What is the Trinity?
Simply stated: “The Trinity is three persons (personae) in one substance (substantia).”
“We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the persons, nor dividing the substance.” — The Athanasian Creed
In this chapter, we will examine the Trinity. Faith in this most basic, yet often neglected Truth, is essential to our salvation. Without belief in the Trinity, we cannot claim to have saving faith in God.
The disciples of the New Testament, not only the eleven but the larger group of 120 who were strengthened by the baptism of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, understood the doctrine of the triune God and were enriched by a profound experience of Him. As Jews, these first century believers continued to believe in one God and name Him as many pre-Christian Jews had done.
But they had also seen God come in the flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. They were convinced after the empowering at Pentecost that the same power at work in Jesus was within them and that God was found through the person of the Holy Spirit. They were indeed the Body of Christ who had tasted of the power of the age to come. Yet as Jews, nurtured on the affirmation that “God is one,” they were not surprised to think of God as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Three in One.”
The Trinity was, for the New Testament Church, an indispensable precept and an essential truth. Yet it was not until the second century that the doctrine of the Trinity became the center of intellectual debate. The experience of the first century disciples was unique: they had seen Christ in the flesh. Not all questions we have today about the Trinity could be answered in terms of first century writings, symbols and doctrines. Although as a doctrine, Trinitarianism later became a distinguishing characteristic of orthodox Christianity, in the early years, the doctrine of the Triune God remained within the realm of universal, implicit acceptance.
The Witness of the Old Testament
Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one! (Deuteronomy 6:4).
Ancient Israel was one of the few monotheistic cultures of ancient times. Although some other ancient religions taught the supremacy of a “one and only god,” Israel’s God, Jehovah, was the only infallible God of ancient times. Indeed the gods of other cultures made no claims to infallibility, but had superhuman traits and mirrored human foibles. Some of the gods portrayed by the ancient world were mortal and could be killed or defeated by other gods. They lacked perfect knowledge and few were portrayed as being all benevolent. The Hebrew’s God was unique in His claim to eternal infallibility. All sufficient Truth was in Him.
To you it was shown that you might know that the LORD, He is God; there is no other besides Him (Deuteronomy 4:35).
“I am the LORD, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, nor My praise to graven images” (Isaiah 42:8).
Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel And his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: “I am the first and I am the last, and there is no God besides Me” (Isaiah 44:6).
In the biblical declaration: “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD is one!” (Deuteronomy 6:4) the Hebrew word for “one” is not the same word as the integer (the number used for counting) but can also be translated as “unity.” The stress on the unity of God in the Old Testament sometimes contains an indication of three distinct persons in the Godhead. God sometimes speaks of himself in the plural; passages which speak of the Messiah indicate that He is a distinct Person; the Son often appears as the “Angel of the Lord,” who is spoken of as a divine Person; the Spirit is also spoken of as distinct Person.
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Genesis 1:26).
“Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech” (Genesis 11:7).
Now the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, while he was sitting at the tent door in the heat of the day. When he lifted up his eyes and looked, behold, three men were standing opposite him; and when he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth, and said, “My lord, if now I have found favor in your sight, please do not pass your servant by. Please let a little water be brought and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree; and I will bring a piece of bread, that you may refresh yourselves; after that you may go on, since you have visited your servant.” And they said, “So do, as you have said” (Genesis 18:1-21).
The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at My right hand Until I make Your enemies a footstool for Your feet.” The LORD will stretch forth Your strong scepter from Zion, saying, “Rule in the midst of Your enemies.” Your people will volunteer freely in the day of Your power; In holy array, from the womb of the dawn, Your youth are to You as the dew. The LORD has sworn and will not change His mind, “You are a priest forever According to the order of Melchizedek.” The Lord is at Your right hand; He will shatter kings in the day of His wrath. He will judge among the nations, He will fill them with corpses, He will shatter the chief men over a broad country. He will drink from the brook by the wayside; therefore He will lift up His head (Psalm 110).
Come near to Me, listen to this: From the first I have not spoken in secret, from the time it took place, I was there. And now the Lord GOD has sent Me, and His Spirit (Isaiah 48:16).
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me To bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners; to proclaim the favorable year of the LORD (Isaiah 61:1,2).
“I shall make mention of the lovingkindnesses of the LORD, the praises of the LORD, according to all that the LORD has granted us, and the great goodness toward the house of Israel, which He has granted them according to His compassion and according to the abundance of His lovingkindnesses. For He said, ‘Surely, they are My people, sons who will not deal falsely.’ So He became their Savior. In all their affliction He was afflicted, and the angel of His presence saved them; in His love and in His mercy He redeemed them, and He lifted them and carried them all the days of old. But they rebelled and grieved His Holy Spirit; therefore He turned Himself to become their enemy, He fought against them. Then His people remembered the days of old, of Moses. Where is He who brought them up out of the sea with the shepherds of His flock? Where is He who put His Holy Spirit in the midst of them (Isaiah 63:9-11).
The Witness of the New Testament
Equally important to an understanding of the Trinity is the claim of the Old and New Testament that God’s Word is infallible. A holy and inerrant God must have a holy and inerrant Word. There can be no competing deity nor any other competing Word. The infallibility and unity of God and His Word is at the heart of biblical monotheism.
In the New Testament, the identity of the Word of God is revealed as Jesus Christ, the Son of God: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1,14).
Yet the New Testament definition of God is the same “unity” we find in the Old Testament. Paul writes, “For even if there are so-called gods whether in heaven or on earth … yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and we exist for Him.”
To the apostolic mind there is but “one God … and one Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 8:5,6). To the apostolic mind there is also the simplistic insight that one God is revealed and expressed to men as three persons: “the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
There are no complex explanations given, although the Apostle John is the most definitive of any of the New Testament writers on the person of Jesus Christ. He is “the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father …” (John 1:8).
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
From John, we are taught that the even as the Son (“_the only begotten_”) proceeds from the Father, the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son — “But when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceeds from the Father, he shall testify of me” (John 15:26).
The three persons of the Godhead are enumerated again and again in John’s writings: “But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things …” (John 14:26).
Other gospel accounts show a distinction between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit which was witnessed by the disciples. At Jesus’ baptism “… he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: and lo a voice from heaven, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’” (Matthew 3:16,17).
In the Great Commission, at the close of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus commands His disciples to baptize — “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19).
Other New Testament writers who enumerate the three persons of the Godhead are Paul, Peter and Jude:
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14).
“According to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience of the blood of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:2).
“To them that are sanctified by God the Father, and preserved in Jesus Christ … praying in the Holy Ghost, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life” (Jude 1,20,21).
“For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, (John refers to Jesus as the Word — the LOGOS; John 1:1) and the Holy Ghost, and these three are one” (1 John 5:7).
The Term: Trinity
The term Trinity does not appear in the New Testament, however, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” appear repeatedly. The need to elaborately define the Godhead came at the end of the first century when the Gnostic heretics caused division through their pagan-influenced teaching that the Christ or LOGOS (John 1:1) was a lesser god. This threat caused the early Church to adopt a comprehensive creed called the “Apostle’s Creed” consisting of twelve apostolic statements of faith derived both from written scripture and oral teaching passed down from the first century Apostles.
The simplest confession — “Jesus Is Lord” — is found in 1 Corinthians 12:3. Other creeds such as: “One Lord, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:5,6), were simple professions of belief in one God. The Apostles’ Creed was an elaboration of the prayers found in the New Testament. Out of these confessions, doxologies and prayers arose a creed which was first used as a confession of faith at baptism: “I believe in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19).
Meanwhile, other Gnostics were teaching that Jesus and the LOGOS, or the Christ, were separate gods. They had adapted a Greco-pagan theology to the Gospel. By the end of the first century, the schisms caused by the Gnostics were so grave that the Apostolic Fathers gradually formed a systematic and comprehensive statement of faith which would refute Gnosticism.
Succinct, comprehensive and clear, the Apostles’ Creed was professed as a defense against the confusion of the Gnostic heretics which threatened the early Church. The Apostles’ Creed, or a profession close to the one we have today, appeared at the end of the first century or the beginning of the second century. With this creed, firmly based on New Testament scriptures written by the Apostles, and alluded to by the more extensive writings of the Apostolic Fathers in the first century and early second century, a more elaborate explanation of the Trinity began to be formed.
The Trinity is a biblical doctrine
Although the vast majority of Church theologians have been satisfied with the above quoted scriptures as evidence for the Trinity, the question still persists in some circles. Since we have no other writings by the Apostles which make this claim, except the Scriptures themselves, we may next look to two other groups: the Apostolic Fathers and the Apologists.
The Apostolic Fathers are Christians who first believed in Christ during the early church period, or the Apostolic Age (33 AD to 96 AD). 33 AD represents the year of Pentecost and 96 AD represents the earliest possible date for the death of the Apostle John, who died sometime after the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian. Three of the Apostolic Fathers, Clement of Rome, Polycarp of Smyrna, and Ignatius of Antioch, were Bishops who were ordained by one of the Apostles.
We know that Polycarp was a disciple of John and that Clement was ordained by Peter. Not much is known about Ignatius except that seven of his letters exist which indicate that he was a personal acquaintance of Polycarp and that he had apostolic authority. The writings handed down to us by these men have great authority because they were instructed by those Apostles who had seen the Lord. These letters do not share the same authority as scripture and are not to be taken as infallible teachings.
The next group of men, the Apologists, were defenders of the faith, born a generation later than the Apostolic Fathers. The Apologists lived from 100 AD to 175 AD, while the Apostolic Fathers’ lives overlapped the first and second centuries. Irenaeus and Athenagoras belong to this second group. Tertullian, the last of the Apologists, lived well into the Third Century.
Many people attribute the doctrine of the Trinity to either Tertullian or to the Nicean Council of 325 AD. By looking at the writings of the Apostolic Fathers and the Apologists, however, we will see that a strong Trinitarian concept was well in place long before the date to which some Church historians point (usually the reign of Constantine, 325 AD).
The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers
Trinitarianism was a doctrine taught by the Apostolic Fathers. They received their tradition from the Twelve Apostles and the Apostle Paul. The doctrine was handed down orally from the time of the first century in the form of creeds, apostolic catechisms, or written symbols. In exposition to the scriptures, we find a strong Trinitarian tradition at the end of the first century and the beginning of the second century in the writings of the Apostolic Fathers and the Apologists.
We may assume that the writings of the Apostolic Fathers contain teachings entrusted to them by the New Testament Apostles. The Apostolic Fathers had a developed doctrine of the Trinity. This doctrine was handed down from the Apostles of Jesus Christ to the Apostolic Fathers of the second century (96 AD to 175 AD). A developed Trinitarian doctrine existed in the church well before 175 AD (the time of Tertullian’s writing). This doctrine existed in Christian writings a full generation before this time.
Although they never answered the questions later tackled by Tertullian, the Apostolic Fathers had a strong concept of the Trinity. The Apostle’s revelation of God could never have been expressed in words (2 Cor. 12:4), but through the creeds and symbols they used in their teaching, the truth of the Trinity was imparted and was widely accepted in the early Church.
The teaching of the Apostolic Fathers had strong authority since their ministry originated with the laying on of hands by the Apostles. As a testimony of their experience with the Holy Spirit, and through verbal creeds which were passed down to them by first century Christians, they make numerous allusions to in their writings to the words of the Apostle’s Creed.
Clement of Rome – 96 AD
“Let us cleave, therefore, to the innocent and righteous, since these are the elect of God. Why are there strifes, and tumults, and divisions, and schisms, and wars among you? Have we not [all] one God and one Christ? Is there not one Spirit of grace poured out upon us? And have we not one calling in Christ?” (Epistle of Clement 46:17,18).
Polycarp of Smyrna – 110-117 AD
“But may the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ Himself, who is the Son of God, and our everlasting High Priest, build you up in faith and truth, and in all meekness, gentleness, patience, long-suffering, forbearance, and purity; and may He bestow on you a lot and portion among His saints, and on us with you, and on all that are under heaven, who shall believe in our Lord Jesus Christ, and in His Father, who raised Him from the dead” (Epistle of Polycarp 12:2).
Ignatius of Antioch – 110-117 AD
“… being united and elected through the true passion by the will of the Father, and Jesus Christ, our God …” (Ignatius to the Ephesians 1:1).
“But our Physician is the only true God, the unbegotten and unapproachable, the Lord of all, the Father and Begetter of the only-begotten Son. We have also as a Physician the Lord our God, Jesus the Christ, the only-begotten Son and Word, before time began, but who afterwards became also man, of Mary the virgin. For ‘the Word was made flesh.’”(Ignatius to the Ephesians 7:6-8).
“For our God, Jesus Christ, was, according to the appointment of God, conceived in the womb by Mary, of the seed of David, but by the Holy Ghost” (Ignatius to the Ephesians 18:2,3).
“… in one faith, and in Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David according to the flesh, being both the Son of man and the Son of God …” (Ignatius to the Ephesians 20:2).
“I commend the Churches, in which I pray for a union both of the flesh and spirit of Jesus Christ, the constant source of our life, and of faith and love, to which nothing is to be preferred, but especially of Jesus and the Father, in whom, if we endure all the assaults of the prince of this world, and escape them, we shall enjoy God.” (Ignatius to the Magnesians 1:2).
“He, being begotten by the Father before the beginning of time, was God the Word, the only-begotten Son, and remains the same for ever; for ‘of His kingdom there shall be no end,’ says Daniel the prophet.” (Ignatius to the Magnesians 6:4-6).
“On this account also they were persecuted, being inspired by grace to fully convince the unbelieving that there is one God, the Almighty, who has manifested Himself by Jesus Christ His Son, who is His Word, not spoken, but essential. For He is not the voice of an articulate utterance, but a substance begotten by divine power, who has in all things pleased Him that sent Him” (Ignatius to the Magnesians 8:4,5).
The Apostolic Fathers provide us with a link between the Apostolic teachings of the first century and the second century Christian apologists. Irenaeus had the greatest authority of these because of his close association with Polycarp, who was a disciple of John. Thus a clear line of Apostolic teaching is maintained. Athenagoras wrote around the same time as Irenaeus and gives the most eloquent and clear exposition on the doctrine of the Trinity. Tertullian’s writings came a few years later and are primarily influenced by the writings of Irenaeus.
Irenaeus – 130-200 AD
There are several early summaries of the Christian faith which predate the later creeds, such as the “Rule of Faith” as recorded by Irenaeus: “… this faith: in one God, the Father Almighty, who made the heaven and the earth and the seas and all the things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was made flesh for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who made known through the prophets the plan of salvation, and the coming, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the bodily ascension into heaven of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and his future appearing from heaven in the glory of the Father to sum up all things and to raise anew all flesh of the whole human race …”
Hippolytus – 200 AD
We have Hippolytus’ account of the baptismal service:
“When the person being baptized goes down into the water, he who baptizes him, putting his hand on him, shall say: ‘Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty?’ And the person being baptized shall say: ‘I believe.’ Then holding his hand on his head, he shall baptize him once. And then he shall say: ‘Do you believe in Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who was born of the Virgin Mary, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and was dead and buried, and rose again the third day, alive from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sat at the right hand of the Father, and will come to judge the living and the dead?’ And when he says: ‘I believe,’ he is baptized again. And again he shall say: ‘Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, in the holy church, and the resurrection of the body?’ The person being baptized shall say: ‘I believe,’ and then he is baptized a third time.”
Both the “Rule” as recorded by Irenaeus and the baptismal service as recorded by Hippolytus bear very close similarity to the Apostles’ Creed.
Athenagoras’ Plea – 177 AD
If we satisfied ourselves with advancing such considerations as these, our doctrines might by some be looked upon as human. But, since the voices of the prophets confirm our arguments — for I think that you also, with your great zeal for knowledge, and your great attainments in learning, cannot be ignorant of the writings either of Moses or of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and the other prophets, who, lifted in ecstasy above the natural operations of their minds by the impulses of the Divine Spirit, uttered the things with which they were inspired, the Spirit making use of them as a flute-player breathes into a flute; — what, then, do these men say? “The LORD is our God; no other can be compared with Him.” And again: “I am God, the first and the last, and besides Me there is no God.” In like manner: “Before Me there was no other God, and after Me there shall be none; I am God, and there is none besides Me.” And as to His greatness: “Heaven is My throne, and the earth is the footstool of My feet: what house will you build for Me, or what is the place of My rest?” But I leave it to you, when you meet with the books themselves, to examine carefully the prophecies contained in them, that you may on fitting grounds defend us from the abuse cast upon us.
That we are not atheists, therefore, seeing that we acknowledge one God, uncreated, eternal, invisible, impassable, incomprehensible, illimitable, who is apprehended by the understanding only and the reason, who is encompassed by light, and beauty, and spirit, and power ineffable, by whom the universe has been created through His Logos, and set in order, and is kept in being — I have sufficiently demonstrated. [I say “His Logos”], for we acknowledge also a Son of God. Nor let any one think it ridiculous that God should have a Son. For though the poets, in their fictions, represent the gods as no better than men, our mode of thinking is not the same as theirs, concerning either God the Father or the Son. But the Son of God is the Logos of the Father, in idea and in operation; for after the pattern of Him and by Him were all things made, the Father and the Son being one. And, the Son being in the Father and the Father in the Son, in oneness and power of spirit, the understanding and reason of the Father is the Son of God. But if, in your surpassing intelligence, it occurs to you to inquire what is meant by the Son, I will state briefly that He is the first product of the Father, not as having been brought into existence (for from the beginning, God, who is the eternal mind, had the Logos in Himself, being from eternity instinct with Logos; but inasmuch as He came forth to be the idea and energizing power of all material things, which lay like a nature without attributes, and an inactive earth, the grosser particles being mixed up with the lighter. The prophetic Spirit also agrees with our statements. “The Lord,” it says, “made me, the beginning of His ways to His works.” The Holy Spirit Himself also, which operates in the prophets, we assert to be an effluence of God, flowing from Him, and returning back again like a beam of the sun. Who, then, would not be astonished to hear men who speak of God the Father, and of God the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and who declare both their power in union and their distinction in order, called atheists? Nor is our teaching in what relates to the divine nature confined to these points; but we recognize also a multitude of angels and ministers, whom God the Maker and Framer of the world distributed and appointed to their several posts by His Logos, to occupy themselves about the elements, and the heavens, and the world, and the things in it, and the goodly ordering of them all.
Tertullian — 155-225 AD
Tertullian did not invent the concept of the Trinity — he merely elaborated on the apostolic statement of John “these three are one” and borrowed from the already formulated theology of Athenagoras and Irenaeus. The latter was, in fact, a direct influence on Tertullian’s writings. Irenaeus, having been a pupil of Polycarp, who was a disciple of John, was considered by Tertullian to be an important link in the succession of pure apostolic doctrine.
Tertullian’s Against Praxeas was a work directed against Praxeas who held to the heresy of Sabellianism. Praxeas seems to have been convinced by Tertullian and later recanted his view. This work stands today as the definitive work refuting modalism and Sabellianism.
In the course of time, then, the Father forsooth was born, and the Father suffered, God Himself, the Lord Almighty, whom in their preaching they declare to be Jesus Christ. We, however, as we indeed always have done and more especially since we have been better instructed by the Paraclete, who leads men indeed into all truth), believe that there is one only God, but under the following dispensation, or, as it is called, that this one only God has also a Son, His Word, who proceeded from Himself, by whom all things were made, and without whom nothing was made. Him we believe to have been sent by the Father into the Virgin, and to have been born of her — being both Man and God, the Son of Man and the Son of God, and to have been called by the name of Jesus Christ; we believe Him to have suffered, died, and been buried, according to the Scriptures, and, after He had been raised again by the Father and taken back to heaven, to be sitting at the right hand of the Father, and that He will come to judge the quick and the dead; who sent also from heaven from the Father, according to His own promise, the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete, the sanctifier of the faith of those who believe in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Ghost. That this rule of faith has come down to us from the beginning of the gospel, even before any of the older heretics, much more before Praxeas, a pretender of yesterday, will be apparent both from the lateness of date which marks all heresies, and also from the absolutely novel character of our new-fangled Praxeas. In this principle also we must henceforth find a presumption of equal force against all heresies whatsoever — that whatever is first is true, whereas that is spurious which is later in date. But keeping this prescriptive rule inviolate, still some opportunity must be given for reviewing (the statements of heretics), with a view to the instruction and protection of divers persons; were it only that it may not seem that each perversion of the truth is condemned without examination, and simply prejudged; especially in the case of this heresy, which supposes itself to possess the pure truth, in thinking that one cannot believe in One Only God in any other way than by saying that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are the very selfsame Person. As if in this way also one were not All, in that All are of One, by unity (that is) of substance; while the mystery of the dispensation is still guarded, which distributes the Unity into a Trinity, placing in their order the three Persons — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost: three, however, not in condition, but in degree; not in substance, but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance, and of one condition, and of one power, inasmuch as He is one God, from whom these degrees and forms and aspects are reckoned, under the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. (Against Praxeas 2).
Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria — fourth century
The Athanasian Creed summarizes the view held by Athanasius who fought against the Arian heresy in the fourth century. Arius was a presbyter in Alexandria who preached against the perceived Sabellianism of his bishop, Alexander. In trying to avoid the error of modalistic monarchianism, Arius went to the other extreme and preached that the Son had a beginning, and was begotten of God the Father who had no beginning. The Arians essentially taught that Jesus Christ was a lesser or subordinate god to God the Father. The council of Nicea of 325 was called to settle the controversy. The Nicene Creed described the three persons of the Godhead, but did not give a succinct enough definition of the Trinity to quell Arianism.
Athanasius, another bishop of Alexandria, arose as the great defender of the Nicene position, but his victory did not come without a great struggle. He was exiled from the Roman Empire three times for his defense of the Council of Nicea’s position on the Trinity. Arianism grew in popularity throughout the 300s, until it was finally defeated. The view was finally deemed a heresy by the church of the fourth century and then diminished in influence. The phrase, “Athanaisius against the world,” was coined to describe a person who will stand for the truth, no matter what the cost. The text of Athanasian Creed may or may not be the words of Athanasius, since it was codified in the early fifth century years after Athanasius’ death.
The Athanasian Creed
Whoever wills to be in a state of salvation, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic [apostolic/universal] faith, which except everyone shall have kept whole and undefiled without doubt he will perish eternally.
Now the catholic faith is that we worship One God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons nor dividing the substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is One, the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal.
Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit; the Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated; the father infinite, the Son infinite, and the Holy Spirit infinite; the Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet not three eternals but one eternal, as also not three infinites, nor three uncreated, but one uncreated, and one infinite. So, likewise, the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Spirit almighty; and yet not three almighties but one almighty.
So the Father is God, the Son God, and the Holy Spirit God; and yet not three Gods but one God. So the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Spirit Lord; and yet not three Lords but one Lord. For like as we are compelled by Christian truth to acknowledge every Person by Himself to be both God and Lord; so are we forbidden by the catholic religion to say, there be three Gods or three Lords.
The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone, not made nor created but begotten. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and the Son, not made nor created nor begotten but proceeding. So there is one Father not three Fathers, one Son not three Sons, and Holy Spirit not three Holy Spirits. And in this Trinity there is nothing before or after, nothing greater or less, but the whole three Persons are coeternal together and coequal.
So that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Trinity in Unity and the Unity in Trinity is to be worshipped. He therefore who wills to be in a state of salvation, let him think thus of the Trinity.
But it is necessary to eternal salvation that he also believe faithfully the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. The right faith therefore is that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man.
He is God of the substance of the Father begotten before the worlds, and He is man of the substance of His mother born in the world; perfect God, perfect man subsisting of a reasoning soul and human flesh; equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, inferior to the Father as touching His Manhood.
Who although He be God and Man yet He is not two but one Christ; one however not by conversion of the Godhead in the flesh, but by taking of the Manhood in God; one altogether not by confusion of substance but by unity of Person. For as the reasoning soul and flesh is one man, so God and Man is one Christ.
Who suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose again from the dead, ascended into heaven, sits at the right hand of the Father, from whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead. At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies and shall give account for their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life eternal, and they who indeed have done evil into eternal fire.
This is the catholic faith, which except a man shall have believed faithfully and firmly he cannot be in a state of salvation.
In addition to Arianism, which denied or diminished the deity of Christ, were several other anti-Trinitarian heresies which cropped up in the first few centuries of the church in the form of Monarchianism. Monarchianism is any teaching denying that three persons are in the Godhead. The following is a brief outline of the three most prevalent heresies: dynamic monarchianism, modalistic monarchianism, and Sabellianism.
— Dynamic Monarchianism
In the closing years of the second century, a heresy appeared which taught that Christ was a mere man upon whom the Spirit of God had descended. This teaching is more accurately known as adoptionism — a Christological heresy. Adoptionism has reappeared throughout Church history when some have taught that the man Jesus was adopted into the Sonship by an act of God. In general, adoptionism is any belief that Jesus was a man who was elevated to divinity at some point in his life.
The second century teachers of adoptionism were concerned with preserving the divine unity or monarchia. The originator of dynamic monarchianism was a Byzantine leather merchant named Theodotus, who brought the doctrine to Rome in 190. Although he was in full agreement with the creedal statements on the creation of the world, divine omnipotence and the virgin birth, Theodotus believed that Jesus lived the life of an ordinary man, the difference being he was supremely virtuous. At his baptism, the Spirit or Christ descended upon Him and from that moment he worked miracles without ever becoming fully divine.
Other proponents of this thought were another Theodotus, Asclepiodotus, Artemas and Paul of Samosata. These teachers were strict Unitarians concerned with preserving the truth that God is one, but teaching the heresy that Jesus Christ was a mere man. The dynamic monarchians refused to consider Jesus to be God and did not worship Him as God.
— Modalistic Monarchianism
Modalistic monarchianism or modalism is — at least in theory — a form of Trinitarianism. Yet ironically, it is between the Trinitarians and the modalists that the modern controversy over the Trinity has resumed. Basically, modalism is the same as the modern doctrine of Oneness taught by the United Pentecostal Church, some “Deeper-Life” cults, and the famous healing evangelist, William Branham. An implicit or “naive” modalism is sometimes found among modern fundamentalists who insist on the deity of Christ, but are unwilling to make theological effort to formulate a clear doctrine of the Trinity.
Modalism is a term used to describe a belief in early church history that Father, Son, and Spirit are not eternal distinctions within God’s nature but simply modes (methods or manifestations) of God’s activity. In other words, God is one individual, and various “titles” used to describe Him — such as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — are designations applied to different forms of His action or different relationships He has to man. Modalism is also termed patripassianism and Sabellianism.
Modalism appeared as a distinct doctrine in the second century. Its adherents were fairly widespread. They were concerned with preserving the teaching of both the oneness of God and the full deity of Christ. The most early modalists were Noetus of Smyrna, Epigonus, Cleomenes and Praxeas. Their teaching is summarized by the idea that there is only one God, the Father who entered into the Virgin Mary’s womb, was born as a man and suffered and died on the cross. This teaching was also known as patripassianism — or the belief that the Father suffered.
The distinction between modalism and Trinitarianism is sometimes obscure. But simply put: a modalist believes that God is one and manifests himself in three separate modes or aspects — or one in three. A Trinitarian believes that God is three separate persons in one God — “These three are one” (1 John 5:7). Most modalists accept a distinction between the three members of the Godhead — Father, Son, Holy Spirit — but say that they are simply modes or aspects of one God. There are many variations on modalism — some more heretical than others — but there are scriptural problems with any form of modalism.
Sabellianism is another form of modalism. This heresy originated with Sabellius, a heretic of the early third century. Some historians think that Sabellius may have been taught by Praxeas, the subject of Tertullian’s Against Praxeas. Since Sabellius was the best known modalist, historians often call the modalist doctrine: Sabellianism.
In Tertullian’s Against Praxeas, he indicated that during his time some believers either naively or ignorantly adhered to the modalist doctrine: “The simple, indeed (I will not call them unwise and unlearned), who always constitute the majority of believers, are startled at the dispensation (of the Three in One), on the ground that their very rule of faith withdraws them from the world’s plurality of gods to the one only true God; not understanding that, although He is the one only God, He must yet be believed in with His own economy. The numerical order and distribution of the Trinity they assume to be a division of the Unity; whereas the Unity which derives the Trinity out of its own self is so far from being destroyed, that it is actually supported by it.”
Sabellius saw the problems with earlier forms of modalism, most notably with the idea that the Father suffered. To solve this problem, Sabellius attempted a philosophical explanation. He proposed a process theology of the Godhead in which God successively expressed Himself in three operations. The Father was the form or essence of God, but He revealed himself to man at different times in history in separate modes of expression, first as the Son, and then as the Spirit. Sabellius said that God revealed Himself as Father in creation, Son in incarnation, and Holy Ghost in regeneration and sanctification. He believed these three modes or manifestations were successive in time.
Sabellianism was widely accepted, but was fiercely opposed by Hippolytus. After having been accepted by Pope Callistus for a brief period, he was finally excommunicated as a heretic.
Scriptural Problems with Modalism
The reason modalism frequently reappears may be the result of failure to teach the doctrine of the Trinity, a low view of orthodox teaching, or simply a misunderstanding of Trinitarian doctrine as being tritheistic. Modalism has also made a comeback in the modern charismatic movement. A Charisma magazine article, The Other Pentecostals, by J. Lee Grady (June 1997) asks: “Are we entering an era when the historic dividing line between Oneness and Trinitarian Pentecostals will become so blurred that it is irrelevant? And will apologies soon be offered from both sides of this debate?”
While the lines between heresy and orthodoxy may seem to be “blurred” on the Trinity, a Christological heresy or misunderstanding of the Godhead is a primary heresy of a most serious nature. The Trinity is the very object of our saving faith. Therefore, the church fathers and apologists thought that belief in the Trinity is essential to our salvation. A simple examination of modalism will expose its inherent problems.
The following questions are designed to make you understand the problems with a modalistic interpretation of the Godhead. You will find it impossible to assume the modalist view while trying to interpret the following Scriptures.
1. “Jesus spoke these things; and lifting up His eyes to heaven, He said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You, even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life. This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do. Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was.’” (John 17 1-5).
Jesus prayed to His Father. Was this relationship temporary or was this eternal? What problems does the modalist encounter in interpreting this Scripture?
2. “… and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, ‘You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased’” (Luke 3:22).
Who is speaking in this passage?
3. “‘When the Comforter comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify about Me, “ (John 15:26).
Note that Jesus did not merely say: “I am sending you my Spirit.” This passage is meant to teach us something about the co-eternal bond that exists between the Father and the Son. What is the interaction between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit implied here?
4. On the cross, Jesus prayed, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
Who was Jesus praying to in this passage?
5. “God is love” (1 John 4:16).
Love, an eternal attribute of God, existed before the creation of the universe. Who did God love before the creation of Adam, if there were not distinct persons in the Godhead?
The Supremacy of Trinitarianism
It is easier to reconcile the above New Testament Scriptures with Trinitarian doctrine than to twist Scripture to fit modalism. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit exist as co-equal, co-eternal, non-subordinate members of the Godhead. They exist in a primary, secondary and tertiary order; yet they are each equal persons in unity with one eternal Godhead. Jesus is the “unbegotten-begotten” (or eternally begotten) Son of the Father. And the Holy Spirit proceeds eternally from both the Father and the Son.
Furthermore, Trinitarianism allows for a more adequate explanation of the incarnation, resurrection and ascension of Jesus — only the Son, or the LOGOS, became flesh — and this man, Christ Jesus, was both fully God and fully man. He is able to identify with us fully in our suffering even today, because He, in a resurrected Body of a man, sits at the right hand of the Father and intercedes for us. This is why we pray: “In the Name of Jesus.”
Modalism, only allows for a temporary incarnation, in which Jesus, who was fully God, became temporarily less than God. Modalism creates a problem here because it insists that the Father suffered on our behalf. One aspect or mode of God could not have become a man while the other half remained in heaven. Modalism teaches that the Father was born as Jesus Christ and that He died and raised Himself from the dead. In making this assertion, modalism is forced to conclude that Jesus had two natures being either a “half-man/half-God,” or a “God-man,” in a temporal setting. This violates the Chalcedonian creed.
While Trinitarianism holds to an eternal relationship between the Father and the Son, the modalistic view sees Sonship as primarily functional and temporary. It is in the ministry of Jesus, that the inherent weakness of the “God-man” model appears. Various human acts are attributed to either His deity or His humanity, thus depicting Him as functioning on two parallel systems, switching from one to the other as the occasion demands, but never as an integrated person.
The Trinitarian idea of Jesus as both “fully man and fully God” makes more sense, since a “half-man/half-God” or a “God-Man” could not be separated from the Father, or become sin on our behalf. Since Jesus is a distinct Person of the Godhead, the LOGOS, He was able to take on corruptible flesh and then be raised in an incorruptible Resurrection Body — which is the hope of our redemption.
From a modalistic point of view, redemption in the biblical manner would not be possible. Modalism makes the events of redemptive history a charade. If Christ is not a Person distinct from the Father, then His death for our sins, His resurrection, and His intercession to the Father are not possible. Modalism will always defeat the biblical model of redemption. Modalism, in teaching that the incarnation was only temporary, must deny that there is a Resurrection Body with which to be joined. Since there is only one mode of God that is eternal, then, either the Resurrection Body of Jesus Christ must have been done away with at some point; or, the Father must have actually suffered on the Cross. Scripture makes no allowance for either one of these scenarios. In fact, both are contrary to Scripture.
Trinitarianism teaches that Jesus must be both fully man and fully God because He was at once able to live a perfect life, to identify with our sufferings, and become sin on our behalf. The idea of Jesus as being both fully man and fully God, as defined in the Chalcedonian Creed, is a true biblical doctrine.
*Why Modalism is Heresy**
Modalistic Monarchianism is heresy. As Tertullian stated, Trinitarianism has been the stance of orthodox Christianity from the beginning. Modalism ignores the fact that Trinitarian Christianity has existed as the prevalent form of orthodoxy for 2,000 years. The theology of the Protestant Reformation is either ignored or looked down upon, and the orthodox creeds of historic Christianity are despised as “Roman Catholic.”
Irenaeus defined the serious nature of schism: “He shall also judge those who give rise to schisms, who are destitute of the love of God, and who look to their own special advantage rather than to the unity of the Church; and who for trifling reasons … cut in pieces and divide the great and glorious body of Christ, and so far as in them lies, destroy it men who prate peace while they give rise to war, and do in truth strain out a gnat, but swallow a camel” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies).
We most often find modalism among independent sects with a desire to prove that they are superior to other churches. In these cases, modalism is not simply due to ignorance, but is inspired by human pride. There is often an elitist, exclusive cult-like belief that “true Christianity” was in the early Church, but disappeared and came back into existence only with the appearance of their sect.
Modalists are cultists because they deny the authority of the Holy Spirit in history. Modalists view the Church as having been apostate until the appearance of their group, and believe that the Holy Spirit has revealed truth only to them apart from the witness of the Church throughout history.
In some cases, Modalism may imply the “process theology” of Sabellianism which sees God as “evolving” from a God of law into a God of grace. God manifested himself as the somewhat harsh, law-based Father in the Old Testament; then as the grace-giving Son during Christ’s earthly incarnation; and today as the life-giving Holy Spirit. Process theology holds that God reveals himself under different aspects or modes in different ages — as the Father in the Creation and the giving of the Law, as the Son in Jesus Christ, and as the Holy Spirit after Christ’s ascension.
From this modalistic viewpoint, Biblical law represents an earlier and more “primitive” stage of God’s dealings with man, but now that man and God have both “grown up,” God deals with man by grace, not by law. God is seen as being in a sort of metaphysical and ethical transition. Modalism makes the events of redemptive history a kind of charade. It is therefore blasphemous. If Christ is not discrete Person, his death for our sins and resurrection, session, and his intercession for us as his people, are illusory. Consistent modalism is an assault on Biblical redemption.
Some Conclusions on Trinitarianism
An honest study of the debate between Trinitarianism and Modalism must come to several conclusions:
1) Trinitarianism, as a formulated doctrine, did not begin to emerge until after the Gnostic heresy became a serious threat to the church, around 100 AD. These Trinitarians were not tritheistic (i.e. believing in three separate Gods); the early Christians were sure that God was one.
2) Monarchianism was, in general, a response to the same threat — an attempt to refute those who would make Jesus Christ an incarnation of the LOGOS (a Greek philosophical term), which was presented by the Gnostics as a second or lesser God. Monarchianism did not emerge until the same time as Trinitarianism or at least a few years after this.
3) Modalism is actually a form of Monarchianism; the difference being that God expresses himself in three modes or aspects. Modalism was probably was an attempt to solve the perceived threat to Christian thought presented by tritheism: a belief in three separate Gods.
4) The New Testament era Christians (33-96 AD) were probably neither self-consciously Trinitarian nor modalistic. Both of these views were theological elaborations created later in response to controversies outside the experience of the disciples of 33 AD.
The disciples of the New Testament held to a more primitive view of the Trinity. They were constrained to think of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as the numerous references to Scripture attest, but did not elaborate on this beyond the maxim taught by John: “These three are one.”
The intellectual issues raised by the concept of a Triune God were beyond their experience. Most of them had seen Jesus and had experienced Pentecost. This was enough. Expository teaching proving the Trinity from Scripture was not necessary before 100 AD.* Editor’s note: I have made use of the writings of Andrew Sandlin whose material has been edited and paraphrased in the section: “Why Modalism is Heresy.”