During Augustus’ reign as Emperor of the Roman Empire, the Pax Romana settled over the Mediterranean world – with the notable exception of Judea (Palestine, the Holy Land). After the beheading of John the Baptist and the Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, unrest continued leading to the Jewish-Roman Wars (66-73, 115-117, 132-135), the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (70) and the forced exile of many Jews. Little wonder then that the early Gentile Christians disassociated themselves from Judaism and turned to Greek philosophical models to develop their new theology.
And with God and the Logos (the Word) of Platonism and Stoicism, the Greco-Roman intellectual world was in some sense “ready” for God the Father and God the Son. Indeed, the early Christians identified the Logos with the Christ. In the prologue of the Gospel of St. John in the King James Bible, verses 1 and 14 read
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
And the Word was made 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.
Christians who undertook the task of explaining their new religion to the Greco-Roman world were known as apologists, from the Greek ἀπολογία meaning “speech in defence.” Thus, in following up on the Gospel of John, Justin Martyr (100-165), a most important 2nd century apologist, drew on Stoic doctrine to make Christian doctrine more approachable; in particular, he held that the Logos was present within God from eternity but emerged as a distinct actor only at the Creation – the Creation according to Genesis, that is. But while often referring to the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, the Divine Spirit and the Prophetic Spirit in his writings, Justin apparently never formulated a theory of the Trinity as such.
So from here, how did early Christians reach the elegant formulation of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity that is so much a part of Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christianity? Mystère.
The earliest surviving post-New Testament Christian writings that we have that include the Holy Spirit, the Father and the Son together in a trinity identify the Holy Spirit with Wisdom/Sophia. In fact, the first Christian writer known to use the term trinity was Theophilos of Antioch in about the year 170:
the Trinity [Τριάδος], of God, and His Word, and His wisdom.
In his powerful Against Heresies, Irenaeus (130-202) takes the position that God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are co-eternal with God the Father:
I have also largely demonstrated, that the Word, namely the Son, was always with the Father; and that Wisdom also, which is the Spirit, was present with Him, anterior to all creation,
In A Plea for Christians, the Athenian author Athenagoras (c. 133 – c. 190) wrote
For, as we acknowledge a God, and a Son his Logos, and a Holy Spirit, united in essence, the Father, the Son, the Spirit, because the Son is the Intelligence, Reason, Wisdom of the Father, and the Spirit an effluence, as light from fire
Here the “Wisdom of the Father” has devolved onto God the Son and the Holy Spirit is described simply as emanating from the Father. On the one hand, it is tempting to dismiss this theological shift on the part of Athenagoras. After all, he is not considered the most consistent of writers when it comes to sophiology, matters of Wisdom. To quote Prof. Michel René Barnes:
“Athenagoras has, scholars have noted, a confused sophiology: within the course of a few sentences he can apply the Wisdom of Prov. 8:22 to the Word and the Wisdom of Wisdom of Solomon 7:25 to the Holy Spirit.”
For the full text of Prof. Barnes’ interesting article, click HERE .
On the other hand, the view in A Plea for Christians took hold and going forward the Son of God, the Logos, was identified with Holy Wisdom; indeed, the greatest church of antiquity, the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, was dedicated to God the Son and not to the Holy Spirit.
But Trinitarianism did not have the field to itself. For one thing, there was still Sabellianism where Father, Son and Holy Spirit were just “manners of speaking” about God. The fight against Sabellianism was led by Tertullian – Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus to his family and friends. This Doctor of the Church was the first writer to use the term Trinitas in Latin; he is considered the first great Western Christian theologian and he is known as the Father of the Latin Church. For Tertullian, a most egregious aspect of Sabellianism was that it implied that God the Father also suffered the physical torments of the cross, a heretical position known as patripassionism. Tertullian directly confronted this heresy in his work Contra Praxeas where he famously accused the eponymous target of his attack of “driving out the Holy Spirit and crucifying the Father”:
Paracletum fugavit et patrem crucifixit
Tertullian developed a dual view of the Trinity distinguishing between the “ontological Trinity” of one single being with three “persons” (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) and the “economic Trinity” which distinguishes and ranks the three persons according to each One’s role in salvation: the Father sends the Son for our redemption and the Holy Spirit applies that redemption to us. In the ontological Trinity, there is only one divine substance (substantia) which is shared and which means monotheism is maintained. Here Tertullian is using philosophy to underpin theology: his “substantia” is a Latin translation of the term used by Greek philosophers ουσία (ousia). Interestingly, Tertullian himself was very aware of the threat of philosophy infiltrating theology and he famously asked “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”
The Roman empire of the early Christian era was a cauldron of competing philosophical and religious ideas. It was also a time of engineering and scientific achievement: the invention of waterproof cement made great aqueducts and great domes possible; the Ptolemaic system of astronomy provided algorithms for computing the movements of the spheres (the advance that Copernicus made didn’t change the results but simplified the computations); Diophantus of Alexandria is known as the Father of Algebra, … . The level of technology developed at Alexandria in the Roman period was not reached again until the late Renaissance (per the great Annalist historian Fernand Braudel).
In the 3rd century, neo-Platonism emerged as an updated form of Greek philosophy – updated in that this development in Greek thought was influenced by relatively recent Greek thinkers such as the neo-Pythagoreanists and Middle Platonists and likely by others such as the Hellenized Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria, the Gnostics and even the Christians.
The principal architect of neo-Platonism, Plotinus (204–270), developed a triad of the One, Intellect, and Soul, in which the latter two “proceed” from the One, and “are the One and not the One; they are the One because they are from it; they are not the One, because it endowed them with what they have while remaining by Itself” (Enneads, 85). All existence comes from the productive unity of these three. Plotinus describes the elements of the triad as three persons (hypostases), and describes their sameness using homoousios, a sharper way of saying “same substance.” From neo-Platonism came the concept of the hypostatic union, a meld of two into one which Trinitarians would employ to explain how Christ could be both God and man at the same time.
So at this point, the Trinitarian position had taken shape: very roughly put, the three Persons are different but they are co-eternal and share the same substance; the Son of God can be both God and man in a hypostatic union.
But Trinitarianism was still far away from a final victory. The issue of the dual nature of God the Son as both God and man continued to divide Christians. The most serious challenge to the Trinitarian view was mounted in Alexandria: the bishop Arius (c. 250-c. 336) maintained that the Son of God had to be created by the Father at some point in time and so was not co-eternal with the Father nor was the Son of the same substance as the Father; a similar logic applied to the Holy Spirit. Arianism became widely followed, especially in the Eastern Greek Orthodox branch of the Church and lingered for centuries; in more recent times, Isaac Newton professed Arianism in some of his religious writings – these heretical documents were kept under wraps by Newton’s heirs for centuries and were only rediscovered by John Maynard Keynes in 1936 who purchased them at an auction!
While the Empire generally enjoyed the Pax Romana, at the highest levels there were constant struggles for supreme power – in the end, who had the loyalty of the Roman army determined who would be the next Emperor. The story that has come down to us is that in 312, as Constantine was on his way to fight his last rival in the Western Empire, Maxentius, he looked up into the sky and saw a cross and the Greek words “Εν Τούτῳ Νίκα” (which becomes “In Hoc Signo Vinces” in Latin and “In this sign, you will conquer” in English). With his ensuing victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine gained control over the Western Roman Empire. The following year, with the Edict of Milan, Christianity was no longer subject to persecution and would be looked upon benevolently by Constantine. For a painting of the cross in heaven and the sign in Greek by the School of Raphael, click HERE and zoom in to see the writing on the sign.
Consolidating the Eastern and Western branches of the Empire, Constantine became sole emperor in 324. Now that Christianity was an official religion of the Empire, it was important that it be more uniform in dogma and ritual and that highly divisive issues be resolved. To that end, in 325, Constantine convened a Council at Nicea (modern Iznik, Turkey) to sort out all the loose ends of the very diverse systems of belief that comprised Christianity at that time. One of the disagreements to settle was the ongoing conflict between Arianism and Trinitarianism.
Here the council came down on the side of the Trinitarians: God has one substance but three persons (hypostases); though these persons are distinct, they form one God and so are all co-eternal. There is a distinction of rank to be made: God the Son and God the Holy Spirit both proceed from God the Father. This position was formalized by the Council of Nicea and refined at the Council of Constantinople (381). In the meantime, with the Edict of Thessalonica in 380, Theodosius I officially made Christianity the state religion of the Empire.
Still disagreements continued even among the anti-Arians. There is the interesting example of Marcellus of Ancyra (Ankara in modern Turkey), an important participant in the Council of Nicea and a resolute opponent of the Arians; Marcellus developed a bold view wherein the Trinity was necessary for the Creation and for the Redemption but, at the end of days, the three aspects (πρόσωπα prosopa but not ὑπόστασɛς hypostases, persons) of the Trinity would merge back together. Marcellus’ position has a scriptural basis in St Paul’s assertion in 1 Corinthians 20:28 :
… then the Son himself will be made subject to him [God] who put everything under him [the Son], so that God may be all in all.
This view also harkens back somewhat to Justin Martyr – in fact, writings now attributed to Marcellus were traditionally attributed to Justin Martyr! So, in Marcellus’ view, in the end Christ and the Holy Spirit will return into the Father, restoring the absolute unity of the Godhead. This line of thought opened Marcellus to the charge of Sabellianism; he also had the misfortune of having Eusebius, the Father of Church History, as an opponent and his orthodoxy was placed in doubt. For a tightly argued treatise on this illustrative chapter in Church History and for a tour of the dynamic world of 4th century Christian theologians, there is the in-depth study Contra Marcellum: Marcellus of Ancyra and Fourth-Century Theology by Joseph T. Lienhard S.J.
The original Nicene Creed of 325 as well as the updated version formulated at the Council of Constantinople of 381 had both the Holy Spirit and God the Son proceeding from God the Father. Whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as from the Father is a tough question for Trinitarianism; in Latin filioque means “and from the Son” and this phrase has been a source of great controversy in the Church. A scriptural justification for including the filioque in the Nicean Creed is found in John 20:22 :
And with that he [Jesus] breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit …”
Is the filioque a demotion for the Holy Spirit vis-à-vis God the Son? Or is it simply a way of organizing the economic Trinity of Tertullian? In the late 6th century, Western churches added the term filioque to the Nicene Creed but the Greek churches did not follow suit; this lingering controversy was an important issue in the Great Schism of 1054 which led to the definitive and hostile breakup of the two major branches of Christendom. This schism created a fault line in Europe separating Orthodox from Roman Christianity that has endured until modern times. Indeed, it was the massive Russian mobilization in July 1914 in support of Orthodox Christian Serbia which led directly to World War I.