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May 2, 2009 / Nick

Did the majority of Christians believe in the Trinity before AD 325?


Did the majority of Christian’s believe in the Trinity before AD 325, or was the Trinity a doctrine that was gradually introduced to Christianity that grew in influence over the years?

The 2nd Century (AD 95 – 199)

  • The 3 Bishops who wrote during this period did not write anything about a Trinity doctrine.  All of their works, apart from the psuedographa spoke of One God in Christ (not 3 Persons). 
  • ‘He [Ignatius] says, “Our God, Jesus the Christ, was conceived in the womb of Mary according to a dispensation.” He speaks of “the passion of my God”, “the blood of God”, and “Jesus Christ our God”, “There is one God who manifested Himself through Jesus Christ.”’ Weisser, 1981 p.1
  • In the 2nd half of the 2nd Century the Apologists started to introduce Greek Philosophical thought. Doctrines such as Justin’s theory that the Logos was separate to God, started to water down the pure monotheism of the Early Church.
  • Tertullian said that those who believed in the doctrine of One God who manifests Himself as Father, Son & Holy Ghost (but is not 3 seperate persons) were the majority – Tertullian’s view of Triniarianism was a minority view and he belonged to a heretic sect called the Montanists – who falesly predicted Christ’s return (Bernard, 1995).

The 3rd Century (c. 200 – 299)

  • A succession of 4 Roman bishops maintained the apostolic doctrine of One God, and that Jesus was the One True God. These are Eleutherus, Victor and Zephrinius and Callistus. We know of them through the writings of Hippolytus who they believed was a ditheist as he believed in God the Father & The Logos as 2 divine beings
  • Teachers Praxeas (c. 189-99) and Noetus c. 200 taught that there was but One God with not distinction of persons, or plurality in the Godhead. However, the Apologist Hippolytus accused them of heresy.
  • Another prominent teacher was Sabellius. He preached in Rome c. 215. He taught there was One God, who manifested Himself in different ways – he rejected the idea of plurality in the godhead (Weisser, 1981). Sabellius baptised in Jesus’ name and in 381 when Trinitarianism was adopted as the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, Sabellian baptism (i.e. in Jesus’ Name) was deemed invalid (Weisser, 1981).

  • The view of Sabellius was closer to orthodox Biblical apostolic doctrine – and many believers of the 3rd & 4th Century believed this way (Weisser, 1981).

 

4th Century (AD. 300 – 325)

  • It is in the 4th Century in AD 325 that the apostolic doctrines of One God and baptism in Jesus’ Name are abandoned in favour of the doctrine of the Trinity (One God in Three Persons) and a Trinitarian formula (repetition of Matt. 28:19).
  • Robert Robinson, in his work entitled Ecclesiastical Researches says the following about the Council of Nicaea. “All the classes, who did not hold the doctrine of a trinity of persons in God, whether called Artemonites, Paulianists, Arians, Monarchians, Patropassians, Sabellians, or by any other name, administered baptism in the name of Christ. Weisser, 1981, p. 7
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11 Comments

  1. 1st_veracity / May 2 2009 8:55 am

    Wouldn’t it be an absolutely awesome thing if everyone got back to the original understanding of the gospel?!! It is the ultimate revival we need! This world would tip right off it’s axis! We serve a sound able awesome God, who has been depicted as being too unable to save His own creation and instead sent an offspring to do what He was not able to do. He said in Isaiah 46:5 “To whom will you liken Me, and make Me equal And compare Me, that we should be alike”? He loves those who love Him, but, He expects people to continue to seek His face and come to all understanding.
    :

    • jesusblogger / May 2 2009 10:17 am

      It would be truly wonderful, but thanks be to God there are those who are living and continuing in the doctrine of the Apostles.

  2. Polycarp / May 2 2009 11:27 am

    Not sure if you can get to this, but check this out, if you can.

    http://www.slideshare.net/polycarp

    • jesusblogger / May 3 2009 9:13 pm

      Will take a look.

    • jesusblogger / May 3 2009 11:38 pm

      Awesome presentations – thanks for sharing. I will certainly be using some of your material in my teaching (referencing you of course!)

  3. Jade / May 18 2009 6:53 pm

    This is interesting. I think the “Trinity” as defined as three beings, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as being One God, yet three distinct persons was just a way to get an idea to explain how God has revealed Himself. I will not say I do not believe in the “Trinity,” but I just think it is more mysterious than that. Like how the Holy Spirit at times is called “Christ’s Spirit” in the Bible.

  4. Benjamin Steele / May 19 2009 10:54 am

    I’m sure my view of Christianity is different than yours, but I appreciate you pointing out this discrepancy between early and later Christian doctrine. And it certainly isn’t the only example. One thing that I found interesting is how later Christians often judged the views of Christians prior to them as heretical. The earliest Christian church held many diverse views including those of Valentinus and Marcion. Then the heresiologists took over the church and declared heretical these early church views of Christianity.

    I find it odd that all of the earliest commentators of the New Testament were later banned and burned. For instance, the first NT commentary ever written (by Basilides) was entirely destroyed by other Christians later on and the first commentators of Paul and John were labelled as not being Christian (i.e., Gnostic). The funny thing is that many of the third century Christians who judged heretical the views of some of the first and second century Christians were themselves deemed heretical (in part or whole) by fourth and fifth century Christians.

    The heresiologists only came into power a century or more after Jesus and so why should we give them priority over the Christians that actually knew Christianity as it was first forming? This is a very important question considering that scholarship has shown how much the New Testament was altered (intentionally and accidentally) in the centuries after the life of Jesus. What we now consider the canonical New Testament took centuries to form and the idea of a Christian canon was originated by a Gnostic (i.e., Marcion).

    It’s difficult uncovering what was original to the earliest Christians, but it’s worth the effort even if it means doubting what has become doctrine in what is called “traditional” Christianity. What seems obvious to me is that there was no single monolithic view of Jesus from the beginning. Even accepting the canonical New Testament as it is, there are very important differences between the gospels: differing details (some quite significant), different ideas and words emphasized, etc. And the differences between the gospel writers and Paul are even more interesting.

    The challenge is that, if the ealiest Christians weren’t even of a single agreement about every issue, how are we to decide what is authentic almost two thousand years later? If the heresiologists from the second century on were seemingly so misunderstanding of the earlier Christians, then how are we to come to a better understanding now? It takes immense amounts of study along with soul searching doubts and questions to even begin to grasp an inkling of the common threads to early Christianity.

    • jesusblogger / May 19 2009 6:01 pm

      Thanks for sharing your views. You present a very lucid argument. However, I would argue that the NT is the word of God, divinely inspired and through the providential, often unseen, hand of God we have received it. And through it we know Jesus as Christ.

      • Benjamin Steele / May 19 2009 10:07 pm

        I’m glad that you can at least appreciate the argument I made. It’s fine if we disagree. I assumed you wouldn’t be convinced and I wasn’t seeking to convince you…. just expressing my understanding, limited as it may be.

        It is interesting that you bring up the Word of God. That was a very popular idea in the ancient world.

        The Greeks used this idea first (about 5 centuries before the Christians). Then the Alexandrian Jews (Alexandria, the center of ancient knowledge, had a population that was half Semitic) learned Hellenistic ideas (combination of Greek philosophy and Egyptian religion) in the centuries before Christianity and in the centuries as Christianity formed.

        The most famous and influential of the Alexandrian Jews was Philo who was alive when Jesus supposedly was alive. Philo’s writings used Neo-Platonic philosophy (such as the idea of the Logos/Word of God) to allegorically interpret the Jewish scriptures. The early Christians were heavily influenced by Philo’s writings and many chose to allegorize the Old Testament by using his example. It’s most likely that the early Christians inherited the idea of the Logos from Philo and the other Alexandrian Jews.

        Of course, The Greeks and the Alexandrians Jews obviously didn’t have Jesus and Christianity in mind when they were formulating their conception of the Word of God. So, it’s tricky for a Christian to claim authority by use of a borrowed concept. Anyways, many Christians who disagree with eachother would all make the same claim. The Gnostics would claim their beliefs and scripture are the Word of God. The later Heresiologists would make the same claim. The Catholicizing Christians of the fourth and fifth centuries would do so and the later Protestants would do so.

        My understanding is that it’s obviously not helpful to make a claim that anybody can make to support almost any view. The value of the Christian Logos is a spiritual truth that can only be understood by understanding how the idea developed over centuries. It is a very important idea, but no single person or group has authoritative claim to it’s meaning. If we must assert authority, then I’ll give authority to God… by which I mean authority belongs to the highest source of insight that is available to any person in any culture living at any time. The Logos (philosophically and spiritually) existed before the New Testament and so isn’t limited to the New Testament. Any scripture can only act as a guide.

        • jesusblogger / May 19 2009 10:12 pm

          However, do remember that the Word of God in the New Testament context has nothing to do with Hellenism. It is about the Jewish concept of God having spoken to Moses the Torah and inspired the Prophets and Writings. Thus, the Word of God from a New Testament perspective was originally the Old Testament (Tanakh).

          • Benjamin Steele / May 19 2009 11:06 pm

            I understand that you mean the Christians had specific interpretaions of the Word of God that was different in certain ways than the previous Hellenistic interpretations. Still, in some ways the interpretations were linked as there is a direct lineage of the development of the idea from Hellenism to Christianity. Also, early Christians were well aware of Hellenism as they were surrounded by it and the most influential early Christians were educated in Greek philosophy.

            Furthermore, the idea of Logos came to prominence in Christianity through the prologue of John. The gospel of John is the latest and so probably is a response to the earlier Christian texts and teachings. The idea of Logos was floating around Christian circles early on, but it took centuries for Christians to formulate it as a truly unique Christian idea. The Alexandrian Jews began this process and they mixed their Logos theologizing with earlier Jewish Sophia theologizing. The Gnostics, in particular, took up this tradition. The idea of the Logos seems to have been the most popular with the early Gnostics.

            Your basic point is correct. However, there were diverse understandings of Logos in early Christianity. It’s important to understand the larger context of the time because it’s easy for us to project backwards our own modern interpretations of Christianity.

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