The Triune God

excerpts from the out-of-print book by Catholic scholar Edmund J. Fortman.

NEW 1/15/08 READ BOOK (first 8 chapters) in PDF format

If we take the New Testament writers together they tell us there is only one God, the creator and lord of the universe, who is the Father of Jesus. They call Jesus the Son of God, Messiah, Lord, Savior, Word, Wisdom. They assign Him the divine functions of creation, salvation, judgment. Sometimes they call Him God explicitly. They do not speak as fully and clearly of the Holy Spirit as they do of the Son, but at times they coordinate Him with the Father and the Son and put Him on a level with them as far as divinity and personality are concerned. They give us in their writings a triadic ground plan and triadic formulas. They do not speak in abstract terms of nature, substance, person, relation, circumincession, mission, but they present in their own ways the ideas that are behind these terms. They give us no formal or formulated doctrine of the Trinity, no explicit teaching that in one God there are three co-equal divine persons. But they do give us an elemental trinitarianism, the data from which such a formal doctrine of the Triune God may be formulated. (pp xv-xvi) 

The Apologists were, in a sense, the Church's first theologians: the first to attempt a sketch of trinitarian doctrine and an intellectually satisfying explanation of Christ's relation to God the Father. To set forth the truths handed down to them from the Apostles they used the terminology and philosophy that were then current, and in the process they Christianized Hellenism to some extent. They manifested a belief in the unity of God and in some sort of "trinity of divinity," even though they had as yet no distinct conception of "divine person" and "divine nature." They identified Christ with God, with the Logos, with the Son of God, but they seemed to count His Sonship not from eternity but from the moment of his pre-creational generation. In thus using a two-stage theory of a preexistent Logos to explain the Son's divine status and His relation to the Father, they probably did not realize that this theory had a built-in "inferiorizing principle" that would win for them the accusation of "subordinationism."

Origen, the greatest theologian of the East, rejected this two-stage theory and maintained the eternal generation of the Son. But to reconcile the eternity of the Son with a strict monotheism, he resorted to a Platonic hierarchical framework for the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and ended up by also making the Son and Holy Spirit not precisely creatures but "diminished gods."

Thus set the stage for Arius, one of the pivotal figures in the development of trinitarian dogma. The idea of a "diminished god" he found repugnant. Christ, he declared, must be either God or creature. But since God is and must be uncreated, unoriginated, unbegotten, and the Son is and must be originated and begotten, He cannot be God but must be a creature. And thus the subordinationist tendency in the Apologists and Origen reached full term. (pp. xvi-xvii)

Obviously there is no trinitarian doctrine in the Synoptics or Acts. But there are traces of the triadic pattern of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in both. In Luke there are several such traces: in the infancy narrative (1.35), in the baptismal theophany (3.22) and in the narrative of the temptation (4.1-14). In the beginning of Acts we read of Jesus and "the Father" and "the Holy Spirit" (1.1-6). In Peter's speech at Pentecost there is a deliberate presentation of the Three and their activity (2.33; 38-39). And in a few other passages it is possible to see traces of the triadic pattern (9.17-20; 10.38).

In Matthew there are several traces of this threefold pattern. A faint trace seems to be present in the infancy narrative (1.18-23). A clearer trace is evident in the baptismal theophany (3.16-17). The clearest form of this pattern to be found anywhere in the Synoptics is met with in the baptismal command after the resurrection (23.19). Whether these are the very words of Jesus or derive from an early baptismal formula based on the general teaching of Jesus is open to discussion. But it is hard to see how a contemporary interpreter can affirm so categorically that "this formula was never used by Jesus in his earthly life."(5) Or how another can say so absolutely, "This formula has itself no trinitarian doctrinal implication."(6) Could the evangelist put the Father, Son, and Spirit together in this way without insinuating or implying that for him the Son and Holy Spirit are distinct from the Father and on the same level with the Father, who is obviously God? Can it really be denied that the sacred writer here presents the three as at once a triad and a unity? And if it is true that Matthew's Gospel is a carefully planned Gospel, is it not extremely significant that he puts this triadic formula at the very end of his Gospel, when he might have chosen very different endings? Putting it there would be bound to make it stand out bluntly and indicate that for him it had very great, if not supreme, importance. "pp. 14-15" 

At times, however, Paul present Jesus' sonship as more than merely elective and functional. When he writes that "when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son" (Gal 4.4), when he calls this Son "his Son" (1 Th 1.10), "his own Son" (Rom 8.3, 32), when he tells us this Son is "the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation. . .and all things were created through him" (Col 1.13, 15, 16) and adds that Christ Jesus "was in the form of God" (Phil 2.6), it seems impossible to see in all this only an elective sonship. It must be an eternal sonship that puts the Son on the same divine level as the Father. The divine nature, divine origin, and divine power ascribed to Jesus cannot be the fruits of adoption. That is why Paul makes the preexistence of Christ so explicit. For Paul the title "Son of God" affirms the divinity of Jesus and differentiates Him from the Father, who is denominated by the title "God." And in all this Paul was not proposing an idea that he devised. The church perceived that an eternal Father had to have an eternal Son. (9) (p 17)

But more than this, there is another series of texts that strongly suggests that the Holy Spirit is a person, for in theses Paul says the Spirit is "grieved," "bears witness," "cries," "leads," "makes intercession," and "comprehends the thoughts of God" (Rom 8.14, 16, 26; Gal 4.6; Eph 4.30; 1 Cor 2.11). There is the double mission of the Son and the Spirit of the Son (Gal 4.4-6). There are triadic texts that coordinate Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in a way that seems to put the three on the same level as far as divinity, distinction, personality are concerned (2 Cor 1.21-22; 1 Cor 2.7-16, 6.11, 12.4-6; Rom 5.1-5, 8.14-17; Eph 1.11-14, 17). In all these so many personal actions are attributed to the Spirit in diverse contexts, and he is presented in such close parallel to Christ that it is extremely difficult if not impossible to regard the Spirit as merely a divine impersonal force or personification. (21) (p. 21)

Paul has many triadic texts that present God (or the Father), Christ (or the Son or Lord), and the Spirit side by side in closely balanced formulas: "There is one body and one Spirit . . one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of us all" (Eph 4.4-6); "God sent forth his Son, born of woman. . . And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts" (Gal 4.4-6); "God saved us . . . by the . . . renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour" (Tit 3.4-6); "Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in everyone" (1 Cor 12.4-6).
(pp. 21-22)

But at times it apparently refers to the Son in His pre-existence, in His eternal divine activity: "Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing" (5.19); "For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself" (5.26). Can John think that the eternal Father is greater than the eternal Son? It seems that he does, just "as the father is always superior to his on, and the sender to the one sent." (31) The Council of Florence will say much later: "All that the Son is, and all that he has, he has from the Father" (Denz 1331). And later theologians will urge that this relation of origin and dependence within the Godhead alone enables us to distinguish between Father and Son who possess the same identical nature, and in consequence this dependence of the Son on the Father does not threaten the unity and equality of these persons but consecrates it and is the condition that enables us to conceive it. (pp. 26-27)

In the Synoptic Gospels there is one passage that could imply that Jesus is God: Mt 1.23. (32) In the Pauline writings there are three passages in which Jesus is probably called God: Rom 9.5, Tit 2.13, and Heb 1.8. (33) In the Johannine writings there are two passages in which Jesus is probably called God: Jn 1.18 and 1 Jn 5.20. (34) And there are two passages in which He is clearly called God: Jn 1.1 and Jn 20.20. (35) Thus ;John's Gospel not only ascribes to Jesus strictly divine functions that put Him on the same divine level as the Father, but it clearly calls Him God. As this Gospel opens we meet a sublime song of a Word who is God, and as it ends we echo the words of Thomas, "My Lord and my God." (p. 27)

The fullest presentation of the Holy Spirit is found in the Paraclete passages (14.16, 17, 26; 15.26; 16.7-15), and no other passages in the New Testament contain such explicit teaching. He is "another Paraclete" (14.16), "the Spirit of truth" (14.17; 15.26; 16.13), who "dwells with" the Apostles, "whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him" (14.17). He is sent by the Father and by Jesus (14.16; 15.26), and proceeds from the Father (15.27). "He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you, (14.26). "He will bear witness to me" (15.26). He will guide you into all the truth . . . and will declare to you the things that are to come" (16.13). "He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you" (16.14). He will "be with you forever" (14.16).

What is the Holy Spirit in these passages? He is not merely a new operation of divine power in man or the spirit of Christ perpetuating itself in the lives of His disciples. The Spirit is a person distinct from the Father and the Son, and His distinct personal reality is more explicitly affirmed here than anywhere else in the New Testament.

That the Spirit is distinct from the Father is clear, for He is sent by the Father (14.26), given by the FAther (14.16), and proceeds from the Father (15.26). That the Spirit is distinct from the Son is equally clear, for He is sent "in the name of the Son" (14.26), sent by the Son (15.26), receives from the Son (16.14), and is "another Paraclete" (14.16).

There can be no real question of the personality of the Holy Spirit here. He is not merely a divine gift or power, nor is He a metaphor for Jesus Himself. He is as much a living person as Jesus Himself and one whose action is so divine that His presence will, for the disciples, advantageously replace the visible presence of Jesus Himself. So clearly does John regard the Holy Spirit as a person that he uses a masculine pronoun for the Spirit, even though the Greek pneuma is neuter. What is even more decisive is the analogy between the Spirit and Jesus. The personality of Jesus is the measure of the personality of the Holy Spirit. They must both be denied or both be accepted. It is as the Paraclete that the Spirit is most characteristically presented by John, and Paraclete means "Consoler," "Advocate," "Intercessor." As the Paraclete He is the living, personal link between the Church of John's time and Jesus. (p. 28) 

There seems little doubt that John was aware of the problem involved in the mysterious relationship of Jesus and the FAther. For he made it clear that Jesus, the only-begotten Son, is one with the Father and Goad as well as the Father, and yet the Father sends the Son and is greater than the Son. To what extent he was aware of the problem of the Holy Spirit's relationship with the Father and the Son and with the one Godhead is not clear. He does not call the Holy Spirit "God," though he does regard Him as divine and puts Him on the same divine level with the Father and the Son in the Paraclete passages. More clearly than the other New Testament writers does he regard the Holy Spirit as a "person" distinct from the Father and the Son and sent by the Father and by the Son. It has been pointed out that "though with St. John we are still in the pre-dogmatic stage of the Trinitarian teaching, the sayings about the Paraclete carry us a degree father than any other writing in the development of the NT doctrine of the Godhead.'(37) (p. 30)

The three are coordinated in an oath: "As God lives, and the Lord Jesus Christ lives, and the Holy Spirit" (58.2). The three are mentioned in connection with the mission of the Apostles: "being filled with confidence because of the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, and confirmed in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Spirit" (42.3). The three stand out in an account of our calling in Christ: "Do we not have one God and one Christ, and one Spirit of Grace poured out upon us--one calling in Christ?" (46.6). Here there is a clear trace of trinitarian belief, in which the undivided Trinity is a type of Christian unity, and Basil will point to it later to show that the Godhead of the Holy Spirit belonged to the oldest tradition of the Church (De Sp. S. 29.72). (p.38)

For Ignatius God is Father, and by "Father" he means primarily "Father of Jesus Christ": "There is one God, who has manifested Himself by Jesus Christ His Son" (Magn. 8.2). Jesus is called "God" 14 times (Eph. insc. 1.1, 7.2, 15.3, 17.2, 18.2, 19.3; Trall. 7.1; Rom. inscr. 3.3, 6.3; Smyrn. 1.1; Polyc. 8.3). He is the Father's Word (Magn. 8.2), "the mind of the Father" (Eph. 3.3), and "the mouth through which the Father truly spoke' (Rom. 8.2). He is 'His only Son" (Rom. inscr.), 'generate and ingenerate, God in man . . . son of Mary and Son of God . . . Jesus Christ our Lord' (Eph. 7.2). He is the one "who is beyond time the Eternal the Invisible who became visible for our sake, the Impalpable, the Impassible who suffered for our sake" (Polyc. 3.2).

It has been said that for Ignatius Jesus' "divine Sonship dates from the incarnation," (5) and that he "seems rather to ascribe the divine sonship of Jesus to the fact that Mary conceived by the operation of the Holy Spirit." (5) If he did date Jesus' sonship from the incarnation he did not thereby deny His pre-existence. For he declared very definitely that Jesus Christ "from eternity was with the Father and at last appeared to us" (Magn. 6.1) and that He "came forth from one Father in whom He is and to whom He has returned" (Magn. 7.2). But just how He was distinct from the Father, since both are God, Ignatius does not say. Perhaps he ;hints at an answer when he says that Christ is the Father's "thought" (Eph. 3.2). (P. 39)

Ignatius does not cite the Matthean baptismal formula, but he does sometimes mention Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together. He urges the Magnesians to `be be confirmed in the commandments of our Lord and His apostles, so that "whatever you do may prosper" the Son and Father and Spirit' (Magn. 13.2). And in one of his most famous passages he declares: `Like the stones of a temple, cut for a building of God the Father, you have been lifted up to the top by the crane of Jesus Christ, which is the Cross, and the rope of the Holy Spirit'(Eph. 9.1). Thus although there is nothing remotely resembling a doctrine of the Trinity in Ignatius, the triadic pattern of thought is there, and two of its members, the Father and Jesus Christ, are clearly and often designated as God.

page 40 Hermas
page 41

If we read Hermas to find out who or what was the Son of God, the situation is equally baffling. In one section he says that the Son of God `is the law of God, given to the whole world,' and that `the great and glorious angel Michael...inspires the law in the hearts of believers' (Sim.8.3)

Somewhat later he adds that the "Holy Spirit is the Son of God" (Sim. 9.1). But if the Holy Spirit is the Son of God, what is the Savior? In Sim. 5.2 he seems to be the faithful "servant" in the vineyard of the Lord, whom the Lord proposes to reward for his work by making him joint heir with his Son (Sim. 5.2; cv. Mk 12.1-12). If Christ is this servant, as He seems to be, then He is only an adopted Son of God (Sim. 5.2.3). For alongside this Servant-Son of God there appears to be a further Son of God, the Holy Spirit, to whom the incarnation is ascribed (Sim. 5.6.5-7).


The Epistle of St. Polycarp is weak in doctrinal detail, but the Martyrdom of Polycarp is much richer in this respect. (14) In the third part of this document a precise trinitarian doxology is put into the mouth of the dying martyr: "For this and for all benefits I praise thee, I bless thee, I glorify thee, through the eternal and heavenly high priest, Jesus Christ, thy beloved Son, through whom be to thee with him and the Holy Spirit glory, now and for all the ages to come. Amen" (14.3). Clearly enough this implies a belief in the divinity of Jesus and of the Holy Spirit, for the same glory is attributed to the three. The divinity of Christ is stressed again in chapters 17 and 18, which point out the difference between the worship paid to Jesus Christ and the love shown to the saints and their relics. (p 42)


God is the creator of the universe and man (2.10) and is the true Lord of all men (19.7) He is also called the "Father" (2.9; 12.8) and "Master" (1.7; 4.3). He has sent His Son Jesus for man's salvation (14.7). Jesus is no ordinary man or prophet. He is "Son of God" and judge (5.7; 7.2.9). Jesus most frequently is called "Lord," although the same title is used for God. Both the divinity of Jesus and His distinction from the Father are stressed.

While there are no passages that unambiguously refer to the Holy Spirit as a divine person, some point in that direction: "those whom the Spirit of the Lord foresaw" (6.14); "the Spirit speaks to the heart of Moses" (12.2); "those whom the Spirit prepared" (19.7).

There is no evidence that Barnabas identifies the preexistent Spirit with the preexistent Lord and Son of God but rather the opposite. To the Son he ascribes the divine functions of creation and judgment, but to the Spirit those of inspiration and prophecy. Thus before the birth of Christ there was a trinity of God the Father, Christ the Son of God and Lord, and the Spirit of the Lord. (16) (p. 42)


This is not a work of Clement of Rome, nor is it a letter, but rather an exhortation to repentance and salvation. (17) Two passages stand out, the opening verse: "Brethren, we must think of Jesus Christ as of God, as the Judge of the living and the dead: (1.1); and the concluding doxology; "To the only invisible God, the Father of truth, who sent to us the Savior and Prince of immortality, through whom also He disclosed to us the truth and heavenly life--to Him be glory for ever and ever. Amen" (20.5). Here we have an affirmation of the divinity of Christ; and since through Christ we know the Father, Christ and the Father are clearly distinct. 

But whether Christ and the Holy Spirit are really distinct is not so clear. Chapter 9 states: "If Christ the Lord, who saved us, being spirit at first, became flesh and so called us." Chapter 14 states: "If we say that the flesh is the Church and the Spirit is Christ, then he who has abused the flesh has abused the Church. Such a one, accordingly, will not share in the Spirit, which is Christ" (14.3.4). It is possible that 2 Clement is here confusing Christ with the Holy Spirit, as Hermas did. (18) But it is also possible that by Spirit he meant not the Holy Spirit but rather "the principle of deity," "the stuff of the divine nature." (19) Then, unlike Hermas, 2 Clement would not identify the preexistent Christ with the preexistent Holy Spirit but would merely stress the divine "nature" of Christ. (pp42-43)

The Apostolic Fathers fall far short of Paul and John in their doctrine of God. For all of them there is one God who is the creator, ruler, judge, Father of the universe and in a special sense of Christ. 

All, except perhaps Hermas, subscribe to the divinity of Christ. 1 Clement coordinates Christ with the Father and the Holy Spirit in an oath. Ignatius calls Christ God 14 times. In the "Didache" the Son is coordinated with the Father and the Holy Spirit in the baptismal formula, and in the Martyrdom of Polycarp He is give glory equally with the Father ;and the Holy Spirit. In the Epistle of Barnabas He is the Lord of the whole world and preexistent with God at the foundation of the world. 2 Clement says we must think of Christ as God. 

The Apostolic Fathers do not call the Holy Spirit God, but most of them indicate adequately their belief in His distinct personality and divinity. For they coordinate Him with the Father and the Son in an oath and in the baptismal formula, give Him equal glory with the Father and the Son, and ascribe to Him the strictly divine function of inspiration. (pp43-44)


Justin is considered the most important apologist of the 2nd century (2) In his "First Apology" he gives proofs of the divinity of Christ from Old Testament prophecies. In his "Dialogue with the Jew Trypho" he shows that the worship of Jesus is not contrary to monotheism. (p. 44)

At first glance the relation of the Logos to the Father seems quite clear. Is not Christ, for Justin, from all eternity Logos, and Son of God, and God, and numerically distinct from the Father? On a more careful view, however, there are elements of obscurity. It is not clear whether the eternal Logos is eternally a distinct divine person, as some scholars thing, (24) or originally a power in God that only becomes a divine person shortly before creation of the world when He emanates to create the world, as others believe. (25) Nor is it clear whether Justin held an eternal generation of the Son, as some maintain, (26) or merely an "economic" emission of the Son in order to be creator, as other hold. (27)

That Justin regarded the Logos as God and as the unique Son of God prior to creation is clear. But whether he regarded the Logos as a distinct divine "person" from all eternity is debatable. And whether he regarded the Logos as eternally the Son of God, the issue of an eternal generation, is likewise debatable.

Was Justin then a subordinationist? He was not a subordinationist in the full Arian sense of the term, for he regarded the Logos-Son not as a thing made, a creature but as God born of the Father. But if, as is quite probable, the Logos for him was not a divine person from eternity but only became one when He was generated as Son of God shortly before creation in order to be the Father's instrument of creation and revelation, then to this extent the Logos-Son was subordinate to God both as to His person, which was not eternal, and to His office, which was instrumental.(pp 45-46)

On several occasions Justin coordinates the three person, sometimes citing formulas derived from baptism and the eucharist, sometimes echoing official catechetical teaching. He worshiped the Father as supreme in the universe; he worshiped the Logos or Son as divine but in the second place; he worshiped the Holy Spirit in the third place. But he has no real doctrine of the Trinity, for he says nothing of the relations of the three to one another and to the Godhead. (p.47)

TATIAN (110-172)

Tatian was a disciple of Justin.(30) 
(p. 47)

Tatian set forth even more bluntly than Justin the two states of the Logos, immanent and expressed. Before creation God was alone. Then the Logos was immanent in Him as His potentiality for creating all things. At the moment of creation He leaped forth from the Father as His primordial work. Once born as "rationality from rational power," He served as the Father's instrument in creating and governing the universe, in making men in the divine image (Orat. 5.1; 7.1-3). It is very difficult to escape the impression that for Tatian the creation of the world marks the beginning of personal existence for the Word. (p. 47)


He has several trinitarian passages: "We affirm that God and His Word or Son and the Holy Spirit are one in power . . . The Son, the Mind, Word, Wisdom of the Father, and the Spirit an effluence from Him as light from fire" (Suppl. 24); "we . . . believe in a God who made all things by His Word and holds them together by the Spirit that comes from Him" (Suppl. 6); "who then can fail to be astonished when he ears the name of atheists given to men who hold the Father to be God, and the Son God, and the Holy Spirit, and declare their power in union and their distinction in order" (Suppl. 10). But one text stands out: "The one ambition that urges us Christians on is the desire to know the true God and the Word that is from Him--what is the unity of the Son, what is the Spirit; what is the unity of these mighty Powers, and the distinction that exists between them, united as they are--the Spirit, the Son, the Father" (Suppl. 12).

The interest with which he regards the problems presented by the relation of the Son to the FAther and the Spirit to the Father and the Son is most remarkable. There is no mention of "essence" or "person," but there is more than a hint of the later doctrine of circumincession. Here there seems to be not just an "economic" trinity but indications of an eternal immanent Trinity. To have reached such an approximation to later trinitarian dogma before the year 180 is most remarkable and marks a great advance in the development of trinitarian thought. (pp48-49)


Where Justin identified wisdom with the Logos, Theophilus identified wisdom with the Spirit, and the Spirit of God or wisdom issued from God before the world was made, just as the Word did (Autol. 2.10). In the next sentence the Word seems identified with the Spirit, but a little further on the distinction reappears. For Theophilus, as for the other writers of his age, the Spirit is the Spirit of prophecy (Autol. 1.14). 

Theophilus was the first to apply the term "trinity" (trias) to the Godhead, stating that the three days that preceded the creation of son and moon were types of the "trinity," that is, "of God and of His Word and of His Wisdom" (Autol. 2.15). But he spoils the effect by adding: "the fourth day finds its antitype in Man, who is in need of light; so we get the series, God, the Word, Wisdom, Man" (ibid.). His trinitarian doctrine was still a far cry from the precision of later dogmatic formulations.
(pp 49-50)

In the Apologists we see a belief in the unity of God and in a trinity of divine "persons," Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, although there is as yet no distinct conception of divine person an divine nature. There is an identification of Christ with the Son of God, with the Logos and with God.

To the Logos they ascribe a divine preexistence that is not only pre-creational but also strictly eternal. Did they conceive this as a distinct personal existence of the logos? To some extent they did, for they viewed the eternal Logos as Someone with whom the Father could commune and take counsel. Probably no more could be expected at this early stage of theological development when the concepts of person and nature were as yet undefined.

If God must have His Logos from eternity, must He also have His Son? Later theology and dogma will say yes unequivocally. But the Apologists are not quite clear on this point and rather seem to say no. For them, if the origination of the Logos from God is eternal, the generation of the Logos as Son seems rather to be pre-creational but not eternal, and it is effected by the will of the Father. This view, if compared with later theology and dogma, will smack of a subordination or "minoration" of the Son of God. This subordination of the Son was not precisely the formal intent of the Apologists. Their problem was how to reconcile monotheism with their belief in the divinity of Christ and with a concept of His divine sonship that they derived from the Old Testament. For to their minds Prov 8.22 and other texts seemed to ascribe to Christ not precisely an eternal origination but rather a pre-creational generation for the purpose of creation. So they ascribed to Christ the title and reality of divine Logos from eternity, and to the Logos the title and reality of divine Son not from eternity but from the moment of this pre-creational generation.

The Apologists contributed much less with regard to the Holy Spirit, although Justin and Athenagoras did try to find a place for the Spirit in the theology of the Church. Justin sometimes coordinated the Holy Spirit with the Father and Son in baptismal and eucharistic formulas. Athenagoras regarded the Holy Spirit as "an effluence of God." Theophilus identified the Holy Spirit with Wisdom and coordinated "God and His Word and His Wisdom." But aside from ascribing to the Holy Spirit the inspiration of the Prophets, the Apologists seem to have been very vague about His function in the work of salvation, and still more vague about His relations to the Father and Son within the Godhead. At times they tended to confuse the use of "Spirit" to express the pre-existent nature of Christ with its use as the name of the Third Person in God. But none of them spoke of the Spirit of God as one of the creatures.

There are many more clear-cut trinitarian passages in the Apologists than in the Apostolic Fathers. Theophilus was the first to speak of the "trinity of God and of His Word and of His Wisdom." Four times Justin gives the formula, "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit," but elsewhere he says Christians honor Jesus Christ in the second place after God and the prophetic Spirit in the third rank. Athenagoras has one of the clearest trinitarian passages; "men who speak of God the Father and of God the Son and of the Holy Spirit and declare both their power in union and their distinction in order" (Suppl. 10). The Apologists do not take the Sabellian road of a merely nominal trinity of persons but hold to a real distinction of the three, a distinction that is not in name only, not only in thought but in number. They base their distinction on rank or order. They realize there is a trinitarian problem and try to solve it for the Son in terms of an eternal Logos, for the Holy Spirit in terms of "an effluence of God." (pp49-51) 


God's Logos or Son is His image and inseparable from Him, His mind or rationality. The incarnate Logos as Logos retain the transcendence He has in common with the Father, and here Clement goes beyond Justin and the Apologists who based the possibility of a mission of the Logos in His diminished transcendence. In the incarnation the Logos begets Himself (Str. 5.39.2; 16.5), without thereby becoming twofold. he is one and the same who is begotten of the Father in eternity and who becomes flesh (Exc. Theod. 7.4; 8.1). And in one notable passage (Quis div 34.1-4) Clement seen in the Father's "love the origin of the generation of the Son." (38) Clement clearly identifies the personal pre-existent Logos with the historical Christ, but like the early writers leaves unexplained the relationship between the inner generation of the Logos in God from eternity and his incarnational generation in time.

Clement's system and religious thinking center on the Logos. The Logos is the creator of the universe. He manifested God in the Law of the Old Testament, in the philosophy of the Greeks, and finally in His incarnation. He is not only the teacher of the world and the divine law-giver but also the savior of the human race and the founder of a new life that begins with faith, moves to knowledge and contemplation, and leads through love and charity to immortality and deification. As the incarnate Logos Christ is God and man, and through Him we rise to divine life (Prot. 11.88.114).

It has been the general opinion of scholars (39) that Clement affirms directly the eternal generation of the Son, and there is a great deal of solid evidence to this effect. For Clement says of the Son that "He is wholly mind, wholly the Father's light" (Str. 8.2.5); that He is the "eternal Son" (Prot. 12.121); that His generation from the Father is without beginning, for "the Father is not without His Son" (Str. 4.162.5; 5.1.3), "the Father [does not] exist without the Son" (Str. 5.1.1); that He is essentially one with the Father since the Father is in Him and He is in the Father (Paed. 1.24.3); that He is truly God as the Father, since to both prayers are offered and both are one and the same God (Paed. 1.8, 7; Str. 5.6; 7.12). In fact, Clement so stresses the unity of the Father and Son that he sometimes seems very close to Modalism (Paed. 1.8).
(pp 52-53)

Clement knows and adores the Trinity. he calls it a "wondrous mystery. One is the Father of all, one also the Logos of all, and the Holy Spirit is one and the same everywhere" (Paed.

Some scholars have seen in his writings traces of subordinationism, and in some passages there seems to be foundation for the charge that he subordinated the Son to the Father and made Him a creature (str. 4.25; 7.1; 7.2; 8.2.5). But elsewhere we find a negation of subordination, for he tells us that the Son is generated "without beginning," is "true God without controversy, equal with the Lord of the universe, since He was His Son" (Prot. 10.110.1), is in the Father as the Father is in Him, so that they are one and the same God (Paed. 1.62.4; 1.8, 7; Str. 5.6). It seems better to conclude that Clement's theology is far from being a finished system and that it therefore includes elements that he has failed to bring into proper harmony. (41) (p. 54)


At the apex of his system Origen puts God the Father. He alone is God in the strict sense (Jo. 2.6; Princ. 1.1.6). To mediate between His absolute unity and the multiplicity of coeternal spiritual beings brought into existence by Him, He has His Son, His express image. The Father begets the Son by an eternal act, and the Son proceeds from the Father not by a process of division but in the way the will proceeds from reason:
(p 55)

Several points stand out in these passages that will have an immense influence on later trinitarian theology. The first is the clear-cut affirmation of the eternal generation of the Son: "It is an eternal and ceaseless generation, as radiance is generated from light" (Princ. 1.2.4); "the Father did not generate the Son and dismiss Him after He was generated, but He is always generating Him" (Hom. 9.4 in Jer.). This means a definitive rejection of the twofold stage theory of the preexistent Logos. And when Origen says 'there never was a time when the Son was not," this is an anticipatory negation of a basic Arian principle that "there was a time when the Son was not." 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 procession 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 here 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.'

Holy Spirit
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 real 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).
(p. 57)

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 after 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. (p. 58)

It will be helpful to recapitulate the flow of 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 scribed 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 preexisting 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 so 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 Father, Word, and 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 preexistent 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 to 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 also 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. (pp. 59-61)

Some scholars maintain that Arianism, even though it was first taught at Alexandria, was an Antiochene rather than an Alexandrian heresy, and derived less from Origen than from Paul of Samosata and Lucian of Antioch. (1) The actual doctrines of Paul and Lucian are too obscure to confirm this judgment. Though we know practically nothing of Lucian's doctrine, we have the testimony of St. Epiphanius (Haer. 76.3), St. Alexander of Alexandria (Thdt. Hist. eccl. 1.4), and, it seems, of Arius himself (ibid. 1.5.4) that here was a close relationship between Arianism and Lucian. The nature of Paul's theology is not clear, but scholars consider it to have been "Monarchian" and "Adoptionist." (2) The Council of Antioch, which condemned Paul in 268, also condemned the use of the word `homoousios' for reasons that are not clear. (3) Less than ten years before this Dionysius of Alexandria had been criticized for not using this word. Fifty years later Nicea will canonize the same term.

If Arianism derived from Subordinationism rather than from Monarchianism,(4) and it probably did, then it drew great support from Origen and the Apologists. These writers had taught both the divinity of the Son and His subordination to the Father, but without making the Son a creature. They had held that the Son was truly God yet inferior to the Father, convinced that only thus could the divine monarchy be maintained. Now theologians were going to be forced to determine the compatibility of these two propositions, "truly divine" and yet "inferior," and to decide once for all whether the Son was God or creature. For if He was "truly divine," then He must consubstantial with the Father; and if He was not strictly consubstantial with the Father, then He was a creature. The days of an "inferior" God,, a "diminished" God were running out.

And the one who would force the theologians to make this decision and in a sense force the Church to define the Son's divine status and His relationship to the Father was Arius. (pp62-63)


The basic principle of Arius' system is simple. God must be and is uncreated, unbegotten, unoriginated. The immediate conclusion is simple but devastating: since the Son is begotten by the Father, He is not God but only a creature.

For Arius there is only one God. He alone is unbegotten, eternal, without beginning, truly God. He cannot communicate His being or substance since this would imply that He is divisible and mutable. If anything else is to exist, it must come into existence not by any communication of God's being but by an act of creation that produces it out of nothing (Ep. Alex. in Ath. De syn. 16).

God resolved to create the world, and so He created first a superior being, which we call the Son or Word, destined to be the instrument of creation. The Son occupies a place intermediate between God and the world, for He is neither God nor part of the world-system. He is before all creatures and the instrument of their creation (Thal. in Ath. C. Ar. Or. 1.5).(p. 63)

Although He is a creature, the Son is the immediate author of creation. He is also the agent of redemption, and for this purpose He became incarnate. He cannot comprehend the infinite God: "The Father remains ineffable to the Son, and the Word can neither see nor know the Father perfectly and accurately . . . but. . . proportionately to His capacity, just as our knowledge is adapted to our powers" (Ath. Ep.Aeg. Lib. 12). If He is called "God" and "Son of God," it is only by participation in grace that He is so designated (Ath. C. Ar. 1.5,6). (p. 64)

The Christology of the New Testament was largely functional, intent on showing what Jesus as Son, Lord, Savior, Word, Messiah has done for our salvation. It did not explicitly define what Jesus `is', what His relation to the Father `is'. Arius changed the scriptural state of the question and asked where the Son `is' God or not. He put his question and answer not in functional categories but in the ontological categories of Creator and creature, of being and substance. This was legitimate, for these ontological categories "were undeniably scriptural. If the Old Testament and the New Testament affirm anything at all, they affirm that the Creator `is' God and the creature `is' a creature. These two categories, Creator and creature, are classifications of being." (7)

For Irenaeus there is no doubt that Jesus is Christ, is Savior, is the Son of God and the Word of God, the Lord and God: "For Christ did not at that time descend upon Jesus, neither was Christ one and Jesus another;: but the Word of God, who is the Savior of all and the ruler of heaven and earth, who is Jesus and did also take upon Him flesh and was anointed by the Spirit from the Father--was made Jesus Chris. . . the Word of God was man from the root of Jesse and . . . He was God" (Haer. III.9.3). He declares that "this, therefore, was the knowledge of salvation; but {it did not consist in} another God, nor another Father, nor Bythus, nor the Pleroma of thirty Aeons, nor the Mother of the [lower] Ogdoad: But the knowledge of salvation was the knowledge of the Son of God, who is both called and actually is, salvation and Savior, and salutary. . . . He is indeed Savior, as being the Son and Word of God . . . . This knowledge of salvation did John impart" (Haer. III. 10.2). He insists that Christ as well as the Father is Lord and God: "no other is named as God, or is called Lord, except Him who is God and Lord of all . . . and His Son Jesus Christ our Lord" (Haer. III. 6.2); "all things . . . were both established and created by Him who is God over all, through His Word. . . so that He indeed who made all things can alone, together with His Word, properly be termed God and Lord" (Haer. III. 8.3); "since, therefore, the Father is truly Lord, and the Son truly Lord. . . for the Spirit designates both by the name of God- - both Him who is anointed as Son, and Him who does anoint, that is, the Father . . . . The Church . . . is the synagogue of God, which God--that is, the Son Himself--has gathered by Himself" (Haer. III. 6.10). (p. 103)

As the `word "triad," with reference to the godhead, appears first in Theophilus' (28) in the East, so in the West the word "trinity" [trinitas] first appears in Tertullian. (29) Thus he writes: "if the number of the Trinity still offends you . . ." (Adv. Prax. 12), "a unity which derives from itself a trinity is not destroyed but administered by it" (ibid. 3); "in like manner the Trinity, proceeding . . . from the Father . . . does not at all disturb the Monarchy, while it conserves the quality of the economy" (ibid. 8); so in these texts (Is 42.1; 43.1; 45.1; 49.6; 61.1; Ps 3.1; 71.18; 110.1; Jn 12.32; Rom 10.16) the distinctiveness of the Trinity is clearly expounded: for there is the Spirit Himself who makes the statement, the Father to whom He makes it, and the Son of whom He makes it" (ibid. 11). Again he writes of a "trinity of one divinity, Father , Son and Holy Spirit" (de pud. 21). (p 112)

Where Irenaeus rejected the twofold stage theory of the Logos, Tertullian seems to have accepted it and thus to have affirmed the pre-creational but non-eternal generation of the Son from the divine substance of the Father. Hence, if eternity is the norm of divinity the Son is not divine, but if possession of the same divine substance as the Father's is the norm, as it seems to be for Tertullian, then the Son is divine and is God. Tertullian goes beyond Irenaeus in clearly expressing the divinity of the Holy Spirit, for he says that the Holy Spirit "proceeds from the Father through the Son," "is third with God and His Son," is one God with the Father and the Son, and "is God." Tertullian is the first in the West to use the word `trinity' and he indicates clearly enough that this "trinity of one divinity" is not just an economic trinity but also an immanent trinity. He is one of the first, if not the firs, to use the term`person' for the three and he seems to mean it not in the juristic sense of a title-holder but in the metaphysical sense of a concrete individual, of a self. When he says often that the three are "one in substance" he seems to understand by "divine substance" a rarefied form of spiritual matter. Many of Tertullian's affirmations about the Son will appear later in the Symbol of Nicea, such as these: "the Son is of the Father's substance," is "one in substance with the Father," is "begotten," is "God of God," is "light of light." His chief doctrinal defects lie in his materialistic view of the divine substance and in his acceptance of the non-eternal generation of the Son. But his doctrinal defects lie in his materialistic view of the divine substance and in his acceptance of the non-eternal generation of the Son. But his doctrinal contributions far outstrip these defects and deservedly vindicate to him the title of founder of Latin theology. (pp114-115)

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