The Development of the Doctrine of the Trinity

Jason Dulle

Introduction · Post-Apostolic Age (AD 90-140) · Greek Apologists (AD 130-180) · Old Catholic Age (AD 170-325) · Arianism and the Road to the Council of Nicea · After Nicea: The Road to Constantinople · The Council of Constantinople · Conclusion · Relavence to the Modern Believer


There has never been a doctrine so widely embraced as that of trinitarianism. The majority of Christendom accepts this doctrine as divine truth. Although the majority do embrace this doctrine nominally, there are a variety of ways in which it is understood. There are the opposite extremes of tritheism and the modern oneness belief, and then there is the orthodox belief as stated in the ancient creeds.

What is the relationship of YHWH, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit? How are we to understand the Scriptural teaching of monotheism, and yet confess the divinity of the Father, Son, and Spirit? How are we to maintain monotheism, and still maintain the Scriptural distinctions spoken of as existing between the Father, Son, and Spirit?

Our generation is not the first in its attempt to find a way to explain the Scriptural injunctions as stated above. The church has been attempting to understand the nature of the Godhead since its inception. How did the early church understand this? Where did the doctrine of the trinity come from? This paper will address these very questions. In the following I will attempt to demonstrate the progressive development of the trinitarian doctrine up to the Council of Constantinople in AD 381. This will be accomplished by examining the ways in which the Godhead was explained in the various generations leading up to the 381 council, as witnessed by the writings of the early theologians.

Post-Apostolic Age (AD 90-140)

There are not many extant documents from this period of time. We only possess an epistle from Clement of Rome, seven epistles of Ignatius of Antioch, one epistle by Polycarp of Smyrna, The Shepherd by Hermas, The Didache, and some pseudonymous writings. These writings are very important for our studies due to the proximity in time in which they were written in relation to the apostles. The men who penned these works were alive when some of the apostles were still ministering abroad. Their teachings are very likely to be closely allied to the common first-century understanding of the Godhead, as taught by the apostles.

In the Epistle to the Corinthians, Clement of Rome confessed the deity of Jesus Christ, saying, "Our Lord Jesus Christ [is] the Sceptre of the majesty of God."1 He did recognize a distinction between the Father and Son. He wrote, "Have we not (all) one God and one Christ? Is there not one Spirit of grace poured out upon us?"2, an apparent allusion to Ephesians 4:6.

Ignatius’ writings are somewhat difficult to decipher simply because of the many obvious interpolations to his texts by later copyists. It is believed that the original versions are found in a Syriac translation. Ignatius also confessed the deity of Christ in a profound manner. Jesus is none other than the eternal God made manifest in the flesh: "Look for Him who is above all time, eternal and invisible, yet who became visible for our sakes; impalpable and impassible, yet who became passible on our account; and who in every kind of way suffered for our sakes."3 Not only was Jesus said to have been the preexistent God, but He is also said to have suffered for us: "The passion of my God."4

Polycarp was in possession of Ignatius’ writings, and endorsed his theology.5 It is to be expected, therefore, that Polycarp’s theology would resemble that of Ignatius. The only statement Polycarp made that would lend itself to the trinitarianism states, "The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ Himself, who is the Son of God, and our everlasting High Priest, build you up in faith and truth."6 Some see in this statement an incipient trinitarianism, but it does not advocate modern trinitarianism. Polycarp merely asserted that which the Scriptures assert, i.e. a distinction between the Father and Son. His statement was quite Scriptural, and did not reflect later theological developments.

The author of The Shepherd was a man named Hermas who resided in Rome. He was not a bishop, and did not hold an official office in the church, but His Shepherd became very popular among Christendom. Hermas made a statement that seems to imply the preexistence of the Son as a separate person from the Father, saying, "The Son of God is older than all His creatures, so that He was a fellow-councillor with the Father in His work of creation."7 However, he may have simply meant that the Son existed as the plan or wisdom of God before the incarnation, and not as a separate person.

Hermas viewed the Holy Spirit to be the manifested Son of God: "The holy, pre-existent Spirit, that created every creature, God made to dwell in flesh, which He chose. The flesh, accordingly, in which the Holy Spirit dwelt, was nobly subject to that Spirit, ... and after labouring and co-operating with the Spirit, and having in everything acted vigorously along with the Holy Spirit, He assumed it as a partner with it.8 In another place he said, "I wish to explain to you what the Holy Spirit … showed you, for that Spirit is the Son of God."9

The Post-Apostolic Fathers maintained that there was one God, and that Jesus Christ was God. They did distinguish between the Father and Son, using language much like that of the NT. The Spirit did not receive much attention, but when He did, He was spoken of as being God’s Spirit, revealed to humanity through the person of Jesus Christ. There is no distinctively trinitarian language or concepts conveyed in the writings at this point in time. In fact, some teachings, such as equating the Holy Spirit with the Son, are not consistent with the doctrine of the trinity.

Greek Apologists (AD 130-180)

This age is so called because it was characterized by Greek teachers/philosophers who wrote literary works to be read by pagans, in order to defend and explain the Christian faith to unbelievers. It was an attempt to demonstrate that Christianity was good philosophy, so that it would be accepted by the pagan contemporaries.

The primary author of this time period was Justin Martyr, whose works were numerous. Other important writers from this period include Marcianus Aristides, the anonymous author to the Epistle to Diognetus, Tatian, and Melito.

It was during this period that the doctrine of the Logos was propagated and developed. The idea of the Logos was already popular in the Hellenistic culture and philosophy. The apologists adopted this philosophy, tailoring it where necessary, in order to make the gospel acceptable to the general population, who saw Christianity as foolishness. To the Greeks, the Logos was reason as the controlling principle of the universe. It was impersonal, existing in the realm of ideas. It was this realm that was an intermediary between The Ineffable One and physical reality. Edward Hardy explained how the apologists, and Justin in particular, took the Hellenistic Logos doctrine and incorporated it into Christian theology:

The idea of God’s Logos could be found in a variety of sources. It was floating in the air of popular Greek philosophy and Hellenistic Judaism. . . . Justin’s use of it is partly Biblical and partly apologetic. The Logos being divine, and yet not the Father himself, accounts both for the divinity which Christians have found in Jesus, and by retrospect for the divine appearances in the Old Testament.10

Justin Martyr was the first prolific writer to clearly teach a plurality within the Godhead. He even numbered them, saying, "We reasonably worship [Jesus Christ], having learned that He is the Son of the true God Himself, and holding Him in the second place, and the prophetic Spirit in the third."11 Again he said, "There is … another God and Lord subject to the Maker of all things; who is also called an Angel, because He announces to men whatsoever the Maker of all things-above whom there is no other God-wishes to announce to them. … He who is said to have appeared to Abraham, and to Jacob, and to Moses, and who is called God, is distinct from Him who made all things-numerically, I mean, not (distinct) in will."12

The Logos was the second person next to the Father, and was subordinate to the Father. In fact, he was the first creation of God: "The Word … is the first-birth of God."13

The Spirit is not mentioned much, but when He is, He seems to be equated with the Logos. There is no clear theology of the Spirit. Justin’s primary focus was on Jesus’ relationship to the Father. His perspective seems to be that of binitarianism or ditheism. The Logos was second to the Father in time and sequence, and in authority, but not in will. Justin’s teachings closely resemble that of Arianism which was to flourish a century later.

Justin’s disciple, Tatian, made it clear that the Logos was not equal to the Father, but was His first creation. He existed in God, but emanated forth from Him before the creation of the world, and eventually became revealed physically in the person of Christ: "God was in the beginning; but the beginning…is the power of the Logos. … With Him, by Logos-power, the Logos Himself also, who was in Him, subsists. And by His simple will the Logos springs forth; and the Logos, not coming forth in vain, becomes the first-begotten work of the Father. … The Logos, begotten in the beginning, begat in turn our world."14 This was in essence, the very heart of the Arian heresy that evolved later.

Athenagoras thought of God in some sort of a triad.. He wrote, "[Christians desire] this one thing alone, that they know God and His Logos, what is the oneness of the Son with the Father, what is the communion of the Father with the Son, what is the Spirit, what is the unity of these three, the Spirit, the Son, Father, and their distinction in unity."15

The Apologists’ doctrine was anything but orthodox trinitarianism. The Biblical doctrine of the Logos was explained in terms of Greek philosophical thought rather than that of Scripture, which lead to a false understanding of Christ and His relationship to the Father. The Son was seen to be divine reason, which existed in the mind of God without personal existence, until He emanated from God as the first creation of the Father, for the specific purpose of creation.16 It was at that point that the Son had personal divine existence which was distinct from the Father’s, albeit dependent upon the Father.17 Tatian compared this to our thoughts, and the utterance of those thoughts. We can have a thought, but it does not have an existence until it is spoken. Likewise, the Son was in the mind of God as His Wisdom and Reason, but was birthed from God at the beginning of God’s creation.

The Apologists’ spoke of a Jesus Who was ontologically subordinate to the Father. They did not believe that the Father and Son were coeternal, consubstantial, and coequal. As in the days of the Post-Apostolic Father, not much attention is given to the Holy Spirit. "Some passages seemingly identify the Holy Spirit with the Father, with the Logos, or as an impersonal force. When the Spirit is clearly differentiated from the Father and the Logos, He is a divine being of even lesser rank than the Logos, perhaps similar to an angel."18 For this reason, it seems best to view the Apologists’ view of God as that of a triad, rather than a trinity.

What was the reason for such misunderstandings? "…The scriptural distinction between God and His Son, which related to the incarnation, was wrongly imputed to the divine nature of God Himself."19 The term "Son" was seen to indicate a deity distinct from that of the Father, a lower emanation, instead of God’s revelation to man in human form.

Old Catholic Age (AD 170-325)

This period enjoyed the greatest amount of theological growth. Much of the terminology and theological concepts of this period were adopted at the Nicene and Constantinoplian Councils, being used to define orthodox trinitarianism. This growth was spawned on by theologians such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Cyprian.

Irenaeus, in Against Heresies (182-188), seemed to affirm a pre-existent Son when he said the faith of the church was belief "in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, … and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit…."20

In contrast to the Apologists who taught that the Logos was created in time, Irenaeus taught that the He "coexisted"21 with the Father and was "eternal."22 Irenaeus did, however, make the same blunder as Justin in not distinguishing the terms "Son of God" and "Logos" as it relates to the incarnation. The Logos was God’s visible manifestation, and self-revelation even before the incarnation.23

The Holy Spirit was equated with the Father (5:6:1), or God’s Wisdom as spoken of in the OT. This was in contrast with the Apologists who equated Wisdom with the Logos.

The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are seen as having three separate activities, or aspects to accomplishing one goal, but each aspect is carried out by a different member of the triune God: "the Father planning everything well and giving His commands, the Son carrying these into execution and performing the work of creating, and the Spirit nourishing and increasing (what is made)."24

Tertullian (150-225) was the first to speak of God as a trinity, and as three persons in one substance. God is "the ‘Trinity,’ which consists of ‘three persons…. (2)’ God is ‘one only substance in three coherent and inseparable (Persons)’ (12). … The Father and the Son are ‘two separate Persons; (4), ‘two different Beings’ (4), and ‘distinct but not separate’ (11). The Son is ‘another’ from the Father ‘on the ground of Personality, not of Substance-in the way of distinction, not of division’ (12)."25

Tertullian was so insistent on the distinction between the persons that he even ranked them according to order, saying, "…how comes it to pass that God should be thought to suffer division and severance in the Son and in the Holy Ghost, who have the second and the third places assigned to them, and who are so closely joined with the Father in His substance…."26 When "Father" was used alongside of "Son," Tertullian would only call the former "God," while the latter would be called "Lord." Only when the Son was spoken of separately could He be referred to as "God."27

He spoke of the three Persons as parts of the whole Godhead: "The Father is the entire substance, but the Son is a derivation and portion of the whole. … The Father is…greater than the Son."28 The Son of God is "a portion of the whole Godhead."29

Although he continually denied that the three Persons are separate, he consistently spoke of them in such a manner, and even called them separate: "Now, from this one passage of the epistle [I Corinthians 15:27-28] of the inspired apostle, we have been already able to show that the Father and the Son are two separate Persons, not only by the mention of their separate names as Father and the Son, but also by the fact that He who delivered up the kingdom, and He to whom it is delivered up--…--must necessarily be two different Beings."30 He even declared that they are unified in substance, but not in number: "Thus the connection of the Father in the Son, and of the Son in the Paraclete, produces three coherent Persons, who are yet distinct One from Another. These Three are, one essence, not one Person, as it is said, ‘I and my Father are One,’ in respect of unity of substance not singularity of number."31

His subordinationistic terminology when speaking of the Godhead can not be ignored. The Son is clearly subject to the Father, and the Holy Ghost is subject to the Son:

Now the Spirit indeed is third from God and the Son; just as the fruit of the tree is third from the root, or as the stream out of the river is third from the fountain, or as the apex of the ray is third from the sun. Nothing, however, is alien from that original source whence it derives its own properties. In like manner the Trinity, flowing down from the Father through intertwined and connected steps, does not at all disturb the Monarchy,[13] whilst it at the same time guards the state of the Economy.

Now if He too is God, according to John, (who says.) "The Word was God," then you have two Beings--One that commands that the thing be made, and the Other that executes the order and creates. … I have already explained, on the ground of Personality, not of Substance--in the way of distinction, not of division. But although I must everywhere hold one only substance in three coherent and inseparable (Persons), yet I am bound to acknowledge, from the necessity of the case, that He who issues a command is different from Him who executes it. For, indeed, He would not be issuing a command if He were all the while doing the work Himself, while ordering it to be done by the second. But still He did issue the command, although He would not have intended to command Himself if He were only one; or else He must have worked without any command, because He would not have waited to command Himself.32

In regards to the Spirit, Tertullian seemed to connect Him with the Logos:

Now, by saying "the Spirit of God" … and by not directly naming God, he wished that portion of the whole Godhead to be understood, which was about to retire into the designation of "the Son." The Spirit of God in this passage [Luke 1:35] must be the same as the Word. For just as, when John says, "The Word was made flesh," we understand the Spirit also in the mention of the Word: so here, too, we acknowledge the Word likewise in the name of the Spirit. For both the Spirit is the substance of the Word, and the Word is the operation of the Spirit, and the Two are One (and the same).33

He also explained the Holy Spirit as "proceed[ing] from no other source than from the Father through the Son.34

Origen (185-254) was the greatest contributor to the development of the trinitarian doctrine in the Eastern church, as Tertullian was in the Western Church. He was the first to teach "an eternal trinity of persons."35 The Son was not only eternal, but was eternally begotten by the Father.36 Although He spoke of equality in the trinity saying, "Nothing in the Trinity can be called greater or less,"37 He also said that God the Word is a separate being and has and essence of His own."38 Only the Father is o[ qeoj (the God), while the Son is only qeoj (God). This is made very clear when Origen said,

The Father is the one true God, but…other beings besides the true God…have become gods by having a share of God…. The Father is the fountain of divinity, the Son of reason…. There was God with the article and God without the article, then there were gods in two orders, at the summit of the higher order of whom is God the Word, transcended Himself by the God of the universe. And, again, there was the Logos without the article, corresponding to God absolutely and a god; and the Logos in two ranks.39

He concluded that

there are three hypostases [persons], the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit; and at the same time we believe nothing to be uncreated by the Father…. The Holy Spirit is the most excellent and the first in order of all that was made by the Father through Christ…. The Holy Spirit seems to have need of the Son, to minister to Him His essence, so as to enable Him not only to exist, but to be wise and reasonable and just.40

This terminology presents a skewed view of that which would later become the orthodox view of the trinity. Instead of complete equality between the three Persons, there is a codependency and order of rank. The Logos and the Spirit are creations of God, and can not be spoken of as being The God, but only God. In fact, Origen called Jesus a "second God"41 and said that He was "inferior" to the Father: "For we who say that the visible world is under the government of Him who created all things, do thereby declare that the Son is not mightier than the Father, but inferior to him."42

The major contributions to the theology of the trinity from this time were the ideas of one God in three persons, the coinage of the word "trinity," and the idea of personalities in the Godhead, coming from Tertullian; the eternal generation of the Son, coming from Origen.. Both men saw the Logos and the Spirit as being subordinate to the Father ontologically, and not functionally as it pertained to the incarnation. The doctrine of coequality, although spoken of by Origen, was limited to the Son and the Father. The Spirit was the first creation of the Father through the Son. Up to this point, we still do not have a definitive doctrine of the coequality, or coeternal nature of the three Persons. Instead we have very tritheistic language being used to explain the relationship between the one God and the three Persons of which He consists. What was agreed upon was that the Persons of the trinity were consubstantial.

Arianism and the Road to the Council of Nicea

In AD 318 in Alexandria, Egypt, a conflict broke out between a certain presbyter named Arius, and the bishop of Alexandria, Alexander. Arius taught that the Logos was created out of nothing before the beginning of the world, and therefore was not of the same substance of the Father. In fact, He was the first creation of God. Jesus was a demigod of the Father. Both groups agreed that the Son preexisted the incarnation. The central issue was the eternality of the Son of God. Alexander claimed that the Son was coeternal with the Father, but the rallying cry of the Arians was that "there was a time when He was not."

In AD 321, Alexander held a local synod which condemned Arius’ teachings and excommunicated him and his friends. In turn Arius petitioned support from other bishops to help him in his cause. He gained the support of Eusebius of Nicomedia and a few others. Together they continued to spread the Arian doctrine, and continued to cause dissension among the churches.

This dissension reached the ears of Constantine, who had just become the sole emperor of the Roman Empire in AD 324, after having defeated Licinius in the East. Constantine, who was the first emperor to embrace Christianity, was interested in settling this theological dispute, probably to ensure the unity of the empire. In response, he sent his advisor, Hosius of Cordova, to Alexandria to settle the dispute. When it was apparent that the issue could not be easily solved, Constantine called for a council of all the bishops to meet in Nicea (modern day Isnik, Turkey), twenty miles north of Nicomedia, in Bithynia.

In AD 325, approximately 300 bishops from various cities journeyed to Nicea at the expense of the emperor. This was only about 1/6 of the total number of bishops in Christendom. Each bishop brought others with him, so the total number present was probably upwards of 1500 to 2000 people.43 The majority of these bishops were from the Eastern, Greek-speaking part of the empire. The Council lasted approximately six weeks.

There were three major groups of individuals represented at the council. There were a small minority who were convinced of the Arian doctrine. Eusebius of Nicomedia was the spokesman for this view, rather than Arius. This was because Arius, being only a presbyter, could not sit in on the council. There were also another small minority of bishops who believed Arianism threatened the core of the Christian message, i.e. the full deity of Jesus Christ. The majority of those present, however, were convinced of neither view.	Eusebius of Nicomedia presented his case before the council, reading a speech he had prepared. He believed this would be all that was necessary to convince the majority of he and Arius’ views, and thus become the champion of orthodoxy over Alexander. He was gravely mistaken. When the bishops present heard him portray the Son as a creature of God, they angrily began shouting "You lie! Blasphemy! Heresy!" Eusebius’ voice was quickly drowned out, and his speech was rent from his hands and torn to shreds, then to be trampled underfoot.44 The mood of the undecided majority had now shifted against Arius’ views, and towards those of Alexander.

Convinced that they needed to definitively reject Arianism, the council sought the terms to define its faith. The Scripture alone was not adequate, because both Arians and those who confessed that Jesus was coeternal with the Father, used various proof-texts to no avail. A statement of faith was deemed necessary.

Eusebius of Caesarea, the first church historian, suggested a compromise creed which he used for the church in his city which said that Jesus is "the Word of God, God of God, … the first-born of all creatures, begotten of the Father before all time."45 Most of the bishops were satisfied with this. Even the Arians agreed to adopt it. It was Alexander’s party who strongly opposed it because it did not resolve the issue. Prompted by Hosius, Constantine suggested the inclusion of homoousios to the statement, meaning "of the same substance."46 To this the Arians strongly reacted, and those who followed Origen’s teachings, it seemed too much like modalism, which taught that Jesus’ deity was actually the Father Himself. They proposed that homoiousios be used, meaning "of similar substance." Through Alexander’s eloquence his views prevailed. The Creed that was presented in its final form reads:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, the only begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance [homoousios] with the Father; by whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man; he suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. And in the Holy Ghost. But those who say: "There was a time when he was not"; and "He was not before he was made"; and "He was made out of nothing," or "He is of another substance" or "essence," or "The Son of God is created," or "changeable," or "alterable"-they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic church.

"Of the essence of the Father" and "of one substance with the Father" clearly refuted any idea that the Logos was less than full deity. "Begotten, not made" clearly refuted the Arian denial of the coeternal existence of the Logos with the Father. The final paragraph, also known as the condemnatory clause, condemned the various ways in which Arius’ teachings were spoken of.

In the end, only two bishops would not sign the statement of faith, and Eusebius of Nicomedia refused to sign the condemnatory clause. As a result, they were banished by the emperor, along with Arius.

The council’s contribution to the development of the trinitarian doctrine is very important. It firmly rejected the idea that the Logos was created and non-eternal with the Father, and established that the Logos was of the same substance with the Father. This latter affirmation, however, caused division once again in the ensuing years. Even at the council many bishops were hesitant about the inclusion of homoousios because of it lent itself to modalism. The council’s decision can not be referred to as trinitarian, however, since it did not deal with the Holy Spirit. There is only one sentence in the creed regarding Him, but it only affirmed that they believed in the Holy Ghost. The issue at this council was the relationship of the Logos to the Father, not to the Father and to the Holy Ghost. This issue would be taken up at the next ecumenical council.

After Nicea: The Road to Constantinople

After the Council of Nicea adjourned, the bishops went back to their respective churches and many continued to teach the way they had before the Nicene Creed was adopted. The wording of the creed allowed the bishops to interpret it in various ways.

Arianism, although defeated by creed and imperial decree, quickly arose again and soon became the dominant view in the East. In three short years, Eusebius of Nicomedia (who was related to Constantine in some manner) managed to gain a hearing before the court of Constantine to present his views once again. Constantine was sympathetic to Eusebius this time, and allowed Arius and the deposed bishops to return in AD 328. Eusebius of Nicomedia played a crucial role in the rest of Constantine’s reign. He even baptized Constantine on his deathbed in AD 337. Two years after Constantine’s death, Eusebius was made bishop of Constantinople upon the death of the former bishop.

Alexander died in AD 328, who was succeeded by Athanasius, a die-hard defender of the Nicene position. He became the champion of trinitarian orthodoxy.

The political milieu that developed between the Council of Nicea in AD 325 and the Council of Constantinople in AD 381 had much to do with the development, and acceptance of trinitarian orthodoxy. Constantine had embraced Arianism after the Council of Nicea. After his death, his son Constantius II, who ruled in the East while Constans and Constantine II ruled all of the West, continued on with his support of Arianism. He became very pro-active for Arianism and against the Nicenes in AD 353, just three years after becoming sole emperor of the empire. Constantius II continued as emperor until his death in AD 361. Arianism enjoyed a time of flourishing from AD 328-379. Many bishops signed Arian Creeds of confession, including Hosius of Cordova.

While Arianism dominated the theology of the empire because of the emperors’ acceptance and approval, Athanasius and a few others continued to fight for the Nicene position.. Athanasius was deposed from his bishopric in Alexandria no less than five times, but he continued the theological struggle even in exile.

Athanasius was aware of the hesitancy of many to accept the homoousios terminology because it lent itself toward modalism, so he came to accept the use of the term homoiousios, meaning "of similar substance," to speak of the relationship of the Son to the Father. This was a very important step, since he had previously argued that the use of homoiousios was just as heretical as Arianism.47

In AD 362, at a local synod in Alexandria, Athanasius declared that it was acceptable to refer to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost as "one substance" as long as this was not understood to mean an obliteration of distinction between the three persons, and it was acceptable to speak of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost as "three substances" as long as this was not understood to separate the three as three individual gods.48

Athanasius died in AD 373, just eight years before his basic views would be adopted as orthodoxy at Constantinople. He did not live to see his victory, but his work was carried on by the Great Cappadocians: Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus. They refined some of the terminology of the Nicene Creed, and that of Athanasius, to make it more acceptable. It is their work that is reflected in the synthesis of the modern trinitarian doctrine.

Their main contribution was in their use of ousia and hupostasis. At Nicea, these terms were used synonymously, but the Cappadocians distinguished between them as Tertullian had over 150 years before. They said that the Godhead existed as one ousia, but in three individual hupostasis. In Latin it was termed one subsantia and three personae. They did allow the Greek word prosopon to be used in place of hupostasis, but did not prefer it because "it originally meant face, countenance, or mask, and Sabellius had used it to mean manifestation or role."49

While Athanasius was alive he argued against distinguishing between ousia and hupostasis, because Nicea did not distinguish them. He did not like to say "three hupostasis because it made too great of a distinction between the persons. He did not like the term prosopon because it made too little of a distinction.50 At the AD 362 synod, however, he did accept "three hupostasis" as orthodox language, although he still advocated for the older Nicene language.

Although "three hupostasis" was acceptable to many, many others viewed this as tritheism. Hebrews 1:3 was cited which taught that Jesus was the express image of God’s hupostasis, and not of a second hupostasis. Athanasius contributed to this misunderstanding by saying that all men have the same substance, just as the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost have the same substance. The Cappadocians elaborated upon this by comparing the trinity to three men. Just as Peter, James, and John were homoousios with one another, yet three persons, so the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost were homoousios with one another, yet three Persons Who had the same divine nature.51

To deal with this misunderstanding, Gregory of Nyssa admitted that the language employed was a customary abuse of language. He said that unlike three men, each member of the trinity participates in the other’s work: "Every operation which extends from God to the Creation … has its origin from the Father, and proceeds through the Son, and is perfected in the Holy Ghost."52

The Cappadocians continued to use the subordinationistic language of the third-century when speaking of the Son and Spirit. Basil taught that we are "to perceive three, the Lord who gives the order, the Word who creates, and the Spirit who confirms," and "the natural Goodness and the inherent Holiness and the royal Dignity extend from the Father through the Only-begotten to the Spirit."53 Gregory of Nyssa said, "Grace flows down in an unbroken stream from the Father, through the Son and the Spirit, upon the persons worthy of it."54 Gregory of Nazianzus even declared, "I should not like to call the Father the greater, because from him flows both the Equality and the Being of the Equals (this will be granted on all hands), but I am afraid to us the word Origin, lest I should make Him the Origin of Inferiors…. The word Greater…does not apply to the Nature, but only to Originator."55

In summary, the Three Cappadocians taught that

The one God-head subsists in three coequal, coeternal, coessential persons, and this truth is an incomprehensible mystery. There is communion of substance but distinction of personhood. This trinity is a perfect, inseparable, indivisible union, and the persons work together in all things. The unique distinguishing characteristics of the persons are as follows: the Father is unbegotten, the Son is begotten (generated), and the Holy Spirit is proceeding (spirated). The generation of the Son and the procession of the Holy Spirit are mysteries, however. While the persons are coequal and coeternal, the Father is in some sense the head and the origin.56

The Council of Constantinople

In AD 379, Theodosius I became ruler of the Roman Empire. He was a staunch supporter of the Nicene doctrine. It was under his direction the second ecumenical council was called in AD 381 to meet in Constantinople. There were only about 150 bishops present, and none of these were from the West. Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus were the primary spokesman, Basil of Caesarea having died a few months before.

The creed which the council adopted stated:

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, of all that is, seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit the became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father [and the Son].57 With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

This council, rather than Nicea, is where the first definitive, orthodox, universal creedal statement was made which discussed the relationship of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Nicea’s primary concern was the relationship of Jesus to the Father, but Constantinople added to its creed the full, coequal, coeternal, consubstantial deity of the Holy Spirit. For this reason it is regarded as the first, truly trinitarian creed.

The council is important for two other reasons. First, it was the final theological blow to Arianism, although it would not be until the sixth century that it would finally be stamped out. Secondly, Apollinarianism was defeated, which taught that Jesus had an incomplete human nature.


The Bible is content to speak of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as being God, without explaining how it is so. The doctrine of the trinity was the attempt to defend three Biblical teachings all at the same time: monotheism; the divinity of the Father, Son, and Spirit; and the Scriptural distinctions between the Father, Son, and Spirit. The doctrine developed slowly over a period of over 200 years, and continued to be refined in the way it was explained for hundreds of years after. Its development began by an attempt to understand the nature of God in terms of Greek philosophical concepts, i.e. the idea that God is impassable and immutable. Since God could not suffer or change, the Son of God was declared to be an emanation from the Father, His first creation by which all else was created. Though He was divine, the Logos sprang forth from the Father, became incarnate, suffered, died, was buried, and rose again. Slowly the ideas of coeternality and coequality were adopted between the Father and the Son, and eventually the Holy Spirit was added to this understanding. The final result was the belief in One God who exists in three distinct essences (Persons). The Father is unbegotten; the Son is begotten; and the Spirit is proceeding. Each Person in the trinity has a certain function in the divine Economy, although Each Person participates in the work of the other two. The Father is seen in creation, the Son in redemption, and the Spirit in sanctification. These three are coeternal, coequal, and consubstantial. The trinity is an indivisible unity, the Persons being distinct, yet not separate.

Relavence to the Modern Believer

The nature and being of God is the most incomprehensible idea known to man. How re we to think of that which has no beginning, which is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and eternal? Though the concepts can be known by the mind, they can not be fully comprehended. We have no experience in this world with which these elements can be seen or grasped. With such an idea as that of God, it must be confessed that there is no one who can adequately explain His nature and being. Every man, though he contemplates it and seeks to discover it, will always come short and develop deficiencies in his theology. Understanding this, we need to watch ourselves lest we elevate a certain creedal statement, a certain author’s explanation, or our own understanding of God to the place of untouchable orthodoxy. Just as the doctrine of the trinity developed over time, and the individual’s theologies (who were crucial in its development) developed over time, so too our understanding of God develops over time.

The creeds of Nicea and Constantinople, though they may be beneficial to the Christian, are not the final word on the nature of the Godhead. The development of the trinity was in steps. Some of the ideas that were purported by earlier theologians were later condemned as heresy, even though they were the basis for later developments which were accepted as orthodoxy. Frank Stagg spoke of the deficiencies in the development of the trinitarian doctrine when he said, "But what began as insistence upon tri-unity eventually became an emphasis upon the threeness and increasing jeopardy to the belief in oneness. … To the term trinity were soon added the terms "persons," "three persons," "three persons of the Godhead," and even the ranking of the persons as first, second, and third. Thus trinitarianism was fast on the way to tritheism, a de facto belief in three distinct gods.. This the New Testament never anticipated and does not support."58

Since the development of the trinity was in stages, and those who advanced the doctrine had deficiencies in their theology, I must believe that even the councils and their definitive creeds did not bring an end to the pursuit of understanding God, nor an end to theological deficiencies. Although we may build from the early pioneers of the faith, we must seek to perfect it. I believe it is the duty of the modern believer to re-examine his beliefs about God to be sure they are Biblically based. There is no creed or tradition as important as truth, and no truth as important as God. The modern church must seek to perfect its understanding of God. This may indeed necessitate the re-examining of the doctrine of the trinity as it has developed over the centuries. There are today, many trinitarian authors who are, in fact, attempting a fresh explanation of trinitarianism that seeks to rid the reader of subordinationistic and tritheistic conceptions of God that conventional trinitarianism has brought about in the minds of various individuals.

As did the early church, the modern church must continue to seek out a manner in which to understand and explain the Biblical teaching of monotheism, the Biblical language that puts distinctions between the Father, Son, and Spirit, and the Biblical teaching of the divinity of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Are we to understand how three Beings are yet one God, or are we to understand how One being can be spoken of in three different ways? Which emphasis are we to have? The answer to this question will determine our understanding of God, and our relationship to that God, which is the ultimate purpose for all of mankind. May God be with us in the pursuit of this grand and glorious purpose!


1. Clement of Rome, Epistle to the Corinthians, 16. <back>
2. Ibid., 46. <back>
3. Ignatius, Epistle to Polycarp, 3. <back>
4. Ignatius, Epistle to the Romans. 6. <back>
5. David K. Bernard, Oneness and Trinity A.D. 100-300: The Doctrine of God in Ancient Christian Writings (Hazelwood, MO: Word Aflame Press, 1991), 38. <back>
6. Polycarp, Epistle to the Philippians, 12. <back>
7. Hermas The Shepherd, Similitude, 9:12. <back>
8. Ibid., 5:6. <back>
9. Ibid., 9:1. <back>
10. Cyril Richardson et al., trans. and ed., Early Christian Fathers (New York: Macmillan, 1970), 233. <back>
11. Justin, First Apology, 65. <back>
12. Justin, Second Apology, 56. <back>
13. Justin, First Apology, 21. <back>
14. Tatian, Address to the Greeks, 5. <back>
15. Athenagoras, Plea for the Christians, 12. <back>
16. Berkhoff, The History of Christian Doctrines (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1937), 58, as found in David K. Bernard, Oneness and Trinity A.D. 100-300 (Hazelwood, MO: Word Aflame Press, 1991), 87. <back>
17. Bernard, 86. <back>
18. Bernard, 88-89 <back>
19. Bernard, 175. <back>
20. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 1:10:1. <back>
21. Ibid., 2:25:3. <back>
22. Ibid., 2:13:8. <back>
23. Bernard, 100. <back>
24. Irenaeus, 4:38:3. <back>
25. Tertullian, Against Praxeas, 2, 12, 4, 11, 12, quoted in David K. Bernard, Oneness and Trinity A.D. 100-300 (Hazelwood, MO: Word Aflame Press, 1991), 107. <back>
26. Tertullian, Against Praxeas, 3. <back>
27. Ibid., 13. <back>
28. Ibid., 9. <back>
29. Ibid., 26. <back>
30. Ibid., 4. <back>
31. Ibid., 25. <back>
32. Ibid., 8. <back>
33. Ibid., 26. <back>
34. Ibid., 4. <back>
35. Bernard, 112. <back>
36. Origen, On the Principles, 1:3:4. <back>
37. Ibid., 1:3:7. <back>
38. Origen, Commentary on John, 1:23. <back>
39. Ibid., 2:3. <back>
40. Ibid., 2:6. <back>
41. Origen, Against Celsus, 5:39. <back>
42. Ibid., 8:15 . <back>
43. David K. Bernard, The Trinitarian Controversy in the Fourth Century (Hazelwood, MO: Word Aflame Press, 1993), 15. <back>
44. Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity. Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1984), 164. <back>
45. Bernard, The Trinitarian Controversy in the Fourth Century, quoting from The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2d ser. (Reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), 4:74; 14:3. <back>
46. Homoousios comes from homo meaning "the same," and ousia meaning "substance." <back>
47. Gonzalez, 179. <back>
48. Ibid. <back>
49. Bernard, The Trinitarian Controversy in the Fourth Century, 40. <back>
50. Ibid. <back>
51. See Basil, Letters, 38; 8:137. <back>
52. Gregory of Nyssa, On "Not Three Gods," 4:84. <back>
53. Basil, On the Spirit, 16:38, 47. <back>
54. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Holy Spirit, 5:323. <back>
55. Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration on Holy Baptism, 7:375-76. <back>
56. Bernard, The Trinitarian Controversy in the Fourth Century, 45. <back>
57. The phrase "and of the Son" (called the filioque) was not part of the original creed, but was an addition by the Western church at the Synod of Toledo in 589. This addition came to be fully accepted by the Roman Catholic church, but has always been denied by the Eastern Orthodox church. While the filioque is not part of the original creed I have inserted it in brackets because it is the most widely form of the creed espoused by Trinitarians at large today. <back>
58. Frank Stagg, The Holy Spirit Today (Nashville: Broadman Press, n.c.), 14-15. <back>

Email IBS | Statement of Faith | Home | Browse by Author | Q & A
Links | Virtual Classroom | Copyright | Submitting Articles | Search