Three in One: A Heresy-Free Exploration of the Trinity

As I work through my first semester at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, I have neglected this blog (I do a lot of writing in seminary, y’all!). The following post is an academic blog I wrote for my Church History I course on the Trinity in the early church. It’s longer than I normally post and there aren’t any pictures, but someone who I love and respect encouraged me to post it here…and so let’s do it. 

In Christian churches today, one will hear the Trinity invoked – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Protestant, Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox, the Trinity is accepted by virtually all Christians around the world. Yet the doctrine of the Trinity was not always articulated in a way united the Christian church; in reality it emerged over a number of years and through a number of controversies. As the early Church began to develop its identity in the first few centuries, a major issue quickly surfaced that sparked deep discussion about the Trinity: how could Christians reconcile the worship of Jesus with a claim of monotheism? To Jewish eyes, the worship of Jesus looked like the worship of a second god; Christians were pressed to explain Jesus Christ in a way that preserved monotheism. Though the theologian Tertullian would not offer the term Trinitas, or “Trinity” until the early third century, Christian theologians were already beginning to talk of God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit as a Trinity in the second century. For example, Theophilus of Antioch talked about God as triados, or “triad,” the first person being God the Father, the second person Son of God or Logos, and the third person the Holy Spirit. The foundation of the doctrine of the Trinity was built early in the Church’s life, and was ready to be expanded upon.

As the church developed an understanding of the Trinity, two extreme understandings emerged that attempted to preserve the “oneness” of God by denying one of the two natures of Jesus Christ. On one side, the adoptionists believed Jesus was just a regular man who managed to be perfectly obedient to God, thus denying Jesus’ divinity. The adoptionists wanted to say that Jesus was not God, that “the only difference between Jesus and the rest of us was that he was able to be perfectly obedient to God, and as a result, God adopted him as Son.” Only with the adoption by God did Jesus obtain any divinity, and even then the divinity Jesus received, as a reward for his obedience, was lesser than the Father’s divinity.

At the other end of the spectrum, the modalists viewed Jesus as the same as the Father, the distinction being in name only and thus denying Jesus’ humanity. The modalists believed that naming God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was actually naming the activities or modes of God, not the nature of God. For the modalists, this preserved the oneness of God; “since ‘Jesus’ was nothing more than another name for the Father,” worshipping Jesus the Son is still worshipping the Father because those are just two names for the same thing.

With the rise of the adoptionists and the modalists, the mainstream church was forced to define an orthodox understanding of the Trinity. It is now, around the turn of the third century, the doctrine of the Trinity begins to become clearer. Just before the beginning of the third century, Irenaeus of Lyons was “the first to say explicitly that the Father and Son are one and the same essence” while also recognizing a hierarchy of authority within the Trinity. Just a few decades later, Tertullian offered the terms Trinitas, persona, or person, and substantia, or substance, to talk about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; using language from Irenaeus and Tertullian, an orthodox articulation of the Trinity is that it is three persons who are all of the same substance, or essence. This refuted adoptionism because the Son, or Jesus, is of the same divine substance as the Father and could not have been merely a man, highlighting the oneness of God; this articulation also countered modalism because the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not three modes of God but are three persons, emphasizing the threeness of God.

Another third century theologian, Novatian, also offered a significant contribution to the doctrine of the Trinity in a document that stated “in order to experience full humanity, Christ voluntarily and temporarily chose not to exercise these divine attributes;” this concept of kenosis, or emptying, allows for the full humanity of Christ in addition to but not replacing full divinity. Novatian’s treatise on the Trinity is also significant because it begins to articulate eternal generation or eternal begetting of Christ, the concept the Son, though contingent on the Father’s existence, is just as divine and eternal as the Father.

Tertullian and the theologians responding to adoptionism and modalism were attempting to articulate the balance of unity and distinction within the Trinity. Another way to talk about this balance is to use the terms “consubstantial,” “inseparable operation,” and “appropriation.” To say that Trinity is “consubstantial” means that it is one in substance and the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are of the same divinity. What follows is “inseparable operation,” that all persons of the Trinity are involved in all divine activities. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not off doing three different things, but are three persons each with a few unique qualities. “Appropriation” is another concept that addresses the balance between unity and distinction, and it means that whatever is said about one person of the Trinity can be said about all persons of the Trinity, which a few exceptions. These exceptions are that the Father is unbegotten, the Son is begotten and incarnate, and the Holy Spirit proceeds. It is important to know that “unbegotten” means not created by anything, while “begotten” in this case does not mean created but generated. This understanding will be clarified by the mainstream church in response to the Arian Controversy, which will be discussed below. With this understanding of appropriation and begotten/unbegotten, it would be orthodox to name the Trinity as Unbegotten, Begotten, and Proceeder but naming the Trinity as Creator, Savior, and Sustainer would be modalism, a heresy, because all three persons are all Creator, Savior, and Sustainer.

Though the mainstream church had begun developing a more detailed doctrine of the Trinity, modalism and adoptionism still had a hold on a number of Christians. The fourth century saw another situation forcing the church to further clarify orthodoxy, and that situation was the Arian Controversy. Arius was a priest in Alexandria who was preaching a form of adoptionism in the early fourth century. Arius taught that because Jesus suffered he could not be divine or eternal in the past, and while the Logos preexists the rest of creation, it was created. For Arius, “begotten” means “created,” the Son of God is only Son by adoption, and there is an ontological separation of the Father and the Son. Arius’ Jesus was perfectly obedient to God and was granted quasi-divinity, acting as an example for all humanity. Thus Arius recognized a hierarchy of divinity and argued the unity in the Trinity as a unity of wills, not substance.

Refuting Arius was Alexander, bishop of Alexandria. Alexander was preaching eternal generation of the Son, meaning the Son is co-eternal with the Father because there was not a moment at which the Son was created. Athanasius of Alexandria, Alexander’s right hand man and future bishop, backed Alexander and offered this mainstream response to Arius: the Son is begotten from the Father, “begotten” meaning the Son was not created but whose existence is contingent on the Father, and only the human nature of Christ suffered, preserving the doctrine of divine immutability. The Son of God is the natural Son of God, of the same substance, and is co-eternal with the Father, which means the hierarchy of the Trinity is one of authority not divinity. Jesus Christ was not simply an example for human obedience but a divine intervention for all humanity. Thus the mainstream church, as represented by Athanasius and Alexander, say the unity of the Trinity is a unity of substance.

This mainstream position against Arianism was presented at a synod, or regional council, in Alexandria and resulted in Arius’ excommunication and banishment from Alexandria. Arius did not give up so easily and appealed to the bishop of Nicomedia, Eusebius, who supported Arius and reconciled Arius at a synod in Nicomedia. With opposing bishops and opposing synods, and no sign of reconciliation from either side, the emperor Constantine called an ecumenical council to deal with the Arians. In 325 CE, the first ecumenical, or world wide, council and the first council called by an emperor was convened in Nicaea.

The Council of Nicaea produced the first version of what is now called the Nicene Creed (the creed as it is known today was not finished until 381 CE at the Council of Constantinople) and was based on the baptismal creed of Caesarea, offered by Eusebius of Caesarea. Eusebius’ creed was orthodox yet vague enough that the Arians could interpret it as supporting their position. Thus there needed to be a statement that emphasized the divinity and eternalness of Jesus Christ so much that the Arians could not possibly agree. This was done by using the Greek word homoousios, which means “one in being” or of the same essence; when homoousios is translated into English via Latin, the result is consubstantial, or same substance. By using the word homoousios in the Creed of Nicaea, the mainstream church solidified the boundaries between what was an orthodox understanding of the Trinity and what was not. The use of homoousios was also significant because it was the first time the Church had to look outside of the Scriptures for interpretation and therefore implying that it was not enough to use only Scripture to interpret Scripture.

Wondering where the Holy Spirit is in all the discussion of the Trinity? In the first few centuries of the Church, the main concern was reconciling the figure of Jesus with the immutability of God while preserving the oneness of God, and that was the main task of the bishops and councils. This does not mean theologians were not talking about the Holy Spirit: Justin Martyr had named the Spirit in the third place of the Trinity and both Tertullian and Novatian had “affirmed the divine personhood of the Holy Spirit” in the third century. Attention does turn to the Holy Spirit after the Council of Nicaea, when a group that comes to be known as the Macedonians used Arius’ arguments to deny divinity to the Spirit. At the Council of Constantinople in 381 CE, this question of the Holy Spirit’s divinity was considered and the orthodox position was that like the Son: the Holy Spirit is equal in divinity and eternity to the Father. By the end of the Council of Constantinople, the Nicene Creed had been expanded to include a more detailed section affirming the divinity of the Holy Spirit and placing the Macedonians outside of the lines of orthodoxy.

As the Church grew and alternative interpretations emerged, the mainstream church was forced to define orthodoxy and set boundaries. The Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was one of the first major theological issues to be dealt with. After many letters, synods, and two ecumenical councils, the early Church’s position on the Trinity was this: there are three persons of the Trinity who share a divine substance and thus the hierarchy of the Trinity is one of authority, not divinity; these three persons of the Trinity are the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and anything that is said about one person of the Trinity can be said about all persons of the Trinity with a few exceptions. The doctrine of the Trinity is all about balance, the balance of unity with distinction, of oneness with threeness. Lean too far one way and either the unity or distinction is lost, but stay in the middle and the Trinity will thrive.

Looking to read more? Here are the sources I used in this work:

“The Arian Controversy,” YouTube video, 108:18, posted by “JimPapandrea,” March 26, 2012 [].

Papandrea, James L. “First Theologians.” Class lecture, History of Christian Thought and Practice 1 from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, IL, September 22, 2014.

Papandrea, James L. Reading the Early Church Fathers: from the Didache to Nicaea. New York: Paulist Press, 2012.

Papandrea, James L. Trinity 101: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Liguori, MO: Liguori Publications, 2012.

Tertullian, The Apology.


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