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The Historical Development Of Trinitarianism


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#1 Evangelion

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Posted 02 January 2005 - 04:37 PM

Let us begin with the earliest Christological position - Biblical Unitarianism - in the teachings of the apostles themselves:First we have the Christology of the Synoptic Gospels, and here it cannot be contended on any sufficient grounds that they give us the slightest justification for advancing beyond the idea of a purely human Messiah. The idea of preexistence lies completely outside the Synoptic sphere of view. Nothing can show this more clearly than the narrative of the supernatural birth of Jesus.

All that raises him above humanity - though it does not take away the pure humanity of his person - is to be referred only to the causality of the "pneuma hagion," which brought about his conception. This spirit, as the principle of the Messianic epoch, is also the element which constitutes his Messianic personality.

The Synoptic Christology has for its substantial foundation the notion of the Messiah, designated and conceived as the "huios theou"; and all the points in the working out of the notion rest on the same supposition of a nature essentially human. God raised him from the dead, because it was not possible that he should be holden of it (Acts 2:24)."

Baur, F.C. (1853), The Church History of the First Three Centuries.

Edited by Evangelion, 29 January 2010 - 05:22 AM.

'Abba Antony said, "A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.'"'

Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (2006), Antony 25, p. 5.

Credo.

#2 Evangelion

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Posted 02 January 2005 - 04:45 PM

Next we have the Binitarianism of the 2nd Century AD; a Christology which viewed both Father and Son as uniquely God in their own right, but neither co-eternal nor co-substantial. In other words, the Son was considered to be a unique creation of the Father; deemed "god" merely by virtue of his origin from the one true God.

Church historian Harry Boer explains:1. The Apostolic Fathers: The Apostolic Fathers wrote between A.D. 90 and 140. Their discussion of the person of Jesus Christ simply repeated the teaching of the New Testament. None of the apostolic fathers presented a definite doctrine on this point. In this respect the New Testament, the Apostolic Fathers, and the Apostles’ Creed stand in one line.

2. The Apologists: With the Apologists, Greek philosophy became associated with Christianity. The best known of them was Justin Martyr, a man from Samaria whose parents were Roman. He was a student and a teacher of philosophy before his conversion. He remained a philosopher, regarding Christianity as the highest philosophy. He died a martyr for the faith between 163 and 167.

Justin taught that before the creation of the world God was alone and that there was no son. Within God, however, there was reason, or mind (logos). When God desired to create the world, he needed an agent to do this for him. This necessity arose out of the Greek view that god cannot concern himself with matter. Therefore, he begot another divine being to create the world for him. This divine being was called the logos or the Son of god. He was called son because he was born; he was called logos because he was taken from the reason or mind of God.

However, the Father does not lose anything when he gives independent existence to the Logos. The Logos that is taken out of him to become the Son is like a flame taken from a fire to make a new fire. The new fire does not lessen the older fire.

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.

Boer (1976), A Short History of the Early Church.
Of course, if the Son is believed to be created by the Father, we do not actually have Trinitarianism. We have the Son represented as a being of tremendous power - a form of "super-angel", if you like - but certainly not eternal, and certainly not God Himself.

A few quotes from the Early Church Fathers - as found in Bercot's Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs (1999) - will serve to illustrate the point:
  • Listen therefore to Wisdom, expressed in the character of the Second Person: ‘At the first, the Lord created me as the beginning of His ways, with a view to His own works, before He made the earth, before the mountains were settled. Moreover, before all the hills did He beget me.’ That is to say, ‘He created and generated me in His own intelligence.’

    Tertullian (213W), 3.601.

  • What need is there to speak of Wisdom, which ‘the Lord created the beginning of His ways, for His works’? This is the One in whom His Father rejoiced. The Father delighted in His manifold intellectual beauty, seen by the eyes of the mind alone. Whoever discerns His divine and heavenly charm is incited to love.

    Origen (228, E), 9.317.

  • The Beginning is Wisdom. For Wisdom is said by one of the Divine company to speak in this manner concerning itself: ‘The Lord created me the beginning of His ways for His works.’

    Methodius (290, E), 6.381, as quoted by Plotinus.
The Christological significance of these statements simply cannot be ignored. They reflect a solid, Binitarian Christology (in fact, a proto-Arian Christology) that would remain in place for the best part of two centuries.
'Abba Antony said, "A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.'"'

Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (2006), Antony 25, p. 5.

Credo.

#3 Evangelion

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Posted 02 January 2005 - 04:49 PM

While this blatant Christological evolution is a great cause for concern among those Protestants who flatter themselves that Trinitarianism sprang (fully formulated, no less!) from the writings of the 1st Century apostles, Christians with a more sophisticated view of doctrinal development (such as the Catholics), simply accept it as a sine qua non.

In the words of a well-known Catholic scholar:
The Christian writers of the second and third centuries considered the Logos as the eternal reason of the Father, but as having at first no distinct existence from eternity; he received this only when the Father generated him from within his own being and sent him to create the world and rule over the world.

The act of generation then was not considered as an eternal and necessary life-act but as one which had a beginning in time, which meant that the Son was not equal to the Father, but subordinate to Him.

Irenaeus, Justin, Hippolytus and Methodius share this view called Subordinationism.

Schmaus, Michael (1971), Dogma, Vol. 3, "God and His Christ.”
This ontological subordinationism (now decried as a rank heresy by "orthodox" Trinitarians) is strongly evident in Justin's work - a fact that is keenly lamented by the authors of the Catholic Encyclopaedia:
Two influences are plainly discernible in the aforesaid body of doctrine.

It is, of course, to Christian revelation that Justin owes his concept of the distinct personality of the Word, His Divinity and Incarnation; but philosophic speculation is responsible for his unfortunate concepts of the temporal and voluntary generation of the Word, and for the subordinationism of Justin's theology.

It must be recognized, moreover, that the latter ideas stand out more boldly in the ‘Apology’ than in the ‘Dialogue.’"
What is this "philosophical speculation" to which the Catholic Encyclopaedia alludes, and what was its original purpose?

For the answers to these questions, we turn to the Reverend Stuart Hall:
The apologists began to claim that Greek culture pointed to and was consummated in the Christian message, just as the Old Testament was.

This process was done most thoroughly in the synthesis of Clement of Alexandria. It can be done in several ways.

You can rake through Greek literature, and find (especially in the oldest seers and poets) references to ‘God’ which are more compatible with monotheism than with polytheism (so at length Athenagoras.) You can work out a common chronology between the legends of prehistoric (Homer) Greece and the biblical record (so Theophilus.)

You can adapt a piece of pre-Christian Jewish apologetic, which claimed that Plato and other Greek philosophers got their best ideas indirectly from the teachings of Moses in the Bible, which was much earlier. This theory combines the advantage of making out the Greeks to be plagiarists (and therefore second-rate or criminal), while claiming that they support Christianity by their arguments at least some of the time.

Especially this applied to the question of God.

[...]

Justin’s ‘creed’, as we saw, spoke of a transcendent God and Father, of his Son (with the angels), and of the Spirit of prophecy. This triple confession is in line with what we know of the baptismal formula.

But when we look at the theology of the apologists, we find that generally their thought is ‘binitarian’ rather than ‘trinitarian’: it speaks of God and his Word, rather than of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The term ‘Trinity’ was not yet in use in the Church. Theophilus is the first to use the Greek word for Trinity (trias, triad), when he takes the first three days of creation as signifying the trinity of ‘God and his Word and his Wisdom’ (To Autolycus 2.15), and Tertullian soon after 200 was using the Latin trinitas of God.

If we suppose that the baptismal confession and central Christian belief was in a threefold form, we have to account for the binitarian thought of Justin and those like him.

The most obvious explanation is that their apologetic is directed towards Greek thought. They began from what appeared to be common ground. Among the Greeks, a familiar notion was the thought of an utterly transcendent, perfect, unmoving God, and of a second, mediating, active being responsible for the created order, whether as its superior governor or as its immanent soul.

Such a theology was being propounded, for instance, by the Platonist Albinos in Asia Minor at the same time that Justin was himself there, before he moved to Rome.

Hall, Stuart G. (1991), Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church.
Such was the unnatural synthesis of Greek philosophy and Christian doctrine. This was the beginning of the steady decline into Christological speculations which the apostles never taught, and the earliest Christians never knew.
'Abba Antony said, "A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.'"'

Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (2006), Antony 25, p. 5.

Credo.

#4 Evangelion

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Posted 02 January 2005 - 04:51 PM

Alan Davies (ordained minister of the United Church of Canada) observes that the Judeo-Hellenic encounter was a cataclysmic event - almost resulting in the death of pure Christianity itself:A second reason for the special character of the Jewish Christian encounter is theological. Jews and Christians worship the same God, the God of biblical monotheism. This is a simple point, but one that cannot be stressed too strongly. Jews, especially Orthodox Jews, have sometimes been tempted to regard the God of Christianity as different from the God of Judaism, largely because of the doctrine of the trinity: a notoriously difficult doctrine, even to Christians.

But the doctrine of the trinity arose as an attempt to translate the biblical notion of the living God into the intellectual idiom of ancient Hellenism, using the language of Greek metaphysics.

At some point during the second century Christianity ceased to be a Jewish sect and became a universal and increasingly gentile religion. Therefore, the fathers of the church turned to the Greek thinkers, the fathers of Western philosophy, for their working principles.


Ex-pagans rather than ex-Jews began to write Christian theology, and the Jewish roots and sources of the faith became endangered, sometimes seriously endangered. However, in mainstream Christianity, they were never lost.

The doctrine of the trinity was a source of both clarification and confusion. Of clarification, because it enabled gentile Christians to relate the Hebrew Scriptures to Greek metaphysics, and of confusion because no single version of the doctrine ever emerged, and because it probably created as many problems as it solved.

However it is interpreted, Christians agree that there is only one God, and any version of the doctrine that suggests that Christians worship more than one God (tritheism) is necessarily false.

Davies, Alan (1996), Judaism and Christianity: A Creative Tension.
It is easy to find Jews (both Hellenic and "native") in the Christian church of the 1st and early 2nd Centuries. But it is simply impossible to find them in the centuries that follow. And why?

Because by this stage, Christology had developed to such an extent that it simply was not recognisable by anybody whose theology began in the Old Testament, and found its conclusion in the new. Such was the eventual divorce of the Church from its original Jewish roots - the beginning of a new epistemological era, in which the Scriptures were slowly replaced by Greek metaphysics.

Christology had ceased to be entirely Biblical; it now became the product of philosophical speculation.
'Abba Antony said, "A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.'"'

Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (2006), Antony 25, p. 5.

Credo.

#5 Evangelion

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Posted 02 January 2005 - 04:54 PM

Edmund Fortman (the late Catholic theologian) freely admitted that "orthodox" Trinitarianism is an unBiblical dogma - but as a Catholic, he was free to do so, for his Church does not rely on the evidence of Scripture alone:
Some theologians have concluded that all post-biblical trinitarian doctrine is therefore arbitrary.

While it is incontestable that the doctrine cannot be established on scriptural evidence alone, its origins may legitimately be sought in the Bible, not in the sense of "proof-texting" or of finding metaphysical principles, but because the Bible is the authoritative record of God's redemptive relationship with humanity.

What the scriptures narrate as the activity of God among us, which is confessed in creeds and celebrated in liturgy, is the wellspring of later trinitarian doctrine.

Dogmatic development took place gradually, against the background of the emanationist philosophy of Stoicism and Neoplatonism (including the mystical theology of the latter), and within the context of strict Jewish monotheism. In the immediate post New Testament period of the Apostolic Fathers no attempt was made to work out the God-Christ (Father-Son) relationship in ontological terms.

By the end of the fourth century, and owing mainly to the challenge posed by various heresies, theologians went beyond the immediate testimony of the Bible and also beyond liturgical and creedal expressions of trinitarian faith to the ontological trinity of coequal persons "within" God.

The shift is from function to ontology, from the "economic trinity" (Father, Son, and Spirit in relation to us) to the "immanent" or "essential Trinity" (Father, Son, and Spirit in relation to each other).

It was prompted chiefly by belief in the divinity of Christ and later in the divinity of the Holy Spirit, but even earlier by the consistent worship of God in a trinitarian pattern and the practice of baptism into the threefold name of God. By the close of the fourth century the orthodox teaching was in place: God is one nature, three persons (mia ousia, treis hupostaseis).

Fortman, Edmund J. (1971), The Triune God.

'Abba Antony said, "A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, 'You are mad, you are not like us.'"'

Ward, Benedicta. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (2006), Antony 25, p. 5.

Credo.




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