THE THEOLOGICAL PROGRESSION OF THE DOCTRINE OF THE TRINITY FROM THE EARLIEST WRITINGS OF THE EARLY CHURCH FATHERS THROUGH AUGUSTINE
BY SCOTT A. LINDSEY
The doctrine of the Trinity is one of the most mysterious and yet profound tenants of the Christian faith.
Augustine, when pondering the depths of the doctrine of the Trinity, was walking along the beach one day when he saw a small boy with a bucket. The boy was running back and forth from the ocean to a hole to pour water into it. When Augustine asked the boy what he was doing, he replied, “I am trying to put the ocean into the hole!” At that moment, Augustine had an epiphany. He realized he had been doing the same thing as the boy in trying to pour the infinite God into his finite mind. (Green 2000, 389) This is a great reminder when considering the Trinity.
The end of the first century and the dawn of the second marked a distinct end and beginning of the early Church. As the Apostolic age concluded, the church had to formulate its beliefs; basic statements such as the person and work of Christ and the nature of the triune God. Much of this crucial formulation of Christian theology took place in arenas of conflict and during heretical controversy. We owe much of what we doctrinally stand on today to the brilliant minds of this patristic period.
Interestingly, the word Trinity does not appear in the Bible. Words used to describe the Trinity such as “persona” or “homoousis” do not appear in the scriptures either. The semantic development of the language of the Trinity became especially important to the Church because of the Arian controversy in the fourth century. Understanding the progression of the doctrine of the Trinity from the apostolic age to the first ecumenical council in 325 AD is important to fully appreciate the battles forged and fought to define this important doctrine.
First and Second Century Thought On the Trinity
Preceding the fourth century showdown of the Nicene Council, which gave the Church it’s first recognized orthodox definition of the Trinity, it is important to see the development of Trinitarian thought through the earliest writings of the patristic Church.
There was hardly a developed Trinitarian language or theology during most of the first century of the Church. However, at the later part of the first-century and the early second-century we see the patristic writers recognizing, interpreting, and struggling with the implications of the Hebrew bible, apostolic testimony, and the church’s worship in their attempt to understand the nature of God. (Olson and Hall, 2002, 16)
It is clear from the writings of the Early Church Fathers that God is triune. St. Clement of Rome, the first Apostolic Father of the Church, in his letter to the church at Corinth (1 Clement) wrote,
“Do we not have one God and one Christ and one Spirit of grace which was poured out upon us? And is there not one calling in Christ?” (Holmes 1999, 81)
St. Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, and Irenaeus are other Early Church Fathers who allude to the Trinitarian nature of God in their writings. (Ignatius 1885, 53) (Martyr 1885, 164) (Athenagoras 1885, 141) (Irenaeus 1885, 546)
Although Scripture is the basis for any and all Trinitarian thought and/or doctrine, these non-canonical works made reference to a Trinitarian idea and helped shaped the understanding of this arduous doctrine.
The difficulty to delineate the plurality of God was characteristic of the first and second century Church. The doctrine of the Trinity didn’t start to clearly formulate until the patristic giant, Tertullian, stepped onto the Church stage.
Tertullian (160–225 AD)
Tertullian was not only considered the “Father of the Trinity,” he was also considered to be the “founder of Western theology.” The impact Tertullian had on Christian orthodoxy cannot be...
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