Did the Early Church Teach That God Is a Trinity?
Part 3—Did the Apologists Teach the Trinity Doctrine?
In its issues of November 1, 1991, and February 1, 1992, The Watchtower showed that the Trinity doctrine was not taught by Jesus and his disciples nor by the Apostolic Fathers of the late first and early second centuries C.E. Did churchmen later in the second century teach it?
FROM near the middle of the second century of our Common Era through its end, there appeared churchmen who are today called Apologists. They wrote to defend the Christianity they knew against hostile philosophies prevalent in the Roman world of that time. Their work came toward the end of, and after, the writings of the Apostolic Fathers.
Among the Apologists who wrote in Greek were Justin Martyr, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria. Tertullian was an Apologist who wrote in Latin. Did they teach modern Christendom’s Trinity—three coequal persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) in a Godhead, each being true God, yet there being not three Gods but one God?
“The Son Is Subordinate”
Dr. H. R. Boer, in his book A Short History of the Early Church, comments on the thrust of the Apologists’ teaching:
“Justin [Martyr] taught that before the creation of the world God was alone and that there was no Son. . . . When God desired to create the world, . . . he begot another divine being to create the world for him. This divine being was called . . . Son because he was born; he was called Logos because he was taken from the Reason or Mind of God. . . .
“Justin and the other Apologists therefore taught that the Son is a creature. He is a high creature, a creature powerful enough to create the world but, nevertheless, a creature. In theology this relationship of the Son to the Father is called subordinationism. The Son is subordinate, that is, secondary to, dependent upon, and caused by the Father. The Apologists were subordinationists.”1
In the book The Formation of Christian Dogma, Dr. Martin Werner says of the earliest understanding of the relationship of the Son to God:
“That relationship was understood unequivocally as being one of ‘subordination’, i.e. in the sense of the subordination of Christ to God. Wherever in the New Testament the relationship of Jesus to God, the Father, is brought into consideration, . . . it is conceived of and represented categorically as subordination. And the most decisive Subordinationist of the New Testament, according to the Synoptic record, was Jesus himself . . . This original position, firm and manifest as it was, was able to maintain itself for a long time. ‘All the great pre-Nicene theologians represented the subordination of the Logos to God.’”2
In agreement with this, R. P. C. Hanson, in The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, states:
“There is no theologian in the Eastern or the Western Church before the outbreak of the Arian Controversy [in the fourth century], who does not in some sense regard the Son as subordinate to the Father.”3
Dr. Alvan Lamson, in The Church of the First Three Centuries, adds this testimony regarding the teaching of church authorities before the Council of Nicaea (325 C.E.):
“The inferiority of the Son was generally, if not uniformly, asserted by the ante-Nicene Fathers . . . That they viewed the Son as distinct from the Father is evident from the circumstance that they plainly assert his inferiority. . . . They considered him distinct and subordinate.”4
Similarly, in the book Gods and the One God, Robert M. Grant says the following about the Apologists:
“The Christology of the apologies, like that of the New Testament, is essentially subordinationist. The Son is always subordinate to the Father, who is the one God of the Old Testament. . . . What we find in these early authors, then, is not a doctrine of the Trinity . . . Before Nicaea, Christian theology was almost universally subordinationist.”5
Christendom’s Trinity teaches that the Son is equal to God the Father in eternity, power, position, and wisdom. But the Apologists said that the Son was not equal to God the Father. They viewed the Son as subordinate. That is not the Trinity teaching.
Reflecting First-Century Teaching
The Apologists and other early Church Fathers reflected to a great degree what first-century Christians taught about the relationship of the Father and the Son. Note how this is expressed in the book The Formation of Christian Dogma:
“In the Primitive Christian era there was no sign of any kind of Trinitarian problem or controversy, such as later produced violent conflicts in the Church. The reason for this undoubtedly lay in the fact that, for Primitive Christianity, Christ was . . . a being of the high celestial angel-world, who was created and chosen by God for the task of bringing in, at the end of the ages, . . . the Kingdom of God.”6
Further regarding the teaching of the earlier Church Fathers, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia admits:
“In the earliest thinking of the Church the tendency when speaking of God the Father is to conceive of Him first, not as the Father of Jesus Christ, but as the source of all being. Hence God the Father is, as it were, God par excellence. To Him belong such descriptions as unoriginate, immortal, immutable, ineffable, invisible, and ingenerate. It is He who has made all things, including the very stuff of creation, out of nothing. . . .
“This might seem to suggest that the Father alone is properly God and the Son and Spirit are only secondarily so. Many early statements appear to support this.”7
While this encyclopedia goes on to downplay these truths and to claim that the Trinity doctrine was accepted in that early period, the facts belie the claim. Consider the words of famed Catholic theologian John Henry Cardinal Newman:
“Let us allow that the whole circle of doctrines, of which our Lord is the subject, was consistently and uniformly confessed by the Primitive Church . . . But it surely is otherwise with the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity. I do not see in what sense it can be said that there is a consensus of primitive [church authorities] in its favour . . .
“The Creeds of that early day make no mention . . . of the [Trinity] at all. They make mention indeed of a Three; but that there is any mystery in the doctrine, that the Three are One, that They are coequal, coeternal, all increate, all omnipotent, all incomprehensible, is not stated, and never could be gathered from them.”8
What Justin Martyr Taught
One of the earliest Apologists was Justin Martyr, who lived from about 110 to 165 C.E. None of his extant writings mention three coequal persons in one God.
For example, according to the Catholic Jerusalem Bible, Proverbs 8:22-30 says of the prehuman Jesus: “Yahweh created me when his purpose first unfolded, before the oldest of his works. . . . The deep was not, when I was born . . . Before the hills, I came to birth . . . I was by his [God’s] side, a master craftsman.” Discussing these verses, Justin says in his Dialogue With Trypho:
“The Scripture has declared that this Offspring was begotten by the Father before all things created; and that that which is begotten is numerically distinct from that which begets, any one will admit.”9
Since the Son was born from God, Justin does use the expression “God” in connection with the Son. He states in his First Apology: “The Father of the universe has a Son; who also, being the first-begotten Word of God, is even God.”10 The Bible also refers to the Son of God by the title “God.” At Isaiah 9:6 he is called “Mighty God.” But in the Bible, angels, humans, false gods, and Satan are also called “gods.” (Angels: Psalm 8:5; compare Hebrews 2:6, 7. Humans: Psalm 82:6. False gods: Exodus 12:12; 1 Corinthians 8:5. Satan: 2 Corinthians 4:4.) In the Hebrew Scriptures, the word for “God,” ʼEl, simply means “Mighty One” or “Strong One.” The equivalent in the Greek Scriptures is the·osʹ.
Moreover, the Hebrew term used at Isaiah 9:6 shows a definite distinction between the Son and God. There the Son is called “Mighty God,” ʼEl Gib·bohrʹ, not “Almighty God.” That term in Hebrew is ʼEl Shad·daiʹ and applies uniquely to Jehovah God.
Note, however, that while Justin calls the Son “God,” he never says that the Son is one of three equal persons, each of whom is God but the three forming only one God. Instead, he says in his Dialogue With Trypho:
“There is . . . another God and Lord [the prehuman Jesus] subject to the Maker of all things [Almighty God]; who [the Son] is also called an Angel, because He [the Son] announces to men whatsoever the Maker of all things—above whom there is no other God—wishes to announce to them. . . .
“[The Son] is distinct from Him who made all things,—numerically, I mean, not [distinct] in will.”11
An interesting passage occurs in Justin’s First Apology, chapter 6, where he defends against the pagan charge that Christians are atheists. He writes:
“Both Him [God], and the Son (who came forth from Him and taught us these things, and the host of other good angels who follow and are made like to Him), and the prophetic Spirit, we worship and adore.”12
A translator of this passage, Bernhard Lohse, comments: “As if it were not enough that in this enumeration angels are mentioned as beings which are honored and worshiped by Christians, Justin does not hesitate to mention angels before naming the Holy Spirit.”13—See also An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.14
Thus, while Justin Martyr appears to have departed from pure Bible doctrine in the matter of who should be the object of a Christian’s worship, he clearly did not view the Son as equal to the Father, any more than the angels were considered to be His equal. Regarding Justin, we quote again from Lamson’s Church of the First Three Centuries:
“Justin regarded the Son as distinct from God, and inferior to him: distinct, not, in the modern sense, as forming one of three hypostases, or persons, . . . but distinct in essence and nature; having a real, substantial, individual subsistence, separate from God, from whom he derived all his powers and titles; being constituted under him, and subject in all things to his will. The Father is supreme; the Son is subordinate: the Father is the source of power; the Son the recipient: the Father originates; the Son, as his minister or instrument, executes. They are two in number, but agree, or are one, in will; the Father’s will always prevailing with the Son.”15
In addition, nowhere does Justin say that the holy spirit is a person equal to the Father and to the Son. So in no sense can it honestly be said that Justin taught modern Christendom’s Trinity.
What Clement Taught
Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 to 215 C.E.) also calls the Son “God.” He even calls him “Creator,” a term never used in the Bible with reference to Jesus. Did he mean that the Son was equal in all ways to the almighty Creator? No. Clement was evidently referring to John 1:3, where it says of the Son: “All things came into existence through him.”16 God used the Son as an agent in His creative works.—Colossians 1:15-17.
Clement calls the Supreme God “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus”17 and says that “the Lord is the Son of the Creator.”18 He also says: “The God of all is only one good, just Creator, and the Son [is] in the Father.”19 So he wrote that the Son has a God above him.
Clement speaks of God as the “first and only dispenser of eternal life, which the Son, who received it of Him [God], gives to us.”20 The original Giver of eternal life is clearly superior to the one who, as it were, passes it along. Thus, Clement says that God “is first, and highest.”21 Further, he says that the Son “is nearest to Him who is alone the Almighty One” and that the Son “orders all things in accordance with the Father’s will.”22 Time and again Clement shows Almighty God’s supremacy over the Son.
Regarding Clement of Alexandria, we read in The Church of the First Three Centuries:
“We might quote numerous passages from Clement in which the inferiority of the Son is distinctly asserted. . . .
“We are astonished that any one can read Clement with ordinary attention, and imagine for a single moment that he regarded the Son as numerically identical—one—with the Father. His dependent and inferior nature, as it seems to us, is everywhere recognized. Clement believed God and the Son to be numerically distinct; in other words, two beings,—the one supreme, the other subordinate.”23
Further, it may again be said: Even if Clement sometimes appears to go beyond what the Bible says about Jesus, nowhere does he speak of a Trinity composed of three equal persons in one God. Apologists such as Tatian, Theophilus, and Athenagoras, who lived between the time of Justin and that of Clement, had similar views. Lamson says that they “were no better Trinitarians than Justin himself; that is, they believed in no undivided, coequal Three, but taught a doctrine wholly irreconcilable with this belief.”24
Tertullian (c. 160 to 230 C.E.) was the first to use the Latin word trinitas. As noted by Henry Chadwick, Tertullian proposed that God is ‘one substance consisting in three persons.’25 This does not mean, however, that he had in mind three coequal and coeternal persons. However, his ideas were built upon by later writers who were working toward the Trinity doctrine.
Tertullian’s concept of Father, Son, and holy spirit was a far cry from Christendom’s Trinity, for he was a subordinationist. He viewed the Son as subordinate to the Father. In Against Hermogenes he wrote:
“We should not suppose that there is any other being than God alone who is unbegotten and uncreated. . . . How can it be that anything, except the Father, should be older, and on this account indeed nobler, than the Son of God, the only-begotten and first-begotten Word? . . . That [God] which did not require a Maker to give it existence, will be much more elevated in rank than that [the Son] which had an author to bring it into being.”26
Also, in Against Praxeas, he shows that the Son is different from and subordinate to Almighty God by saying:
“The Father is the entire substance, but the Son is a derivation and portion of the whole, as He Himself acknowledges: ‘My Father is greater than I.’ . . . Thus the Father is distinct from the Son, being greater than the Son, inasmuch as He who begets is one, and He who is begotten is another; He, too, who sends is one, and He who is sent is another; and He, again, who makes is one, and He through whom the thing is made is another.”27
Tertullian, in Against Hermogenes, states further that there was a time when the Son did not exist as a person, showing that he did not regard the Son as an eternal being in the same sense that God was.28 Cardinal Newman said: “Tertullian must be considered heterodox [believing unorthodox doctrines] on the doctrine of our Lord’s eternal generation.”29 Regarding Tertullian, Lamson declares:
“This reason, or Logos, as it was called by the Greeks, was afterwards, as Tertullian believed, converted into the Word, or Son, that is, a real being, having existed from eternity only as an attribute of the Father. Tertullian assigned to him, however, a rank subordinate to the Father . . .
“Judged according to any received explanation of the Trinity at the present day, the attempt to save Tertullian from condemnation [as a heretic] would be hopeless. He could not stand the test a moment.”30
If you were to read all the words of the Apologists, you would find that while they deviated in some respects from the teachings of the Bible, none of them taught that the Father, the Son, and the holy spirit were coequal in eternity, power, position, and wisdom.
This is also true of other writers of the second and third centuries, such as Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Origen, Cyprian, and Novatian. While some came to equate the Father and the Son in certain respects, in other ways they viewed the Son as subordinate to God the Father. And none of them even speculated that the holy spirit was equal to the Father and the Son. For example, Origen (c. 185 to 254 C.E.) states that the Son of God is “the First-born of all creation” and that the Scriptures “know Him to be the most ancient of all the works of creation.”31
Any objective reading of these early church authorities will show that Christendom’s Trinity doctrine was not in existence in their time. As The Church of the First Three Centuries says:
“The modern popular doctrine of the Trinity . . . derives no support from the language of Justin: and this observation may be extended to all the ante-Nicene Fathers; that is, to all Christian writers for three centuries after the birth of Christ. It is true, they speak of the Father, Son, and prophetic or holy Spirit, but not as co-equal, not as one numerical essence, not as Three in One, in any sense now admitted by Trinitarians. The very reverse is the fact. The doctrine of the Trinity, as explained by these Fathers, was essentially different from the modern doctrine. This we state as a fact as susceptible of proof as any fact in the history of human opinions.”32
Actually, before Tertullian the Trinity was not even mentioned. And Tertullian’s “heterodox” Trinity was much different from that believed today. How, then, did the Trinity doctrine, as understood today, develop? Was it at the Council of Nicea in 325 C.E.? We will examine these questions in Part 4 of this series in a future issue of The Watchtower.
1. A Short History of the Early Church, by Harry R. Boer, 1976, page 110.
2. The Formation of Christian Dogma, by Martin Werner, 1957, page 125.
3. The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, by R. P. C. Hanson, 1988, page 64.
4. The Church of the First Three Centuries, by Alvan Lamson, 1869, pages 70-1.
5. Gods and the One God, by Robert M. Grant, 1986, pages 109, 156, 160.
6. The Formation of Christian Dogma, pages 122, 125.
7. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1982, Volume 2, page 513.
8. An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, by John Henry Cardinal Newman, Sixth Edition, 1989, pages 14-18.
9. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, American Reprint of the Edinburgh Edition, 1885, Volume I, page 264.
10. Ibid., page 184.
11. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 1, page 223.
12. Ibid., page 164.
13. A Short History of Christian Doctrine, by Bernhard Lohse, translated from the German by F. Ernest Stoeffler, 1963, second paperback printing, 1980, page 43.
14. An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, page 20.
15. The Church of the First Three Centuries, pages 73-4, 76.
16. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume II, page 234.
17. Ibid., page 227.
18. Ibid., page 228.
20. Ibid., page 593.
22. Ibid., page 524.
23. The Church of the First Three Centuries, pages 124-5.
24. Ibid., page 95.
25. The Early Church, by Henry Chadwick, 1980 printing, page 89.
26. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume III, page 487.
27. Ibid., pages 603-4.
28. Ibid., page 478.
29. An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, pages 19, 20.
30. The Church of the First Three Centuries, pages 108-9.
31. The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume IV, page 560.
32. The Church of the First Three Centuries, pages 75-6.
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