Philip Schaff: Ante-Nicene Christianity: The Trinity

§ 149. The Holy Trinity.

Comp. the works quoted in §144, especially Petravius, Bull, Bau, and Dorner.

Here now we have the elements of the dogma of the Trinity, that is, the doctrine of the living, only true God, Father, Son, and Spirit, of whom, through whom, and to whom are all things.

This dogma has a peculiar, comprehensive, and definitive import in the Christian system, as a brief summary of all the truths and blessings of revealed religion. Hence the baptismal formula (Matt. 28:19), which forms the basis of all the ancient creeds, is trinitarian; as is the apostolic benediction also (2 Cor. 13:14).

This doctrine meets us in the Scriptures, however, not so much in direct statements and single expressions, of which the two just mentioned are the clearest, as in great living facts;

in the history of a threefold revelation of the living God in the creation and government, the reconciliation and redemption, and the sanctification and consummation of the world--a history continued in the experience of Christendom.

In the article of the Trinity the Christian conception of God completely defines itself,

in distinction alike from the abstract monotheism of the Jewish religion,

and from the polytheism and dualism of the heathen.

It has accordingly been looked upon in all ages as the sacred symbol and the fundamental doctrine of the Christian church, with the denial of which the divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit, and the divine character of the work of redemption and sanctification, fall to the ground.

On this scriptural basis and the Christian consciousness of a threefold relation we sustain to

God as our
Redeemer, and

the church dogma of the Trinity arose; and it directly or indirectly ruled even the ante-Nicene theology though it did not attain its fixed definition till in the Nicene age.

It is primarily of a practical religious nature, and speculative only in a secondary sense.

It arose not from the field of metaphysics,

but from that of experience and worship;

and not as an abstract, isolated dogma, but in inseparable connection with the study of Christ and of the Holy Spirit; especially in connection with Christology, since all theology proceeds from "God in Christ reconciling the world unto himself."

Under the condition of monotheism, this doctrine followed of necessity from the doctrine of the divinity of Christ and of the Holy Spirit.

The unity of God was already immovably fixed by the Old Testament as a fundamental article of revealed religion in opposition to all forms of idolatry.

But the New Testament and the Christian consciousness as firmly demanded faith in the divinity of the Son, who effected redemption, and of the Holy Spirit, who founded the church and dwells in believers;

and these apparently contradictory interests could be reconciled only in the form of the Trinity; 1 that is,

by distinguishing in the one and indivisible essence of God 2

three hypostases or persons; 3 3 trei'" upostavsei" , triva provswpa, personae.
at the same time allowing for the
insufficiency of all human conceptions and words to describe such an unfathomable mystery.

The Socinian and rationalistic opinion, that the church doctrine of the Trinity sprang from Platonism 4 and Neo-Platonism 5 is therefore radically false.

The Indian Trimurti, altogether pantheistic in spirit, is still further from the Christian Trinity. Only thus much is true,

that the Hellenic philosophy operated from without, as a stimulating force, upon the form of the whole patristic theology,

the doctrines of the Logos and the Trinity among the rest;
and that the
deeper minds of heathen antiquity showed a presentiment of a threefold distinction in the divine essence:
but only a remote and vague presentiment which, like all the deeper instincts of the heathen mind, serves to strengthen the Christian truth.

Far clearer and more fruitful suggestions presented themselves in the Old Testament, particularly in the doctrines of the Messiah, of the Spirit, of the Word, and of the Wisdom of God, and even in the system of symbolical numbers, which rests on the sacredness of the numbers three (God), four (the world), seven and twelve (the union of God and the world, hence the covenant numbers.

But the mystery of the Trinity could be fully revealed only in the New Testament after the completion of the work of redemption and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The historical manifestation of the Trinity is the condition of the knowledge of the Trinity.

Again, it was primarily the Economic or transitive trinity, which the church had in mind; that is,

the trinity of the revelation of God in the threefold work of creation, redemption, and sanctification;

the trinity presented in the apostolic writings as a living fact.

But from this, in agreement with both reason and Scripture, the immanent or ontologic trinity was inferred; that is, an eternal distinction in the essence of God itself, which reflects itself in his revelation,

and can be understood only so far as it manifests itself in his works and words.

The divine nature thus came to be conceived, not as an abstract, blank unity, but as an infinite fulness of life;
and the Christian idea of God (as John of Damascus has remarked) in this respect

combined Jewish monotheism
with the truth which
lay at the bottom of even the heathen polytheism, though distorted and defaced there beyond recognition.

Then for the more definite illustration of this trinity of essence, speculative church teachers of subsequent times appealed to all sorts of analogies in nature, particularly in the sphere of the finite mind, which was made after the image of the divine, and thus to a certain extent authorizes such a parallel. They found a sort of triad in the universal law of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis; in the elements of the syllogism; in the three persons of grammar; in the combination of body, soul, and spirit in man; in the three leading faculties of the soul; in the nature of intelligence and knowledge as involving a union of the thinking subject and the thought object; and in the nature of love, as likewise a union between the loving and the loved. 6  These speculations began with Origen and Tertullian; they were pursued by Athanasius and Augustin; by the scholastics and mystics of the Middle Ages; by Melanchthon, and the speculative Protestant divines down to Schleiermacher, Rothe and Dorner, as well as by philosophers from Böhme to Hegel; and they are not yet exhausted, nor will be till we reach the beatific vision. For the holy Trinity, though the most evident, is yet the deepest of mysteries, and can be adequately explained by no analogies from finite and earthly things.

As the doctrines of the divinity of Christ and of the Holy Spirit

were but imperfectly developed in logical precision in the ante-Nicene period,
doctrine of the Trinity, founded on them, cannot be expected to be more clear.

We find it first in the most simple biblical and practical shape in all the creeds of the first three centuries: which, like the Apostles' and the Nicene, are based on the baptismal formula, and hence arranged in trinitarian order. Then it appears in the trinitarian doxologies used in the church from the first; such as occur even in the epistle of the church at Smyrna on the martyrdom of Polycarp. 7 Clement of Rome "God, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit" the object of "the faith and hope of the elect." 8  The sentiment, that we rise through the Holy Spirit to the Son, through the Son to the Father, belongs likewise to the age of the immediate disciples of the apostles. 9

Justin Martyr repeatedly places Father, Son, and Spirit together as objects of divine worship among the Christians (though not as being altogether equal in dignity),

and imputes to Plato a presentiment of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Athenagoras confesses his faith in Father, Son, and Spirit, who are one as to power (kata; duvnamin), but whom he distinguishes as to order or dignity (tavxi") in subordinatian style.

Theophilus of Antioch (180) is the first to denote the relation of the three divine persons 10 by the term Triad.

Origen conceives the Trinity as three concentric circles, of which each succeeding one circumscribes a smaller area. God the Father acts upon all created being; the Logos only upon the rational creation; the Holy Ghost only upon the saints in the church. But the sanctifying work of the Spirit leads back to the Son, and the Son to the Father, who is consequently the ground and end of all being, and stands highest in dignity as the compass of his operation is the largest.

Irenaeus goes no further than the baptismal formula and the trinity of revelation; proceeding on the hypothesis of three successive stages in the development of the kingdom of God on earth, and of a progressive communication of God to the world. He also represents the relation of the persons according to Eph. 4:6; the Father as above all, and the head of Christ; the Son as through all, and the head of the church; the Spirit as in all, and the fountain of the water of life. 11  Of a supramundane trinity of essence he betrays but faint indications.

Tertullian advances a step. He supposes a distinction in God himself; and on the principle that the created image affords a key to the uncreated original, he illustrates the distinction in the divine nature by the analogy of human thought; the necessity of a self-projection, or of making one's self objective in word, for which he borrows from the Valentinians the term probolhv, or prolatio rei alterius ex altera, 12 but without connecting with it the sensuous emanation theory of the Gnostics. Otherwise he stands, as already observed, on subordinatian ground, if his comparisons of the trinitarian relation to that of root, stem, and fruit; or fountain, flow, and brook; or sun, ray, and raypoint, be dogmatically pressed. 13  Yet he directly asserts also the essential unity of the three persons.. 14

Tertullian was followed by the schismatic but orthodox Novatian, the author of a special treatise De Trinitate, drawn from the Creed, and fortified with Scripture proofs against the two classes of Monarchians.

The Roman bishop Dionysius (A. D. 262), a Greek by birth, 15 stood nearest the Nicene doctrine. He maintained distinctly, in the controversy with Dionysius of Alexandria,

at once the unity of essence and the real personal distinction of the three members of the divine triad,

and avoided tritheism, Sabellianism, and subordinatianism with the instinct of orthodoxy, and also with the art of anathematizing already familiar to the popes.

His view has come down to us in a fragment in Athanasius, where it is said: "Then I must declare against those who annihilate the most sacred doctrine of the church by

dividing and dissolving the unity of God into three powers, separate hypostases, and three deities.

This notion [some tritheistic view, not further known to us] is just the opposite of the opinion of Sabellius. For while the latter would introduce the impious doctrine, that the Son is the same as the Father, and the converse, the former teach in some sense three Gods, by dividing the sacred unity into three fully separate hypostases. But the divine Logos must be inseparably united with the God of all, and in God also the Holy Ghost must dwell so that the divine triad must be comprehended in one, viz. the all-ruling God, as in a head." 16  Then Dionysius condemns the doctrine, that the Son is a creature, as "the height of blasphemy," and concludes:

"The divine adorable unity must not be thus cut up into three deities; no more may the transcendant dignity and greatness of the Lord be lowered by saying, the Son is created; but we must believe in God the almighty Father, and in Jesus Christ his Son, and in the Holy Ghost, and must consider the Logos inseparably united with the God of all; for he says, 'I and my Father are one'; and 'I am in the Father and the Father in me.' In this way are both the divine triad and the sacred doctrine of the unity of the Godhead preserved inviolate."

1 triav", first in Theophilus; trinitas, first in Tertullian; from the fourth century more distinctly monotriav" , mona;" ejn travdi, triunitas.

2 oujsiva, fuvsi", substantia; sometimes also, inaccurately, uJpovstasi" .

3 trei'" upostavsei" , triva provswpa, personae.

4 Comp. Plato, Ep. 2 and 6, which, however, are spurious or doubtful. Legg. IV. p. 185: JO qeo;" ajrchvn te kai; teleuth;n kai; mesa; tw'n o[ntwn aJpavntwn e[cwn.

5 Plotinus (in Enn. V. 1) and Porphyry (in Cyril. Alex. c. Jul.) who, however, were already unconsciously affected by Christian ideas, speak of trei'" uJpostavsei" but in a sense altogether different from that of the church.

6 "Ubi amor, ibi trinitas," says St. Augustin.

7 C. 14, where Polycarp concludes his prayer at the stake with the words, di ou|(i.e. Christ) soiv (i.e. the Father), sun aujtw'/ (Christ) kai; Pneuvmati aJgivw/ dovxa kai; nu'n kai; eiv" tou;'" mevllonta" aijw'na"Comp. at the end of c. 22: oJ kuvrios jIh". Cristov"... w|/ hJ dovxa, su;n Patri; kai; aJgivw/ Pneuvmati, eij" tou;'" aijw'na" tw'n aijw'nwn.. "Dominus Jesus Christus, cui sit gloria cum Patre et Spiritu Sancto in sĪcula sĪcutorum. Amen."I quote the text from Funk, Patr. Apost. I. 298 and 308.

8 In the Const. MS. Ad Cor. 58: zh'/ oJ qeo;" kai; zh'/ oJ kuvrios jIhsou'" Cristo;" kai; to; pneu'ma a{gion, h{ te pivsti" kai; hJ ejlpi;" tw'n eklektw'n."As surely as God liveth ... so surely, " etc.

9 In Irenaeus: Adv. Haer. V. 36, 2.

10 qeov", Lovgo" and Sofiva. By Sofiva, like Irenaeus, he means the Holy Spirit.

11 Adv. Haer. V. 18, 2.

12 Adv. Praxean, c. 8.

13 "Tertius"--says he, Adv. Prax. c. 8--"est Spiritus a Deo et Filio, sicut tertius a radice fructus ex frutice, et tertius a fonte rivus ex flumine, et tertius a sole apex ex radio. Nihil tamen a matrice alienatur, a qua proprietates suas ducit. Ita trinitas [here this word appears for the first time, comp. c. 2: oijkonomivaquae unitatem in trinitatem disponit] per consertos [al. consortes] et connexos gradus a Patre decurrens et monarchioe nihil obstrepit et oijkonomiva"statum protegit."

14 C. 2: "Tres autem non statu, sed gradu, nec substantia, sed forma, nec potestate, sed specie, unius autem substantiae, et unius status, et unius potestatis, quia unus Deus, ex quo et gradus isti et formae et species, in nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti deputantur."

15 Nothing is known of him except his effective effort against the Sabellian heresy. He was consecrated after the death of Xystus, July 22, 259, during the persecution of Valerian. He acted with Dionysius of Alexandria in condemning and degrading Paul of Samosata, in 264. He died Dec. 26, 269.

16 Th;n qeivan triavda eij" e{na w{sper eij" korufhvn tina (to;n qeo;n tw'n o{lwn, to;n pantokravtora levgw)sunkefalaiou'sqaiv te kai; sunavgesqai pa'sa ajnavgkh. Athanasius, De Sent. Dionysii, c. 4 sqq. (Opera, I. 252); De Decr. Syn. Nic. 26 (Routh, Reliqu. Sacrae, iii. p. 384, ed. alt.).



Church Index

Home Page