellius "the Libyan" (c. 200) ....claimed that the Trinity was a reality, but consisted of modes or aspects of one God: God as Father in the creation, as Son in redemption, and as Holy Spirit in prophecy and sanctification. There was one substance (hypostasis) but three activities (energeiai)- loaded words as they proved to be in the Arian controversy a hundred years later.

Two hundred years after Christ's earthly ministry, a heated discussion was being carried out concerning who Yeshua was, or is. Was He God and if so how? If Yeshua was God, then how does God die on the cross. Frend suggest that the controversy arose because of the long delay in Christ return. Perhaps, but it could also have arisen because Christ had already returned and gathered His Church into heaven, leaving no one around who actually knew and understood His true nature. That being the case, all kinds of crazy notions and concoctions could have been birthed.

We quote from page 344.

....Zephyrinus (199-217)....believed in his heart that God and Jesus Christ were undifferentiated and one, and though he realized that God could not "suffer" and "die," he had no idea how to distinguish the persons of the Trinity. His protégé and and successor, Callistus [217-222]...affirmed that the Godhead consisted of a single prosopon, that is, individual or person.

Believing that Yeshua and His Father were the same individual, created for these early Christians a complex and confusing hypothesis. It would take many decades to work it out. Again, from pages 344-345.

Hippolytus (c. 160-236) reached back to the Wisdom literature to argue that God could never be without his reason, wisdom, and power, and that his created Word became Christ at the incarnation, part of the Godhead but distinct from the Father. He was able therefore, to divide the Trinity according to function. There is indeed one God, he tells his audience in Against Noetus, for "the Father commands, the Son obeys, and the Holy Spirit gives understanding. The Father is over all, the Son is by all, and the Holy Spirit is in all."

It was he [Tertullian (c. 160-240)] rather than Hippolytus, in suggesting the possibility of community of substance between the persons of the Godhead, combined with distinction in "personality," who was to have the greater impact on the Trinitarian thought of the West.

There is no doubt that many of these thinkers were intelligent men. Howbeit, they were wrestling with a problem which was impossible to make much sense out of. Regardless, not all Church leaders sought a solution to the quandary. From page 346.

....Trinitarian theology never had a high priority in the thought of the North African church leaders....Fourth-century inscriptions if anything emphasize the subordination of Son to Father. God was "Omnipotent," Christ was "Savior."

Thus, these North African believers understood Christ as being subordinate to or inferior to the Father. As the Son was begotten of the Father, one would think that this was only logical, yet later believers were driven out of the Church for holding such beliefs, which incidentally Origen himself had professed.

From pages 376-377.

Again relying on Scripture, Origen defines the Son as reflecting "the glory of God and (bearing) the very stamp of his nature" (Heb. 1:3). His generation then, was "as eternal and everlasting as the brilliance produced by the sun." He belonged to the very nature of God and revealed himself to humankind as such. He was joined to God through the perfection of love (Principles II.6.4). And in his Homily on Ezekiel, Origen attributed the "passion of Love" to the Father himself. The Son, therefore, was "a second God," mediator between God and the divine powers, images, and aspects of God. He was less than God himself, therefore, but superior to all created beings, as he alone knew God and knew his will. The Holy Spirit, the first Being created by the Word, was followed by the creation of the world of spirits.

In reading of how some second and third century believers were trying to define the relationship between the Father and the Son, we must be ever mindful of the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. In this Trinitarian conception, not only must the Father and the Son somehow be equal, but this other part, or substance, or person, must also be equal with the other two. It goes without saying that rarely do these thinkers endeavor to base their conclusions on scripture. Again, from pages 385-386.

Beryllus of Bostra [around 240], for instance, was accused of  teaching that "the Lord did not pre-exist in an individual existence of his own before the incarnation, nor did he have a divinity of his own but only his Father's indwelling in him." This is what Paul [of Samosata, 200-275] was saying. Also, in the Acts of Archelaus (probably early fourth century), which record a debate between the bishop of Carrhae (?) and Mani c. 270, the former asserted, as did Paul [of Samosata], that Mary bore a man who was not made perfect until the dove descended on him at baptism.

As we shall see, Paul of Samosata's doctrine that Christ was not a God pre-existent, had to be totally rejected by the Trinitarian formula eventually adopted by Constantine's Church. Thus, the shifting doctrine of the Trinity was defined in vastly different ways by these early theologians. It is not as though Christ or His apostles taught the Trinity and then the Church Fathers passed down their teaching. Rather, the Church Fathers invented, altered, revised and assimilated the doctrine as the need arose.

From page 493.

None of the alternative theories regarding the relations between the persons of the Trinity were free from difficulty. If Adoptionism and Sabellianism were both unsatisfactory, Origen's ideas derived from the identification of the Son with the Divine Logos, the creative force in the universe linking God and creation, were also open to question. Apart from the arbitrary character of the Word's identification with Jesus, there was a profound philosophical difficulty. Logically, the Word could be interpreted as a "creature," unlike the Father subject to eternal generation. Though forever with the Father and sharing his essence, the fact of generation rendered the Word both different and subordinate to him.

Adoptionism was the belief that Yeshua was adopted as GOD's Son either at His baptism, resurrection or ascension. Sabellianism was the belief that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit were three distinct aspects of one God rather than three separate persons. Again, from pages 494-495.

We acknowledge, he [Arius] wrote to the Bishop Alexander of Alexandria (312-328), "One God who is alone unbegotten (agennetos) alone eternal and alone without beginning." From that premise he went on to assert that the Word was not only subordinate to the Father, but being begotten must have had a beginning of existence. Hence, it was clear that there was when the Son was not. Logically, therefore, "he had his existence from the non-existent." And if he was "made from nothing," he must be a "creature."....He accepted the idea of Christ's ethical development, his "growth in wisdom and stature," and the harmonization of his will with his Father's will, but he attributed this to the Divine Word itself. The latter entered a human body taking the place of the soul. In a piece of popular verse known as the Thalis or Banquet, Arius wrote:

The Logos is capable of change, as are we all, but of his own free-will he continues good so long as he wishes. He is capable of change even as we are, but God foreknowing that he would remain good, gave him in anticipation the glory which as a man and in consequence of his virtue he afterwards possessed. God from foreknowledge of his works made him what he afterwards was.

If Arius's definitions were correct, Christ could not have been fully God nor fully man [uh?].... Alexander was himself an Origenist, who believed in the distinction of the Unbegotten Father and the Word eternally generated by him, but with attributes parallel to those of the Father and sharing his nature. The Meletians, however....threatened to denounce him as a heretic unless he acted against Arius. Alexander gave way, and in 318-319 convoked a council of a hundred bishops at which Arius was condemned and exiled.

Unfortunately much of what we possess today of Arius' views are preserved only through the writings of his victorious enemies, so they must be read in that light. At any rate, his beliefs were totally rejected and thus he was condemned and exiled. Then from page 525.

Not altogether surprisingly after a generation of argument and under the stress of Julian's pagan reaction, the parties came to realize that "like in all respects" and "veritable image" must imply, as Athanasius argued, oneness (henotes) between Father and Son, and that homoousios could be used if combined with an explicit recognition of the distinction between the persons of the Trinity.

Athanasius (297-373) now arrives upon the scene to contribute his ideas. He is credited with much of the common definitions of the doctrine of the Trinity. It is quite astounding that so many details needed to be worked out and accepted by the Church leaders so as for this doctrine of the Trinity to seem coherent.

From page 530.

Interpreting Matt. 28:19, the mystery of the Trinity was represented as three individualities (hypostases) united by mutual harmony (homonoia) in a single will and each with its own function in the Godhead. If accepted, this formula could have had a profound and beneficial effect on the future history of the church, for it represented a meeting of Origenist and Antiochene ideas which could have led also to a rapprochement with the West.

The Christians Church had split between East and West over this Trinitarian doctrine, as well as a few other controversies, such as the date upon which Easter should be observed. Many attempts had been made over the years to re-unite them, but all to no avail. Again, from page 539.

From 356 onward, the search for the right formula was complicated by the emergence of a genuinely Arian movement....Between Athanasius on the one hand, and Aetius on the other, the emperor [Constantine] and the majority of the Christians found themselves engaged in an ever more exasperating quest for a formula on which they could agree. With hindsight one can see that in 357 the creed that has gone down in history as the Blasphemy of Sirmium nearly supplied the formula....The "second Creed of Sirmium" (in reality a declaration) set down the propositions that "there is one God Almighty and Father, as it is believed throughout the whole world; and his only Son Jesus Christ, the Lord, our Savior, begotten of the Father himself before all the ages." But there were not "two gods"; what can best be described as a prudent agnosticism was the only proper attitude toward the relation between the two divine beings. "Who shall declare his generation?" (Isa. 53:8, KJV) the framers quoted with satisfaction. Thus, there was to be no mention of homoousios or homoiousios nor should they be preached in church. All one could say was "that there is no question but that the Father is greater than the Son in honour, dignity, splendour and majesty," as the Son himself testified: "The Father is greater than I" (John 14:28). So the Son was subordinate to the Father and God only, it could be argued, in a secondary sense.

The chore in creating a formula that could be accepted as scriptural was immense. They were trying to define how Yeshua could be begotten and subservient to the Father and yet somehow equal, somehow not a creature which was created but co-eternal.

Constantine was becoming almost frantic to re-unite his empire and had pinned much of his hope on the Christian Church as a unifying element. He little realized how splintered they were. It required threat of force to secure most any agreement among them.

From pages 540-541.

Basil of Ancyra [died 362] was to prove as intolerant as Athanasius himself. Homoiousios showed itself to be a stick with which to beat the Anhomoeans. Sentences of exile against them mounted, but the emperor was not satisfied. He turned again to those who were prepared simply to accept that the Son was "like" the Father (the Homoians). Yet another Creed was worked out at Sirmium. Whatever its merits, in once more avoiding the term ousia as unscriptural, it stood condemned by its first lines. These started with a precise date, 22 May 359, asserting that on this day "the Catholic faith was published in the presence of our Master . . . Constantius Augustus- as though the faith had not originated with creation itself! Nonetheless, the essentials of the creed without the offending date were placed before assemblies of bishops that the emperor now summoned in East and West respectively.

The twin councils of Ariminum and Seleucia in Isauria were intended to be vast affairs and finish what Nicaea had set out to do, namely to define the Creed of Christendom....There the bishops were kept in cramped quarters through a stifling Italian summer until their moral collapsed. They signed. Christ was "like the Father" (homoios) without any attempt to define how. The words, "in all things" originally included were struck out. In October 359 also, the bishops at Seleucia reached the same conclusion, though amid deepening discord and division. Both synods were confirmed by a further meeting at Constantinople in January 360. It was a triumph for Valens and Ursacius. The world, wrote Jerome some twenty years later, "awoke with a groan to find itself Arian," a jaundiced view, for Constantius had at last brought East and West together to agree on a creed, though one which no conscientious Nicene could have recited. After every combination had been tried, Ariminum and Nicaea had emerged as the real alternatives as statements of faith.

Thus, this Trinitarian formula was not any where near something the Christians of the third and fourth centuries could wholly embrace and believe, let alone what Christ and His apostles had taught. It was for the most part all based on the necessity of the Roman emperor to unite his empire under a single banner. Again, from page 605.

...on 21 February 362, he [Athanasius] gathered together a council of twenty one bishops. These included representatives of the homoiousion and homoousion parties, his erstwhile opponents as well as his supporters. This council was probably his greatest triumph, for faced with the threat of the complete reversal of their situation, the Christian leaders were prepared to look at their differences again. What was their real meaning underlying the difference of language? Athanasius, as we have seen, was not a man for verbal formulas. "Like in all respects" must imply "of the same substance," and this time his argument prevailed. After thirty six years of argument the homoousion formula of Nicaea was accepted, with the explicit proviso that no Sabellianism was implied, and the Origenist distinction of the "individualities" or "manifestations" (hypostaseis) of the Persons of the Trinity was to be acknowledged. The Holy Spirit was recognized as coequal with the Father and the Son (for how else was the baptismal formula of the church to be understood?). In addition, the council discussed the emerging problem at Antioch of how, if Christ was of "one substance with the Father," he could also be of "one substance with us." Athanasius knew when to leave matters open. It was sufficient triumph that the full participation of Christ in the divine nature had been acknowledged. The former homoiousians became the "New Nicaea."

After now receiving an understanding of how the complicated doctrines of the Trinity came into being, it seems somewhat irrational to suppose that it could have originated in the Bible or with Yeshua and His apostles. The Church leaders of the fourth century were "faced with the threat of the complete reversal of their situation", which was to loose all of the privileges they enjoyed as the acknowledged religion of the State, and thus they finally came together to agree to something, anything that preserved their fortunes. 

From pages 631-632.

Though strongly anti-Subordinationist and a critic even of the ideas of Dionysius of Alexandria,  at heart he [Basil] accepted the Origen/Eusebian definition of the relation of Father to Son within the Godhead. In his Letter IX (c. 361) to Maximus the philosopher, who himself was interested in the views of Dionysius, Basil says, "If I may speak my own opinion, I accept the phrase 'like in substance' provided the qualification 'invariably' is added to it, on the grounds that it comes to the same thing as 'identity of substance,' according be it understood to the sound conception of the term." He never wavered from this. He accepted homoousios after 362 as the term sanctified by Nicaea. He acknowledged the coequality of the Three persons in the Trinity, on the grounds that baptism was in the name of all Three, and that if the Holy Spirit was "the finger of God," and demons were cast out by him, then he must also be God. Being "third in dignity" did not imply he was third in nature, a "creature" created by the Son.

It is all too obvious that these thinkers were struggling with one another to find the necessary language to define what they thought they believed. It seems as if they routinely introduced and floated concepts to see how they might be received and accepted by their piers. No one seems to have had a clear view or understanding of how the three persons of the Trinity could be one and the same yet independent of one another, so they continually reached out there into the darkness for that understanding. Again, from pages 637-638.

On 10 January 381 Theodosius issued a new edict proclaiming once more the sole orthodoxy of the Nicene faith, forbidding heretics the right of assembly, but omitting any reference to Damasus and Peter (or his successor Timothy, 380-385) as orthodox leaders. The "undivided substance" spoken of in the Creed of Nicaea was rendered correctly by the Greek term ousia.

Theodosius summoned an ecumenical council to meet in the capital in May 381. It was to confirm the decisions of Nicaea and find a new bishop for Constantinople. One hundred and fifty bishops, nearly all from Asia Minor and Syria, assembled and chose Meletius of Antioch to preside- significant of the change of heart at court, since Meletius was the man who remained obnoxious to the West and suspect in Alexandria. The condemnation of all forms of Arianism and Apollinarianism was accomplished without great trouble, though a considerable effort was made to win the support of those still uncertain how the relationship of the Spirit within the Trinity was to be defined (the "Macedonians"). Canon 1 of the council anathematized the catalog of offending opinions. The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed must have been agreed at the time also. This made slight but important changes in the christological section of the Creed of Nicaea. The fuller explanation of homoousios, "that is, from the substance of the Father," was omitted (not unwelcome to the "New Nicenes"), as well as "God from God," and "things in heaven and things on earth" (that is, the Don's creative work) were also left out, while some phrases, either scriptural or previously accepted homoiousian usage, such as, "before the ages" after "begotten of the Father," were inserted. It was a Cappadocian rather than an Athanasian statement. As Adolf van Harnack has pointed out, from that time on the community of substance in the sense of equality or likeness rather than that of unity was the orthodox doctrine of the East. Significant too of the fifty years of doctrinal debate was the new paragraph devoted to the Spirit. While not stating explicitly that the Spirit was of the same substance as the Father and Son, it elaborated his role (which Nicaea did not do), "Lord and giver of life," "who spoke through the prophets," in the beautiful and sonorous tones that survive translation.

Finally, after so many debates, the Church leaders were attempting to iron out a formula that defined some way in which the Holy Spirit could be a part of this Trinitarian doctrine. From page 640.

The argument with the Arians and Apollinarians continued and the resulting theological reasoning served orthodoxy well. Gregory of Nazianzus stressed the essential unity of the three divine individualities (hypostases). "The Godhead is worshipped in the Trinity and the Trinity is gathered into unity. It is worshipped as a whole, and has royal power sharing a single throne and a single glory. . . ." His friend, Basil's surviving brother, Gregory of Nyssa (d. circa 394/395), attempted to penetrate even deeper into the mystery of the inner unity and cooperation of the persons of the Trinity. Theology owes to him the concept of "coinherence," by which, while the Trinity was acknowledged as one in essence and unchanging in its nature, all three persons shared in its names, such as "God," "Savior," "Holy" or "Just," and "Judge." The only difference related to cause and to being caused- Son and Holy Spirit being caused by the Father, whose divinity they shared. The Godhead was one, even though various names might be used to describe the divine attributes, or "modes of existence." The combination of the mystical with the intellectual, intuition with reason, was to remain the greatest contribution of the Cappadocians to early Christianity.

It is curious that Frend writes that Gregory of Nyssa "attempted to penetrate even deeper into the mystery of the inner unity and cooperation of the persons of the Trinity". Even today the doctrine of the Trinity is considered a deep mystery of which few understand, if any. This reminds us of the apostle Paul writing to the Corinthians of the simplicity that is in Christ. Truth is simple, and when we depart from the truth, everything gets clouded and obscure.

When one creates a doctrine which is impossible to defend, much less define, the best that can often be done is to attack our opponent's character. We quote from page 762.

For two centuries, Antiochene and Alexandrian Christologies had been developing, when not in isolation, amid mutual suspicion. The results, we have seen, were two different understandings of the Person of Christ, whose representatives regarded each other with horror and loathing; "hatchers of serpent's eggs" had been the last Antiochene comment on Cyril and his supporters. But on deep consideration by both parties, urged on by the court, just sufficient ground for agreement emerged. If Christ indeed was One, and yet composed of "rational soul and body," he must be "out of two natures," for the "rationality" of the soul and body in itself involved "recognition of its own subsistence and nature." Cyril was prepared to acknowledge that in the act of mystic contemplation (theoria) the natures might be distinguished, yet at the same time, the union remained unconfused and the Son was always one and the same.

The Church fathers finally came to some sort of agreement, which has for the most part held sway up to our own times. And yet it can't go un-noticed how little of it was based upon Scripture. We don't object to anyone believing whatever they chose to believe about GOD, whether HE be of the Trinity, or of Buddha's god or Mohammad's god Allah. Our only gripe is when someone tries to propound that the doctrine of the Trinity is somehow from the Bible.

Finally, we quote from page 809.

....on 28 January 482, acting on his [Acacius] advice, Zeno dispatched a letter known to history as the Henotikon or instrument of unity to "the bishops, monks, and laymen of Alexandria, Egypt and Cyrenaica." It aimed at reconciling Alexandria and Constantinople and healing the schism in the church in Egypt that had followed the deposition of Dioscorus by the Council of Chalcedon thirty years before. Zeno and Acacius were prepared therefore to concede practically every point of consequence to the anti-Chalcedonians, so long as Chalcedon itself was not rejected. Thus, the emperor assured the Egyptians that "both we and the churches everywhere neither have held nor hold nor shall hold, nor know persons who hold" a creed other than Nicaea, confirmed by Constantinople and Ephesus I. Nestorius and Eutyches were alike condemned, but Cyril's twelve Anathemas were to be received as canonical. It was to be confessed that Jesus Christ, "incarnate from the Holy Spirit and Mary the Virgin and Theotokos, is one and not two, for we say that both his miracles and his suffering which he willingly underwent in the flesh are of one person." Anyone who thought anything else now or at any time, at Chalcedon or at any other synod was anathema.

It would appear that their anathema, their declaration of condemnation, was for all practical purposes issued against Yeshua and His apostles, for surely none of them believed as did these fifth century Churchmen.

Nevertheless, we trust that the reader has herein been provided with an adequate history of the Trinity so as to be able to acknowledge for himself its origins.

Before we part, consider this one question. How could the Church of the second and third centuries not understand what exactly was Yeshua's relationship to His Father? How could they not know? Didn't Timothy teach faithful men as Paul had commanded him to? And then didn't they teach others also? What would have been more important for them to understand then the true nature of Yeshua to His Father? I know, that is more than one question, but doesn't it all boil down to the same question? When did they loose the knowledge that the first century Church had? I propose that it was in A.D. 70 when Christ returned and gathered together His Church.

For further reading, see Whatever Happened to Timothy.