Losing The Faith (15/22)

Tertullian Contradicts Himself

Tertullian correctly stated: “We also affirm that there was in Christ the same flesh as that whose nature in man is sinful. In the flesh, therefore, we say that sin has been abolished, because in Christ that same flesh is maintained without sin. Now, it would not contribute to the purpose of Christ’s abolishing sin in the flesh, if He did not abolish it in that flesh in which was the nature of sin, nor would it conduce to his glory” (On the Flesh of Christ, xvi).

It is characteristic of the period that such well reasoned and scriptural statements as the one just quoted were presented alongside mistaken, even paganistic, assertions. For example, Tertullian later argues for the pre-existence of Christ: “… this one only God has also a Son, His Word, who proceeded from Himself, by whom all things were made” (Against Praxeas, ch. ii). This misconception was shared by many of the third century writers, and it would lead the church to the doctrine of the Trinity.

The Third Century

In their efforts to win pagan intellectuals to Christianity, Christian apologists often compared the Greek philosophers to Moses and the prophets. A kind of circular reasoning developed. The best of Greek philosophy, they said, had actually been derived from the ancient Hebrews; therefore the Greek writings could be accepted as compatible with their supposed Biblical source. Clement of Alexandria employs this process. Citing a passage from Plato, he comments: “I understand nothing else than the Holy Trinity to be meant; for the third is the Holy Spirit, and the Son is the second, by whom all things were made according to the will of the Father.”

Origen made considerable strides toward the development of the doctrine of the Trinity. “Jesus Christ himself, who came into the world, was born of the Father before all creatures; that, after he had been the servant of the Father in the creation of all things – ‘For by him were all things made’ – he in the last times, divesting himself of his glory, became a man, and was incarnate although God, and while made a man, remained the God which he was; that He assumed a body like to our own, differing in this respect only, that it was born of a virgin and the Holy Spirit…” (Preface to De Principiis).

“The person of the Holy Spirit was of such authority and dignity, that saving baptism was not complete except by the authority of the most excellent Trinity of them all, i.e., by the naming of Father, Son and Holy Spirit” (De Principiis, I, iii, 2). Origen represented the Alexandrian school in the third century church. It was characterized by its attempts to merge Scripture teaching with Greco-Roman philosophy.

Paul of Samosata

One of the opponents of Origen on the subject of the Trinity was Paul of Samosata, bishop of Antioch (AD 260). He denied the pre-existence of Christ, except in the foreknowledge of the Father. His doctrine was “akin to the primitive Jewish-Christian idea of the person of Christ” (H. Chadwick, The Early Church, p. 114). Though Paul had some support in the church, he found himself in trouble with other bishops, and he was excommunicated in 269 AD.

A later opponent to the trinitarian concept was Marcellus, bishop of Ancyra. He “wanted a strictly Bible theology, based on texts, not on Plato or Origen” (H. Chadwick, The Early Church, p. 135). At a council at Constantinople in 336, he was deposed and later exiled.


Arius was a presbyter and teacher of Alexandria. A persuasive preacher, he gained a following, and in about 318 he clashed with the bishop, Alexander. Arius in his teaching ran counter to the trinitarian views that were now rapidly gaining favor. (While he was surely closer to the truth on the subject than his Catholic antagonists, Arius’ views were not really correct. His concept included a pre-existent Christ.) A council at Alexandria soon excommunicated Arius and others who agreed with him, but he continued to exert influence, especially in the East, and the Arian controversy continued for many years.

The Council of Nicaea

When the emperor Constantine moved toward elevating Christianity as the State religion, he found it divided over “a theological trifle.” He wished to use his influence to settle the matter, convening an assembly of bishops at Nicaea in AD 325. The council met at the imperial palace with Constantine presiding at the opening session. The Creed of Nicaea did not define the doctrine of the Trinity (the Trinity would be developed by later discussions), but did affirm that Jesus was God and condemned Arianism, though the dispute did not end for several decades. In later councils the doctrine of the Trinity, and other errors, were defined and enforced.

Constantine and the Church

“What has the Emperor to do with the church?” This question had been asked in the third century, and it must have occurred to faithful believers of this period. It was Constantine himself who proposed the reconciling word, homoousios (Greek for “of one essence”), to describe the relationship of Christ to the Father, a step which would lead to the Trinity as official church doctrine in later years. The idea probably originated with one of his ecclesiastical advisors (Eerdman’s Handbook to the History of Christianity, p. 134). Though the emperor was not even a baptized Christian, the church, by now in an advanced state of apostasy, welcomed his support.

The Progress of Apostasy

In an attempt to honor the Son of God, misguided men declared him to be “of one substance with the Father.” The blasphemous phrase, “very God of very God” (and “God the Son”), now entered the vocabulary of the apostate church. The ratification of the creed states: “those who say There was a time when He was not … or that the Son of God is of any other substance [than the Father] … these the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes.” Such a position is in direct conflict with the Biblical warning that denying Christ has come in the substance of human flesh would be a mark of the apostasy (Rom. 8:3; I John 4:3). Later, the Holy Spirit (the spirit or power of God) was deified as the third “person” in the trinity of a god with three persons.

The doctrine of the Trinity did not originate in the teaching of the apostles. It was the result of an attempt to blend pagan philosophy (“love of wisdom”) with Christian teaching. But, “the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (I Cor. 3:19). What a blessing is simple, scriptural truth: “To us there is one God” (I Cor. 8:6). “For there is one God, and one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (I Tim. 2:5).

J Banta

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