In the last essay we studied the attributes of God. In this essay we are studying the doctrine of the Trinity. As you know, Jesus; and all of his earliest followers were Jews. Thus Christianity from the first held tightly to the Jewish conviction that there is only one God (monotheism).
On the other hand, the conviction was present among Christians from the start that Jesus is God. This eventually caused intellectual problems.
First was the so-called Christological Problem of how Jesus could be both God and man at the same time. We will be discussing this later; but the term “Christological” in this case has to do with the person of Christ. That is, it deals with the relation between the divine and human natures in his person.
A second major question that developed was that of how Jesus could be God; and yet, there still be only one God. When the Holy Spirit is brought into the discussion, you have the Trinitarian Problem. How can three persons, Father, Son, and Spirit, equal only one God?
It is the Trinitarian problem that we are concerned about in this essay. One possible, and easy, solution to the problem would be to give up the idea of monotheism and proclaim three gods. That position is called Tritheism.
But this idea never really was seriously entertained by Christianity. Monotheism was too deeply and widely accepted for that. So the heretical views that arose, developed on the opposite side of the spectrum; that is they arose out of the attempt to preserve the unity of God.
These views generally are called Monarchianism. and they take two forms. The first of these is called Dynamic Monarchianism. This kind of view was a popular form of heresy sometimes called Subordinationism, because the Son is subordinated to the Father, rather than his being an equal, as in the Trinity.
The Dynamic Monarchians held that Jesus was the Son of God by adoption. One of the more prominent representatives of this view was Paul of Samosata, the able and gifted bishop of Antioch from @ AD 260-272. Paul of Samosata said that Jesus was a unique man, but a man nevertheless. His uniqueness lay in his virgin birth, and his relation to God was one of adoption.
Most adoptionists believed that Jesus was adopted as God’s son at his baptism. But they saw the union between the Father and Son as a moral union rather than a union of essence or substance. Paul of Samosata eventually was excommunicated for his views.
The other form of Monarchianism is called Modalistic Monarchianism. The modalistic Monarchians also were seeking to preserve the unity of God, but they did so from another angle. They believed that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were temporary manifestations of the one God.
The most noted proponent of this view was a man named Sabellius, whose name became permanently associated with this particular heresy. It often is called Sabellianism. Another name used is Modalism.
Not much is known about Sabellius, but he was teaching in Rome in the third century, where he was excommunicated for his teachings. His teachings were similar to a predecessor (Noetus) who said, “that Christ was the Father Himself, and that the Father Himself was born and suffered and died.”
This kind of teaching earned the Modalistic Monarchians the nickname Patripassians, which means literally “passion of the Father,” for that is what they were saying—that the Father himself became a man and died.
Sabellius said that the one God manifested himself in three modes or forms. God as Father is the Creator. The same God as Son manifested Himself in the incarnation as the Redeemer. And the Holy Spirit again is the same God manifesting Himself in the life of the Church. Thus in this view, instead of three persons in one, we have one person manifesting himself in three ways at three different times. A very important factor is lost in this theology; namely, the continuing reality of God’s overarching presence. That is, when God turned himself into Jesus on earth, he no longer was in heaven in control of things. This view was rejected as heretical.
One other Trinitarian heresy must be taken up, namely Arianism. Arius could rightly be called a Monarchian in his views, because he, too, was concerned for the unity of God. But Arius’ theology differed both from the Modalistic and the Dynamic positions.
Arius taught that Christ is a created being. As such he was not of the same substance, or essence, as God. He wrote: “The Son has a beginning, but … God is without beginning. ”Thus the Son was given a high place as the first-born of creatures, and as the agent in fashioning the world, but he was not to be equated with God. He was divine, but not of the same essence as the Father.
Thus Arius said that Christ was like God, but not the same as God. An analogy in our own situation is that we create houses, but we beget children of our same essence. Likewise God creates planets, but he begot Jesus, who is of the same essence as the Father; he is God. This is the orthodox view. Therefore Arius came under fire for his view. To say that Jesus is a created being who, in essence, is only like God, rather than the same as God, was a subordinationism far beyond anything the Church could tolerate.
Eventually the controversy became so serious that the Emperor Constantine summoned all of the bishops of the Church to Nicea in AD 325 for the First General Council of the Church, commonly known as the Council of Nicea. And the orthodox view was formulated.
Now then, we must take a closer look at the orthodox, position that developed. What came to be accepted as orthodox at Nicea was first expressed about a century earlier by Tertullian, the great Christian thinker from Carthage, in North Africa.
Tertullian had a legal background, having practiced law before his conversion to Christianity. And thus he had a precise, clear way of stating his views that served as a basis for later so-called orthodox formulations. Tertullian wrote of the Godhead:
All [meaning all of the persons of the Godhead] are of one, by unity of substance . . . they are of one substance and one essence and one power, inasmuch as he is one God from whom these degrees and forms and aspects are reckoned under the name of the Father, Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
With a similar precision, Tertullian distinguished between the human and the divine in Christ. ”We see His double state, not intermixed but conjoined in one person, Jesus, God and Man.” It was Tertullian’s type expression that won the day at Nicea in 325. The creed expresses the relationship between the Father and the Son as of the same essence or substance; and the creed also states that the Son was “begotten, not made.” It reads as follows:
We believe in one God the Father All-sovereign, maker of all things visible and invisible.
And in the one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, only-begotten, that is, of the substance of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made, things in heaven and things on the earth; who for us men and for our salvation came down and was made flesh, and became man, suffered, and rose on the third day, ascended into the heavens, is coming to judge living and dead.
And in the Holy Spirit (Henry Bettenson, Documents of the Christian Church. p. 35.
The matter wasn’t totally settled at Nicea. The Eastern and Western Fathers dealt with the details a little differently. Even as late as AD 1054, when the Eastern and Western churches split, one of the issues was the matter of the filioque, which is a Latin term that literally means “from the son.” The Western Church began in the fifth century to insert a filioque clause into the creeds, indicating their belief that the Holy Spirit proceeded from both the Father and the Son, rather than from the Father alone. This was important, they said, because the benefits of the Son’s death on the cross and his character come through the Holy Spirit.
The Eastern Church denied that the Spirit proceeds from the Son. They noted John 15:26, which says that the Spirit proceeds from the Father. That is never said of the Son. They also considered it important to keep the Father in a position of “sole rule,” which some in the West may have considered to be a form of subordinationism.
At any rate, the Creed of Nicea in AD 325 brought the Church to a basic “orthodox” conclusion concerning the Trinity. All could agree that:
The Father is God;
The Son is God;
The Holy Spirit is God;
Yet God is One.
And all of these statements are true with no inconsistency, insofar as the church is concerned.