The Trinity: True or False?

Chapter 8


The historical development of the Doctrine of the Trinity


400 BC to AD 120 The Philosophical Background
Second Century 
Third Century 
Fourth Century 
Later Centuries
Chapter 8 Appendices



Ignatius was bishop of Antioch and was put to death in the Coliseum at Rome sometime between the years 110 and 117. On his fateful journey to Rome he wrote epistles to various churches that had sent emissaries to cheer him on his way, and to one individual, Polycarp of Smyrna. Of the epistles once attributed to him, seven are now regarded as genuine, although they may contain some interpolations. (53)

In all these letters the essential distinction between God and Jesus and the subordination of the Son to the Father is evident. He speaks of God as the 'Father of Jesus Christ', (54) of 'one God, who has manifested himself through Jesus Christ his Son' (55), exhorts his hearers to 'subordinate yourselves to the bishop and to one another, as Jesus Christ in the flesh did to the Father', (56) and refers to the 'God of Jesus Christ'. (57)

In the following passage, by the repetition of the word 'truly', Ignatius was clearly attacking the Docetians in stressing the reality of the person of Jesus, but at the same time gives a summary of then Christian belief, which contains no hint of any co-equality or pre-existence but rather stresses the dependence of Christ on God ('his Father raised him', etc.):

'Stop your ears therefore when anyone speaks to you apart from Jesus Christ, who was descended from David, who was the son of Mary, who was truly born, who both ate and drank, was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died, in the sight of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth; who was also truly raised from the dead, when his Father raised him, and his Father in like manner will raise us up also who believe in him through Jesus Christ, without whom we can have no true life'. (58)

There is clearly no hint here of any relationship between God and Christ as is demanded by Trinitarian dogma. If Ignatius believed the modern idea of the Trinity he could and almost certainly would have used other arguments to combat the errors of the Docetians.

But on the other hand elsewhere in his letters Ignatius does seem to go further than the Apostles in that he describes Jesus as 'God', using phrases such as 'Jesus our God', and 'our God Jesus Christ'. We say 'seem' advisedly, because there is some possibility that here we have examples of the later interpolations alluded to above; although probably few would go along with Lamson's view that the text is 'hopelessly corrupt'. (59)

The uncertainty arises because in a Syriac version Ignatius' Epistle to the Romans closes with 'Jesus Christ our God', whilst the other versions simply says 'Jesus Christ'. Similarly in his Epistle to the Ephesians 'blood of Christ' was changed into 'blood of God'. This raises suspicions that other occasions where Jesus is called God may have been similarly edited to suit later beliefs. (As we have already seen from a consideration of 1 John 5, this is by no means uncommon, see pp.32,198). Alternatively Ignatius could have been using the term in the sense that Justin and Tertullian did some years later. Speaking of Jesus they said: 'Who, since he is the first-begotten ... of God, is God', (60) and 'whatever is born of God is God' (61); Here they are saying that Jesus is God, not in the trinitarian sense, but in same way that one born of human parents is human. Even so, could it be said that we have here the very beginnings of the process that led to the full doctrine of the Trinity? Whilst Ignatius in no way regarded Jesus as God in the Trinitarian sense, we might detect a slight shift of emphasis away from the Apostles' teaching. As Leitzmann says:

'John preached that the logos had become flesh, but Ignatius goes further and says without hesitation that God had come in the flesh or had appeared as man, and this characterisation of Christ as divine, leads him, in the end, actually to speak of the sufferings of God and the blood of God'. (62)  

But even this was but a first step on the long road to the Trinity. As the same author continues concerning Ignatius' views:

'Nevertheless the person of the Son is clearly distinguished from that of the Father ... The difference between the Father and the Son becomes still more evident when the subordination and the exemplary obedience of the Son are emphasised. ... Both in the abstractions of theology, and in the concrete religion of Ignatius, the Risen Lord is a person clearly separated from the Father, the one God of his monotheism'. (63)

So whilst Ignatius might have used the word 'God' in referring to Jesus, he was not using the term in its highest sense and saying that Father and Son were equal.


When Ignatius left Philippi on the last stage of his fateful journey to Rome he left the Philippians instruction to write to Polycarp at Smyrna asking for copies of Ignatius' other letters. In complying with this request Polycarp sent his own epistle to them as well. Unlike the epistles of Ignatius, in Polycarp's letter there is nothing with the slightest Trinitarian implication. He never speaks of Christ as God, and always maintains a clear distinction between the Father and the Son. The Father is Christ's God, the 'Almighty', and Jesus the 'Saviour'; (64) God is the 'Father of our Lord Jesus Christ' (65); Christ received glory from God at his resurrection; (66) and belief must be 'in our Lord Jesus Christ and in his Father who raised him from the dead'. (67)

It would thus seem from Polycarp that Ignatius was expressing a far from universal viewpoint when he termed Christ 'God'; or maybe there is some truth in the suggestion that his original text was modified later.


The next example of early Christian literature dates from about 140. It is a rather whimsical book of visions described by Hermas, written in an attempt to stir up the Christians in Rome to greater spirituality. Although not part of the canon of Scripture, it was highly regarded by later writers such as Irenaeus. Here, possibly for the first time, we have the pre-existence of Christ firmly stated:

'The Son of God is far older than all his creation, so that he was the Father's counsellor in his creation'. (68)

But the subordination of the Son to the Father, and his dependence on Him is not questioned. Jesus received the law 'from the Father', and 'received all power from his Father'. (69)


Probably the next document, chronologically speaking, is the Letter of Barnabas, circa 150. Like the above work it was highly regarded in the early church. When Tischendorf found the Codex Sinaiticus in the convent of St Catherine at the traditional site of Mt. Sinai, this epistle was bound in with the rest of the New Testament, coming after the book of Revelation. By now the doctrine of the Son's pre-existence is firmly established, and he is designated creator:

'.. he (Jesus) was Lord of all the world, to whom God said, at the foundation of the world, "Let us make man in our image and in our likeness"'. ... ' .. when as they look at the sun ... which is the work of his (Christ's) hands'. (70)


At this point in our study of the history of the Trinity it is worth noting that nowhere in the 'Apostolic Fathers' (as the writers we have so far studied are called) has the logos doctrine been referred to. It is highly significant that the opinions which were later to become the essence of Justin Martyr's teaching have received not the slightest attention. Lamson comments on this:

'The absence of all traces of the (Logos) doctrine in these writings can be explained only on the supposition that the authors "did not", in the words of Souverain, "find it in the Christian religion, nor in the Jewish; and, not having studied in the school of Plato, they could not import it from that school into the Church of Christ". Hagenbach concedes that the authors of these writings "do not make any particular use of the peculiar doctrine of the Logos". Semisch, after observing that the most ancient Fathers of the Church, in their speculative inquiries into the person of Christ, took their direction from Philo, whose doctrine of the Logos was their starting point, adds, "We except, however, the so-called Apostolic Fathers. Every such application of the idea of the Logos was foreign to their minds"'. (71)


Up to this point of our historical review the detail of the lives and the beliefs of the early Christians have been fragmentary and obscure. But with the advent of Justin Martyr we enter a period well chronicled with writings that are universally accepted as genuine. Justin was born probably about the turn of the century, and continued until about 165, when he suffered a martyr's death. Before his conversion to Christianity he was devoted to studies of philosophy, and even afterwards he continued to preach Christianity dressed in the conventional robe of a philosopher. (72)

His main works consist of two Apologies (i.e. defences of Christianity) addressed to the Emperor and a Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew antagonistic to Christian beliefs. As a person of high ideals, intrepidly witnessing to his beliefs, and showing fearless courage even to the sacrifice of his own life, he must command our respect and appreciation.

Yet to a modern reader Justin's somewhat abrasive style of writing, his rather unexpected beliefs, his poor mustering of the arguments, his inaccurate quoting or even modification of scripture, his belief that even philosophers like Socrates and Plato were inspired by God through the logos, (73) give rise to disappointment if a systematic and vigorous defence of Christianity is expected. According to Justin all the evils in the world are traceable to the demons who sprang from the illicit union of the angels with the daughters of men. (74)

These antagonists of God and of all that is good were responsible throughout history for all the lies, fraud and false religions such as paganism; but their deceptive practices had now been discovered and exposed by the coming of Christ. In this we can see that Justin was influenced by the thinking of his age rather than Apostolic and scriptural Christianity, for demonology was of the essence of pagan religions. (75)

This is even more true of his statements about Christ, where it is universally acknowledged that he derived his views from the philosophers rather than scripture. It was Justin who invested the word logos with the meaning that Trinitarians give it today, i.e. a pre-existent person rather than a thought or purpose that became reality at the birth of Jesus. Justin reinterpreted the O.T. passages which previously had been regarded as Hebrew idioms or figures of speech (76) to mean that the Logos was bodily present from old time. Thus passages such as 'By the word (LXX logos) of the Lord were the heavens made' (Psalm 33:6) and the creative acts of wisdom in Proverbs 8:22-31 he regarded as descriptions of Christ's actual operations in creation.

To ensure that we are not misrepresenting the 'philosopher turned Christian', in alleging Plato as the real source of his views on the relationship of God and Christ, we give just a small selection of comments by historians on the source of Justin's ideas:

'These apologists, the most notable of whom was Justin Martyr, defended Christianity ... Their defence was that if there was any truth in traditional religion, it lay ... in a lofty philosophical piety, and that the truth glimpsed by the philosophers (especially the Platonists) was grasped more surely by Christianity. ... The appeal to philosophy, especially to Platonism, and the claims that Christianity was vindicated by what was best in the philosophers .... most appealed to Eusebius' (77)

'The earliest Christian philosophers, particularly Justin and Athenagoras, likewise prepared the way for the speculations of the Neoplatonists ... by their attempts to connect Christianity with Stoicism and Platonism' (78)

'Justin was converted, but did not understand this to mean the abandonment of his philosophical enquiries, nor even the renunciation of all that he had learnt from Platonism. ... The transcendent God of Plato, beyond mortal comprehension, is the God of the Bible. ... Justin's debt to Platonic philosophy is important for his theology in one respect of far-reaching importance. He uses the concept of the divine Logos or Reason both to explain how the transcendent father of all deals with the inferior, created order of things, and to justify his faith in the revelation made by God through the prophets and in Christ.' (79)

'It is obvious that Justin's Christianity is divided into two halves; one is a philosophic religion which clothes Greek ideas and conceptions in a loose Biblical garment, ... and the second aspect is that of the unreasoned faith of the Church in which words of Jesus, sacramental mysticism, and church-life combine to form an active unity'. (80)

Thus it is indisputable that if we seek the source of Justin's theology we need to look no further than the philosophical concepts outlined at the beginning of this chapter. It came from Plato rather than the Jewish and Christian scriptures. The Platonic concept, now revised by the emerging Neoplatonists of Justin's age, of a transcendent, unknowable God who revealed himself to the material world by means of a 'second god', the Logos, was transported into Christianity to produce the Father and the pre-existent Son, the creator and redeemer of the world.

But, let it be noted, this is still far from the full Trinitarian concept as it was later developed. Justin's views differed from the final church position in several respects. First, Justin clearly states that Jesus was a being created by God. Using the words of later controversy, "there was a time when he was not". He taught that the Logos or Reason, originally an attribute of God, was converted into a real being by a voluntary act of the Father; and this took place some time before the creation of the world. His words are:

'In the beginning, before all creatures, God begat of himself a certain rational power, which, by the Holy Spirit, is also called the Glory of the Lord, .... Son, Lord, and Logos' (81)

Thus, because the Son was created, Justin regards him as a distinct person, inferior and subordinate to the Father. He speaks of the Father as 'Lord of that Lord who appeared on earth' and the source of all his power. (82)

He frequently applies to the Son such phrases as 'next in rank' or 'next after God'; the Son is 'the first power after God the Father and sovereign Lord of all'. (83)

Thus Justin recognised a great difference between the Father and Son. There was no belief in Jesus forming one of three co-eternal and consubstantial 'persons'; rather he was distinct in essence and nature, having a real individuality, separate from God, from whom he derived all his power and authority, and was subject to his Father's will in all things.

Although the germ of the Trinity had now been firmly introduced, it does not mean to say that the teaching about the pre-existent Logos was universally accepted by the Church. Justin was probably an avant garde thinker, similar to some of the Church leaders of our day who propound controversial ideas. In support of this suggestion we have the comment of Leitzmann who mentions that Tatian, a disciple of Justin, and Athenagoras, a later second century writer, both felt unable to wholeheartedly accept Justin's views:

'... the doctrine of the logos is only dealt with in a passage (of Tatian's) that requires it, and with much restraint as compared with Justin. ... Apparently neither of these two men (Tatian and Athenagoras) was willing to recognise, in the extra-biblical world, "the seed-corn of the logos", which Justin had brought into discussion'. (84)

In fact Justin himself implies that his views about Christ did not reflect the universal belief of his time. He recognises that there were some who rejected them, being believers in the simple humanity of Jesus. To these Justin accords respect even if he cannot agree with them something his present day successors could copy with profit. In his dialogue with Trypho he admits the possibility of his being wrong; but that even if he could not prove the Son's pre-existence, the latter's position as Christ is not affected. Trypho had protested:

'For as to your assertion that this Christ pre-existed, being God, before the ages, and then submitted to be born and made man ... appears not only paradoxical, but foolish'.

To which Justin replies:

'I know that this assertion appears paradoxical, especially to you Jews. Nevertheless, Trypho, the proof that he is the Christ of God stands, if I cannot show that he pre-existed, the son of the Creator of the universe, so being God, and that he was born of the Virgin as man. But, since it is fully demonstrated that he is the Christ of God, whatever be his nature, even if I do not succeed in proving that he pre-existed .... in the latter respect only would it be just to say that I have erred. You would still not be authorised to deny that he was a man, born of human parents, and should it be shown that he became Christ by election: for there are some of our race who acknowledge that he is the Christ, but affirm that he was a man ... from whom I dissent'. (85)

This is a most important passage. Justin admits the possibility of his ideas being unproveable; and accepts that there were some who disagreed with him, but he does not term them heretics. Clearly Justin did not believe, as was later held and is maintained until this day, that the divinity and pre-existence of Christ were essential for the accomplishment of his mission, and belief in it essential for salvation. There were sufficient proofs to demonstrate that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ. This for Justin was the all-important fact: whether or not Christ pre-existed could be left as a matter of opinion.

There is possibly another reason for the shift in emphasis in the public presentation of Christ's origin. Put ourselves in Justin's position. His objective was to present Christianity in the best possible light, first in an attempt to reduce persecution, but ultimately to convert the world. Yet the pagans were asked to believe in someone who appeared to them to be a common criminal, and who after being condemned at a civil trial was slain in the manner reserved for the lowest of society. Notwithstanding his subsequent resurrection, this fact of history must have been seen as a continuing source of embarrassment as the movement grew. Whilst a century earlier, when the sect was small and insignificant, Paul could have unashamedly and defiantly proclaimed the cross as 'foolishness' to the Greeks and a 'stumblingblock' to the Jews (1 Corinthians 1:23) the thought of a world-wide religion being based on an executed criminal was daunting. As Justin says 'We are accused of madness; because, as they say, we assign the second place, after the immutable and eternal God, the Creator of all things, to a crucified man'. (86)

If however it could be shown to the Roman world that the Christian leader was one of the gods, an emanation from the divine mind, the pre-existent creator, then Christianity would become more reputable.

Justin and the Holy Spirit

Although the position of the Son was being defined during this period, the role of the Holy Spirit was less to the fore. It was still regarded as the power of God in action, often being referred to as 'the prophetic Spirit', that is, the Spirit that effected divine inspiration. Sometimes the writers of this period fail to distinguish between the Logos and the Spirit, even at times using the terms interchangeably. There is no hint of a personal, co-equal member of a trinity in this extract from Justin:

'We are not atheists, worshipping as we do, the Maker of this universe, ...offering up to him prayers and thanks ... And that we with reason honour Jesus Christ our teacher of these things and born for this end, .. receiving him as the son of the true God, and holding him in the second place, and the prophetic Spirit in third rank'. (87)

Here Justin clearly distinguishes between the 'worship' rendered to the Father, and the 'honour' given to the Son. In third rank was the Holy Spirit, the inspirer of the prophetic scriptures, and to reverence these writings was to honour the 'prophetic Spirit' that spoke through them. The modern Trinity is nowhere expressed here; indeed, worship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit on equal terms is expressly excluded. Evidently the doctrine as we know it today was not the belief of Justin or his Christian contemporaries.


Soon after Justin's martyrdom Theophilus became bishop of Antioch. He is noteworthy for being the first to use the word 'trias', trinity, in reference to the Deity. But Theophilus was still a believer in the supremacy of God, and the Son as a creation of God, being produced 'before all things' from the reason (logos) of the Father. In fact an examination of the passage in which 'trias' is used shows that Theophilus was not attempting to describe a trinitarian relationship. He is indulging in what for many of the 'Fathers' was a favourite pastime attempting to find 'types' of Christianity in the Old Testament record. Speaking of the Genesis record of the creation of the sun, moon and stars he says:

'In like manner, also, the three days which were before the luminaries, are types of the triad of God, and his word, and his wisdom. And the fourth is the type of man, who needs light, that so there may be God, the Word, Wisdom, Man. Wherefore on the fourth day the lights were made'. (88)

No unbiased reader would ever conclude from this that Theophilus believed in and was referring to the Trinity in its conventional sense.


The writings of Irenaeus in the closing years of the second century marked a consolidation of the opinions that eventually gave rise to the Trinity. In some ways Irenaeus took Justin's arguments a little further. Because he felt that the Logos doctrine of Justin gave rise to the criticism that he was preach-ing two separate Gods, Irenaeus in an attempt to emphasise the monotheism of God insisted that the Logos was inseparable from the Father, just as light is inseparable from the sun. To quote Leitzmann on this: 'God was entirely nous, entirely logos, entirely operative spirit, and entirely light, and anyone who separated one of these from God would make him a composite being.' (89)

The question was 'How could God beget a Son and remain only one God?'. Irenaeus could not find a logical answer, and so resorted to saying that such things were unknowable by humans and not revealed in Scripture. Isaiah 53:8 was quoted in support: 'Who shall declare his generation?' Thus it seems that Irenaeus was the first to introduce the idea of an unknowable 'mystery' into the debate about God.

But the subordination of the Son to the Father is still not in doubt: Irenaeus says 'the Father is above all, and is himself the head of Christ'. (90)  Thus with many such allusions he leaves us in no doubt that the co-equality of the Son with the Father was not part of his teaching. Rusch comments here:

'For Irenaeus the Son is fully divine. ... Still he is clearly a second-century theologian, as his picture of the Trinity discloses. There is a single personage, the Father, the Godhead itself, with his Word (reason) and his Wisdom. Not only is monotheism reaffirmed, but the real, eternal distinctions in the Godhead are stressed. (91)

Irenaeus also more closely defines the Holy Spirit, making an exact distinction between it and the Logos..



53. For discussion on this see Moeller, pp.112-114; Mosheim, Vol. I. Cent I, ch.II, para 20 and footnotes.

54. Magnesians 3:2

55. Ibid, 8:2

56. Ibid, 13:2

57. Trallians 7:1

58. Ibid 9:1-2

59. Lamson, op. cit. p.16.

60. Justin, Apol. I p.81

61. Tertulian, Apol., adv. Gentes,c.21

62. Leitzmann: History of the Early Church, Vol. 1, p242

63. Ibid, p243

64. Chapter 1

65. Chapter 12:2

66. Chapter 2:1

67. Chapter 12:2

68. Parable 9, chapter 12.

69. Parable 5, ch.6

70. Chapter 5:5,10

71. Lamson, p.25

72. Eusebius IV,11

73. First Apology, 46

74. The reference is to Genesis 6:1-3but few today would accepts Justin's interpretation of this passage.

75. For a detailed critique of Justin's writings see Lamson, pp26-60, and Leitzmann, Vol. II, p183-185; and a briefer comment in Mosheim, Vol. I Cent. II, Ch. II, para 5.

76. Lamson, pp.70-74 deals extensively with this.

77. Louth, A, Eusebius, p. xiv-xv

78. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Art. 'Neoplatonism'

79. Chadwick, pp 75-77.

80. Lietzmann, Vol. II p.185.

81. Dial. c.61, Otto's translation.

82. Dial p.222

83. Apol. I p.63.

84. Leitzmann, Vol. II, p186

85. Dial, pp143-5

86. Apol. I p.51

87. Ibid.

88. Ad Autol., 1. ii, c. 15.

89. Vol. II, p.210.

90. Contra Her. 1, v. c, 18, para 2

91. Rusch, W.G. The Trinitarian Controversy p.7. Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1986