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



Alexandria was one of the greatest cities in the world. For centuries it had been a seat of learning: the fame of its philosophers rivalling that of Athens and Rome. Here was the greatest library of the ancient world, reputedly containing over four hundred thousand volumes. It was almost inevitable therefore that in Alexandria the real interface between Greek and Christian ideology should occur. Towards the end of the second century a Christian theological school was established in the city, where 'Christian ideas were handled in a free and speculative fashion and worked out with the help of Greek philosophy'. (92)

In the early days of the third century the school was presided over by Clement, a man of great learning in both Greek culture and philosophy, and in Christian thought and ethics. Clement's achievement was not to further develop Christian theology, (93)  but to make it more respectable in the eyes of the outside world. Many have commented on this:

'The crucial achievement of Clement and Origen was to put over the Gospel in terms by which it could be understood by people familiar with the highest forms of Greek culture. They established once for all the respectability of the new faith'. (94)

'He was the first to bring all the culture of the Greeks and the speculations of Christian heretics to bear on the exposition of Christian truth.' (95)

In Clement's view Plato and the other Greek philosophers were inspired by the Logos, although not to the same extent as the Hebrew prophets, with the objective of making the Gentile world receptive to Christ. For example he states:

'Philosophy ... educated the Greek world as the law did the Hebrews to bring them to Christ. Philosophy therefore is a preparation, making ready the way for him who is being perfected in Christ'. (96)

It will be seen that this is a radical departure from New Testament Christianity which had a different view of the 'wisdom of this world':

'Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe' (1 Corinthians 1:20-21).

As far as Clement's theology was concerned, he followed what had become the traditional approach, being influenced by thinkers such as Plato. For example, after quoting part of Plato's second 'Epistle' he comments:

'For myself, I cannot understand the meaning of this text except as referring to the Holy Trinity: for the third is the Holy Spirit, and the second the Son, by whom "all things were made" according to the Father's will'. (97)

Thus Rusch is certainly correct when he says:

'Clement presents in a Platonic framework an image of the Trinity which he linked with the Christian triad of Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Who is the Rich Man That is Saved? 34.1). Understandably, Clement's trinity, although Christian in character, has a strong resemblance to the triad of Neoplatonism, the One, Mind and World Soul'. (98)

But it is necessary to stress once more that, in common with Justin, Clement still regarded Christ as a created being. As Lamson says:

'None of the Platonising Fathers before Origen have acknowledged the inferiority of the Son in more explicit terms than Clement. Photius, writing in the ninth century, besides charging him with making the Son "a creature", says that he used "other impious words full of blasphemy".' (99)

Thus Clement's views on Christalready more developed and different from the earlier Fathers were later regarded as blasphemous by a Church which had adopted the Trinitarian formula.


Tertullian lived about the same time as Clement, but westward along the North African coast at Carthage. He was the first Christian of note who wrote in Latin; and brought into common use the basic terms that were so vehemently discussed in the Arian controversy a century or so later. He coined the expression trinitas to denote Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and also the concepts of persona and substantia, which later were expressed as the 'three persons in one substance'. This was in response to criticism that the Christians were either worshipping two separate Gods, the Father and the Son, thus exposing themselves to the charge of polytheism; or teaching that there was no difference at all between them, and therefore God Himself actually suffered on the cross. He considered that the one divine 'substance' was shared between two 'persons': thus God is at the same time one or two depending on how He is viewed. But despite these attempts at explanation the rank and file Christians at this time regarded these speculations of their scholastic leaders as something new. As Lamson again says: 'That the whole "logos doctrine", as it was called, was by many regarded as an innovation, clearly appears. Neander in his "Lectures on Christian Dogmas" notices what he calls a "Unitarian monotheistic interest" as manifesting itself about the time of Origen, or a little earlier. He quotes Tertullian as saying that "ignorant people" were "alarmed at the names of the Trinity, and accuse us (that is, the philosophical Christians) of wishing to teach three Gods, while they would be worshippers of one God.' (100)

It is salutary to thus learn that the doctrine which is regarded today as the mainspring of Christianity was rejected by many when it was first defined.

But whilst advocating a sort of unity in the Godhead, Tertullian at the same time decidedly retained the ideas of Justin concerning the pre-existence and creation of the Son, and his subordination to his Father.

One opinion of Tertullian, however, had a most potent legacy. Because many rank and file Christians were comparatively poorly educated and needed short and simple answers to their questions, he felt it better to appeal to the Rules of Faith and the Creeds than to Scripture. In this way the tradition and authority of the Church began to be put on a par with revelation, leading fairly swiftly to the dominance of the Church authority; so that it even made binding pronouncements on how Scripture should be interpreted. So for the past 1600 years or so the position has been that as described by this 19th century cleric: 'My belief in the Trinity is based on the authority of the Church: no other authority is sufficient'. (101)


Origen was without doubt the most influential Christian scholar of the third century. Born of a Christian family in Alexandriathat place where, as mentioned earlier, 'Christian ideas were handled in a free and speculative fashion and worked out with the help of Greek philosophy' (102) he was a diligent student both of Scripture and philosophy. Although many of his views were repudiated by his contemporaries, and even more by later generations, the sheer industry with which he set about recording the results of his studies has bequeathed to him a reputation unequalled among early Christian writers. We are not here concerned with his many fanciful opinions which were later rejected by his fellow Christians, but only with his contribution to the definition of the Christian doctrine of God.

The tide of opinion concerning the Godhead which commenced its flow with Justin and Ignatius was now flowing strongly, and men such as Clement and especially Origen needed only to channel it into more clearly defined directions. Abbot says of this time:

'It is certain that what is called the "development" of Church dogmas was now very rapidly proceeding. As to the influence of "philosophy" upon this growth of Church opinion, it may be distinctly traced throughout the second century. ... In Clement and Origen this tendency received open encouragement ... ' (103)

In confirmation of the accuracy of the last statement one only needs to turn to almost any writer who describes Origen's contribution to the debate about God. It is striking that although Origen professed to rely only on Biblical writings for his knowledge of divine things, in no case can one find recorded any reasoned Scriptural arguments of his on the topic. Instead later writers consistently allude to philosophy as the source of his concepts. The following are just a few of many representative samples of such comments on Origen, commencing with Jerome, who belonged to the next generation or so after him:

'In this work (Stromateis) he compared the teaching of Christians and philosophers with one another, and demonstrated all the principles of our religion from Plato, Aristotle, Numenios, and Cornutus'. (104)

'Origen was the first to enter into the genuine tradition of the Platonic school, and both his intake and his output fully reflect the Platonic heritage which was alive in his day, and which was of increasing influence'. (105)

'As a philosophical idealist, however, he transmutes the whole contents of the faith of the church into ideas which bear the mark of Neo-Platonism'. (106)

'Origen tried to express the Christian faith in terms of the prevailing Platonic philosophical ideas of his time'. (107)

'This voluminous author, bible scholar, and theologian moved beyond Clement in constructing a theological system that weds the church's threefold understanding of God to the categories of Middle Platonism. Origen's imaginative work represents one of the most significant episodes in the history of theology'. (108)

There seems little doubt, then, as to the source of Origen's ideas about God. With reference to the last quotation one could legitimately enquire why, if the Apostles had laid down the elements of a faith 'which was once for all delivered to the saints' (Jude 3), Origen and his contemporaries needed to produce 'imaginative work' on the 'threefold understanding of God'.

Origen's contribution to the debate was an attempt to develop further the ideas on the 'begettal' of the Son. Up to now the belief had been that the Son had been created by the Father at some remote but distinct time. In some of his writings Origen suggests that the begettal was a continuous process:

'Thus human thought cannot apprehend how the unbegotten God becomes the Father of the only-begotten Son. For it is an eternal and ceaseless generation, as radiance is generated from light.' (109)

Here Origen propounds the concept of eternal generation, and thus laid the foundation of the current Trinitarian view. Rawlinson says of this:

'His doctrine of the Eternal Generation of the Son by the Father is the great contribution of Alexandrine Platonism to the Christian Creed'. (110)

Origen's concept of the eternal generation of the Son was the basis of the Arian controversy to which we will come shortly. The main dispute centred around the origin of the Son. Was he a created or uncreated being? The eternal generation aspect of Origen's belief was appealed to by those who believed the Son had always existed. On the other hand the Arians protested that Origen quite definitely supported their time-honoured idea that the Son was subordinate to the Father. And this is true. He says that the Son and Spirit 'are excelled by the Father, as much, or more, than they excel other beings'; (111) and that "The Father, who sent him (Jesus), is alone good, and greater than he who was sent'; (112) 'prayer should be offered to God alone, definitely not to the Son, who had the office of High Priest and mediator; (113) and that 'Greater is the power of the Father than that of the Son and the Holy Spirit; and greater that of the Son than that of the Holy Spirit'. (114)

How the Church resolved these opposing views will become evident when we consider the Council of Nicea and later events; but for the moment we note that both sides claimed support from Origen, and also that in the middle of the third century the position of the Holy Spirit was considered to be inferior to both the Father and the Son.

It is also worth recalling in passing that philosophers considered man to be composed of three entitiesa 'soul' that was pre-existent, a 'mind' and a 'body': a three-in-one relationship. We have already seen that the Platonic concept of the world soul, of which human souls were a part, had infiltrated into Jewish and then Christian thought. This led to the analogy that because man was made in the image of God so the Divine essence also had to be manifested in three aspects. Among others, Origen leaned to this view, which probably contributed considerably to the inclusion of the Holy Spirit as the third member of the Godhead.


Before leaving the time of Origen three other personalities can contribute a little to our unravelling of the ebb and flow of ideas in these formative years of Church doctrine. All three claimed that Jesus did not personally pre-exist prior to his birth, and alleged that in this they were retaining the original faith. At the beginning of the third century Artemonwith other shadowy figures known mainly from the allusions by Eusebius seems to have declared that Christ was born of a virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit. Of these that historian writes:

'They affirm that all the ancients, and the very Apostles, received and taught the same things which they now assert: and that the preaching of the truth was preserved till the times of Victor, who, from Peter, was the thirteenth Bishop of Rome; but, from the times of Zephryrinus, the truth has been adulterated'. (115)

So even in the middle of the third century some were still insisting on what they claimed was the old faith. The inference that this original faith was being modified by some in the third century is therefore very strong. We also know little about Beryllus, bishop of Bostra in Arabia, except that he too seems to have taught that Christ had no personal pre-existence before his appearance on earth, though while on earth the divinity of the Father dwelt in him. However, we do know that Origen converted him to what was by then the orthodox views of the pre-existent Logos.

The views of the third writer, Paul of Samosata, in the second half of the third century, are a little more defined. He believed that the Son did not always exist as a person, but did exist from all time only in the foreknowledge of God. Lamson describes them thus:

'He held that there was in the divine nature only one hypostasis or person; that Christ was man by nature, yet was higher than other men, as conceived by the Holy Spirit. He first began to exist when born of Mary. The divine Logos united itself with him, and dwelt in him as in no other sent of God, but did not, properly speaking, incarnate himself in him; it had no personal subsistence. The divine Reason itself, the Wisdom or Power of God, revealed itself in him, as it had never revealed itself in any other prophet. So great was the illumination he hence received, and so was his nature exalted by means of it, that he could with propriety be called the Son of God.' (116)

Hanson confirms that for Paul 'the Son was Jesus Christ the historical figure without any pre-existent history at all'. (117)

So Chadwick comments that 'Paul's doctrine is akin to the primitive Jewish/Christian idea of the person of Christ'. (118)  Here again we seem to be hearing the echoes of the original, non-trinitarian, beliefs about the nature of Christ.

The question needs to be faced here that if the pre-existence of the Son as the divine Logos and creator of the world had been from the beginning an integral part of the Christian message, it would be most unlikely that in the middle of the third century some leading Christians (for Paul of Samosata had a large following) would be propounding a doctrine that would apparently degrade the leader of their movement into a mere man. It would have been detrimental, if not fatal to the Christian cause of converting the world from paganism. All the prejudices and hostility of the those who believed in the majesty of the gods would have been aroused. But the fact that in such circumstances the doctrine was preached, and gained sufficient foothold for Church councils to be called to denounce it, (119)  is strong presumption that the beliefs they were advancing were indeed ancient, if not original.

As we conclude our brief review of the third century we note that during it the Church, using the instrument of philosophy, had made great advances in its thinking about the Son, whilst still accepting his subordination; but at the same time there were considerable groups who regarded this progress as denying the original beliefs of the Apostolic Church.



92. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Art, 'Origen'

93. 'Clement gives us no theory of the relation of the logos to the Father or to the Holy Spirit, nor any doctrine in regard to the nature of Christ's humanity' - Leitzmann, Vol. II p.294.

94. Lion Handbook, The History of Christianity, p.77

95. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Art. 'Clement of Alexandria'

96. Stromateis, 6.6.

97. Stromateis, 5.14

98. Rusch, p.12

99. p.150.

100. p. 224.

101. Rev. J. Hughes, quoted by White, p.67.

102. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Art. 'Origen'

103. Footnote on p.189 of Lamson

104. Jerome, Epist. 70,4,3

105. Leitzmann, Vol. II, p. 298

106. ibid.

107. Lion Handbook, p.103

108. Rusch, p.13.

109. Extracted from De Principiis. I.2.3-6

110. A.E.J.Rawlinson. Essays on the Trinity and Incarnation, p.250

111. Comment in Joan, t, xiii, 25

112. ibid. t. vi,23

113. De Orat. 15

114. De Princip. 1,i, c.3,5

115. Eusebius, 5,28.

116. Priestly, p.256.

117. p.71 - italics ours

118. p.114

119. At Antioch, A.D. 269-272 (These were the councils that also condemned the use of the word homoousia, 'consubstantial' to describe the relationship between the Father and Son: which term became orthodox after the Council of Nice!).