The Doctrine of the Trinity Among the Early Christian Fathers

Many people who reject the doctrine of the Trinity argue that the doctrine was the product of three centuries of develop­ment. Most point to the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325 and the Council of Con­stantinople in A.D. 381 as the times in which the doctrine of the Trinity was introduced into the Christian church. However, the conclusion of these two councils merely affirmed that the doctrine of the Trinity was a biblical teaching and that it had been accepted by the church since the first century. This can be clearly shown by examining the writings of the early Christian fathers during the first and second centuries.

Clement, a bishop of Rome, wrote a letter to the church at Corinth in about A.D. 96. Commonly called Clement’s First Letter, the doctrine of God pre­sented is clearly trinitarian, “Do we not have one God, one Christ, one Spirit of grace which was poured out on us?” – 46.6 in Cyril Richardson, Early Christian Fathers (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1970) p. 65. Clement makes another trinitarian statement at 58.2, “For as God lives, and as the Lord Jesus Christ lives and the Holy Spirit (on whom the elect believe and hope)…” – ibid, p. 70.

The trinitarian formula from Matt. 28:19 is quoted twice in The Didache, a church manual from A.D. 90-100, in connection with instructions on baptism – 7.1-4, Richardson, p. 174.

Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, wrote several letters, which still exist, to differ­ent churches before he was condemned to death by the Romans no later than A.D. 117 for his faith. Ignatius affirmed both the humanity and divinity of Christ. “The source of your unity and election is genu­ine suffering which you undergo by the will of the Father and of Jesus Christ, our God” – To the Ephesians, Richardson, pp. 87-88. Later in the same letter, he writes, “There is only one physician – of flesh yet, spiritual, born yet unbegotten, God incarnate, genuine life in the midst of death, sprung from Mary as well as God, first subject to suffering then beyond it – Jesus Christ our Lord” – ibid, p. 90. In his letter to the Romans, Ignatius again refers to Jesus as “our God.” – ibid, p. 103.

Justin, who wrote his First Apology about A.D. 155, acknowledged that “the Son, who being the Word and First-begot­ten of God is also divine” – Richardson, p. 285.

The trinitarian is clearly implied in Athenagoras’ Plea to Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Arelius in A.D. 176-77, “the Son is in the Father and the Father in the Son by the unity and power of the Spirit” – Richardson, p. 309. Athena­goras repeats his trinitarian position later in his Plea, “We speak of God, of the Son, his Word, and of the Holy Spirit, and we say that the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are united in power” – ibid, p. 326.

Irenaeus, a bishop of Lyons in the late second century, wrote selections entitled Work Against Heresies. In it, he refers to “Christ Jesus our Lord and God and Sav­ior and King, according to the pleasure of the invisible Father” – 10.1, Richardson, p. 360.

Tertullian (A.D. 160/70 – 215/20) ex­plained how it is possible that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one God and that they, however, are differ­ent in his treatise Against Praxeas – Justo L. Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought, vol. 1 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1970) pp. 182-83. Other early Christians affirmed their be­lief in the doctrine of the Trinity, includ­ing Origen (A.D. 185-254) and espe­cially Novatian of Rome (mid-third cen­tury) in his On the Trinity – ibid, pp. 226, 242.

None of these early Christian fathers speculated on the philosophical nature of the Trinity. The doctrine of the Trinity was their way of explaining the biblical truth that God is one and yet the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are God.

Gary Leazer, May 1993