Posted by Clark Bates
November 8, 2017
It never fails, whether I’m watching television, out at a movie, or just on social media, at some point the argument will be made that the early Christian community didn’t believe in the Trinity, or specifically the divinity of Jesus, until the mid to late 4th century. In defense of this position, the Council of Nicaea in AD 325 will be mentioned, and then some will mention works like On the Incarnation or Letters to Serapion by the 4th century bishop Athanasius of Alexandria. It’s argued that, since there are no real treatises or disputations which defend the Trinity prior to this point, it’s clearly an evolved theological position that wasn’t held by either the apostles or the 1st and 2nd century church. To borrow Bart Ehrman’s premise from his book How Jesus Became God, not even the apostle Paul viewed Jesus as God, but most likely a lesser deity or angel, created by God and then elevated to a position equal to Yahweh. In short, if you’re a trinitarian you don’t believe what the apostles believed.
It shouldn’t take many believers long to meditate on this argument before they start to notice flaws. First, just to (very briefly) respond to Ehrman’s position, while it’s true that certain Jewish sects around the first century did practice the worship of angels, and believed in lesser gods, it doesn’t follow that Paul believed this. In fact, one would have to find evidence of this belief in the accepted writings of Paul, or his rabbi Gamaliel, to make this assertion even remotely valid. This is the same error Dr. Ehrman makes when he re-asserts the Bauer hypothesis that in the first two centuries of the church there were multiple forms of Christianity, but no clear orthodoxy. This is only tenable if one accepts various levels of Gnostic thought to be on equal footing with “orthodox” Christianity, while ignoring that a central tenet of Gnosticism was the rejection of the Old Testament and many segments of the New. As early as the mid-1st century, we have the record of the earliest Christians verifying the message of the apostles through the use of the Old Testament, therefore Gnosticism stands outside the earliest practice of the church, and cannot be included as an equal form of Christianity.
Returning to the issue of the Trinity, two questions should be answered, 1. Why didn’t the doctrine of the Trinity receive more attention in the first three hundred years after Christ’s death and resurrection, and 2. How do we know that the Trinity was an accepted belief prior to this time?
Why didn’t the doctrine of the Trinity receive more attention?
For the hyper skeptic, the answer is simple: because no one believed it. However, this level of hyper skepticism isn’t warranted without a careful evaluation of the available evidence. While the Council of Nicaea did convene in AD 325 to discuss the divine nature of Christ, it wasn’t a debate over whether Jesus was a man or God, but rather that Jesus was accepted to be God, but in what sense was he God? The bishop Arius believed that Jesus was a lesser, divine being, of similar substance to the one, true God, but not the same. His opposition believed that Jesus was of the same substance as the one, true, God, and thus co-equal with Yahweh. On both sides, the divinity of Christ was already accepted.
Athanasius was a primary figure at the Council of Nicaea (though not yet a bishop at that point) standing in opposition to Arius. His work on the divinity of Jesus and the divinity of the Holy Spirit are, even today, the quintessential theological writings on the divine nature of the Trinity. But why was there no writing on this subject before him? First, it must be acknowledged that Athanasius is not the first church father to speak of the divine nature of Christ. There are various triadic statements in the writings of Polycarp, Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Melito of Sardis, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen and Hipploytus, suggesting, rather firmly, that the concept of the Trinity, or at least the equal divine nature of Christ, was a prominent belief in the centuries prior to Athanasius. However, it’s also true, that no prior church father had written in such detail, seeking to explain HOW such a doctrine could exist. I believe there are several reasons for this:
Until the conversion of Constantine in approximately AD 312-313, it was illegal to be a Christian. The church suffered various levels of persecution in various regions of the empire for the first three hundred years of its existence. It can be difficult to write extensive theological treatises on a particular religion, as a member, when doing so could cost you your life. Of course, this did not prevent those church fathers to write their defenses of the church, but the very reason for those defenses was to respond to heresy and governmental lies regarding the nature of the faith, not to develop a theology of the incarnation.
After Christianity became “legal” many in Rome began to convert. Whether these conversions were authentic or not isn’t the point of this article so I won’t enter into that debate here, but authentic or not, this meant that many Hellenized Christians were entering into the faith with little-to-no prior knowledge of the writings of the apostles and Paul. In order to better equip the church and instruct this new growth of the church, it became necessary for doctrines such as the Trinity to be carefully addressed. The church had a new mission: present the doctrine of Christ and the church in a manner that can contend with the various beliefs of the Hellenistic heathen. This mission began heavily in the work of Clement of Alexandria roughly a century prior, but now could continue to flourish, unabated under Constantinian rule.
Lack of writing doesn’t equal lack of belief
It can be all-too-easy to latch on to the hyper skeptical view that a lack of discussion regarding the Trinity means that no one believed it until later, but this doesn’t necessarily follow. It’s equally possible, even plausible, that the doctrine of the Trinity was not discussed precisely because it was widely accepted and, at the time, required no further elaboration. Given the aforementioned triadic sayings in defense of the divine nature of Christ and the Spirit, there is more evidence in defense of Trinitarianism as an accepted doctrine than there is for it to be a later evolution.
How can we know the Trinity was an accepted belief prior to this time?
The Trinity is literally, a marginal matter. I don’t mean that it’s a matter that’s unimportant, but that the answer to the second question is actually to be found in the margins of your Bible. In every English Old Testament there’s a space between the end of the book of Malachi, and the beginning of the gospel according to Matthew. The gospel of Matthew was not written until after the first half of the first century. The earliest gospel writing, considered by most to be Mark, was likely written within twenty years of the crucifixion. The earliest writing of the apostle Paul, generally recognized as 1 Thessalonians, was penned around the same time. And, of course, famous with Christian apologists, is Paul’s use of Isaiah in Philippians 2. By the time of the writing of the books in the New Testament, in that marginal gap between Malachi and Matthew, the message of the divine Christ and the coming of the Holy Spirit was already being circulated.
Have you ever noticed that none of the New Testament authors bother to defend their trinitarian claims? If such a belief were only a later evolution, requiring centuries of thought, the words of Paul in Philippians 2, the claims of Jesus’ divine character in Mark 2, the creed of 1 Corinthians 15, would all require various levels of defense in order to make them acceptable to the community. This is the case with much of Paul’s theological writing, and even Peter’s, but never over the issue of the Triune nature of God. Why? Because the matter of the Trinity, by the time of the writing of the New Testament, was already an accepted doctrine. Perhaps not as explicitly and meticulously thought through as that of Athanasius, but doctrinal nonetheless.
When you consider the evidence of the early creed in 1 Corinthians 15, the margin of time between the events of the New Testament and the recording of those events, and the writing of the church fathers immediately following the time of the apostles, the evidence in support of an early doctrinal belief in the Trinity grows rapidly. In contrast, the hyper-skeptical approach that spurs on the argument for the later evolution of trinitarian doctrine becomes less tenable. I give you all that information really only to say this, when someone tries to say that belief in the Trinity was a later development for Christianity, remember the margin of your Bible, because the Trinity is quite literally, a marginal matter.