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The Trinitarian Beliefs of the Ante-Nicene Period

In this post, I begin a series where I will be quoting from one of the best treatments on the historical study and development of the Trinity of the last century. The book is titled The Triune God: A Historical Study of the Doctrine of the Trinity (Wipf and Stock Publishers, Eugene, Oregon 1999) and was written by Edmund J. Fortman.

I start this off by citing the summation of Fortman’s third chapter, where he sums up the teaching of the NT writers and the ante-Nicene fathers concerning the Trinity. All bold, capital, and/or underline emphasis will be mine.

Summary

It will be helpful to recapitulate the flow trinitarian thought thus far so as to see what its status was on the eve of the Nicene conflict that was to play such a tremendous part in the further development of trinitarian thought and dogma.

In the New Testament writings Jesus was called the ‘Son of God, ‘Lord,’ and ‘Word’ and was assigned the divine functions of creation, salvation, and judgment. He was explicitly said to be God and with God FROM ETERNITY, to be one with the Father and in the Father. The Holy Spirit was not explicitly called God, but at times He was put on a level with the Father and Son in terms of divinity and personality. To Him were ascribed the divine functions of inspiration, vivification, justification, sanctification. There was no formal doctrine of one God in three co-equal persons, but the elements of this doctrine were there.

The Apostolic Fathers maintained that there was only one God. They affirmed the divinity and distinct personality of Christ quite clearly and that of the Holy Spirit less clearly. They offered no trinitarian doctrine and saw no trinitarian problem.

The Apologists went further. They affirmed that God is one but also triadic. To Christ they ascribed divinity and personality explicitly, to the Holy Spirit only implicitly. To try to express Christ’s mysterious relationship with God, they used the concept of a pre-existing Logos somehow originating in and inseparable from the Godhead, which was generated or emitted for the purposes of creation and revelation. Thus they had what is called a ‘two-stage theory of the preexistent Logos,’ or a Logos endiathetos and a Logos prophorikos. But in describing the origin of the Logos-Son, they sometimes presented the personality of the Logos and the generation of the Son obscurely as to leave a strong impression that the Logos-Son was a non-eternal divine person, a diminished God drastically subordinate to the Father. But they did not go as far as the later Arians would and make the Son only a creature and an adopted son of God.

The Alexandrines made further contributions to the development of trinitarian thought. Clement affirmed one God and adored the trinity of the Father, Word, and the Holy Spirit. Although he has some subordinationist passages, his general doctrine is that the Son is eternally generated by the Father and is one and the same God with the Father. But how the three are one and the same God he does not explain.

Origen maintained the eternal generation of the Son and thus abandoned ‘the twofold stage theory of the pre-existent Logos’ and substituted ‘for it a single stage theory.’49 

While other writers had spoken of the three, they had not answered the question, ‘three what’? Origen answered it by saying they were ‘three hypostases’ (Jo. 2.6), and thus seems to have been the first to apply the Trinity this word that Greek theology ultimately accepted as the technical description of what the Latins called the personae of God.50 He made it clear that these three hypostases were not only ‘economically’ distinct, but essentially and eternally.

In some of his commentaries (Num. 12.1; Lev. 13.4) he apparently applies ‘the conception of a single ousia to the divine triad’ and contends that there ‘is a single substance and nature of the triad,’51 and in one passage he seems to say the Son is homoousios with the Father. But he probably meant He was only generically, not identically, consubstantial.

To some extent Origen was a subordinationist, for his attempt to synthesize strict monotheism with a Platonic hierarchical order in the Trinity could have–and did have–only a subordinationist result. He openly declared that the Son was inferior to the Father and the Holy Spirit to the Son. But he was not an Arian subordinationist for he did not make the Son a creature and an adopted son of God.

Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria made a notable, if unintended, contribution to the developing crisis by bringing into prominence the three basic trinitarian deviations that are known to history as Sabellianism, Subordinationism, and Tritheism, and the urgent need of precise trinitarian concepts, terms, and distinctions. His encounter with the Pope of Rome also turned a strong light on the term homoousios that was soon to occupy the center of the stage at Nicea. (Chapter Three. The Pre-Nicene Phase, pp. 59-61)

Lord willing, I am going to quote the rest of Fortman’s excellent discussion of the Trinitarian beliefs of the ante-Nicene Fathers in subsequent posts.

The Case of Origen

Origen

The second point is the procession of the Son from the mind of the Father, as ‘will proceeds from understanding.’ Here is one of the earliest presentations of an immanent intellectual processions of the Son from the Father that excludes all materiality from the Father and Son and marks out a line of thought that will reach its crest in the theology of Aquinas. The third point is the appearance of the word homoousios. If the text is authentic, and there ‘seems to be no cogent reason why it should not be,’43 then Origen is here the first to use the word homoousios in speaking of the Son’s basic relation with the Father. What did he mean by ‘consubstantial’? Basically homoousios meant ‘of the same stuff’ or ‘substance.’44 However, ‘of the same substance’ might mean ‘of generically the same substance’ or ‘of identically the same substance.’ In later theology ‘consubstantial’ will mean that the Son is ‘of identically the same substance as the Father,’ possesses the same identical substance as the Father, and thus is God in the strictest sense as much as the Father. But in the light of Origen’s subordinationism it would seem that he understood consubstantial only in its generic sense, even though his monotheism should point toward ‘identity of substance.’

Was Origen a subordinationist? The answer must be both no and yes. He was not a subordinationist in the later Arian sense, for he did not consider the Son a creature, produced out of nothing and in such a way that there was a moment when the Son was not. Verbally at times he called the Son a creature (ktisma) and created, but only because he with many others understood Prov 8.22 of the Son. But he always taught that the Son issued from the Father by way of unitive eternal generation and not by way of separative production ad extra.

In other ways, however, he was definitely subordinationist, for he made the Son inferior to and subordinate to the Father. For only the Father was God in the strict sense, ho theosautotheos. The Son was only theos, a ‘secondary God,’ who possessed the Godhead only by participation or derivation. He did not see the oneness of Father and Son as an identity of substance but rather as a moral union of virtually identical wills or a union like that of man and Christ to form one spirit. He considered the Son the Father’s minister and said ‘we should not pray to any generate being, not even to Christ, but only to the God and Father of the universe’ (Or. 15.1; Cels. 8.13). He said openly that the Son was inferior to the Father: ‘we… declare that the Son is not mightier than the Father but inferior to Him’ (Cels. 8.15); ‘we say that the Savior and the Holy Spirit are very much superior to all things that are made, but also that the Father is even more above them than they are themselves above creatures even the highest’ (Jo. 13.25).

Origen tried to build a harmonious synthesis of strict monotheism and a Platonic hierarchical order in the Trinity–and failed. Along with a great deal of excellent theology he handed down an unfortunate mixture of truth and error that would exert an unhappy influence on Greek theology for a long time.

Holy Spirit

The status and the origin of the Holy Spirit baffled Origen. He felt that the matter had been left open by the Church (Princ. 1), but owing to the lack of Biblical and traditional data he did not know what to think.

At times he seems to affirm the divinity of the Holy Spirit quite clearly, for he says that everything was made except the nature of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and that nowhere is it stated that the Holy Spirit is a creature (Princ. 1.3.3; 2.2.1). The Spirit ‘is ever with the Father and the Son; like the Father and the Son He always is, and was, and will be‘ (Ep. ad. Rom. 6.7). He is ‘associated in honor and dignity with the Father and Son’ (Princ. praef. 4).

In other passages, however, the Spirit is definitely inferior to the Son (Jo. 2.6.), and where the Father’s action extends to all beings, the Son’s to all rational creatures, the Holy Spirit’s only extends to the saints (Princ. 1.3.1-8).

What disturbed Origen most was the origin of the Holy Spirit: was He born like the Son or created (Princ. praef. 4.3). Since ‘all things were made by’ the Word, the Holy Spirit too must be His work (Jo. 2.6). Origen had reason to be disturbed, for he was facing one of the deepest aspects of the trinitarian mystery, the eternal origin and distinction of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. In one passage: ‘God the Father from whom both the Son is born and the Holy Spirit proceeds (Princ. 1.2.13), Origen expressed the origin of the Holy Spirit as procession from the Father, as St. John had expressed it and the Greek Church would continue to express it. But elsewhere he saw only two possibilities for the Holy Spirit, that He was born or that He was made. He could not accept the Holy Spirit’s origination as generation, and so he chose to view the Holy Spirit as ‘made by the Father through the Son’ (Jo. 2.6.). He was moving dimly toward a third type of origination that is neither generation nor creation but which will later be called ‘spiration’ by the Council of Lyons (Denz 850).

Trinity

Origen is trinitarian in his thought: ‘We, however, are persuaded that there are really three persons [treis hypostaseis], the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’ (Jo. 2.6.). For him ‘statements made regarding Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are to be understood as transcending all time, all ages, and all eternity‘ (Princ. 4.28), and there is ‘nothing which was not made, save the nature of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit‘ (Princ. 4.35). ‘Moreover, nothing in the Trinity can be called greater or less’ (Princ. 1.3.7).

Other writers before Origen had regarded the three as distinct, but often they looked to this distinction only as manifested in the economy. Origen, however, clearly maintains that each of the three is a distinct hypostasis, an individual existent from all eternity and not just as manifested in the economy. This is one of his most important contributions to Greek theology and stems directly from his belief in the eternal generation of the Son. (Chapter Three. The Pre-Nicene Phase, pp. 54-58)

Lord willing, I will be posting more in this series in the near future.

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