3. The Trinity and the Deity of Christ
One of the truly unfortunate fruits of the scholastic arm of contemporary Christianity is the wide acceptance that Trinitarian thought was absent from the early church. Today, the majority of theologians believe that Trinitarian thought "evolved" and slowly developed over several centuries. Such scholars may make a distinction between the person "Jesus", and the later appellation of "Christ", which they say was interpreted into the events surrounding Christís ministry many decades after his death. The fact of the whole matter, however, is that virtually all of the very earliest church fathers accepted the truth that Christ was properly God, and that his personality, though in union and equal in power, was distinct from his Father's. The previous evidence based on the Christ-hymn forms is undeniable. They are proof that , before there was ever a Christological debate, council or controversy, Jesus Christ was understood to be worshipped as God. Before there was even a New Testament, Jesus was the focal point of worship and adoration in the apostolic church. In addition to that, we have a tremendous amount of writing in the first three centuries which demonstrates that virtually every single one of the fathers were, in essence, Trinitarian. Perhaps the only reason why we donít have the very earliest Christians making that exact affirmation is purely on the ground of weakness of language. Finding working definitions that could express the co-eternality, co-equality, one essence of the Godhead, yet maintain the distinct individuality of the personalities was, and still is, a semantic land mine. Even the orthodox believers spent an inordinate amount of time wrestling with what they thought the other was saying. In many cases, they were saying essentially the same thing, but the nuances and subjectivity of language caused confusion. One of the greatest problems was in communicating Trinitarian truth between the Greek speaking East and the Latin Speaking West. For decades, the mistranslations and ambiguity of words made one half of the empire think the other were Tritheists, while the other thought the former Monarchiasts, (making Jesus less than God). Fortunately, over time, some consensus was reached regarding Trinitarian language.
In looking at the divergent "Christian" groups in the late first century and early second century, only one group called the Ebionites denied that Christ was God. The Ebionites were Sabbath-keeping messianic Jews (Jewish Christians) who rejected Paul's writings as a departure from the law of Moses. They did, however, accept Matthew's gospel as canonical. I speculate, partly based on the authority of Origen and Irenaeus, that the Ebionites were the remnant of Jewish believers who likely drew their spiritual heritage from the believing Jews who had survived the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Many of the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem and had previously expressed bias against Paul's teaching (see Acts 21:20-27, II Peter 3:15,16). Whereas most believers in Jerusalem abandoned the city in accordance with Jesus' prophetic directions in Matthew 24:15-19, this group of Christians esteemed their Jewish nationalism as more deserving of their loyalty. The fact that most Christians abandoned Jerusalem was the first major rift between the Gentile and Jewish branches of Christianity, which, up to this point, had maintained solidarity through the leadership of James.
The name "Ebionites" means "the poor", which is a fitting description of the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem, as we are constantly reminded throughout the New Testament. (see Acts 24:17, Roman 15:26, Galatians 2:10). The Ebionites would have, on account of their purist Jewish loyalties, considered the Gospel of John suspect, because of it's resemblance to Greek Platonic thought. Another element of the Gospel of John that would likely scandalize the Ebionites would be the frequent "I am" declarations of Jesus (John 4:26; 6:20, 41; 51; 8:12, 58; 10:9,11,14; 13:19; 14:6; 15:!,5; 18:5) The formula "ego eimi" (I am) was the Greek translation of YHWH in the Septuagint (see Exodus 3:14). What compounds the problem for the Ebionites "ego Eimi" is used as a formula for the claim to deity by various pagans gods and goddess such as Isis (Isis Aretalogy of Cyme, v. 3, 56) during the time that the New Testament was written. The Ebionites were faced with the prospect of either recognizing Jesusí claim to be YHWH, or easier still, acknowledging that John had further borrowed from the pagan Greek and Egyptian sources for his gospel, which would have warranted their censure.
Their rejection of Jesus as God would only be expected, since they rejected most of the scriptures that affirmed Christ's divinity. The Greek translation of the Old Testament by Symmachus, for example, that Origen included in his Hexapla, is of Ebionite origin, and it likely manipulated key messianic prophecies to remove any possibility of them ascribing Deity to Christ. The doctrines of the Ebionites are refuted by Irenaeus, Origen, and Lactantius. Being neither able to identify with Christianity or Judaism, the sect of the Ebionites eventually died out and passed into obscurity.
The vast majority of other heresies affirmed that Jesus was truly God, but they denied that he was actually human. The view point called "Docetism" (derived from the Greek word 'docet'-to seem), previously mentioned with respect to the Gnostics, alleged that Christ, manifestation of the Most High God, appeared or merely "seemed" to have put on flesh. They felt that true divinity could not or would not pollute itself by commingling with the sinful flesh of humanity. The idea that God could suffer was abhorrent to them. The proof that a denial of Christ's humanity, rather than a denial of his divinity was the earliest Christological heresy is found in I John 4:2. John says that the antichrist is he who denies that Christ came in the flesh. It would have been completely absurd for anyone of the apostolic generation to deny that he was God. In the following statements from some of the early church fathers, it will be undeniable that they all affirmed the full divinity of Christ. Virtually every pre-biblical "hymn" (including Philippians 2:6-11), creed, and doctrinal synopsis all put Christ's divinity as a matter of first importance. The Philippians hymn, like Johnís "Ego Eimi" statements, is another example of how the disciples utilized the prevalent religious culture to clearly identify Christ as God in a carefully woven universal syncretism. The statement "who thought it not robbery to be equal to God" (verse 6) is found by many today to be a clumsy and enigmatic phrase. Jehovahís Witnesses render the verse "who gave no consideration to a seizure, namely, that he should be equal to God" (New World Translation) in attempt to escape any possibility that this verse may affirm Christís Deity. In the Macedonian culture, however, to whom the epistle to the Philippians was written, there was a powerful religious element called Zoroastrianism. The Supreme God was Ahura Mazda, and one of his titles was "He whose deity cannot be robbed". The statement concerning Christ, then, would be received by the Philippians as an idiom that positively affirmed that Christ, in His pre-existence, rightfully held the position Supreme Deity. Once again, the Biblical authors are making the case for Christianity crystal clear framed in the language most understood to their audience.
Moving on to the earliest statements from the fathers, we see that they unequivocally received this affirmation of the Deity of Christ. Many of the extended doctrinal statements I have omitted, rather than be redundant. The first two come from Ignatius, the disciple of the apostle John. It must be noted that there is some contention as to the authorship of the second epistle (To the Philippians), since it is not quoted or known to Jerome or Eusebius, but being in style of Ignatius, and the author identifying himself as Ignatius, I will submit it just the same.
(Epistle to the Philadelphians, 107 A.D.)
If anyone says there is one God, and also confesses Jesus Christ, but thinks the Lord to be a mere man, and not the only-begotten God...such one is a serpent, that preaches deceit and error for the destruction of men. Such a man is poor in understanding, even by his name, he is an Ebionite.
Ignatius (Epistle to the Philippians, 107 A.D.)
There is one Father, one Son, and one Paraclete (Holy Spirit)...not one person with three names, nor three persons who became incarnate, but three possessed of equal honor.
Justin Martyr, the next writer to deal with the issues of Christís identity, frequently is cited by scholars as being a "subordinationist" with regard to the economy of the Trinity. That is, with respect to the relationship of the Father to the Son, he mentions the Son as being "generated" or "begotten" by the Father, with no clear references to the Son being co-eternal with the Father. Most subordinationists make the Son, Jesus, a lesser deity who acts as an intermediary between the world and the ineffable God. Upon further examination, however, we find that this is far too oversimplified for Justin. Many scholars have apparently presumed that Justin follows Philo the Jewís rationale in explaining the Logos in Neo-Platonic terms, making the Logos (Jesus) distinctly inferior to God the Father. Justin, however, far exceeds these expectations of many scholars in his estimation of Christ. Justin maintains that every appearance of Deity (Theophany) in the Old Testament is actually a "Christophany" (appearance of Christ). Justin is explicit in how Moses conversed with Jesus, who appeared in the burning bush, and identified himself as "I Am That I AM"- YHWH or Jehovah. According to Justin, no one ever conversed with God the Father in the Old Testament period, but only Jesus. What this means then, with respect to the deity of Christ, is that Justinís understanding of Christís Divine nature does not fall short in any way as compared with the Trinitarian position, if we presume that God is revealed in the Old Testament. If any thing, we actually come close to the exact opposite extreme, Modalism, which bears resemblance to contemporary "Oneness" theology. In this quasi-orthodox position, the manifestations of the Godhead are considered merely "modes" or expressions of one God, who has a single personality. The language that is used to describe the Godhead likens each "person" of the Godhead to be like a character played in a drama by one actor. The actor goes off the stage, changes his mask, then reappears as another character. Justin Martyrís insistence that the Divine name of God (YHWH) is contained in and now superseded by the name of Jesus runs risk of confusing all persons of the Godhead as one person, namely Jesus Christ. This however, provides an excellent explanation as to why the emphasis upon the sacred name of God in the Old Testament is completely eclipsed by the declaration that "Jesus is Lord" and that every knee will bow to the name of Jesus, which is the name above all names. (See Romans 10:9,10; Philippians 2: 9-11). This should be an embarrassment to the numerous scholars and Jehovahís Witnesses who have insisted that Justin Martyr did not affirm the full Deity of Jesus Christ. Following are two statements from the Dialogue with Trypho which illustrate Justinís belief in the deity of Christ, and the possibility of confusion in the distinction of persons of the Godhead.
Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho, 150 A.D.)
I wish you to observe (the Scriptures) by which this very man who was crucified by us proved to have been set forth expressly as God, and man, and as having been crucified, and as dying.
and Christ being Lord, and God the Son of God...and is the power indivisible and inseparable from the Father, whom (Christ) the prophetic scriptures call God. (CXXVIII)
Despite the fact that Justin does sometimes employ Platonic categories to try to explain the relationship of the Father and the Son, particularly when he addresses "philosophical" audiences, he still make the son "God", completely indivisible and inseparable from the Father. There are also other texts from Justin that would indicate that he had an understanding of the three persons of the Godhead. In his First Apology, for example, he chastises the Jews who claim to worship the "nameless" God, who they think is the Father, when the God they are referring to is the Son, seeing that Christ is the God revealed in the Old Testament. Justin then describes a Eucharistic service, in which they
Give praise and glory to the Father of the Universe, through the name of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. (LXV)
showing that the Trinitarian style formula was solidly in place in the worship and liturgical practices of the church at that time. Although most of us are unaccustomed to thinking of every reference to the Lord in the Old Testament as being explicitly that of Jesus, Justin appears to have kept within what we would consider the parameters of orthodoxy regarding the Godhead. In his clearest descriptions of the God, he describes Christ as being fully God, "generated" (not created) before time, to be the image of the invisible God for mankind.
A contemporary of Justinís was Melito, who even more specific with the statements regarding Christís nature. Here, he clearly states the essence of what would be formalized some 165 years later at the Council of Nicea.
Melito, Bishop of Sardis (On the Nature of Christ, 160 A.D.)
For, being at once both God and perfect man, he gave us sure indication of His two natures, His deity, by the miracles during the three years after his baptism, and his humanity, by the thirty similar periods before his baptism.
Such work left no room for doubt what was the received position with respect to the nature of Christ. Just a few years later, we have another apologist who clearly states the essential Trinitarian doctrine, even though it would not be formally ratified until the Council of Constantinople, some 200 years later. Athenagoras, in a letter written for non-Christians in the Senate says:
Athenagoras ( A Plea For the Christians 177 A.D.):
We speak of God the Father, and of God the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and declare both their power in union and their distinction in order...
Men who reckon this present life a small thing indeed, and are conducted to the future life by this one thing alone: that they know God and His Logos, what is the oneness of the Son with the Father, and what is the Spirit, what is the unity of these three, the Spirit, the Son and the Father, and their distinction in unity.
It is very significant in this case that this letter is an appeal to non-Christians. If the concepts of the Godhead were in any way shady or speculative at this point, we could be sure that Athenagoras would not be so insistent on sharing it with the pagan Senate. A Greek or Latin scholar skilled in rhetoric knows enough to only present what is defensible and documented in such situations. This all goes to prove that by this point in church history, there was already enough documentation to have some certainty into what the universal position of the Godhead was. Scholars who try to make the case that the orthodox position of the Godhead was a product of the 4th century church have not examined the earliest sources. See how Irenaeus, a contemporary of Athenagoras, asserts the same emphasis on the Deity of Christ and the distinction of persons in the Godhead..
Irenaeus (Against Heresies 180 A.D.)
For the apostles of liberty named no one else God, or named Him Lord, except the only true God and Father, and His Word, who has pre-eminence in all things, and it can be clearly proved that the apostles confessed him as the Lord God who was Creator and spoke with Moses.
For the Father is truly Lord, the Son is truly Lord, the Holy Spirit is fitly designated them the title Lord.
For the sacred books acknowledge with regard to Christ that He is not mere man, and as he is flesh, so also is he spirit, and the Word of God, and God. (Fragment of lost writing of Irenaeus)
At this time also, we can find evidence that the term "Trinity" was utilized to describe this union of the three persons of the Godhead:
Theophilus: (180 A.D.)
The three days (of Creation) are types of the Trinity, of God, and His Word, and His Wisdom (the Holy Spirit).
Theophilus doesnít feel the need to define the word "Trinity", which is evidence that he is not putting forth something new and unheard of. There is little doubt that it was a common appellation amongst his churchmen by that time, although he provides the first reference in writing that is still extant.
Clement of Alexandria, had extensive writing on the nature and deity of Christ. Just by virtue of the fact that he was in Alexandria, a center of Neo-Platonic philosophy, I would suspect that if anyone had been tempted to make Christ subordinate to the Father, and less than fully God, it would be him. Reading his writing, however, reveals that he fully held to the true Deity of Christ.
Clement of Alexandria (Exhortation to the Heathen 192 A.D.):
This very Word (Christ) has appeared as man. He alone is both, both God and man, the author of all blessings to us...he taught us to live well when he appeared as our Teacher; that as God He might conduct us afterwards to the life that never ends.
(The Instructor 195 A.D.)
But our instructor is the Holy God Jesus, the Word, who is the guide of all humanity. The loving God Himself is our instructor.
For the Word Himself is the manifest mystery, God in man, and man God. (ibid)
(The Stromata 195 A.D.)
For teaching which is agreeable to Christ deifies the Creator
Moving into the third century, we have the formal declaration from Tertullian of the nature of the Godhead. His description, namely one substance or essence, with three persons, is usually cited as the "official" description of the Godhead. Later in his life, Tertullian separated himself from the rest of the church over the issue of prophetic utterances from several "prophets" (Montanus, Priscilla, Maximilla), yet he never wavered on his perceptions of the Godhead.
Tertullian (Against Praexeas, 210 A.D.)
All are one, in unity of Substance, while the mystery of this dispensation is still guarded, which distributes the unity into a Trinity, placing their order in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, three, not in substance, but in form, not in power but in aspect, yet of one substance, and one power, and He is one God, from whom degrees and aspects and conditions and reckoned under the names of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Hippolytus, whose separation from the church of Rome over the bishopric of Calistus has already been cited, likewise also had an orthodox view of Christ. One of his arguments with Calistus was over Calistusí confusion of the persons in the Godhead. Calistus clearly denied the distinctiveness of the persons in the Trinity. Some Catholic scholars have tried to defame Hippolytus because of this conflict. Scott Butler and Norman Dahlgreen in "Jesus, Peter & The Keys: A Scriptural Handbook for the Papacy" go so far as to say that Hippolytus "fell into an opposite extreme of error (subordinationism)" (pg 217) in their attempt to rescue the See of Rome under Callistus from the charge of heresy. However, no such libel against Hippolytus is deserved.
Hippolytus (Refutation of All Heresies, 230 AD)
The Logos alone of this God is from God Himself, wherefore also the Logos is God, being the substance of God.
From this statement, we can see that Hippolytus believed that Christ was of the very substance and essence of God, and is properly called God. The charge by the Romanist scholars is not only slanderous, but it is a implicit admission that Callistus was indeed, at best, heterodox.
Origen, also hailing from Alexandria, is perhaps the only of these fathers I have listed that is documented to have a deficient view of Christ with respect to his deity. It may be that he succumbed to the Neo-Platonism of his city, or that he was writing some apologetic and tried to make the doctrines of Christianity more palatable to his philosopher friends, but just the same, is usually considered unorthodox in many of his views. What is unclear, however, is that if Origen was heretical in his views with respect to the Godhead, as he was charged with after his death, why then do we have so much writing of his that is orthodox in this matter? Some think that his admirers altered his writing to make him appear more orthodox (See Rufinius pg. 46). The only other question would be as to why, if he was so unorthodox, was he utilized during his life as a sort of "traveling apologist" to set others straight in their views of the Godhead? In several instances Origen was summoned by different bishops to persuade heretics regarding a proper view of the Godhead. The second quote here is from his examination of the bishop Hericlides, where Origen actually interrogated him to make sure that he believed fully in the divinity of Christ.
Origen (First Principles 240 A.D.)
He (Christ) in the last times, divested Himself of His glory and became a man, and was incarnate, although God, and while a man remained the God which He was
(Dialogue With Heraclides. 244 A.D.)
Similarly our Savior and Lord in His relationship to the Father and God of the universe was not one flesh, or nor one spirit, but something that was higher than flesh and spirit; namely one God.
Regarding other ante-Nicene reference to the deity of Christ, and the Trinity, if have withheld due to space considerations. These that I selected, where chosen because the writer had either a split with the visible church or have been subsequently saddled with the distinction of unorthodoxy.
In summation to this point, it is abundantly clear that Jesus Christ was revered, worshipped and identified as God incarnate from the very earliest days of the church. Although many today would try to downplay the significance of Christ's identity, there is no doubt that Christ's pre-existence as God and Lord, and his union in substance with His Father, ranked as vital facts of the first importance to the early church. It is of interest to note that virtually all of the early heresies of the early church sought first to redefine who Christ was, rather than merely promote a certain belief system. Such heresies would either deny Christ's divinity, like the Ebionites, or, more commonly, deny his humanity, like the Docetists. With such primary evidence from the first three centuries, however, we can definitively see the consensus of the church regarding the apostolic church.
With respect to the application of Trinitarian thought today, there has been a substantial eroding of the importance of this doctrine. As our market-driven churches become more user-friendly, "needs-centered" and seeker-oriented, there has been the suggestion even in conservative churches that the whole concept and definition has become obsolete. After all, wouldnít be like shooting oneself in the foot to insist on the dogmatic importance of a doctrine that no human being could fully comprehend? Our utilitarian mindset would affirm that point. Why would one spend time preaching on a "mystery" when there are so many "How to" sermons one could preach? Yet, despite the prevailing marketing and church growth philosophies of the day, we still have the biblical injunction that Christ, must be preached. One Christ. Fully God. Fully man. Scripture declares that it is the confession of his Lordship that determines salvation (Romans 10:9.10). With that being the case, how could we not give pre-eminence to the preaching of Christ as God in our modern day churches? The Bible presents the person of Christ as the solution to the human condition, not merely his wisdom or his "golden rule". It is a life submitted to Christ, God incarnate, that becomes a vessel for use by the master. With this being the case, issues like the deity of Christ, his co-equality with the Father, and by association, the Trinity, are indispensable and integral elements of the universal church.