Christians always believed in the Trinity?
“The Father and I are one,” Jesus declares in the Gospel of John, “Whoever sees me, sees the
one who sent me.” It is fundamental to Christian orthodoxy that Jesus is part of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and the
Holy Spirit. In the context of Jewish monotheism, the claim that Jesus is God is startling and controversial. How is it that
none of the other gospel writers mention Jesus saying any such thing? Neither do the letters of Paul make any claim that Jesus
declared himself God. It is inconceivable that such a radical claim could have gone unremarked by all of the earliest Christian
writers, if that claim had actually originated with Jesus. We can only conclude that Jesus made no such claim.
How, then, did the early followers of Jesus view him? When and how did the view of Jesus as God, as part of the Trinity, come
about? To answer these questions it is necessary to jettison 2000 years of trinitarian thinking. Later generations of Christians
read the New Testament books through the lens of their theology and interpreted them in trinitarian terms. To learn what the
earliest Christians thought we must instead read the texts in their proper context.
For the earliest followers of Jesus, that context is, of course, first century Judaism. Judaism was highly monotheistic, unequivocally
rejecting the gods of the surrounding cultures as well as the syncretism that blended deities from different cultures into
one. We will see however, that it was a time of fervid speculation about exalted human and angelic figures who stood in close
relationship to the one true God. This is the background that must be kept in mind in reading the New Testament.
For example, take Jesus’s command to “baptize… in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy
Spirit.” At first glance this verse seems to be a clear statement of trinitarian belief – the Father,
Son and Spirit placed on equal footing. In fact it is no such thing. The passage in question doesn’t declare the three
to be equal, and it doesn’t declare Jesus to be divine – the relationships between the three are not explained
in any way. All we can conclude from this verse is that Matthew’s community baptized in the name of the Father, Son,
and Spirit. What the author believed about the three remains to be determined from a study of the rest of the gospel in its
The word “trinity” actually does not appear anywhere in the New Testament. There is only one verse (1 John
5:7) that apparently declares “the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit… are one.” That phrase is absent
from every one of the ancient Greek manuscripts of 1 John, however. It only appears in late Latin translations. It cannot be said, then, that the New Testament contains an explicit doctrine of the Trinity. To determine
what the New Testament authors believed about God, Jesus, and the Spirit, we need to take a clearer look at what they actually
Consider, for example, some of the terms that Christian writers use for Jesus: Lord, Christ, Son of God. From a trinitarian
perspective these are all seen as expressions of the deity of Jesus. “Lord” is used in reference to God in the
Old Testament, so it is easy to read it as a term of divinity when it is used for Jesus. That would not have been the way
the early Christians thought about it, though. The term “lord” had a wide range of usage in both Aramaic and Greek,
much as it does in modern English. “Landlord” certainly doesn’t suggest divinity to anyone, nor does “lord of the
manor.” Yet the same term in a religious context would be taken to mean God. Similarly, for a first century Jew, “lord”
would connote divinity when applied to God, but when applied to a human it would not.
“Son of God,” too, had a wide range of meaning. In the Old Testament, the angels were “sons of God,”
but the same phrase could be used for the king of Israel, or for the nation of Israel collectively. In the intertestamental book of Wisdom, the righteous man is called “God’s son,” So this phrase, used of Jesus, puts him on a level with ancient kings and the idealized righteous man.
It does not, however, automatically make him divine.
“Christ” in Greek and its Hebrew equivalent, “Messiah,” both mean “the anointed one,”
a term used in the Old Testament primarily for the king of Israel. In this sense the term obviously doesn’t imply divinity. By Jesus’s time, centuries of foreign
domination and bungled self-rule had led many Jews to hope for a restoration of the nation of Israel under God’s rule.
The expected savior who would effect this transformation was often called Messiah. The expectations for this Messiah varied
widely, however. The Dead Sea Scrolls tell of two Messiahs, a king and a priest, but give few details about them. The apocryphal
Psalms of Solomon describe a royal Messiah who will overthrow Israel’s enemies and establish a reign of righteousness.
According to the book 4 Ezra the Messiah will rule for 400 years and then die along with the rest of humanity. A late
(probably first century AD) section of 1 Enoch gives us a Messiah who is not a human king but a heavenly being. This
figure, who is called “Messiah,” “Chosen One,” “Righteous One,” and “Son of Man,”
was hidden by God before the creation of the earth. God places him on the “throne of glory,” all humankind will
worship him, and he will judge even the angels. Clearly there was no single, consistent conception of the Messiah in first century Judaism.
These titles give very little help in the search for the early understanding of Jesus. Certainly none of them forces us to
conclude that Jesus was divine. Given the Jewish background of the early Christians, if an author doesn’t explicitly
say that Jesus is God we should infer that he didn’t believe that Jesus is God. Since the titles alone have too wide a range of meaning to give a clear picture, we must examine in detail
what individual writers have to say about Jesus.
Let’s begin with the picture of Jesus presented in the Q source, as reconstructed from the gospels of Matthew
and Luke. Assuming it once existed as an actual document, it must have been written before these gospels, and possibly
even before Mark. It is thus one of our earliest sources, and according to Rudoph Bultmann it brings us closer to the
original followers of Jesus than any other source. There are two aspects to Q’s portrait of Jesus: the earthly Jesus and the Son of Man.
Q contains very little narration of the events of Jesus’s life. There is nothing at all about his nativity, his death,
or his resurrection. Q consists primarily of sayings of Jesus, parables, and prophecies about the end times. Its central theme
is coming of the kingdom of God, which has begun in Jesus’s ministry, but will not be complete until the Son of Man
comes. Q thus portrays Jesus as a prophet, who, like the prophets of old, warns the Jews to return to God or face his wrath.
And that is why the Wisdom of God said, “I
will send them prophets and apostles; some they will slaughter and persecute, so that this generation will have to answer
for every prophet’s blood that has been shed since the foundation of the world.”
Jesus’s healings and exorcisms
show that he is the bringer of the kingdom.
“But if it is through the finger of God that
I drive devils out, then the kingdom of God has indeed caught you unawares.”
Finally, Jesus is God’s son and
the keeper of hidden knowledge of God.
“Everything has been entrusted to me by my
Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son
chooses to reveal him.”
“Son of Man” an odd-sounding phrase in Greek, but one that occurs often in Q. It derives from the equivalent Hebrew/Aramaic
expression, which originally was simply a term for a human being. In Q the phrase has a much deeper significance. The Son of Man testifies in heaven on behalf of believers:
“I tell you, if anyone openly declares himself
for me in the presence of human beings, the Son of Man will declare himself for him in the presence of God’s angels.
But anyone who disowns me in the presence of human beings will be disowned in the presence of God’s angels.”
The day of the Son of Man will be like
the time of Noah’s flood that destroyed all the unrighteous people of earth. Oddly, Q never explicitly identifies Jesus as the Son of Man, though that identification seems to be
implied in the passages quoted above. The Son of Man is an exalted figure with a close relationship to God, yet he is less important than the
“Everyone who says a word against the Son
of Man will be forgiven, but no one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will be forgiven.”
The Jesus of Q is
more than a prophet: he is God’s son who announces the arrival of God’s kingdom and whose miracles demonstrate
the truth of his message. Jesus is never called “Messiah” in Q. He is the Son of Man whose coming will rid the earth of unrighteousness. Jesus has an intimate relationship
with God, he is the envoy of the Wisdom of God, and he will return as the Son of Man in the end times, but he is not to be
held in higher esteem than the Holy Spirit.
Q is a reconstructed document: we do not know what it might have contained that was omitted by Matthew, Luke, or both. The
portrait of Jesus deduced from Q may therefore be incomplete. For another view of Jesus we turn to the speeches of the apostles
as recorded in Acts.
There were no electronic recording devices in the first century, nor is it likely that anyone sat down and wrote out these
speeches at the time they occurred. The historian Thucydides acknowledged that he couldn’t reproduce speeches verbatim,
but could only keep a “general sense of what had actually been said.” Speeches were a literary technique used by ancient historians to illuminate the meaning of the events
they were recording. Even when the actual text of a speech was available, historians would compose their own versions. Yet, if the speeches in Acts don’t record the actual words of the apostles, they certainly represent
what Luke considered to be the core of the Christian message.
In these speeches Jesus is a prophet like Moses, but he is also called the Savior and the Holy and Righteous One. Peter describes Jesus’s role in his Pentecost speech.
“Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by
God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs, which God did among you through him.”
Jesus was a man: he did not do
miracles on his own, rather, God did them through him.
“God has raised this Jesus to life…
Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit…
God has made this man Jesus, whom you crucified,
both Lord and Christ.”
God has vindicated Jesus by raising
him from the dead and making Jesus his right-hand man, his chief minister. Jesus’s position at God’s right hand
puts him near to, but separate from, God. There is no indication that Jesus is seen as God incarnate, no hint that he had
any sort of existence prior to his earthly life. Jesus is called Lord and Christ, terms which don’t occur in Q at all, but which, as we saw earlier,
needn’t imply divinity.
Finally, Jesus will return from heaven when “the time comes for God to restore everything.”
Q emphasized Jesus’s message about the coming of the kingdom and said nothing about Jesus’s death and resurrection.
In these speeches from Acts Jesus’s teaching is barely mentioned; the focus is entirely on his death and resurrection
and their significance for salvation. In both Q and Acts, though, Jesus is a man through whom God acted, who was exalted
after his death, and who will return in the end times.
Of the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the first one written was Mark. As far as we know, Mark was the first author to combine the sayings of Jesus with the stories of his
miracles, his trial and execution, and the discovery of the empty tomb to create a complete narrative: a written gospel.
Jesus’s ministry, and Mark’s gospel, begins when the Spirit descends on him at his baptism. A voice from heaven
“You are my Son, the Beloved; my favor rests
Mark has no interest in Jesus’s
birth or his earlier life.
Jesus is portrayed as a preacher, healer, exorcist, and miracle-worker. All of these aspects demonstrate that God was acting
through Jesus to conquer Satan and establish God’s kingdom. This would happen very soon:
“I tell you, there are some standing here
who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power.”
Jesus is called Lord and Christ, and
he is the Son of Man who will come “in the clouds with great power and glory.” But the people, and even the disciples, misunderstand these terms, in Mark’s opinion. They don’t
understand that the Christ must suffer and die. Only the demons recognize Jesus for what he truly is: the Son of God.
The climatic moment occurs at Jesus’s trial when the high priest asks, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed
One?” Jesus replies,
“I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated
at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.”
For the people, understanding comes
and the secret of Jesus’s identity is revealed at the crucifixion, where a human, for the first time, declares,
“In truth this man was Son of God.”
Finally, the women discover the empty
tomb, the proof of Jesus’s resurrection, and are told by the “young man” that they will see Jesus in Galilee.
Does Mark depict Jesus as God? Nowhere in the gospel is Jesus referred to as God, and, given the monotheistic Jewish context
in which Christianity arose, we can be sure that Mark did not think of Jesus as a god. If the deity of Jesus had been part
of earliest Christian belief, it would have needed an explanation to reconcile it to the Jewish world view. Mark gives none.
There is no indication anywhere in Mark that Jesus had a heavenly existence prior to his life on earth, and certainly no suggestion
that he was God incarnate. Furthermore, there are several ways in which Mark distinguishes Jesus from God. As in Acts, the
exalted Son of Man sits at God’s right hand as his chief minister. They are two distinct beings. According to Mark,
Jesus is not omniscient.
“But as for that day or hour, nobody knows
it, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son; no one but the Father.”
Nor is Jesus omnipotent. In Nazareth,
Mark claims Jesus “could work no miracle” because of the people’s lack of faith. And Jesus’s own words distinguish him from God.
“Why do you call me good? No one is good but
We have to conclude that for Mark Jesus was a man who was uniquely close to God, who had power from God, and whose death was
central to God’s plan of salvation. God raised him from the dead and he will return to rule over the faithful. But Mark
would not have called Jesus “God.”
Matthew and Luke both used Mark and Q in writing their own gospels, so it is not surprising that they retain many of
the same elements of those earlier portraits of Jesus. Both writers add their versions of Jesus’s Nativity at the beginning,
and of his resurrection appearance at the end of their gospels. Neither author presents the Nativity as the incarnation of a pre-existent divine being. It is the miracle
of a virgin who conceives, not that of a god taking on human flesh, that both authors portray. Luke’s view of Jesus is very similar to Mark’s in spite of the additions. But Matthew’s
portrait is innovative in several ways.
In Matthew’s telling, the story of Jesus’s infancy recapitulates Israel’s history. Herod’s plan to
slaughter the male infants reflects Pharaoh’s plan in Exodus 1:15-22. Jesus is rescued from this plot, as the
infant Moses was. Jesus’s father Joseph takes the family to Egypt, as the patriarch Joseph did with his family. On Herod’s
death, Joseph is commanded by an angel to return home. In almost the same words, God had commanded Moses to go back to Egypt,
“for all those who wanted to kill you are dead.” These details (none of which appear in Luke’s version of the story) depict Jesus as a new Moses,
a prophet who will lead the true Israel – those who believe in Jesus – to salvation. But they go even beyond this:
they make Jesus the embodiment of the true Israel, of God’s promises, and of their fulfillment.
Another innovation of Matthew is to connect Jesus very closely to the Wisdom of God. Already in pre-Christian Judaism, the Wisdom of God was sometimes presented as quasi-independent divine
being, for example in the Wisdom of Solomon.
What Wisdom is and how she was born,
I shall now explain to you…
She is a breath of the power of God,
pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty…
Although she is alone, she can do everything…
and she governs the whole world for its
In Q it is the Wisdom of God who sends
the prophets; in Matthew it is Jesus who sends them. And when Matthew compares John the Baptist’s asceticism with Jesus’s indulgence in food and
drink he concludes “Yet Wisdom is justified by her deeds.” By strengthening this link between Jesus and God’s Wisdom, Matthew moves Jesus closer to God.
All this takes us well beyond the image of Jesus from Q, Mark, and Luke/Acts. But Matthew pushes still further,
quoting Isaiah 7:14.
Now all this took place to fulfill
what the Lord had spoken through the prophet:
Look! the virgin is with child and
will give birth to a son
whom they will call Immanuel
a name which means “God is with us.”
Immanuel is a Hebrew name that
Matthew helpfully translates for his Greek-speaking readers as “God is with us.” Many Christians take this to
mean that Matthew thought of Jesus as God. But that is not the only possibility. The name could be a way of portraying Jesus
as a prophet through whom God speaks to his people. Which of these two views we are more likely to find in a first-century
Jewish community? Clearly, Jesus as prophet is a better bet than Jesus as God. Indeed, the quotation from Isaiah might
be dismissed as another of the many Messianic prophecies that Matthew sprinkles throughout these first chapters. But the very
last verse of Matthew reveals the importance of the name Immanuel.
“And look, I am with you always; yes,
to the end of time.”
Together, these verses bracket the entire
gospel and show how Matthew has extended and deepened Jesus’s significance. God is with the community through Jesus
Immanuel; Jesus is with the community even after his death. “It is in the person of the Jewish Messiah that God
then (in Jesus’s earthly ministry) and now (within the Matthean community) dwells among the people.”
Should Matthew’s innovations lead us to conclude that, for him, Jesus is God? Certainly Matthew’s Jesus is more
exalted that any portrayal we have considered so far. But Matthew doesn’t use his nativity sequence to portray Jesus
as the incarnation of a pre-existent deity. And, unlike some other New Testament authors, Matthew doesn’t use his Wisdom
language to depict Jesus as the one through whom the world was created. Finally, can we say Matthew calls Jesus “God” when he names him Immanuel? Remember, firstly,
that nowhere else in the gospel is Jesus called “God.” Secondly, the name Immanuel is taken from an Old Testament
prophecy. Such prophecies were often interpreted allegorically, rather than literally. Taking the monotheistic Jewish context
into account, we have to conclude that it is likely that Matthew thought of Jesus as God’s representative, rather than
as God incarnate. For Matthew, Jesus is not God; rather, Jesus is the one through whom God comes to his people.
It is even more
apparent that no trinitarian theology is put forth by Matthew. Although Jesus instructs his followers to baptize “in
the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” Matthew doesn’t discuss the relationships of these three. Jesus is not portrayed as God incarnate,
nor is he declared to be fully human and fully God, nor is there any mention of one God in three equal persons. These concepts,
which are the foundation of trinitarian orthodoxy, would not develop until much later.
Although Paul’s letters are probably the earliest New Testament documents, I have saved them until now because they
present a radically different portrait of Jesus than any we have seen so far. In discussing Paul’s view, though, we
immediately run into difficulty: which of the letters attributed to him are authentic?
As seen in the essay Questioning the Canon, many letters and gospels were written under the name of an apostle by later Christians. Other letters
(such as Hebrews) were written anonymously and later mistakenly attributed to apostles. How, then, can we be sure that
the New Testament letters of Paul were actually written by him? Scholars have extensively analyzed the vocabulary, form, and
content of these letters and are largely in agreement that seven letters (Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians,
Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon) are authentic. The authenticity of another
three letters, known as the “deutero-Pauline epistles,” is still debated. A majority of scholars consider the
Pastoral epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus) inauthentic. The most conservative approach, then, is to rely on the seven accepted letters (which I will call “core
Paul”) for Paul’s view of Jesus.
Paul’s portrait differs dramatically from the other portraits we have considered, but that is not to say it is completely
divorced from them. Indeed, much of what Paul has to say about Jesus is already familiar. Paul has little to say about Jesus’s
earthly life and teachings, but that is also true of the speeches in Acts. Jesus is called “Lord,” “Christ”,
and “Son of God,” however, for Paul, Jesus is one Son of God among many: all who believe are sons of God
by adoption. Paul’s focus (as in Acts) is on the significance of Jesus’s death and resurrection.
And, although Paul doesn’t use the term “Son of Man,” Jesus is clearly the one who will return from heaven
to initiate the resurrection.
Paul, like Matthew, uses Wisdom language for Jesus, but even more forcefully.
…a Christ who is both the power of
and the wisdom of God.
…Christ Jesus, who for us was made
wisdom from God…
Matthew used Wisdom language to speak
about Jesus; for Paul, Jesus is Wisdom.
But if Paul is rooted in the same early traditions as other New Testament writers, he also goes beyond those traditions in
a uniquely creative way.
For Paul, Jesus is the new Adam.
As it was by one man that death came, so
through one man has come the resurrection of the dead. Just as all die in Adam, so in Christ all will be brought to life…
So the first man, Adam, as scripture says,
became a living soul; and the last Adam has become a life-giving spirit.
Adam was created in the image of God,
but disobeyed and as a result death came into the world. Jesus, through his perfect obedience to God, has undone what Adam did and brought life to all through
…Christ Jesus, who, being in the
form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped, but he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
becoming as humans are; and being in every way like a human being, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a
And for this God raised him high, and
gave him the name which is above all other names…
As the first Adam was created in the
image of God, so Jesus also was “in the form of God.” But unlike Adam, who tried to become like a god by eating
the fruit of the tree in Eden, Jesus didn’t “count equality with God something to be grasped.” Instead,
he was obedient even to the point of accepting death. And so, by getting right what Adam got wrong, Jesus reversed the effects
of Adam’s sin. For Paul, Jesus’s coming represents not just a new phase of history, but a new divine act of creation.
The relationship between the risen Christ and his believers is also strikingly different in Paul. Other Christian writers
were waiting for the return of a Christ who had gone to be with God in heaven until the time came for his return. According
to Paul, the living Christ dwells in the believers themselves.
Do you not recognize yourselves as people in whom
Jesus Christ is present?
At the same time, believers are “in
Christ” in fact, they collectively form the body of Christ.
…all of us…make up one body in Christ…
Not only is the risen Christ spiritually
present with the believers, as he was for Matthew, the believers are identified with the body of Christ and partake of that
Paul uses such varied imagery that it is impossible to pull it all together into a unified portrait of Jesus. “How can
[Paul] speak of Christ as a body consisting of human beings,… or think of him as somehow ‘inside’ other
individuals, and still envisage him as a person in recognizable human form who will return on the clouds?” asks James
D.G. Dunn. “It must in fact be seriously doubted whether Paul himself actually had a single conception of the risen
Christ.” Paul was not a systematic theologian presenting a coherent theory of the ontological essence of Jesus.
He uses the imagery that comes to mind at the moment he is writing. Later Christians would take Paul’s images at face
value as statements of ontological significance. Origen, in the third century AD, would argue (with excellent logic but a
poor sense of historical context) that Jesus must have always existed because Jesus was the Wisdom of God and God was never
without his Wisdom. With Paul, though, we are in the realm of image, metaphor and allusion. Paul struggles to capture in
words his personal experience of the risen Christ and to express its meaning to others.
The final question is, of course, whether Paul portrays Jesus as God. The first observation, and the one that must guide our
interpretation of Paul, is that nowhere in core Paul, with one possible exception, is Jesus called God. It is hardly possible that, if Paul considered confession of Jesus as God a central belief, he would
have neglected to make that clear anywhere in his letters. Paul does seem to accept some sort of heavenly existence of Christ
prior to Jesus’s earthly life. Yet Jesus remains subordinate to God: he sits at God’s right hand, he delivers the kingdom to God,
and in the end “the Son himself will be subjected to the One who has subjected everything to him.”
We have come to a stark conclusion: neither Q nor Paul nor any of the Synoptic authors – none, in fact, of our earliest
sources – portray Jesus as God incarnate. Against this conclusion some would object that Jesus must have been
considered God by these authors because they depict him performing miracles, raising the dead, healing, and forgiving sins.
On closer inspection, though, these objections don’t hold up. Moses performs miracles, and Elijah raises the dead without
any suggestion arising that these men are divine. And a text from the Dead Sea Scrolls tells of a Jewish exorcist who heals by forgiving sins.
I was afflicted with an evil ulcer for seven years…
and an exorcist pardoned my sins. He was a Jew…
According to pre-Christian Jewish tradition,
then, any of the acts of Jesus could have been performed by a human being acting with divine assistance.
“The Gospel attributed to St. John is the only New Testament document in which the deity and incarnation of Jesus are
unequivocally proclaimed,” writes P.M. Casey. Proclaimed, in fact, right at the beginning of the gospel.
In the beginning was the Word: the Word
was with God and the word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things came into being…
The Word became flesh, he lived among us,
and we saw his glory, the glory he has from the Father as only Son of the Father…
Where we might have expected the author
to draw on the language of God’s Wisdom, he instead writes of the Word. Drawn from Greek philosophy, the term “Word”
(Greek logos) means much more than just audible speech; it refers as well to the rational thought that precedes speech.
(Logos is the root of the English word “logic.”)
For the Jewish writer Philo, the Logos is identical to the Wisdom of God. Philo provides the link between earlier Christian
ideas and John’s Word. Philo has a complicated theory of the Logos. The divine Logos is first of all the mind of God.
But it is also God’s thought that brings all of creation into existence, and in this sense Philo writes of it as an
independent being. Finally, the Logos is the divine mind immanent in creation.
God’s First Born, the Logos, who holds the
eldership among the angels, their ruler as it were. And many names are his, for he is called “the Beginning,”
and the Name of God and his Logos and the Man after his Image…
Philo even calls the Logos a “second
God,” although elsewhere he clarifies that the Logos is called a god by those who have incorrect understanding of the
By identifying Jesus as the Logos, John solves the problem of how Jesus can be God without discarding monotheism. Later writers
would draw out the implications of that identification: as the mind of God Jesus was always with God, as the Wisdom and creative
thought of God everything came into being through him, and as the immanent mind he is the indwelling Christ. Whether John
had all this in mind is not at all clear (after the prologue the term “Word” is not used again), but his formulation
was an unprecedented step that was crucial to the development of the orthodox Christian view of Jesus.
John mentions Father, Son, and Spirit, but this does not mean that he thought of God as a Trinity. First-century Jews and
Christians had many ways of speaking about God: Wisdom, Word, Power, God’s holy Name, his Glory, even the Law (Torah)
could at times be spoken of as if they were independent entities. Any attempt to shoehorn these ideas into trinitarian categories
(Wisdom = Jesus, Power = Spirit, etc.) would be, historically speaking, a mistake, because up to this point we have seen little
evidence of the three-fold nature of God in any Christian writings. John’s use of the Logos is a step in that direction,
but it is more binitarian than trinitarian: “The Father and I are one.”
From the rich and, perhaps, bewildering variety of New
Testament portraits of Jesus it is possible to educe some lines of development. One is a development in time: in its most
original form, Jesus became Son of God at his resurrection, in Mark it occurs at his baptism, in Matthew and Luke he is Son of God from birth,
and in John from before the creation of the world. Another sort of development can be found in the accounts of Jesus’s
baptism. Since John’s baptism was “for the forgiveness of sins,” why would Jesus need to be baptized? Mark and Luke recount the episode straightforwardly, without any
embarrassment. For Matthew, the implication that Jesus needed cleansing from his sins was problematic, so he inserts these
two verses into Mark’s account:
John tried to dissuade him, with the words, “It
is I who need baptism from you, and yet you come to me!” But Jesus replied, “Leave it like this for the time being;
it is fitting that we should, in this way, do all that uprightness demands.” Then John gave in to him.
Finally, the Gospel of John tells
of the descent of the Holy Spirit, but omits any mention of the baptism! These trends reflect the transformation of Jesus from prophet into deity, from God’s messenger
During the second century the view of Jesus as God spread and became dominant. In the letters of Ignatius (110 AD) Jesus is
called “God incarnate,” and 2 Clement (150 AD) opens
Brothers, we must think about Jesus Christ as we
think about God…
But if Jesus is God, are there two Gods
or one? For most of the second century, Christian writers have remarkably little to say on this issue. Justin (160 AD) is
one of the few who tackles this question. In his dialogue with a Jew named Trypho, Justin straightforwardly declares that
there is… another God and Lord subject to
the Maker of all things; who is also called an angel…
This Power is “numerically distinct,”
a “second god” begotten from the Father; not, however, by division of the Father, nor is the second god cut off
from the Father. It is rather, Justin tells us, as when one fire is used to light another, and the first fire is not divided
or diminished. Justin justifies all of this by appealing to Old Testament Scripture.
Other Christian groups resisted the trend toward deification. The Ebionites rejected the virgin birth, saying that Jesus was
born of Mary and Joseph in the normal way. According to Epiphanius,
…they call [Jesus] the prophet of truth and
“Christ, the Son of God” on account of his progress in virtue and the exaltation which descended upon him from
above… They want him to be only a prophet and man and Son of God and Christ and mere man, as we said before, who attained
by a virtuous life the right to be called Son of God.
They observed the Sabbath, practiced
circumcision, and held that the Jewish Law was still in full force. They considered themselves followers of James and rejected
Paul as a false apostle. Mainstream Christianity considered them heretics, but, as James D.G. Dunn writes
…the heretical Jewish Christianity of the
later centuries could quite properly claim to be more truly the heir of earliest Christianity than any other expression of
Rejected both by Jews and other Christians,
Ebionite Christianity dwindled and eventually died out.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Gnostic Christians of the second century developed elaborate systems in which God was
divided into dyads, tetrads, and ogdoads consisting of pre-existent entities with names like Word and Silence, Unity and Oneness.
Irenaeus describes these systems in detail in Against Heresies (180 AD) and scoffs at them, saying one might just as
well name these entities Gourd, Melon, and Cucumber. According to the Gnostic Cerinthus, Christ was a spiritual power that descended on Jesus at his baptism
and left him again before the crucifixion.
Second-century views of Jesus, are, if anything, even more varied than those of the New Testament: prophet and mortal man,
Angel, second God, God incarnate, one of a series of divisions or emanations from God himself. Missing from these writings
is any discussion of the three-fold nature of God, much less a doctrine of the Trinity along the lines of later Christian
orthodoxy. It is certainly true that these writers place a heavy emphasis on Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But other concepts
are just as central – God’s Wisdom and Power, for example, and the Church, at times depicted as an independent
and pre-existent entity – and the relationships between these entities are not clearly defined.
The interpretation of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection incited controversy from the earliest days of Christianity.
Paul already complains of those who preach a “different gospel” and “another Jesus.” With the rapid development during the second century, the strains reached, and surpassed, the breaking
point. From the point of view of the mainstream church, the Ebionite formulation was too conservative: it was no longer acceptable
to think of Jesus as a mere man, however exalted. Gnostic views were rejected, not only because of the complex hierarchies
they constructed within the Godhead but because they taught that the creator God of the Old Testament was an inferior being;
ignorant or even evil, and different from the true God who was above all. By the late second century the mainstream church saw an urgent need to define the boundaries of acceptable
theology and refute the “heresies.”
Toward the end of the second century Christians increasingly focused on the three-fold nature of their belief. Around 180
AD, Theophilus of Antioch became the first Christian that we know of to explicitly call God a Trinity (Greek trias),
designating by this term “God and his Word and his Wisdom.” There was a long tradition of baptizing converts in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
But how did this practice relate to monotheism? Did Christians believe in one God, or two, or three?
These issues ignited a major controversy in the church. One group, the Monarchians, insisted that, because there was only
one God, the Father and the Son must be the same. A certain Sabellius coined the term “Sonfather” to refer to
this single entity. The opposing group (let’s call them Trinitarians) insisted that Father, Son, and Spirit were separate.
The Monarchians accused the Trinitarians of believing in two (or three) gods, while the Trinitarians said that the Monarchians
“crucified the Father.” Nor did the Monarchians lack influence. Callistus, who became bishop of Rome in 217 AD was a Monarchian who taught that the Spirit that became incarnate in Jesus was in fact the Father. This
view would eventually yield to the attacks of writers like Tertullian.
Tertullian, writing during the early years of the Monarchian controversy (200 AD), was the first to attempt an explicit reconciliation
of Trinitarian thinking and monotheism. Many years later, and after much further controversy, the church would adopt an almost
identical formulation as official dogma. Tertullian insists that God is both a Trinity (Latin trinitas) and a Unity.
Father, Son, and Spirit are three distinct persons but are of one substance.
…all are of One, by unity of substance; while
the mystery of the dispensation is still guarded, which distributes the Unity into a Trinity, placing in their order the three
Persons – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost – three, however, not in condition, but in degree; not in substance,
but in form; not in power, but in aspect; yet of one substance… inasmuch as he is one God…
He supports his positions by drawing
on the rich Christians tradition in the New Testament. The Son is the Word of God and the Wisdom of God, and as such proceeds
from God without being separate from him. In the same way a tree springs forth from the root, or a ray of light springs forth
from the sun, without being separated from its source. Pushing the analogy further, Tertullian says the Spirit is in the third
place after God and the Son, even as the fruit of the tree is in the third place from the root, or the spot of light on the
ground is the third from the sun. He goes on to argue that in Jesus the divine and human substances are conjoined; not, he insists, in
the sense of being mixed or compounded, “but unified in one person, God and man, Jesus…” A later generation would correct the terminology to speak of the divine and human natures of Jesus,
but Tertullian’s conception is remarkably similar to what later became orthodoxy. Ironically, this earliest declaration
of Christian orthodoxy was propounded by a man who aligned himself with the “heretical” Montanist sect, which
taught that the Holy Spirit continued to speak through prophets in Tertullian’s own day.
Tertullian’s formulation of the Trinity – one substance, three persons – was not immediately accepted by
Christians everywhere. Around 250 AD, Novatian of Rome wrote the first treatise specifically concerned with the Trinity, giving
a formulation very like Tertullian’s. In the extensive writings of Origen (died 252 AD), however, the term “trinity”
rarely appears. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are central to Origen’s faith: he begins his treatise On First Principles
with chapters on each of the three in turn. He emphasizes their distinctness more than their unity and speaks of them as different
substances or beings (Greek ousiai). In a fascinating document discovered in Egypt in 1941, Origen is examining a bishop, Heraclides, to find
out if his faith is in accord with the church’s.
Origen: Explain what you mean, for perhaps
I don’t follow you.
Heraclides: Of course.
Origen: The Son is distinct from the Father?
Heraclides: Of course, for how could he
be son if he were also father?
Origen: And while being distinct from
the Father, the Son is himself also God?
Heraclides: He is himself also God.
Origen: And the two Gods became a unity?
Origen: We profess two Gods?
Heraclides: Yes, but the power is one.
Origen: But since our brothers are shocked
at the statement that there are two Gods, we must treat
this matter carefully, and point out in what respect they are
two, and in what respect these two are one God.
Origen goes on to explain, using the
scriptural view of marriage as a parallel: “the two shall become one flesh.” Heraclides’s formulation, “two Gods, one Power,” which Origen clearly accepts as orthodox,
is much closer to Justin’s “second god” than to Tertullian’s Trinity. Notice, too, that it is a question
of two, not three, gods versus one God: the Holy Spirit is not part of the discussion.
Origen, like Tertullian, expects that other Christians will be “shocked” at the idea that there are two gods.
The Church’s problem was not the one that might have been expected: that Christians from a pagan background were naively
importing polytheistic ideas into Christianity. It was just the opposite: the majority held to a simple monotheism that tended
to make Jesus identical to God, a position that deeper thinkers found untenable. Yet Origen’s “two gods”
went too far for some church leaders. Novatian’s treatise On the Trinity explicitly rejects the idea that there
are two gods.
The mainstream church in the third century admitted a variety of views; no single version was definitively orthodox. Trinitarian
ideas were developing and spreading, but still had to compete with other ways of understanding the relationship between Jesus
and God. If a definitive formulation was not yet agreed on, still, some commonalities can be found. Jesus is distinct from
God the Father without being separate from him. And the way to understanding this distinction-in-unity is through the concepts
of Word and Wisdom.
As long as Christianity remained illegal and subject to sporadic persecution, there could be no process for resolving doctrinal
differences. Individual Christians could express their opinions in writing, but there was little opportunity for open discussion
and no mechanism for church-wide decision making. When Constantine took the church under his wing, he not only made it possible
for such discussions to occur, he insisted on it. Christianity could not become the imperial religion if its own bishops could
not agree on what Christians believed.
Controversy erupted anew in the early fourth century when Arius, a priest from Alexandria, got involved in a dispute with
his bishop Alexander. This dispute would become so entangled with politics, not just of the church but of the Roman Empire,
that it would drag on through the fourth century and beyond, with disastrous consequences.
Arius’s own views can be hard to distinguish among the arguments of his supporters and the accusations of his opponents;
but the fundamental issue was, once again, the relationship of the Son and the Father. All agreed that the Son was “begotten,”
a term with abundant scriptural support. But what did this term mean? “Begetting” implies a beginning –
was the Son then a created being? Did this mean the Trinity was not eternal?
According to the Arian view, the Son
originated before times and before ages, fully God,
only begotten immutable. And before he was begotten or created or defined or founded, he was not… The Son has a beginning
but God is without beginning.
Arius carefully distinguishes the Son
from the rest of creation: the Son’s origin is outside of time, not “in the beginning” as the rest of creation.
But if the Son was created he could not be of the same substance as the Father, and certainly was not equal to him. The Son
was nonetheless “fully god” and worthy of worship.
The Arian views had respectable precedents. A century earlier Origen had called the Logos “a thing created,” citing Proverbs 8:22:
Yahweh created me, first-fruits of his fashioning,
before the oldest of his works.
Also, like Justin before him, Origen
had emphasized the distinctness of the Father and Son and the subordinate role played by the Son. If the pro-Arius contingent pushed these points farther than previous thinkers, still, they were not
introducing anything fundamentally new. Rather, they were seeking a more precise formulation of the relationship between Father,
Son, and Spirit than had been given before.
Arius’s formulation was unacceptable to a council of Egyptian bishops, which excommunicated him. He appealed, first
to the bishops of Bythnia (in Asia Minor), then to the bishops of Palestine. Both groups upheld Arius’s orthodoxy. The
Palestine council was convened by no less a figure that Eusebius of Caesarea, the renowned scholar to whom Constantine would
later turn for copies of the New Testament scriptures. Eusebius supported Arius so strongly that when a later council in Antioch produced an anti-Arian creed,
Eusebius along with two other bishops refused to sign it and was himself excommunicated.
With some councils supporting Arius and others opposing him, who was to decide if he was orthodox or heretical? In 325 AD,
Constantine convened a “great council” of more than 250 bishops that met in Nicea. He signaled his support of
Eusebius and his hope for reconciliation by having Eusebius give the opening speech. This council adopted the following creed.
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty,
Maker of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son
of God, begotten of the Father, Only-begotten, that is from the substance [ousia] of the Father; God from God, Light
from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for
us men and for our salvation came down and was incarnate, was made man, suffered and rose again the third day, ascended into
heaven, and is coming to judge living and dead.
And in the Holy Spirit.
And those who say, “There was when
he was not’, and ‘Before his generation he was not’, and ‘he came to be from nothing’, or those
who pretend that the Son of God is of other reality [hypostasis] or being [ousia] or alternable or mutable,
the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes.
This creed is not the one now known
as the Nicene Creed. As we will see, that creed is a rewriting of the above creed by a later council.
The focus of the creed is the relationship of the Son to the Father. The Son is declared to be truly God, of one substance
(Greek ousia) with the Father. He is begotten, but this is not to be taken to mean that he was created. The Holy Spirit,
in contrast, gets only the barest mention. We do not learn if the Spirit is begotten or created, or if it is truly God like
the Son – only that Christians are to believe in it.
The final section lays a curse on any who hold to some extreme positions. Whether Arius himself held any of these positions
is not so clear. Note, though, that the curse is laid not just on those who hold the Father and Son to be of different
substances (ousia), but also those who say they are different hypostases. These two worlds would remain problematic
for decades, but they would eventually provide the key to a resolution.
The creed of the Council of Nicea “represented anything but theological unanimity at the time of the Council of Nicea
itself, much less during the half-century that followed.” The Council of East and West in 342 AD split into two factions that spent much of their time excommunicating
and imposing curses on each other. The Creed of Long Lines produced by the Council of Antioch two years later was conciliatory
toward the Western Church, but failed to achieve unity. Constantine’s son, Constantius, seeking reconciliation between
the eastern and western factions, convened nine councils in as many years, culminating in the Council of Rimini-Seleucia in
359 AD, attended by more than 500 bishops from both east and west. The emperor kept them there for three months, not allowing
anyone to leave until both sides had agreed to a weaker creed that merely said the Son was “like” the Father.
Many hard-liners considered this a concession to Arianism. Jerome wrote “The whole world groaned and was astonished
to find itself Arian.”
A breakthrough of sorts came at the Council of Alexandria in 362 AD, involving two words that had previously been used more
or less interchangeably: ousia (substance or essence) and hypostasis (being or person). The Council of Nicea
had anathemized any who said the Father and Son were separate in ousia or hypostasis. Athanasius, the fiery
and controversial bishop of Alexandria, was a staunch supporter of Nicea yet believed that the Nicene formulation needed to
be modified. The Father, Son, and Spirit were indeed one in ousia, but they were three separate hypostases.
The new distinction was opposed by some Nicene Christians who continued to insist on one hypostasis, but it was taken
up by a group of influential theologians known as he Cappadocian Fathers – Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory
of Nazianzus – and eventually became the very definition of orthodoxy. Christians had finally found the language to
express the oneness of God while maintaining the distinction between Father, Son, and Spirit. What had been heresy according
to the original creed of Nicea was now orthodoxy.
In the meantime a new issue had come up: what to make of the Holy Spirit? There was surprisingly little discussion of the
Spirit in the first three centuries, and even the creed of Nicea had said only to “believe in” the Spirit. In
380 AD Gregory of Nazianzus wrote
Of the wise men among ourselves, some have
conceived of him [the Holy Spirit] as an activity, some as a creature, some as God; and some have been uncertain which to
call him… And therefore they neither worship him nor treat him with dishonor, but take up a neutral position.
Some went even further and explicitly
denied the Holy Spirit was part of the Divine Being, earning themselves the nickname “Spiritfighters.”
The Council of Constantinople addressed these matters in 381 AD. The later church would label this the Second Ecumenical Council,
ignoring the fact that its 150 bishops were all eastern and much fewer in number than those at the Council of Rimini-Seleucia.
This council ratified the decisions of the Council of Nicea and produced the creed now known as the Nicene Creed. The creed
starts out much like the older version, but the passage about the Holy Spirit is greatly expanded.
We believe… in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and
life-giver, who proceeds from the Father, who is worshipped and glorified together with Father and Son, who spoke through
While avoiding a bald statement that
the Spirit is God (a possible concession to the Spiritfighers), the creed spells out officially for the first time the relationship
of the Spirit to the Godhead and declares the Spirit is to be worshipped.
As might be expected, the new creed did not end debate. The Arian branch of the church remained strong, and popular discussion
of the issues was vigorous. Gregory of Nyssa wrote of Alexandria
If in this city, you ask a shopkeeper for change
he will argue with you about whether the Son is begotten or unbegotten. If you inquire about the quality of the bread, the
baker will answer, “The Father is greater, the Son is less.” And if you ask the bath attendant to draw you a bath,
he will tell you that the Son was created ex nihilo.
Arianism would eventually become a crime
punishable by death and would die out, but the split between the eastern and western versions of Nicene Christianity would
deepen, in spite of general agreement on theological foundations. New issues would arise: Did the Spirit proceed from the
Father alone, or from the Father and the Son? Did Jesus have a single nature or separate divine and human natures? But now,
four hundred years after a man named Jesus had been executed by the Romans, Christianity had at last found a way to speak
of God as a Trinity: single and triple at the same time.
The road to the trinitarian concept of God was long and tortuous. The earliest Christians, so far as we can tell, never spoke
or wrote of Jesus as God. Of all the books of the New Testament, only the Gospel of John portrays Jesus as the incarnation
of a divine being. For four hundred years the trinitarian view competed with other concepts of Jesus. Some Jewish Christians
(the Ebionites) continued to think of him as a mere man who had been exalted by God to a high position at God’s side.
For the Gnostic Christians, Christ was a purely spiritual entity who had never truly become human but only appeared in human
Even among mainstream Christians there was no single formulation of the relationship between Jesus and God. All agreed that
Jesus was God’s Son, but what did this mean? Was there one God, or two, or three? The church was slow to come to terms
with this question, but when it did it was guided by the practice, dating from the earliest times, of speaking of Jesus in
terms of God’s Wisdom. This Wisdom language was enriched by the philosophical concept of the Word (Logos) of
God. As the Word and Wisdom of God, Jesus could be seen as part of God’s own substance while at the same time remaining
distinct from the Father.
Christian apologists ancient and modern depict trinitarian theology as the ancient faith that was believed by all true Christians
from the apostles on, and all other conceptions of Jesus are heresies, novelties that were introduced at later times. This
is simply wrong. The earliest Christians never expressed their faith in trinitarian language. Indeed, the Ebionite “heresy”
was closest to the beliefs of the first Christians. Trinitarian theology was just as innovative in its own way as the more
elaborate Gnostic schemes. As we have seen with the term hypostasis, the mainstream church occasionally reversed its
position completely, so that what had once been considered heresy became orthodoxy. By the end of the fourth century, Christian
orthodoxy had changed so much that earlier generations would not have recognized it.
How did these changes come about? It has often been suggested that Christianity borrowed its conception of Jesus from pagan
mythology. One can easily find internet sites with long lists of parallels between the Jesus story and the myth of Mithras,
or Apollo, or Dionysus. As the subtitle of one recent book has it, “Was the ‘original Jesus’ a pagan god?” This view of Christian origins is just as wrong as the previous view. We have seen that the trinitarian
view is rooted in the concepts of Wisdom and Word. The former term comes from ancient Judaism and appears in some of the earliest
Christian writings (Paul and Q). The essentially Jewish concept of God’s Wisdom was the root from which the idea of
Jesus’s divinity grew. The development of that idea was indeed influenced in a crucial way by Greek culture, but through
Greek philosophy, especially the concept of Word/Logos, rather than through pagan mythology. The interplay of ideas
between Greek philosophy and Jewish and Christian theology was complex and there is much more that could be said about it,
but the claim that Christianity is nothing more than Greek myth with a Jewish veneer can be definitively ruled out.
Jesus’s followers were Jews and believed the same sorts of things that other Jews believed. None of the earliest Christian
writings refer to Jesus as God; his followers must not have done so either. The precise relationships between the Father,
Son, and Holy Spirit are not spelled out anywhere in the New Testament. None of these early Christian authors would have expressed
their faith in the formulation of “one God in three persons” that became orthodoxy in the fourth century. We know
this from the simple fact that not one of them did express their faith in those terms in their writings.
The Judaism of the early Christians was a way of life that had been immersed in Greek culture for centuries. It was inevitable
that that culture would influence the development of Christian thinking. We are all men and women of our time; we all make
use of the thought-categories that our culture provides. This was as true of early Christians as it is of any other social
group at any other time. In the early years of Christianity, Greek influence was felt by way of the impression it had already
made on Jewish thought. Philo is the prime example of a Jew who turned to Platonic philosophy to better understand his God.
As Christianity spread to those not of Jewish background, the concepts and methods of philosophy increased in importance.
Philosophical concepts like Words (logos) and substance (ousia) became central to the evolution of Christian
thinking about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. The concept of the Trinity was certainly not borrowed from pagan religion.
Just as surely, though, the Christian Trinity could not have come about without influence of the Greek world.
Anyone interested in the evolution of the conceptions of Jesus among the first generations of Christians must read Christology
in the Making by James D. G. Dunn. Dunn’s in-depth scholarly study focuses on the idea of Jesus’s pre-existence
as a heavenly being prior to his incarnation. This is not easy reading, but it is well worth the effort. Unity and Diversity
in the New Testament, by the same author, is broader in scope, providing a good overview of the range of views of Jesus
among early Christians. From Jewish Prophet to Gentle God by P.M. Casey, is another good resource for the same time
On the development of trinitarian ideas in the second, third, and fourth centuries, see Doctrine and Practice in the Early
Church, by Stuart G. Hall. Richard E. Rubenstein’s When Jesus Became God is an exciting and well-written
account of the Arian controversy. Robert M. Grant, Gods and the One God, covers the later time period with an eye to
the interactions between pagan and Christian thought.