Did the Early Church Fathers Believe in the Trinity
The majority of Christian denominations today, including the Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox church, declare that the doctrine of the Trinity represents orthodox belief about God’s nature. In other words, anyone who strays from the Trinity is heretical and deviant. Many Christians hold to this doctrine because they sincerely believe that it is supported by clear verses of the Bible. Muslim apologists typically respond by pointing out the many clear Biblical verses that exist which go against the doctrine. However, in this article we are going to approach the Trinity from a different angle, by examining the beliefs of the early Church Fathers. If it can be shown that they held very different beliefs about the nature of God, then it stands to reason that the doctrine is not clearly taught in Scripture.
Before continuing, if you are not familiar with the doctrine of the Trinity then please read the introduction in this article as it is essential background knowledge.
THE LANGUAGE OF THE EARLY CHURCH
Although I’ve never worshipped God as a Trinity, I once ‘thought’ like a Trinitarian when it came to history. For a long time, I viewed the language of the early Church Fathers through the lens of Trinitarians. Any mention of ‘three’, or any talk of the deity of Jesus, I would automatically equate to the Trinity as modern Christians understand it. This is the Trinitarian baggage that many of us carry, but the reality is that it could not be further from the intent of the early Church Fathers when they used such language. The following scenario is taken from Dale Tuggy’s book “What is the Trinity” and will help us to better understand this concept:
Something similar happened in history with the Trinity. At first, there was no such word in the Christian vocabulary. The term ‘Trinity’ is not found anywhere in the Bible. The Oxford Companion to the Bible, which has entries from over two hundred and sixty Bible scholars and academics from leading biblical institutes and universities in America and Europe, states:
Nor is the term ‘Trinity’ found in the vocabulary of the earliest Church Fathers. The position of the Roman Catholic Church is that the term was first mentioned late into the second century:
We don’t know who coined the term ‘Trinity’, but the earliest surviving mention of it is by Theophilus, bishop of Antioch in the late 2nd century; that’s over 150 years after Jesus. Commenting on the Genesis days of creation, in his remarks on the fourth day, Theophilus says that:
Here Theophilus defines for us what he means by triad – God, God’s Word (i.e. the logos of John 1), and God’s “wisdom” – evidently the Holy Spirit. Theophilus’ belief in a triad of entities – God, God’s Word and the Spirit of God – does not equate to the Trinitarian belief that God is tri-personal, i.e. consists of three co-equal Persons. Putting it in terms of The Triple Threat, Theophilus believed in three separate entities: a giant, a long-haired man, and a swordsman, whereas Trinitarians today have combined these three entities into one, a single giant, long-haired swordsman. Theophilus and other ancient mainstream Christians like him, such as Origen, Tertullian and Irenaeus, all believed that the Father is the one true God and that the Son and Holy Spirit are inferior to Him. For instance, Irenaeus (135 – 200 CE) asserted in the 180s that all Christians have always believed in:
In summary, making this distinction helps us to avoid our first pitfall, importing the later Trinitarian idea of a tri-personal God into every mention of “three” in the early Church. Christians have universally believed in God, His Word Jesus and the Holy Spirit of God. But belief in these three entities does not make one a Trinitarian, it’s the later idea that they are all co-equal, co-eternal and all God that makes one a Trinitarian; a concept that did not exist in the first three centuries of the Church.
Now, recall the standard definition of the Trinity – “God is one being who eternally exists as three distinct Persons — the Father, Son and Holy Spirit”. This is Trinitarian terminology, nowhere in the Bible is God spoken of using terms like “being” or “person”. Nor is it found in the vocabulary of the early Church Fathers, it arose much later. It was the council of Nicea in 325 CE that invented what has become the most traditional Trinitarian language used today:
This came to be known as the Nicene Creed, a monumental event in the history of Christianity that represented a big step toward the formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity (see this article for more information on how the Trinity slowly developed in the Church). While language such as the Son being “true God” and “from the substance of the Father” is the norm in Christianity today, at the time it was strongly resisted by bishops for decades. Multiple later meetings of bishops rolled back such innovations, the most extreme of these said the following in regard to the Nicene Creed:
How early do we find Christians confessing belief in a Trinity, in a tri-personal god, in whom there are three equally divine “Persons”? An obvious sign of such belief would be talking about the one God as the Trinity, and not, as earlier, God the Father. The idea of one God as the Trinity is implied in many works of the latter part of the fourth century. For instance, the theologian Augustine wrote in the year 393 CE that:
In Augustine’s view, the one God Yahweh of the Old Testament is the Trinity, and the Trinity is the one God Yahweh.
Finally, standard formulations of the Trinity state that there is “one God in three Persons”. But fundamentally, what does ‘Person’ mean? Augustine, probably the most influential Western Catholic writer on doctrine of the Trinity, gives us an insight into why such language is employed by Trinitarians. In 420 CE he stated very candidly:
According to Augustine, who was himself Trinitarian, the word “Person” is a kind of trick of language in order to avoid being trapped by critics of the Trinity.
IS JESUS EQUAL TO GOD THE FATHER, OR SUBSERVIENT?
Another common pitfall is to equate any mention of the deity of Jesus with him being equal to God the Father. In the early church, divinity did not necessitate equality with God. The point is that the “deity” of Jesus is not the same claim as the Trinity. While the doctrine of the Trinity implies the deity of Jesus (that is, that Jesus has a divine nature), the deity of Jesus does not imply the Trinity. Certainly, the deification of Jesus was an important step towards the eventual formation of the present-day doctrine of the Trinity, but in and of itself it does not prove the Trinity. To get to the Trinity, the next steps would be to show that Jesus is divine in the same sense as the Father and the Holy Spirit, and that all these three are one God. Early Christian Fathers like Origen believed in the deity of Jesus long before anyone believed in the Trinity:
Such highly exalted language about Jesus may at face value make one think that Origen was a Trinitarian. However, Origen also said:
We can see that Origen believed that Jesus possessed deity, yet was still inferior to God the Father. For Origen, the Father is actually God, i.e. God in the proper sense. Jesus, on the other hand, while divine in origin, is a secondary God who is inferior to the Father .
Interestingly, even though Origen believed in the deity of Jesus, he didn’t give Jesus worship like God the Father. For example, in one book Origen goes so far as to argue that:
In a later writing, Origen backs off this prohibition and allows prayer to Jesus as an intermediary, who as high priest will:
Even though Origen changed his beliefs about rendering worship to Jesus, he still didn’t believe that Jesus was equal to God the Father, but rather he was inferior. Origen, like most early Church Fathers of his time, held Subordinationist beliefs about Jesus, i.e. he was subordinate to God the Father. For example, the Church Father Tertullian (155 – 240 CE) who spoke of a “trinitas” (Latin for ‘threeness’), also did not believe in the co-equality of the Father and Son:
In other words, one of the earliest sources in the Church who talks of a ‘trinity’ never actually taught a doctrine of three co-equal persons. Tertullian’s understanding of Scripture was that the Father and Son cannot be co-equal.
IS THE SON ETERNAL, OR DID HE COME INTO EXISTENCE?
We’ve already seen that the standard belief among early Church Fathers was that the Son was inferior to God the Father. To this we can also add that the Son was initially not seen as eternal like God the Father. For example, Tertullian taught a “two stage” theory about the existence of the Son:
This two stage theory about the Son is typical for theologians in this era . They believed that a finite time ago, when it was time to create, God made his eternal wisdom to be a helper, by bringing into existence the Son, through whom God will create. Tertullian, who at his time was a major champion of catholic theology, the Son is neither eternal, nor as divine, as the Father. Tertullian is by no means an anomaly, such beliefs were standard in his era.
The individual responsible for changing the emerging catholic mainstream view of the existence of the Son from a two stage to one stage theology was the massively influential Origen. He held that the Son and Holy Spirit existed eternally, though because of God the Father. Origen believed that in eternity, God the Father “begot” His Word, a secondary God who is inferior to the Father . For Origen, God the Father constantly begets the Son by what modern theologians call ‘eternal generation’. In other words, the Son exists in God the Father’s timeless eternity. It’s important to reiterate that Origen did not believe that the Son and Holy Spirit are divine in the same way as God the Father. Only the Father is divine independently of any other being and to the highest degree. In second place is the Son, who gets his second greatest degree of divinity from God. In third place is the Holy Spirit, who gets his yet lesser divinity from the Son .
IS THE HOLY SPIRIT EQUAL TO GOD?
Early on, Christians did not call the Holy Spirit “God”, nor did they worship or pray to the Holy Spirit. When did Christian theologians first insist on this same fully divine status for the Holy Spirit? The first such official statement is the creed of Constantinople in 381 CE. This creed attributed a number of things to the Holy Spirit, such as a divine title, ‘Lord’, and supreme worship equal to that rendered to the Father and the Son. Thus, the Holy Spirit was officially voted as the third Person of the Trinity. The Catholic Church admits:
Gregory of Nazianzus, a fourth century Archbishop and theologian, informs us that even as late as 379 CE, there were many different competing views about the status of the Holy Spirit:
Trinitarian and evangelical scholar Harold Brown gives some reasons for the slow adoption of the Holy Spirit as a person of the Trinity:
In other words, we can understand that:
1. A doctrine close to what modern Trinitarians teach about the Holy Spirit was not widely accepted until over 300 years after Jesus.
2. Normal understanding of the Greek of the New Testament suggests that the Holy Spirit is impersonal – not a person. This is in contrast to the portrayal of the Father and the Son.
3. The idea of treating the Holy Spirit as a person, as Trinitarians do today, was often associated with heretical groups in the early Church.
4. Early Christian theologians contradicted the current Trinitarian view of the Holy Spirit because they used to assign its functions, such as revelatory activity, to the Son.
Consider some views which in our day will get you declared a heretic by Trinitarians: that God is not triune, that Jesus and/or the Holy Spirit is less divine than the Father, and that Jesus and/or the Holy Spirit is not eternal. But in the year 200 CE, you might have been a fully orthodox Christian in good standing, even a bishop, while holding all those views. You might even have expressed these views as a leading, mainstream apologist, to the applause of your peers.
Trinitarians today stand proudly under the banner of orthodoxy while boldly declaring that their beliefs alone are clearly taught in the Bible. Yet upon a close examination of the early Church Fathers, we have seen that they deviated from virtually every aspect of the Trinity. If you think it is obvious that the Bible teaches the eternality and full divinity of both Jesus and the Holy Spirit, then why did learned Christians back then – bishops, theologians, apologists – not perceive these (allegedly) obvious teachings in the Bible? This shows that the doctrine of the Trinity is not born of Scripture but rather history, having slowly developed much later in the centuries following Jesus and his disciples, and only with much dispute along the way.
It’s important to note that while the earliest Church Fathers presented in this article did not believe in the Trinity, their beliefs still represent a deviation away from the earliest followers of Jesus. These followers, such as the family of Jesus as well as his disciples, did not believe him to be divine in any way, shape or form. Rather, they were Jewish believers in Jesus who were obedient to the Law of Moses and had a Jewish outlook when it came to God’s nature as well as the nature of His Messiah. To learn more please read this article.
This article is largely based on the book “What is the Trinity” by Dale Tuggy.
To learn more about Jesus from both the Islamic and Christian perspective, please download your free copy of the book “Jesus: Man, Messenger, Messiah” from the Iera website (click on image below):
1 – Bruce Metzger and Michael D. Coogan, The Oxford Companion to the Bible, pp. 782 – 783.
2 – The Catholic Encyclopedia, “De pud.”, xxi.
3 – Theophilus of Antioch: Ad Autolycum – text and translation, translated by Robert Grant (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), 53 Book II, Chapter 15.
4 – Against Heresies, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I, 309-567, 330 (Book I, Chapter 10).
5 – “The Second Creed (the ‘Blasphemy’) of Sirmium, 357” in Creeds, Councils and Controversies: Documents Illustrating the History of the Church, AD 337-461, 45-7, 46.
6 – On Faith and the Creed [De Fide et Symbolo], translated by F.D.S. Salmond, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Volume III, 315-33, 327 (Chapter 9, Section 16)
7 – The Trinity, translated by Edmund Hill, 228-9, Book VII, Section 11.
8 – Origen, De Principiis, Preface, 4.
9 – Origen, Contra Celsus Book 8, Chapter 15.
10 – Origen, Contra Celsus, 5.39.
11 – On Prayer, translated by Rowan Greer, in Origen: An Exhortation to Martyrdom, Prayer, First Principles: Book IV, Prologue to the Commentary on the Song of Songs, Homily XXVII On Numbers, 81-170, 112 (Chapter 15, Section 1).
12 – Against Celsus, 471, Book VIII, Chapter 26.
13 – Tertullian, Against Praxeas, chapter 9 – The Catholic Rule of Faith Expounded in Some of Its Points. Especially in the Unconfused Distinction of the Several Persons of the Blessed Trinity.
14 – Tertullian, Against Hermogenes, Chapter 18.
15 – Harry Austryn Wolfson, The Philosophy of the Church Fathers: Faith, Trinity, Incarnation, Chapter 12.
16 – Origen, Contra Celsus, 5.39.
17 – On First Principles, 33-4 (Book I, Chapter 3), Against Celsus, 462-3 (Book VIII Chapter 15).
18 – Catechism of the Catholic Church. Imprimatur Potest, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Doubleday, p. 72.
19 – Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 31, translated by Lionel Wickham, in St Gregory of Nazianzus On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius, 117-47, 120 Chapter 5.
20 – Harold Brown, Heresies: Heresy and Orthodoxy in the History of the Church, p. 140.
As salaam Alaikum akhi I have some questions that was asked by a Christian
1 question, what made the earliest christians believe Jesus died on a cross, even, so far as going to their death proclaiming it?
Question number 2: who is responsible for making christians think Jesus died?
Question number 3: Why did Allah wait 600 years before telling everyone Jesus didnt die?
Comment: “Allah knows best” is an answer i have seen coming from one of the few Scholars who addressed this question, and i felt dissapointed. Thats not a good answer.
I hope you can help me answer this Jazakhallahu khairan
Jazakhallahu kharain may Allah reward you dearly increase you in knowledge , wisdom and understanding akhi
Brother I have a suggestion
If you can make a series of articles about evidences for Islam
1Evidences for a true religion of god
2.evidences for the Quran being the word of god
3.evidences for the prophethood of prophet Muhammad alayhi salaam
I know you touch on some of them but if you organise them in one place so we can utilize to give dawah inshaAllah
Jazakhallahu kharain for all your hard work