Was the Trinity discovered, or invented, by the early church? I remember a heated discussion at primary school about the distinction between “discover” and “invent.” A hapless boy had stood up in front of the class and stated that Alexander Graham Bell discovered the telephone. Everyone laughed and the ensuing discussion was replete with bizarre images of Bell sailing the world and coming across a primitive telephone on a desert island. To “discover” implies encountering and recognising the significance of something already in existence which had until that point been unknown, obscure or unrecognised, such as microbes or Neptune or the Great South Land. “Invention,” on the other hand, involves creating or fabricating something new, either from scratch or as an adaptation of something already in existence, such as steam engines, aeroplanes or the internet. So it is correct to say that Bell invented the telephone, but did not discover it. However, invention relies on discovery. If the physical nature of sound and the principles of its propagation, as well as the physics of electricity had not been discovered, then the telephone could not have been invented. What Bell discovered was that these physical principles could be manipulated in such a way as to convey voice electrically across vast distances, and in developing the apparatus to do so he invented telephony.
Non-trinitarians have regarded the Trinity as an invention of the early church, citing the fact that the word “Trinity” doesn’t appear in Scripture. (In fact, the word Trinitas was, as far as we know, first coined by Tertullian c.200AD). This construct, they maintain, was further elaborated on in an increasing divergence from Scripture, culminating in the complexities of the Athanasian creed in the late fifth or early sixth century.
It is true that Tertullian used the term Trinitas to encapsulate the church’s understanding of the Godhead. But it was hardly a new concept. It can be demonstrated that from the earliest extra-New Testament extant writings, the church held to both the divinity of Christ and the one-ness of the Godhead, and embraced Father, Son and Holy Spirit as divine. (For example, see my earlier blog on Ignatius). This is because they recognised these doctrines within the Scriptures themselves and as preached by the Apostles, with whom these earliest writers were contemporary. Just as Thomas called Jesus “My Lord and my God,” so did the first and second century apostolic fathers and the second and third century apologists and polemicists. The challenge was finding the concise vocabulary and thought framework to express their understanding of the infinite God.
On the one hand, monotheism (the doctrine that there is one unique God) was defended vigorously against polytheism (the idea that there are many gods). This the Christians held in common with the Jews, whose belief in the inspired Hebrew Scriptures they shared. “God is one” was, and still is, a foundational Christian claim; the Creator God is unique and alone is worthy of worship.
On the other hand, the early Christians believed the teachings of the New Testament concerning the divinity and pre-existence of Christ, in whom God had made himself fully known, and the pouring out of the divine and personal Holy Spirit upon the church. The unity of God somehow encompasses the Lordship of Jesus, his role as Creator and his worthiness to be worshipped, and the way the Paraclete or Holy Spirit is embraced with Father and Son. The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are each portrayed in divine terms; in particular the Son shares the divine attributes, names, prerogatives, works and honours of the Father. The Spirit acts as God in creation and redemption and is spoken of interchangeably with “God,” possesses attributes of and performs functions of God and of Christ, is described in personal terms and grouped with the Father and the Son.
On face value, these statements might appear mutually contradictory and so they have been misconstrued by non-trinitarians, erroneously thinking that God is one in exactly the same sense in which he is three. Clearly, this would be a contradiction, and an impossibility. As Paul Fiddes (Participating in God: London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2000, 4–5) puts it, “the doctrine of the Trinity is not an exercise in mathematics, it is not a numerical puzzle designed to test faith or baffle the human mind, stating the paradox that God is one being and three beings at the same time, or one person and three persons.” To help with this distinction, Tertullian used the Latin words “three persons,” “one substance.”
Several inadequate models have been advanced to reconcile the three-ness and one-ness of God. By the late second century the heresy of modalism had taken root in the western church. This came in various forms but essentially taught that the one God manifested himself in different “modes” of being on different occasions, sometimes as Father, sometimes as Son and sometimes as Holy Spirit. Tertullian was especially outspoken against this in his work Against Praxeas, showing that whilst God is a Monarchy or unity, Father, Son and Spirit are distinct persons.
If the full deity of the Son and Holy Spirit are denied, making the Father the only true God, then the richness of biblical teaching on the divinity of the Son and Holy Spirit must be ignored. We will fail to honor the Son as we do the Father, and fail to ascribe him due worship. This was the error of Ebionism, Arianism (modern Jehovah’s Witnesses), Subordinationism, Socinianism (modern Christadelphians) and the various forms of Unitarianism. The full deity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit could also be accommodated by denying there is one God; this would be tritheism, which non-trinitarians have falsely accused Trinitarians of upholding. Tritheism has not been a common error and is certainly not what mainstream Christians understand by the doctrine of the Trinity.
Tertullian lived and wrote before the days of Arianism and whilst he defended the deity of Christ in opposition to Judaisers, his main contentions were with polytheists (denying there is only one God) and with modalists (blurring the distinctions between Father, Son and Spirit). In his defence of apostolic doctrine he used the word Trinitas. The word is an invention, yes, but it is an articulation of the doctrine believed by Christians in continuity with Apostolic teaching, the discovery of truth as revealed by the Spirit to the writers of Scripture (John 16:11; Heb 1:1–2; 1 Pet 1:10–12). The word itself is not the doctrine, any more than the name “telephone” fully encapsulates the underlying technological principles, but depends upon and demonstrates them. The following is a brief taste of Tertullian’s understanding of the triune God. He cites and paraphrases Scripture without our modern convention of chapter and verse; I have added some verses in support of his contentions.
Tertullian’s Trinitas assumes the oneness of God:
“The object of our worship is the One God (Deut 6:4–5/Matt 22:37–40), He who by his commanding word, his arranging wisdom, his mighty power, brought forth from nothing this entire mass of our world… (Prov 3:19; John 1:1–2) The eye cannot see him, though he is spiritually visible (John 1:18). He is incomprehensible, though in grace he is manifested… there is one God only who made all things, who formed man from the dust of the ground… (Isa 43:11–13, 44:6, 45:5; Ezek 39:25; Rom 3:30; Jas 2:19) (Tertullian Apology XX)
Tertullian’s Trinitas encompasses the Son and the Spirit, sent forth from God:
“There is one only God, but under the following dispensation, or oikonomia, as it is called, that this one only God also has a Son (John 3:16–18), His Word, who proceeded from himself (John 8:42), by whom all things were made, and without whom nothing was made (John 1:3; Col 1:16–17). Him we believe to have been sent by the Father into the Virgin (Luke 1:34–35; Gal 4:4), and to have been born of her — being both Man and God (Heb 1 & 2), the Son of Man and the Son of God (Mark 14:61–62), and to have been called by the name of Jesus Christ…. who sent also from heaven from the Father (14:16, 26; John 15:26, 20:22), according to his own promise, the Holy Spirit the Paraclete , the sanctifier of the faith of those who believe in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Spirit (1 Pet 1:2). That this rule of faith has come down to us from the beginning of the gospel… will be apparent.”
(Tertullian, Against Praxeas II)
Tertullian’s Trinitas preserves the distinction between Father, Son and Spirit:
“The Father and the Son are two separate Persons, not only by the mention of their separate names as Father and the Son, but also by the fact that he also who delivered up the kingdom, and he to whom it is delivered up (1 Cor 15:27–28) — and in like manner, he who subjected all things and he to whom they were subjected — must necessarily be two different Beings. (Against Praxeas IV)
“Now the Spirit indeed is third from God and the Son; just as the fruit of the tree is third from the root, or as the stream out of the river is third from the fountain, or as the apex of the ray is third from the sun. Nothing, however, is alien from that original source whence it derives its own properties (John 14:16–20). In like manner, the Trinity, flowing down from the Father through intertwined and connected steps, does not at all disturb the Monarchy (unity of God), whilst at the same time guards the state of the Economy (God’s revelation of himself).” (Against Praxeas VIII)
Tertullian’s Trinitas does not split God into three Gods:
“Two beings are God, the Father and the Son and with the addition of the Holy Spirit even three, according to the principle of the divine economy, which introduces number, in order that the Father may not… be himself believed to have been born and to have suffered… That there are, however, two Gods or two Lords is a statement which at no time proceeds out of our mouth (1 Cor 8:5–6): not as if it were untrue that the Father is God (John 8:54; Eph 4:6), and the Son is God (John 20:28; Heb 1:3, 8, 10), and the Holy Spirit is God (Acts 5:3–4; 1 Cor 3:16–17, 6:19–20), and each is God… (Matt 28:19) (Against Praxeas XIII)
Thus the connection of the Father in the Son, and of the Son in the Paraclete, produces three coherent Persons, who are yet distinct one from another. These three are one in essence, not person, as it is said, “I and my Father are one”, in respect of unity of substance not singularity of number. (Against Praxeas XXV)
Tertullian (or one of his contemporaries) invented the word “Trinity,” but he didn’t invent the doctrine. Rather he enunciated it succinctly and defended it as a truth already discovered but under challenge from pagans and modalists. The doctrine is demonstrably continuous from the New Testament through the early decades of the church’s writings, tying together the foundational principles that there is one unique God, and that Father, Son and Spirit, each divine, constitute this tri-unity. No other model, construct or concept can do justice to these principles and so succinctly and appropriately describe the wonderful divine Being we worship. The invented name is not what matters, but what it represents — the discovery of the inner life of God himself through eternity, the God who is relationship.
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” (2Cor 13:14)