1. The Doctrine of the Trinity
    1. Before we begin to speak of the controversies concerning the doctrine of the Trinity, let's look at several aspects of it from our own point of view.
    2. First, we frankly admit that we are classical Protestants and this means we are orthodox - "Catholic" - at least in fourth century terms. Whatever arguments were raised during the Protestant Reformation, the main body of Reformers did not believe any change was necessary in the basic beliefs about who God is. From our point of view, the side that "won" the Trinitarian and Christological controversies was the right side -- the side that taught biblical truth most clearly and accurately.
    3. This is not to say, of course, that there were not influences involved which had nothing to do with Biblical truth, as we Protestants understand it:
      1. The insistence of the Fathers on the authority of the Catholic church and the quick condemnation of opposing views. The haughty and violent temper of so-called spiritual leaders.
      2. The corrupting influence of contemporary Roman politics.
      3. The fact that to lose a theological argument could mean the loss of one's job and banishment from home.
      4. Finally, the influence of contemporary philosophy which was imported into the theological debates, mostly without the knowledge of the theologians themselves.
    4. Nevertheless, sixteen centuries have passed, and many, many believers have looked at these issues again and again in different parts of the world, and the grand consensus -- uniting almost all Christians -- is that these imperfect Fathers of the 300's did a superb work of theology in crafting classic statements of the faith that we can all believe in.
    5. OK, so what? Let's all affirm these ancient statements and get back to real life? Is that all there is to this controversy? What shall we say to those debates between homoousios and homoiousios -- debates which involved the single letter "i"? Shall we immediately convict those debaters of hopeless theological hair splitting? Not so fast.
      1. This point was most forcefully made to me in early life by a college professor and campus minister who was a Lutheran of decidedly liberal sympathies. He emphasized that the bishops who met at these councils and who wrote these books against heresy were concerned about the eternal salvation of their flocks, not just abstract doctrinal debate. Would we all agree that to worship a false god and call it Father or Jesus Christ would be no saving faith at all? This is exactly what those church fathers thought was happening.
      2. Let's just review a few Scriptures. Let's see if these Scriptures have any relevance to your daily life.
        1. "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit" ... (Matt 28:19). Remember? You were baptized into the name of all three. From the very earliest times, Christians have been baptized into the name of the three persons of the Trinity. (Even though there is some slight evidence of some baptisms being into the name of Jesus only.) This was in direct fulfillment of the command of Christ. And yet, nothing more blasphemous could be imagined unless all three persons named here are God. To package up God the Father and two created beings like this, in a threefold formula, would have been to dishonor God's name. The answer lies in the truth of the Trinity. And, at the beginning of your Christian life, you were figuratively put into the name of all three, and all three were put into you. This is a powerful truth, if you study the attributes of God and understand his mighty working in you.
        2. And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" (Gal 4:6) Now that you are sons of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit work together in you to make you praise him.
        3. "I baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." And it came about in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And immediately coming up out of the water, He saw the heavens opening, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon Him; and a voice came out of the heavens: "Thou art My beloved Son, in Thee I am well-pleased." And immediately the Spirit impelled Him to go out into the wilderness. (Mark 1:8-12) In Jesus' baptism, at the beginning of his ministy, God decided to quickly give a picture of the Trinity as part of one of his first public revelations of Jesus' ministry.
        4. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. . . . And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. John bore witness of Him, and cried out, saying, "This was He of whom I said, 'He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.'" For of His fulness we have all received, and grace upon grace. For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him. (John 1:1-3, 14-18) One of the biggest arguments of the church fathers was that unless Jesus was fully God, he could not do what only God could do. In this passage, we are told that we cannot even know God except for the explaining power of the living Word of God. But it goes much further than his explaining power. His redeeming power would be suspect as well, were he not possessed of the divine nature. To anticipate the next lesson (that on the Christological controversies), we may say that if he had not been God, he could not have represented us before God, and if he had not been man, he could not have represented man at all.
        5. And the former priests, on the one hand, existed in greater numbers, because they were prevented by death from continuing, but He, on the other hand, because He abides forever, holds His priesthood permanently. Hence, also, He is able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins, and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself. For the Law appoints men as high priests who are weak, but the word of the oath, which came after the Law, appoints a Son, made perfect forever. (Heb 7:23-28) Jesus Christ had to be God in order to be eternal, and be the kind of priest that could save us once and for all.
        6. And in the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Rom 8:26,27) The Spirit here is a divine being who intercedes for us. How can he intercede for us, indeed pray for us, to God (the Father) unless he is a different person than the Father? Does this have relevance to you? Do you need the Spirit's work in your life?
          If you are a bare monotheist, then you do not believe in Christianity as it is taught in the Bible and by the Christian Church. Trinitarian thought is not a philosophical monster foisted upon our faith by Greek theologians who had nothing better to do; it is a faithful reflection and meditation upon the actual biblical data which goes back to the very beginning, to Jesus' ministry.
  2. The Arian Heresy, the Council of Nicaea and the Nicene Creed
    1. Arius (250-336) was a presbyter, or priest, in Alexandria under bishop Alexander. His teachings began to be noticed around the year 318, and soon his bishop had him removed from office. However, he had friends and contacts all over the eastern Empire, and he began writing letters and teaching in other ways. He even composed jingles and set his doctrines to music. The essence of his teaching was that the Son of God was not eternal, was not always with God, but was made by the father before all time. The Son was the highest of the creations of God. He maintained his rank by his obedience and love for the Father, but he indeed was a creation and could, hypothetically, fall from obedience. The key phrase that characterized Arian teaching was, "there was [a time] when he was not."
    2. Arius was not merely a wicked unbeliever, although it is commonplace for orthodox writers to treat him so (cf. Calvin below for an example). He believed that the uniqueness of God was compromised by the current doctrine of the Trinity, because as God his nature could not be divided, as it seemed to him the Trinity must require. Note that the error, the heresy, was influenced as much by philosophical considerations as by any Scriptural data.
    3. Athanasius (293-373) was the antagonist on the other side from Arius and the Arians. He was a deacon in the church of Alexandria, and a theological advisor to the bishop, Alexander. In time he himself became bishop of Alexandria. Even though his thought matured over time, he early diagnosed the problems of Arianism and opposed him from the start. Athanasius was a man like ourselves, and did have his faults (harsh treatment of his opponents among them), but his service to the church is incalculable.
    4. The Council of Nicaea, 325.
      1. Constantine was on a trip East to visit the Holy Land, having just secured the entire Empire for himself and looking forward to some relaxation, when he found that his newly adopted church was consumed in the East with the Arian controversy. He was not happy. He sent a letter to Alexander and Arius, glossing over the differences and exhorting them to harmony. When this did not work, he decided to summon a general council of the church. This was a first in Christian history. An emperor summoned the church. He also addressed the council, and participated in the debates. According to some accounts, he suggested the crucial word homoousios be added to the statement of faith being drawn up.
      2. An interesting sidelight to this whole story is to note that this council was meeting only 12 years after the end of the persecutions. Many of the bishops present had been exiled or tortured. Constantine kissed the face of one of the bishops who had lost an eye in the persecutions. These were not just ivory tower theologians meeting to chew the fat. These were men of integrity who had almost given their lives for the faith, a faith that now seemed in danger of being consumed by heresy.
      3. The Council of Nicaea did not waste much time in condemning Arius, even though the outcome was doubtful at first. The Arian party was so bold in proclaiming Christ to be a created being, that it shocked the bishops into action.
      4. The Council produced a statement of faith, not today's "Nicene Creed" but an early version of it, often called the Creed of Nicaea to distinguish it from the Nicene Creed. It contained the crucial word, homoousios, affirming that the Son was "consubstantial" or "of one substance" with the Father. All but two bishops signed it. Arius was condemned.
    5. Unfortunately this almost-unanimous result didn't last long. The Arian party grew, and in years afterward influenced Constantine, and especially his son the emperor Constantius. The emperors interfered more and more in the church, deposing and exiling whichever bishops did not affirm the doctrine of those who had the emperor's ear. Athanasius himself was exiled several times, but always came back.
    6. Arianism grew in importance for many years. It was instrumental in the "conversion" of many of the barbarian tribes. Indeed, Arianism was a more palatable form of Christianity and could be a powerful missionary faith. It lowered the barriers between Christianity and the dominant Neoplatonist form of paganism, by emphasizing the oneness of God and representing the Son and the Spirit as high creatures (H. Brown, p. 113). It also brought Christianity closer to the normal polytheism that the barbarian tribes were accustomed to. Many of the barbarian tribes remained Arian for centuries. Clovis, king of the Franks, was the first major barbarian king to convert to Catholic (i.e., Trinitarian) Christianity. He was baptized in 496.
    7. For a time it was as if Arianism would be the faith of the church, at least the Eastern church. Italy itself was ruled by Arians when the barbarians took over the remnants of the western empire in the 400's. Within the church, various parties suggested compromises and new wordings to explain the mystery of the Trinity, often accusing all the rest of being Arian or Sabellian. But gradually, through the efforts of Athanasius and the Cappadocian Fathers (the two Gregories and Basil), the orthodox Nicene doctrine began to prevail. Even the orthodox statements had grown in subtlety and nuance. Some call the doctrines of the 380's "neo-Nicene" rather than simply Nicene. Terminology differences between Greek and Latin speakers had been resolved, especially at the Council of Alexandria in 362. By 381, enough had been worked out that a new Council was able to affirm Nicene orthodoxy again.
    8. One party in particular should be mentioned: the "homoiousians." Most of these were basically orthodox believers who could not agree on terminology with the Nicene orthodox. They believed that homoousios must inevitably lead to Sabellianism; therefore they proclaimed that Christ was like in nature to the Father. This was to preserve the distinction between persons. This distinction between homoousios and homoiousios has caused a lot of hooting among those who ridicule the Christian faith, or who ridicule distinctions in theology. But Athanasius, for one, wouldn't budge on homoousios, and he was in the end vindicated. He maintained that as long as we teach that Christ is like the Father, we are not giving him his full glory and worship that he deserves as God. He is co-eternal with the Father and is fully divine. Finally the majority of homoiousians were won over by the Nicene party.
    9. At the risk of great oversimplification, one might say that an orthodox Christian believer of any century must steer a straight course between Arianism on the one hand and Sabellianism on the other. We must neither divide the substance nor confuse the persons, as the Athanasian Creed states. (The Athanasian Creed is a precise statement of the Trinity which is not a creed at all, nor is it from Athanasius. It may date from the 5th century. However, it is quite orthodox, and will continue to be studied by anybody who is interested in the knowledge of God. Its text is available here or here.)
    10. Theodosius I, the eastern emperor, summoned the Council of Constantinople in 381. It ratified the final form of the Nicene Creed (see below), which brought back the word homoousios. The Encyclopedia Britannica states,
        After Constantius' death (361), the orthodox Christian majority in the West consolidated its position. The persecution of orthodox Christians conducted by the (Arian) emperor Valens (364-378) in the East and the success of the teaching of Basil the Great of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus led the homoiousian majority in the East to realize its fundamental agreement with the Nicene party. When the emperors Gratian (367-383) and Theodosius I (379-395) took up the defense of orthodoxy, Arianism collapsed. In 381 the second ecumenical council met at Constantinople. Arianism was proscribed, and a statement of faith, the Nicene Creed, was approved. ("Arianism." Britannica CD. Version 97. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1997.)
    11. The Text of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed


      I believe in one God the Father Almighty,
      maker of heaven and earth,
      and of all things visible and invisible;
      And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God,
      begotten of his Father before all worlds,
      God of God, Light of Light,
      very God of very God,
      begotten, not made,
      being of one substance with the Father;
      by whom all things were made;
      who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven,
      and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary,
      and was made man;
      and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate;
      he suffered and was buried;
      and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures,
      and ascended into heaven,
      and sitteth on the right hand of the Father;
      and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead;
      whose kingdom shall have no end.
      And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life,
      who proceedeth from the Father*;
      who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified;
      who spake by the Prophets.
      And I believe one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church;
      I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins;
      and I look for the resurrection of the dead,
      and the life of the world to come. Amen.

* Note: The text given here is from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, which here inserts the words "and the Son," which is the form of the Creed favored by all Western churches. These words (actually one word in Latin, filioque) were added by unknown Western churchmen in early medieval times, and became an accepted part of the Creed. However, they were not in the original text, and they caused great controversy between the Western church and the Eastern, which has never accepted the addition. (Thanks to Emil Beshara for pointing out the error in the original version of this page.)

Postscript: The necessity and utility of creeds.

The topic of creeds has been treated well by many writers, both Protestant and otherwise. The argument is basically this: creeds are necessary because they identify the interpretation of Scripture that is deemed to be accurate. It is well known how many foul doctrines and false practices, as well as just plain common misconceptions, are found hiding behind statements of Scripture that are purported to teach such things. Creeds flush the false teacher out of the bushes by affirming truth in uncompromising language that he can't accept.

Calvin, approving of the traditional language concerning the Trinity, says this:

Now, although the heretics rail at the word 'person,' or certain squeamish men cry out against admitting a term fashioned by the human mind, they cannot shake our conviction that three are spoken of, each of which is entirely God, yet that there is not more than one God. What wickedness, then, it is to disapprove of words that explain nothing else than what is attested and sealed by Scripture! (Institutes, 1.13.3)

. . . However, the novelty of words of this sort ... becomes especially useful when the truth is to be asserted against false accusers, who evade it by their shifts. . . Thus men of old, stirred up by various struggles over depraved dogmas, were compelled to set forth with consummate clarity what they felt, lest they leave any devious shift to the impious, who cloaked their errors in layers of verbiage. Because he could not oppose manifest oracles, Arius confessed that Christ was God and the Son of God, and, as if he had done what was right, pretended some agreement with the other men. Yet in the meantime he did not cease to prate that Christ was created and had a beginning, as other creatures. The ancients, to drag the man's versatile craftiness out of its hiding places, went farther, declaring Christ the eternal Son of the Father, consubstantial with the Father. Here impiety boiled over when the Arians began most wickedly to hate and curse the word homoousios. But if at first they had sincerely and wholeheartedly confessed Christ to be God, they would not have denied him to be consubstantial with the Father. . . . Yet that mere word marked the distinction between Christians of pure faith and sacrilegious Arians. . . . (ibid, 1.13.4)

If, therefore, these terms were not rashly invented, we ought to beware lest by repudiating them we be accused of overweening rashness. Indeed, I could wish they were buried, if only among all men this faith were agreed on: that Father and Son and Spirit are one God, yet the Son is not the Father, nor the Spirit the Son, but that they are differentiated by a particular quality. (ibid, 1.13.5)

1. The "Athanasian Creed" is a precise statement of the Trinity which is not a creed at all, nor is it from Athanasius. It may date from the 5th century. However, it is quite orthodox, and will continue to be studied by anybody who is interested in the knowledge of God. I have not reproduced it here.

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Copyright © 1997, 1999, 2001 by Mark S. Ritchie. Permission is granted to use materials herein for the building up of the Christian Church. Bibliographic entries for published works quoted may be found in Bibliography page.